Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (2) - Aida, 12 August 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images: Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

King – Roberto Tagliavini
Amneris – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Aida – Anna Netrebko
Radamès – Francesco Meli
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro – Luca Salsi
Messenger – Bror Magnus Tødenes
High Priestess – Benedetta Torre

Shirin Neshat (director)
Christian Schmidt (set designs)
Tatyana van Walsum (costumes)
Reinhrad Traub (lighting)
Martin Gschlacht (photography)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreograpy)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

It is a good thing to put even one’s most settled judgements to the test from time to time. Seven years had passed since my most recent encounter with Verdi in the opera house: seven years of (relative) good luck since. If the nauseating La traviata remains a nadir in the benighted ‘repertoire’ – better or worse than Donizetti, or about the same? who cares really? – then the mindboggling tedium of Aida anoints it a serious contender for any such reckoning. However fine the performances, and they were generally excellent here, any revival of so unremittingly banal a work will prove, at best, an absurd misallocation of resources. There is infinitely greater interest in any randomly selected note of Webern. As Boulez memorably put it, ‘Verdi is stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Quite why anyone would claim to know better remains a mystery.

Aida apologists seem to like to laud it essentially as a chamber opera, scenes of intimacy at its heart, contrasting with the pomp and ceremonial of grand opera. Fine, but that is hardly enough. It matters whether such scenes are any good, of any interest. All we have here is a ‘bog standard’ – with apologies, for the first and last time in my life, to Alastair Campbell – clash between public and private, generalised in the extreme, with ‘characters’ so thinly drawn, if indeed they be drawn at all, that a non-partisan listener cannot even begin to care. They all sing the same sort of stuff, about the same sort of stuff, at interminable length – it may be a relatively short opera, but it certainly did not feel like it – to a plot whose implausibility is so contrived as not even to amuse. (Maybe onstage elephants would have helped in that respect, if no other.) La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s or anyone else’s, this is not; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a greater vulgarisation of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma. Of all the tragedies of occupation and war, why would the weird self-obsession of a woman who, rather than try to rescue her lover, elects instead to enter a tomb in order that they be buried alive, even register? She deserves no better, but what about poor Radamès? It would be nice to be able to care, but if somehow one manages to do so, it will be on account of a performance, not the work.

Frankly, their sentimental festival of smothering – would they at least not have sex for the first and last time? – cannot come quickly enough, even though it does not. Meyerbeer is more dramatically interesting, certainly more historically important. Perhaps this might work very occasionally as the exhumation of historical curiosity, the recipient of due criticism, but to place such drivel at the heart of the repertoire is too silly even to qualify as ‘edgy’ or critical performance art. If Aida is actually a satire on a well-heeled, self-regarding audience’s willingness to sit through anything, however dull, provided that its abject lack of taste and judgement be flattered, then is it not about time that someone finally explained the joke to that audience?

All that said, there is doubtless something for an interesting director to say; there always will be, even if the work does not deserve it. What one hears about Hans Neuenfels’s Frankfurt Aida sounds fascinating, all the more so for 1981: the slave girl an Ethopian cleaner and a typical Verdi audience screaming blue murder. Likewise Peter Konwitschny for Graz the following decade. Shirin Neshat is certainly not one to join their number; instead, alas, she joins the number of film artists who have nothing much to say about opera, or at least cannot say it. Her production is as dull as the work itself, creditably – I think, but now begin to wonder – shorn of the traditional vulgar trappings, but with nothing to put in their place. There are some half-hearted video (of course) images of refugees, but that is about it, other than a ‘stylish’ look and a vast revolving set which sometimes does not quite revolve as it should. (The second interval seems to have been mightily prolonged on that account.) Could we not at least have had the death-wish slave girl as a suicide bomber or something? Weirdly, she seemed to dress very much as Amneris; perhaps that is what happens when you have Anna Netrebko in the title role. The priests’ slightly strange look initially suggests parody; alas, nothing else does. There is nothing much else to it apart from the designs, at least nothing I could discern.

Aida (Anna Netrebko), Radamès (Francesco Meli), Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk)

Netrebko, perhaps needless to say, offered vocalism of a quality that would be spellbinding, were it expended on more interesting material. No degree of vocal shading seemed beyond her, the trademark richness of tone ever present yet variegated; if only the bizarre Orientalist shading of her make-up had shown a sensitivity that came anywhere close... Francesco Meli’s Radamès was every bit as impressive, perhaps still more so, as handsome and noble of tone as of aspect. Ekaterina Semenchuk was every inch the fiery mezzo, again completely in command of her instrument and, insofar as the non-staging permitted, her dramatic performance; I should love to hear (and to see) her as, say, Ortrud. Roberto Tagliavini sounded a bit wooden as the King, but that permitted some degree of contrast with Luca Salsi’s animated Amonasro. Choral singing was excellent throughout, indeed outstanding, as was the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, its shading every bit as exquisite as Netrebko’s, the sweetness of string tone very much of old. Muti clearly cherishes the score almost beyond price, however incapable I may be of understanding why. His partnership with this orchestra rarely disappoints; here he showed himself once again to play it as if it were a piano under his fingers. If I found the pace rather slow at times, that was doubtless a consequence of my feelings towards the work; enthusiasts, I am sure, would have loved it.

