Thursday 27 June 2024

Don Giovanni, Deutsche Oper, 26 June 2024

Don Giovanni – Andrzej Filończyk
Donna Anna – Flurina Stucki
Don Ottavio – Kieran Carrel
Commendatore – Patrick Guetti
Donna Elvira – Maria Motolygina
Leporello – Joel Allison
Masetto – Artur Garbas
Zerlina – Arianna Manganello
Artist – Ellen Urban

Director – Roland Schwab
Set designs – Piero Vinciguerra
Costumes – Renée Listerdal
Assistant choreographer and revival director – Silke Sense

Movement Choir 
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Thomas Richter)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Daniel Cohen (conductor)

Image: Bettina Stöss (from 2023 revival)

We now find ourselves in the twilight zone in which house and hall seasons are drawing to a close, but festivals have already begun. I shall flit back and forth for the next few weeks, albeit with greater emphasis on the latter, but here returned to the former, to Roland Schwab’s production of Don Giovanni for the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I saw it when it new in 2010 and have deliberately not looked back, though I have a sense that my reaction was somewhat similar: some good ideas, but lacking in coherence. That, at any rate, offers a snapshot of my reaction last night. (I shall look back after posting.) 

The opening impression is of some sort of crime boss in the title role. His tightly drilled (well choreographed, though to what end?) entourage features throughout, though I cannot say I found that added much, especially in the strange (drug-induced?) shaking to which many of them often fall prey. A sense of menace is imparted, though perhaps at the cost not only of distraction from the real action, but also and more seriously underlining a sense that, for the most part, especially earlier on, both production and performances seem a little lost on a stage and in a house of this size. Other goings on, whether the dark-suited mob, or an admittedly arresting carnival of death that accompanies rather than drives the first act’s final scene, have a tendency to come across as being put there to fill the space. The well-worn Dantean ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate’ is inscribed on a portable door through which the guests arrive (which haphazardly returns briefly, and not when one might expect, in the second act) in a welcome recognition, not the only one, of the work’s religious nature, but ultimately goes for little. 

Throughout, much is done with golf clubs, again I suppose intended to underline the masculinity of one side (and yes, I know women play golf too, though it is not clear the production does). Other business, such as constant wielding of whips and a good deal of other noise-making activities, show a tin ear for the reality that this is an opera, in which not only music but some of Mozart’s very greatest music plays a hallowed role. Clearing up mess, literally with bin bags, seems to be Leporello’s business: fair enough, I suppose. At one point, though, the men are in dustbins, which may sound intriguingly Beckettian, yet ends up being another short phase in a production that never seems to know where it is heading. What Don Giovanni’s score card system denotes, I was never quite sure: is a high score good or bad? I presumed the former, but then his final ‘1’ for the Stone Guest scene would make little sense at all. 

The audience certainly did not help, laughing, chattering, and so on, seemingly in utter disconnection from what was seen, let alone heard. What should have been a truly powerful moment and marked one of Schwab’s most imaginative ideas, Don Giovanni seating his ‘disciples’ for his last supper, the moment frozen in the painterly manner one might expect, for him to break bread, elicited widespread vigorous laughter. The Eucharist and/or dark inversion thereof are now apparently merely amusing. To be fair, I suppose it would explain a good deal, and if that is the reaction an attempt to address the profoundly religious nature of the work elicits, then, God or Nietzsche help us, perhaps it is more understandable why directors generally and, in most cases, disastrously avoid it. 

Why such strange decisions continue to be made concerning the ‘version’ I do not know. It is all very well to blame singers’ desires to give ‘their’ arias, but it is not their decision and they often find themselves oddly deprived too; one cannot imagine them having reached this settlement in any case. However difficult it may be to stand the loss, the Prague version is almost always preferable. If you must, and if you have a performance of such calibre that it and the production can override the problems, the most familiar of the Prague-Vienna conflations, justly maligned, can work. (He said through gritted teeth, thinking what would otherwise always be lost.) ‘Vienna’, insofar as we know what it was, has latterly, unaccountably had a weird renaissance; it is time for that fad to be put to bed. Goodness knows what the reasoning for the combination heard on this occasion was. We heard Mi tradì and Dalla sua pace, though neither Il mio tesoro (odd, given such a fine performance of Don Ottavio’s first aria) nor the Zerlina-Leporello duet. Recitatives were cut and sometimes paused, whilst other things, rarely if ever worth the wait, happened. It made little intrinsic sense, though then given the dramatic looseness of both staging and conducting, it was not particularly a problem either. Ironically, I think production and performance would both have needed to be better or worse for it to matter more. 

