Friday, 28 November 2014

Pelléas et Mélisande Salonen - smooth or sharp?


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande at the Royal Festival Hall. Over the years, South Bank concerts have been let down by the choice of singers and choirs, but this time we enjoyed an almost ideal team of principals: Sandrine Piau, Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri and Jérôme Varnier.

Sandrine Piau created an unusually luminous Mélisande. Her background is in the baroque, though she's adventurous with art song and modern music as well, so her "white" timbre is almost ethereally refined. Her voice rang out pure and clear. This Mélisande felt supernatural.  Perhaps she's an elemental. Not all Lorelei inhabit riverbanks. Some live deep in the forests, enchanting huntsmen. Think Schumann and Heine. Piau's voice is at once transparent and opaque. Her tones sparkle, like light on water,  yet her poise suggests the impenetrability of a mirror which reflects back rather than reveals what lies within: a very good interpretation of who Mélisande might be. The dense forest in Act One isn't physical. Seductive strings, but chilling winds, in every sense.  It's a psychological jungle into which Golaud has strayed. Mélisande's first words are a warning. "Ne me touchez pas."  Piau's looks  also enhance meaning. While she sings of hanging her long blonde hair down from a tower,  we see the gamine of a grown-up Yniold, a boy child sung by an adult woman (Chloé Briot). Suddenly this throws the role of Yniold into greater focus, raising troubling new mysteries. Mélisande, for all her passive loveliness, wreaks havoc on those around her.

Stéphane Degout is the Pelléas of choice these days, so ideally suited to the part that all others pale in comparison. His Pelléas is uniquely complex. When Mélisande leans into the pool of the blind men, Degout's voice takes on a heady mix of horror and excitement: this Pelléas is thrilled by darkness as well  as shiny surfaces. When Pelléas plays with Mélisande, his voice sounds plausibly youthful, yet one senses, too, that Pelléas is  hypnotized by an ardour he can't quite articulate. When, at last, he declares his love, Degout sings with firmenss and authority. If Pelléas survives, he'll emerge a hero, because he has self-knowledge.  If he survives, that is.

Laurent Naouri sang Golaud to Natalie Dessay's Mélisande for Louis Langrée at the Barbican three years ago. His dynamic with Piau is of course different. If anything the dynamic between Naouri and Degout is even more striking. Sometimes Golaud is depicted as a brute, to emphasize the contrast between the brothers, but in many ways they are halves of  the same personality. Naouri is insensitive, but a caring, decent man, captured by forces way beyond his control. When Naouri sings La nuit sera très noire et très froide, his voice opens outwards, creating a sheen of sensitivity.  This is the "Pelléas" aspect of Golaud's personality. Perhaps he might have been more like Pelléas, but, as Mélisande notes, he's turned grey before his time. It's the Allemonde effect, established long before we even reach the palace.

And what is Allemonde?  The very name suggests that it's a metaphor for something much bigger than a castle.  Why is the atmosphere so stifling?  Why are the peasants in the countryside dying?  Jérôme Varnier shows why Arkel is much more than the marginal figure he's sometimes depicted as.  Arkel is the king, the grandfather, a survivor.  Something's very wrong indeed, and it has happened under Arkel's watch. The strength in Varnier's voice and the forcefulness in the vocal writing suggest that Arkel isn't quite the weak old man we might assume. "The last time I kissed you was the day you came", he tells Mélisande. What do we really make of that?  The better the opera, the greater the possibilities of interpretation. Performances like Varnier's remind us just how fascinating Pelléas et Mélisande can be.

Salonen and the Philharmonia are very good, and very good together, and Debussy is a Salonen signature.  Thus I was surprised by the bland over-refinement of this performance. Perhaps the marketing gimmick "Paris City of Light" hangs too heavily, for the "light" in Pelléas et Mélisande is an unhealthy, unholy light, not the sparkle of champagne  and good times. At noon, the sun parches and saps the will. The pool is enticing because it's cool and shadowed. Throughout the opera, Debussy switches between extremes, in order to dislocate and discomfort. Like Yniold, we should be afraid of losing balance. Smoothing out the contrasts might sound nice, but goes against the spirit of the music.  Pelléas et Mélisande may seem beautiful on the surface but surfaces are deceptive. Salonen and the Philharmonia are perfectly capable of producing more bite, but that bite might be too unsettling, given the naffness of the semi-staging (David Edwards)

