Saturday, 30 April 2011

Benjamin Britten : Ballad of Heroes

So Tony Blair didn't get invited to the Royal wedding? His sycophants whine. But Prince William has been to Afghanistan, he's a serviceman and he knows the real effects of war. So look who does get invited? People whose names aren't headlines, but disabled soldiers, widows, and charities who care for those maimed by Blair's wars brought upon this nation by shameless deceit. William's chosen guests are the real heroes whom we should honour. Blair's presence would be an insult but his followers are too blind to see. William's mother campaigned against landmines. Chances are she'd not have invited Blair either.

So it was an amazing coincidence that last night's Barbican concert, where Ilan Volkov conducted the BBCSO, should include Benjamin Britten's Ballad of Heroes. It commemorates the International Brigades who served in the Spanish Civil War. Men and women joined the International Brigades because they were idealists who were prepared to die if that's what it took to stop fascism. How different things are now when so-called socialists grovel for places at the Royal W! The real conscience of left idealism has effectively been disenfranchised for many years. The big political parties fear change because it threatens their stranglehold.

Britten's Ballad of Heroes was written three years after his seminal Our Hunting Fathers. a much underrated piece whose radicalism still isn't appreciated. This time the tenor is surrounded by a choir, representing the massed voices of the dead and suffering.  Offstage trumpet : a reference to distant conflicts as well as to the Christian idea of the last trumpet, for which you don't need to be a believer to acess. Alarums and whips of clarinet, marching ostinato in the orchestra and turbulence in the choral writing. "A world of horror!" Then suddenly the tenor emerges, uncovered.

"....and the guns can be heard across the hills like wa-a-aves at night". A distinctively Britten flourish.  Later there are huge leaps within phrases in the vocal line, which Toby Spence negotiates well. The orchestra comments, like a response in the sermon referred to in the text. This time the trumpet call is sour and distorted - a precursor of the horn in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Though it's not a masterpiece, Ballad of Heroes is dramatic and would work well in public spaces. Like Westminster Abbey.

The text is from W H Auden and Randall Swingler, a communist poet of the 1930's  HERE is a link to another poem, much better and possibly all Auden, (though it's not, as the site suggests, the text used in this setting). The Spanish Civil War inspired so many artists and writers, from Picasso, to Hemingway and myriad others less famous. Where are the artists now, in our even more polarized times?  Have they all been lulled into complicity?  Britten's Ballad of Heroes is a million miles from Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch (who actually took part) but Britten cared enough to make a statement.

The concert, which can be heard for 7 days online HERE, included the premiere of James Clarke's Untitled No 2 for piano and large orchestra, soloist Nicholas Hodges. Fascinating piece, worth listening to. Also Beethoven 3. Heroic evening altogether.

Personal aside: when I was working on the Chinese civil war I found a thin file on The International Brigade. What, I thought, and followed up. Among the many volunteers were a group of 22 German and Austrian doctors who could not return home for obvious reasons and were effectively statelesss. The Red Ctross picked up on them and redeployed them to China where doctors were desperately needed. I tried to trace where they went, though most disappeared from the public record. Some drifted into the Chinese Communist party but most did essential humanitarian work. Amazingly, one of the men I interviewed for another project knew all about them. Even more amazingly, it turned out that I'd met some of these men and women when I was a kid, but didn't know where they'd come from. This doctor was Hong Kong Jewish and wealthy but went straight into China on graduating from medical school (with my uncle).  He went into war-torn China and worked for the Quakers. British representives in China attacked the Quakers for not being pro-British. But the Quakers' basic tenets are neutrality and the good of all. Some people will never understand idealism. Or what real heroism is about.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker Mega Symphony online

Real reason to celebrate! The Berliner Philharmoniker is streaming in full one of last year's finest Proms - the "mega symphony" which blended Berg, Webern and Schoenberg.  Catch it HERE.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Erich Korngold Die Kathrin - rare clips


Many thanks to Brendan Carroll for these clips from Erich Korngold's last opera Kathrin.  They come from an extremely rare recording issued only in Austria, featuring a Viennese tenor Walter Anton Dotzer. This Serenade comes from near the beginning, when Francois, the hero, serenades Kathrin outside her bedroom window. .Gorgeous set piece but the story isn't quite as simple as it sounds. The opera is set in 1930 for one thing, in the "present", and the subject is not quite as sugary as one might assume. Interestingly, the librettist is Ernst Decsey, Hugo Wolf's devoted follower and first biographer.

Kathrin is a servant and Francois is a soldier. He seduces her by moonlight and ships out, as soldiers do.  She gets pregnant and loses her job - grim reality. As happens to destitute girls, she ends up in dangerous situations, which involve lust, deception and murder. Francois turns up unexpectedly - he's now a freelance musician.  He thinks she's killed the villain and goes to jail on her behalf. Years later he's free and goes wandering in the mountains and sings the Wanderer Lied below. He gets a job serenading a woman who turns out to be Kathrin ! All's well after all.  Please see my numerous other posts on Korngold and related composers.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

South Bank Centre 2011/12

Interesting things happening at the South Bank 2011 and 2012, once you get past the "Festival of Britain" and Olympics hype that's infected everyone. Maybe they have to sell crass populism to get funding, but there's some serious musicianship behind the dross.

One theme is "Music that defines an Era", defined by a quote from T S Eliot, "the still point of turning world". ie moments when a piece of music distils the Zeitgeist of an era.  "Every one of the main works in this series has a context that in some way summarizes the human condition", says Esa Pekka Salonen. His choices are surprising, but extremely well considered.  Luigi Dallapiccola's opera Il Prigioniero, (The Prisoner) where Dallapiccola protests the rise of Mussolini.  Italian Fascism s oddly different to Nazism or the rise of the redneck Right, because modernism rejected Pope and King. "It is very rarely played" says Salonen, "because of the tremendous technical challenges but I'm confident that bretween the Philharmonic Voices, the Orchestra and the soloists we can do justice to this very strong piece." You bet. Since Salonen has taken over the Philharmonia they've developed from a good orchestra to arguably the best in Britain. Artistically he's stretched them and they've responded - Bartok, Messiaen, Schoenberg Gurrelieder.

Gosh, did London hit the jackpot with Salonen! He proves why orchestras need conductors with knowledge and vision who aren't prepared to dumb down and play safe. The Philharmonia seems energized, and audiences, too. Even Ormandy might think the Philadelphia model does not work. Salonen doesn't conduct all these concerts, though. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich 13 Babi Yar. Ashkenazy knows about the Soviet system. Clear all for 26/1 and 24/5 in 2012. Probably also 16/2 for Christoph Dohnanyi conducting Brahms German Requiem and Beethoven 4. Brilliant programme. Britten's War Requiem and Mahler's Second Symphony also seem to define their eras. Salonen's good in Mahler, but I can't cope with Maazel especially not in Britten.

Mega Blockbusters too. Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in October. severely tempting even though they're doing Bruckner. Lots of Bruckner this year (three Sevenths) conducted by Barenboim  (Staatskapelle Berlin), Eschenbach, Jurowski and Masur. Though I keep trying, I've never really been able to get my head round Bruckner.

Boulez, on the other hand,  I booked early March ! Intensive weekend of Aimard, Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain. In the US there's lots of hype aginst Boulez, generated by Nadia Boulanger's acolytes and Bernstein whom Boulez might have competed with.  As some masterclass students said recently: "He's not a monster at all". Listen and learn.  There'll also be Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage weekends with good performers and choices. Since the Barbican Total Immersions have gone disgracefully downmarket, the South Bank has clearly grabbed back the Crown for serious musical explorations. 

Vladimir Jurowski is heading another major series with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, titled Prokofiev: a man of the people?"  I don't know why the question mark, as Prokofiev chose to go back and stay in the Soviet Union. But Jurowski is planning to mix famous pieces with lesser known. There's also a Study Day.

Lots more, too - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Renée Fleming, Simon and Mrs Rattle, Padmore, Kaufmann etc.

Carnal Flower and Lys méditerranée

Summer is a-coming in, everything coming in to bloom at once. Time to switch perfumes too. In with Lys méditerranée, and my winter signature Carnal Flower into cool dark storage. Both are creations by Frédéric Malle. Why do I "need" perfume when the money could keep a family of ten in Burkina Faso fed for a year?  But on the other hand, a good perfume enhances your soul.

