Wednesday, 30 November 2011

La Traviata, Royal Opera House - perceptive, different

Outstanding Verdi La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, London. Richard Eyre's 1992 staging may have been revived many times, but this production reveals striking new depths of interpretation. Good singing is never routine. this production will be memorable because it highlights deeper aspects of the opera.

Verdi writes gloriously for Violetta, so it's a star vehicle for any soprano. But Violetta doesn't exist in isolation. Although the many great singers who have created the part ensure that Violetta is central to the opera, she doesn't exist in isolation. The drama evolves around the changing relationships between Violetta, Alfredo and Germont. This current production is important because Piotr Beczala's Alfredo brings out the full complexity in Alfredo's personality. Beczala is passionate about historic tenor traditions and this awareness infuses his performance. (Read more about him in this interview). This superb performance proves how important highly experienced high quality casting can be. La Traviata can be as much about Germont family values as it is about Violetta,

We can perhaps understand why Violetta is in her profession, but Alfredo poses more difficult questions. What kind of man gives up family and status for a demi-mondaine? It's much more than youthful lust. Even Violetta doesn't believe him at first, but she's persuaded by his intensity.Verdi pointedly raises the emotional stakes with the rousing Libiam ne'lieti calici. It's more than a drinking song, it's a hymn to life.

Because Beczala takes his cue from the music, his Alfredo is infinitely more than a lightweight charmer. The energy in his singing suggests that Alfredo represents an affirmative life-force, in contrast to the shallowness of life on the party circuit. Verdi is making a strong moral statement. Beczala's Alfredo expresses the strength in the character - firm phrasing, vibrant colour and absolute technical control. Beczala sings the high "Lavero!" at the end of the cabaletta so rings out with a confident flourish. Beczala's lucid elegance shows that Alfredo's emotional depth springs from strength of character.

Beczala's Alfredo also emphasizes the relationship between father and son, a connection sometimes under-estimated. Simon Keenlyside sings Giorgio Germont with gravitas. There's real chemistry between Keenlyside and Beczala. Their dialogues bristle with the bitter energy of shifting father/son power struggle, but the richness of the singing suggests fundamental warmth. One senses that after Violetta is is gone, Alfredo and his father will have an ever stronger connection. Lovely "pura siccome un angelo", so this family will thrive. Keenlyside's acting was stiffer than his singing.. He used his stick, not with a swagger, but more as a crutch, as if he had a real life injury. Keenlyside is an athlete and has mishaps. Usually, he's much more animated..


Expectations were high for Ailyn Peréz after the publicity generated during the Royal Opera House's Japan tour, last year, where she stood in after both Angela Gheorghiu and Ermolena Jaho had to cancel at the last moment. Heroic circumstances. Last month, at the Placido Domingo Celebration, she sang a pleasant if unremarkable Gilda. Her Violetta was attractive enough  allowing for uneven intonation and odd phrasing, which she might overcome with experience. One day perhaps she'll be able to act with her voice, so her gestures come from within. The scene where Violetta squirms in horror as Alfredo enters the casino was unconvincing, though Peréz warmed up, ironically, in the final act. Although Violetta's music is so well written it cannot help but impress, the role is complex and by no means "pretty". She's much more than a projection of male fantasy. Violetta fascinates Alfredo because he can sense in her something others can't, so whoever sings the part needs to suggest what that special quality might be.

Rodula Gaitanou was until only last year a Jette Parker Young Artist. Her Haydn L'isola disabitata at the Linbury was extremely mature for someone so young (read about it HERE) so it's good that she's directing a high profile production like this. In a revival, the moves may be the same, but the way they're done makes all the difference between dull repeat and fresh enthusiam. Gaitanou's precision illuminates another sub-theme of this opera that's often overlooked. The gambling table is a metaphor for fate. It's mechanical, and in Eyre's original concept, dominates the stage like a juggernaut. The gypsies dance in strict formation, though they sing of love and freedom.  There's something quite sinister about the bacchanale. So the crowd scenes are tightly executed to express this tension, while subsidiary roles like Flora (Hanna Hipp), Gastone (Jin Hyun Kim), D'Obigny (Daniel Grice), Douphol (Eddie Wade), Dr Grenvil (Christophoros Stamboglis) and Annina (Gaynor Keeble) stand out as individuals, doing justice to excellent singing. It's a pity that the conducting (Patrick Lange) was erratic, especially since he comes with good credentials (Chief Conductor at the Komische Oper, Berlin).

There's no such thing as a staging that lets a story tell itself.  In a good production, clues are always present if you're alert to them. Bob Crowley's set may look "traditional" but it comments powerfully on the drama.  In Act One, the diagonals in the set seem to be caving in on the stage, warning that something's awry. At the centre of the famous country house scene is a doorway which opens onto a trompe-l'œil suggesting many distant doorways beyond. Everything is illusion, even the "books" on the shelves are painted, not real, Grand paintings are haphazardly strewn across the floor. In the final act, behind Violetta's deathbed looms a giant picture frame covered in black, as portraits used to be covered when a person died. For a brief moment, Alfredo's image is projected onto the cloth, but fades. Mirrors, a dressmaking dummy, and  huge, overpowering shutters, all of which add to meaning. This is a beautiful production but it's also intelligent. With casts like this, revivals ae fully justified.

A full review will appear shortly in Opera Today.
You might also like: La Traviata and the Credit Crunch and La Traviata as Chinese movie
Photos copyright Catherine Ashmore, coutesy Royal Opera House (details embedded)

La Traviata, Royal Opera House - unusual, different

I never thought I'd need to say it, but get to this current run of Verdi La Traviata at the Royal Opera House. Outstanding singing - the best all year. Even more interesting, it's different because Piotr Beczala's Alfredo is so strongly charactrized that for a change, Alfredo is the story. Usually the focus is on Violetta, and often on Germont, so Alfredos get taken by relative lightweights, good on charm but without depth. Beczala on the other hand is one of the most experienced Alfredos around, so the subtle change in balance brings insight. That's why this La Traviata is unique, even though we think we know the opera well.

Who is Alfredo, really? Why has he chosen an unsuitable woman in the first place? Why does he have the strength of character to elope with her and stand up to his father, and defy social convention? As Beczala says in this interview in Opera Today, Alfredo is struggling to make his own way in life, because young people need to rebel to find themselves. But Alfredo is a lot like his father. Both are strong-willed personalities, so sure of themselves they're blind to other people's feelings. Both have tempers. Yet, ultimately both are noble spirits who can change when they learn from their mistakes. So Beczala's interpretation is very deep indeed. And his singing's divine - the high "Lavero!" at the end of the cabaletta rings out with a flourish, totally confident. Read the interview also to see what inspires and motivates Beczala. I've loved his work since his early days with Zurich Opera, and he's developed so well.

Here is a more comprehensive review and fuller still the one which will appear in Opera Today. My way of assessing a performance comes from analysing how and why it expresses an opera. I love this Richard Eyre production because this set silent and very perceptive comment on the story. But you have to be alert to pick up the signals. No matter how many times you've been to this La Traviata, you'll get a lot more from this run than you'd expect !

Monday, 28 November 2011

Ken Russell - 1927-2011

Ken Russell could not "pass away". He died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday  after a series of strokes which would have felled a lesser man long ago. And he died with a smile on his face. Earlier this year he gave an interview during a break from hospital. Cheerfully drinking wine and living life to the full. 

