Thursday, 30 September 2010

Opera at the Movies Bachtrack

Keeping up with opera screened in movie theatres is tricky - different cinema chains., different distributors, minimal publicity. Now here's help!

Check out the Bachtrack site (listed on the right of this page for easy reference. It's the best site for planning your schedule - everything in the same place, including things off the beaten track (Like Westminster Cathedral Dream of Gerontius).  I use it all the time.

They've got details of Royal Opera House and NY Met screenings plus also Opus Arte European opera, most of which is top notch. More soon, too. Like Berlin Deutsche Oper's new season which features some of the top stars, including Joyce DiDonato,Jospeh Calleja, Jonas Kaufmann and this year's hot property Vittorio Grigolo - although you'll have to look through the listings carefully as they often have different casts for different nights of the same production. As well as the established repertoire, they are making a point of producing some lesser known operas such as Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae and Cassandra and Respighi's Marie Victoire.

When you're using the main "find an opera" or "find a ballet" pages, look out for one or more yellow bubbles at the top of the listing results: these will tell you if there are any cinema or on-demand listings which match your search.

Opera on film is different to opera live or on audio recording.  Much depends on the musical intelligence of the film-maker. Some, like Brian Large, can turn trash to (almost) gold. Gone are the days when stand and shoot was enough - the camera has to follow the detail in a meaningful way. Long term there are implications for stageceraft because film opens possibilities not practicable in live performance. Certainly there are implications for the experience of opera, since audiences anywhere will get to see top quality shows. The end of one-city, one-house insularity.  When people are actually exposed to things they've only read about before, perhaps they'll have more progressive attitudes. Some of the hysteria about "Regie" might dissipate when people realize the word simply means "directed". In French and German it's just a word but to some English-only speakers it's red flags to bulls.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Met Rheingold and ENO Faust

The world did not collapse because the Met staged a new production of Das Rheingold with Robert Lepage's ultramodern staging. See HERE for reviews with photos. Unprecedented expense - the floor had to be reinforced before the sets could safely be installed. The ultimate "special effects" production. Maybe that's what stunned the audience into submission.  Why not . We all know the story and spectacle is definitely what Wagner would have enjoyed.

So why the fuss in the UK press about Gounod Faust at the ENO? Des McAnuff's Faust is going to the Met soon, so maybe for a change NY audiences will be primed to appreciate it better after the shock and awe of Rheingold.

Ironically, McAnuff's Faust is a lot closer to Goethe than Gounod was.  Being a theatre man he goes straight to the heart of the drama. What a story! A  holy old man selling his soul to the devil for a day of youth. He causes mayhem yet is redeemed by love. Goethe didn't need, as Gounod did, to pretty the tale up with divertissements to please the Paris audience. Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux is so wonderful that Gounod had to adjust the plot around it. It had to be "Frenchified" to work. While the essential bones of the story are there, Gounod uses extras like Siébel and Wagner, and some of the Gothic edge is smoothed away.

Plenty of accurately dressed French peasants in the ENO production, so why the fuss? So what if McAnuff's first scene takes place in what looks like a lab? Faust studied the Black Arts, and was completely aware that knowledge can be dangerous if it's used for evil purposes. He called up the Devil, after all. What could be more apposite than atomic bombs? They don't stay in view for long, anyway, and the complex structure of spiral staircases lend itself well when Méphistophélès scoots about from on high.

Similarly, why not psychedelic effects and lurid lights? Witches are afoot in Walpurgisnacht, which is traditionally associated with glowing lights in the mist and bonfires to ward off evil spirits. See the industrial-looking observation building (1890's)  at Brocken in the Harz where Goethe's Walpurgisnacht supposedly took place. (click to expand for detail)

The ENO Faust deserves a lot more respect than it's given. I don't know how Toby Spence was singing on the first night, but the night I went he was very good indeed. Vocally clear and sweet-toned, as befits the "youthful" Faust. Which is how Gounod wrote the part - not for a hefty baritone. Remember too that he knows the part in French. Even if he's a native English speaker, he's a musician accustomed to hearing the musical logic of the original.  Generally good performances all round.

Wouldn't it be ironic if notoriously conservative New York audiences got more out of ENO's Faust than supposedly sharp Londoners ? Now that would be Faustian. Please come back, I'll be writing abiout the Met Lepage Rheingold soon. Search around on this site. There's LOTS on Wagner, The Ring, Stagecraft and Robert LePage.

Watch the FULL DOWNLOAD HERE of F W Murnau's Faust (1927)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

NIobe Royal Opera House - well informed review

Agostino Steffani's Niobe regina di Tebe is a smash hit at the Royal Opera House. Wild card, for sure. Bijoux like Niobe would normally appear in tiny specialist houses catering to the cognoscenti. Picking this for ROH took guts because such obscurities are almost guaranteed not to reach the mass market. For a change good artistic judgment has paid off. Niobe is the hit of the season, bringing in audiences who might not otherwise do obscure baroque. Lots of last minute extra bookings being made.  This was the opera I'd really been keen to get to, and managed to reschedule so I can.

HERE is the review by Sue Loder in Opera Today. Read it - this is extremely well written, a model of well-informed, judicious thought. If only more writing was as good as this! So read and enjoy. Lots of photos too, well chosen editorially. My own summary on why the opera works so well is HERE

"The quality of the vocal writing matches the inventiveness of the music which seems to hover, musicologically, somewhere between Cavalli and early Handel. The recitatives are lyrical, the arias and duets constantly change form and texture with no one vocal style predominating. There is no aria longer than five minutes and the da capo form in its full Handelian sense is missing: this helps to drive the action forward and several set-piece arias are interrupted by another character. The orchestration is equally complex and thoroughly fascinating in its detail and richness; often a character will be assigned his or her “own” obbligato instrument - such as the nurse Nerea who sings several slightly cynical or world-weary arias with some virtuosic recorder playing echoing her complaints. Anfione is often accompanied by the smaller strings and viola da gamba. Under the confident and stylish direction of Hengelbrock, his expanded orchestra gives an object lesson in how to transfer what was an intimate festival performance in 2008 into a major house display in 2010."

Monday, 27 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde Urmana Salonen Royal Festival Hall

The whole Royal Festival Hall standing in ovation for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Even the ushers were impressed. Violeta Urmana stunned the capacity audience with a glorious, passionate Isolde. But that wasn't all. Orchestrally, too, this was an outstanding experience. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen was exceptionally lucid.

Usually Wagner Tristan und Isolde is played by opera house orchestras, so the music is naturally eclipsed by what's happening on stage. Fine as opera house orchestras are, they play second fiddle. The Philharmonia though does a much wider repertoire, and is constantly challenged to excel. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen they're exploring new territory : this Tristan und Isolde was exciting as pure music.

That first chord alone, stretched and ending with a sudden zip, expressed insight. Tristan and Isolde each have a past, but their lives culminate in a brief blaze of passion quickly snuffed out. Wagner's music references the ocean, constantly surging, swelling and pulling back.  Ocean as metaphor for emotional depth. Salonen led the Philharmonia through the constant flux magnificently. Clearly defined leitmotivs, precise details, never losing sight of the ultimate destination. Exquisite phrasing, absolute lucidity.

The overture to the final act was a kind of apotheosis, orchestrally, exquisitely judged and balanced, emotionally as vivid as the text to follow. There are many ambiguities in Tristan und Isolde, but when an orchestra plays it "as music", the inner logic becomes so powerful that you're hypnotized. The Philharmonia was incandescent. Truly this was a performance that will be remembered as one of the highlights in the Philharmonia's illustrious history.

Few can create the part the way Violeta Urmana does.  Hers is a voice with genuine richness and lustrous resonance. Her technique is superb - perfect phrasing and breath control, nothing forced or played for effect, none of the silly tricks of vibrato and volume some popular singers resort to for effect.  Isolde is much more sophisticated than Brünnhilde though they're both heroines the world cannot contain.  Urmana's Isolde is magnificent, a princess with a huge history behind her, connected,to ancient arts of magic and healing. Which is why Tristan, whose wounds are psychic as well as physical, needs her. Whoever dressed Urmana knew what they were doing. A creamy bodice on a dark dress with sleeves emphasized Urmana's womanly amplitude. She looked like an elegant version of the primeval goddess Astarte. Sexier than Stemme, and an accurate insight.