The lighting (Colin Grenfell)  is wonderfully atmospheric and works well with the music, but why the narration, which consists of diverse chunks of Maeterlinck badly thrown together.  The opera itself is so good that it tells its own story. In principle, narration is fine, but this specific narration was delivered with an archness that was embarrassingly cringeworthy.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles Theater an der Wien


Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles opened last week at the Theatre an der Wien.  It was broadcast on ORF so if you're canny, you can track it down. It's definitely worth the effort, and could become  a favourite.  Diana Damrau sings Leila. She's exquisite. She rises to the challenge of the high notes with fierce, bright singing - exactly as one imagines the fearless Leila might do. The richness in Damrau's voice also adds an earthy sensuality to the part. She's matched by Dimitri Korchak (Nadir), Nathan Gunn (Zurga) and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad). All very strong performances, supported by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir (Erwin Ortner). Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducts the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien.

Les pêcheurs de perles is extravagant fantasy. Audiences in Bizet's time would have no truck with the modern nonsense that opera must be historically accurate. Musically, this is 100% French Grand Opera with all its over the top excess. The singing is glorious, and, if the orchestra is a little on the  wild side, that's quite in order. I haven't seen the production yet (Lotte de Beer) but the Austrian press says it treats the protagonists like they're in a TV gameshow. Which, in a way, maybe they are? Nadir  and Zurga compete for the pretty girl, and the passive audience of peasants enjoy the glitz and glam, unaware that the joke will be on them when Zurga torches the village.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Abel Gance J'accuse RARE screening


A superlative restoration  by Philippe Schoeller of Abel Gance's J'accuse (1919) was screened in Paris on November 11th, and is now available on arte tv, only until 11th December. It was made within months of the end of the 1914-18 war, and scenes were shot on battlegrounds scarred by fresh craters, and in trenches hardly recovered from damp and shellfire. In 1938,  Gance remade J'accuse, turning it (by his standards) into a fairly conventional war movie. This 1919 version is altogether more remarkable. The cinematography is state-of-the art. Nearly every frame is brilliantly inventive, using unusual angles and shadows.  Some are shot through a pinhole, with claustrophobic effect. Even the opening credits, which show the cameras used making the film lined in a row  like strange, alien creatures.  Gance would make his name with long, indulgent extravaganzas like Napoléon (1927) but this first J'accuse is a masterpiece of intense focus and concentration. Excellent new soundtrack, too.


A panoramic long shot with soldiers. A figure in silhouette blows a whistle; the soldiers instantly rearrange to form the word "J'accuse " with their bodies.Throughout the film, the words reappear in different forms, an insistent leitmotiv that cannot be ignored.  In a village, peasants are dancing. Jean Diaz, a poet, spots a woman, Edith. They fall in love. "Beware, she's married" says his mother. Jean keeps his poems in a journal "Les Pacifiques", lavishly illustrated with watercolours done in a stylised modernism. Somehow, a vision of Edith being raped by her husband.Her breast falls out of her blouse, revealing her nipple. How philistine Hollywood was, and how it blighted film as art. War is declared. The villagers celebrate. Edith's father, an old soldier, sees skeletons dancing. Edith's husband, François Laurin, sends her to his parents' home in the war zone. When Jean hears the news, the words J'accuse pop up, formed by images of women in chains.

Jean and François serve together in the trenches. The film captures the tension between the two in lucid detail. Despite their rivalry, they're friends and decent men. In the midst of battle, Jean writes poetry, while shells fall around him. Jean covers for François on a dangerous mission behind German lines, blowing up the German ammunition stores. Jean and François learn mutual respect. They both love Edith. Surreal juxtapositions of battle scenes, cultured images like the Three Graces, and more dancing skeletons.  Jean's mother lies dying, so he's called back home. The old lady has Torah candles in her room, a detail shown several times, so it must have meaning. He recites his poems for her: we see images of woods, sunsets, and images of Edith (filmed in transparency) seen juxtaposed over the surreal watercolour paintings in Jean's book of poems.

Running through a rainstorm, Edith returns to the village, telling Jean how she was raped by the Germans and now has an illegitimate daughter. Edith's father cannot tolerate the child's presence so she's sent to live with Jean, who dotes on her, yet shows her how to write the word J'accuse. Subtly, we're beginning to suspect all is not quite right in Jean's soul.