For Daniel Cohen’s conducting of a Deutsche Oper orchestra that often sounded out of sorts – what a change from its recent magnificent Wagner and Strauss – seemed oddly to mirror the non-committal confusion of Schwab’s staging. It began poorly, balances in a mercilessly hard-driven, tales-of-rasping-brass Overture so awry that one could barely hear the strings. Not so much the conductor’s fault, though still dispiriting, the duet between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio in the first scene pretty much fell apart. Cohen was excellent here in picking this up and moving things on, and whilst there were quite a few subsequent discrepancies between pit and stage, they would be on a smaller scale. When he and the orchestra really clicked, there was some fine playing. The problem was more that rarely, if ever, in the first act and only sporadically in the second was a fundamental pulse established. At best, we heard a string of disconnected arias, recitative often too ‘edited’ to be of much use, the impression being given of ‘accompanying’ a varied recital rather than musically leading the action. 

Vocally, there was a good deal to admire. The occasional mishap such as that mentioned above, there was nothing truly to disappoint, although the standard of singing was not always so consistent as it might have been. The moment Maria Motolygina stepped on stage as Donna Elvira, performing voltage shot up; hers was an outstanding performance by any standards, boasting cleanness of line, finely modulated tone, and dramatic commitment: one I was delighted to hear. In the title role, Andrzej Filończyk was excellent, growing in stature and defiance, to boast an enthralling performance in his final scene, helped by new-found proximity to the audience but ultimately founded on charisma and artistry. Joel Allison’s livewire Leporello followed eagerly in his footsteps, at least until then. Patrick Guetti’s Commendatore made a strong impression too. Flurina Stucki’s Donna Anna sometimes seemed underpowered, but she recovered and made a good job of her second-act aria. Kieran Carrel’s ‘Dalla sua pace’ was as sweet-toned and mellifluous as one could wish, though I never sensed that he was quite inside the role (a difficult task, admittedly). I am not sure either of these was really her or his role. Likewise in the case of Zerlina and Masetto. Arianna Manganello and Artur Garbas sang well enough, though  might have made more of what they had to do; in that, they were not necessarily helped by the production. 

The worst, I am afraid, came at the end, in the total excision of the final scene. Everything in the work and tonal expectations, specific and general, pull it forward; so too, still more bafflingly, did the production seem to do so. There was, however, nowhere for it to go; it simply stopped and those who, much to my chagrin, were wildly applauding were in a sense right. Yes, Mahler did it; yes, perhaps, given that he was Gustav Mahler, he managed to make it work; no, by any reasonable standards, he was still misguided, partial in his view of the work, surprisingly uncomprehending of its dramaturgy, to have done so. That such an ultra-Romantic route should be taken made no sense whatsoever in context. If the aim were to provoke dissatisfaction, that was certainly achieved; I almost hope it was, since the alternative, sheer cluelessness, is more depressing. Perhaps it was a metaphor, after all, for our age’s strange inability even to attempt to understand this towering opera.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

BPO/Gilbert - Honegger, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, 8 June 2024


Jeanne d’Arc (spoken) – Marion Cotillard
Brother Dominique (spoken) – Eric Génovèse
Narrator (spoken) – Christian Ganon

La Vierge – Elsa Benoit
St Marguerite – Adèle Charvet
St Catherine – Anna Kissjudit
Porcus, Voice, First Herald, Priest – Valentyn Dytiuk
Voice, Second Herald, Peasant – Alex Rosen

Stage direction – Côme de Bellescize
Production – Ony Sarfati
Costumes, stage equipment – Colombe Lauriot Prévost
Lighting – Thomas Costerg  

Vokalhelden Children’s Choir (directors: Johannes David Wolff, Judith Kamphues)
MDR Radio Chorus (director: Philipp Ahmann)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 
Alan Gilbert (conductor).

Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is an unusual work, seldom encountered in performance, though its duration at about seventy-five minutes makes it good for both concert and CD. It is generally classed as an oratorio, but the designation mystère lyrique arguably makes better sense, bringing it closer to a mystery play and reminding us that the work, with spoken dialogue and three central spoken roles, is at least as much Paul Claudel’s as Honegger’s. It has been fully staged, even filmed; here, it was given in what we might call a ‘concert staging’ from a team led by Côme de Bellescize, with vivid use of costumes and lighting, as well as excellent, integrated acting in spoken and, where appropriate, sung roles alike.