Carnal Flower turns heads because it's so subtle and unique. I love tuberose but it doesn't usually like me. I  love the idea of Tuberose criminelle but can't wear it. Carnal Flower, on the other hand, is natural, and works with you. Tuberoses need hot, sunny summers to thrive and usually come into bloom just as frosts set in in Europe. One year I brought them into the conservatory for shelter together with lemon and orange blossom. Unbelievably heady!  But that's what Carnal Flower is like - tuberose, citrus and something mysterious like the night. There's a hint of coconut, a smell I normally can't abide, but there's nothing cheap about Carnal Flower. Maybe Malle's comes from the young, green, fresh macapuno. Carnal Flower is carnal, but elegant and brainy.

Lys Méditerranée is more complex than the soliflores I used to wear when I was more cautious. Lilies are pure and fragile looking but they grow on tough stems. They have to be, to support as many as 20 blooms on each head.  A courageous flower, not for wimps. Lilies stand tall above the crowd.  I like clean, straight, direct. The plant hunter, Robert Fortune, discovered a valley in China with hundreds of thousands of lilies growing together. That was in Yunnan, I think, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Lys Méditerranée is crisp and fresh. like winds blowing in from the sea, so it's cool and very green. Once I was on a bus in Australia and an old Greek guy came on board, arms full of Madonna lilies, like he must have known when he was young and in Greece, growing wild on mountain slopes. So poignant.  Another time the stall holder I used to buy flowers from gave me his entire left over stock and this time it was me with an even bigger armful of lilies, so many that I couldn't walk far less get on the bus. So when I wear Lys méditerranée, memories and connotations enfold me.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Weimar lives! Mischa Spoliansky Melinda Hughes

"Life's a swindle, life is short but greed's always in season"
Mischa Spoliansky (1898-1985) wrote hits for Weimar cabaret in Berlin, and for music theatre including Es liegt in der Luft (1928) with which Marlene Dietrich made her stage debut.  Obviously after 1933 Spoliansky had to get out quick. But the spirit of Weimar Cabaret never dies as  long as there are creative people with independent minds.

Melinda Hughes is classically trained but she's  made a name as a composer, lyricist and performer of radical, modern cabaret. Her new CD Smoke and Noise is now out on Nimbus Alliance.  The title refers to Schall und Rauch, a nightclub Spoliansky worked for long ago.  His music hasn't been forgotten as he was an extremely successful composer for movies after he relocated to London. There's even an LP of him playing his greatest hits but this is the first new tribute.and easily available CD.  Spoliansky's on the verge of a revival, because his cabaret work connects to contemporary concerns. BCMG is doing a concert of songs by Spoliansky, Hanns Eisler and Stefan Wolpe in May. Get Melinda  Hughes's CD now to prepare, because it's very good.

Hughes  tracked down Spoliansky's music through the Jewish Music Institutre in London and met Steve Edis, whom she describes as "the fount of all knowledge Spoliansky". He played the songs on Spoliansky's own piano and told her the stories behind them.  The new CD features songs from some of Spoliansky's greatest hits like Es liegt in der Luft. You can just imagine Marlene Dietrich smouldering in L'heure bleue, an ironic song about the perfume, wildly popular in the Weimar period. Hughes, who's fluent in German, is pretty good at smouldering too, and has a comic gift.

Mischa Spoliansky's Alles Schwindel (1931) from which the line above comes, must have been explosive at the time, after the Wall Street Crash and rise of fascism.  It's subversive even now, especially with Jeremy Lawrence's English lyrics. Life's a swindle has lines like "Politicians are magicians, they make money disappear". It's a great rousing anthem but the irony is bleak.

Even better is The Smart Set, also from Alles Schwindel, also known as Das Lied der Gesellschaft . Hughes delivers the lines with a cut glass accent so arch that sometimes she deliberately sings up a tone, so it feels like the cut glass is cracking. Which is exactly what the song is about.  Savagely trenchant.

Some may remember Julie Andrews in drag in Victor Victoria. One of Spoliansky's other great successes was Victoria but I don't know if they're connected. Evidently though Spoliansky had sympathie, although he was straight.  Das Lila Lied deals with gay rights - in 1920!   Auf dem Mundharmonica comes from a 1956 show about a circus, but the words are potent. Circuses travel all over Europe. But so did soldiers. The song comes from a musical based on Carl Zuckmayer's play Katarina Knie. The ironic I am a Vamp (1933) is so exuberant, you sing along.

Hughes mixes Spoliansky's originals with songs from her own cabaret Kiss & Tell, like CRUNCH. This song is brilliant. Every line crackles - impossible to quote the best!  Less succesful is Carbon Footprints in my Jimmy Choos whose theme is a bit predictable, but Toy Boy and Smoker's Lament are excellent - both satires on modern pretensions. The combination is sensitively done, since Kiss & Tell's material reflects the political  bite of Weimar cabaret. Although Spoliansky is the focus of this CD, the Kiss & Tell songs are so good that they're worth hearing on their own merits.

Yet not all Weimar music was radical or even leftist.  Long before he moved to Britain and wrote music for movies like Sanders of the River and King Solomon's Mines, Spoliansky was writing for Ufa movies. Close your eyes and wish for happiness is straightforwardly sentimental, though we can't help but hear it tinged with what we know happened later. Similarly the gentle Auf Wiedersehen, but its message is hopeful.  Spoliansky is gone, but we'll meet him again through his music.
HERE is a link to the Mischa Spoliansky website, which has sound and video clips. This CD is on page one.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Peter Lieberson, Lorraine and Neruda

Peter Lieberson died on April 23 2011, aged only 64. He had an eventful life, but perhaps some of his best years were those spent with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, second of his three wives, for whom he wrote the Neruda songs. Lorraine seemed haunted by cancer. The Liebersons downplayed her own illness at the time, but as her condition deteriorated, he, too was diagnosed. Lorraine died in 2006, and the Neruda Songs were issued on CD almost immediately in her memory. The booklet was stark and unadorned by anything but essentials. On the front was a photograph of her beaming defiantly. Inside, a photo snapped moments later, still smiling, but her eyes closed. And then, on the back cover, only black.

Our response to these songs is of course coloured by what we know about their background. But why not?  Art is a medium through which people can work through their feelings and hopefully create something that can help and benefit others. When her mother and sister died from cancer, Lorraine created a mise-en-scène interpretation based on  Bach's Ich habe genug. Dressed in a hospital gown, she sang poignantly and with dignity. It was an act of protest against the disease which stirred many. It raised public awareness and  helped many people, directly and indirectly.

Although the background to these songs can't, and shouldn't be, forgotten, Lieberson's Neruda Songs are haunting as pure music. The voice jumps straight in with an unsentimental, matter-of-fact directness. Life is celebrated here, not death, and love affirms life. "Everything is alive so that I can be alive, ….. in your life I see everything that lives". She sings that last phrase with delicious fire. The accompaniment is spare, but sensual. High strings are balanced by the deeper notes of a harp.

In the second song, the mood is of spaciousness, the strings shimmering as if to capture the stars and open air in the poem. "There’s nothing here but light, quantities, clusters, space opened by the graces of the wind". The voice part isn’t adorned, but floats above the accompaniment. In contrast, the third song confronts fear and loss. It’s eerily quiet, anxiety rising despite the poet’s attempt to suppress it. The last word, "moriendo" (dying) is repeated several times over as if the singer is contemplating what will happen. Yet, again, it’s more dignified and firm than sentimental. The imagery in the fourth song is restful and almost dreamlike, the words "Amor!" repeated lovingly. Yet the strings tell a different story: they are starker, entering with greater force, though a simple little figure pushes the movement ahead. It ends abruptly. Then, comes the magnificent final song, where the poet confronts death and separation. Chill strings shimmer, like the "vague wind swept on us, like sailing seeds". But it’s the final strophe that’s most moving. "Love doesn’t end, goes the poem, because it has no birth, it has no death. … It is like a long river, only changing hands, and changing lips". As if the composer cannot bear to end the song, he repeats the verse again, and then the last line, and then, simply "Amor … amor …. amor".