Back at the front, François rejoices at the news of Edith's return, though he doesn't know what's happened to her. The soldiers throw a wild party - African troops take part, playing strange instruments.  When he gets home, he finds the babe and think it's Jean's. Edith is remote. Heartbroken, François cuddles his dog. At heart he's a decent man who can't express himself the way Jean the poet can. Then he realizes that the child is Edith's. He tries to kill Jean but Edith tells him the truth. 

Jean and François both return to the front. Now the battle scenes are more horrific. A man is seen, smiling, but he's dead, frozen in the mud of the trench. We see a vision of an ancient Gaulois warrior standing beside the soldiers, who don't notice. The intertitles become more elaborate, like formal poetry. Back in the village, the children are playing, putting a pickelhaube on Edith's daughter, making her "shoot" a little boy. She refuses. Edith is seen, her arms stretched out, as though she's crucified. Back at the front, on the eve of battle, Jean has a premonition.. Long sequences of scenes from the battlefield: giant cannons and rows of soldiers running, the living among the dead. Already we see Gance's panoramic perspective that will appear so well in Napoléon. Jean goes mad and is taken to hospital.  François is wounded and dies thinking of his beloved dog, holding the hands of a comrade. 

Jean returns to the village, but walks through the streets at night, mumbling strange words. He's haunted, seeing ghosts everywhere. He tells the villagers about the "prodigieuse miracle", of the battlefield covered in crosses (see above)  which turn back into corpses, who then come alive. "Rise up, my friends!".  The corpses get up and march til they read the Arc de Triomphe. "Ils avaient la figure terreuse et les orbits pleins d'etoiles, Ils venaient innombrables du fond de l'horizon, comme les vagues reveillées".

Then Jean confronts the villagers, What have they done to respect the dead  The woman who parties instead of mourning, the men who've profited from the suffering of the poor, "J'accuse, J'accuse, J'accuse! " The corpses march into the village and confront the villagers.
François stares through a window. The villagers reach their arms out, but Jean tells them that the dead cannot come back. It's enough that the dead know that their lives were not lost in vain. The corpses depart, wooden crosses on their shoulders.

Jean retrieves his book and sees the paintings of peaceful scenes. "Le soldat a tué en lui le poete". He sees a ray of sunshine. "Attends-tu, soleil, avant de disparaitre. Chez les morts, ce soir, J'en vais. Et si mon main s'agrippe au bord de ma fenetre, c'est que, caprice amer !.....pour mourir je veux etre a la place ou je te chantais". And he accuses the sun itself "d'avoir illuminé l'effroyable Epopée  muet, placie et sans dégout comme un face horrible a la langue coupée, a ton balcon d'azur, sadiqument crispée, d'avoir regardé jusqu'au bout !" Jean collapses, lifeless. Outside, the lanscape remains immobile, as the sun rises. 

Weber Oberon English, German or Jonas Kaufmann?


Carl Maria von Weber Oberon at Cadogan Hall  with the New Sussex Opera. Like many Weber operas it's not easy to stage because so much predicates on magic. In this case magic plus medieval and exotic "Eastern" fantasy. The New Sussex Opera will be doing a concert performance with Adrian Dwyer singing Sir Huon, Sally Silver (Reiza) and Adam Tunnicliffe as Oberon. Like Felix Mendelssohn before him, Weber turned to England with great hopes.Weber even tried to learn the language so he could set the English text correctly. Unfortunately, he died,  It's important to hear Oberon in English, partly because it emphasizes the Shakespearean connections and also because English is a  language not well served in opera. It doesn't have the fulsome lushness of Italian, or the innate drama of German, nor the elegance of French.  So hearing Oberon in English, the language in which it was conceived, connects better to the natural ambience in the music.

Huon de Bordeaux, Duc de Guienne, has killed Charlemagne's son and is sent on a suicide mission to kill Haroun el-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad. He escapes with supernatural help from Oberon, King of the Elves. If that's not enough, Huon is marooned on an island with Reiza, the Caliph's daughter, who's captured by Brigands and sold into slavery. Wild tempests, stirring storms, exotic orientalism and more than a touch of forbidden sex with infidels. Also, magic hunting horns and Oberon, rushing to the rescue astride a swan. The story is based on an English translation of a German text based on a medieval French chanson de geste, Huon de Bordeaux. In the 8th century Charlemagne really did exchange emissaries with the Turks, but the love drama and fairy elements are sheer fantasy. What a heady mix! Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon shows how zany the early Romantic Imagination could be, still coloured by the wild, exotic excesses of the baroque.