The work presents Joan of Arc’s final moments before burning at the stake, punctuated by flashbacks to her childhood visions and to her show-trial, reaching an ecstatic apotheosis in departing this world that musically, as well as dramatically, seems to partake more of Claudel’s French Catholicism than Honegger’s Swiss Protestantism. In the title role, first taken (and danced) by Ida Rubinstein, Marion Cotillard gave a memorable, charismatic performance in startling red, touched by a strange fanaticism that resisted temptation to sentimentalise, whilst alert to situational and personal injustice. (Perhaps that is residual Englishness on my part, and I should feel differently if I were French, though I suspect a strong distaste for many manifestations of popular piety also affects my response to this peculiar figure.) Eric Génovèse gave us a sympathetic and enabling, yet ultimately ambiguous Brother Dominique. Christian Ganon was very much the showman, even conjurer, as Narrator, in a neat conception bringing to life the tale from a book he read to the splendid, colourfully arrayed children’s choir, Vokalhelden, called upon to act as well as sing. 

Their adult counterparts, the MDR Chorus, brought heft and agility to their part, underpinning, elucidating, and battling in so much of the action, Honegger’s debt to Bach as apparent as his undoubted originality. Vocal soloists, often assuming multiple roles, all impressed, Elsa Benoit, Adèle Charvet, and Anna Kissjudit positioned in appropriately heavenly positions by the organ as the Virgin and Saints Marguerite and Catherine, vocal delivery enhancing that visionary quality. Valentyn Dytiuk’s roster of tenor roles, not least the pig, Porcus (Claudel’s play on words between cochon and Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais), was delivered with a fine sense of theatre, as well sung as they were characterful; so too were those of rich-toned bass Alex Rosen. 

Alan Gilbert’s leadership of these forces and spirited, idiomatic playing from the Berlin Philharmonic proved adept in imparting a proper sense of unity to what might on paper – and doubtless in a lesser performance – pose a danger of the unduly eclectic. Here, the powerful prologue, added de profundis by Claudel and Honegger in 1944, cast its dark shadow over the proceedings to come, as did the later rigour of Honegger’s counterpoint, without detracting from the Prokofiev-like sardonicism of the scene with Porcus and its seemingly fond return to the relatively carefree 1920s. One certainly felt the work’s Janus-faced quality, placed somewhere in between, as well as its resonances of an historic French nationalism, folksong and all. Ominous orchestral tolling and reimaginations of ‘early music’ led us through hallucinatory recreations of the girl’s visions, to the terrible fiery flame that would be her wedding dress, and beyond to the closing ensemble hymn and haunting reprise of an earlier, wandering flute solo. It was full of incident, for instance in the ondes Martenot’s suggestion of howling dogs, but also of quasi-cinematographic direction and reflection.

Saturday 8 June 2024

Röschmann/VSO/Hahn - Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, 5 June 2024


Schoenberg: Erwartung, op.17
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Patrick Hahn (conductor)

What is Schoenberg’s single greatest work? It is a silly question, at least as silly as asking the same of Mahler, of Webern, or of Boulez. Sometimes we ask ourselves silly questions, though; I suspect that Erwartung would come pretty close to the top of any aggregate list for Schoenbergians. Written over an extraordinarily short period of time – Schoenberg was often, though not always, like that – the monodrama comes from his Wunderjahr of 1909. However, it had to wait until 1924 for its first performance, in Prague on 6 June, conducted by the composer’s great friend, advocate, and brother-in-law (I think we can still count him as such, though Mathilde Schönberg had died the previous year) Alexander von Zemlinsky. This Musikverein performance, by Dorothea Röschmann, the Vienna Symphony, and Patrick Hahn, must surely therefore have been the last of its first century-in-performance, coming as it did on 5 June 2024. Aptly enough for so prophetic yet historically rooted a work, its successor the following evening would inaugurate a new performing century.

This, at any rate, made for a glorious finale that could also look forward, surely the equal of any performance I have heard and the superior of many, whether live or on record. In his 150th year, Schoenberg’s place as the single most important – not necessarily ‘greatest’, whatever that may mean, though certainly a serious contender for that too – composer of the twentieth century is assured. It always was; that, however, has still not translated into broader acceptance from a frankly doltish public. (That his rejection is often, even usually, laced with antisemitism, unconscious as much as conscious, makes it worse; but let us leave that aside for now.) 