Gary Lehman is a Heldentenor who is a Held - a hero with dignity and honour. Tristan's not at all a conventional Action Man, as Wagner's text keeps telling us. He's carried his fate since birth. Calling a child "Tristan" is a form of child abuse, dooming a kid to a life of sorrow. No wonder he's death obsessed, a suicide waiting to happen. Lehman sings with conviction (even when he's lying down). He's moving. In the Third Act, when Tristan speaks of his past, revealing his vulnerability, Lehman's voice softens tenderly: extremely moving. The film projection towers over him, showing a small boy staring at a candle which might suddenly die. Incredible unity of voice, visuals and emotion, totally true to Wagner's text and music. Lehman and Urmana have recorded Parsifal with Gergiev. For them, I'm getting that.

Anne Sofie von Otter was an excellent Brangäne. The character is strong, and von Otter creates the part with forceful but elegant purity of tone.  Von Otter and Urmana are wonderful together. Each very distinctive and assertive, opposite sides of a similar persona.  A dream team - hopefully they'll work together more often.

Jukka Rasilainen as Kurnewal is luxury casting, too. He's very experienced indeed, and it shows. Kurnewal, like Brangäne, is by no means a small part, but an important counterfoil to Tristan. Although there's less to sing, more depends on the quality of the performance. Rasiliainen expresses himself well: this Kurnewal makes an impact as a fully realized personality.

Matthew Best (King Marke), Stephen Gadd (Melot), Joshua Ellicott (Helmsman) were good but outclassed by Urmana, Lehma, von Otter and Rasiainen. With principals as good as these, it's hard for anyone to compete.

Someone told me that a man near her raged out at the first interval because he didn't approve of the film projections. Which says more about him than the projections. Surely anyone seriously interested in opera would have noticed the quality of the singing and playing? This short-sighted bigotry proves how little he really knows or cares. Opera is meant to be visual and like any other element in a performance there will be good and bad.  There have been infinitely more stupid projections than these, as anyone who saw Wozzeck at the South Bank last year will remember.

Bill Viola's projections would operate well as a separate stand alone work of art, a Tristan und Isolde installation, for example. But in performance, they should relate to what's happening. The worst part was in the First Act, where two models who don't resemble the singers take their clothes off in slow, ritualistic motion. I can see the point, though it's very deep, too complex to take in while so much else is going on. But it's horribly distracting because it doesn't connect to the performance itself. The music (especially this time) surges, the film operates in a different time frame. If this sequence was completely cut out, a lot of the problems would be removed.

When Viola's film uses semi-abstract images that complement the performance, the projections work very well indeed. They are intelligent - images of night and day, light and dark, water and fire occur throughout the opera,, and the film follows text faithfully. For example, Brangäne's torch, haunting the love duet, adding to the tension. When Tristan asks Isolde to follow him, there's a shot of a wild path, trees beaten out of shape by harsh winds. A reference to coastal conditions but also to hardship.

The projections in the Third Act are by far the best, for they express deeper ideas in the opera. The ocean, distant lights hidden by mist, the rocky shore, which seems barren until you see the spring that brings forth clear, pure refreshment, feeding mosses and lichen. Because we are seeing Tristan's homeland we're drawn closer into his soul. This is when Tristan reveals himself emotionally, and we get a glimpse of how he came to be who he is. When the image of the ocean is lit by colours of fire and dawn, it expresses the union of opposites which runs throughout the opera.

When Urmana sings the Liebestod the image behind her comes alive, white lights rising upwards as the music does, until the image, like Isolde herself is transfigured ino another plane of existence. It's beautiful and enhances the music appropriately. How it could be done in actual performance, I don't know.

The fact is that semi-staging is a newish art form, still evolving. If the economy continues into nosedive, we may well be hearing more concert performances with minimal staging. That's not a bad thing at all, if it means resources are put into great singing and orchestras of the calibre of the Philharmonia. Less is often more, because it focuses on the essential drama not the trappings.

Peter Sellars shows what can be done. He uses the Royal Festival Hall as his canvas.As Isolde's ship docks in the harbour (which we don't actually need to see), Matthew Best appears, spotlit, in the Royal Box. As a king would. The gulf between Isolde and King Marke made real in the way no stage setting could express. Von Otter's Brangäne occupies the ramparts upper level, side stage, trumpets are heard from far away. Sellars incorporates movement into this concert performance as effectively as any full staging.

Photo : Violeta Urmana  copyright Christine Schneider

Friday, 24 September 2010

ENO Janáček Makropulos

Janáček doesn't work for me in English so I avoid recordings like the plague. Live performance, however, is different because staging adds an extra dimension. This ENO revival of Christopher Alden's The Makropulos Case, at the Coliseum, with magnificent designs by Charles Edwards,  is so stylish that you focus on the drama rather than the disjuncture between syntax and music.
Green marble, Art Deco elegance brings the story right up to the time the opera was written. Janáček might have visualized it thus. Elina Makropulos might have found it strange, but Kamila Stösslová would have loved it! Even the fox-fur wrap references another Janáček femme fatale, the Cunning Little Vixen. And EM holds a newspaper - as if Time meant anything to her. Brilliant!  This is staging done with musical intelligence.

The Gregors and the Prus have been scrapping for 200 plus years over a missing will. In Dr Kolenatý's office, papers fly about out of control  like a flock of mad chickens (another Janáček clue), and rows of men like robots line the walls. It takes a feisty Janáček heroine to come up with the solution.

Crowd scenes here beautifully done, expressing a purpose - other ENO directors take note! The Second Act, where the men converge outside glass doors reinforces the idea that EM exists in an existential bubble, her thousands of admirers mindlessly conforming.  EM's situation is Extremely Mad but no-one questions. They'll kill themselves, like Janek, but don't they know who she is and where she's come from? She knows why she rejects Gregor's lust and uses the current Baron Prus.

This staging is exceptionally musically literate, Charles Edwards delivers yet again. Christopher Alden's direction is very good too, though the singers don't move as stylishly as the plot would support. This opera turns en pointe so sharply, singers need the physical flare of dancers.

This cast is reasonable, nonetheless. Amanda Roocroft's a popular if safe choice. Comparisons with Elisabeth Söderström would be completely unfair, but even Cheryl Baker had more sass. Still, Roocroft fills the role, costumed as she is by Sue Willmington like Anna Wintour, We can fill in the "Nuclear Wintour" persona ourselves - it fits the role very neatly!

Andrew Shore, Peter Hoare, Ashley Holland and Alasdair Elliott impressed as the hapless men and Laura Mitchell as Kristina. But this being Janáček, pay attention to the minor female role of EM's maid, a familiar chorus member now given a chance to show  how good a character singer she can be. Use her more !

Charles Mackerras reputedly said it didn't matter if Janáček singing was in English, because he knew Czech.  Yet opera is voice. If the singers are doing stresses alien to the music it's a problem whatever the conductor might be doing.  Long ago, there were reasons for making Janáček accessible  to English speakers, but now the repertoire is so familiar the logic doesn't apply.  As Elizabeth David said, "In those days olive oil was something you bought at the chemist to clean your ears". Times change. Ideally, this excellent production could be revived in the original language, with a more idiomatic cast.

Photo: Amanda Roocroft, credit Neil Libbert, courtesy ENO. Copyright - do not copy.

Experience In the Penal Colony

Although it's been a week since Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony hit the Linbury Studio, London, I'm still reeling. It was traumatic but not something anyone with a conscience can casually walk away from.  Does any end justify such means? It's on tour throughout the UK - Oxford, Manchester, several places in Wales, Edinburgh. See a link to Music Theatre Wales website here for details. It's unforgettable. A reminder why we can't ever be complacent and shallow.  A production like this needs to be experienced. Please click on this link here for a more technical discussion of the opera  and its musical logic.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Mahler 3 Jurowski

There have been so many Mahler Third's in the last few years,  so great expectations for Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall last night. We were all in an uncommonly receptive mood.

What would they find in it? Not so much Mahler as Wagner. Mahler conceived this symphony inspired by the wide open spaces of the Salzkammergut. Obviously, not literal representation, but the idea of struggle and creative freedom is very much a part of Mahler's psyche and thus part of his music.  Jurowski's Mahler 3 is very "indoors", replete with every luxury possible. Wagner in Switzerland, safe from Saxons and creditors, swathed in velvet.