There are  major recordings notably Keilberth, 1953 available on Opera Today which is not commercially available, and the 1971 version which Kubelik conducts with a big-name cast (Prey, Domingo, Nilsson, Auger, Grobe). These have been reissued in different forms, some without dialogue, but for me, spoken dialogue is an essential part of the experience. There's nothing realistic about the plot. Thus the importance of John Eliot Gardiner's recording, made in London in 1998. It's in English, which fits the ethereal brightnness of Weber's music beautifully. Period-informed practice reveals the originality in the writing.  There's lots of dialogue, as was common for music  drama in 1826, which Gardiner does not sacrifice. The text is hokey, but that's part of its quaint charm. In any case, without narration to hold the plot together, Oberon falls apart and becomes more like a series of disconnected sketches, which is unfair to Weber. Gardiner used a proper actor, Robert Allam, who could declaim in  hyperbolic form, capturing the hammy spirit of the libretto. Oberon is fun, especially if we enter into its improbable fantasy.

Another secret weapon in Gardiner's approach was Jonas Kaufmann. In 1998, Kaufmann was affordable, and was singing a lot of early 19th century work like Loewe operas and  Schumann music drama. Now he commands mega money from mainstream blockbusters.  But in Oberon, his voice is remarkably pure and fresh, ringing with and almost heldentenor ping. Ravishing. Hopefully the recording will bring more Kaufmann fans to Weber and early German opera. In 1998, Kaufmann spoke with a heavy German accent, but that hardly matters. Huon's a strange fantasy character and Charlemange ran the first European Union. Polyglot's fine in the circumstances. Besides, Kaufmann's voice is so utterly, absolutely magical.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Max Bruch Die Loreley - non-Wagnerian Wagner ?



Live from Prinzregententheater, Munich, Max Bruch's opera Die Loreley (op 16, 1863) on BR Klassik. The opera is rarely heard in full, and there's no complete recording, so this performance is quite a significant event.  BR Klassik pulls out all the stops. The Münchner Rundfunkorchester (conducted by Stefan Blunier) joins with the Prague Philharmonic Choir  (the opera was popular once in 19th century Prague).  A very good cast: Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora,Thomas Mohr, Benedikt Eder, Jan Hendrik Rootering and Sebastian Campione. The performance has been supported with talks, podcasts etc. As to be expected, the opera, with a libretto by Emmanuel Geibel, is in the Romantic style, but is surprisingly un-Wagnerian, harking back perhaps to earlier German music theatre. Certainly the choruses suggest Wagner, but the connections to Weber and Marschner are also valid. Critics at the time used Bruch as a stick with which to attack "the anti musical system" of Wagner, "There are.......no shrill dissonaces, no torture of the ears, no ugliness...,, no motivic references which trumpet 'I am the King'...no eccentric couplings of heterogenous instruments such as piccolo and timpani and similar trivial hocus-pocus...Let this beautiful and pure German work make its own way forward ! Our great theatres will not regret taking on this patriotic work of art" (quoted by Christopher Fifield in "Max Bruch: His life and works"

Bruch was in his 20's when the piece was written, so one shouldn't expect miracles. In 1863, Clara Schumann was impressed by the youth of the composer, though less so by the dramatic thrust of the opera. "The text, by the way, " she told a friend, "is awful". Bruch made several revisions. In 1887 in Leipzig, the young Gustav Mahler prepared the score for performance. In 1916, Hans Pfitzner revived it in Strassburg but it's never become entrenched in the repertoire. Nonetheless, on its own terms, it's hugely enjoyable, though I should add that I'm predisposed towards pre-Wagner German music theatre. To some the strophic folk songs might be a bit quaint.  But there are many good moments, not only for the main soprano but also for the main tenor and bass. The Final Act is impressively heroic. This performance is probably the best we'll get. Hopefully,  this will be rebroadcast and issued on CD. 

I love the photo at the top because it's surreal. It's an early postcard depicting a tour boat sailing down the Rhine, past the famous cliff where the Loreley is supposed to lie, luring sailors to their deaths. No doubt the tourists are thrilled, quaffing beer, wine and sausages. oblivious to danger. All this massive Loreley has to do is bend her arm down and scoop them up!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Inspirational Rameau Platée, Early Opera Company St John's Smith Square

Rameau's Platée is a perfect blend of fantasy and fun, an ideal entrée to Rameau's exuberant idiom. Paul Agnew is closely identified with it, since he sang the part of Platée in the groundbreaking production preserved on DVD. When news came that  he'd be conducting Platée for the Early Opera Company at St John's Smith Square, I was thrilled. The Early Opera Company and its much loved conductor Christian Curnyn are excellent, but their greatest strengths lie in Handel. Agnew's very presence seemed to electrify the players, who responded with  an exceptional performance, which will be remembered for many years.