First and far from least, it was beautifully sung by Röschmann: beauty, song, and beauty of singing all being involved there. It was astonishingly accurate too, and not only in the vocal part, though one could have taken dictation from it had, somehow, one not been swept away by the experience. Hahn’s expert balancing of the lines – always a tricky, in another sense unsung, business in the music of the Second Viennese School – was such that one almost did not realise he was doing it. That was also, naturally, the accomplishment of the golden-toned VSO, here moreover sounding every bit as ‘Viennese’ as their Philharmonic cousins (to whom I am sure they are rightly fed up of being compared). Structure, moreover, was as at least clear as I can recall, Schoenberg’s scenic division of the work, the fourth and final scene far longer than the others, uncommonly apparent and dramatically meaningful, without making the performance seem anything but a convincing whole. Climaxes were, well, as climactic as one could hope, and then some; yet always something was shifting, conclusion or, as we might now say, ‘closure’, never on the horizon. 

Music arose from drama, and vice versa. Schoenberg never points in merely one direction; nor did he here. The whirlwind third scene in particular seemed but a stone’s throw, if that, from the later Schoenberg of, say, the almost-never-performed op.22 Four Orchestral Songs, yet there was always much of earlier writing too: for instance, the op.8 Six Orchestral Songs and, indeed, Gurrelieder. As we entered the final scene, Röschmann edged closer at times to Sprechgesang, yet only at times. Later, the opera – for let us never forget it is one – we seemed to come close to Wozzeck’s Marie, at least in the voice, for the orchestral writing rightly sounded very different. The chill of the strings following ‘Ich will das nicht … nein, ich will nicht …’ offered aftershock that was terrible, even terrifying, indeed, initiating certain intimations, so it seemed, of Pierrot lunaire. There was great tenderness too; how could one not sympathise with this protagonist? One truly felt, moreover, the transformation of the ‘Dämmerung’ to which she referred toward the end, in a musical breeze that testified to Schoenberg’s mastery of orchestration as well as masterly orchestral playing. And the musical upward spiral with which the score came to a close, if not closure, was just the thing: tantalisingly brief, yet saying all that could be said or played. 

What, then, is Zemlinsky’s single greatest work? I am not sure it is quite so silly a question; the Lyric Symphony would probably have no serious rival in any survey, though it might still beg the question, ‘why are you asking?’ One possible answer might be to help understand why other works by the composer have never quite lived up to its renown, though the operas again seem to be experiencing some of a revival. The symphonic poem – his only one – Die Seejungfrau is also faring better now, though its chequered genesis will probably always count against it. Zemlinsky withdrew the score after only three performances, and suppressed it. The unpublished score was divided, the first movement given to Zemlinsky’s friend Marie Pappenheim, also Schoenberg’s librettist for Erwartung. Zemlinsky retained the second and third movements, taking them with him when leaving Europe for the United States in 1938. Only in the early 1980s did scholars come to realise that the three movements belonged together. Die Seejungfrau was finally published, receiving its first ‘modern’ performance, conducted by one of those scholars, Peter Gülke, only in 1984. It may not be a masterpiece – it can, to be brutally honest, be a little repetitive at times and would, unsurprisingly, have benefited from revision – but it is still very well worth hearing, especially in a performance such as this.

Zemlinsky’s method of motivic transformation came very much to the fore, Hahn showing himself as accomplished a Zemlinskian as a Schoenbergian, building tension here, especially in the first movement, as expertly as he had in Erwartung. In some respects, the work came to resemble a wordless, voiceless opera. Its sepulchral (subaquatic) opening here had something in common with Strauss, without ever reducing itself to imitation or ‘likeness’; any similarities, throughout the score, were just that, no more. Perhaps the closest kinship – this has struck me before – was with Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. Maybe there is some influence there – its first performance came in 1901 – but it was actually the first, long unperformed part of Mahler’s score that more often came to mind, so let us banish any thought of derivation and celebrate commonality. Pacing and balance were equally impressive here, and how the orchestra shimmered, glowed, and glistened, as if the waters were first awaiting and then celebrating the arrival of the mermaid and her subjectivity. Opposing and complementary material were deftly shaped, again with a keen ear for drama, in the second movement. The twin return to darkness and progress to something approaching transfiguration of the third both offered an intriguing echo of Tannhäuser and built to a grand climax and further shadows of its own. For both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, it was not a case of either/or.