His son Alex has asked, "Please play some music as a prayer for Ken to hear in Heaven". Alex's first choice  was Berlioz Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale.I'm trying to think of something. Mephisto Waltz Symphonie fantastique? Something quixotic, but which reflects Ken's irrepressible love of life. Strangely my favourite Ken Russell was Song of Summer about Eric Fenby's encounter with Delius. It comes from the same period as Women in Love and The Devils, at the height of the Swinging Sixties, but is completely different. It's a film that shows how deeply sensitive Ken really was. Delicate, thoughtful nuances, you could feel how Fenby felt in the presence of his hero. So maybe the music I'll choose is

Fun Winter in Spitalfields

You could spend December with Messiahs back to back. But the Spitalfields Winter Music Festival offers festive cheer and fun music. It even kicks off with a Christmas Market with Outdoor Puppets,  early music, story telling, brass bands and gospel choir. Much livelier than commercial tat. And the money goes to Crisis, to help the homeless, not a remote "theoretical" situation these days. That's the real spirit of Christmas, caring for others.

Lots of singing and community events but Spitalfields isn't the average type of place. It's eclectic! The big event on 16/12 is the 25th anniversary of I Fagiolini: Monteverdi, Striggio, Janequin, Britten and "three musical soufflés".  I Fagiolini under Robert Holllingworth have a reputation for adventure. Early music isn't "safe". Also off the beaten track is Joglaresa's Yoolis on 19/12. Medieval  instruments and quirky medieval humour. "Early music's bit of tough" they describe themselves.

Early music is a Spitalfields thing, but so is contemporary avant garde (it's that kind of neighbourhood). Tickets almost sold out for the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose conductor Hugh Brunt has impressed me a lot in the past. They're doing Claude Vivier Pulau Dewata and Gerard Grisey Vortex  Temporum  Lots about Vivier and Grisey on this site - my favourites!

Even more eclectic is thew Tom Waits Project. Veteran composer Gavin Bryars has created a "circus band" to bring together "ten songs by Tom Waits, two by Kurt Weill, a sea shanty, a hymn, a couple of instrumental gypsy tangos and a classic Fellini film score", This should be very interesting indeed. Bryars's Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet was the first new music surprise I had when I first came to London, but I took to it like a natural. About ten years ago it was recorded again with Tom Waits singing the slurred drunken refrain, instead of the original loop tape of a London tramp. So Bryars and Waits relate to each other well.  Tom Waits is unique. He used to cultivate a street bum persona like someone out of film noir. Now he lives on a ranch near my Dad, but someone like that can't tame at heart. Tom Waits's music is poetry, true art song, but with attitude. Waits himself doesn't deign to tour in London to big houses. So get the experience at Spitalfields.

Oh, and they are doing a Messiah, too!

photo by Steve Cadman

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Handel Saul at the Barbican

Handel Saul at the Barbican  reviewed in Opera Today by Robert Hugill. "The title role is a remarkable portrait of a conflicted personality, and Handel emphasised this by reducing the character's arias and concentrating on recitative (both secco and accompanied). This means that it can be a tricky role to bring off, fatally easy to under play in a concert performance. Peter Purves brought both Handelian bravura and drama to the role, not only acting but reacting, his performance continuing when others were performing, so that Purves showed Saul’s furious reaction to the Israelites praise for David"

Saturday, 26 November 2011

La Traviata - moral, universal?

Verdi's La Traviata starts its second run of three this year at the Royal Opera House. But please read La Traviata and the Credit Crunch by David Chandler in Opera Today.  And my review of the November production with a much stronger cast. "One way of thinking about La Traviata is to consider it as a portrayal of bubble wealth that makes artistic capital from the shimmering, rainbow hues of the surface rather than showing any interest in what sustains the bubble."
 
Violetta lives the champagne lifestyle to excess because it's like an escape from brutal reality. Like the petals of a camellia which shatter at the height of their beauty, La Dame des Camellias knows she has to live for the moment. Yet she can see the wider situation and the effects on other people. That gives her the true nobility Germont respects.

The lady in the photo is Lin Dai 林黛 (1934-64) perhaps the most celebrated Chinese actress of her time. She came from an upper class background in Guangxi, a poor province ruled by an enlightened, reformist leadership under General Bai Chongxi (father of Professor Pai of Kunqu Opera fame) After the Communists came power, Lin Dai's family became refugees. Lin Dai started making movies at 17 and starred in many great classics from historic costume dramas like The Kingdom and the Beauty to comedies.

In Love Without End (不了情) (1961) Lin Dai plays Qing Qing, an orphan from the country who comes to neon-lit Hong Kong. Wearing a simple qipao, she sings a folksong in a nightclub, but impresses the patrons so much she becomes resident singer. Nightclubs were an important part of social life then, so they represent much more than entertainment. Qing Qing falls in love with Teng Pengnan (Kwan Shan 关山) a rich young man. But Teng's father dies suddenly, leaving huge debts. Pengnan has to save the family business and honour but can't find the funds. So Qing Qing rescues the Tengs by giving them money under a false identity. Qing Qing then seduces Pengnan (shocking in those chaste days) because she wants to lose her virginity with him. She's got to spend a year as the "secretary" of the millionaire who gave her the money but at least her first night will be love. So she's heroic because she sacrifices herself for others. But Pengnan, disgusted and enraged, walks out when he finds out. Eventually they reconcile and are about to marry when Qing Qing discovers that she has a fatal illness. So she runs away to a retreat on  a remote island where she's tended by a Catholic priest. In real life, there were Catholic ministries in Hong Kong's outer islands, and Lin Dai was a devout Catholic. But the La Traviata connection is obvious. Pengnan tracks her down, but, as in the opera, it's too late. 

Lin Dai is incandescent on screen. She was a "natural girl", whose cheeky charm and perky optimism appealed to audiences in the turbulent 50's and 60's, but she's also an archetype of the ideal Chinese heroine who throughout history sacrifices her beauty for higher causes.  So  Love Without End is even more in the tradition of  Diau Charn (貂蝉) and Beyond the Great Wall. than a mere remake of La Traviata.  (Diau Charn falls in love with the general of a despot she's on a mission to destroy. In Beyond the Great Wall, a royal concubine marries a Mongol to save the nation), So Qing Qing in  Love Without End is Violetta who can see beyond conspicuous consumption. Consumption got them in other ways!  Lin Dai committed suicide at the age of 29. Possibly it was an aberration, an accident that went wrong. Her husband left their room intact until he died last year. Even the hair in her hairbrushes, and lipsticks half used.  So maybe life imitates art. The song below (sung by Gu Mei, Lin Dai lip syncs) is so famous that it evokes the whole period.

Please also see Chinese Carmen Wild, Wild Rose and lots more on Chinese film and values on this site.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Cool Dude, Dvořák

courtesy of Julian Long, baritone. Dvořák in the 70's the Decade That Taste Forgot

Thursday, 24 November 2011

New Life for Hugh the Drover

Is English Opera an oxymoron? (other than Benjamin Britten). "Imagine a tuneful eighteenth-century “ballad opera” of country life, say Stephen Storace’s enduringly popular No Song No Supper, cross it with Cavalleria Rusticana, throw in a bit of Rocky for good measure, and you have some idea of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s first opera, Hugh the Drover, a “Romantic Ballad Opera.” writes David Chandler in Opera Today.

Don't laugh too soon! Please read the full review here because it's a erudite analysis on what makes an opera work

Hugh the Drover would be ridiculous as Grand Opera, but on its own terms there's more to it than reputation would have. The secret is in performances like the recent production by Hampstead Garden Opera, Upstairs at the Gatehouse. "They do not send it up, but they “sub-reference” the audience, to use Charles Lamb’s term, just enough to say “look, this is all tremendous fun, and we’re really enjoying ourselves.”  