Agnew brings to his conducting the insights gained from having sung the part so well. Yet he's infinitely more than a conductor who sings. He's been part of the Les Arts Florissants family for many years, so closely connected with William Christie that last year he was made joint Musical Director.  Agnew has also worked with other conductors and companies in the field, including Mark Minkowski. He's a force to be reckoned with.  How exciting it must have been for the Early Opera Company to work with one of the best in the business! Several of the singers at this performance have sung the same parts in other productions, but one got the impression that Agnew was inspiring them with new challenges. 

In the extended Prologue, Thespis (who symbolizes Acting), Momus (Satire) and Thalie (Comedy)  dream up the plot, in which Platée, a frog, falls in love with Jupiter, the King of the Gods. Mark Milhofer, Callum Thorpe and Emilie Renard sing the parts with "woozy" undertones: they're inspired by Bacchus, who loosens inhibitions.  Agnew gets the orchestra to "sing" too. Woodwinds chirp, strings play bright, chirping figures and the sole double bass ( Judith Evans) drones somnolent notes. We hear Nature, bathed in moonlit mystery, and the sounds of frogs and other pond-life croaking contentedly. As Citheron (Martijn Cornet) and Mercure (Mark Milhofer) plot their tricks, their voices ever so slightly flatten out with deliberately ugly edges. Wonderful characterization! These godly figures are dishonest, so they're really no better than slime.
 
Platée was written to entertain Louis XV and his court on the occasion of the Dauphin's marriage in 1745. The bride was a Spanish Infanta, who was very ugly.  Platée is a frog whose realm is a pond in the wilds, the opposite of refined, elegant Versailles. She/he has pretensions: she/he thinks everyone she meets will fall in  love with her. The part was written for a travesti, a man pretending to be a woman, which makes the satire rather cruel.  The man who sang the original was costumed so he looked as though he was covered in pustules. Thomas Walker (pictured left) entered, dressed in lime green, a nod to the frog suit Agnew wore in Laurent Pelly's production at the Opéra Comique, He wore a wig, fake cleavage and a beard, suggesting even more subversive levels in the opera Rameau would never have dared openly express. Walker sang Platée in Stuttgart, and knows it well, but I suspect Agnew will inspire him to explore it even further. There's a nice bite in his voice which he could use to sharpen the wit in the role. Platée is deeply humiliated by the Gods, but rises above their cruelty by being him/herself, returning to the pond where he/she reigns.

Singing Jupiter, Callum Thorpe has authority, but the liveliness in  his singing  reminds us that the King of the Gods isn't a nice man. He'd willingly hurt what he considers a lesser being in order to get back at his wife Junon (Emilie Renard). Renard and Emmanuelle de Negri (L'Amour, Clarine, La Folie) sang their parts in the recent Robert Carsen production of Platée which Agnew also conducted. Both have long-term connections with Les Arts Florissantes. it would be almost impossible to equal Mireille Delunsch's magnificently manic La Folie, but de Negri impressively negotiated the fiendishly difficult leaps up and  down the scale. 

Throughout the opera, Rameau builds satire into the very heart of the music. "Quoi,  quoi,  quoi,  quoi" the singers and chorus repeat.  The refrain sounds comic, like the croaking of frogs. It's also  a question that cannot be answered in an era when gods and kings can do what they want with impunity,but which must be asked by those with a moral conscience. In the absence of dancers, Agnew defines the detail in the divertissements, so they come alive with jaunty energy. Rameau's music takes its pulse from dance, and from physical expression. Rollicking good fun !. Life in the pond, amongst Nature, is so much more fertile than the false refinement of the Gods.

This performance also marked a new relationship between The Early Opera Company and St John's Smith Square. SJSS has long been a magnet for baroque performance, because it is, after all, a genuine period building.  The facilities are excellent, and the stage accommodates a reasonable sized orchestra. With companies of the calibre of The Early Opera Company, its profile should rise ever higher.

photo of Paul Agnew : Denis Rouvre

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Barbican Rameau Maître à danser Christie Les Arts Florissants

 
Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers. Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there's a difference. Rameau's music takes its very pulse from dance. Hearing it choreographed connects the movement in the music to the exuberant physical expressiveness that is dance. Furthermore, the very structure of Rameau's music is influenced by the intricate patterns of dance. Rameau was a music theorist as well as a composer: his nephew was Didérot, the encyclopédiste, so this precise orderliness is fundamental to the idiom. Think about baroque gardens, where the abundance of nature is channelled into formal parterres, though woodlands flourish beyond, and birds fly freely.This tension between nature and artifice livens the spirit : gods mix with mortals, improbable plots seem perfectly plausible.