Lucio Silla, Salzburger Landestheater, 4 June 2024

Images: SLT/Christian Krautzberger

Lucio Silla – Luke Sinclair
Cecilio – Katie Coventry
Giunia – Nina Solodovnikova
Lucio Cinna – Nicolò Balducci
Celia – Anita Rosati
Aufidio – Joseph Doody

Director – Amélie Niermeyer
Set designs – Stefanie Seitz
Video – Janosch Abel
Costumes – Kathrin Brandstätter
Dramaturgy – Frank Max Müller and Vinda Miguna
Lighting – Tobias Löffler

Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater (chorus director: Tobias Meichsner)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Carlo Benedetto Cimento (conductor)  

The Salzburg Landestheater’s new production of Lucio Silla, generally accorded the finest of Mozart’s three opere serie for Milan, was first seen in January of this year. Though I was actually in Salzburg for the second performance, I was unable to see it then, so I was delighted to have opportunity to catch up with a thoughtful staging and fine performances, worthy of anyone’s attention—and which it would be highly desirable, if at all possible, to have preserved on film. The sixteen-year-old composer’s relish for the forces, chorus included, at his disposal in Milan was vividly brought to life. If he had not yet learned the dramatic virtues, at least from time to time, of concision such as one experiences in later dramas, it is difficult to imagine anyone having minded. Such was the expertise with which this young cast made Mozart’s recitative and da capo arias, coloratura in particular, vividly meaningful as well as vocally thrilling, that more modern prejudices against the genre were thoroughly dispelled. The quality of staging and performances also offered a welcome opportunity to (re-)assess Giovanni De Gamerra’s admittedly very early libretto. 

De Gamerra has come in for a bad press, then and now: to my mind, at least a little unjustly. Lorenzo Da Ponte, who perhaps, having been compelled to leave Vienna, had his own reasons for dissatisfaction with those who had remained, reported in a footnote to his memoirs:


Leopold [II, Holy Roman Emperor] took [Giovanni] Bertati to his opera. A year later came [Giovanni Battista] Casti: and that wretched dramatic cobbler was dismissed. But Casti was not fond of hard work. He asked for an assistant and obtained one in person of Signor Gamerra, a poet famous for his Corneide, a poem in seven or eight fat tomes wherein he mentioned all the horns that had appeared in Heaven or on earth from the birth of Vulcan down to those of his own grandfather. This ungrateful cornifex had not been a year in Vienna before he began butting with his benefactor, accusing him of Jacobinism; and poor Casti … was enjoined to depart from Vienna at once.


This is both odd and intriguing, given that Leopold himself spoke harshly of the poet, advising his brother Ferdinand, governor of the Duchy of Milan, in a letter John A. Rice discovered in the Vienna archives, that De Gamerra was ‘fanatic to excess, hot-headed, imprudent concerning … liberty, very dangerous,’ a startling extreme judgement coming from one who was far from reactionary, and which certainly attests to strong political sentiments on De Gamerra’s part. We might also note, though, that Leopold was none too complimentary about Ferdinand, dismissing him in a secret memorandum on members of his family (!) as ‘a very weak man, of little intellect and paltry talent, but who has a very high opinion of himself’. Make of that what you will. (I shall resist the temptation to go into greater detail about the House of Austria and Mozart’s operas here, but more will follow both in articles and, when finished, a book on the complete operatic œuvre.)

Celia (Anita Rosati), Aufidio (Joseph Doody), Lucio Silla (Luke Sinclair)

Perhaps more significant has been the view that the libretto, in particular its ending, is not very good. Mozart found himself having to make revisions in light of criticism (of the libretto) by Metastasio. In his New Grove article, Julian Rushton calls the denouement ‘unconvincing’ and the libretto as a whole ‘turgid’, whilst allowing Lucio Silla nonetheless to be ‘musically the finest work Mozart wrote in Italy, … [ranking] with opera seria by the greatest masters of the time’. I certainly should not dissent from the latter, either in principle or in light of this performance, but I find the judgement of the libretto unduly harsh, both in general and with respect to the ending, demanded by the conventions of the genre but also foreshadowed more than many allow both in libretto and score. A virtue of Amélie Niermeyer’s production is its taking the ‘problem’ of the ending, on which more shortly, on board. Greater faith in the work, one might well argue, might make such a strategy unnecessary; but in light of the decisions made, reasonable and justified for a contemporary production, its subversion (or, if you prefer, extension) makes good sense.


Neirmeyer takes her leave from the historical Lucius Sulla’s dictatorship. That did not necessarily hold quite the same implications as now, but such qualification is largely beside the point if it makes for good drama, which, on the whole, it does. In this world of modern dictatorship, rebels, resisting a new, brutal régime, in which opponents, pictured in placards held up by those resisting, have been ‘disappeared’. Lucio Silla exists and is amplified by propaganda, photographed snaps retouched and enhanced by his friend, the tribune Aufidio to portray the essence of strong, masculine leadership. Cecilio, Lucio Cinna and others are in hiding, clothing suggestive of a guerilla movement, and crucially are being watched (at least part of the time) through electronic surveillance rom the dictator’s palace.

