Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Der fliegende Holländer - Theater an der Wien

From the edgy, innovative Theater an der Wien, a new production of Wagner Der fliegende Holländer which will have some screaming. But the joke is on them. For one thing, it's set in Scotland, not Norway, which might discomfort those who think the first line of a synopsis is sacred writ. No Daland, but Donald, no Erik, but Georg. \In the first part of the 19th century, Scotland symbolized a kind of generic wilderness on the edge of civilization, where extreme situations could happen. Hence the Romantiker notion of Scotland that runs through Lucia de Lammermoor, through the craze for Ossian and later Sir Walter Scott. .Even Mendelssohn was caught up in the quest. Scotland as romaticized prototype. Significantly, Wagner himself relocated the plot to Norway.

This production is based on the Ur-edition, curated by Bruno Weil  some 15 years ago, which Wagner wrote in Paris in 1841, before  the premiere of the opera in Dresden in January 1843. Weil  recorded this version in 2004, and it has been done several times in small houses, as an internet search can reveal.  This Theater an der Wirn production is in another league, and gives it the high profile exposure it deserves,and adds immensely to our understanding of Wagner's creative processes.  There are mother differences.. The work was conceived to run as a whole piece, the practice of including intervals  introduced at Bayreuth in 1901. Senta's ballade "Trafft Ihr das Schiff" is transposed  upwards, which gives it a more fragile quality, and some familiar details in the orchestration are less prominent, though the recurring Steuermann theme shines nicely.

We're confronted by a bleak grey wall. But then, so is Senta,  who isn't happy with conventional society, but fixates on the portrait of a demonic figure who sails the oceans under a curse. Taking a piece of chalk, the woman writes the word Erlösung on the wall. Graffiti as a gesture of rebellion. Erlösung means redemption, which would become a familiar meme in Wagner's dramas, but also means a way out of a dilemma. In a corner, away from the greyness, a man sits, putting on makeup before a brightly lit mirror.  He's a dancer. Why dance in  Der fliegende Holländer ? Why not, if the opera was originally conceived for Paris ? In an opera which predicates on surreal states of consciousness, the dancer reminds us that there are presences we can't initially comprehend. Don't rush to judgement.  When the village parties, the sailors from the ghost ship materialize as dancers.  It's an extremely effective coups de théâtre.

Samuel Youn sings the Holländer with great presence.  Youn's Holländer is no big mean brute, but a surprisingly sympathetic personality.  When he rejects Senta's sacrifice, the nuances in Youn's voice suggests the heartbreak the Dutchman feels. For a bass baritone, Youn's voice is surprisngly agile, which can be an advantage. Ingeln Brimberg sings Senta, Lars Woldt sings an superbly snarky Donald, and Bernhard Richter sings Georg. Manuel Günther. sang the Steuermann.   Ann-Beth Solvang sang Mary, her chorus of seamstress (the Arnold Schoenberg Choir)  shown as choristers, quite appropriately.

I don't know who the main dsdancer is, but he's good, his athletic physicality particularly effective he and his colleagu3es are dancing the Holländer's crew. They're athletically physical, more like demons than ghosts, which is a valid perspevctive.  "They don't need to dance with girls" the villagers sing, and  surer enough one of the trio of dancers is a man dressed as a woman. Not quite the Three Graces.  Marc Minkowski conducted the Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. They use period instruments, as Weil did in his recirding, but here the playing is much more vigorous, even pugnacious, reflecting Minkowski's strong minded style.   Oliver Py directed, with atmospheric  designs by Pierre-André Weitz. Watch the "ship" emerge, in the form of a huge, shining metallic skull.  When the ,Holländer's sailors come on land, all hell seems to break loose.  Skeletons are seen dancing.: it's a trick of light, for the dancers are holding the bones against their bodies. If, until now, the set has been gloomy - what would one expect is such a tale - now the stage is lit with garish greens, blues and reds. We're not in rural Norway now.  The Dutchman heads to sea, almost swallowed min waves, created from shiny black rubber, billowing with air from below. Below, as in Hades.  Senat "jumps in". No happy ending here, but all the more dramatic for that. At the very end the grey wall returns. This time, however, the woman writes |"Ewartung". Hope at last.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Why I'm at the LPO Wednesday Orozco-Estrada

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, new principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducts Dvořák Cello Concerto and Mahler Symphony no 1 at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday.  Listen to this clip HERE where he conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra  in Saariaho, Sibelius and Brahms.   The mark of a good conductor, for me, is the way he or she respects the composer above all else. "We are here to serve the music, not the other way round" as Elly Ameling once said.

