Thursday, 5 May 2016

ENO 2016-2017 - deeper thoughts


Announced today, the ENO 2016-2017 season. First, the easy bits : three new productions, one a  British premiere. Then, perhaps more intriguing, speculation on the future. Far from consolidating expenses, logical enough in the circumstances, the ENO plans to stage one-third of its productions outside the Coliseum by 2018/2019. The economics behind this aren't clear cut by any means, so the portents are worrying. What are the real implications for the future ?

The three new productions  Mozart Don Giovanni conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, in a Richard Jones production with Christopher Purves, Clive Bayley, Caitlin Lynch, Christine Rice, Mary Bevan  and Allan Clayton.  Good solid people there: we're guaranteed a good experience if nothing specially tempting.

Much more exciting - Brenda Rae's London debut as Lulu in Alban Berg's opera, scheduled for November 2016. She's a huge catch - even ROH hasn't nabbed her yet.  She's appeared in major roles in Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Santa Fe, and was a sensational Armida at Glyndebourne in Handel Rinaldo, where she and Luca Pisaroni stole the sho. (Read my review of the premiere HERE. London audiences will also remember her (again singing with Pisaroni) in Handel Radamisto conducted by Harry Bicket at the Barbican in 2013. Read my review HERE. Rae isn't solely a baroque singer: she's done a lot of Strauss  She should make a very good Lulu - probably more feisty and sexy than some, but that's perfectly valid in the role.  This will be the William Kentridge production also seen in Amsterdam and at the Met.

The ENO will continue to honour its role in creating English-language work with Ryan Wigglesworth's first opera, The Winter's Tale, based of course on Shakespeare, which he'll also conduct.  Excellent cast - Iain Paterson, Leigh Melrose, Susan Bickley and Sophie Bevan   This will also be the directing debut of Rory Kinnear, famous for acting Shakepeare in the theatre.

Revivals include Rigoletto, Tosca, The Pearl Fishers The Pirates of Penzance and Partenope. 

But back to the plans for working outside the Coliseum.  Transferring to the Hackney Empire for experimental work like Charlie Parker's Yardbird might make sense, as it's not very mainstream, and the place is bigger than Ambika 3, whose name confounds most people.  But why do Elgar Dream of Gerontius at the South Bank?  Admittedly, it won't be staged, and it will, hopefully, provide good work for the ENO Chorus and orchestra. Watch out for more news. And  the ENO's The Mikado will play ten dates in Blackpool.  That would tick the right political boxes, like "regional" and "popular" but it isn't necessarily the prime purpose of a company committed to opera as art form. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Remarkable Rossini - Otello

Gioachino Rossini's opera Otello  broadcast here on BBC Radio 3 - very different to Verdi's Otello and, indeed to Shakespeare's original play. The opera premiered in Decemeber 1816,  at a time when  Shakespeare was being rediscovered anew in continental Europe. Otello was overshadowed by the popular success of The Barber of Seville, but it's a very fine piece, and greatly cherished.  Technically it's very demanding, but fortunately there are voices to do it justice.  There are several good recordings and this broadcast is from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in February this year. We could dream of  Bryan Hymel as Rodrigo and Jonas Kaufmann as Otello, but this cast  is pretty good. Jessica Pratt sings Desdemona, reprising the part she first created at Bad Wildbad in 2008,  Dmitry Korchak sings Rodrigo, Yijie Shi sings Iago and Gregory Kunde sings Otello. The conductor is Christopher Franklin.

Notice: Otello isn't first, though he's by no means the least.  Rossini's interest in the interplay of voices led him to focus on the relationship between Rodrigo and Desdemona; he developed the characters, giving them spectacularly beautiful music to sing to.  Some of the arias in this opera are bel canto trailblazers, which almost literally defined the style. The tenor voice has great flexibility, lending itself to glorious coloratura display.  Listen out too for the duets and trios, where the subtle gradations in voice type create complex, interweaving patterns of sound. Rodrigo, Iago and Otello are bound together here by more than fate.  Desdemona and Emilia (Lidia Vinyes-Curtis) have lovely solos and duets.  Elmiro, Desdemona's father (Mirco Palazzi) is a bass, providing ballast.  The First Act sets context with its glorious orchestral colour, but already the music hints at something wayward and individual, in the solo instruments flying capriciously above the tumult. The most flamboyant passages occur in the Second Act. Rodrigo's aria "Che ascolto? ahimè, che dici?"  is a killer tour de force, ending with dramatic ornamentations on the word "Traditor". Normally passages like this stun a house into silence, but Rossini follows it with many more good moments, one after another. the cumulative effect is intoxicating.