Peter Lieberson's obituary in the NY Times is HERE. I've heard great things about the Buddhist commmunity in Nova Scotia.  Long may they continue helping those in need.

Heinrich Schütz -Victoria!


Gott sei dank! sing the trebles, while the tenor intones Victoria! Victoria!  Meaning victory over death, as Jesus has risen in glory.  In theory the tenor part should be more dominant, almost contrapuntally cutting across the choir a bit like an unfurling banner. But this is the only clip I could find. That's the thing with youtube, you get what's posted, not what there is. This piece is the final part of Heinrich Schütz Aufferstehungshistorie - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, written for Easter 1623, sixty years before Bach was even born.  It deals with the days between the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus's friends had ben feeling low after he died, and suddenly they spot him walking among them. "You're supposed to be dead!" But he eats and drinks and shows them his wounds. "Siehen, siehen, siehen meinen Hande und meinen Fussen!" It's so human and natural, but that's part of the theology that's often overlooked. Jesus, God made Man, alive again despite all logic. That's the miracle. What  I love about this music is its conversational simplicity, and the sense of genuine wonder. It's like the singers are telling a miraculous piece of news for the very first time.

Single voices, apart from the choirboys and the women's parts taken by high tenors. Minimal accompaniment - small ensemble, mainly continuo. Indeed, it's interesting how prominent Schütz makes the women's parts, since this was the Reformation. Although Schütz visited Italy and knew Monteverdi, being Lutheran he couldn't use castrati. Indeed, most of Schütz's music comes from this early time between Martin Luther and  JS Bach, when German music was finding new means of expression. 

Germany was in the midst of the Thirty Years War when millions died. Not until the 20th century were its horrors surpassed. Read more about the period here, for it was the real "first world war" played out as far as South America and China.  Peter H Wilson's book Europe's Tragedy should be studied by anyone with an interest in how Europe came to be.  Schütz had a difficult life even though he was Kappelmeister to the Court of Saxony. He often didn't get paid and was caught up in political intrigues he had no interest in.  His wife died young and then both his daughers. Alone, unwell and unhappy he lived to be 87 which in those times was like being Methusaleh. Perhaps his  faith sustained him until he at last experienced "Victoria!"

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Alice In Wonderland the movie


This is what will happen if you eat too many chocolate bunnies. Not Alice in Wonderland the ballet at ROH but Alice in Wonderland the 1915 movie.

Friday, 22 April 2011

REAL Good Friday Music Frank Martin Golgotha

What is Good Friday music? Parsifal is borderline blasphemy because The Knights of Thr Grail are a fundamerntally unpleasant bunch, whose values run counter to what Jesus really taught.  Parsifal is a bizarre re-telling of the Jesus story minus the critical theological premise.

Frank Martin's Golgotha is being broadcast live from King's College Cambridge on Friday evening 22 April and is presumably available on BBC Radio 3 on demand online for 7 days.  Martin's Golgotha is not "easy listening" but it's a bracing experience. It's uncompromising and stark - in comparison Bach seems almost cheery. Significantly, Martin began writing Golgotha in 1945, when Europe was torn apart by war. While he was working on it came news of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the start of the Cold War. The Soviets marched into Eastern Europe, and the Communists took China. It must have felt like Armageddon.

Frank Martin (1890-1974) was Swiss, theoretically "safe" from political chaos, but moved in 1946 to Amsterdam. A huge mid-life upheaval, especially as the Netherlands was still recovering from the German Occupation. In Holland he saw a copy of Rembrandt's etching The Three Crosses which inspired him to write Golgotha. Jesus hangs from the cross in the centre, lit by a dramatic shaft of light from above. Whatever the light may be, it throws everything else into shadow. All the suffering that went before, the soldiers, the world, all meaningless in the face of the divine. Two thieves hang on crosses at the side. One mocks Jesus for willingly letting himself into this situation. The other, who knows a thing or two about lowlifes, recognizes that Jesus isn't a crook.  Jesus turns to him and says  Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  What it signifies is that even the lowliest sinner can be redeemed.

Whether we believe in any religion, or even in an afterlife, fact is that we're all going to die and those we love, too. That's maybe why all over the world, different faiths ponder why we live and what happens when we die. When the Egyptian Gods weigh up a person's soul, they're doing much the same as Jesus who sees the thief's kind words as an act of good faith.  Think about Rembrandt's picture when you listen to Martin's Golgotha because it expresses the darkness of the situation, and the shaft of light which tears away the gloom.  On Good Friday, Jesus sacrifices himself that others might be saved.. Because he was mortal, he suffered and had doubts, but felt it was worthwhile if it helped others.  Liturgically,Good Friday is even more important than Xmas because it leads up to the Resurrection. The image of Jesus on the cross has helped millions make some sense of life and its termination.
Please read more about Frank Martin on this site and follow the link to Opera Today to hear the only full recording of his opera Der Sturm.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Pelléas et Mélisande - Barbican Dessay, Keenlyside, Naouri

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande is an otherworldy symbolist dream.  Louis Langrée, Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Simon Keenlyside and the Orchestre de Paris at the Barbican, London, created the opera as perhaps it should be, an extended symphonic reverie with voices. Four hours, short break: no mercy to the faint of heart.

Although Pelléas et Mélisande is dramatic enough for an opera, concert performances throw emphasis on the orchestral structure.  The dense forest in Act One isn't physical. Seductive strings, but chilling winds, in every sense.  It's a psychological jungle into which Golaud has strayed. Mélisande's first words are a warning. "Ne me touchez pas"  Natalie Dessay's Mélisande is much more than a pale mirror for Golaud's fantasies. The deliberate sharpness in Dessay's singing is deeply disturbing because it barely suppresses the innate sensuality that lies beneath. Later, the tenderness in Dessay's portrayal will reveal itself, but she establishes the essence of the mystery straight away. Whoever Mélisande might be, she's an elemental spirit, and not benign.

Dessay's singing isn't flashy but emotionally true. It's significant that she spends time with Pelléas by the deep pond whose waters can restore sight to the blind.  Dessay's voice becomes flirtatious, as if she instinctively scents Pelléas as prey. When the pair enter the underground grotto, it could be a reprise of Golaud lost in the forest, but this time Mélisande has changed, as the lightness entering Dessay's voice indicates. The part doesn't call for extreme range, but is expressed by fine nuance. In the tower room, Pelléas and Mélisande don't need to talk, or even close their eyes. There's more to communication than words, or kisses for that matter. Golaud dismissdes the pair as "children" but children sometimes know things beyond the ken of self-conscious, literal adults.  Thus no coy sentimenatlity in Dessay's portrayal, which is direct and lucidly expressed. Although there are so many mysteries in Mélisande's past,  she exists on a completely different plane to ordinary mortals, and is utterly true to herself.

Laurent Naouri's Golaud is equally well thought through. Sometimes Golaud's depicted as a brute, to emphasize the contrast between the brothers, but in many ways, they are halves of  the same personality. Naouri is forceful, but refined, a caring, decent man, captured by forces way beyond his control. When Naouri sings La nuit sera très moire et très froide, his voice opens outwards, creating a sheen of sensitivity.  This is the "Pelléas" aspect of Golaud's personality. Perhaps he was once like his younger brother though, as Mélisande notes, he's turned grey before his time. It's the Allemonde effect, established long before we even reach the palace. Naouri's Golaud develops as the opera develops, which is perceptive. In the Act III  underground scene, the darkness in Naouri's voice rises, barely stifled. If Yniold wasn't with his father outside the tower, who knows how Golaud might have reacted? In Act V, Naouri expresses the pent-up hysteria in Golaud's anguish. He's torn apart by guilt. As Mélisande talks of death, his cry Toi, toi, et moi, moi aussi, après toi! comes from a dark place too horrible to contemplate.

Dessay and Naouri are stalwarts of the French tradition, but Simon Keenlyside (photo Uwe Arens) fits in extremely well, for he has taken the role of Pelléas so many times, it's almost his trademark. His diction's perfect, capturing the Gallic twists like a native speaker. Nice, clean and suitably charming. If this performance was less complex than his creation of the part in Berlin five years ago, that's because his Berlin performance was exceptional, not at all easy to match.