Saariaho, Sibelius and Brahms - three very different composers indeed, yet  Orozco-Estrada  understands how each of them functions.  Kaija Saariaho's music isn't easy to conduct, with its ultra-diaphanous textures and elusive tonality, and some of it is quite uneven.  Her Orion, which dates from 2002, is a specially beautiful work, Orion is the name of a group of stars in the galaxy, so the music  sparkles like starlight, prominent in darkness, faded yet still present in Brightness. Hence the absolute importance of detail, keeping sound distinct and clear so they shine together. A bit like the brushstrokes in an Impressionist painting. Or even like the silk scarves Saariaho likes to wear with myriad water colour shades. But Orion is also a hunter, a Greek god who roams forests and kills his prey.  Beneath Saariaho's finest work there's decisiveness and strength, a firmness which underpins the creamy textures. Orozco-Estrada  gets Saariaho. He gets how the luminosity springs from refined detail, yet purposely forges ahead.

James Ehnes is the soloist in Sibelius Violin Concerto. The piece is so familiar, and so good, that average performances are bearable enough. But this seems intensely personal.   Despite his successes and prodigious talent as a composer, Sibelius would have liked to have been a violin virtuoso.  Ehnes's playing is sensitive, making me think about Sibelius, the man, full of self doubt. That insecurity, born perhaps because Sibelius was an empathic person, is for me why his music is so powerful. Get past the Finland symbolism and what Mahler called "national flavouring" and focus on the deeper personality within.

Brahms, too, is often misunderstood.  Does he imbibe the Beidermeyer certainity so prevalent of his age (and alas of ours).  Or is there a deeper Brahms beneath the bonhomie?  For that reason, while I enjoy conventionally Romantic Brahms, I much prefer performances which suggest something more complex. When Orozco-Estrada conducts Brahms, he makes the composer feel clear-minded and thoughtful, warmth and geniality.  Orozco-Estrada  gets the grand stride of Brahms, but also reminds us that grandness for its own sake is no measure of humanity.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Mussorgsky Songs and Romances Stone Records

New from Stone Records , Mussorgsky Songs and Romances. There are several good reasons for getting this recording. Mussorgsky songs have traditionally been the preserve of full-throated deep voices, though they have been essayed by sopranos, including Galina Vishnevskaya, so it's good to hear another. Katherine Broderick's timbre brings out interesting lighter textures. Secondly, the pianist is Sergey Rybin who writes good programme notes which  add immensely to the pleasure of listening.

"Without  diminishing Debussy's own gift and a myriad of other potential  influences on him", writes Rybin, "it is possible however to perceive a profound relation between Musorgsky's innovations in the sphere of sonority  and expansion  of his harmonic  landscape (use of non-third based chords, juxtaposition of unresolved dissonant harmonies) and the main features of Debussy's sound world". Debussy knew and admired Mussorgsky's work and said that "Mussorgsky's music  would be renowned as an art that suffers from no stultifying rules  or artificialities"  (Incidentally, the composer's name in Cyrillic can be transcribed into English with one "s"  or with the more familiar two)

 Impressionism avant la lettre?  In the fantasia  "Night", for example,  to a poem by Aleksander Pushkin, the rapid notes of the piano create the image of the  flickering candle in the poem, which shines bravely despite the oppressive darkness of the night.  The voice part mentions love, but the piano part tells us that love is fragile and could be extinguished at any time.

As early as 1864, Musorgsky is  reaching out for a new sound world, which we'll come to recognize as 'impressionism. He cites the song " Darling Savishna" , in which Mussorgsky uses a "limping meter" (to suggest) "the simpleton's continued stumbling, and bowing, while a tongue-twister of a text portrays relentless muttering-begging" in this song, Mussorgsky "transitions from'Romance' to a 'Scene' - a pictorial, situational approach". Rybin plays firmly, highlighting the robust human drama inherent in the scene. Perhaps the girl will reject the boy because he's backward, but in his heart, he's a hero.

Indeed, Rybin's playing throughout this recording is vigorous, adding forthright liveliness and colour. While a native Russian speaker would shade the singing with more idiomatic intonation, Broderick's singing is clear enough that non-Russian speakers can follow the printed text without difficulty.