I doubt there can have been many superior performances of the opera throughout its history; I equally doubt that I shall persuade myself to hear another. As for Verdi, see you in another seven years’ time? Perhaps.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (1) - Goerne/Trifonov: Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich, and Brahms, 11 August 2017

Haus für Mozart

BergFour Songs, op.2
SchumannDichterliebe, op.48
WolfThree Michelangelo Songs
ShostakovichSuite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op.145: ‘Dante’; ‘Death’; ‘Night’
BrahmsFour Serious Songs, op.121

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Daniil Trifonov (piano)

This proved an outstanding recital, at least as much for Daniil Trifonov’s searching, protean pianism as for Matthias Goerne’s singing. Such a partnership, something beyond what one might ‘ordinarily’ expect during the concert season, is just what a festival such as Salzburg should be about. Likewise the programming: excellent in itself, yet also offering connections to broader themes on offer in the festival.

Goerne is singing Wozzeck here – on which, more later in the week – so Berg’s op.2 songs could, if one wished, be understood as anticipatory. More importantly, they made for a fine opening to this programme, the Hebbel setting ‘Schlafen, Schlafen, nichts als Schlafen’ drowsy, somnolent in the best way, emerging and yet never quite emerging from that state of half-awakedness. The languor one heard and felt had something of Debussy and early Schoenberg to it, yet could never quite be reduced to them or indeed to any other influence; this was Berg. Above all, it was founded in the piano part, above which words could then do their work. In its Parsfalian leisure-cum-torpor, one almost felt it to be ‘lit from behind’. ‘Schlafend trägt man mich’ continued in a recognisable line, yet initially lighter, soon more involved and questioning. Trifonov showed himself keenly aware of the importance of specific pitches and their repetition; later Berg beckoned already. ‘Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten überwand’ and ‘Warm die Lüfte’ continued the developmental idea, (re)uniting, intensifying earlier tendencies – and again the importance of specific pitch, here in the bells tolling and nightingale singing in the piano part.

Dichterliebe benefited from the alchemy of no clear break: Schumann’s song-cycle emerged from Berg’s songs and retrospectively announced that that was where they had always been heading. From the very outset, the opening ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, the limpidity of Trifonov’s piano playing was to die for, the delicacy of Goerne’s song also spot on. Magically slow, this was something to savour, without a hint of narcissism. ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen’ developed not only, it seemed from its predecessor, but from Berg’s songs too, not least in its nightingale song. Nothing here was formulaic, nothing taken as read: the voice took on the quality of something approaching an instrumental chamber music partner to the piano in ‘ich will meine Seele tauchen’, save of course for the words that both heightened and questioned that sense. The young Wotan seemed to appear on stage for ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’, his piano partner striking in dark, stark simplicity (however artful). The piano’s taunting cruelty in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ could match anything in Schubert: implacable, heartless, almost ‘objective’. It was, moreover, an unquestionably post-Schubertian agony here – distended, just a little, unerringly judged – that characterised the ensuing ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. ‘Am leuchten Sommermorgen’ brought that summer morning to refracted life courtesy of Trifonov, the piano part’s passing notes returning us to Berg, perhaps even going beyond him, whilst the piano chords in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum gewidmet’ spoke in almost Lisztian fashion, not unlike his Il penseroso. The strange tricks and consolations of dreams that followed (‘Allnächtlich im Traume’) seemed almost to prepare the way, following the weakened ebullience of ‘Aus alten Märchen’, for those two extraordinarily final postludes. They spoke at least as keenly as any words, even those of Heine.

Liszt, unsurprisingly, came more strongly and unquestionably to the fore in Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo. His harmonic language and its bitter self-destruction haunted ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft’. Quite rightly, words took the lead in ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ and ‘Fühlt meine Seele’, seemingly inciting Wagnerian harmonies through what, in context, sounded most Schopenhauerian language. The two songs’ different character registered as strongly as what they held in common.

Trifonov’s quasi-verbal directness of utterance, especially in the bass register, struck me especially powerfully in the three Shostakovich Michelangelo songs that followed. It was as if the ability to ‘speak’ were being returned with interest. In ‘Dante’ in particular, Goerne brought to our attention Shostakovich the seer and the critic. That importance ascribed to particular pitches in Berg seemed to haunt the world of Shostakovich too, as if to remind us of what might have been. Once again, however incorrect this priority in the world of mere empiricism, the words of the following songs seemed to grow out of the piano’s wordless speech. ‘Night’ (Noč’) evinced an unfamiliar familiarity, musical and verbal. ‘Hush, my friend, why awaken me?’ Why indeed?

That illusory ‘timeliness’ – what could be more ‘timely’ – of Brahms in ‘archaic’ mode proved especially striking in the Vier ernste Gesänge. Trifonov’s understanding and communication of the piano parts was properly generative, even occasionally verging on a quasi-objective autonomy, an ontological frame within which the Biblical words might be intoned and considered. ‘Ich wandte mich und sahe an alle’ nevertheless spoke of subjectivity, of a late verbal Intermezzo that more than hinted at Webern. An earlier German Romanticism hung in the air, and yet clearly had passed: sad, perhaps, but Goerne’s Ecclesiastes Preacher would surely have understood. An almost Bachian embrace of death, albeit with a more Romantic sense of tragedy underlying it, characterised Goerne’s delivery in ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du,’ flickering half-lights again very much from the world of the late piano pieces. ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelszungen redete’ afforded a climax that was truly Pauline in its depth, complexity, and sheer difficulty. The best theologians will sometimes, as Brahms shows us, be agnostic, even atheist, albeit in a strenuous sense: more Nietzsche than, God help us, Richard Dawkins and his ilk. This was Brahms’s reckoning with how things were, just as much as that of the epistle writer. And so it was with the recital as a whole: a reckoning necessarily both final and not.