In live performance a singer should be judged in context, not pinned down like a lab specirmen. In the context of this performance, Keenlyside concentrated on the three-way relationship between Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud, which is much more central to the psychological truth in the opera than a straightforward tale of thwarted love.  For this reason, I appreciated Keenlyside's performance a great deal because he let the opera take precedence over the role. If Pelléas et Mélisande is a psychodrama of the subconcious, as Maetrelinck intuirted, the emphasis is on Mélisande and the effect she has on those around her. Pelléas and Golaud are after all brothers and close, though they have different fathers.  Too much emphasis on Pelléas distorts the balance. Incidentally, Keenlyside was wearing an elbow brace and careful not to move his arm.  He has a long history of "battle injuries" both on stage and off. I hope he'll mend soon.

Alain Vernhes was an excellent, sympathetic Arkel. His voice is firm enough to sound youthful and virile, which is true to the opera, since Arkel has many important things to say. Depicting him as a crumbling Titurel is a misreading of the role.  Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a feisty, energetic Geneviève, not completely cowed by the anomie that is Allemonde. Golaud and Pelléas may get  their strength from her. Khatouna Gadelia sang Yniold and Nahuel di Pierro sang the Shepherd and the Doctor. There werre occasional slips even in the main parts, but that's what live performance is. It's spontaneous, things don't operate like clockwork. Stay at home if you demand machine-like delivery. That's not what music is, anyway. Overall, this was very high calibre singing indeed, and a joy to the ears.

But it was the orchestra that really made this Pelléas et Mélisande come alive. for Debussy isn't writing an opera so much as a symphonic reverie with voices. Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris make a superb case for concert performance.  Debussy didn't write those extensive interludes for nothing. Above all, he was an orchestralist for whom abstract music could be even more expressive than words. The vocal texts undulate within a relatively simple range, much like spoken language, but the orchestra sings, rumbles, screams, comments and dreams.  The Orchestre de Paris is wonderfully lucid, as direct as Mélisande herself, asnd as capable of mystery. Indeed, because Langrée gets such clarity, the psychological ambiguities are thrown into even higher focus.
 
Debussy's writing is strikingly lucid.  Although music without text is abstract, in many ways Pelléas et Mélisande is an abstract opera dealing with concepts words cannot express. Throughout this opera contrasting images, extremes of light and darkness, debilitating heat and frigidity, oppressive entrapment and escape. Starving peasants encroach on the palace. which is cut off from the outside world by encircling forests. Allemond  ("all the world") is imploding on itself. Some scenes are almost impossible to stage literally, such as when Mélisande lets down her golden hair, presumably so long and so strong that Pelléas can climb up on her tresses  and tie strands to trees without doing damage. The symbolism of hair and the obvious phallic reference that is the tower indicate what may be at the heart of this opera, but there are many other important threads, such as truth and  dishonesty ("I only lie to my husband" says Mélisande). You could kill this opera by literal staging, though a well made film might catch its essence. Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris played with such elegance and poise that they illustrate, through their playing, the fundamerntal psychic imbalance that is at the heart of this highly conceptual drama.

I felt so emotionally engaged that I was shattered. But what do I know? At the end, as soon as Langrée let his hand drop, there was a loud and very deliberate boo from someone in the audience. Perhaps the kind of clever clot who thinks it shows how superior he was. Or the kind of person who gets kicks from spoiling things for everyone else. Booers are boors, make no mistake.

For a moment, the orchestra looked shocked but soon regained their aplomb. It's London that should be ashamed, not Paris. Those who stayed for the applause had an extra bonus. April 19th is Natalie Dessay's birthday and the band struck up "Happy Birthday". Those who could sing sang along, too, including a large French family sitting near me.  She beamed, and she deserved it.

FREE Midnight Macbeth Glyndebourne

Verdi Macbeth from Glyndebourne online on demand on BBC Radio 3 and free, too. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO. Sylvie Valayre, Andrzej Dobber, Stanislav Shvets, Peter Auty,  Bryan Griffin.

I think this is the 2007 (revived 2010) production by Richard Jones where the action's set in grubby 50's Britain. Which actually is quite apt. Richard Jones directed Anna Nicole and the ROH Ring with the Rhine maidens in fat suits, so maybe it's best to use your wildest imagination with this audio.

Winterreise Bostridge Uchida Wigmore Hall

I've heard Winterreise so many times over the years I've lost count. Hundreds! And I've heard Ian Bostridge and Mitsuko Uchida do Winterreise several times (their CD is good). What could be new? But my friend who has heard almost as many Winterreises as me (and as many Bostridge recitals) went to Bostridge and Uchida at the Wigmore Hall last week and heard refreshing and rethought. READ the review in Opera Today. Really good Lieder performers are doing a kind of emotional workout as they connect to the music and poetry. In fact it's much the same too for the listener. The more you put in, the more you get out.

Coming up : Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican - wonderful and truly Francophone, even Keenlyside. But what happens? Loud, long boo from some smartass in the audience. Someone so clever he needs to prove it to the world. Some people are only happy when they're miserable, and make sure everyone is miserable too. It was Natalie Dessay's Birthday. Extra bunches of flowers, and the whole cast and orchestra sang "Happy Birthday".

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Kurt Weill in a tutu? ROH

Kurt Weill's "lost" ballet, Zaubernacht, or the Magical Night, premieres at the Royal Opera House in December. It received two performances, one in Berlin in 1922, the next in New York in 1925. Then it went into storage and only surfaced in 2006 when Yale researchers found the locked case in which it was kept - and had to call in a locksmith as there was no key. Aletta Collins is choreographing the production, which is aimed at the Xmas family audience. Better that kids should see Kurt Weill than run of the mill sugar. "As two children fall asleep, a fairy appears to cast a magic spell that brings familiar storybook characters to life". Weill before Brecht.

Could be interesting as it's scored for minimal resources:  solo soprano, piano, two violins, viola, cello, flute, bass, oboe and percussion, so maybe it really will be childlike and magical. It's been staged (with different choreography) in Germany. There's even a recording and Weill refashioned it as Quodlibet. The ROH production is important because it's based on a completely new  critical edition first heard earlier this year in Dessau, but the choreographers are different.

Also interesting to opera people who might not otherwise look at ballet listings is The Prince of the Pagodas. It's Benjamin Britten's only ballet, in which he dabbles in exotic "Oriental" fantasy. more lyrical and energetic than Curlew River, since it was written to be danced to. The production is the famous Kenneth MacMillan version, which hasn't been revived for 15 years.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Garsington Opera 2011 - innovative pavilion, great programme

Garsington Opera starts its first season at Wormsley Park, in even more spectacular settings.  Pictured is the new pavilion, strikingly innovative, with superlative acoustics, which could set new standards for open air theatre.  Garsington Opera's specialist repertoire is geared towards baroque and chamber opera, so naturalistic, unamplified sound dynamics are essential.

The pavilion is conceived as an elegant lightweight structure, say the architects Snell Associates, "elevated above the ground giving the appearance of ‘floating’ above the landscape". It was inspired by traditional Japanese theatres, linking performance space, function and the aesthetics of nature and gardens. Kabuki theatres, for example, use hanamichi or flower paths, extended platforms and bridges which connect the stage to the audience. The Garsington Opera  pavilion contains covered verandahs and terraces, which provide bars and spaces to linger and enjoy the landscape. In an English summer festival, the weather can be unpredictable, so if it rains, visitors won't get wet. More leg room, too ! 

Evan Green, for Sound Space Design, (Bob Essert), who created the new Garsington Opera acoustic, says "Outdoor, temporary and fabric are words not normally associated with outstanding acoustic....to enhance the feeling of being enveloped by sound, surfaces which provide reflections from the side have been created by twisting the form of the auditorium side wall panels to create so-called ‘acoustic sails’. Furthermore, the roof has been specifically shaped to provide reflections to all parts of the audience as well as back to the stage and into the orchestra pit. These reflections back to the stage are particularly important to enable the singers to experience the room and develop a strong sound. The shaping of the acoustic sails and roof together help the orchestra sound to reach the audience and provide an excellent balance of singer and orchestral sounds". Suspended above the main fabric roof, a mesh covering will drastically reduce the sound of rain.

Mozart's The Magic Flute opens the 2011 Garsington Opera season. Because it's the first opera in what promises to be a grand new era, it should be stunning. Martin André conducts and Olivia Fuchs directs, They collaborated on the acclaimed 2008 Garsington Opera  The Rake's Progress. The cast includes Sophie Bevan, Robert Murray,William Berger and many others.