Context is all. Not long ago, the Royal Opera House considered English operas but dropped plans discreetly. It wasn't cost, but artistic good sense. Even Sir John in Love or A Village Romeo and Juliet wouldn't work in a space more suited to Wagner or Verdi. Why doesn't ENO do more English opera instead of opera in English? The Coliseum has connections with the English Music Hall tradition, and is small enough to suit the domestic nature of the English style. RVW's Riders to the Sea was popular, though it was treated much more as the J M Synge stage play with music than as the opera it is. That's the usual ENO hang-up about theatre rather than music. If the ENO could do musically-literate English opera, that would be a real challenge.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Inside a Fabergé Egg - Bolshoi Ruslan and Lyudmila

What must it feel like to be inside a Fabergé egg ? The new Bolshoi Theatre is sumptuous. It's splendid outside, and stunning within. That kind of extravagance is a visionary act of faith in the value of art. For £430 million Moscow has a jewel which enhances the nation's reputation. For £800 million in 2002, London got the Millenium Dome, which continued to bleed money until it became an arena for pop concerts. 

Fabergé egg indeed, as the curtain rose on the first full opera, Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila "as iconic in Russia as Carmen is in France" as the host says on Arte TV (watch full video HERE).   Make time to listen carefully, luxuriate in the exquisite performance. Vladimir Jurowski conducts. The Bolshoi is in a completely different stratosphere from Glyndebourne and the LPO, with all respect. If they snare him, on the basis of this we're all in for wonderful things.

Ruslan and Lyudmila isn't really medieval Kiev. Indeed, the story bears a striking resemblance to Tasso's Orlando saga which gave rise to works like Armida, Rinaldo, Orlando Furioso, Orlando Paladino and much else. Thwarted lovers, sorcerers and sorceresses good and bad, enchanted palaces, magic gardens. Ruslan and Lyudmila fascinates because it's fairy tale fantasy. So we gasp at the sheer beauty of the wedding feast and suspend belief in plot logic.

Ruslan (Mikhail Petrenko) and Lyudmila (Albina Shagimuratova) seem blissfully happy. But wait! Like any decent fairy-tale, something's not right. Bayan the mystic (Charles Workman who also sings Finn the white witch) warns of danger. Then you notice wedding guests with big head masks. Then, while the guests are dancing, half hidden in the melée, there's a giant head. Friends or foes? Lyudmila gets whisked away in a carpet, as in the original.   

More controversially, director Dmitri Tcherniakov and his team show the characters in the following acts in normal "modern" clothes. This isn't wrong, since fairy tales deal with human situations (albeit extreme). Indeed, we can concentrate better  on the singing and acting. When Ruslan confronts the Giant Head, it's a human face projected on a backcloth - much more moving than a comedy structure. Given the horizontals that large crowd scenes dictate, film projections are a good way of using this vast stage. But Ruslan's confrontation with the Head is extraordinarily dramatic - one of the best moments inn the whole production,

Rather less effective though are the portrayals of Finn and Naina the Armida-like sorceress, neither demonic nor sympathetic. The scene in Naina's castle is a mess. Can these aimlesss sirens seduce anyone? Their captives look bored out of their heads. On the other hand, had Tcherniakov shown them more forcefully, either as hooker vamps, or sweet nubile babes, it would have upset many in the audience. Compromise isn't a good choice.

Infinitely better are the scenes in Lyudmila's dream-state. Lit in luminous whites and blues, the set seems to float in space, like Lyudmila, bewitched. The dance sequences suggest what might be happening in her mind. Again, the simplicity allows full focus on the singing - Yuri Minenko's Ratmir is divine! Tcherniakov may not please conservatives, but these last two acts are sensitive to the music, movement enphasizing what's in the orchestra. Indeed, throught the opera, solo instruments appear on stage as part of the action, showing how Glinka uses them to spotlight inner states. For example, harpsichord and harp in the banquet scenes. Lyudmila sings her long Act IV aria shadowed by a violinist, the music expressing, perhaps, what's in her psyche.There are things in this Ruslan and Lyudmila that irritate like crazy, but moments like this which make it worthwhile.
Please see also Opera Cake

IRR raves Dvořák 9 Serebrier

"Outstanding, should rank with the finest", says Robert Maxwell-Walker in the International Record Review of the new Dvořák Symphony no 9 From the New World by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. ".... the wood wind, so fresh and intensely musical are the phrases and characterisation both of the principals and as a unit. It is as though they have just discovered the music: there is nothing tired or thoughtlessly predictable about this performance, all the way through – it is deeply impressive, such as to reinforce one’s faith in the classical record business. The conductor’s tempos and internal orchestral balance are flawless. Nor are these musical qualities confined to the performance of the Symphony; the Slavonic Dances which open and close the disc are fresh and lively and intensely musical ; the Czech Suite, likewise, is not ‘run-through’ in any superficial manner; these artists’ individual and corporate respect for all the music here is uplifting to a degree."

I'm thrilled.  Please read my review HERE. Serebrier brings such freshness to this performance, I think, because he cares deeply about the music and the concepts behind it. As a young boy in Uruguay he discovered the music of America and formed the first South American youth orchestra in order to get it performed. At 17, he went to study in the US and was mentored by Stokowski. Serebrier assisted Stokowski on the first recording of Charles Ives's Symphony no 4 and later conducted it with the LSO. What I like about Serebrier us that he doesn't follow received wisdom but thinks - and feels - for himself.  A true original !

Monday, 21 November 2011

Radical déjeuner

Dissident Ai wei wei poses naked with women? Far more radical was this event in the late 1920's in Shanghai where a group of artists posed for (I think) a formal graduation photo and included their life class model. It's a reference to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe but in China, unlike the west, there's no tradition of classical nudity. These artists were changing values within the society they lived in.

This week, Aung San Suu Kyi  announced that she would run for parliament in Burma.  This is courageous  because she's reaffirming the idea of democracy as "the will of the people". Although the generals mistreated her and other Burmese, she doesn't choose violent overthrow but works to heal from within. How can bad systems really change? Again and again, violence perpetuates regression. Cheer the fall of Gaddafi,  but remember what happened after the fall of the Shah. On the other hand, the non-violent collapse of Communism in Europe which really seems to have brought a new, if less secure, era. What brings about fundamental, positive change? I'm wary of rent-a-mob protesters who think protest is cute stunts and don't analyse issue by issue. That's no different from following party lines or demagogue politics. No one country can solve this Economic Collapse, certainly no one person. Real change, I think, will only come through a mature rethink of the fundamentals of the system, not stunts, not violence.  

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lonesome Schoenberg's New World

"How Schoenberg became Lonely" by the biographer of his American years, Sabine Feisst. "Far from being isolated or alone, he in fact never failed to attract supporters in Europe and America, and scored substantial successes on both continents. Schoenberg’s penchant for the rhetoric of loneliness expressed something deeper than pessimism; it worked along with his unfailing ethical idealism to fuel his fighting spirit, which was the engine of his productivity, creativity, and teaching activities in both Europe and America".

Feisst's book, Schoenberg's New World (OUP, 2011) is an antidote to the demonization of Schoenberg currently fashionable in some circles, as if  "disappearing"  Schoenberg might somehow magic music back into the 19th century. Rumours are that some want him banned in LA of all places. Feisst demonstrates how integral Schoenberg was to the development of American music as well as European. Myths are made when people rehash the same old stories. A historian's job is to analyse how things come to be known. Please also see this clip of Schoenberg conducting Mahler in LA as early as 1934.


New Dvořák series - Serebrier, Bournemouth, Warner

When Dvořák went to America, he was struck by the Shock of the New. In 1893, there was no TV, no film, no mass communication, so the impact of this strange new world must have been extreme. Dvořák's Symphony no 9, "From the New World" op 95 is so familiar now that it's thrilling to hear this new recording, first in a series of Dvořák symphonies from Warner Classics. José Serebrier conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, one of the best outside London (and good enough to show London a thing or two!). If the rest of the series is as good as this disc, Bournemouth will get the respect it deserves.

