Sunday, 29 June 2014

LSO/Nott - Beethoven and Messiaen, 29 June 2014

Barbican Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphony

Steven Osborne (piano)
Cynthia Miller (ondes-Martenot)
London Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott (conductor)

Try as I might, I found it impossible, whether before, during, or after the performance, to fathom the idea behind programming Beethoven’s Second Symphony with Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony. I suppose it showed two highly contrasting approaches to the idea of the symphony, but Messiaen’s example is such a thing-in-itself that comparison verges upon the meaningless. In the end, it was probably better simply to take the concert for what it was; at least that is what I had to do.

Jonathan Nott led the LSO in a decent account of the Beethoven, which is certainly not something to be taken for granted, especially in an age characterised largely either by perverse ideas about Beethoven or a manifest lack of ideas about him. That the introduction to the first movement began anything but promisingly was, however, no fault of the performers. Some unutterably selfish member of the audience decided to indulge not once but twice in flash photography; I hope that his or her name will have been taken and the culprit will never darken the doors of the Barbican Hall again. Thereafter, there was considerable relief to be had from a sensible tempo and excellent sense of line, which heightened, indeed engendered expectations. The exposition was on the fast side and might have yielded more – characteristics of the performance as a whole – but there was nothing objectionable to what we heard. Orchestral playing as such was alert, precise, cultured: beyond reproach really. The development section benefited from a sense of exploration, though the approach to the recapitulation was curiously throwaway. However, the great coda blazed as it should.

The slow movement flowed with grace, even if it lacked the profundity, the search for necessity and meaning, which characterise a great performance – such as we might have heard from, say, the late Sir Colin Davis, or today might still hear from Daniel Barenboim, surely the greatest Beethovenian alive. There was greater affection, though, here than elsewhere, and an admirable combination of clarity and warmth. Minor-mode passages had a proper sense of darkness to them. The scherzo was brisk, brusque even, but not in extreme fashion; the trio had an appealing lilt to its woodwind passages. It was difficult not to register a certain feeling of disappointment with respect to the finale. Very well-played though it was, it was probably taken too fast. At least that was how it seemed, with no opportunity to smile or indeed to deepen.

It is no tall order to follow a performance of a Beethoven symphony with something on the scale of Turangalîla. For that alone, and despite very occasional evidence of tiredness, the LSO deserves great credit – but its performance was highly estimable in its own right, the distinctly unhelpful acoustic of the Barbican notwithstanding. This Introduction went un-photographed (although the person whose telephone rang for what seemed like at least a minute during ‘Développement de l’amour should summarily have been shot). Either my ears or the orchestra, or both, took a little time to adjust to that problematical acoustic; for once, the Royal Albert Hall might have been preferable. But the congested sound experienced at the beginning was no real impediment to the expository function of the movement, ‘expository’ certainly not being understood in a Beethovenian fashion. String swooping in tandem with Cynthia Miller’s expert ondes-Martenot playing, a portentous brass ‘statue’ theme, a glittering piano entry from Steven Osborne, contrast aplenty with the demure brace of clarinets portraying the ‘flower’ to the brass’s ‘statue’: all made their point in an atmosphere of madness, delirium even, which yet remained musically grounded in rhythmic and melodic insistence. ‘Chant d’amour 1’ sounded somewhat too frenetic at first; again, that may have been as much an acoustical as a musical problem, and again the point should not be exaggerated. The saccharine theme from violins and ondes possessed a suitable combination of naïveté and sheer weirdness. Messiaen’s technique of juxtaposition came across very clearly: perhaps too clearly?

At any rate, the first ‘Turangalîla’ movement provided some respite. (The fastidious Pierre Boulez could never quite bring himself to conduct the symphony as a whole, but conducted the ‘Turangalîla’ movements.) It is – and in performance, was – less blanat, sounding imbued with mystery that could claim to be genuinely spiritual, if that shop-soiled word has not entirely lost all meaning by now. Moreover, elements of the music seemed to look forward to the 1950s, the 1960s, even beyond; there is surely a glimpse of Stockhausen to be had here. Perhaps it was not surprising, however saddening it may have been, that some members of the audience rudely began to depart during this wonderfully sphinx-like movement.

The second ‘Chant d’amour’ had a splendidly perky woodwind opening. Its clockwork craziness – presentiments of Chronochromie? – increased when the section was joined by other instruments, leading unerringly into the ‘response’ of the love theme. Nott’s shaping here was exemplary. The movement ended in frankly sexual fashion, but that was as nothing compared to the ensuing ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’, its performance unabashed with respect to what we might call its cosmic silliness. I found myself wondering whether the inhabitants of another planet, or indeed an étoile somewhere, might already play this music. Goodness knows what acts it would accompany or presage…

‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ answered that question in no uncertain terms. Or at least such was the experience in a performance of great languor, even ‘insistent languor’, which apparent contradiction was suggested by Osborne’s piano commentary. As elsewhere, the pianist’s contribution was exemplary in its scintillation, quite the equal of a Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The second ‘Turangalîla’ movement was again welcome in its almost alien inscrutability after that spell in the garden of earthly delights. Now was the time for the LSO’s percussion truly to shine, and it did. Joy was felt in the combinatory aspects of the movement. There also seemed to be a welcome acknowledgement by Nott of its unhinged quality.