In these miniatures, one hears The Full Rameau. "You don't have to wade through a prologue, five acts and a postlude, as Christie has quipped. With dancers, the music becomes even more vivid. Sophie Daneman directed. She's a very good singer, specializing in the baroque and in Lieder. She first worked with Christie on Hippolyte et Aricie some 20 years ago.  On this evidence, she's a very good director, too.

Christie and Les Arts Florissants presented two miniatures, Daphnis et Églé  (1753) and La naissance d'Osiris. (1754). both were written as private entertainments for Louis XV and his court at Fontainebleau, after days spent out in the forests hunting for game. The context is relevant. these pieces also commemorate the birth of two royal princes.  The Barbican stage was lit beautifully,suggesting candlelight in a darkend room, creating the right hushed tone of reverence.  The King wanted to be amused. The show had to flatter his image of power. Both pieces present Happy Peasants, acting out simple, innocent lives, thanks to the benevolence of their King. When the second infant prince grew up, he was crowned Louis XVI and built Le petit Trianon, to act out pastoral idylls.

There's so little drama in Daphnis et Églé that its basically a masque for dancing,  Daphnis (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and Églé (Élodie Fonnard), shepherd and shepherdess, are friends who gradually fall in love over a sequence of 16 tableaux.  Daphnis flirts with a stranger, singing a lovely air. Églé drags him away. Dancers supply interest in the absence of plot. Each of these vignettes represent a different type of dance. Françoise Denieau choreographed. Fans of early dance will enthuse about the finer details.  I enjoyed the diversity and intricate formations, charmed by  the natural precision of the dancers.  It felt like hearing the score come alive. Van Mechelen and Fonnard are familiar names on the French baroque circuit. Fonnard's particularly pert and dramatic  and Van Mechelen has good stage presence. The first performance of this piece in 1753 flopped, apparently because the singers were duds. Fonnard and Van Mechelen most certainly are not.

Daphnis et Églé works well when its slender charms aren't overwhelmed by excess opulence.  Daneman's staging reflects this innocence, A simple cloth is held up on sticks to suggest  peasant theatre.  Alain Blanchot's costumes (organic dyed fabric?) show the shepherds and shepherdesses in what would have been normal 18th century costume for their class, ie "modern" for the time. Daneman has worked with Christie since their first Hippolyte et Aricie together some 20 years ago.
La naissance d'Osiris is altogether more substantial.  This time the French shepherds and shepherdesses congregate around an Egyptian temple (not literally depicted), worshipping Jupiter, much in the way paintings of this period showed European landscapes populated with Europeans and semi-naked figures from Classical Antiquity. There;s a particularly beautiful part for musette (baroque bagpipes). The player gets to walk around the stage, among the dancers, just as at a peasant celebration. The idyll is shattered with a violent thunderstorm, the full force of Les Arts Florissants unleashed in splendid fury. Great lighting effects (Christoph Naillet). From up in the gods in the Barbican balcony, Pierre Bessière's Jupiter fulminates.  He will save the people by giving them his hero son, danced by a lithe young male dancer. Although the monarchy didn't know what was to come later, we can appreciate the poignancy in  these pieces because we do.

Since La naissance d'Osiris was written to mark the birth of Louis XV's second son (the future Louis XVI)  the allusion is audacious. The king of the Gods rules with divine authority, like an absolute monarch. The people know their place.  The piece is political  power game, Fonnard sang Cupid, with simple wings stuck to her back - sweetly naive, but firmed by Fonnard's feisty  singing. Sean Clayton sang A Shepherd and Arnaud Richard sang the High Priest. Eventually Jupiter takes his leave, and the Three Graces dance a lively trio.   