David Parry, Rossini expert, who has helped make Garsington Opera's reputation in the genre, conducts Il turco in Italia. Martin Duncan directs. He did the wonderful Rossini Armida in 2010. Read about it  HERE. This is a director who understands music. He and Parry are an excellent combination. Mark Stone sings, with Ana Durlovski, Quirijn de Lang, and Geoffrey Dalton.

In the true Garsington Opera tradition, a true rarity, Vivaldi's La verità in cimento, "The truth put to the test".Vivaldi wrote about 100 operas, not all of which are preserved complete. In 2008, Garsington Opera  presented his L’incoronazione di Dario. Laurence Cummings conducts this time too, and David Freeman directs. Paul Nilon, Jean Rigby, Diana Montague and others ensure the singing will be good. The Garsington Opera 2012 season will include, appropriately, Vivaldi's L'Olympiade.

Public booking for this year's Garsington Opera Festival opens on 18th April. Tickets are still available, so please visit the website.The season runs from 2nd June to 5th July.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Philadelphia Orchestra files Ch 11

The Board of the Philadelphia Orchestra has decided to file for Chapter 11,  which in US Law is  is a step towards bankruptcy. It doesn't mean they're going to stop performing just yet, but it gives them protection against creditors' claims. They will probably make their Proms appearances in September. How Yannick Nézet-Séguin will fit into these plans is another story. Rumblings have been floating around for ages, it's no huge shock.

A few years ago it was fashionable for some orchestras, and not only in Philadelphia, to  decide they didn't need conductors who had ideas. "An orchestra's sound must never change" said some at the time. It's crazy logic as players change, audiences change, music changes. You can't turn live performances into a facsimile of recordings made decades ago. In many orchestras there are Powers That Be who can be very underhand indeed.  Remember the vicious personal abuse Franz Welser-Möst got 30 years ago when he tried to change some London players?  In Philadelphia much was made of the fact that some players taught at the Curtis Institute.  But lots of players elsewhere teach high level too, and the very best of course don't need to teach at all.  An orchestra exists, not to serve vested interests but to serve art. A good conductor isn't doing it for himself or herself but for artistic vision. It's a rare orchestra where everyone is so good that the conductor is first among equals (though they all say that! ). No businesss keeps afloat if it resists development. Nowadays, the market is no lonnger based on one-orchestra, one-newspaper cities with relatively little interchange. Audiences now have choice. Thanks to the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner-Philharmoniker is now everyone's local orchestra whether they're in Berlin or Timbuktu. Now that's how you raise standards. Small-town empires can't hold out.

Since writing this last night this has popped up on Huffington.  Anything between the lines? And if this is what the local newspaper writes, "Mahler was edging toward modernism and Berg away from it." it figures, too. Definitely "news".

Friday, 15 April 2011

Not Sheherezade - The Tsar's Bride Royal Opera House

Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride opened at the Royal Opera House, London yesterday. Everyone knows the famous Overture, but few outside Russian-speaking countries know the opera as a whole. Audiences expecting Sheherezade will be in for a shock. The Tsar's Bride is no fairy-tale fantasy. The first image you see is one of a crumpled, semi-naked figure tied to a chair. Grigory Gryaznoy (Johan Reuter), the oprichnik, here seen as a kind of Mafia boss, removes the victim's hood, it shows he's been tortured. They are both in a luxuriously appointed night club, after hours. Waiters mill about, but no-one dares intervene. It's a metaphor for the whole opera, which deals with the vicious abuse of power. Everyone can be bought if the price is right, sings Lyubasha (Ekaterina Gubanova). She knows she's doomed, since Gryaznoy has found another love. When he and his cronies throw a party, they're entertained by lap dancers, desperate young women who sell themselves to survive.

Luxury, contrasted with degradation.  Gryaznoy has been smitten by Marfa (Marina Poplavskaya), the daughter of Vasily Sobakin (Paata Burchuladze). The family is happy as all seems to be going well.They are merchants from Novgorod. They don't normally move in dissolute Court circles, but Marfa is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Ivan Likov (Dmytro Popov), who has returned to her after years in the Tsar's service. Burchuladze, Popov, Poplavskaya and Jurgita Adamonytė (Dunyasha) sing the beautiful Act II Quartet joyfully but it's heartbreaking to know what lies ahead. Rimsky-Korsakov writes relatively little for Marfa to sing until the end, because she's a modest virgin.  In Act II, Poplavskaya's voice created Marfa's  optimism perfectly. She's dressed at first in a version of a man's three-piece suit but that actually emphasizes her innate femininity. She's not self conscious, she's herself. No silly coquettry, but clear toned directness of expression. Poplavskaya can be touchingly tender when she sings of her childhood, but she creates Marfa as a morally upright personality. It works well dramatically. because this honest Marfa has more integrity than anyone else. No wonder Gryzanoy and the Tsar are hypnotized. When a person like that gets destroyed by the mean and venal, it's much more tragic than if it were someone you can't relate to.

Act II takes place in an oligarch's penthouse, complete with swimming pool and a breathtaking view of the Moscow skyline. New buildings, some still with cranes. New money, ostentatious consumption, greed. The Tsars weren't the only rulers to misuse their authority, as Russian-speaking audiences were only too aware. Gryaznoy plots to win Marfa with a love potion concocted by Bomelius, the sinister German apothecary (Vasily Gorshkov) . What he doesn't know is that Lyubasha has switched the potion for poison. What none of them knows until the last moment is that the Tsar has pulled a switch on them all by deciding, arbitrarily, to marry Marfa himself. The Tsar (in this case Ivan the Terrible) is an invisible presence, all the more menacing because he's unseen and unheard, but destroys everyone's plans. Just as no-one stops Gryzanov, no-one stops the Tsar.

In the Tsar's ornate, golden palace, Marfa, now Tsarina, is dying.  Marina Poplavskaya's  portrayal of Marfa now revealed its true fire and intelligence. Poplavskaya is too good to indulge in a standardized  "mad scene".  She sings so each phrase means something, as if Marfa is trying to process in her mind a source of evil beyond her comprehension. "Where's Likov?", she's thinking, and turns to Gryaznoy mistaking him for the man she's longing for. It's so disturbing that even he is moved. Because Poplavska makes us realize that Marfa is a human being, not a lunatic, she makes us empathize.

Poplavkaya's Marfa is truly the daughter of a father like Paata Burchuladze's Sobakin. As soon as he begins to sing in Act II, he lifts the ante for the whole cast. His is a real "Russian" bass, with dark gravitas, given extra colour by his extensive experience in Italian repertoire. His Act IV aria, "Zabylasya" compresses a huge emotional range into a few minutes. Sobakin isn't a man of many words, but he's deep. Even when he's not singing, he's a presence, blocked by the director Paul Curran so he's the pivot of proceedings. Just as the Tsar doesn't need to sing to be effective, Burchuladze stands at the centre of ensembles, observing and thinking. When he slits Gryaznoy's thoat, it's so sudden and subtle that you realize that Sobakin has been building up quietly to this final act of desperation.

Ekaterina Guberova's Lyubasha was strongly characterized too. In Act I, she pleases the mobsters by singing her charming folk song, but adds a deliberate air of toughness, which shows how unnatural the situation really is. Perhaps Lyubasha was once like Marfa is now? In the second Act, Lyubasha spies on Marfa and knows she can't compete, Guberova captures her despair and revulsion at the price she must pay to bribe Bomelius. It's only in her final aria that she confronts herself and Gryaznoy. "Straight through the heart" she sings when he stabs her.

Johan Reuter is a vocally acceptable Gryaznoy. But his even-toned solidity implies that he's fundamentally too nice to portray a villain whose whole life has been spent casually killing and maiming. The part can be created with swaggering sexual menace, but not in this production. By falling for Marfa, Gryaznoy is beginning to see the error of his ways, but characters like that don't normally reform or they don't survive.
 