Although this recording includes the famous Songs and Dances of Death, the true highlight is the song cycle Sunless, Bez solntsa, to poems by Arseny Golenischev-Kutuzov.The first song "Within  Four walls" describes a small room, cloaked in impenetrabe darkness. Claustrophobia, physical and emotional. Yet the words suggest an inward focus that's almost hypnotic. Vowel sound repeat, as if in religious chant. "Komnatka tesnaia tikhaia, milaia........vor ona, noch moia, noch odinokaia". the mood is sombre, melancholy yet oddly sensual. Here, Broderick's light timbre is heard to advantage, enunciating each syllable, which with a richer voice might shade towards more gradation.
"Over is the idle and clamorous day" describes the sleeping city, shrouded in mist. An impressionist painting in sound.  Is the scene magical, dream- like or malevolent?  Liisten to the dominance of the piano part against the slowing seeping lines inn the voice. The poet hears the "pensive power" in the muttering of the waves in the river beneath the bridge, lit by moonlight. When the depths call out, the poet can't resist. "V glub Ii zov'r - bez ogl'adki bia kinuls'a" Does she/he jump in and drown?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Mahler 2 in context : Casadesus live broadcast

The Orchestre National de Lille marked its 40th anniversary yesterday, which was broadcast live on arte tv (available for a month).  But the events in Paris, in Mali, in Beirut, in the whole world overshadow all else.  Jean-Claude Casadesus stands before his orchestra and addresses the audience. "We are united in our thoughts and hearts", he says as he dedicates the concert to the memory of those whose lives have been destroyed.  And why Mahler's Second at this time?  It deals with death, made poignant by memories of past happiness. But there are things more powerful than death."Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben!",

It's not the finest perfomance ever but it's certainly  not the worst. I got a lot out of it. Why do listeners need  to rush to extremes?  Music does not exist for the edification of any one individual.  For a while I've been thinking a lot about the causes of extremism in all its forms. It's not ideology or religion per se.

Extremism attracts those who don't have a coherent idea of what they're  attacking, as long as they're part of a mob where "consensus"  affords unquestioning self righteousness. Blowing up Palmyra proves what? God allowed the ruins to stand. So extremists are greater than God?  So often extremists are narcissists, seething with resentment at anyone more talented, lucky or just plain different from themselves. If the world should exist in one's own image, it's OK to destroy what doesn't fit? Thank God, or whoever, that music is too complex  too subtle for those with closed minds to fully comprehend.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Enigma : Cecil Coles, Martyn Brabbins BBC SSO

Three premieres of sorts of works by composers who have been dead for a hundred years?  Intriguing. Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in  George Butterworth's Orchestral Fantasia and Cecil Coles Behind the Lines and Sorrowful Dance (broadcast available on BBC Radio 3 here).

The anniversary of the First World War generates interest in composers of the period.  British war poets like Wilfred Owen,  Siegfried Sassoon,  Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg  and Rupert Brooke are justly celebrated, even part of the basic school curriculum. But what of British composers of the period?  Ralph Vaughan Williams, being rather older the "Lost Generation",  survived but many others didn't. How might British music have developed  if Butterworth, Gurney, W Denis Browne (read more here) and others even more forgotten, had lived to fulfil their potential?  Understandably we'ree intrigued.

Gurney at least left enough material that some of his music can be reasonably reconstructed. Gurney's War Elegy, for example, is a  significant work that deserves a place in the mainstream repertoire.  Read about the Proms premiere of Gurney's War Elegy HERE and the background behind it HERE.  

Gurney reconstructions are largely built on the composer's original material.  Not so, though, some of the other reconstructions around.  Butterworth's Orchestral Fantasia exists as a 92-bar fragment. A short score may exist, but all that is currently known is a rough manuscript with crossings out and amendments.   Michael Barlow, in his seminal biography of the composer Whom the Gods Love suggests that Butterworth might, in 1914, have been on the cusp of a change in style "with not a few influences from European composers".  Vaughan Williams's music was utterly transformed by his contact with Ravel, and indeed to some extent by Butterworth himself, who spurred RVW to write his Symphony no 2 "London".