Serebrier has conducted and recorded Dvořák many times, but this performance is electrified by a glorious sense of discovery. Might this have been what Dvořák and many millions of Europeans before him and after have felt when they encountered America?  There are many more venerable recordings, but this bursts with open-hearted exuberance. Serebrier shows what America might have meant for Dvořák, a man steeped in European tradition, from a land-locked country. Expansive, surging crescendi, suggesting wide open spaces, not just physical but as creative opportunity. Vigorous rhythmic power, evoking the liveliness of American "can do" enterprise. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra here is very bright, and very brassy, more like an American orchestra, which suits this symphony well, and they sound invigorated.

Dvořák's big codas dazzle, creating large forms, but above all, Serebrier shows how the essence of this symphony lies in lyrical detail.  Mountains, plains, cities and technology - do some of these rhythms suggest trains, and machines ? Yet the symphony's finest moments stress individuality, either human or from nature. Hence the delicate "vernal" motifs like the wonderful English horn motif, now known as "going home".  It wasn't borrowed music but Dvořák's own, representing, perhaps, idealistic innocence. That's why it became a spiritual, not the other way round. Serebrier separates notes so each is heard clearly. This creates a magical sense of wonder, but hints at fragility. The Largo dissolves with exquisite tenderness. Even in the vigorous, confident Allegro con fuoco, the pure, clean sounds of solo instrments shine. The sound recording is so good you can hear piccolo and triangle ring. This is where studio recording proves its worth, for that pristine clarity is very much at the heart of this symphony.

It's prescient that this Volume One in Serebrier's Dvořák series with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra starts with the Slavonic Dance op 46 no 1 (presto) because the first chord explodes! It's followed by an unusually  alert reading that feels like dance on a grand scale, yet even the tiny whips - like fast moving footsteps - are deftly precise. Surrounding From the New World with the Czech Suite op 39 and the Slavonic Dance op 72 no 2 (allegretto) is perceptive, for it underlines the idea of dance in the symphony.  Dance is rhythmic pattern, and movement, and From the New World uses ensemble patterns as well as motivic freedom.  Dancers in groups, dancers solo, all functioning in a complex whole. You can almost visualize an American city with teeming traffic in a very un-European grid of streets. Or buildings as hives of activity. Maybe that's what Dvořák really meant about using "Indian" sounds, stomping ostinato as a rhythm of life.

 http://www.amazon.com/Dvorak-Symphony-No-New-World/dp/B005MQJPZS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321775940&sr=8-1

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Mix up matrimony


"Racial segregation I can see universally, fading gradually. Mixed marriage is the fashion...the organs are always playing, and the parsons are saying, co-operate and amalgamate..... the races are blending harmoniously, white and coloured people are binding neutrally, it doesn't take no class to see it come to pass, coloured Britons are rising fast." Note the reference to "Chinee man" and the huge (male) Chinese community in the Caribbean.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Sibelius Kullervo on TV tonight

Sibelius Kullervo on BBC TV 4 tonight live from the Barbican. Except it's from 1992. Two of the greatest Sibelius singers of all, which makes it worth hearing, Everyone looks so young. Jorma Hynninen is now 70, but here he is still in his prime. Hynninen is perhaps the greatest exponent of Finnish song ever. He recorded the very first Kullervo, with Paavo Berglund in 1985, soon after the work was rediscovered. Anything he does with Kullervo is historic. Soile Isokoski is in her early 30's and looks positively virginal. She's using a score, not that that means anything, because even singers who know their parts well often keep a score handy for security.  But this is three years before her 1995 recording of Kullervo with Lief Segerstam. It's good to hear her near the start of her career, now that she's turned Sibelius performance around. Quite possibly no-one has done as many Kullervos, Luonnotars and Sibelius songs as she, though most were live performances, some much better than more formal recordings.

The orchestra really sounds like it's 1992. Sir Colin Davis's Sibelius harks back to early 20th century British practice, which is valid, but smooths out the raw energy in the piece. The first movement is so polite it's dull, but perservere. After the maiden's suicide, Davis responds to the horror the music expresses and things pick up in the "battle" movement. There's almost no way the savagery in this music can be suppressed,  so it's still thrilling, though Davis's conducting is very dated and doesn't access the depths of the piece. Sibelius's writing reflects the stylized barbarism of the story. Hard, driving rhythms, dissonaces and relentless pounding. This is way outside the Austro-German mainstream. Sibelius is accessing a far deeper tradition based on the oral tradition from which the Kalevala as we know it now developed. Sibelius is doing what Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók would be doing decades later. How primal Kullervo must have sounded in 1892.

Perhaps that's why Sibelius suppressed this piece. He was hyper-sensitive, and despite his fame, quite insecure on a deeper level. Even when he was financially secure, he felt impoverished.  There is a crackpot theory around that suggests he stopped writing because he got a state pension which shows a complete misunderstanding not only of the man but of the creative mind. Shame on those who perpetuate such nonsense.  Because Sibelius  was a visionary, he could imagine music so advanced that even he could not achieve what he dreamed of.  Hence the "silence of Järvenpää". Because Sibelius was the symbol of Finland to the world, he was always under pressure to excel, and meet public expectations. But an artist needs the freedom to experiment and grow. Listen to Tapiola, the Seventh Symphony and The Tempest. So perhaps Sibelius pulled back from the brink just as he did with Kullervo.  Luckily for us, though, he went on to write more, and the manuscript of Kullervo wasn't lost. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Fauré Mirages - filming art song


It is my honour to present Gabriel Fauré's Mirages in these videos by Corinne Orde. Art song is poetry expanded through music, expanded further by performance. And in this case, exceptionally vivid filming, which absolutely enhances the experience.  So an organic flow between the ideas that inspired the poet (Mme la Baronne Renée de Brimont) to the way Fauré sets the poems, and the way they're expressed in this performance. Study these well, for they are a lesson in how art song interpretation can be extended through intelligent film making. Look how beautiful the camera work is, too! Even the translation is way above average, much more natural and poetic than most available. This one should be the standard.  An observant eye for nature, too (nature filning is also a specialist genre). Altogether an impressive Gesammstkunstwerk, extremely sensitive and creative.  Not many people possess this wide range of skills. Pretty unique. Just sourcing the locations would be hard work. Please read more about Corinne Orde HERE and explore her other films of French songs (I love her Ravel Histoires naturelles) Here is a link to  her youtube channel, to which I've subscribed, but these films are so good that they should be screened in performance events.Please see lots more on nthis site about filming nmusic and music on film,




Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Missing Sibelius 8 found?

Did parts of Sibelius Symphony no 8 escape the flames at Ainola ? There's plenty of evidence that Sibelius did write something, but being a perfectionist who'd suppressed his own work before, he kept the details to himself. Read the evidence in Kari Kilpeläinen's 1995 article in The Finnish Music Quarterly.  Something went into the fire, but Sibelius couldn't burn what was not to hand.

On 14/11/11 this article appeared in the Helsingin Sanomat : Sibelius's letters unearthed from document case.  The granddaughter of the woman who inherited music copyist Paul Voigt's personal effects contacted Helsingin Sanomat" It's by Vesa Sirén, long-term Sibelius scholar, who's written about Sibelius as conductor. Voigt was Sibelius's copyist and it's known that he had a "cardboard box filled with music" stored away. More background HERE

Two weeks ago, Sirén wrote about attempts to perform what material that might exist. "Is this the sound of Sibelius's lost 8th Symphony?" (this is the article Sirén sent to Alex Ross). The sound clip is HERE  It's in Finnish, but the music starts 2 minutes in and ends at 4.45.

 "Incredible. Even the dissonant intervals in the horns have a sensual clarity to them", says a stunned Timo Virtanen (editor of the Sibelius Critical Edition). Adds Sirén "The music is strange, powerful, and with daring, spicy harmonies - a step into the new even after Tapiola and the music for The Tempest."

This ties in with  Kari Kilpeläinen's speculation about what might have made Sibelius so cagey about letting the symphony be seen by others.