The first movement is monumental for a reason. It's a blockbuster as imposing as the mountains, created to set a framework against which all other elements are heard. Hence the importance of analytical thinking, understanding why Mahler's music evolves the way it does. Jurowski, never a great Mahler conductor, dispenses with structure and goes instead for maximum orchestral impact.

Cue for luscious textures, grand sweeping gestures, the ultimate Romantic symphony,. Mahler as Tchaikovsky, perhaps. Jurowski luxuriates in gorgeousness, so this was seductive performance indeed. Although details in Mahler are important, they are always there for a purpose, not merely to fill space. He lived in fin de siècle times but was personally quite ascetic. Without architecture or ideas, Mahler isn't Mahler.
Nice details, especially the sour-noted clarinet that weaves around Petra Lang as she sings O Mensch. It's like a poisonous snake, a valid image in this song that reflects on the sufferings of mankind, thanks to apples, temptation and the Devil.  Less successful was the swagger in the Scherzando, whose deliberate bumptiousness wouldn't sit well with an interpretation as civilized as this.

Jurowski dwells on detail to the extent that themes blur rather than take shape. Tempi are drawn out lovingly, but in the process the drama is lost. I don't do stopwatch but someone in the exit said he'd never heard timings so diffuse. Jurowski smiled a lot while conducting, which was a good thing, because this is Mahler's sunniest symphony.

Several times I was thrown, hearing all the right notes but wondering what symphony this might be. Where was it going?  Then I realized that the key to this performance wasn't to think about Mahler as we know him now, but in terms of what Alma would have wanted us to hear him. There's a huge difference, but Alma's view is more marketable. While well played, for the most part,  this performance could be enjoyed as an indulgence rather than as an insight.

It's not Jurowski's fault. He's never been a great Mahler man (with the wonderful exception of Das klagende Lied in 2007) but he's fallen for the rebranding and repackaging the Mahler year has brought. Sugar-coated Mahler sells. Jurowski's a natural opera man, a Russian specialist par excellence, so he does Mahler in much the same way,. It's lovely to listen to, but isn't necessarily the composer's idiom. 

Jurowski was much more in his element with Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Songs op 13, where highly perfumed sensuality is essential to meaning. This is a wonderful cycle  but it's not heard to best advantage with a symphony like Mahler 3. Indeed, part of the problem with this Mahler 3 was that it was infused with Zemlinsky. Contemporaries they were, but extremely different musically. The Maeterlinck Songs need to be showcased on their own terms, so performance is truly committed. Perta Lang has done this repertoire so often, she can sing this well, and sit down and save herself for another hour before the Misterioso movement, but she's so good she deserves star billing, not a warm-up act.

Please see some of Jurowski's earlier Mahler HERE. 

And here's Andrew Clark in the Financial Times.   "Jurowski’s crisp, clinical control was such that you couldn’t help being diverted by the way he manicured this or that motif – sometimes to Mahler’s benefit, as in the Minuet’s counter-themes. But tempi were so drawn out, with every phrase held up for inspection, polish and communal admiration, that the performance suffocated under its own self-absorption."

Schumann Wigmore Hall Gilchrist Maltman

Schumann is a perennial at the Wigmore Hall.  This recital, with James Gilchrist, Christopher Maltman and Julius Drake, was well attended. Many friends in the audience new and old, By sheer coincidence two people, from different parts of the world met up, who'd both been in choirs where Maltman sang. The Wigmore Hall "family" spans the globe.

Whoever reorganized the order of the first songs deserves praise. Placing Trost im Gesang with Der frohe Waldersmann shows wit. Kerner and Eichendorff were very different men. Eichendorff was a devout Catholic, who shaped the idealistic Prussian education system. Kerner was a medical doctor who believed in what we'd now call pseudo-science – mesmerism, spirit messages etc. Yet which was really the more unconventional?

Kerner's traveller sets forth, confident that song will guide him on his path.  Eichendorff's traveller thinks about two quite different paths but hopes that God will arrange things right. The pious mood is underscored by something more troubling. Double-edged piety, like Mörike's Gebet. ("send me what you will, God, but not too much either way)"

In  Eichendorff's Fruhlingsfahrt, two sturdy youths set forth, both striving for lofty things. One finds happiness in simple things. The other is seduced by the sirens of the deep and ends up a shattered wreck. Both Fruhlingsfahrt and Der frohe Wandersman show that  Eichendorff's fascinated by wilder shores even while he praises domesticity. His homilies to God are talismanic, for he intuits that creativity can be dangerous. An artist is driven by something greater than his own free will.  Happy Wanderer? No way.

Perhaps Schumann, already aware of his own emotional extremes, intuited that Eichendorff understood the connection between art and madness. Eichendorff's poetry was "new" at the time, the poet outliving the composer. Hence the fearfully tricky phrasing in the song, and in Sängers Trost, which seem deliberately designed to knock a singer outside his comfort zone. Much credit to James Gilchrist for negotiating the difficulties so well. He's so engaged with meaning that he brings out the true spirit of these songs, which superficial performances don't reach.

Gilchrist is an ideal character tenor. Like Philip Langridge, he has the knack of getting inside a part, developing it through thoughtful observation and empathy. Gilchrist's spent most of his career in oratorio and song, but it is in opera where his skills in characterization are really needed.  As an actor, he's a natural because he's empathic, able to build personality into any part he sings. In opera, a singer with Gilchrist's emotional intelligence would do wonders.

I've never forgotten Christopher Maltman's Tarquinius in the Rape of Lucretia, where his body builder's physique gave the role a powerful, malevolent edge.  That's character singing, albeit in a different way.  While I was bothered by many things in Maltman's Liederkreis Op 39, my friends enjoyed it a lot.  Lieder is communication, so in that sense, it worked well.  There are just so many Liederkreises op 39 and 24, that we're spoiled. 

Withe the Four Lieder op 40 to settings of Hans Christaian Andersen, Maltman could focus on each song as a vignette, for each tells a story.  Der Spielmann lets him created the fiddler wildly playing at a wedding. Then the punchline, Bin selber ein armer Musikant. The fiddler's more involved in the wedding than we realize. He's pulling back, emotionally, much as Eichendorff switches to God.

Schumann's 12 Kerner Lieder op 35 were the highlight of the evening.  This is a very tightly structured cycle, sometimes compared to Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, or even to a miniature symphony, even though the texts are a mixeed batch. This indicates that perhaps Schumann heard greater possibilities in them than a straightforward textual study might indicate.

Lust der Sturmnacht is strange.The poet wants the stormy night to continue because he can be with his lover. But can't they have fun without the wildness outside? Suddenly lust (in both senses) gives way to unearthly calm and purity. In Stirb, Lieb' und Freud', a young girl is praying, transfixed in rapture. The poet stunned to silence, knowing he can't compete with the Virgin Mary.

Gilchrist seems to intuit that this sudden switch between turbulence and ecstasy might just be what drew Schumann to put these random poems together in this order. Schumann was obsessed by cryptic puzzles and hidden clues. In this cycle the "tavern songs" are popular but drinking songs they aren't. Drink lowers defences, releasing ghosts, memories and suppressed emotion. The two key songs are moments of quiet contemplation: Stille Liebe and Stille Tränen.  Because Gilchrist captures the extreme mood swings so well, he captures the schizoid character of these songs. On the surface they don't fit together but if the highly literate Schumann heard connections, so should we. Wonderful, vivid singing, animated and expressive.

Afterwards, I told him that it was so good that it didn't matter if one single word wasn't ideal, in an otherwise outstanding performance.  "But it matters to me!", he saIt's that emotional honesty that makes Gilchrist an ideal character tenor.

Last week, when Julius Drake played Hugo Wolf, he hammered away so forcefully that someone commented that the piano might be faulty. At the Wigmore Hall, pianos are objects of sacred veneration. If a piano was out of tune, someone would be lynched.  Fortunately, this time Drake gave much more respect to tempi, dynamics and singers.  Much better!
COMING UP tomorrow: Makropulos Case,  Jurowski Mahler 3 and more.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

László Polgár - moving personal tribute

László Polgár, who died unexpectedly on Sunday, was a wonderful bass, who sang with  feeling and authority.  Yet he was also a man with personality. It does make a difference if an artist has soul. Once I met a TV actress famous for playing feisty. In real life, she was, one might say, a "blank canvas" who'd take on any projection. In opera, I hope and believe, it helps that the performer cares deeply enough  to know their music "from within" so when they communicate, it's more than outward form.