That telephonic interruption aside, ‘Développement de l’amour’ offered blazing climaxes which left little to the imagination. If not quite a cold shower, the third and final ‘Turangalîla’ movement at least presented a contrast of relative subtlety. Instrumental combinations fascinated, as did the notes ‘themselves’. It was beguilingly curious, and curiously beguiling. Musical processes were readily, revealingly apparent. The finale really had the sense of being a conclusion. It could hardly have been more exultant than some of what had passed before, but it certainly seemed imbued with homecoming, wherever this strangest of homes might be. This was a wonderful – in every way – conclusion to the LSO’s season. The final, prolonged, glowing chord sent shivers down the spine.


Gergiev speaks

Oh dear, or dear, oh dear...! Apparently Karita Mattila 'has no idea', but there is far, far worse. At least lives in the Crimea have been 'saved immediately'...

(Don't be put off by the Finnish introduction; the interview is in English.)

Click here:

Royal Academy of Music students/Wright - Bartók and Stravinsky, 28 June 2014

Hall One, Kings Place

Bartók – Seven pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, for two pianos, four hands, Sz.108
Sonata for two pianos and percusson, Sz.110
Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale

Florian Mitrea, Alexandra Vaduva (piano)
Tom Lee, Paul Stoneman, Oliver Butterworth (percussion)
Kate Suthers (violin)
Felix Lashmar (double bass)
Leonie Bluett (clarinet)
Hannah Rankin (bassoon)
Matthew Williams (trumpet)
Elliot Pooley (trombone)

Dame Harriet Walter (narrator)
Simon Wright (conductor)

What a treat, to hear not just one but two of Bartók’s two-piano works, followed by The Soldier’s Tale, especially in excellent performances from Royal Academy students! Florian Mitrea and Alexandra Vaduva followed in the hallowed footsteps of Bartók himself and his wife, Ditta Pásztory. Mitrea and  Vaduva conjured up from the start a sound that was recognisably Bartókian and of the ‘two piano’ variety: a banal observation, perhaps, but not, I think, one that goes entirely without saying. Both musicians, whether individually or together, offered clear delineation of lines, without sacrificing the spirit of the music. Stravinsky, Petruskha in particular, seemed to be echoed in ‘Chord Study’, the second of the Seven Pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, Mitrea imparting nicely shimmering tone where required. The following ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ was urgent, without running away; indeed, performances were admirably controlled throughout. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion both seemed to be presaged in ‘Staccato and Legato’, after which the ecstatic lyricism and harmony of the ‘New Hungarian Folksong’ came both as intensification and contrast. A fine sense of rhythm and style ensured that the final ‘Ostinato’ registered as a true conclusion.


The Sonata itself followed, for which the pianists, now able fully to unleash their virtuosity, were joined by Tom Lee and Paul Stoneman, whose musicianship and execution proved every bit their partners’ equal. (If only we had a recording from the Bartóks!) There was never any doubt, from the wonderfully ominous opening, that we were dealing with a towering masterpiece. Co-ordination was impeccable, throughout a wide – and meaningful – dynamic range. If Vaduva’s piano contribution was often, though by no means always, more on the percussive side, then that is a perfectly valid choice to have made. The final, fugal section of that first movement was highly incisive, antiphonal writing coming across with admirable clarity. That opening to the second movement, quite unlike anything else I know, registered with the astonishment that it should, a credit to both percussionists. Night music wove its magic. Again, unanimity of ensemble was highly impressive throughout. The finale was exultant, though far from unambiguously so.    

A new group of musicians, joined by Harriet Walter and conducted by Simon Wright, gave us a splendid performance of The Soldier’s Tale. I was not always entirely sure about the new English version of the narration – I could not find a credit – but contemporary references to a ‘current account’ and the like did not jar too much. At any rate, Walter’s contribution captured the attention, gamely alternating between characters and properly adhering to the dictates of metre. Stravinsky’s miraculous score emerged in pungent, mordant fashion, properly poised between ‘Russian’ colour and neo-Classical desiccation, a forerunner indeed to both Mavra and the Octet, as well as the more obvious Symphonies of Wind Instruments. There was a keen sense of dialogue and confrontation between the instruments; again, the music really sounded as if it were by Stravinsky, which again, is not a quality to be taken for granted. Dances were well characterised, the Tango darkly erotic. If Kate Suthers’s excellent rendition of the violin part necessarily rendered her first amongst instrumental equals, there was not a weak link in the ensemble, directed with a fine ear for metre and colour by Wright.   

Friday, 27 June 2014

RPO/Zukerman - Bach, Schoenberg, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, 27 June 2014

Cadogan Hall

Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Mozart – Exsultate, jubilate, KV 165/158a
Mendelssohn – Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Arianna Zukerman (soprano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman (violin, conductor) 

Pinchas Zukerman is joining the RPO for a ‘Summer Music Festival’ at Cadogan Hall, involving chamber as well as orchestral music, the former with musicians from the Royal College of Music. This was the opening concert, in which we were treated to Zukerman as violinist as well as conductor. There was a great deal to enjoy, and we were treated to a previously unadvertised bonus, a performance of Exsultate, jubilate, with Zukerman’s daughter, Arianna.