Although Rameau's music had to be written to please a royal patron, at heart its gentle good humour and humanity triumph. We in the modern audience were able to experience Rameau presented with great depth and sensitivity.  Plenty of  Rameau on this site - please click on label "Rameau" below

Monday, 17 November 2014

Andreas Scholl Wigmore Hall - Art and folk, defying boundaries


Eclectic programming, as we can expect at the Wigmore Hall. Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin performed a very unusual selection showing the close connection between popular song and art song.  Snobs who sneer at crossover don't know music history. Scholl, being a countertenor has long enjoyed exploring early song, created long before the dividing lines between classical and pop were even defined. Read Oswald von Wolkenstein, King of the Road, for example where Scholl  sings the songs of a 14th century singer/songwriter who travelled across Europe in the company of soldiers, troubadours and other adventurers, a prototype perhaps of the Jacques Brels and  Bob  Dylans of our time.

Scholl set the mood with a song by Joseph Kilna Mackenzie, a hit on the modern folk circuit, and featured in a movie. It's a Highland lament, but utterly original.  Sergeant Mackenzie was a real person, who died heroically in the First World War, and a relative of the composer  The song thus connects to oral tradition although it's thoroughly through composed. The voice intones with grave dignity, while a drone wails around it, suggesting bagpipes or some even more primeval instruments. Scholl's voice ranges from  tenor to near falsetto: no fixed notions about fach, here, just pure and very personal music.  Then on to Randy Newman In Germany Before the War, a far less effective song, and Chava Alberstein (born 1947)  Ikh shtey unter a Bokserboym,  a modern Israeli version of a Yiddish folk song.  All three songs connect thematically, the artists responding to the troubled times of our era. Perhaps  pop reaches audience who need the message most.

Back to Scholl's "home territory" with a transcription of Machaut (Douce Dame Jolie) and three songs by Benjamin Britten based on traditional airs, like Greensleeves, Down by the Salley Gardens and The Ash Grove. Nobody quite sings these as evocatively as Scholl, whose agile voice gives them a magical elusiveness that seems almost not of this mundane world.  Maybe folk song should be gruff and rough, but Scholl shows how magical and artistic they can be.

Folk song traditions were created by women, as much as by men. Thus Sasha Argov: Shir Éress - "Lullaby", another "modern Israeli folk song.  The timbre is so high that it suits Scholl's voice perfectly,  Tamar Halperin played Debussy: Jimbo's Lullaby from Children's Corner and Janacek: Our Evenings from On an Overgrown Path with great sensitivity., and two of her own transcriptions of traditional melodies, black is the colour of my true love's hair and I gave my love an apple, enhanced by Scholl;'s plaintive, plangent singing.

The Lochamer Liederbuch of 1460 is the earliest published collection of early German song. It connects not only to popular folk song but also to Minnesang, the artistic lyrical song tradition that pre-dates "classical" song and Lieder. Scholl and Halperin ended with settings from Brahms Volkslieder collections, Darunter in Tal, All mein' Gedanken and In stiller Nacht. Long before most other composers, and British composers in particular, Brahms revived the simple humanity of folk music in a thoroughly "modern", distinctive way of his own. To emphasize the point, Scholl and Halperin then did a new version of In Stiller Nacht. Tradition lives on, ancient heritage inspires a brave new future.


Munich Manon Lescaut Kaufmann Opolais listening LINK


Highlight of the Munich season, Puccini Manon Lescaut with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. Saturday's performance was screened live on NDR, but you can catch the FULL audio-only transmission on BR Klassik HERE (click on the tiny little window). The Bayerischen Staatsoper pulled the video off their livestream programme at the last minute, but the film is in the can: perhaps we can hope for a DVD  According to Die Welt, it's pretty good.  Anna Netrebko pulled out at the last minute too, but her absence is no great loss: Opolais is sublime, even freer and more passionate than in London.

The same stars in two very different productions, which will be compared with each other for years to come (Rattle's Baden-Baden Manon Lescaut, despite an excellent Eva Maria Westbroek (reviewed here), doesn't come close). Antonio Pappano has the edge over Munich's Alain Altinoglu, though the latter is much more impressive in Puccini than he was in Don Giovanni (more here). Kaufmann and Opolais, however, are now confirmed as the dream pairing. Not only do they sing gloriously, but they respond to each other so well that the dynamic relationship seems extraordinarily real and personal. There's more to opera than good singing and acting: Kaufmann and Opolais stimulate each other, inspiring each other to ever greater heights. Netrebko is excellent, but she's also artist enough to know how well matched Kaufmann and Opolais are together.

The biggest difference is in the staging. The London production was directed by Jonathan Kent, who also created the ROH's very retro Tosca, and isn't a director known to shock. Yet it was attacked  because it showed Manon in the sex trade. But what were they expecting?  The whole premise of Abbé Prévost's plot is that she goes wrong because she sells sex for money and doesn't value love until it's too late. Please read my review of the London production HERE In Opera Today. 