Alexander Vinogradov 's Malyuta-Skuratov is more in character, as was Vasily Gorshov's Bomelius, but both have less to sing. Dmytro Popov's Likov is presented well vocally, but perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov realized that the role is no match against Gryaznoy or even, to some extent, to Marfa. Jurgita Adamonytė's Dunyasha was well delivered but the part has "downcast eyes". Even Lyubasha dismisses her as a threat. As always, the chorus of vthe Royal Opera House was excellent, and the dancers were clearly professionally trained. No ordiuinary choristers can do high kicks and contortions like they did. In the pit, Sir Mark Elder conducted well, though not with the verve specialists in this repertoire might attain. Altogether, a very good experience, which deserves to be heard again. Perhaps one day, when London gets the Russian idiom into its heart, The Tsar's Bride will be appreciated for the opera it is.
Full review wth extra photos will appear shortly in Opera Today. Please also see my other posts about this opera, including a short extract from the 1983 Bolshoi film and an interview with Paata Burchuladze All photos copyright Bill Cooper, courtesy of Royal Opera House, London. (details embedded)

Tsar's Bride = the movie


Sobakin, Marfa, Dunyasha and Vanya Lykov are heading forth into what they think will be a glorious future.  But we know what really lies ahead. I'm still on a high from Rimsky-Korsakov The Tsar's Bride at the Royal Opera House tonight, Please read my REVIEW HERE   and playing the Mansourov recording from 1973 with Galina Vishnevskaya. But here is a clip from the 1983 film from the Bolshoi (Yuri Simonov conducts). Isn't it gorgeous- wide open spaces, Marfa's complexion so perfect it's like a baby. Now we see why the oprichniks are singing about Germany, where there are "tall mountains, big cities" and other exotic things. In Russia, what they knew were open plains, wide rivers and "the wind of freedom". Bomelius, the crooked chemist, "isn't one of us" sing the chorus. He's a German. Enjoy the film, it's beautifully made and the singing is good. It's available in the ROH shop, I just discovered. FULL REVIEW of the performance at the Royal Opera House to follow

Thursday, 14 April 2011

BBC Proms 2011 - solid !

It would be hard to surpass last year's Proms. But the BBC Proms 2011 season has winners and may well turn out to be more solid, once you eliminate the gimmicky kitsch.

This year's First Night of the Proms on 15/7 features Janáček Glagolitic Mass, a spectacular blockbuster by any standard. Jiří Bělohlávek conducts, and he's one of this composer's finest exponents. Excellent singers too - don't miss this one.

Then Havergal Brian's Symphony No 1, the "Gothic",  his "Symphony of a Thousand". It's massive, almost impossible to stage properly other than in a place like the Royal Albert Hall, so grab the opportunity.  You may never have another chance. Martyn Brabbins conducts a thousand players, singer and choristers. Brian has a relativelty small but fanatical following so this high profile international exposure might change things. The other big choral Prom this year is Mendelssohn's Elijah on 28/8.

This year's big operas are Rossini William Tell as Prom 2 on 16/7. Antonio Pappano conducts his other orchestra, the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. Often, I've found his work with this smaller orchestra more satisfying than his main job, and he's good at Rossini.  Good soloists! This year's Glyndebourne at the Proms (25/8) is Handel Rinaldo, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and also a strong cast. I'll be hearing it first at Glyndebourne, so it will be fun to compare with the Proms version. Weber's Der Freischütz on 9/9 will be an absolute must for me, because it's the French version, arranged by Berlioz in 1841. Under the baton of John Eliot Gardner it will be fascinating, because if anyone can handle the change in sensibility, it's he. Red Letter Day for me, because this is definitely off the beaten track. Verdi's Requiem on 24/7. Marina Poplavskaya, Calleja, Furlanetto, Ganassi, and Semyon Bychov. Speaks for itself!

Lots of solid repertoire in this year's Proms. British composers, but with a livelier take than usual Havergal Brian, of course, but also Frank Bridge, whose music runs like a thread throughout the whole season. He's underrated because he wasn't into the Three Choirs aspect of British music. But no Bridge, no Benjamin Britten.

Lots and lots of French music this year, too, again not just the usual big names. Henri Dutilleux music surfaces many times in this year's Proms, much like Frank Bridge, Dutilleux tends towards chamber than big orchestral pieces, so it's good to hear him in mixed programmes.

Really significant is the focus on Pascal Dusapin, one of the most original and refined of avant garde composers. On 18/7, Myung-whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Everyone will go for Martha Argerich in Beethoven. I'm going for Dusapin's Morning in Long Island a new work jointly commissioned by the BBC and Radio France. It's a concerto for large orchestra, again using the unique resources of the Royal Albert Hall.  Havergal Brian and Pascal Dusapin - so very, very different but getting maximum coverage.

More "typical" Dusapin on 27/7 with the Arditti Quartet, long specialists in his music. It's a new piece, String Quartet no 6 "Hinterland" (Hapax for String quartet and Orchestra).  Not your average concerto! It's set in the context of  Stravinsky, Berlioz and Fauré which is perceptive. There's alot of really top class, upmarket new music this year for discerning ears. Berliner-Philharmoniker fans will enjoy Emmanuel Pahud, flautist at Berlin and Lucerne. On 28/7 he's playing two premieres, flute concertos by Elliott Carter and Marc-André Dalbavie. More Pahud at the Cadogan Hall on 22/8.

Oliver Knussen conducts another eclectic programme on 29/7 where he mixes Frank Bridge , Debussy, Alban Berg and Arthur Honneger. In fact, the famous Pacific 231. For me the high point may be Nicola Castiglioni's Inverno in Ver. Knussen loves Castiglioni. They both share the same esoteric whimsy and inventiveness. Watch out too for Simon Holt's Centauromachy on 9/8. It's coming to London conducted again  by François-Xavier Roth. Great atmospheric piece, please read my review of the premiere.  More adventure on 20/8 at the Cadogan Hall - Birtwistle and Maxwell Davis on the same programme! Fortunately seperated by George Aphergis's new Champ-contrechamp which might put both of them in the shade.If it's ever possible to outclass Birtwistle.

More Bělohlávek at what he does better than most anyone else, live or dead. Smetana's Má vlast on 20th July. On August 7th Edward Gardner conducts Mahler's Das klagende Lied. Good soloists - Melanie Diener and Miah Persson. It will be interesting to hear what Gardner, with his dramatic flair, does with this. Everyone will be queueing for Dudamel's Mahler 2. Since it will bring in so much income, I can't complain. I'll take a night off!  Mahler 9 conducted by Roger Norrington will be different but Mahler 6 conducted by Semyon Bychkov on 26/8 will be a good bet. But what I won't miss is Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Mahler 5 on 6/9. Partly because they're doing Wolfgang Rihm Gesungene Zeit with Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the Lohengrin Prelude, Interesting combination.

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns on 8/9 with Janine Jansen is a programme of sure fire classics. Also, Gergiev and the Mariinsky, Swan Lake, which he does so well, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with perennial Zubin Mehta.  Plenty more! Search on the BBC Proms
Please come back to my site - every year I write about 40 different Proms and do previews. website.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Synchronized swimming? Royal Opera House 2011/12

Because it's the Olympics next year, in case you've forgotten. Luckily there won't be too much disruption to stop anyone getting to the Royal Opera House in 2011 and 2012.  Not all of us are enthralled by sports like synchronized swimming. On the other hand, savage cuts force arts venues into a kind of synchronized swimming, repeating safe gestures to keep afloat. We're facing a "perfect storm" of cuts, costs and changed priorities. Governments committed to senseless invasions of foreign countries and extravaganzas like the Olympics don't have room to manouevre.  This was once a wealthy country. Fact is, it isn't now. Much as I think the arts are essential, health, education and social services take priority. At the end of the day opera fans are better off than most of the poor, sick, elderly and vulnerable.  So it's up to those of us who can still afford to go out to support what we believe in. Or no-one else will.

So don't moan because there's nothing shockingly adventurous. This is what the future holds if venues are forced to survive on dead certs - dead funding, dead support, dead certs for programmes. Will the Royal Opera House become more like the Met? It's up to us in the audience not to give up. There's an ecomonic theory  which says, as long as there are buyers to fuel the economy it won't completely grind to a halt. So I'm supporting what I can even if it's not ideal. Better that than being forced to depend on some pig-headed billionaire who dictates terms for everyone else. And there's more of interest than appears on the surface.