"It appears from certain late works that Sibelius stood on the brink of a new stylistic era after the 7th Symphony, Tapiola and the Tempest music. This is particularly marked in the opus 114 work for piano (1929), in which he seemed to be progressing towards a more abstract idiom: clear, ethereal images little touched by the human passions.... If the Opus 114 piano pieces are abstractions of this world, the Funeral (op111b) is by comparison like a study of the other world - strange, inexplicable, unconditional yet not frightening. It has been suggested that the Funeral is based on a theme from the 8th symphony, and Aino Sibelius admitted that this might be so. Did the new symphony thus also represent a modern sound unlike that of his previous style, with bleak, open tones and unresolved dissonances?"

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Enescu Oedipe La Monnaie broadcast

George Enescu's Oedipe (premiered 1936) is at last making its way into the mainstream repertoire. It's not mindless easy listening, because Enescu's dealing with the primeval saga of Oedipus, from birth to death. Oedipus is cursed from the moment he's born. Weary, blind and dispirited, he's welcomed in Athens, but by then it's too late. Oedipus chooses death. Along the way, he's married his mother, killed his father and much else.

The latest production of Enescu Oedipe at La Monnaie/ De Munt in Brussels is now available free HERE until 2nd December. Leo Hussain conducts, which is immediately a plus, as he's very good. This version's infinitely sharper than the 2002 Edinburgh Festival performance which I learned the opera from.  Evan Dickerson, the leading Enescu specialist, covered the 2008 Toulouse Production (Steinberg). This cast includes Dietrich Henschel,  Jan-Hendrick Rootering, John Graham-Hall, Natasha Petrinsky, Robert Bork, Henk Neven, Ilse Eerens and the remarkable Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Direction and design by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrsaco, forces behind La Fura dels Baus.

I'd heard horror stories about the production, since La Fura dels Baus are controversial, but it was much better than I feared.  Dark and forbidding - but this is a strange world, with irrational curses and tense, brutalized citizens, threatened by plagues, wars and disaster. A whole society in permanent state of anxiety. Of course it's not pretty. Images are glimpsed in shadow, as elusive as images in a nightmare. Yet this reflects Enescu's music, which throbs and flows like an invisible organism,  the vocal parts signposts to meaning. (Read NW-Paris's comment on my recent opera dream. Maybe prophecy is still with us.) So I don't have any problem with the Sphinx depicted as old fashioned aeroplane. Planes have wings, too, and often have female names. Sphinxes are quixotic! When Marie-Nicole Lemieux crawls onto the fuselage, she sings with demonic force. Fabulously effective. In a way, one might read the Sphinx as mother/wife. Since she's powerful, and female, she "must" be destroyed.

The production is claustrophobic, but that adds to the sense of foreboding. Jocasta "with the white arms" follows Oedipe in marriage and looks back, her arms now covered in blood. When Oedipus exits life, he walks through a narrow passage into light. Birth canal anxiety? Freud would have read much into this. So watch and listen. I won't say "enjoy", but this is a thoughtful  approach to an opera which can be deeply disturbing. Read the plot beforehand as a lifeline.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Applauding the Scenery - Eugene Onegin, ENO

When audiences applaud the scenery, it's a bad sign. This ENO Eugene Onegin at the Coliseum is visually stunning. Everything glitters. Polished mirror surfaces, luscious costumes. It's like being in a fashion shoot for a glamour magazine, circa 1955. You gasp at the maximalist opulence. But when Onegin cries out "Oh, the tedium", he strikes an emotional chord.

Onegin's outburst comes during the ball at St Petersburg. The staging  is spectacular, with columns towering over the stage, lit to resemble gold and marble. It's glorious. So why isn't Onegin impressed? If Deborah Warner had asked that question, this production might have come to life. Socially, Onegin's better connected than the Larin family, and much loved. Tatyana's only the latest in a long line of admirers, of all kinds. But he chooses deliberately to be an outsider. Tatyana lives in book-filled fantasy, unlike her nurse for whom love is an irrelevant concept. She falls for him because he's dangerous. Writing that letter was traumatic, because it was  shockingly, unlady-like by the conventions of the time.  Yet Onegin doesn't  reject her as a person, but because he's not into the status games that marriage entails.  What is he really after?  Is he a symbol of the artistic soul?

Psychologically, there are many levels in this opera, but this production is more concerned with surface appearances. The First Act misses altogether the clues to Tatyana's fertile imagination that the garden represents. Maybe this set portrays her mind, but it's a shambles, and there's nothing else to support that take on Tatyana's personality. It's a pity as this act should establish why Onegin cares about Tatyana. Like the garden, she stands for the fertility of Russian tradition. Purity, not ostentation. (for more explanation, please see the comments below)  But we get the trademark Warner busy crowd, where supernumeraries wander about contributing nothing but attention deficit. At least when the crowd are dancing, they serve a purpose.

The visual glory of this production will make it it a huge success, particularly for audiences who like the very trappings of status Onegin so clearly rejects. (For more on Met values please see here).  On one level, the opera supports a regressive interpretation, since Onegin realizes how empty his life is without love. Tatyana sticks with her husband, apparently choosing status over all else. But I've often wondered what the next act might have been. Quite possibly, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky had ideas on the resolution, but in Tsarist times, the message might have had them banned. So perhaps Warner's retreat into appearances has a point, since even now, it isn't safe to think of Onegin questioning social mores.

Performances supported this approach to the opera. Extremely creditable singing and playing, but without the fire which might come from direction that engaged with the drama. Amanda Echalaz has a lovely voice, and sings clearly, but the part isn't developed. Is Tatyana sexual, or a fantasist, or wild, or at heart a domesticated conformist like her sister? Similarly Audun Iversen as Onegin sings correctly, but isn't expected to portray the darker aspects of Onegin's personality. Toby Spence's Vladimir Lensky comes over impressively partly because the role is less complex. Even then, one might ask, why is he so irrationally jealous? A production that focussed on the Onegin/Lensky relationship might be perceptive.  Let's not forget how Pushkin died, and Tchaikovsky's sexuality. That's why the duel scene is crucial to the whole interpretation.  The text stresses how important it is to follow rules. "A man is about to die". Yet there's no tension on this stage. Spence is directed to stand still long enough for Iverson to take aim and fire. As my companion said, duels were fought with pistols, not rifles, which handle too clumsily. Is the production implying that Lensky has a death wish? Lensky, who plays by the rules of society, gets killed. Onegin who plays by the rules of the duel, has to flee.

Extremely good performances in the minor roles. Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Filippyevna, for example, singing well and acting by instinct. Adrian Thompson, David Stout and Brindley Sherratt as Triquet, Zaretsky and Prince Gremin respectively, making their parts more than vignettes. Edward Gardner's conducting, however, was more in line with Warner's glossy surfaces. The orchestra played correctly, even elegantly, but the pungent Slavic soul in this music was smoothed over.  This Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin will be a huge success, especially at the Met. It's going to sell and sell, and will be around for the next 20 years. In revival, the direction might be tightened up, and singers with less genteel personalities might be allowed more freedom (witness Wyn-Rogers' individuality).  So even if you don't catch it at the ENO this season, there will be many more chances in years to come.

Photo credits : Neil Libbert, courtesy ENO (detals embedded)

Saturday, 12 November 2011

In yer dreams! my opera

Last night I wrote an opera. Or rather I dreamed I was hearing an incredibly wonderful opera. Multiple layers of texture, exquisite singing, the voices magically moving in and out of the orchestra. Gosh it was wonderful. For a while on waking, it was still playing in my mind, Then the alarm rang, and it sounded like one of the many themes. Now I think my opera perhaps grew from the choruses in Der fliegende Hollander, tho' there was no overt similarity.