So here is a personal tribute from someone who appreciated Polgár very deeply. In the media, we usually read standardized bumpf but this is different. It's extremely moving because it's sincere and genuine.

"He was a wonderful example of what is sometimes termed a 'bass noble'. His dark and resonant voice, always expressive, was produced through an excellent technique that served him well in all ranges. This was coupled with an innate dignity of delivery -- well, Laszlo was about as noble as they come."

"Having said that, I have to admit that the role in which I perhaps loved him the most was Leporello! He could be very funny when he wanted to be. The most disreputable Pistola that ever was! And his Basilio was simply a hoot."

"These were just fun things, though -- his serious repertoire included Filippo, Gurnemanz, Arkel, Gremin. Major roles in all languages, in theaters around the world. But the role for which he will always be remembered is Bartok's Bluebeard. He sang the part innumerable times all over the world; it fitted like a glove."

"Anyone who ever heard him in a Liederabend will have wonderful memories of the evening. I remember hearing him sing 'Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken' and thinking that he was a stellar example of one who understood the art of intimate communication as well as the big scope needed for a Sarastro of monumental stature."

"He communicated effortlessly in many languages; he loved to rehearse even more than he loved to perform; he was a strikingly handsome man who often made jokes about his big nose: 'Nature blessed me with this nose, I didn't invent it myself!'"

Ole Bull 200

The name Ole Bull's familiar to all, but how many have heard his music? Norway's greatest fiddler, a charismatic personality, who was to Norway what Sibelius was to Finland, only a lot more flamboyant.

Last week he was featured Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3. Four broadcasts still available on demand. Most BBC Composer of the Weeks are boring, repeated many times, but this Ole Bull series is brand new, unusually well researched and informative. Plus, none of this music is familiar, so grab the opportunity to hear something very different indeed.

Bull's career and music – he was born in 1810 and died in 1880 – are set in the context of Norwegian culture at the time, when the country was still ruled by Denmark and later was in a political union with Sweden, and national identity was still evolving. Music, literature, poetry, even a new language Nynorsk. Listen specially to programmes 3 and 4. What sounds like Edvard Grieg sonetimes is, sometimes isn't - it's Bull! And the pianist/composer Agathe Backer Grøndahl is included - she who raised a huge familiy on her own and wrote music nights.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Faust - complete download

Not Gounod's Faust at ENO, but  F W Murnau's Faust from 1926. This is based on the Goethe version of the story, with Gretchen burned at the stake. The perspective's completely different from the medieval version. Goethe's heretical!

His God jests with the Devil who makes a bet that he can corrupt even the holiest of men, scholarly old Faust. Germany's in the grip of terrible plague, Savonarolas and false prophets abound. Faust realizes books aren't going to help, so he does a deal with the devil, deliciously played by Emil Jannings, the schoolmaster in The Blue Angel., which you can see in full download on this site by clicking on the link.

Faust gets turned into a handsome young man, re-enacting the youth he probably didn't have curled up with books.  He and Gretchen fall in love and there's a baby. So she gets thrown out and eventually burned at the stake. Faust returns, but now he's old and wretched again. Still, Gretchen recognizes him, and he's redeemed. Liebe, says the film, written in flames.  Love wins, not so much God, unless it was God who willed love to happen.

This film is such an influential classic. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpse, the crowd scenes, and the landscape over which the Devil flies, carrying Faust in his arms.  Evil birds of doom, a bit like cranes but scarier. Precursors of the airborne hordes in Flash Gordon or Apocalypse Now? A very "Germanic" setting. This proved to be Murnau's last Weimar movie. By 1927 he was settled successfully in Hollywood. What a cultural jump from Faust to Sunrise, Murnau's adaptation of a Gerrman story to open-air California.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

László Polgár 1947-2010

This afternoon, László Polgár passed away, unexpectedly. Tall and imposing, he was a powerful stage presence. And then that voice! So dark, yet so agile. The last time I heard him live was a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde Act 2. Nothing was going right, none of the singers was on the ball, conducting sloppy, as if it was a run-through. Then Polgár comes on. Even though he clearly had a heavy cold, he sang King Marke with such authority and dignity that it didn't seem out of character at all when he coughed. It was a bit late in the concert for him to save the show, but he was memorable.

Elgar Newman Dream of Gerontius

The Blessed John  Henry Newman, now, as John Cardinal Newman is beatified by Pope Benedict. Everyone's trying to second guess why, but it's irrelevant. The real big deal is that Newman is not a typical saint, but a person whose life is an example for the future.

Newman was a man of conscience. He had integrity, and turned his back on family, status and glory. As a Catholic, his career wasn't successful.
He suffered.doubts, conflicts and possibly clinical depression.  He wasn't even that keen on papal infallibility. Yet what got him through was idealism and integrity. 

 No human society has ever existed without spiritual or moral beliefs. So what's wrong if some choose one way or another? Quite possibly being fully human means respecting others' rights. What does militant atheist evangelism prove?

We're all going to die. Even if there's nothing on the other side the fact of mortality affects how we live and feel. Perhaps Cardinal Newman's real miracle is that through The Dream of Gerontius, he's helped millions to face loss and death, and in the process discover the beauty of life.

Elgar's music starts in the world, elegiac, recurrent crescendi full of portent. Gerontius knows he's dying. The violins stir like the fluttering of giant wings. "This strange innermost abandonment", Already, the concerns of the world are eclipsed. Gerontius isn't alone, he's surrounded by a host of immortal presences, all praying support.  Wild surging trumpets, evoking "that sense of ruin which is worse than pain". The man's terrified, hearing "hideous wings" but remembers that this is a journey many have taken before. Huge outburst of choir and orchestra. "Go Forth!" The baritone is the tenor's stronger alter-ego. pulling him onwards. Fairly straightforward piety, so far.

But then something really amazing happens. The transition starts with a beautiful, humble theme which we'll recognize as "the heart subduing melody" the man hears as he's lifted upwards. "I went to sleep", he sings in a matter of fact way, but gradually feels lightness and freedom. "How still it is! I hear no more the busy beat of time" The marvel is that he's safe, cradled by an angel.

It's Gerontius's Guardian Angel, who has taken care of him invisibly since he was born.  "My work is over" she sings, now that she's handing him back to God.  Gerontius's soul wonders why he now feels no fear. "It is because then, thou didst fear...and so for thee the bitterness of death is passed".  To put it plainly, if you have no conscience in life, you'll pay for it in the next world.

Sure enough, they pass the Demons who claim those who've been bad on earth. Wild frenzied, ostinato stabs of brass and percussion. The choir of demons scream. "How sour and uncouth such a dissonance" sings Gerontius's soul. This is Newman being ascetic, and Elgar showing a  sense of humour. What demonic, violently expressive music! Isn't it deliciously manic when the demons snarl "Haha! Haha!"  

As they cross into the Hall of Judgment, the soul hears  "a grand mysterious harmony. It floods me, like the deep and solemn sound of many waters"  Angelic choir, and then peace reigns as the Soul enters the presence of God. The baritone who sang the priestly figure now sings the Angel of Agony, a tougher version of the Guardian Angel. He makes a direct connection between the sufferings of Jesus condemned on the cross.

"Alleluia" sings the soprano piercingly, at the top of her range, and the orchestra follows with a vivid, penetrating fanfare. Now the soul enters purgatory, visualized as "penal waters" of a lake. it's a cosmic lullaby, for while the soul lies in these depths it will be protected by angels and the memories of those left behind on earth.

"Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow" sings the Guardian Angel, "Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial,, and  I will wake thee on the morrow" (meaning the end of time).  Heavenly coda, strings and harp, a sense of uplift.

Hell exists in most cultures. In reality, most evil people get away scot-free. Yet a belief in the Afterlife implies that there are higher powers, divine justice that can't be bought or manipulated. The bad don't get away with it though they think they can. This has implications for how we live. Not that heaven or hell is any deterrent for those who really don't care. But it is hope for those who do.