Barlow mentions that, while Butterworth was an undergraduate at Oxford a don remarked: "There goes more Red Revolution than in all Russia"   Butterworth is a mystery. Why did he burn his unpublished music? Why did he so cherish the male bonding camaraderie of the trenches? Why did he die the way he did, by throwing himself into the line of fire?  We shall never know.  Barlow also describes the fragment of the Orchestral Fantasia thus  "A hushed, dark-coloured opening, on bassoons and divided violas and cellos, leads to an andantino section in which one basic theme, first heard on oboe and violas, is developed, but the score is too fragmentary for constructive comment. A vivace section of only a few bars includes a promising figure on trumpets, but there the music stops".  

Since there is so little to go on, any "completion" can be little more than conjecture. Kriss Russman's version extends the basic core, described by Barlow above, with references to other music by Butterworth, rather more a suite than what Butterworth might have written. Since there isn't all that much true Butterworth around, we recognize fragments and start to think of those other works, (much of it piano song)  rather than the fragment itself. Like the orchestration of A Shropshire Lad heard at last year's Proms, without much point, though enjoyable enough.

Cecil Coles  (1888-1918) , was three years younger than Butterworth, yet already more European in focus. He had lived in Germany, where he was assistant conductor at Stuttgart Opera. This threw him right into the fertile creative ferment of those times, not only in music but in literature, art, theatre  and film.  He knew Richard Strauss and must have heard Elektra.  Perhaps he even knew of Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), whose orchestral music is truly innovative, and whose opera Die ersten Menschen would shock audiences when it was finally premiered after Stephan was killed on the Eastern Front. 
What might have become of Coles had he survived? The question is even more intriguing than for Butterworth, for Coles's music is  so distinctive and so individual that it doesn'tb really  fit  into conventional British music stereotypes. This may account for why he was largely forgotten until Martyn Brabbins recorded Coles's music for Hyperion in 2002.  Both Before the Lines and Sorrowful Dance appear on this CD. It's significant that Coles's other great admirer was Gustav Holst.

Coles's Behind the Lines  was written in four movements of which only the first and last survive, Estaminet du Carrefour and Cortège. The second and third movements were titled The Wayside Shrine and Rumours, which may give some indication of the scale of its construction.  So much is made of the role of folksong in British music that it's refreshing to hear how Coles adapts the vibrant sounds of a French drinking establishment into the first movement. It's vibrant with a pungent Gallic twist, sensual and uninhibited, Coles must have known the music of Ravel and Debussy: this is far from genteel pastoralism even when that pastoralism describes earthy peasants.  Coles  defines the harmonic line firmly, which takes off with athletic energy.  These are reels, fast dances which swirl round capriciously. It feels almost dangerously wild.  With a flourish, a more assured line emerges, taken up by the brass, which gives even firmer definition to a wall of sound, cymbals riding on its crest .  Cortège. too, is more than a straightforward funeral march.  No maudlin sentimentality here.  Behind the Lines deals with the experience of war, but it's clear sighted and strong,  even quite gracious. 

Coles began Sorrowful Dance for his wife, while on R&R in Southampton. It is a dance, moving with thoughtful deliberation.  It's melancholy yet positive, since a brighter theme  emerges, again firmly defined. Perhaps Coles's wife could take comfort. The circular dance theme returns, as gentle as an embrace.  

And so Brabbins and the BBC SSO ended their Glasgow concert with Elgar Enigma Variations. What do we really know about what went into these 13 vignettes? We can guess but can never be sure. An appropriate end to a concert that featured What Might Have Been.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Subdued BBCSO Rophé Franck Ravel Berlioz

At the Barbican, Pascal Rophé conducted the BBCSO,  replacing  François-Xavier Roth who was indisposed.   Cancellations happen (as I wrote in my piece on Jonas Kaufmann HERE), so even though Roth wasn't there, the serious music lovers were. Not that Roth appeals to the glitzy fashionista crowd.  The regulars were there anyway, since Rophé has conducted the BBCSO many times.

 More disappointing,the programme changed.  Boulez Livre pour cordes was meant to be the highlight of the evening. It's not all that frequently heard, and Roth is perhaps the most intriguing Boulez conductor around.   Rophé conducts a lot of Boulez too, but this piece is one of the few he can't pull up at short notice. Hardly surprising  since it's a demanding work, not to be attempted at short notice.