Gounod Mirielle New Sussex Opera

Popular in France but unknown in England? Arthur Honegger's Joan of Arc at the stake at the Barbican wasn't appreciated enough, so it was good that that Charles Gounod's Mirielle, with the New Sussex Opera, at Cadogan Hall got a better response.  There's no difference between journalists and bloggers (you'd be surprised who is NUJ and who's not).  There's just good writing and not.  So here are two examples of well-informed, thoughtful writers who care about what they're doing. Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph and Robert Hugill of Planet Hugill.  The latter also has interesting things to say about Honegger. Once I was at a South Bank pre-concert talk and the speaker asked  "How many of you have heard of X?" As if the audience would be paying £40  for no reason.  About 200 hands shot up. "At the bloody Proms!" someone shouted, since the composer is hardly obscure. We were there because we wanted to find out more but it was a waste of time. Nobody is going to know everything, or needs to, but most people want to try to learn. The more information, the better an opinion can be formed, and the better the experience.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Lads in their Hundreds

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

George Butterworth's setting of A E Housman's poem The Lads in their Hundreds.from A Shropshire Lad.  Housman had a thing for doomed young men, and quite possibly Butterworth did too. He had a strange death wish, burning his unpublished music before joining up. I've written a lot about Butterworth including an EXCLUSIVE account of what I found in his Regimental War Diary, a minute by minute account of his last moments, written partly in pencil, at the front. Butterworth's war records were difficult to track until I realized he was enlisted under his mother's name. There's so much about Butterworth we haven't begun to fathom. Ironically, Housman outlived Butterworth by 20 years.

The absolute best recording is by Roderick Williams described HERE, it's astounding. But listen to the "mystery" voice above .It's a very unusual performance but one I've grown to love.  The singer has such range and power yet he's singing delicate sotto voce barely above a whisper.  A bit like a Lamborghini purring on idle. That takes much more skill than blasting away. Because the singer has such natural colour in his voice he  he sounds more operatic than the typical English singer. Yet he's restrained, because the song isn't theatrical,. Some notes are a little high for a bass baritone, but he manages them, and it adds to the song because it brings out its hush tension. It's achingly poignant, as if the singer is suppressing extreme horror, because he doesn't want  "the lads" to hear what will happen to them, or disturb their innocence. This is a surprisingly perceptive, sensitive performance though it's far from "English school", and has increased my respect for the singer no end.  Excellent matching of images to pictures The "friendly" lad is the only one smiling!

You might also like from past years  : Wilfred Owen Dulce et decorum est,  Ivor Gurney Strange Hells, Bach  and the Sentry,  To the Prussians of England

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Elgar smash hit at the Coliseum

Extended  run for Edward Elgar's smash hit at the Coliseum. Elgar, who wrote the first Starlight Express long before Andrew Lloyd Weber. Londoners couldn't get enough of another Elgar musical, which the composer himself conducted.  It featured among other things, Elgar's song cycle Fringes of the Fleet. That's a production from what is now the stage at the ENO, taken in 1917. The show was so successful that its one month run in June  extended to the end of the year, only ending when Kipling withdrew his support after the death of his son on the Western Front.

Four baritones or rather one main baritone and three others as chorus. At first, a kind of Dad's Army at sea. "The first mate hails from Wales and fights in top and tails"....and "The Engineer is 58, so he's prepared to meet his fate". "A'rovin, a-rovin' the Lord knows where"  Jolly! Jolly! But the poems were written, by Rudyard Kipling, in 1915, so "the game is more than the players of the game  and the ship is more than its crew". 

Here are some of the earliest depictions of modern technology in art song. In Submarine, long, mysterious lines evoking the idea of a submarine lurking in the depths. We're used to submarines now.  For Kipling, Elgar and their audiences they must have been fearsome indeed. The mirth of a seaport dies,...we rise, we lie down and we move ...in the belly of death.  The Sweepers describes minesweepers busily clearing the passage so ships can move freely. The song sounds jaunty, punctuated with the sound of ship's bells, but we know there are U boats out at sea. The last  performance at the Coliseum took place in December 1917. Charles Mott, the leading baritone, was called up, and killed in France in May 1918. He's the man in the dark clothes at right in the photo.

You can hear the first recording since 1917 (the original with Charles Mott isn't easily available) HERE on BBC Radio 3 online (starts around 39 mins).  It's part of a series about Elgar and the First World War very much deeper than the usual composer of the week series. The focus is not simply on Elgar in 1914-18 but the way society was changing. Real historians, not chatshow hosts, talking about the experience of war,  and in a non-sentimental, analytical way."Alcoholism", says one, was the big danger on the home front, so licensing laws were introduced.

Even better still, get the CD by SOMM.  It is an important release because this material is "new", rescued and re-edited by Tom Higgins.  There's quite a story behind it, so please read about that HERE. The CD is recommended as it contains many rarities, chosen carefully to complement each other, like Big Steamers both by Elgar and by Edward German.  Roderick Williams sings, so it's  perfect. (read what I wrote in 2009)  It took a while for me to appreciate this CD for the patriotic songs aren't usually my thing, but gradually I've grown to love it and Fringes of the Fleet above all.

You might also like from past years  : Wilfred Owen Dulce et decorum est,  Ivor Gurney Strange Hells, Bach  and the Sentry,  To the Prussians of England
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Friday in SMitF

There is an ad around that says "Remember the soldiers who won't come back". Which is true. But remember those who do come back, traumatized, unable to get jobs, wounded emotionally if not physically. Heroes, who end up homeless and on the streets. Yet still the Big Powers are finding excuses for more wars.

So on Friday a well chosen concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields with the New London Singers (conducted by Ivor Setterfield, William Whitehead, organist).  Choral gems : Fauré Requiem, Finzi  Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, John Ireland Greater Love Hath No Man and John Tavener Song for Athene.

St Martin-in-the-Fields often gets overlooked because it's not as glitzy as other places we go to. But that's exactly why this concert is worth attending. St Martin-in-the-Fields has endured. Once, it really was "in the fields" before London grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now every tourist stops by but locals take it for granted.  Yet it's a lovely performance place, a haven from the mad rush outside. And on Remembrance Day, it's a spiritual centre. Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate the defeat of Napolean and invasion of  France and Spain. Nelson sits on his column and a smaller statue of Edith Cavell stands in front of Pret a Manger. In 1990, a peaceful protest against the Poll Tax was crushed by police on horseback, riding all the way up the steps of St Martin's, beating elderly demonstrators with truncheons. The film footage "disappeared" apparently under a D notice, but it happened.  In 2002, the biggest ever demonstration against the invasion of Iraq took place in Trafalgar Square. Never in our worst fears did we imagine how that war would escalate and still be with us. No doubt Tony BLiar will wear his red poppy and smirk. Wha happened to the money he pledged the British Legion from his book sales? Not that it would go far enough to mend the damage.


photo : montage of a monument in Amiens, credit : Weglinde Gordon Lawson

Ingrid Bergman in Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake

Ingrid Bergman made two movies about Joan of Arc. The first (1948) was directed by Victor Fleming. Any film with Bergman as the star is watchable, but the script (Maxwell Anderson) is wooden, and the production is pretty daft. Shortly after, Bergman met Roberto Rossellini and they had a torrid affair which scandalized Hollywood. But one positive outcome was that together they made serious art movies.

Bergman's second Joan ofArc was Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher (1954), (Giovanna d'Arco al rogno) a filmed version of Arthur Honegger's oratorio, directed by Rossellini.  It's a very good example of how film can enhance music. Honegger's work is psychodrama as oratorio, and Rossellini understands its context.