Il Trittico complete -  Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, together for the first time since 1965. The sum is greater than its parts - this will be talked of for ages to come.

Dvořák’s Rusalka - it's been at Glyndebourne, ENO and everywhere else but never fully staged at the Royal Opera House. It's a strange dream-like story, a journey through the subconscious. This "radical intterpretation" was first heard at Salzburg in 2008 "to great acclaim". Arch-conservatives will wail because it's not straightforward fairy tale but they should get to know the opera and its context. Whatever the production will be like, the fact that it will shake the fairy tale crowd is a plus, in these times of artistic retreat. Camilla Nylund sings - a rare vistior to these shores and very interesting. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts, which should be a draw.

Another major new opera by a major British composer : Judith Weir Miss Fortune. Corny name but from past form Weir's work is very good. Miss Fortune was seen last year in the small, indoor theatre at Bregenz, so it may/may not be a chamber operra like all her previous ventures, like Blonde Eckbert and A Night at the Chinese Opera. which isn't Chinese opera. Now I wish that I'd been at the Wigmore Hall Judith Weir Study Day instead of Unsuk Chin at the Barbican. Maybe ROH will do a similar intensive course at Covent Garden? Jacques Imbrailo and Emma Bell - good choices. .

In May Robert Carsen directs a new production of Verdi Falstaff.  Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the vivacious baroque mezzo, is Mistress Quickly - she could steal the show!  But the really big news is Hector Berlioz Les Troyens in June. This is huge in every way, which is why it doesn't get staged often, though there are several recordings. Big and sprawling can make good theatre, if done with panache. Chances are this will be - Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Marie Westbroek, and David McVicar  directing. Take out a second mortgage though, as it's not cheap to produce and tickets will fly.

Thirteen revivals. Rigoletto, Cosi, La Trav, the Flying Dutchman etc etc. Do not moan. Revivals are the bread and butter of any major house, because they bring in new (and old) patrons and deliver a good experience even if you'rve heard them before.  In revivals, what counts is the quality of the singing. Vittorio Grigolo, Anja Harteros, René Pape, Calleja,  Gheorghiu and Alagna. (not together which would be news)  Even more intriguing are some of the lesser known names. Jette Parker Young Artists Zhengzhong Zhou alternates with Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Don't let the "young artists" label worry you - he's interesting.

In fact, don't ever understimate the Jette Parker Young Artists. They're chosen from the best and many go on to great things. This year's new intake includes Hanna Hipp, the Polish mezzo whom I raved about when she was at the Guildhall.

photo Peter Suranyi

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Tsar's Bride - Burchuladze's Sobakin

Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride is standard repertoire in Russian-speaking countries, but rarely produced in the west (though there are several recordings). So when it comes to the Royal Opera House, London, this week it will be an occasion. "A tale of passion, poison and corruption" goes the ROH publicity. The Tsar in question is Ivan the Terrible. Since it was forbidden to depict a Tsar in the theatre, his presence looms over the opera, all the more threatening because the menace is concealed. The Tsar as symbol of authority that answers only to itself, and works in secretive ways.  Perhaps the Tsar's Bride is popular because people in Russian-speaking countries recognize the archetype.  The opera can pack a lethal punch.

A girl called Marfa is about to marry Lykov, whom she loves. Her father Sobakin feels he's the happiest man in the world. His favourite daughter is happy, his family is settled, he has wealth and status. But then Marfa is spotted by Gryazanoy, an oprichnik (combination of bodyguard, mafiosi, NKVD operator and hardman). Gryazanoy's mistress Lyubasha, evidently his soulmate, plots to poison Marfa. Then the Tsar himself spots Marfa and decides to marry her but all this grief drives Marfa mad and she dies. So much for happiness in a society where authority is abused and evil rules.

Paata Burchuladze is singing Sobakin to Marina Poplavskaya's Marfa and John Reuter's Gryaznoy. “Sobakin’s famous Act IV aria, “Zabylasya”, says Burchuladze, “doesn’t last very long, but it’s very touching. It’s poignant because he is expressing a great range of feelings, sorrow, loss and also, anger. Sobakin is a good man, but in this vendetta, he is capable of killing, too”.

Burchuladze has created most of the classic bass roles in the repertoire, and has sung Boris Gudonov in nearly every major house in the world.  Boris is another authority figure, but fundamerntally different to the unscruplous tyrants in The Tsar's Bride. “Boris is a good man”, says Burchuladze. “Nobody knows if he killed the Tsarevich. Maybe he just thought about it and his followers did the work. But Boris feels guilt. He feels sorry for what has happened. So many people with that kind of power have no conscience. They kill and hurt people without any responsibility. Boris gets depressed because he knows right from wrong. That’s why he’s a good person”.

Burchuladze, born in Tbilisi in 1955, is a specialist in Russian and Italian repertoire. He's had a fascinating life, and has an expansive, personality, a lot like Luciano Pavarotti his friend and mentor.
 Please read this interview which appears in Opera Today.
Lots of sound clips from his recordings on his website.

Royal Concertgebouw live, free and Queen Beatrix too

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is in Berlin  on a major State vist, only the first since Reunification. It's a historic occasion, the significance of which is perhaps lost on anglocentric audiences  but that's all the more reason to catch the special gala concert the Berlin Philharmoniker website will be hosting for free, live online on Wednesday 13th at 8 pm Berlin time. (7pm London, 2pm New York, 3am Tokyo).

The Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam take over the Berlin Philharmonie. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor and Brahms Symphony no 4, a programme which reflects depth of thought. Janine Jansen is the soloist and Mariss Jansons conducts. This will be a true Royal Command Performance, since Queen Beatrix will be in attendance, supported by Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Máxima of the Netherlands, the President of Germany, Christian Wulff, and no doubt the great and the good of both countries. Germany and the Netherlands have a history, one might say, so this is a significant event. It's interesting how the two nations mark the occasion with serious classical music. I can't imagine the British Royals getting their heads round this. That tells us something about the difference between British and European culture. We get Kate and Mate and they get Mendelssohn!
photo : Emiel Ketelaar

Monday, 11 April 2011

Unsuk Chin Total Immersion Barbican

Unsuk Chin's music is extravagant. This must have been a shockingly expensive concert to produce. The stage at the Barbican had to be extended to fit the massive orchestra, and the whole middle section of the stalls was closed off for safety reasons. The two intervals lasted longer than usual because there was so much equipment to move. Huge expense, smaller than average audience, even by new music standards. But such is the BBC's commitment to its ideals that this concert went ahead as the high point of a day-long Total Immersion, with other concerts, talks and a film.

 HERE is a link to the review with photo in Bachtrack.

EMI Icons bargain sets

Some great value sets of "Icons" being rereleased in ultra cheap boxed sets. Useful reference libraries even if you have the originals or releases in past formats.
 
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on a 10 CD set - now is the time to listen with John Steane's book on her recordings in hand.  An eye-opener, or rather ear-opener for those brought up inheriting clichés from past "singer wars". Singer wars are still with us, but they're such an infantile, delimiting way of listening.  Schwarzkopf was a true artist, who was probably harder on herself than anyone else (barring Walter Legge who was a tyrant).   But success attracts negative envy. Schwarzkopf  gets hate way out of proportion to who she was, and often it's viciously personal and misogynistic, rather than based on her real contributions to song. John Steane adored her, and he knew more about singers in her time than most. If she's good enough for him, she's worth respect.

Elisabeth Schumann on a 6CD set, for studio recordings in her time were rarer than they became later. Some of these are off radio broadcasts, and the sound quality is awful. But Schumann's voice is so silvery it's worth making the effort. Years ago I helped transcribe her private letters, which were charming even when she was just dashing off notes in a rush.

Hermann Prey, another 10 CD set which works out at less than £3 per disc. There have been several Prey collections, partly because  he recorded for Philips and they sold the rights on. Prey was eclipsed by the greater fame of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though he's arguably better in opera. But Prey had warmth and personality in his voice, ideal in repertoire like Loewe and Brahms, and underestimated in Schubert.

Plenty of past releases in this Icon series since EMI has copyright muscle, which smaller labels and artists can't compete with.  Among these are sets of  Kirsten Flagstad, Nicolai Gedda, Fritz Wunderlich and Hans Hotter. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Sheng and the Shō

This latest BBC Total Immersion featured Unsuk Chin and her Su for Sheng and Orchestra (conducted by Ilan Volkov, soloist Wu Wei)  Amazing sounds - but how much came from the Sheng's exotic nature as opposed to the music in which it was used?