Vocal gymnastics aside, the focus on Rodrigo and Desdemona fleshes them out as personalities with whom we can identify. The Gondolier's song adds a haunting dimension, setting the mood for Desdemona's Willow Song with its delicate, sighing harmonies.  When violence intrudes on this atmosphere of melancholy beauty, the exchange between Otello and Desdemona is fast and furious.  The strings scream, the orchestra whirring as if driven by demonic winds. Otello and Desdemona are in fact singing similar words, though they're at cross-purposes. "Mori , infedel" cries Otello. As if stunned into horror, the orchestra reiterates stabbing staccato.  The Doge, Elmiro, Rodrigo and the chorus rush in but it's too late. Otello kills himself  "Punito m'avrà..." And suddenly, the drama ends, in shock.

If you like Rossini's Otello, you'll like his Maometto II - another outsider more hero than villain - which I heard at Garsington. Read my review of that HERE and get the CD. Lots on Rossini opera seria on this site.

Libretto of the 1816 version, as heard in Barcelona

Cavalli headlines Glyndebourne 2017


Really exciting news!  The 2017 Glyndebourne Festival will open with the UK’s first ever production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra, directed by Graham Vick and conducted by baroque specialist William Christie.  Cavalli is perfect for Glyndebourne - witty, irreverent and audacious, ideal for a house like Glyndebourne which does baroque better than most.  There have been so many celebrated productions of Cavalli in recent years - La Didione, Eliogabalo, La Calisto and my particular favourite Il Giasone, for starters - that we shouldn't settle for anything but the finest standards.  But anything William Christie does will be better than practically anyone else can do.

Christie is conducting the lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a new edition of the opera.  Graham Vick directs his first new production for Glyndebourne in 17 years. Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth makes her UK debut in the title role. She's a period specialist and was a wonderful  Elena in Aix en Provence in 2013. (Read my review here)  That's her in a blonde wig as Elena.

Hipermestra was one of fifty sisters, the Daniades, who are forced to marry their fifty first cousins but all kill their husbands on their wedding nights except for Hipermestra, who doesn't do sex. Lucia di Lammermoor is timid in comparison. Cavalli does sex, riotously. Be warned. Expect a lot of sopranos, altos, tenors and exuberant mayhem.

Conductor William Christie says: “It was almost 50 years ago that Glyndebourne first introduced Francesco Cavalli, a completely forgotten composer, with two of his works, L’Ormindo and La Calisto. The effect on the opera world was nothing short of extraordinary.  These works established Cavalli as a great composer of opera and reaffirmed Glyndebourne’s role as a place of discovery....Times have changed and I am proud to be part of a new Cavalli wave, more in keeping with the historical performance school that is doing so much to continue the evolution of early music."

Also in 2017, a new production of  Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, which will mark the Glyndebourne debut of the prominent German director Claus Guth, a frequent guest at top European houses including Bayreuth, the Salzburg Festival, Theater an der Wien and La Scala. Glyndebourne's Music Director Robin Ticciati will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for only the second ever staging of the opera at Glyndebourne. The distinguished Australian lyric tenor Steve Davislim makes his Glyndebourne debut in the title role alongside British lyric mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (Vitellia),

A world premiere: Hamlet by exceedingly prolific Brett Dean, directed by Neil Armfield, who directed Dean's first opera in 2010. Among the revivals La Traviata from 2014 and Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos from  2013.  Read my review of that HERE.  Hopefully this time round there will be more comprehension of this very thoughtful production. Like so much Richard Strauss, the opera is about the making of opera. It's art, not literal narrative, so an intellectual approach is perfectly valid even if it's highbrow. When Katharina Thoma directed Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House, she did the exact opposite, staging the opera as literally as possible in the "traditional" style complete with painted wooden flats. But audiences still didn't get the irony.  Read my analysis of it here.  At the time, someone muttered "We British don't like Germans". Too bad, I think.  Germans do know a lot about theatre.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Chinese ukulele star 1925 ?