Bach came first: the rarest of rare treats in the insanity of modern symphonic programming. Would that one could believe this to be a harbinger; alas, it seems more likely to be a late, if not quite last, hurrah from a generation of musicians who understood and experienced the necessity of performing a repertoire spanning as many centuries as possible. Zukerman’s recordings of the Bach violin concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra remain a choice recommendation, as do those of David Oistrakh with the RPO. Here, in a sense, then, we gained the best of both worlds, and this was for the most part a delightfully assured, musical performance, which sought to make no especial ‘points’ and was all the better for it. The tempo taken for the first movement had a sense of ‘rightness’ to it, setting up a performance whose variegated articulation was not the least of its virtues. Zukerman’s intonation was perfect throughout. (It is surprising how many violinists’ intonation is not.) Varied flourishes of vibrato were rightly the icing on the cake. And throughout, crucially, the continuo line (Clare Williams on harpsichord, Tim Gill leading the cellos) provided the foundation upon which Bach’s miraculous score was re-created. The slow movement was a little more problematical: taken at a very brisk pace and, more to the point, at times disconcertingly brusque. Matters improved as time went on, but tutti passages retained more than a little of that character. Zukerman could occasionally be a little fierce too, though there were some truly exquisite moments: diminuendi, in particular, and some especially rich tone in the lower registers of the instrument. Some might have found the finale a little on the sturdy side, but Zukerman’s tempo permitted musical values to eclipse the merely or mostly flash. Again, that perfectly centred tone of his was something truly to savour – and again, the RPO played with unflashy excellence. 

A good number more strings joined the orchestra for Verklärte Nacht. This proved to be quite an unusual performance. In many, though not quite all, it paid off, but Zukerman certainly proved himself no slave to received tradition. The veiled opening, dark, even ominuous, seemed all the more so for being taken at an unusually slow tempo. It actually made the music sound closer to Mahler, recalling the first movement of the Second Symphony and even looking forward to the Sixth, despite the different keys involved. The opening, at least, was quite different in its lack of Brahmsian flexibility, though that would come later, Zukerman showing himself willing both to linger and to press on. Indeed, different sections of the work exhibited clearly differentiated character, the programme coming across more strongly than often. Despite one passage in which conductor and orchestra seemed to lose their way – I am not quite sure what happened – climaxes and turning-points were handled with musical and dramatic understanding. Graver passages seemed especially to benefit from Zukerman’s approach; some others might have benefited from more in the way of late Romantic abandon, sounding a little studied by comparison with other performances. I was not entirely convinced by the considerable slowing towards the end, suggesting almost an formal arch rather than a journey toward transfiguration, but the final bars themselves somewhat redressed the balance.

Arianna Zukerman showed herself a winningly forthright soloist: not flawless, but with a nicely operatic spirit. In the first movement of Mozart’s motet, the lower range showed a degree of strain, and the cadenza’s intonation was unfortunate. But her phrasing was musical, and was clearly conceived of in tandem with Zukerman’s exquisite direction of the orchestra, woodwind in particular. Even when, once again, as in the third movement, the soloist’s intonation wandered, the RPO sounded gorgeous. The final ‘Alleluia’ was taken with evident relish; it was difficult not to smile, in Haydnesque fashion, at the prospect of the Divinity.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony received a lovely performance with which to finish. The first movement opened with real attack, a true sense of life. Bright and bushy-tailed, Mendelssohn’s score benefited once again from splendidly variegated playing. The vivace in Allegro vivace was properly heeded. There was a delightful, subtle slowing for the advent of the second group, but the exposition repeat was not taken and was missed (at least by me!) The development section was admirably clear with an excellent sense of direction, the recapitulation offering a real sense of arrival – and also of difference, bubbling woodwind nicely to the fore. What one might call the ‘light inexorability’ of tread to the second movement was perfectly captured. It was interesting to note that often Zukerman felt no need to conduct at all, suggestive of well-directed rehearsal. The minuet received a loving, old world performance. Too relaxed? Perhaps just a little, at times, though certainly not by much. Its trio continued in similar vein, boasting especially fine Harmoniemusik, which inevitably had one think of Mozart’s serenades. Any slight doubts had evaporated by the return of the minuet. The finale wanted nothing in vigour, urgency, or, where required, lightness of touch. A fine sense of chiaroscuro ensured that it was not unrelenting, indeed that it was blessed by musical ‘character’.


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

La Gazzetta, Royal College of Music, 24 June 2014

Images: Chris Christodoulou

Britten Theatre

Lisetta – Filipa van Eck
Doralice – Hannah Sandison
Madama la Rose – Angela Simkin
Filippo – Luke D Williams
Alberto – Gyula Rab
Don Pomponio – Timothy Nelson
Anselmo – Matus Tomko
Monsù Traversen – Julien van Mellaerts

Donald Maxwell, Linda Ormiston (directors)
Nigel Hook (designs)
John Bishop (lighting)
Louisa McAlpine (choreography)
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

Don Pomponio (Timothy Nelson)
With but one exception, I am delighted to report with great enthusiasm on the Royal College of Music International Opera School’s summer show, Rossini’s La Gazzetta, performances and staging alike at least the equal of last year’s sparkling Offenbach production, La Vie parisienne. Donald Maxwell and Linda Ormiston update the action, such as it is, to the 1990s, though I cannot help but think that their synopsis overplays the idea of ‘the power and reach of newspapers’, in the opera at least, if not necessarily in Goldoni’s original play. At any rate, we have an array of madcap antics, colourfully designed by Nigel Hook, brilliantly lit and choreographed by John Bishop and Louisa McAlpine choreographed. The Neapolitan figure of fun, Don Pomponio, has his erstwhile assistant turn glamorous female (and thus now Tomassina); vividly portrayed by Kelly Mathieson, despite her total lack of words and music, this is intended as a ‘tribute to Italy’s most famous care home assistant’, the attitude and words of other characters reflecting that Berlusonci-like turn. And so, from the opening hotel lobby sequence, in which hotel guests (a Welsh male-voice choir!) sing something inconsequential, until the ‘Turkish’ disguises and inevitable, unsurprising ‘revelations’ of the finale, in which again something inconsequential is sung, visual spectacle is impeccable.