I haven't seen Hans Neuenfels' production yet, but he, too, is a director whose ideas come direct from the score itself, unorthodox as they may seem at first. Please see my piece on Neuenfels' Lohengrin. Everyone who reads a score "interprets" if they are making any kind of effort at all. The better the composer, the better the opera, the greater the potential for greater understanding. "Trust the composer" anti-moderns wail, but it is they who should trust the music and artistry. From stills (not the best guide to any production) Neuenfels' production seems austere, maybe a good thing since musically it's so strong. Most reports i've read so far are very positive. But some focus mainly on Kaufmann's beard.  In real life, Kaufmann's very sexy and fairly hairy, so why shouldn't he have a beard when he's playing a character with intense sexual feelings?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Gala du tricentenaire de l'Opéra Comique

The Opéra Comique marked its tricentenary  with a gala spectacular on Thursday, now available on arte.tv  Highly recommended: it's brilliant! The house is seen in all its glory - but wait - the boxes have been invaded. Pierrot chases Columbine among the  modern patrons. It's a reference to the origins of the Opéra Comique, in fairs and numerous small theatres  some 300 years ago. Riotous good fun - subversive humour. French opera wasn't timid! A figure resembling Louis XIV appears, holding a banner marked "1680", a reference to Molière and the Comédie Française.  A quartet of figures in 18th century costume  perform an extract from Antoine Dauvergne's Les Troquers, premiered by the Opéra Comique in 1753. In contrast, a selection from La Fille du régiment (another Opéra Comique premiere) including 'Salut à la France', where Julie Fuchs sings, draped in the tricolour and wearing black boots.  François-Xavier Roth leads the orchestra into the march from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Pierrot reads a letter from the Opéra Comique to Berlioz, not very conplimentary. Anna Caterina Antonacci appears and sings  'D'amour l'ardente flamme'. A stunningly beautiful moment. Then Bizet walks on, nervously, defended by a splendid Big man (Michel Fau) dressed as Carmen as seen in the Opéra Comique premiere, which was a scandalous flop. Yet now it's the world's favourite opera.  So much for dismissing things first time round. Antonacci sings the Habanera, underlining the point. The figure of Offenbach appears, dozing, teased by Fau's spicy Carmen. Sabine Devieilhe twitters 'Les oiseaux dans la charmille' and Vincent Le Texier sings 'Scintille, Diamant'.

The stage turns pink, yellow and purple for Delibes' Lakmé : lurid colours for the luridly exotic coloratura. "Où va la jeune hindoue", sings Devieilhe.  More ultra-high notes to come - Patricia Petibon scales the heights with 'Air du Cour-la-Reine' from Massenet Manon. A print from the original production is projected onto the plain backdrop while Petibon and  Frédéric Antoun sing the scene in Saint-Sulpice. A wonderful juxtaposition of past and present, showing how intelligent video and lighting can achieve marvellous effects. In an instant, the visuals change, flames pouring from the backcloth, filling the stage - what directors of the past would have given for that!  

Pierrot reappears, talking about new technology like electricity. Another total change of scene: we're in a naturalistic grotto of green and blue. The orchestra plays Debussy, but who's singing ? Michel Fau now dressed as Mélisande with a blonde wig. while Jérôme Deschamps, another actor, does Pelléas. It's hilarious, but also connects spoken theatre with what for many (like me) is the epitome of musical theatre. Now the scene doesn't change. Instead Vincent Le Texier and Stéphane Degout sing the scene in the caves: after the comic interlude, the menace seems even more oppressive. Harps and flutes introduce the next "scene" change: instantly Pelléas is outside, in the "open air"  Another striking scene change, the backcloth first showing an orchestra (reminding us of the music), then a nightscape outside an "Eastern" castle with palm trees. Degout sings "A travers le désert" from Henri Rabaud Mârouf, savetier du Caire. No need for camels. They're in the music. 

With Antonacci.  Le Texier, Degout, Petibon, Fuchs, Devieilhe, Antoun, François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles for an orchestra and Accentus, the specialist choir for the chorus, the Opéra Comique brings together the finest, liveliest performers in the genre. But this is far more than a semi-staging with skits.  Fau and Deschamps connect the musical pieces to their history, and to the history of the Opéra Comique, and transform the stage so we feel the power of creative imagination.