Lucio Silla


Silla vacillates and is persuadable, picking up on the mediating role of his sister Celia as well as his love for Giunia, she of the old regime, so that his sudden decision for clemency (a recurring theme, we might note, through Mozart’s entire œuvre, as well as much other eighteenth-century opera) seems less unmotivated than has been alleged. But there is a twist. Since we have moved to a world of modern psychological realism, heir to the ‘Romantic critical tradition’ Rice highlighted as having done such damage to understanding of the composer’s final instantiation of operatic clemency, La clemenza di Tito, the change of heart is a ruse. The dictator who, it has seemed, might prefer a lengthy retirement in which he can indulge himself with whisky and women, has had a plan all along. Acclaimed by the people for forgiveness of those who have plotted against him, he has in fact seized the moment to add them to the ranks of the disappeared, chillingly undercutting the final vocal and orchestral rejoicing,whilst, in a sense, remaining true to the claims to total knowledge on which clemency insists. (Think of Sarastro as well as Tito.) If, sometimes, the relentless activity during arias threatened to detract from moments of musical reflection, it was a finely balanced thing. Mozart survived—and rather more than that. If anything, the classic AMOR/ROMA conflict gained by its rethinking.


Luke Sinclair’s performance in the title role was fundamental to this dramatic success. Vocally strong and agile, his stage portrayal helped fill in many of the gaps. Ably assisted by Joseph Doody as Aufidio, no mean singer and actor himself, Sinclair’s Silla offered psychological depth in instability, whilst maintaining something quite other to the external world. Those in whom he almost met his match were equally impressive, complementing and contrasting like a fine wind ensemble. Katie Coventry as Cecilio offered an extensive range of dramatic colour, not entirely unlike an early piano. Nicolò Balducci’s coloratura and the dramatic use he put to it in the soprano castrato role of Cinna would have more than convinced even the most countertenor-sceptical of listeners. Nina Solodovnikova’s warmly sympathetic, yet unswervingly committed Giunia brought her music and role thrillingly to dramatic life, poignantly in tandem with the spirit world (and others) conjured up by Carlo Benedetto Cimento and the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, as well as the Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater. Anita Rosati’s Celia proved a musical as well as dramatic lynchpin, stylistic command second to none. But then, I could almost have exchanged the descriptions given for each singer at will. All had cruel vocal demands placed upon them, all succeeded not only in fulfilling them, but in creating an ensemble drama that was far more than the sum of its parts.

Cecilio (Katie Coventry)

Cimento’s alert musical leadership from the pit, allied to the long Mozartian experience of the orchestra, was just as impressive—and crucial. Tempo decisions were wise. Dramatic momentum was created and maintained. Artists on stage were given freedom to act as singing actors, nonetheless bound together by careful ensemble preparation and finely judged orchestral incitement. Affective use of keys, E-flat major in particular, was meaningfully conveyed. That is Mozart’s doing in the first instance, of course, yet it still needs – and received – sensitive, dramatically alert conducting and orchestral performance. Likewise, the composer’s extraordinary orchestration, veiled, muted strings, tender woodwind, sepulchral trombones and all, disconcerted, beguiled, and thrilled. 

A welcome and apt surprise came at the beginning of the second part (the third act) when an entr’acte not a million miles away from Mozart, but which I did not recognise and which I was 99.5% sure was not Mozart, was heard. I later discovered that it was the first part of the second movement and all of the third from Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in G minor, op.6 no.6. Not only did it accompany the pantomime action very well; it served to remind us both of Mozart’s close connection to the ‘London Bach’ and the latter’s own Mannheim Lucio Silla, to a revised (I admit, improved) version by Mattio Verazi of De Gamerra’s libretto. Perhaps Salzburg might tackle this next? It would be a fine thing indeed to be able to see and hear the two together one day. In the meantime, this did nicely indeed.