Lisetta (Filipa van Eck)
Vocal performances were splendid too. This is not easy music to sing, but bar the odd intonational slip here and there, every member of the cast offered something promising indeed. Timothy Nelson’s Don Pomponio succeeded – a tricky task, with an English audience – in conveying the ‘peculiarity’ of the character’s Neapolitan dialogue. Filipa van Eck stole the show more than once as his daughter, Lisetta; there is quite a range here, and estimable accuracy to boot. She clearly also relished the stage opportunities –wonderfully tasteless costumes included – her nouveau riche character offered. Gyula Rab had an excellent line in the imploring, lovelorn tenor, generally singing as handsomely as his unmistakeably Italianate costuming suggested. Hannah Sandison’s tone hardened at times, but was for the most part focused, strong and yet, when required, touchingly vulnerable. Luke D Williams proved himself once again an excellent baritone with real stage presence. Angela Simkin’s Madama la Rose proved far more than the mere foil to which the plot more or less reduces her, possessing genuinely ear-catching moments of her own. The roles of Anselmo and Monsù Traversen are smaller, yet there could be no complaints concerning the contributions of Matus Tomo and Julien van Mellaerts, likewise from the chorus of soloists who completed the action. Though small in size, the orchestra conjured up a truly Rossini-like sound under Michael Rosewell. If Rosewell had the overture stop and start a bit too often – largely Rossini’s fault, but such faults can be mitigated – then precision, colour, and vivacity were very much to the fore later on. Wind solos in particular were highly distinguished.

Alberto (Gyula Rab)

That sole reservation? The opera itself, I am afraid. I shall not dwell on the matter, especially since such performances are intended at least as much as a showcase for highly talented young singers as anything else. (In that respect, I should not be surprised to hear more from all of them over the coming years.) It is difficult, ultimately, to imagine, however, why anyone should care about these characters, and the ‘fizz’ soon wears off. La Gazzetta is not a short work, and such slight material – someone placing an advertisement in a newspaper for a potential husband for his daughter and the all-too-typical disguiges, misunderstandings, etc. – can hardly support the considerable length of such a work. As so often with Rossini, the music is curiously interchangeable; would it really matter if any of it were moved anywhere else, or indeed to a different opera? Such ‘æsthetics’ have their apologists, of course; tedium sets in quickly for the rest of us. Parsifal seems far shorter by comparison.

Nevertheless, many congratulations to the cast and production team for displaying such commitment to an opera whose merits remain dubious. If you are a Rossini enthusiast, you certainly should not hesitate; likewise if you simply wish to hear some fine singing.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Luca Francesconi: Quartett, Royal Opera, 18 June 2014

Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Linbury Studio Theatre

Marquise de Mertueil – Kirstin Chávez
Vicomte de Valmont – Leigh Melrose

Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Ravi Deepres (film)
Bruno Poet (lighting)

Serge Le Mouton (computer music design)
Julien Aléonard (recording, editing, mixing of choir and orchestra at La Scala)
Sound Intermedia
London Sinfonietta
Andrew Gourlay (conductor)

Luca Francesconi has been commissioned to write a new opera for Covent Garden, due for performance, alongside three others, in 2020: a development which marks a long-overdue departure from the parochial practice of only or mostly commissioning British composers. Six years is a long time for us to wait, but this performance of Quartett, premiered at La Scala in 2011, whetted the appetite.

Moreover, Francesconi, in a Guardian interview with Tom Service, certainly whetted the appetite for Quartett itself: ‘Don’t dare to come if you can’t accept that you need to analyse what you do and who you are.’ Sadly, as we shall see, certain members of the audience predictably failed to take note. ‘This piece is violent, it’s sex, it’s blasphemy, it’s the absence of mercy. The only two characters in the opera are the definition of cynical, they have made a pact that they don’t have to love any more. Love and sentiment are banned, the only thing that’s left and that matters is a kind of chess game with people’s souls and bodies.’ In this opera, the composer’s own libretto based upon Heiner Müller’s play, itself freely inspired – as you will probably now have guessed – by Les Liaisons dangereuses, you may ‘face the reality of how dried up your heart is, how little space there is in your feelings for anything that doesn’t come from being self-defensive, from being totally scared by the world.’ As usual, some of our esteemed newspaper critics failed to take note. The ‘real last message of the piece [is] that we can no longer hide our problems – and that we shouldn’t.’