Wiser then to substitute César Franck, Le chasseur maudit, a cracker of a show-opener. It's theatre in orchestral sound, beginning with a deliciousl fanfare of hunting horns and low brass and winds, evoking the idea of a huntsman enjoying the hunt. But a darker mood haunts the piece: we hear the suggestion of church bells tolling in the distance. The piece is based on a popular meme in European and French folk culture, wherein those who don't go to church but fool around otherwise will be doomed. Think Gurrelieder, and even Goethe's  Die wandelnde Glocke where the clock jumps out of its case and chases the kid who won't go to church on Sunday, set gloriously by Carl Loewe. Franck evidently takes the side of the rebel rather than the dour, unforgiving church. The piece rollicks on merrily, its moments of shock-horror melodrama delivered with delicious wit.  I don't know how much rehearsal time the BBC SO had with the piece, or whether it's part of their repertoire, but it was jolly enough, though not by any means a great work of art.

Perhaps we need such fairground pleasures on this cold and wet evening. Surprisingly, the lobby at the Barbican was almost empty, and there were many seats unfilled. Perhaps people stayed home to listen on the radio? But BBCSO concerts are frequently broadcast. The arrangement works extremely well because then you get the intense kick of live performance and also a chance to listen again for detail. So what was the strange mood in the Hall? Most unusual.

Spirits lifted again for Jean-Efflam Bavouzet,, playing Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand, a piece which Bavouzet has played so many times that he's joked that he can play with the left hand and send texts with the right ("though only in rehearsal").   The BBC Radio 3 website had originally advertised Bavouzet as conductor of this concert, and I'd half hoped he might conduct from the piano.  No such luck last night,  A good performance and satisying but not perhaps the wildest Bavouzet has ever done. The piece was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand in battle, so its virtuosity came at a high price. The spectacular turns are haunted by darker whispers : perhaps we can hear gunfire in the subtle suggestions of staccato?  Yet again, we needed to escape that grim thought. Bavouzet's encore was Ravel's The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

Perhaops we needed light-hearted jollies before Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, which, when done well, can be a haunting nightmare lit up, sometimes, with a hint of bombast. But after last week, (in memory of which this concert was dedicated), we know where such things can lead. Another enjoyable experience, though a work as familiar as this should ideally yield more insight in good performance.  Lots of French people in the audience, most of them under 30's. If Parisians can come to London for a concert, why can't Londoners show ?

Hello Walls ! hello, hello

 "Hello Walls, how'd things go for you today? " and the walls reply! "woooo woooo hello, hello"   A Country and Western hit from 1961 which deserves to be up there with the great treasures of surrealist dissociation.  "I'll bet you dread to have to spend another lonely night with me, but lonely walls, I'll keep you company"  What makes it so bizarre is that the walls sing back with a kind of manic cheerfulness   Projecting feelings onto inanimate objects is nothing new. There's even a name for it: "pathetic faillacy". Where would the poetry of the Romantic era be without it?

"Hello Window. Well, I see that you're still here, Aren't you lonely since our darling disappeared? Well, look here, is that a teardop in  the corner of your pane? Now don't you try to tell me it's just rain!"

 Listen closely to the way Faron Young (1932-1995)  shapes his words "darlinnn" "urrr teardrop" and that nasal "pane".  Strange grimaces, nasal whines, contorted tics, but that's exactly what lifts this song and makes it so fascinating.

 "Hello ceiling !  I'm gonna stare at you awhile.... we must all stick together or else i'll lose my mind" (Notice the way he sings the word "to ge -THURRR ", his voice like the twang of a slide guitar)

Many singers have covered it in the last 50 years, with more polish, but Faron Young gives the song a pungent sting that "proper" singing cannot breach. I think it's his sincerity and awkwardness - definitely not a "trained voice" but moving.  In real life, Young was a troubled man, like so  many Country and Western singers seem to have been. Even his physical mannerisms are gauche. Don't those straitlaced folks in the background (singing hello, hello)  realize how bizarre the song really is ?  Look at their stiff body language and their creepy hands.  But that's why I love this song, and this clip, so much. it has no front.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Glyndebourne appoints new General Director

Glyndebourne Festival Opera has just announced its new General Director. This is fascinating and quite unexpected. Although I don't know him, with a background like he has, things should be interesting. The Theater an der Wien is small, but innovative, with high standards both in baroque and in modern repertoire. He's also worked in Wexford, so the fit between him and Glyndebourne might be rather good. 