Monday 3 June 2024

Khovanshchina, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2 June 2024

Prince Ivan Khovansky – Mika Kares
Prince Andrey Khovansky – Najmiddin Mavlyanov
Prince Vasily Golitsin – Stephan Rügamer
Boyar Fyodor Shaklovity – Georre Gagnidze
Dosifey – Taras Shtonda
Marfa – Marina Prudenskaya
Emma – Evelin Novak
Scrivener – Andrei Popov
Susanna – Anna Samuil
Varsonofyev – Roman Trekel
Kuzka – Andrés Moreno García
Streshnev – Johan Krogius
Two Streltsy – Taehan Kim, Friedrich Hamel
Henchman – Dmitri Plotnikov

Director – Claus Guth
Set designs – Christian Schmidt
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Choreography – Sommer Ulrickson
Video – Roland Horvath
Live camera – Jan Speckenbach, Marlene Blumert
Dramaturgy – Yvonne Gebauer, Rebecca Graitl

Staatsoper Children’s Chorus (director: Vinzenz Weissenburger)
Staatsopernchor Berlin (director: Dani Juris)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Simone Young (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Who writes? In history, as in its dramatisation, the question is crucial, its answer often complex. It is present, overtly, in Pimen’s chronicle in Boris Godunov, and it takes centre stage, later moving rightward, leftward, and above in Claus Guth’s new production of Mussorgsky’s successor work, Khovanshchina for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. There is also the fateful – perhaps more so than Marfa, in fortune-telling guise to Prince Golitsky – figure of the scrivener. How much, if at all, does his writing-for-hire set in course a series of unintended, world-historical consequences? Writing can be considered more broadly and narrowly, in close relation to what we now consider to constitute a ‘text’—and, of course, reading. At any rate, opening in the modern Kremlin, a statue of Peter the Great towering (as, eventually, would the two-metre-tall historical Peter) over an empty desk, with some goings on but the main character – probably wisely – never shown, just as the Romanovs could not be in Mussorgsky’s time. A functionary, seemingly somewhere between secretary and researcher, provides historical information on the characters and drama that will unfold, transcribed for us (in German and in English) on screens above the action. Given the knowledge of Russian history Mussorgsky’s drama more or less assumes (though also elides), the conceit serves both as framing device and more straightforwardly as source of useful background—or should it be commentary? Who writes, how and why? The framing is not overdone, though; part of me actually wished more had been made of it. Guth seems keener to highlight the work’s fragmentary tendencies, if anything drawing attention to the years passed between acts – themselves Rimsky-Korsakov’s grouping, whose reorganisation has not yet been generally accepted – where Mussorgsky, up to a point, brings them together. Someone other than the composer has to write here, in any case, and it will in practice prove to be more than a single person. 

If other Romanovs remain offstage, Peter, both as a young boy and as a co-tsar on the brink of adulthood sometimes watches, striding across the stage and (so I was told) also from a box above it (though sightlines prevented me and, I presume, a large part of the audience from seeing that). Otherwise, the action proceeds on stage pretty much as one might ‘expect’. It is difficult to imagine even the most hardened traditionalist objecting to the costumes – which, along with set designs, is usually all such a person cares about – but they are not fetishised. This forms, after all, some sort of investigation from the present as to how Peter attained and consolidated power, removing those who might have opposed him. Sometimes we see on film images from later Russian history. I can see the point, but I am not sure they add much, especially in the toppling of a statue of Lenin. (It could well be said that the dissolution of the USSR was a catastrophe for Russia, and not necessarily for the reasons Vladimir Putin would say it was, but it was unclear how that fitted in here.) Generic historical crowd scenes were less of a problem, presumably intending to show the Petrine settlement to be less conclusive than some would have claimed, though whether such doubling of the stage action is desirable was less than entirely clear. Likewise, whilst I think I can see the point of having Khovansky kill the Persian slaves, in a stylised representation of the bloodbath of order, restoration, progress (call it what you will), it arguably seems an arbitrary way of doing so.

A firing squad turning brutally on the ‘pardoned’ Streltsy at the end of the fourth act is a fine, properly harrowing touch, serving both to prepare the way for the self-immolation of the Old Believers in the final act but also, I think, to suggest these are different. Presenting their martyrdom as ‘resistance’, though, seems an unfortunate secularism, sadly typical of so many directors’ inability to take religious belief seriously. The idea that the contemporary ‘project’ breaks down is good: an almost Nietzschean view on the alleged ‘uses’ of history, one might say. The act, though, is real, moving, awe-inspiring, yet no more ‘resistance’ as is generally understood than the martyrdom in the final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It is more political than that, surely a crucial (and often overlooked, perhaps deliberately so, not least by Rimsky and his successor Shostakovich) note of questioning the entire Petrine and post-Petrine project of Westernisation. Peter’s troops initiate the apocalypse for some, a far stranger and more powerful drama than is allowed here. At the end, though, once the Old Believers have burned – use of video effective in conveying the nature of the act, if less so its horror – we return to the modern Kremlin. If the ‘lesson’ has been abandoned as useless or at least unhelpful, what, one might ask, has been the point? It still happened, one might reply; we have still been shown someone’s record, at least. And at least we do not become too entangled in the slightly embarrassing  ‘love story’, which, in the person of Marfa does its bit to bind things together, yet is surely a little too ‘operatic’ for comfort.