Bold words indeed. Does the opera live up to them? For the most part, yes, both as work and as performance. Francesconi is more readily associated with Berio than with Nono, and rightly so; but here, one feels a certain degree of technical and spiritual kinship with the latter too. If there is little or none of the extremity of Nono’s writing, and the use of electronics proves nothing in particular, there is perhaps something of Nono’s insistently humanistic drawing in, of that embodiment within the work of the imperative ‘to listen’, even, on occasion, of those searingly beautiful post-Webern angular melodies. Without wishing to reduce a distinguished composer to a sum of ‘influences’, but simply to try to place him, it is nevertheless Berio’s love of games and the juxtapositions that come with them, which seem more apparent. That is hardly surprising, given that we are, as Francesconi observes in a programme interview, ‘living a whirling, virtuosic game of masks, impossible to understand, which push the boundary between reality and acting. This is Theatre for Müller as it was for Shakespeare: the possibility of staging one vision of the world and its opposite.’ Undeniably Teutonic dialectics present themselves, then, but with a somewhat different voice, more ‘Italianate’ in both a traditional and modern sense, than, say, Hans Werner Henze, always so eager to adopt the spirit of the Mediterranean, would ever be permitted by his German inheritance fully to assume.

Form is both readily apparent and slightly beyond our grasp: just as it should be, one might say. One senses the different musico-dramatic imperatives of the different scenes, or at least sections, of this one-act work, just as one does the palimpsest of voices: ‘real’, instrumental, electronic memories and presentiments. Sometimes the language comes (perilously or self-confidently?) close to tonality, but why should it not, the composer apparently perfectly clear that he has something or some things to say, and that he knows how to say them? There is development in the sense of ebb and flow, but also in the tragic – or should that be tragi-comic? – route taken to the death of the Vicomte de Valmont and the subsequent ‘waiting’ of the Marquise de Merteuil. Francesconi’s ear for blending live and electronic music, for the shifting boundaries between them, for the ways in which one might emerge from the other, is not only impeccable, but beguiling and, crucially in this context, seductive. For it is music, above all, that wins through, as it always will in successful opera, be it Così fan tutte, Parsifal, or Die Soldaten. ‘Cinema,’ as Francesconi points out in his programme interview, ‘is only a facsimile, it’s not happening here and now. … Music is the alchemy that triggers’ the ‘miracle’ of theatre, of what happens ‘in real time’. The interaction between what is ‘live’ and what is not perhaps further problematises, indeed dramatises, such tension, rendering it all the more productive.

John Fulljames does an excellent job in the difficult space of the Linbury. Presented more or less ‘in the round’, the opera is able to draw us in spatially as well as musically – though of course there is a strong spatial element to the electronics in any case. A post-apocalyptic element features strongly, but with a ‘play’ that is darkly redolent of Beckett, not of unmediated desperation. Human beings, however deprived and depraved, will continue to play, to create: such is a corner-stone of politics and æsthetics not only from Schiller onwards, but from as far back as we can trace, indeed from Creation itself. All elements of the staging are tightly integrated – not only with each other, but with work and performance.

Andrew Gourlay led an incisive performance from the London Sinfonietta. Certainly those qualities of the score I mentioned above came across with penetrating clarity and seductive suggestion. Kirstin Chávez and Leigh Melrose sang on this, the first night; Angelica Voje and Mark Stone will appear in some of the subsequent performances. Chávez and Melrose offered outstanding performances, musical and dramatic commitment shown to be quite as one, frenzied abandon and cool reflection inciting one another in the increasingly self-sufficient imperative of the characters’ role-play. This was not Müller as such, but it was something he might have appreciated; as Francesconi, it would be very difficult indeed to match. Vocal and dramatic range stretched themselves as required, towards but never beyond breaking point.

After such a performance, I try to write something as quickly as possible, but various commitments made that impossible on this occasion, by which time I had already been made aware of typically uncomprehending newspaper ‘reviews’. One might have hoped that the writers would have learned something from their humiliation in the recent Rosenkavalier debacle, but no, the usual suspects have breezily paraded their ignorance of Francesconi, of Müller, of music and indeed of culture in general. What would it take, one wonders, for newspapers to decline a review, if the likes of this and this, are deemed fit for publication? At least we have that interesting interview with Tom Service. Perhaps, though, in the cases of the ‘critics’ from The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, sub-editors have, for once, done their jobs. Headlines – ‘A shameful waste of money…’ and ‘Generic wittering’ – may best be understood as useful comment upon the reviewers rather than the works. Let them stick with Donizetti; the rest of us will try to engage with opera as a living art-form. Who knows: we might even succeed? Francesconi seems to have done so.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera, 17 June 2014

Royal Opera House

Manon Lescaut – Kristïne Opolais
Lescaut – Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux – Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Revoir – Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo – Benjamin Hulett
Innkeeper –Nigel Cliffe
Singer – Nadezhda Karyazina
Dancing Master – Robert Burt
Lamplighter – Luis Gomes
Sergeant of the Royal Archers – Jihoon Kim
Naval Captain – Jeremy White

Jonathan Kent (director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Mark Henderson (lighting)
Denni Sayers (choreographer)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

A moronic audience and obscenely high ticket prices were not designed to have one in the best of moods. The Royal Opera House should be ashamed of itself for its cynical pricing: I had to pay £51, more than I could really afford, for the most distant reaches of the Upper Amphitheatre, from which it is impossible to see the singers’ fasces, whilst Stalls tickets far exceeded £200. So more should those who, having previously been laughing, shuffling, talking, opening sweets, coughing, sneezing, etc., booed the production team. Jonathan Kent’s staging has all sorts of problems, yes, but such boorish, threatening behaviour has nothing to do with art and suggests the perpetrators would be better off at a football match, of which there seems to be no shortage at the moment.