Explicitly, the Angel of Agony sings of  "Souls, who are in prison, calm and patient, wait for Thee",  In life, we're all in a kind of prison and suffer. We have a responsibility to do good, but sometimes evil overwhelms.  What the Angel means is that faith and  patience give us strength to endure horrible things. Hate isn't the only way. If that's not a relevant message for today, what is?

In 2007, the Dream of Gerontius at Gloucester Cathedral. was fully sold out, but at the last minute I was unexpectedly given tickets. So I took a friend who'd been through months of trauma.  Then the music started and she felt a sudden rush of inexplicable but intense peace. Then she remembered how her father, who had died a few months before, had loved Elgar and may have heard it in Gloucester when he lived nearby in his youth. (He was Catholic and didn't normally do C of E). There's no point rationalizing such things. Emotionally they feel true, and if they bring such comfort, who can complain? She's not the first, nor will be the last, to be affected by the Dream of Gerontius. Perhaps that's the kind of miracle a self-effacing man like Cardinal Newman would have liked - simple, but profoundly helpful.

Please forward this on to anyone you think it might help.  There is lots more on this site on Elgar, Three Choirs, Messiaen, war, social issues etc.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

BBC Proms 2010 post mortem

It's less than a week since the Last Night of the Proms 2010, but already plans are in hand for next year and the next. Organizing a festival on this gargantuan scale takes organization. Now the post-prandial snooze is over, thoughts for the future.

Fabulous programming this year. A spectacular beginning with 3 blockbusters - Mahler 8, Meistersinger and Simon Boccanegra. How will they top that?

An almost equally spectacular ending. Glyndebourne, and  two Rattle Proms with the Berliner-Philharmoniker, arguably the best orchestra in the world .(They also exist in disguise as the Lucerne Festival Orchestra).  I loved their Mahler 1 in Berlin, the Proms version being more relaxed, and loved their second Prom with the Uber-Sinfonie, combining Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. This was a masterstroke, and beautifully, intelligently performed. Rattle gets a lot of flak because he's successful. It's nothing to do with performances, which naturally vary, but the simple fact remains that the Berliners love him and they know a bit more about music than the average troll.

The emphasis this year on Sir Henry Wood and real Proms tradition was good too, because it dispels some holy myths. Wood was an idealist: not for him the redneck bigotry some seem to expect these days. Since when were the British really "British" anyway? "Tradition" means nothing in itself, especially when there's no substance to it.

Where are the Yeomen of England was, in 1910, "new music", premiered only 7 years before. One of the regular readers on this site has done a lot of work on Edward German and the singers of his time, which I'll post about soon.

New music has always been part of the Proms. Unexpected highlight was Ilan Volkov's Prom with Cage, Feldmann and Cornelius Cardew's Bun, whose title had all intrigued though it wasn't  a patch on the wonderful Cage and Feldmann pieces.  Favourites for me were Simon Holt's a table of noises, Hans Abrahamsen's Wald and  Luke Bedford's Outblaze The Sky.  And Ferneyhough, always in a league of his own.

This proves "popular" does not have to mean "populist". If the General Public wants ITV or West End pap, that's where they go. If they come to the Proms they expect it to be different. Fortunately, Roger Wright's stemmed the dumbing down trend somewhat.

Perhaps he's also trying to raise the standard of presenters, Presenting is more difficult than it looks, because a presenter has to talk without thinking,. That's how the job works. The secret is to get a presenter who actually knows what they're doing, so their comments come from mind not mouth.  Last year some of the presenting was outright shameful. This year slightly better. though the BBC is still seduced by "experts".  Last year Tom Service wrote an article declaring that Mahler shouldn't be played in the Royal Albert Hall. Maybe they've taken him at his word because this year fortunately he didn't present Mahler as far as I know (I use mute a lot).

Mahler Year worries me because it's become a pig trough, everyone after a piece of the action whether or not they have anything to contribute. Proms 2010 brought one exceptionally good Mahler 7, Metzmacher,  very intelligently planned. This was  one of the highlights of the whole season, surprisingly overlooked because people either don't appreciate Metzmacher as a Mahlerian (he's good) or expect too much syrup in their Schreker and Korngold.

Bělohlávek's Mahler 8th got more flak than he deserved. perhaps because people were expecting miracles. Fact is, this symphony easily falls apart inn the wrong hands. At the Royal Albert Hall in 2006, Daniele Gatti lost control. Don't even think about Gergiev at St Paul's. Bělohlávek's not a natural Mahler man but at least he can run a team. Pity there wasn't more of the repertoire he does to perfection, like Dvořák, Suk and Janáček.

Robert Schumann's image was reshaped by Proms 2010. Vassily Petrenko's Manfred  and Thomas Dausgaard were exceptional. Even Knussen's oddball Schumann was a treat because it reached levels of Schumann few appreciate. Schumann's misunderstood because he isn't Wagner and isn't Beethoven but, like Mendelssohn and Weber, inhabits territory that hasn't been fashionable or much understood. Until now, I hope,

Impossible any Proms season without Beethoven. Some excellent performances this year, Paul Lewis for example, and Paavo Jarvi, because I like the period instrument approach. A few duds, but that's to be expected.

More European orchestras, please! They are extremely good, do interesting repertoire and have distinctive individuality.  One "tradition" we don't need is the dominance of US orchestras. They're good but should stand on their own merits, not simply because they're famous.

Every year, without fail, someone asks me: "Do you listen to the Proms?" Then they blanch when I say "around 60". But anyone can listen, even more than that. It's free. In fact anyone who cares about music at all should listen because there's so much variety to be heard, so much to discover and to rethink.  No-one jumps from the womb knowing everything, though many think they do. "Experience" someone said to me this season.  Perhaps that's iconoclastic in this age of instant expertise, but with the Proms, there's no excuse for not trying.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Pre Raphaelites and Italy - Oxford Ashmolean

Special exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy opened this week at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and runs until December.  Everyone knows the famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings of blowsy women, medieval and biblical myth. This exhibition, however, shows how they came to be "pre-Raphaelite" in the first place. They wanted to be "Pre-Raphael", going back before the baroque.

Romantics went to Italy to imbibe Classical antiquity and discovered sunshine. The Pre-Raphaelites, though, differed from Goethe and Turner in that they made their art for middle class Victorian society. Craft as much as High Art. This exhibition places them firmly in a stream of idealistic 19th century thought.

Just like Goethe, John Ruskin went to Italy to study. He recorded what he saw as literally as possible.The minute detail shows his craftsmanship. Ruskin didn't do people or have real relationships, not even with men, but he inspired others who were better artists. Hence the Pre-Raphaelite thing for fancy furnishings and perfect detail. Photography's killed that kind of art. When rich hippies discovered the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1960's what drew them was the way the exaggerated reality of these painting becomes psychedlic and unreal.

But back to Italy: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, though British in many ways, identified with Dante Alighieri.  Hence numerous paintings, pen and wash sketches and writings on the theme of Dante and Beatrice. In fact,  his relationships with women were an extension of this. Rossetti liked unattainable women, apart from Fanny Cornforth, the hooker whose portrait screams out of the wall where other Pre-Raphaelite goddesses hang.

Above is Rossetti's Dante painting Angels, where the poet is seen as obsessively drawing angels that remind him of Beatrice. His friends try to distract him. Perhaps the woman is telling the priest that Dante's "got issues". Meanwhile, outside the cramped studio, nature, growth, freedom. The studio is not all that dissimilar from cramped Victorian morality.

Don't go to this exhibition expecting the usual army of famous, luminous paintings, which you can see anywhere, like on postcards and CD covers. Instead, go to the Ashmolean because this show is thoughtful and scholarly. Many pictures aren't normally on display, like the etchings and line drawings. This is your chance! Some are borrowed from Tate Britain and Italy, and some from private collections.

Oxford was a Pre-Rahaelite hotspot. Ruskin went to college here, accompanied, significantly, by his mother. Janey, the raven-haired muse Rossetti loved and William Morris married, grew up in a hovel in the narrow alley that leads to the 12th century Turf Tavern, which leads onto Holywell Street. Oxford's gargoyles and medieval corners are a part of the Pre-Raphaelite ethos.