Dressed in a "Chinese" costume, strumming a ukulele and singing skat.  Nee Wong was a novelty act in vaudeville, who appeared on Broadway and in London's West End. Billed as "a regular Chinese 'Ukulele Ike'" and "The Gentleman of the Orient" and  "One of vaudeville's most talented entertainers in Nee Wong, a lackadaisical young Chinese (sic). Nee Wong can make a ukulele talk. He sings American songs and translates them into Chinese, giving his audience a little lesson in Chinese pronunciation."
Audiences marvelled, and even today some  are fooled.
 
But even his identity was an act. Nee Wong's costume isn't Chinese. It's a circus clown version of the kind of tunic Chinese women - not men - wore or rather weren't wearing in the 1920's. The famous movie clip from 1925 shows him singing,  but he's singing gobbledegook, not Chinese.

Nee Wong was no more "Chinese" than white folks in blackface playing banjos and singing "African" were black. In reality, Nee Wong was Filipino, born Alfredo Oppus in Baclayon in 1895.  He worked as a labour organizer  with a Filipino battalion in California just after the First World War.  As "Nee Wong" he made a living impersonating "
the gaits and mien of the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino as observed by an Occidental at the cross roads of Oriental San Francisco".  Read more HERE on a specialist ukulele blog which is ace on ukulele technique, and also read the comments below about Oppus, the man.
Nee Wong presumably had to make a living and didn't do badly. His act says much more about his era, when non-whites couldn't break into the mainstream unless they pandered to racist stereotypes, pretending to be what they were not, serving an audience that didn't care. White guys donned blackface, strummed banjos and pretended to be "African". Real black guys had to adopt demeaning caricature. Stepin Fetchit's very name implies servility and borderline mental defectiveness.  Even as late as the 1960's Screamin' Jay Hawkins pranced about on prime-time TV, grunting "voodoo", in a get-up that came straight out of 1920s' witch doctor movies. There were lots of acts like these then, many of them white folks pretending to be what they were not. But what was the psychological toll of demeaning oneself and living a lie? These acts weren't harmless fun because they reinforced racist values.  At least, Oppus seems to have broken away. By the 1940's he's seen in photos doing a straight act.  Others didn't, some trapped in tragic fantasy. I don't know what happened to Alfredo Oppus, but I'm glad he saw past illusion.

Friday, 29 April 2016

New Artistic Director ENO - what lies ahead ?

Just announced, many long months after the departure of John Berry, the new Artistic Director of the ENO - Daniel Kramer.    The ENO press release emphasizes "The appointment was made by a panel of ENO Board Members chaired by Harry Brunjes, including Louise Jeffreys and Anthony Whitworth-Jones. The views of members of the Orchestra and Chorus and the senior artistic team were also taken into account. Daniel was unanimously chosen as the exceptional individual from a very strong field of candidates".They probably need a show of unanimity in these troubled times. 

The Chairman of the ENO Board,  Harry Brunjes, says "This marks a turning point in the Company’s history as we move towards a new approach to planning seasons and reaching out to new audiences in London and indeed throughout the country."  Kramer himself says "My intention is to ..... inspire audiences night after night with a thrilling programme of musical diversity, attracting audiences from opera to operetta through to popular music. We will work, too, with the wider community outside the Coliseum, to develop emerging talent and new audiences. We are here to play and sing for you."

Hmmmm.....what does that really mean? Popular music? Leaving the Coliseum? What about the ENO's tradition of cutting-edge innovation ? Or any commitment to new English-language opera ? Will the ENO become yet another small-scale company presenting safe and bland "family" entertainment in sub sub West End venues. As I've written so many times, it is short-sighted to sacrifice the unique nature of the ENO for short-term expediency.  Unfortunately, arts policy in this country bears no relation to the realities of the arts as part of the economy. This lack of basic business nous, with its petty-minded parochialism, spells death for creativity. Read my piece Solutions for the ENO: vision not pettiness

What will any Artistic Director be able to do against this background of small-minded philistinism ? Kramer's first essay with the ENO was Birtwistle's Punch and Judy at the Young Vic.  The  brashness of that production worked fine because the opera  depicts puppets obsessed with mindless destruction.  There are deeper undercurrents in the work, but usually lost beneath the shock value.  His other work in mainstream opera was Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle  in 2009, part of a double bill with an very dull Rite of Spring.  Kramer's Duke Bluebeard's Castle wasn't Bartók's, but Josef Fritzl's. I don't at all mind free adaptations but this oversimplified the fundamentals of the opera. Read my review here