Indeed, it was tempting to conclude that such people received what they deserved. Having tittered at the surtitles – is it not side-splittingly hilarious that someone should be interested in preserving an emerald or too? – they, needless to say, failed to notice what might have been the virtue of Kent’s production, had it been coherently thought through and presented. Turning the tables on spectators of different varieties, most notably during the filmed ‘show’ of Manon’s antics in the second act, set to a backdrop of sickly pink vulgarity, might have worked in a Katie Mitchell-like manner; it might even have succeeded in indicting those who had turned up for an evening of conspicuous consumption and sentimental refusal to hear something other than ‘lovely tunes’. One might be able to set aside jarring details, such as this modern(-ish) woman having had parents decide to send her to a convent. The problem is that a not uninteresting idea – and I appreciate that this is a generous reading of what we see – utterly collapses following the interval. Suddenly, without warning, and more to the point without discernible agency, we appear to be in a different production altogether. The point – and again I am trying to be generous – may well be that now the audience, having been rendered aware (a fine chance with most of that lot!) of its complicity, should now be more or less conventionally harrowed, but that is not how it comes across. What registers instead are incoherence and ineptitude, increased by designs which seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from Kent’s less than successful Flying Dutchman.

By the time one reaches the fourth act, the production team seems to have given up completely. Not only is it well-nigh impossible, even for the most sympathetic viewer, to consider the cartoon-like presentation with a hint of irony; it is far from clear whether Des Grieux’s failure to bother to find some water, instead just sitting down a few yards away, is deliberate or just an unknowing commentary on what we have been watching. If Kent had had the strength of his (apparent) convictions, had continued to undermine an ‘easy’ reading, perhaps by having Manon fake her death and return to a life of luxury, this would have been worthier of respect; as it stands, one can neither sympathise with the characters nor with the botched attempt at critique of the ‘drama’, such as it is.

With a cast such as this, there are compensations of course, but again, bearing in mind the cynical pricing, that is hardly enough. Jonas Kaufmann sounded at times a little strained in the first act – he would surely be more home as Siegmund, the sort of role in which the ROH never permits us to hear him – but, even from the very back of the house, one could see as well as hear his dramatic presence. The Italianate sobs are not overdone, thank goodness, and one could take dictation from his words and vocal line alike, however softly sung. Much the same, bar the Siegmund observation, could be said of Kristïne Opolais, whose shaping of her lines was every bit as impressive as Kaufmann’s. The voices may not always quite have blended, but they certainly came together powerfully in the fourth act – which would have been far better off in a concert performance. Christopher Maltman’s Italian sometimes seemed a little deliberate, but his was an alert reading of the role of Lescaut, both on stage and in voice. Maurizio Muraro probably had the best of the production in terms of the presentation of Geronte; his was a powerful presence throughout. ‘Supporting’ roles were pretty much all well taken; especial mention might be made of Benjamin Hulett’s finely observed Edmondo. Choral singing was of an equally high standard.

As for Antonio Pappano’s conducting: well, at least it was not his Wagner. Many extol him in Puccini; he certainly seems more at home here than in a great deal of other repertoire. There remains, though, more than a little stiffness, and that same desire to ‘accompany’ rather than to lead. The Wagnerisms of Puccini’s score came through, perhaps ironically, far more strongly than when I had heard the work in Leipzig in April, but, like much of the rest, they seemed isolated rather than properly placed within a greater scheme. Delicacy was more to the fore than passion, let alone a dialectic between them. The orchestra, bar some surprisingly thin string tone at times, played very well, considered in itself, though it was too rarely given its head; I could not help but wonder what a symphonic conductor such as Daniele Gatti, Semyon Bychkov, or Riccardo Muti would have brought to the performance. That said, the most glaring shortcomings were those of the half-baked staging.  This really is not, or at least should not be, the place to present work-in-progress.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Richard Strauss at 150

For Strauss's 150th birthday (today), I have written a piece for The Conversation, which may be read here.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 7 June 2014

Don Giovanni (Elliot Madore) and Donna Anna (Layla Claire)
Images: Robert Workman

Glyndebourne Festival Theatre

Leporello – Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Donna Anna – Layla Claire
Don Giovanni – Elliot Madore
Commendatore – Taras Shtonda
Don Ottavio – Ben Johnson
Donna Elvira – Serena Farnocchia
Zerlina – Lenka Máčiková
Masetto – Brandon Cedel
Jonathan Kent (director)
Lloyd Wood (revival director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Denni Sayers (movement)
Mark Henderson (lighting)

The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Having become so jaded with indifferent – or, sadly, far worse than merely indifferent – stagings of an opera I love more than words can tell, it proved a relief and indeed a joy for me to attend this first revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2010 Glyndebourne production, especially its first act. It was not perfect; perfection we leave for Mozart. But Kent’s staging, as revived by Lloyd Wood – I am afraid I am in no position to say how much is Kent and how is Wood – treats this masterpiece seriously and joins a select group of productions I should happily see again, not least because I suspect there would be intriguing points revealed to me that I had missed upon a first viewing. (Incidentally, its Glyndebourne predecessor, from Graham Vick, forms part of that small band.)