So it's even more interesting that the Asmholean presents the Pre-Raphaelites in a wider, European context. One important group were the "Etruscans" who painted wide angled horizons, imaginging a world as people-free as an Etruscan dream. Their leader was Giovanni Costa, an Italian patriot who hung out with Garibaldi and influenced Frederick, later Lord Leighton, whose elaborately-decorated house is now a London museum.

This exhibition was curated by the Ashmolean for display in Italy, hence the Italian Connection. But here were other European art movements inspired bty Italy, too, such as the German Nazarenes, one of whose followers was Wilhelm Henschel, husband of Fanny Mendelssohn. European art was not insular. Decades before the Pre-Raphaelites, the Nazarenes were doing their thing in Rome, Berlin and beyond. Now there's another theme for an exhibition.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Don Pasquale ROH - 1904 copied!

"One can’t help feeling that things should either be more frothy or more revelatory. As it is, it’s hard to care about these marionettes in their artificial bubble." says Claire Seymour in Opera Today on Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House.

Compare the 2010 production shots (on the link) with this one from 1904/5 La Scala. Almost identical to small details! Paolo Gavenelli is wigged and robed so he's unrecognizable. Imbrailo painted up like a doll. One also wonders what the acting was like in 1904, if these old poses are anything to go by.  Please also see an interview with Jacques Imbrailo on his interpretation of Dr Malatesta.

Horenstein conducts Korngold Violanta

Thanks to Brendan Carroll, Korngold's biographer: "An unreleased and unknown test recording of the climactic love duet Reine Liebe (Pure Love) from Korngold's early and highly precocious opera VIOLANTA . It features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein."

"The recording presents the orchestra alone (no voices) and was made on June 2, 1965 at the Kingsway Hall, London. This gorgeous music is one of the most remarkable examples of Korngold's prodigious gifts, a sumptuously erotic duet by a teenage composer (he was not quite 17) who had barely experienced his first kiss, let alone the passion depicted here."

"The Prelude and Carnival music (from the same sessions) was briefly available on an LP from Quintessence in the early 1980s, but this unique performance of Reine Liebe was not included."

In the Penal Colony Glass Kafka

Impossible to relax after experiencing Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House, (Music Theatre Wales production). This isn't an opera anyone could "like" but anyone who can't be moved, disturbed or unsettled isn't fully human.

A Visitor arrives in a remote penal colony. He's completely neutral, insisting his opinions don't count because he's not involved. But he's asked to witness an execution, where words are drilled into a prisoner's body. Much too horrific to describe here. Read the Kafka story. It's just completely insane.

The Visitor tries to avoid emotional engagement or any form of moral responsibility. The condemned man is so conditioned to brutality that he accepts his fate mindlessly, like an animal. The Officer is so obsessed with the former Camp Commandant that he thinks of the execution machine as semi-religious duty. Crimes and non-crimes are irrelevant, the only reality is the killing machine.

Glass's music whirls,unearthly sounds projected over a string quintet, mechanical merging with live music, as precisely as cogs in a machine. The endless repetitions fit the plot as tightly as a straitjacket. "Efficient, quiet, anonymous", as the Visitor explained he'd like to be. You're half-hypnotized by this strange semi-trance music, just as the protagonists are numbed into accepting their circumstances.

Yet the repetitions move with a crazy logic, sometimes up a notch, sometimes disintegrating into cacophony (such as when the Officer thinks of his homeland - a last glimpse of the man he once was). Pay close attention to the subtle gradations. Like good film music they affect emotions subliminally. You understand how people in the penal colony become machines.

Omar Ebrahim, who sings The Officer is extremely experienced in contemporary music theatre. His vocal range is prodigious, though not used here where the monotony of the music is part of the plot. Nonetheless,Ebrahim brings surprising lyricism to the part. Some passages shimmer with the fervour of Bach. The Officer's dedication to his old Commander and to the machine demands total sacrifice. Blasphemy, perhaps, but in the insane world of the penal colony, there's crazy logic to the idea that the Officer should offer himself to the machine as it falls apart.

It would be so easy to lean back and say, it's Glass, it's gloomy, therefore no need to bother. No need to get engaged with the ideas here because they're too bizarre. Nod off and think about something  twee. But that's how barbarities like those in the Penal Colony happen. People don't get involved, don't take responsibility. Once you trivialize emotion, you lose your humanity.You end up like the Officer who thinks that because he's got status, he doesn't have to think. And because he's lost the ability to think and feel, he loses himself. Scarily, the Prisoner is well on the way down that route, too.

Get to Into the Penal Colony while it lasts. The short run ends Sunday and you'll have to brave the Papal crowds to get there. You won't enjoy it, I guarantee. But if you're not moved and disturbed, or confronted mentally and emotionally, I just don't know. I spent years researching war crimes and thought nothing would scare me. But this does, because the implications are that we're all in Penal Colonies if we don't question or act. Formal, "proper" review HERE with more detail on the music .

Photo : Music Theatre Wales, Philip Glass : In the Penal Colony, Omar Ebrahim, The Officer, credit Clive Barda (copyright, used with permission, please do not copy)

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Wolf Spanisches Liederbuch Bostridge Kirchschlager

It's Hugo Wolf's anniversary too this year but, unlike Mahler, he hasn't been cursed. No cheap dumbing down. The Wigmore Hall started the Wolf season with the thorny, demanding Hugo Wolf Spanisches Liederbuch. Forty-four songs of darkness and complexity guaranteed to scare off tacky and downmarket.

Surprisingly there are very few good Hugo Wolf interpreters, as his idiom is much quirkier than most realize. Lots of good singers approach Wolf and produce decent results, but true Wolf specialists are elusive. 

Here we had Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake. Kirchschlager cancelled  a concert two days earlier due to illness. This shows her comittment to Wolf. Wolf's masterpiece is such a pinnacle that you can't pull in a last-minute substitute, no matter how experienced. Praise to her for soldiering on even though she was quite obviously unwell. I was sitting close enough to see her chest muscles move and her throat tighten. Yet, on she went, an act of heroism.

Kirchschlager knows how the cycle unfolds. One of the really big numbers is In dem Schatten meiner Locken, which some consider one of the finest songs of all time.  She conserved her resources beforehand, so she could do it justice, knowing that all the Wolfites would be paying close attention. The look of joy she had when she completed it!  The next big number, Bedeckt mich mit Blumen didn't come off, but it didn't matter. She did very well considering, and it was appreciated.

It also did not help that Julius Drake was in freight train mode, pounding away regardless, rather than observing the score and what the singers were doing. Part of  a song pianist's job is to work with the singers, not against them. No pauses between songs, lessening their impact and juxtaposition against each other. Wolf isn't hurdy-gurdy. Nuance matters. Kirchschlager and Bostridge were forced to bounce up and down in quicktime, without breathing space. At one point, Julius rushed into the next song before Kirchschlager could move to her seat. Gracefully, she pretended it was part of the plan, smiling at Bostridge, who'd jumped up  alertly, taking over without notice.

Bostridge is used to Drake's ways and manages to get straight into a song without build-up. But Drake must have realized that Kirchschlager was ill and needed more support. Drake's probably the best player of the regular UK song pianists but he needs to remember he's not a soloist. His job is to work with the singers, not against them.  The interval was longer than usual, and afterwards, Drake did allow the singers to breathe and focus on their singing rather than having to keep up with his relentless pace. Unfortunately this lasted only through a few songs and he was back on high speed rail.

Ian Bostridge can be unpredictable, but this time he must have realized that someone had to save the day, so he rose to the occasion. Bostridge accesses levels of Wolf many just don't understand. With Wolf, quirky, esoteric, fervid, magical, but never, ever, bland and safe.

The Geistliche Lieder are, as  my friend commented, as crazy as the Spanish baroque, extremes of dark and light, emotionally so intense that martyrdom and religious ecstasy seem quite rational.  Hence the El Greco painting right. El Greco stretches his figures unnaturally, intensifying the surreal sensibility. Being so tall, Bostridge looks the part. This was one of the nights when he excelled himself, singing with sharpness and passionate clarity.