"Sebastian F. Schwarz has been appointed General Director of Glyndebourne, it was announced today. Sebastian, 41, is currently Deputy Artistic Director of Theater an der Wien in Vienna, a role he has occupied for eight years. He will take up his new role at Glyndebourne in May 2016. Gus Christie, Executive Chairman of Glyndebourne, said: ‘I am delighted to confirm this appointment. Sebastian’s pedigree and background will bring a fresh perspective to Glyndebourne and I am confident that he will build on our rich and varied operatic history.’ Sebastian F. Schwarz said: ‘Glyndebourne stands for excellence in performance and it provides an unmistakably English way of experiencing some of the world’s best opera. It is with the greatest joy that I follow the call to this superb company to continue to share my passion and enthusiasm for this most complete of all performing art forms.’ "

 "Born in 1974 in Germany, Sebastian F. Schwarz studied vocal performance and musicology in Berlin and vocal performance and theatre management in Venice. He has held a variety of positions in opera companies, including a period in company management at Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland and as assistant to the opera director at Staatsoper Hamburg. In addition to his role at Theater an der Wien, Sebastian is Artistic Director and co-founder of the Pietro Antonio Cesti International Voice Competition for Baroque Opera in Innsbruck, and CEO and Artistic Director of the Vienna Chamber Opera which was incorporated into Theater an der Wien in 2012, and for which he founded an international ensemble of singers who perform for both companies."

Monday, 16 November 2015

Boito Mefistofele Pape Calleja Opolais Bayerische Staatsoper

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacular production! What an amazing cast - you could hardly wish for better! I loved the audio-only broadcast last month (read more here ) so no way was I going to miss the video version. I was not disappointed.

Boito's Mefistofele adapts Goethe's Faust to develop the idea of Mefistofele and his relationship with God.  They are equals, sort of, the Devil a punk with a huge chip on his shoulder, bristling with resentment even as he struts and shows off. Hence the sprawling set, which resembles the inside of some large structure, with pipes and scaffolding. In this sealed cocoon, Mefistofele is king though he's cut off from the real world outside where presumably God reigns.  René Pape, singing Mefistofele, is dressed part rock star, part oligarch, surrounded by groupies in an artificial fantasy world.  Are we in a film set? Or an infernal machine?   Mefistofele watches dull TV clips of John Lennon in  New York and of a plane flying over the NY skyline. We don't  see the Twin Towers, but we can draw our own conclusions without the point being made too obvious.

 Like so many big shots too big for their boots, Mefistofele thinks he can have a conference call with God, and place a bet.  All the while the Heavenly Chorus sing. We don't see them, for they are unsullied by evil.  René Pape is an ideal Mefistofele - suave, slimy and tacky, with that 70's shirt open to his waist. He suggests the Devil's twisted charm, but also makes us feel sorry for Mefistofele and his ardent desperation.  This double-edged portrayal adds depth to Pape's characterization. He whips through his lines with poisonous bite, but one senses that, deep down, Mefistofele is a misguided fool. 

Faust, or a facsimile thereof,  is brought on stage and dressed in white, readied for sacrifice. When the orchestra, conducted by Omar Meir Wellber, begins again, the stage has been transformed, This time it's dominated by a giant fairground carousel. The peasants, as in Faust, are celebrating.  More pointed wit. This production takes place in  Bavaria. The peasants sit at long tables drinking giant steins. Pape picks up a gingerbread heart with the motto "I mog di", "I love you" in Bavarian slang.

Joseph Calleja doesn't automatically spring to mind as an ascetic old monk, but Boito's Faust is different to stereotype.  By changing the part from baritone (in the 1868 version) to tenor in the 1875 Bologna version, the composer capitalized on a voice which could scale heights even French tenors might envy, while retaining the sensual loveliness of the Italian language. Calleja hits the notes and how!  He sings with enthusiastic flourish - this is a Faust who genuinely enjoys sensual pleasures. A wizened old hermit might not understand. Calleja is also a good visual foil to Pape's sophistication: devil and innocent. Or so it seems. Calleja nails,  and holds, stratospheric heights. We can sense that a part as lovely as this will triumph in the end.

Kristine Opolais shines with understated  Grace Kelly elegance, which makes her seduction feel more like rape, for it is, since Faust is not what he really should be. The trio at the end of the scene sparks with tension  Faust and Margherita are swept away by the force of the sharp, dotted rhythms that mark Mefistofele's music.