Kent’s staging may lack the cocaine-fuelled kinetic energy of Calixto Bieito’s unforgettable ENO production, or the (apparently) all-encompassing, Calderón-like Salzburg World Theatre of Herbert Graf’s production for Furtwängler (the most precious opera DVD this side of the Boulez-Chéreau Ring?), but even such magnificent achievements as those can only begin to hint at the possibilities Mozart and Da Ponte offer us. Most stagings come nowhere near accomplishing even that. Social tensions are either absent or underplayed – an all too common shortcoming – but a seriousness and sensibility it is perhaps not unduly exaggerated to call theological nevertheless comes to the fore. Giovanni’s unflinching, libertine atheism is of course the true heroism of the opera. The dark force of what to him may be reaction is symbolised by the darkness of Paul Brown’s excellent set designs, from out of which the action seems to emerge and into which it retreats. But some in the audience – and some of the characters too – might equally decide that it is the temporal stability of the revolving cube (the Mother Church, perhaps?) which protects and which ultimately proves the villain’s downfall.

Such openness to interpretation is quite different from a lack of direction. There is room for the burning conviction of strong directorial lines – Bieito is surely one of the greatest and unquestionably one of the most celebrate examples – and for more reticent yet nevertheless intelligent productions, permitting of various understandings. In that respect, Kent’s likening, in his brief director’s note, of Brown’s spinning cube to ‘a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities or, perhaps, a great sarcophagus,’ proves fruitful both in itself and for the further consideration it might suggest. Moreover, such properly Baroque references, in a more broadly cultural sense rather than the narrow conceptions of ‘style’ prevalent today, prove equally stimulating to the imagination – just as they do in Mozart’s score and Da Ponte’s libretto. The 1950s updating registers if one wishes: Kent suggests a ‘time of transition, in which a sexual, social and moral revolution, a dolce vita world, coexisted with the remnants of a devout society. However, at least to my eyes, it does not force itself unduly upon one’s consciousness. The staging is again, then, suggestive; it does not make the mistake of trying to shoehorn the drama into a pointlessly narrow conception, let alone somehow attempt to make Don Giovanni ‘about’ the era in question.

There remains, however, one significant reservation. I do not know whose decision it was to serve up what seemed pretty much to be the Vienna version of the score, but I wish he or she had thought again; it made a change, though, from the unholy conflation of Vienna and Prague generally foisted upon us. To anyone who cares to think about it, Prague wins every time, although I have yet to attend a single performance in which Mozart’s dramatic sensibility is thus honoured. At any rate, we heard both of Donna Elvira’s arias, just the one of Don Ottavio’s (‘Dalla sua pace’), and the very rare Vienna duet for Zerlina and Leporello, ‘Per queste tue manine’. It was not, of course, uninteresting to hear the latter, for once, but it is almost unworthy of late Mozart, and holds up the action just as much as if we were to hear both of Ottavio’s arias (and/or, for that matter, both of Elvira’s: just as much a problem with Vienna). There was, at least, no messing about with the scena ultima – a relief, given the recent butchery perpetrated by the Royal Opera. It was a great pity, though, about the surtitles, whose translation was unworthy of Da Ponte’s matchless marriage of wit and profundity.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s Mahler I greatly admired in Vienna a year-and-a-half ago. At first, that is, in the Overture, I found him somewhat wanting in Mozart. I have learned to live with the opening being taken at an allegedly alla breve tempo far too fast to my ears; off the top of my head, only Barenboim and Muti, amongst living conductors, come close to what I hear in my head. More concerning were a general thinness of tone and apparent lack of concern with harmonic rhythm.  If those were not actually natural trumpets – I could not see the pit – they certainly sounded like them; others, of course, respond better to that rasping sound than I do. However, once past that disappointing opening, there was much to admire, though such tendencies were far from entirely banished. There will always be tempi with which one can quibble, but this was a variegated performance which did not harry the music, and which permitted both the on-stage drama to develop and the excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra to have its say. The Stone Guest Scene, however, was strangely un-climactic: partly, I think, a matter of the failure to use the Prague score, but it was more than that, for that failing is common to many other performances. Though beautifully played by the LPO and – for the most part – well sung, the final scene therefore did not jolt quite as it should.

Leporello (Edwin Crossley-Mercer) and Don Giovanni
Indeed, the main factor was probably the underpowered singing of  Taras Shtonda’s Commendatore. The other disappointment amongst the cast was Layla Claire’s vibrato-laden Donna Anna, whose musical line really needed to be clearer throughout.  Otherwise, a cast almost entirely unknown to me acquitted itself well, with a fine sense of company. Ben Johnson, whom I had heard before as Ottavio, albeit in English, sang exquisitely, almost to the extent of having one regret the lack of ‘Il mio tesoro’. Serena Farnocchia was a stylish Elvira, whilst Lenka Máčiková and Brandon Cedel offered vocally lively assumptions of the roles of Zerlina and Masetto. If Elliot Madore lacked the charisma of the great Giovannis, then he nevertheless delighted in the musico-dramatic quicksilver of the role, sufficiently differentiated from the equally lively Leporello of Edwin Crossley-Mercer. There was genuine chemistry between them. Perhaps ironically, given the ‘loss’ of his aria, it was only Johnson’s Ottavio which continued to ring in my ears; but this, like the production and performance as a whole, was a cast that proved considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera, 5 June 2014


(sung in English)

Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyres
Giacomo Balducci – Pavlo Hunka
Teresa – Corinne Winters
Fieramosca – Nicholas Pallesen
Pope Clement VII – Sir Willard White
Ascanio – Paula Murrihy
Francesco – Nicky Spence
Bernardino – David Soar
Pompeo – Morgan Pearse
Innkeeper – Anton Rich