All the more to be respected as these songs are usually baritone territory, not tenor. They lie very low for Bostridge, but his voice has matured well, revealing greater depth and richness.  Much as I adore Goerne in this cycle, Bostridge has convinced me that higher timbre illuminates these songs in a positive way. (Incidentally I think Bostridge had the beginnings of Kirchschlager's cold.)

Wolf was drawn to Heyse's poetry because it was exotic, allowing Wolf to think in alien mode, into  characters outside mainstream sensibility. Wolf's Austria was polyglot. He wasn't Viennese, growing up in  what is now Slovenia.  His mother had Italian ancestry and played the guitar. Maybe he needed this exoticism to release his creative imagination, just as he turned to Mörike's fairy fantasies and Eichendorff's personalities. Conformist just isn't in Wolf's mental makeup, which is why performance practice is so demanding.
For more on Hugo Wolf, there's LOTS on this site

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House must have been playing safe, staging Jonathan Miller's (not necessarily Mozart's)  Così fan tutte to start the 2010/11 season. Maybe they needed something bland because the performance was broadcast live to cinemas all round the world, and mass audiences like that do not want anything demanding. Most of the senior people at ROH are off in Japan, where ROH is being welcomed enthusiastically. So maybe the season will come alive later.

Thomas Allen's a surefire crowd puller and Don Alfonso is a role he can do almost on autopilot. Suave, detached, golf swing, laidback, all part of the character. Rebecca Evans is brilliant though, fantastically vivid! Even with a mask over her face she can sing better than the rest of the cast put together, As a friend commented, Evans reminded her of Rita Streich. Serious praise, completely deserved. But Despina alone doesn't make the opera.

Jonathan Miller's set is a caricature, the sort of thing that gives modern opera a bad name. Minimalist sets aren't in themselves evil, if they're filled by intelligent drama. This one's an empty hole in the absence of focused direction. The less experienced the cast, the more important it is to treat each revival as if it were a new production.

This was great on cutesy jokes, but had nil to offer in terms of real wit and pacing. Miller was wildly applauded, which made me wonder - is this what people really want of Mozart and da Ponte? I suspect it was infinitely tighter on film.

Best thing about the evening - apart from the wonderful Rebecca Evans - was the conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.  Based in Freiburg, he's been involved with some of the liveliest baroque ensembles, who prove that historically informed performance ius perfectly adaptable to modern staging. He conducts Niobe, Regina di Tebe next week, a work he passionately believes in.

Please read the full review in Opera Today, with photos.

Dream of Gerontius

Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was based on the poem  by John Henry Cardinal Newman who's being beatified this weekend by the Pope. Lots of negative flak about Catholicism these days but Newman is a reminder that goodness can exist in a compromised world. 

PLEASE SEE my meditation on Newman, Elgar and the Dream of Gerontius HERE.

Newman was a priest at the University Church in Oxford, the heart of the Establishment, massive status. Yet he gave it up to serve in a working class  parish in Oxford.  His talents were soon used elsewhere, but it was a radical step. Catholics were outsiders, then, the faith only recently having had severe legal restrictions removed from it. Victorians equated Religion with Society, the Queen Head of the Church. Conversion was almost treason.

Newman was a rational, self effacing guy so flashy miracles like raising the dead weren't his style.  He had courage and integrity, searching his conscience for what he could believe in. That kind of genuine humility is something anyone can respect, religious or not.

Newman had a gentleman friend with whom he wanted to be buried so they'd see each other at the Final Judgement when the dead are supposed to be raised intact. When the Church wanted to exhume him there was controversy. But when they opened the tomb it was empty. Nothing to move, nothing to bury. End of dilemma. A kind of gentle miracle in its own way, saving face for everyone.

From the Elgar Birthplace Museum in Worcester :

"To coincide with the 2010 Papal Visit and the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman the Museum is holding a special exhibition on the Dream of Gerontius from 11th September to 23rd December 2010 (inclusive). The exhibition will include original manuscripts, letters and period photographs revealing all about the composition of this great work and its performance. On display will be Alice Elgar’s personal copy of the poem complete with the 'Gordon Markings', her copies of the markings of particular sections of the poem made by General Gordon of Khartoum in his own copy of the poem "
PLEASE NOTE  I've written a lot on Elgar, Catholicism and 3 Choirs, so please explore this site. 

Monday, 13 September 2010

Jacques Imbrailo in Don Pasquale

Jacques Imbrailo sings Dr Malatesta in Donizetti's Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House. Don't assume that  Dr Malatesta must be as old as Don Pasquale. How would he be able to fool the old man that Norina is his sister?  Don Pasquale's gullible but not that dumb. Donizetti sparkles, but beneath the lightness there's sharp wit. Just don't expect Verdi.

In this Don Pasquale, director Jonathan Milller aims for lyrical realism. “Not too flowery, he tells us”. says Imbrailo, “Naturalness is good even though it’s bel canto. The focus is on acting as well as on vocal display".

Jacques Imbrailo was a wonderful Billy Budd at Glyndebourne this summer.  The production projected the opera as a love triangle . Britten would have been surprised, for to him the moral dilemma was far more significant. Captain Vere's struggling with  fundamental concepts of good, evil  not lust.. Fortunately, Imbrailo's Billy Budd transcended the production. Imbrailo's "Beauty" wasn't a passive "Baby" but a force of exuberant life.

Billy is pure because he doesn't play games. Dr Malatesta is a chancer who can't stop trying to pull strings. "He’s an opportunist who likes to give things a nudge, then sit back and see how things unfold." says Imbrailo. "He’ll push events towards an outcome that suits him. The only one who really gets hurt is Don Pasquale, but he’s saved from a much worse fate. Dr Malatesta’s intentions are good, though he thinks the ends justify the means”.

All actors (and singers) need to develop roles from within, thinking into character. Sometimes you wonder where some people find extreme evil ! But art is art, not reality. Donizetti's wit is clear but not malicious. Dr Malatesta could be anyone, there but for fortune. It's easier to scam, and some folk have no qualms about being dishonest if that gets results. Integrity, though, takes more courage. It's better to be a Billy. Please read the full interview in Opera Today HERE

There's a video clip of Imbrailo as boy soprano HERE and a link to Billy Budd HERE.

photo credit : Suzy Bernstein

Bizet est Mauricien

Carmen in the Mauritius ! Please see the review here.
"Même lorsque la musique nous rapproche des Pyrénées Atlantiques, la fin du deuxième acte ou dans le troisième, même si nous pensions qu'elle chaussait des sabots auvergnats, la mise en scène, interactive nous fait voir les visages multiples de la cigarière (la scène de la fabrique) : ceux de notre pays! "

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Last Night of the Proms 2010

Renée Fleming, Prom Queen! Complete with helmet and flag! The BBC Proms are the biggest block party in the whole world, as well as the Biggest Music Festival, and the Last Night of the Proms is the biggest party of the whole season.

Imagine, 86,000 tickets issued for the various events, Hyde Park and other free open air venues and concert halls in the UK completely packed out. Millions more listening at home or with friends (where you safely quaff champagne). All over the world, online too. By tomorrow the repeat broadcast will be available on the BBC Site, and also more clips on youtube both official and pirated.

La Renée gave us a Rule Britannia with genuine baroque flourish: nice change! She knows how not to take herself too seriously, though, which is a saving grace. In any case, no-one comes to the Last Night for High Art. That's why I loved Sergei Leiferkus singing Edward German's Who were the Yeomen of England? with heavy Russian accent at the 1910 Proms Last Night reconstruction last Sunday. (There is a special clip of this on the BBC listen again site)  This should become a classic!

No English singer could sing German without Heavy Irony. When a Russian sings it, it's hysterically funny. As a historian friend told me apropos this Prom, that London in 1910 was full of exiles, Russians, Polish, Jewish and Indian. Good point! One thing the British should be proud of is that London was a world city, even then, a haven for progressive thinkers. This is one aspect of Britishness that's worth remembering, which right-wing bigots forget.

At the Last Night of the Proms in 1946, my mother was in the arena, a penniless refugee, recently liberated from a camp, in England for the first time. To her, Land of Hope and Glory really meant something. Flag waviing is fine, jingoism isn't. A few years ago showing off got out of hand, and some people were more interested in hogging attention than the musical spirit of the Proms. Thank goodness BBCTV crews don't focus on these types anymore, but linger on ordinary members of the audience. Ban vuvuzuelas, someone! They're intrusive and fascist, the sonic equivalent of a fart.