There's nothing wrong with sensationalism per se,  as long as it has artistic and musical basis, but how will that square with the new constraints the ENO seems fated to adopt ?  Kramer directs the new Tristan und Isolde, which starts at the ENO in June.  But an Artistic Director does more than direct.   Will Kramer have the vision to create a genuinely interesting new profile for the ENO?  Operetta isn't the way to go. It may appeal to audiences determined to divest opera of intellect, but as Chabrier's L'Etoile at the ROH showed, operetta doesn't work in a big house.  Operetta does need wit and flair.  Remember the disastrous Die Fledermaus in 2013 ? So maybe the way ahead is musicals and showtime tat.  Will the Coliseum return to its music hall origins?  Many have much to gain from that. But not those who care about opera as art. 

Visions of Wonder Debussy, Abrahamsen, Mahler 4 CBSO Volkov


Child-like visions of wonder and excitement : a potentially brilliant concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov. Hans Abrahamsen's Left, Alone was the big draw, the premiere of a major work by an extremely significant composer, noted for his inventiveness and  individuality. Left, Alone is a return to Abrahamsen's creative roots, far more characteristic of his style than  Let me Tell You, which may be his Valse Triste, popular but not typical of his music. I hope he gets paid better than Sibelius did.  Abrahamsen isn't the sort of composer you associate with smash hits.  He's hardly ever written for voice. He doesn't need to. "Music is pictures of music", he once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."

Abrahamsen's music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder.  It's alert to the kind of quiet detail that gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition.  One of my friends hated Abrahamsen's Schnee (2007) because it "feels like watching snow fall", but for me that's precisely what I love about Abrahamsen.  Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control. Abrahamsen's music examines sounds from different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak 

In Abrahamnsen's Left, Alone the concept "the sound of one hand clapping" is uniquely realized.   Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was written for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war.    Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen's piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left, Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi-silence. In fact there are several, passages of semi-silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra  animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return to quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes: piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully.  Not having a right hand is not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheless. Alexandre Tharaud was the soloist.  Preceding Left, Alone was Abrahamsen's orchestration of Debussy Childrens Corner. The connections are clear: six vignettes unified by playful imagination.

 In theory, this sense of childlike wonder should have animated Mahler's Symphony no 4, but for me, it largely fell flat. Volkov and the CBSO were brilliant in the first part of the programme, playing with vivacious good spirits.  Maybe they'd enjoyed themselves too much.  Volkov's métier is new music, and the CBSO relish adventure. They've done Mahler 4 often enough  that they can probably coast through and usually (not always) still sound good.  There were problems with the brass, and the timpani felt unusually heavy handed, as if they were playing a military march, which is fine in Mahler but not in Mahler 4.  Volkov says "only when you play the whole piece through the last movement makes sense, dynamically and musically". We can't put much store in a soundbite like that, but it did have a bearing on this performance.

The final movement refers to the brightness of heaven, and happiness so dazzling that even St Ursula, the warrior, bursts out laughing while her murdered acolytes dance. It is by no means a "cheerful" symphony because the child singing is dead. The voice sounds vulnerable, but in Heaven, it cannot be hurt. Unlike the child in Das irdisches Leben it will not be suppressed.  The dead kid is full of wonder because it's experienced a miracle. The sleigh bells in the first movement are there for a purpose. Sleighs were a mode of transport in difficult conditions, pulled along by the physical strength of horses.  Hence the need for tightness of ensemble and vigorous energy.  Mahler's first movements aren't usually overtures summarizing what is to come, but the first stage in a journey.  Mahler's markings Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast don't in themselves mean slowness but more a kind of transition from the "life" of the first movement to the afterlife of the finale.  If the music lingers, it's to suggest a reluctance to leave a happy past. In some ways, Mahler is saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years and moving on.  There are many ways to interpret this symphony but it does need a structured point of view.     