The Walpurgisnacht scene is demonic: sharp woodwind flurries suggesting hellfire, perhaps, or moonlight? Calleja and Pape sing in tight lockstep "Folletto ! Folleto!". The manic staccato theme is taken up by the chorus, which then switches to quiet whisper, while the orchestra  creates the sprightly "hellfire" motif, first in the woodwinds, then through the celli and basses. The brightness of Calleja's voice contrasts well with Pape's, whose voice grows darker and more malevolent now that Faust is in his realm. The final chorus whips along with crazed energy: the witches are dancing wildly before the "flames" in the orchestra. "Sabba, Sabba, Saboè!"

Back on earth, Opolais sings  L'altra notte in fondo al mare and what follows with great emotional depth. Her Margherita is a woman steeled by suffering.  When she and Calleja sing Lontano, lontano, lontano, they bring out tenderness and tragedy, beauty and pain. Opolais sings the Spunta, l'aurora pallida with such calm heroism that Calleja's O strazio crudel! tears at the heart.  Faust sees the suffering, and women writhing in labour, but soon comes under the spell of Elena, Helen of Troy ((Karine Babajanyan)

In the orchestra  we hear the exquisite harp sequence, setting the tone for the love  duet between Elena and Faust that will follow. The harmony, though, is but a dream. Faust is back in his study, dimly lit, as we might  imagine from the quiet murmurs in the orchestra.  Faust is a very old man again, and in this production is seen in a home for geriatrics.  This is a sharper observation than one might expect because it shows Faust as part of a community, rather than alone, and makes connections to Goethe's Faust, who believed so strongly in society and humankind. It was Wagner (Andrea Borghini)  who thought peasants were a waste of time. This ending also emphasizes the idealism with which Faust defeats Mefistofele.  The good of mankind versus the Devil's enticements.,

"Cammina, cammina" Mefistofele calls. This time, Faust fights back. Calleja sings with undecorated, but  heroic firmness. "Faust! Faust!"  Pape cries, but his prey has slipped from his grasp. The chorus returns, in full, glorious voice with the orchestra in full glory. Even René Pape is no match.  But Mefistofele is defeated. Faust has overcome his sensual needs, choosing instead the greater good of mankind. Heaven breaks through Mefistofele's realm with blinding  light.  The director is Roland Schwab, who started his career with Ruth Berghaus. the sets are by Piero Vinciguerra.  On small   screen broadcast, we might have lost some of the overwhelming impact of the live experience, but we see the details. And what glorious singing! Later, it's occured to me that the other people in the nursing home, who were singing in the finale, might have been angels all along. (see photo below)

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Invisible Theatre made visible : Morgen und Abend Haas ROH

The world premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas Morgen und Abend at the Royal Opera House, London -  so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.  But consider what music is - it's a means of communicating complex, abstract ideas which can't easily be articulated in words. No-one knows what happens when we die, or what the transition might feel like. Morgen und Abend  is a tone poem on a grand scale, with singing and personalities to point the way. It is opera in the very deepest meaning of the word, for it operates on our subliminal senses, activating our response to the human emotions we hear enacted on the stage.

Morgen und Abend begins with an Overture, of sorts. Loud, thudding percussion loud enough that our heartbeats begin to synchronize. The sounds come from the boxes on both sides of the auditorium, like the ears we have on each side of our heads, or the two lungs thar pump within so we can breathe, like the ventricles in our hearts that pump blood to keep us alive. This is "Invisible Theatre", drawing the audience physically into the drama. Perhaps that's why Morgen und Abend is both compelling and disturbing.  Listening becomes an active, not passive experience, challenging emotions we might find hard to deal with.  We, too, are part of the story.

An old man Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer) sits in an empty room. A door stands on its own without walls. perhaps the man could pass through, but he doesn't. At first he notices the unnatural silence of his surroundings. A midwife (Sarah Wegener) appears, telling the old man that his baby son is born. Yet, listen to the strange broken phrases in the vocal parts, repeating cadences which are taken up subtly by the orchestra.  This isn't normal speech, even by opera standards. Is Olai re-living happy memories in a dream? The boy , named Johannes, "will be a fisherman like me", intones Brandauer  Woodwinds and horns create strange sounds - the crying of a newborn, the agony of a mother.  When Olai was a young man, birth was dangerous, the cusp of life and death.   I nursed someone in his last days, who had nursed me long before. Dying is a lot like being born: you're helpless, you don't know what's coming, you resist.