One of the pleasures of the Proms is the "ordinary people". Wonderful to spot friends in the audience, having fun, not playing up for TV. And watch around 48 minutes into part 2. There's a celebrity in the crowd, but the cameraman doesn't notice, so it's a fuzzy group shot. He's completely unassuming, no airs. The people around him probably didn't realize he's a star. Bet HE sang nicely.

Jiří Bĕlohlávek was lovable, because he. too, is unpretentious. His English is odd ("Gent-lemen") but it's much better to have a conductor who expresses himself through music than through showmanship. The speech is one tradition we could do without. It's unnatural, as it creates unnecessary stress on a conductor who isn't that way inclined. Most of them haven't the guts to say, let me do music not clown. Bĕlohlávek's genial, and you can see his nerves, and the relief on his face when he starts to do what he's much better at.

Post mortem on the 2010 Proms season is now up.  It's been wonderful, extremelty well planned and balanced, spectaular flourishes, many good moments and only a few duds.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Remembering 9/11 Wuorinen

The moment everyone heard about 9/11 is branded on our memories. The most powerful memory for me was hearing the victims phoning out messages of love. Not hate, not hysteria. For a while, I hoped that this might be a turning point in history, where we created a world where people don't need to resort to hate to resolve things. Ten years on, we're all in a much more paranoid place, psychosis affecting all aspects of our lives. The plotters won becauase they infected our minds like a poison that can't stop replicating.

In a very different world from what we have now, when things seemed optimistic, a major financial publisher commissioned Charles Wuorinen's Cyclops. The name is a play on Cyclops of ancient myth, who had one giant eye and could only see straight ahead. Hence, it’s written on a single constant metre. The real drama, though, comes from what Cyclops does with his single eye, or rather what Wuorinen does, within the constraints of the metre. The music proceeds in fits and starts, jerking from side to side, switching from rapid tempo to moments of still contemplation. Textures vary: sometimes soloists pulling out from the ensemble, sometimes duetting and exchanging partners in further duets. This gives the piece a strong sense of movement, even though it rises from a simple, single line. There's a recording with the London Sinfonietta, where Oliver Knussen drawstogether the disparate figures, so the piece moves forward like a quirky, joyous procession, all elements moving in relation to each other, always headed towards a goal.

The publishing house whose boss commissioned Cyclops had offices in the Twin Towers, many of their staff were killed.  Everyone knows someone who knew someone, so we can identify personally with Twin Towers more easily than with  the millions far away who've died since. So what I want to think of is the messages of love, which might have meant a turning point in another way.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927) restored

Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis has been restored with 25 minutes of new footage and extra intertitles, and original soundtrack (once played live by an orchestra in the cinema). This is big news because it reveals a tighter, tougher vision behind the film than the neutered version currently available.  Lang's Metropolis is not science fiction, it's a parable on modern society.How amazing those opening shots are! They're painted, sophisticated mega-cartoon, at a time when Disney was producing  primitive stuff. It's Futurist, high art like so much else at the time. Bauhaus in the movies.

The Metropolis exists as a multi dimensional, self contained world where vehicles travel in the space between art deco towers that rise endlessly upwards. The Tower of Babel, as the movie makes explicit. This glory comes at a cost. The workers who make the whole thing function are dehumanized, reduced to regimented automatons. Look for the amazing scene where naked bodies are thrown into a fiery abyss in the mouth of a gigantic Moloch. And the immortal scene where the worker has to keep turning the hands of a clock, so the whole edifice doesn't blow up.
One "new" scene shows the paradise the young men enjoy - quite deliberately Venusberg, where men paint black lipstick on pretty women. In this restoration, we get more of the male-female power politics that meant so much to Thea von Harbou. Now at last I understand why Peter Gay denounced the film in his seminal Weimar Culture (1968). Gay was disturbed about the feminization of the hero, who throws himself on the bosom of the Eternal Feminine, named Maria, (wehat else?), instead of being a "man".  It says more about him than was apparent to us 40 years ago. For that was von Harbou's whole point. Fredersen's son rejects his father's ways because they aren't right.  The dialectic of this film contrasts "male" power which has created militaristic, mechanized systems with "Female" power which replaced the machine with something more nurturing and positive. The theme "Between the Hand and Brain there must be the Heart" recurs throughout the film.

It's clear: uncontrolled capitalism and industrialization is not good unless it's tempered by something softer and more humane. Much has been made of Maria's depiction as a prophet in the catacombs, preaching goodness to the workers. She's not a Virgin Mary, rather a throwback to the holy mystics of the ancient European past. Lang reinforces this with images of medieval sculpture, Death surrounded by the Seven Deadly Sins.  This isn't a Christian parable by any means, it's much more complex. It's international, too. The red light district in the Metropolis is called Yoshiwara. In the mindset of the time, oriental meant dangerous and exotic. Similarly there are references to Eygptian slaves building pyramids. Metropolis is all places at all times.

One of the new scenes shows the paradise garden where the Sons (of the rich) cavort. It's Venusberg or should I say, Venusburg, another kind of factory where the women are dehumanized like the workers below, though they're more decorative.  Later the Robot Woman cavorts in the nightclub, taunting the Elegant Gentlemen.  Venusberg again, the men automatons though they wear monocles and tuxedos.  Wonderful new shots of the Robot Woman, and her disintegration.

The actresss who plays Maria is Brigitte Helm, a girl who was approached in a street in Berlin, who didn't set out bto be a starlet. In fact, after Metropolis she became typecast as a dangerous, unemotional temptress, which was far dfrom herv reeal personality. At the height of her career she suddenly quit and became a Hausfrau in Switzerland and refused ever to speak of the movies again. In her life, Helm was re-enacting an image of Womanhood from Metropolis. Spooky.

The mad scientist, Rotwang, lives in a primitive hut surrounded by Fredersen's Metropolis, another connect to a medieval past. The hut has no windows but opens onto the ancient catacombs beneath the city.  Rotwang is a strange interface between Head, Hands and Heart, an amazing character to interpret. Luckily this restoration gives us more to go on. The actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, was immortalized  as The Gambler and the Testament of Dr Mabuse, one of my top movies of all time. Dr Mabuse uses mind control, shaping others to his will.  The film  was made in 1933. Go figure.

Metropolis explores ideas of mass manipulation,  unquestioning obedience and mob behaviour  Though Fredersen controls the Metropolis, the workers are complicit because they mindlessly follow. Individual workers are depicted, like G11811 but they're like cogs in a machine.  Maria is a charismatic leader with pseudo-religious powers to hypnotise the workers. Thus Fredersen and Rotwang try to harness her image to control the masses. Metropolis shows how appearances can be twisted, and people easily fooled.

Freudians might find something in the fact that Fredersen's son is called Freder, a rather effeminate wimp, whose Goth makeup is extreme. The other male actors didn't need it and  by 1927 film techniques had improved so it wasn't strictly necessary any more. These hints of bi-sexuality may have bothered Peter Gay. Nowadays that's no longer an issue, so Metropolis is propheetic on one issue at least.

The deeper you go into Metropolis the weirder it gets.  Thea von Harbou was married to Klein Rogge but divorced him for Fritz Lang yet they happily worked together. Von Harbou was a feminist and ultra modernist, yet became a Nazi as soon as Hitler came to power. The film represented everything the Nazis hated, because it was so avant garde. Yet some of its themes fitted their values.The Brown Shirts were "national socialist" after all, resentful of anyone more cultivated and upper class than themselves. The triumph of the will, the power of the mob. Totalitarianism, both Left and Right. Order versus disorder. Oddly, the film with its Tower of Babel imagery, was made in Babelsburg studios  The vision isn't coherent but still powerfully evocative, asking questions, noit giving answers.  Metropolis could be interpreted in many different ways, both as commentary on its time and on ours. That's what makes it so intriguing. We still haven't sorted the dilemmas of modern society.
PLEASE see my piece on Fritz Lang and von Harbou's Die Nibelungen There is a LOT on this site about Fritz Lang, Weimar, early movies, social issues, etc and many FULL DOWNLOADS
This is also one of the few sites about early Chinese film in English. Full downloads, too.