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Sex and Art :Tannhäuser Revisited, 2016


Wagner Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House, London in its second revival.  Perhaps the shock of the original 2010 production by Tim Albery has worn off, as so often happens when audiences pay attention rather than come determined to find fault.  This isn't a production I particularly like, but it is a legitimate interpretation.  Those who insist on "the composer's intentions" would do well to actually read Wagner's own description of Venusberg, depicting waterfalls, grottos and "Schlafende Amoretten, wild über und neben einander gelagert, einen verworrenen Knäuel bildend, wie Kinder, die, von einer Balgerei ermattet, eingeschlafen sind. Der ganze Vordergrund ist von einem zauberhaften, von unten her dringenden, rötlichen Lichte beleuchtet, durch welches das Smaragdgrün des Wasserfalles, mit dem Weiß seiner schäumenden Wellen, stark durchbricht; der ferne Hintergrund mit den Seeufern ist von einem verklärt baluen Dufte mondscheinartig erhellt."   In other words, lurid sex and nudity.

Above, a sketch of the Venusberg scene from a very early staging. It doesn't take much imagination to equate the caves and waters with anatomy: Venus's charms are made fairly explicit. Try that these days with prissier audiences and the fallout would be heard in Hell.  Thirty years ago, there was a German production in which dancers were seen as half-human, half-animal elementals writhing in agony and ecstasy. A brilliant way to express what Venusberg means, and why it has such a hold over our hero Tannhäuser.  Horrible as it is, it's less repressed than self-conscious Wartburg.  Visual images offer clues as to meaning: mistake them for literal reality and miss the art. Please read my analysis here of the symbolism of Wartburg and its place in German culture.  Also, my piece Who is Elisabeth. 


Tannhäuser is Wagner and Wagner does ideas.  This is an opera about art and the role of art, every bit as much as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Both operas depict  societies where art is taken so seriously that the fate of a woman can be traded for talent.  Fortunately, in both cases, wise souls prevail.  Elisabeth is as selfless as Hans Sachs, and intuits that Tannhäuser must face his demons if he is to find himself.  Wolfram is the Perfect Knight, but Elisabeth wants other feelings. "Doch welch ein seltsam neues Leben, rief Euer Lied mir in die Brust! Bald wollt es mich wie Schmerz durchbeben, bald drang's in mich wie jähe Lust;Gefühle, die ich nie empfunden,Verlangen, das ich nie gekannt!"   If modern audiences want theatre sanitised, safe and bland , maybe they shouldn't be going to opera at all.

Peter Seiffert has been singing Tannhäuser for so long that he has form. I don't think think this is a "young man's role" like Walter von Stolzing, for Tannhäuser has seen the world outside Wartburg and cannot go back.  Johan Botha, who sang the part in 2010 was ideal, because he looked as though he'd tasted the joys of the flesh. What mattered was that his voice was pure, clear and agile. That's what the opera means, the integrity of art as opposed to surface beauty.   In 2010, Christian Gerhaher sang Wolfram so luminously that some who should know better thought that Elisabeth chose the wrong guy.  But Wolfram sings about evening stars, and intangibles. Detachment is his thing, not gritty human emotion. Wolfram was Gerhaher's breakthrough, his career-defining moment. I had been listening to him as a Lieder singer from very early on indeed, so his Wolfram didn't surprise me.  He's a consummate Wolfram in so many ways. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Die Gedanken sind Frei


Die Gedanken sind Frei - a song at the soul of the German Romantic movement.The gentlemen above are intellectuals, aristocrats and artists, the gentlemen of the Lützowsches Freikorps who did their own thing, despite the repression around them.  Weber's  Der Freischütz can also be read as an extension of these ideas.  The song, first published in 1820, was almost certainly much older.  The ideas were so well known that they worked their way into folk culture. In Clemens and von Brentano's  1805 collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the words appear in Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, which was set nearly a century later by Mahler.  A man is a prisoner in a dungeon from which he cannot escape. But "Gedanken sind Frei" and can never be suppressed.  If anything, the message is even more potent today, when forces of oppression have new channels in modern mass technology with which to spread wilful ignorance and domination. We live in a surveillance society : we aren't free. .  Lützow fought Napolean  The illustrations in the clip below show the uprisings of 1848, another watershed in German history. Now we have ISIS and other forms of terrorism to deal with. But as long as there are a few quiet voices who understand this simple song maybe there is hope. Pete Seeger sings a wonderful English translation, see below :

"Die Gedanken sind Frei, my thoughts freely flower
Die Gedanken sind Frei, my thoughts give me power,
No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them,  
No man can deny, Die Gedanken sind Frei
I think as I please and this gives me pleasure, 
My conscience decrees, this right I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater, to Duke or Dictator,
No man can deny : Die Gedanken sind Frei"