Another old man rises from his bed.  The atmosphere here, too, is unnaturally still and silent, though the percussion ticks gently, as if marking the passage of time.  The old man is Johannes (Christoph Pohl). He rises from his bed, but notices that his aches and pains have disappeared. Instead, he feels oddly weightless, and the room glows with light, as if objects are floating. Johannes notices that his body doesn't ache as it did before. He feels a strange weightlessness, and objects seem to float in light. Things haven't been the same since Erna, his wife (Helena Rasker), died. Yet he sees her, and she sings to him. Is she real, or an ilusion ?

 Johannes sings about Signe, the name of his mother, who long ago gave him birth, and also the name of his youngest daughter, a symmetry that suggests continuty and subtle change, reflected  in the understated  but complex instrumentation.  Johannes notices that his body doesn't ache as it did before. He feels a strange weightlessness, and objects seem to float in light. Things haven't been the same since Erna, his wife (Helena Rasker), died. Yet he sees her, and she sings.  His old friend Peter (Will Hartmann) appears. Why is Peter's hair so long? Why is he so grey? "Let  me cut your hair for you" sings Johannes, "like we did 50 years ago". "You can't" sings Peter.

Johannes wants to sail again as he used to. "When the  sea as still and calm as this", he sings, "I could sail out far into the west". Like his father Olai before him, Johannes is remembering happiness past.  In the horns and low woodwinds, we hear the roar of the ocean and feel the freedom Johannes must have enjoyed when he was young.  This journey, this time, is different.

Johannes appears in his daughter's house, but she can't see or hear him. Significantly, the part is sung by Sarah Wegener, who sang the Midwife. Yet Signe feels his embrace.. "Passing through a great chill" she sings, "But nothing evil".  Love doesn't die, there's nothing to fear, though Signe doesn't yet know what has happened.   The music bubbles along, occasionally spiking up, with long drawn slow diminuendos. It's as if the complex machinery of a human body is gradually shutting down,  the blood chilling, cells shutting down  Long, keening lines which seem to stretch out to limitless horizons. 

A story this surreal needs abstract presentation.  Greys, whites, silvers blend into each other, changing with light.  Nature itself operates in this way.  Stand on any beach and see the myriad gradations of colour in the sand, in the sky, in the sea.  Nothing is colourless unless you want it to be.

Objects seem to materialize out of nowhere: the props constantly shifting. Johannes's boat seems to disappear as quietly as it came. The effect is as in a dream, or memory, though it's created by a turntable mechanism under the floor, which works so well - and so quietly - that we hardly notice. A lot like the passage of time.

This Morgen und Abend operates on many levels, literally and figuratively. Although the texts are direct and conversational, this makes the characterizations human and sympathetic, allowing the music to work its magic on our emotions.  The libretto is by Jon Fosse, based on his novel Morgon og Kveld.  Against a backcloth the English text is projected, the words moving and changing in tune with music and mood. 

Georg Friedrich Haas (born 1953) is an important composer, so the Royal Opera House gives Morgen und Abend the attention it deserves. The cast are well known and well respected. The director is Graham Vick. The designer is Richard Hudson. But in an opera like this, where the music is protagonist, the orchestra makes all the difference. We  take the Royal Opera House Orchestra for granted because we hear them so often, but as Antonio Pappano has said, they are an extremely good band. Conducted by Michael Boder they sound as idiomatic as a specialist new music ensemble, clearly inspired by the challenge  of  Haas's music.  In 2013, Haas's In Vain was done by the London Sinfonietta. Please read my piece "Invisible Theatre" HERE.   Technically, Haas's music is nowhere as demanding as most of the London Sinfonietta's repertoire, but any comparison is an achievement. 

 Haas's music is beautiful, compelling and poetic. It can stand on its own merits, but conceptually it is sophisticated. New music isn't an easy sell to audiences expecting the music of 100 years ago. This is where the ROH could improve its marketing.  Fortunately the programme notes are good and include a piece by Tim Rutherford-Johnson on Haas's music, but the real need is  to give the public enough good information about the composer that they want to come in the first place.

A more formal version of this review appears in Opera Today (with production photos)