The set is minimal, shot against a dark background with small lights like stars. Joan is alone with her confessor Frère Dominic. These are her last moments as she waits by the stake, and Joan is examining her conscience. She's manacled, but her mind roams free.  Honegger deliberately sets her part as speech, not song, to show how simple and vulnerable she is. It may be hard for those used to "ordinary" oratorio to appreciate that this heroine doesn't do heroic grand display. Joan is a heroine because she's pure and humble.

Even dressed in sackcloth, her hair shorn, Bergman radiates. Rossellini doesn't need special effects. Bergman's beauty comes from within. Honegger's narrative, such as it is, unfolds in a series of tableaux, like the Stations of  the Cross in Catholic churches, which people follow stage by stage as they meditate on Jesus's journey of suffering.  Rossellini frames Joan's way to the stake with two deliberately stylized scenes of heaven. Saints float in a sky of primitively painted clouds - the kind of painting you might see in a wayside shrine in the countryside, as Joan might have seen, centuries ago. Saints and angels move in a huge circle, the image of a halo, a crown or of the voices closing in on Joan's mind.

Rossellini understands how Honneger's music works. Each tableau is shown as a vision, opening out of the bare stage on which Joan and Frère Dominic are standing. Moreover, each tableau is shown from Joan's perspective. The judges are seen as animals, as a traumatized girl like Joan might have imagined. Honegger sets their words as comic grotesque, which is perceptive, for Joan didn't understand Latin, the language of the Church. It also underlines her peasant sensibilities, so far removed from the intrigues of state. Rossellini puts masks on his actors, so they look like players in medieval mystery plays, who probably did sing in grunts and squawks.

Honegger describes the camp of the English knights with mock-heroic pageantry. They're playing an obscure card game just like they're playing a game with the French nation. Then Honegger writes quasi-folk dance, and Rossellini shows a group of peasant girls dancing in a circle - as the saints and angels did - and Bergman joins them. "It was so, in my father's house" Joan tells the monk, meaning her earthly father. But Rossellini shoots the scene in a surreal mist and there's a mound behind, like the pyre at the stake. Je vais, J'irai! cries Bergman, for she's already on her way. Rossellini uses a technique where he superimposes Bergman's image over the background so she's partly transparent, between two worlds.  Again,this expresses Honegger's music perfectly, for the composer superimposes different threads of music - the folk song, the pageantry and exquisite crosscurrents of abstract music. It's amazingly daring, sophisticated writing.

The mob (the choir) taunts Joan as she's chained to the stake. Now their singing disintegrates to semi-speak, while Joan sings for the first time. Not a glorious triumphant aria but the folk song the girls sang before. It's so basic that even Bergman and the actresses who play the part can sing it. Honegger is telling us that Joan's an ordinary human being, ennobled not by her deeds but by her faith.  Je ne veux pas mourir! J'ai peur! she sobs, but then the song of the angels returns. Je n'ai pas seule!

Discords as the flame rise and the mob shouts, but the music of the angels wins out. Rossellini shoots Bergman, rising upward through the mists suggested in Honegger's ethereal music, until she joins the heavenly circle in the sky. It's tempting to read Rossellini's love for Bergman into this film, and his anger at the way she was vilified in Hollywood, but I think Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher stands on its own merits as a superb example of sensitive, musically informed film making.

Lots more on Joan of Arc, art film and music on film on this site and more to come!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bellini La Sonnambula Royal Opera House

Bellini La Sonnambula at the Royal Opera House reviewed HERE in Opera Today :


"....a young girl sleepwalks into a stranger’s room, where she is discovered by her fiancé; disbelieving her pleas of innocence, he jilts her and plans to wed another; but, she is vindicated when she is spied on a nocturnal wander, and the lovers are reconciled. However, the wafer-thin text is more than compensated for by the composer’s ravishing score and reams of gorgeous melody."

But the staging is "psychobabble".


Monday, 7 November 2011

The Curse of the Ring - Siegfried and the Met

A project as big as Wagner's Ring is, or should be, planned years in advance, but the Met seems to have taken on board criticisms of this complex Ring cycle. But has it learned the real lesson of the Ring?

In this Siegfried, the notorious Machine isn't called upon to do anything spectacular. It's now a giant projection screen for a banal, generic light show, which could easily be achieved through simpler means. It's a tragic waste of the sophisticated technology available. Many will gloat, taking pleasure from seeing the biggest house in the country humbled. That's silly, short-term thinking, because technology is not the problem, but the way it is used. In the first two parts of the cycle, the Machine generated some very creative ideas, suggesting its potential as an artistic device, but now the buzz is gone. The Met's Faith in the Machine is no different to the old obsession with maximalist excess. Trouble is, trappings don't make opera any more than bling buys taste.

The whole point of the Ring is that Wagner doesn't equate wealth with virtue. Quite the contrary. So it's ironic that the old values of conspicuous consumption should override vision. But for many audiences, opera isn't about art, but about display and ostentation. So the Met is in a double bind.

This Siegfried is remarkably benign and ideas-free, almost Disneyfied.  Even Eric Owens's Alberich is more lovable than lethal. He sings well, but the non-direction limits the part to cartoon.  Owens deserved better. Gerhard Siegel is extremely experienced but this Mime sanitizes menace so it won't disturb, whatever the text and music tell us. Siegel is a wonderful artist, but this production isn't interested  in his  interpretive abilities. As he walks offstage, sweating under that heavy costume, he gets waylaid by Renée Fleming, who wants to make small talk. Siegel's naturally witty, so does good snappy one-liners, but his real job is singing, not playing along with chat-show farce. Evidently, the chatter is more important  to the Met than the artist or the role, because they think audiences must be kept amused and can't deal with deeper issues.  Sure it's interesting to see the mechanics of opera, but the chat is usually so artificial. Fleming feigns surprise when Siegel mentions his heart attack at the Met two years ago, her eyes fixed on the autocue above the camera.

During Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel brushed off the the chat, saying "Sorry, Renee, I've got another Act to sing". He was right. His first duty is to his art. He wanted to stay in character and rest his voice, not fritter it away. This time, though, they weren't going to let him escape.As the Wanderer, Wotan is distressed because he realizes he has little power now to influence events. Terfel's Wanderer simmered with suppressed violence. Terfel has never been part of the Establishment, despite his status. He's a natural outsider, who only plays the game when it suits him. This gives hisWotan its metaphysical intensity. Sometimes Terfel can be frustrating,  but here he was fully engaged. His voice bristled, breathing depth into every phrase, revealing the Wanderer's emotional complexity. Someone once told me, "Watch the eyes"  Actors who pose make the right gestures, but their eyes betray them. Terfel's eye(s) flash with many conflicting feelings, since he's so  instinctively in character that even involuntary muscles contribute to his portrayal.

Jay Hunter Morris is the answer to the Met's dreams. Like it or not, movie values influence opera these days and Morris has matinee idol good looks. Few seriously expected Ben Heppner to sing Siegfried in HD broadcast, at this stage in his career, whatever the state of his voice. (Gary Lehman would have been fine, and he can sing Tannhäuser). But Morris's sudden rise to prominence has sensation value. It's a Star is Born scenario everyone can sympathise with, so the Met is right to market it for all it's worth. This is exactly the magic this otherwise dull production needs to catch public attention. It's wonderful human interest and the audience gets to share the dream. You want to wish him well. Morris is fine, but the voice is pretty rather than truly lyrical.  It's not specially distinctive and unstable at the top. Many infelicities in this performance, though he evened out for the crucial final love duet. The Met publicity department makes a lot of the fact that it's a demanding role and that there aren't that many true Heldentenors around, but Morris is not a miracle discovery, though he's great box office.

This production is helped, too, by Fabio Luisi's light, almost Mozartean finesse, which was nicely vernal in the woodland scene, supporting Morris well. Having heard Mojca Erdmann live and on CD several times I was very worried about her Woodbird, but she sang it nicely. Pity about the staging though!  The mock-forest film projection was bad enough but the depiction of the bird was plain embarrassing. An oriole the size of a turkey, run in repeat loop so it flies in the same formation most of the time. Of course this is no natural bird, but this was so bad it would shame an amateur production. Disney would do it better.

Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde was interesting because she made the connection between Brünnhilde and the  Woodbird, both of whom are critical to Siegfried's development.  Her fast, tight vibrato resonates like a bird, for Brünnhilde, now mortal, is nesting at last.  It's cosy and domestic, very charming.  A glorious Heil dir, Sonne! and she looks pleased with herself, as she should.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer - the movie

Full download of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) directed by Carl Th. Dreyer. Click here to run. This one is SILENT  and over 70 years old, out of copyright in Europe. It's being shown tonight at the Barbican, while Marin Alsop is conducting the LSO in a performance of Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light written in 1999 to accompany the film. If you buy the DVD release you get the movie plus Einhorn.  Personally, I'm inclined towards the silent version. Firstly, silent makes you concentrate on the intensity of the images, almost a spiritual experience, which is what Jeanne is going through in the movie. Secondly, from other Dreyer films, like Vampyr (full download HERE) and Vredens Dag (description HERE) it would seem that Dreyer conceived his movies with minimal sound. Although the Einhorn soundtrack is interesting, it's an add-on and isn't that overwhelming as music.

Joan is played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, billed as "Mlle. Falconetti" for reasons unknown. She was a stage artiste, so making this film must have been a kind of ordeal, holding a pose for an eternity for the camera, then slowly changing expression so every muscle twitch is recorded. Look at the intense lighting too. At the end of a day's shoot, her eyes might have stopped working and  her brain given her migraines. So maybe Falconetti was a hero, like St Jeanne. For posterity she'll be remembered without makeup, stressed out and her head shorn.

Look at the rest of the cast list. One of the prosecutors is played by Antonin Artaud, theorist of the Theatre of Cruelty. That doesn't mean S&M but the idea that pushing boundaries makes us challenge assumptions. So the connection between Dreyer's intellectual austerity and Artaud's theories goes pretty deep, All the more reason for a silent Passion of Joan of Arc. Sound distracts. Brian Ferneyhough explains his music in terms of Artaud theories. Now, there's a thought - a Brian Ferneyhough soundtrack to The Passion of Joan of Arc. He's good with complex "medieval" polyphony too. You can bet his version wouldn't be anything like Einhorn. I'll be writing more soon on Ingrid Bergman's Joans of Arc, especially her version of the Arthur Honegger Jeanne d'Arc au bucher (Giovanna d'Arco al rogodirected by her then husband Roberto Rossellini in 1954. When I wrote about the Barbican Jeanne d'Arc, (see HERE) I hadn't seen this film, which is much overshadowed by the famous Bergman Joan of Arc movie made in 1948 by Victor Fleming. The Fleming movie is staightforward Hollywood. The Rosselini film is art. Read about it HERE and come back for more!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Magnificent Honegger Jeanne d'Arc Barbican

Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is magnificent. Rarely does an ensemble this size grace the Barbican stage,  but the extravagance was totally justified.  This massive oratorio is amazing, but you can hear why it hasn't been adopted as part of the British choral tradition. It's not because Honegger blames the English for the invasion and Jeanne's death but because it contradicts so many assumptions of what oratorio should be.

Ténèbres, Ténèbres, the London Symphony Chorus intones, but don't expect a solemn Latin Mass. The massed orchestral and choral forces are screaming accusations at the "heretic, sorceress, demon" and then we see Jeanne, (Amira Casar) a small, gamine figure who really does resemble Joan of Arc, her metallic blouse looking like a  shining breastplate. Joan led the defeat of the English at Rheims, and united France under the Dauphin.  But she was just a shepherdess from Domrémy. How could such things be possible?  Joan was a pure spirit, who saw nothing odd about speaking with saints and angels.

Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc is oratorio as psychodrama.  While the trial progresses, Jeanne's mind moves outside the courtroom, back to her youth, her visions and her simple faith in her mission. Signifcantly, Jeanne doesn't sing but speaks, usually unaccompanied.  At times she slips into a kind of Sprechstimme as she dreams about her past. Frère Dominique, her sympathetic confessor, (David Wilson-Johnson) sometimes sing an approximation of plainchant but shifts into speech. The other main roles (Nicolas Dorian and Marc Antoine, playing multiple parts) are taken by actors who can handle unusual demands, such as speaking in "donkey" voices. Otherwise voices come from within the chorus, the crowd of accusers. It's an interesting mix of stylization and naturalism, which fits well with the idea of Jeanne examining her conscience, as she's told to do, even if she doesn't come up with the approved answers. When she says "No", her accusers say "She's saying Yes!". The "Porcus" farce (Paul Nilon) is pretty wry. Despite the grim situation, there's a lot of good humour in this work, which keeps it down to earth. 

Some fascinating musical writing too. As the crowd bay for blood, Jeanne swoons in fear. Perfect moment for ondes Martenot (Cynthia Millar)  to wail above the tumult. Does it suggest supernatural forces good or ill, or does it suggests Jeanne's fear?  A boy alto (Jason Panagiotopoulos) sings a long solo, completely separate from the children's choir, and Jeanne suddenly starts to sing a simple melody when she reverts to reverie.  Honneger employs different rhythms and tempi, which evoke the many cross-currents in the situation, so the orchestra itself seems to be acting as polyphonic chorus. (For more on Honegger's style see my previous posts HERE, HERE and HERE).

Honegger's style in Jeanne d'Arc is almost deliberately cinematic. He cutrs between moods, like a film director cuts between scenes, gradually building up denser images. We hear an approximation of country dance (oddly modern and jazzy, perhaps on purpose), snatches of mock-liturgy. But mostly it's a constant sense of movement between states.  Honneger was an avid cinema goer, closely linked to the French movie world. He wrote the score for Abel Gance's epic Napolean (1927), the most ambitious movie of the time,  a silent which was shown in cinemas with live ochrestra, so he knew the technical demands of writing for film. Almost certainly he would have known Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and moved in the same arty circles. Perhaps Jeanne d'Arc (1935) is Honegger's response to the film? It doesn't follow the narrative in the film, and Honegger's Joan is a very different personality, but the idea is intriguing.

Marin Alsop conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the LSO Chorus, and the New London's Children's Choir. Ten soloists/actors: Amira Casar,  David Wilson-Johnson, Nicolas Dorian, Marc  Antoine, Klara Ek, Katherine Broderick, Kelley O'Connor, Paul Nilon, Jonathan Lemalu and Jason Panagiotopoulos. While the soloists were clear, much of the choral singing was unidiomatic, so even French speakers would have needed surtitles.

No expense spared, for this is a work that needs complete committment. A great pity then that the programme notes were useless. They're cut from something else and pasted into the booklet without context, so there's no actual description of the music or drama, or even an indication of why Arthur Honneger is significant.  Since Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher is a rarity and so un-English, it deserves a more detailed introduction. Why spend all that money producing a performance when the audience isn't primed to appreciate it?  The focus of the Barbican Joan of Arc weekend seems to be Joan as cultural archetype, symbol of "Women in Leadership", a theme which runs through other events. Many women in leadership are far too busy to get drawn into events like these, but one participant told me they were excellent.  But was Joan of Arc a "woman in leadership"?  She was just following what her voices told her. Today such folk get drugged into silence. As Honegger and his librettist Paul Claudel suggest, when Joan is burnt at the stake, the flames free her from the chains of worldy power games. They're making a parallel with matrydom. "Who lays down their life for others", as it says in the text.

I'll be writing about the film version of Honegger's Joan of Arc by Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini on Monday. Please come back, as I am doing a series of Joan of Arc (click labels below)

This was one of my top picks for the Barbican 2011-2012 season. For more please read HERE (vocal) and HERE (non vocal).