Terry Gilliam (director, set designs)
Leah Hausmann (co-director, movement)
Aaron Marsden (set designs)
Katrina Lindsay (costumes)
Finn Ross (video)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

First, a sigh of relief: in almost every respect, this new ENO staging of Benvenuto Cellini marks a significant improvement upon Terry Gilliam’s ‘Springtime for Hitler’ Damnation of Faust. If that sounds like faint praise, for beating a ‘Holocaust as entertainment’ travesty is perhaps setting the bar unreasonably low, then such is not entirely the intention. Gilliam’s Cellini has its virtues, though for me they are considerably fewer than they seemed to be for the audience at large. It is far from unreasonable to depict anarchy and ribaldry in the Carnival, and indeed during the ‘carnival’ overture – though Gilliam’s reported remark that ten minutes of music are ‘too long for the audience to sit through waiting for the show to begin’ are unworthy of anyone working in opera. There is nothing wrong in principle with ‘staging’ an overture, but the reason should be better than that; if the results are a little over the top, they are certainly superior to the justification.

And yet… here and in the Carnival itself we also experience the main problem: Gilliam’s seeming inability to trust Berlioz’s opera, an infinitely more successful work than ignorant ‘criticism’ will suggest. Yes, there is excess, even at times an excess of excess, in Berlioz’s work, but what I suspect Gilliam’s fans will applaud as ‘wackiness’, be it the director’s or the composer’s, is far from the only or indeed the most important facet of the opera. Despite the handsome, splendidly adaptable Piranesi-inspired designs, the plentiful coups de théâtre, the impressive collaboration of set design and video for the forging, etc., etc., what matters most of all – Berlioz’s score and, more broadly, his musical drama – often seems forgotten. Perhaps that also explains the unaccountable cuts, which serve to exacerbate alleged ‘weaknesses’ – many of which turn out to be deviations from the operatic norm – instead of mitigating them.

Matters improve considerably after the interval, and there is a genuine sense of dark, nocturnal desperation to the foundry and surroundings at dawn on Ash Wednesday (though there was, admittedly, little sense of the significance or even the coming of that day of mortification). Much of the first act, by contrast, is overbearing and in serious need of clarification. Yes, by all means harness spectacle as a tool of drama, but too often it runs riot in an unhelpful sense; it also encourages a large section of the audience to guffaw, applaud, chatter, make other, apparently unclassifiable, noises, often to the extent that one cannot hear the music. I could not help but think that a smaller budget would have removed a good number of excessive temptations and resulted in something less perilously close to a West End musical. There are the germs, and sometimes rather more than that, of something much better here, but those ‘editing’ Berlioz perhaps themselves stand in need of an editor. The updating to what would appear to be more or less the time of composition, perhaps a little later, does no harm; indeed, it proves generally convincing.

Edward Gardner’s conducting of the first act was disappointing, the Overture, insofar as it could be heard, setting out the conductor’s stall unfortunately: excessive drive followed by excessive relaxation. Wild contrasts are part of what Berlioz’s music demands, of course, but there still needs to be something that connects. Throughout, there were many occasions once again to mourn the loss of Sir Colin Davis, whose 2007 LSO concert performance of this work was simply outstanding. The orchestra proved impressively responsive, though, and, once both Gardner and Gilliam had somewhat calmed down, truly came into its own, sounding as the fine ensemble that it undoubtedly is. Gardner is rarely a conductor to probe beneath the surface, but as musical execution, there was a good deal to savour following the (protracted) interval. Choral singing – and blocking – were more or less beyond reproach, a credit to chorus master Nicholas Jenkins and Gilliam’s team alike, as well of course as to the singers themselves.

Michael Spyres performed impressively in the sadistically difficult title role, there being but a single example, quickly enough corrected, of coming vocally unstuck. His stage swagger seemed true to Gilliam’s conception, and his vocal style – insofar as one can tell, in English translation – was keenly attuned to that of Berlioz. A few ‘veiled’ moments notwithstanding, especially later on in the first act, Corinne Winters impressed equally as Teresa. ‘Entre l’amour et le devoir’ could hardly have been more cleanly sung in the most exacting of aural imaginations. Nicholas Pallesen revealed himself to be a thoughtful and at times impassioned baritone as Fieramosca, though Pavlo Hunka’s Balducci sounded thin and generally out of sorts. Despite Willard White’s undeniable stage presence, his appearance as the Pope did little to dispel suspicions that, sadly, his voice is now increasingly fallible. Paula Murrihy, however, proved an excellent Ascanio: characterful and attractive of tone in equal measure. There were few grounds for complaint from the ‘smaller’ roles either.

ENO’s description of this opéra semi-seria as a ‘romantic comedy’ is puzzling. It is, to be fair fair to Gilliam and all those involved, a description that stands at some distance from their vision too. An opéra comique was originally Berlioz’s conception, but that is a matter of form rather than of sentimentality. We should doubtless be grateful that we were spared a ‘heart-warming’ Richard Curtis version. Nor does it help, of course, that we are subjected to an English translation, which inevitably sounds ‘wrong’ for Berlioz, especially when so apparently deaf to musical line and cadence as this present version. If only ENO would reconsider its stance on a once vexed question, now resolved by the use of surtitles, it could truly transform its fortunes.