There is, also, the question of who compiles, orchestrates, and so on. Listening to the first-act Prelude in Rimsky’s orchestration, immediately before writing this, I remain far from convinced of the superiority of Shostakovich’s version of the opera (save for reversing Rimsky’s cuts and orchestrating those additional sections). It certainly has its merits, but so does Rimsky’s, and I cannot say I find it comes closer on the whole – sometimes it does; sometimes it does not – to my fantasy of how Mussorgsky ‘should’ sound. Perhaps, though, I am guilty of taking Boris Godunov – and increasingly its earliest version, given its recent favour – as a model, when Khovanshchina is a different work, rather as if one were to approach Lulu expecting it to be Wozzeck. There are also, of course, issues of performance, whichever version is used. I should dearly love one day to hear the work of Ravel and Stravinsky in full, but for now at least we had Stravinsky’s extraordinary ending, somehow more Mussorgskian even than Mussorgsky, and infinitely truer to any plausible view of the work’s dramatic message. (Shostakovich, as Richard Taruskin observed, not only ‘ratified Rimsky’s [melioristic] view’ of the Petrine reforms but ‘even managed to strengthen it’. The composer of The Rite of Spring showed himself better able to imagine and communicate the world of the Old Believers. 

Ivan Khovansky (Mika Kares), Persian slaves

Such choices were, I assume, the province of conductor Simone Young, probably in discussion with Guth. Young’s own conducting and the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin were excellent throughout, the latter sounding as golden as it did transparent, and without loss to precision. All was well placed and well balanced. Changes of metre, the lifeblood of Mussorgsky’s conversational recitative, were throughout so well handled that one barely noticed them as such; they are not, after all, the jolts of Stravinskian neoclassicism, but rather founded in a speech rhythm very different from the German ‘norm’ (and which, of course, proved highly influential upon the younger Stravinsky in particular). This happens vocally, of course, but at least as much in the orchestral ‘accompaniment’ (the Italian accompagnato seems wildly out of place here). 

Mention of things Italian brings me to my principal reservation: one of taste more than anything fundamental. Khovanshchina is considerably more inclined than Boris to more conventional, even Italianate, vocal-melodic writing. This seemed to be the cue to a more generally Verdian approach, especially during the first three acts. Elements of Wagner – more coincidental than anything else, I suspect – surfaced from time to time too, as did slightly disconcerting kinship with Tchaikovsky. Something rawer is certainly possible and, to my ears, more ‘authentically’ Mussorgskian, textual issues notwithstanding. I should not exaggerate, though, and there could be no doubting either the sincerity or, on its own terms, the success of Young’s approach with the orchestra, nor indeed the warmth with which the audience received it.

Dosifey (Taras Shtonda)

The cast was excellent too, headed by a charismatic, characteristically detailed Mika Kares as Ivan Khovansky. Taras Shtonda exuded star quality in what can hardly be other than a charismatic role, that of Dosifey, leader of the Old Believers. Stephan Rügamer imparted his usual intelligence to the part of the thwarted reformer Golitsin. (His could, perhaps even should, have been the better path, but it was not to be.) George Gagnidze’s Shakolvity shone on each of his appearances, not only his moving account of Russia’s troubled history. Marina Prudenskaya gave everything, returned with interest, to an all-encompassing performance as Marfa, finely complemented by Evelin Novak’s characterful, tender Lutheran Emma and a spirited Susanna from Anna Samuil. Andrei Popov offered a well-judged Scrivener: one could sympathise with the predicament his lowborn status presented and appreciate why he might sing in more noble, even florid style, without losing sight of his fundamental opportunism. If I felt Najmiddin Mavlyanov’s Andrey at times a little less sharply drawn, he came more into his own later on and likewise relished the opportunities a more Italianate performance offered. 

Dancers, well choreographed by Sommer Ulrickson, contributed intelligently to the greater drama too. It was, though, the outstanding chorus, expertly trained by Dani Juris, that truly crowned the performance: dramatically, harmonically based, roots in a Russian past that may or may not be invented, but certainly came to life in the here and now. It was, quite simply, outstanding in every way. Surely in this work, as in Boris, there is a fundamental lesson on the people’s suffering to be learned therein.