Shengs go back 3000 years : think circular pan pipes. The performer blows and inhales through a single aperture, a bit like circular breathing on a western wind instrument. Traditionally Chinese music was small scale ensemble, even in public entertainments like opera and ceremonial bands. Shengs were often used as continuo, enhancing voice and other instruments, without overpowering them. Even percussion, the basis of most Chinese music, isn't relentless volume. Not all that much difference after all, between Chinese traditional music and western early music and baroque.

Around 250 years ago in the west, society changed, so music changed too. Thus the growth of large scale orchestras and music for large scale public entertainment. In China, a very similar process took place in the wake of modernization at the end of the 19th century.  Hence the renaissance in Chinese music, and the development of large Chinese instrument orchestras. Just as instruments in the west had to adapt to new conditions, so did those in China.

The "modern" Sheng is much bigger, often 36 pipes as opposed to the traditional 17. Playing so many reeds by fingers alone would be difficult, so modern Shengs are keyed for ease of operation. Range is bigger, volume is bigger, many more musical possibilities. Just as in the west, composers had to write new music for new instrumental and performance styles. There's a whole genre of modern Chinese music that's different from traditional folk idiom, but also from western form. (Please explore this site, it's the only one in English that does both western and Chinese classical music, opera and film)

The odd thing for me hearing Unsuk Chin's Su was how western the instrument sounded. There were long unbroken passages which those new to Sheng would have found remarkable, but overall the music didn't develop the possibilities beyond the initial novelty. The soloist was Wu Wei, described in the notes as "the world's leading avant garde sheng soloist"  He's given the world premieres of more than 150 works including 10 concertos with orchestra. In Su he adapts his techniques to jerky jazz rhythms and other western charms. Wu's playing is assertive and full bodied but I'm not sure how far he's stretched as an artist by this material. Towards the end he duets with a more unsophisticated Sheng, from a recording projected electronically into the hall. Wu's "circular blowing" technique is good, and perhaps the breaks are in the score. I'm really not convinced by the music, though, which is pretty straightforward, with hardly any detectable non western insight. Perhaps it doesn't matter as this is western music and the instrument's origins can be safely  ignored.  But on the other hand, think of what can be done when the istrument's potential is really understood and the music developed round its unique charcateristics.

In 2009 at the Proms (how mainstream can you get?) we heard Tōru Takemitsu's Ceremonial - An Autumn Ode where the Shō was played by Miyumi Miyata. The Shō is Japanese, but it's based almost exactly on the Chinese Sheng, examples of which were sent by the T'ang Imperial dynasty to "civilize" the Japanese vassals. Takemitsu's Ceremonial Ode uses the ethereal sounds of the Shō to create sounds which feel intensely spiritual and primeval. He uses the instrument imaginatively, so it awakes feeling in the listener which can be applied to all manner of ideas. Incredibly sensitive and nuanced.  Miyata then played Toshio Hosokawa’s Cloud and Light. Where Takemitsu orchestrated around the unornamented shō, Hosokawa integrated it more closely with the ensemble. Both Takemitsu and Hosokawa's palette was improved because they could hear the instrument as more than just another tool in the paintbox, but as something fascinating in itself.  I don't mean writing ersatz "orientalism". You could, for example write a concerto for contrabass basson, building on the special nature of the instrument and its connections to other instruments. I think it's even been done but the idea is that the instrument's the star.


THIS IS WHAT A TRADITIONAL SHENG SOUNDS LIKE

Saturday, 9 April 2011

More Chinese Sprechstimme


Fong Yim Fun (芳艷芬) plays the clever maiden in this 1958 film "Red Matchmaker" (red meaning auspicous not Communism). What's so special about this is the clarity of the voice parts, recitation rather than singing.  Because it's stylized, there's room for improvisation. Listen to the little kid who rats on his older sister. Later the matchmaker makes him apologize to save his sister's reputation so she can be married off to the man she loves, arranged, of course by the crafty matchmaker. The stylization is great for comedy, too. The kid wails  "Don't beat me Mama !" but byiou know it's not violent. The "mother" is a man. He's the celebrated Lee Hoi chuen (李海泉). Fong Yim Fun was the top star in her genre of Cantonese opera. All opera singers, even the greatest, made lots of ordinary films because that's how the business worked. No fuss about changing styles. Fong Yim Fun made relatuvely few straight movies, but she was brilliant in comedy where she often played a flirtatious but very sharp modern girl.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Lawrence Zazzo's Adventure in American song

Lawrence Zazzo, the American countertenor, gave a recital last week at the Wigmore Hall with Simon Lepper. Amazing programme, which overturns the image countertenors have in this country. That in itself should have made the concert a big draw. Modern composers love the countertenor voice because it extends the palette and opens up new possibilities. This recital was "news" that should have attracted more attention. Regrettably, I couldn't get there but Claire Seymour has written about it in depth in Opera Today. Follow the link, it's detailed and analytical.
 
Zazzo's established his baroque credentials so well he has nothing to prove. Remember his Radamisto at ENO So this programme showed courage. Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, for example, are so closely identified with Leontyne Price that they're not performed nearly as frequently as they should be. Her interpretation, though loved by Barber and the audiences of the time, is classic, but it doesn't necessarily explore all the levels in the cycle. Perhaps a male voice with wit and asperity might find new things in it? I wish I'd heard Zazzo!

Ned Rorem loves the countertenor voice and has written lots for it. There are whole CD collections of Rorem countertenor songs. Zazzo sang Rorem's War Scenes to poems about the US Civil War by Walt Whitman. Not quite Alfred Deller territory, though he could have done them had his audiences been more used to the genre. Charles Ives songs are more problematic, since they were conceived for more conventional performance. On the other hand, Ives himself was hardly conventional even if he seemed so on the surface. I hope Zazzo persists with this kind of repertoire because it's much too interesting to leave fallow.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Opera Holland Park 2011

Public booking starts today for Opera Holland Park's new season. Opera Holland Park's Unique Selling Point is that it's informal and fun. What OHP also does best is relatively uncommon repertoire performed with great conviction. So the real must-see this season could be Alfredo Catalani's La Wally.(from 29 July). It's a gorgeously over the top melodrama, pivoting on the soprano part, which pretty much carries the whole opera. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers should be in her element. She's got the personality, the charisma and the voice for those lavish star turn arias. This might be the highlight of the season.

Similarly, Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz will be a draw. Reliable cast - Eric Margiore and Anna Leese, OHP stalwart. I'm going to Puccini La Rondine because the large cast includes many up and coming young talents. It's tough getting ahead in this line, so they need all the support they can get. Lots of other promising names in other operas too but I can't face basic repertoire unless there's something  special. Since Don Pasquale is a new production, directed by Stephen Barlow, has a good cast and is  conducted by Richard Bonynge, it might be interesting.
 
Singers aren't objects on an assembly line. Just as in any business, you get more from your workers if they feel valued. If anything people management in the arts is even more important than in other businesses, because singers and players "are" the product. Committment and enthusiasm are intangible, but when they're missing, the difference is so obvious it can sink a show. Because nobody's making a fortune at OHP, everyone seems to pull together. The choruses at OHP, for example, tend to work well as a unit even though the individual voices aren't much.

Let's face it, for under £60 you are never going to get Tebaldi or Pavarotti. But on the other hand, prices like these approach the cheaper seats at ROH or ENO.While productions in these bigger houses may often disappoint, they are in a different league. This is the quandary OHP faces. It needs prices high enough to survive, but it doesn't have the sheer volume bigger houses can produce.  Some people go to OHP in evening dress to do their toff thing. But what is the point of tuxes and gowns in a municipal park in a city suburb where grubby kids run around and the toilets stink? If they're so rich, why not contribute more ? Some in fact do so privately, but noblesse oblige was once a better indicator of class than wealth.  I was reading about a woman whose legacy provides cheap seats for pensioners and students (though not all of whom are poor). She's long dead but her memory lives on.
HERE is a link to last year's OHP La forza del destino. Search this site for more on the singers and Stephen Barlow