Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Glyndebourne Ravel - Laurent Pelly speaks

Fascinating Ravel Double Bill starts at Glyndebourne this weekend. L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges, two surrealist fantasies, so sharp they're hard to stage well. But if anyone can do them with style and depth, it's Laurent Pelly, who gave us the Glyndebourne Hansel und Gretel, and the ROH Manon and Cendrillon. With Pelly, you can count on intelligence and depth.  Go to the Glyndebourne website HERE and see a link to an interview with Pelly in Opera Today HERE. There's also a podcast.

L’enfant et les sortilèges is a work that makes us understand what it’s like to be a child, maybe 8 or 10 years old. I was 14 years old when I first got to know it, and I was very moved. It lasts about 45 minutes, but it has the depth of an opera of three or four hours. There are so many images, so many personalities, and so many ideas! When I think about the music and its freedom and inventiveness, and the poetry in the text by Colette, I’m so happy that I’m doing it at Glyndebourne.“.......“L’enfant is about a nightmare, but the nightmare is the child’s vision of the world of adults. For me, the teapot, the teacup and the shepherdesses represent adults”. The child doesn’t understand the adult world, so he sees familiar objects come to life and threaten him. It’s fantasy but at the same time understandable “You see the world through the eyes of a child”, says Pelly."
photo courtesy ICA Management

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Henze Six Songs from the Arabian, Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

Hans Werner Henze's Six Songs from the Arabian is a masterpiece,  perfectly tailored to Ian Bostridge for whom it was written. It captures the unique qualities of Bostridge's voice which so intrigued the composer, who could recognize originality when he heard it.  Thirteen years ago, Bostridge and Julius Drake premiered the cycle at the Wigmore Hall,  so it was fitting that it should feature as the finale of the current Wigmore Hall season.

Henze is a dramatist, and each of the Six Songs from the Arabian is a miniature drama. Selim the seafarer laughs as he sails into a storm. Drake makes the piano growl and rumble. This is a psychic storm, whipped up by supernatural beings. Henze quotes the witches' song from Goethe's Die erste Walpurgisnacht. It's a reference to Bostridge's doctorate in witchcraft studies, and to the undercurrent of cosmic chaos that runs through both Goethe and Henze. The piano part rumbles, then breaks into choppy ostinato. "Sieh, da flammt, da zieht das Böse!", Bostridge cries out of the silence, the key word "Böse" leaping out of the line like a whip of thunder. "Es pfeifen die Windsbräute, heulen und scrheiun" (Henze's text). Selim is shipwrecked. The storm is also a reference to Prospero and Caliban, to Bostridge (who was to create a magnificent Caliban in Thomas Adès The Tempest) and to Henze's interest in Britten, Britain and Shakespeare. Suddenly the storm stops and the true horror sinks in. "Selim, ach, Selim", growls Bostridge sotto voce, "was hast du gemacht"?

Similar multiple references in Die Gottesanbeterin.  Henze writes this as an arabesque, with exotic melismas that suggest Islamic prayer, for Selim needs divine help. Henze is also establishing an "oriental" otherness. The text describes a praying mantis. It's a reference to Alberto Giacometti's sculptures, to the insect with its hard exoskeleton, and to mating rituals that end in death.  Henze writes with symbolist intensity : the insect, for example looks powerful but is vulnerable within. "I am not praying" says the seductive female, "I seize my lover and subdue him at our wedding feast". Henze has said that Selim and Fatuma were real people he knew in Kenya. What must he have observed from their relationship?  Their lives were humble, but Henze gives them mythic status/ The song is not a poem but a monologue where phrasing is critically important. This is where Bostridge shows his virtuosity, his voice curling round words then spitting venomously as he describes the heterosexual act. There's little room for rest, since the lines twist and turn in one long sequence.

To emphasize the supernatural trauma, Henze does not follow normal syntax, stressing words for their musical quality. Hence stresses on words like "Baum" "das", "schreit", "auf" to throw the listener off track. Bostridge knows that the last thing Henze wants is for these songs to be delivered in a straightforward manner. I've heard this cycle done as "normal" song, which completely misses Henze's point.  The composer knew that Bostridge understood.  Ein Sonnenaufgang describes sunrise over a desert Neimansland where volcanos shoot lava (also a reference to the insect ritual) and jewel colours are bleached white by the overpowering heat of the day to come. Drake plays adamant, sharp chords. Bostridge's voice elides and twists round Henze's bizarre legato. Landscape painting this is not.

At this stage in the cycle, Henze introduces Fatuma, though one might say that she's present in the praying mantis and in the female witches in the storm that destroyed Selim's ship. Cäsarion is also a reference to Shakespeare, Ceasar and Cleopatra, and power struggles of war and love. Again, Henze plays on words like "Runen", "unendlichkeit" and "Sensucht", stretching the vowel sounds so the voice resembles the call of a muezzin, reaching out over vast open spaces. Henze also references the European tradition of a dance of death, in the wildly rhythmic piano part. As Drake beats out the ritual dance, Bostridge's voice sails forth in long, keening lines: the contrast reinforcing the spirtual struggle in the cycle.

"Weh!" cries Bostridge as the mood switches to Fatuma and her side of things.  She loved Selim, but he brutalized her and cast her our to die in a cave where the life giving sun cannot reach.  "Fatuma genannt, die schonste Fatuma in ganzen Land", Henze replicates Selim's cruelty, making Bostridge sing superhumanly extended lines. I once counted the number of ululating aaaaaaaaa beats in these lines, astounded by the vocal gymnastics Henze puts Bostridge through, knowing he can deliver. It's the cry of a wounded Fury, a wild animal making one last gasp. In Fatumas Klage, Henze connects to the women in Die ertse Walpurgisnacht, and to all victims of cruelty and injustice through history. One could possibly read a whole political analysis into this work. Bostridge wrote that witches were victims of conformist societies who were threatened by those who were different. Henze experienced a form of witch hunt himself. This work shows how Henze's socialist conscience remains undimmed.

What does this cycle mean, with its intense, elusive symbols? Henze concludes with a poem by Freidrich Rückert, just as he began by quoting Goethe. Das Paradies is a fairly undistinguished poem, where the phrase "reiche mir dein Hand" ends nearly every line. Henze turns this weakness into a strength. He makes the phrase into a natural chorus, repeating like the waves beating on the beach where Selim washed ashore. He writes the phrase so it recalls the long aaaaa's and ooooo's that have gone before, but not the deliberately disjointed synrtax. At last, the significance of the Imam prayers is revealed, in secular context. "Meiner Erden Reisen is bedroht vom Fiend, wehre seinem Hasse, reiche mir diene Hand". In his spiritual maelstorm, Selim beats up Fatuma. Perhaps Henze is suggesting that an alternative might be to reach out and touch in a non-violent, non-erotic way. The turbulence that went before gives way to relative simplicity.  It's a moving tribute to the value of friendship.

Since Bostridge and Drake first recorded Henze's Six Songs from the Arabian in 2001 (buy it here), Bostridge's voice has developed and life experience has added immense maturity to his interpretation. This performance was an astounding tour de force, infinitely deeper than before, the technical challenges overcome with ease. Henze was right. Bostridge can bring out the surreal, psychic intensity in the Six Songs like no-one else. This concert was recorded, though there's no mention of for whom. If there'll be a CD release, grab it and marvel.

Bostridge should also be praised for the brilliantly intelligent concert programme itself, the culmination of his Wigmore Hall series "Ancient and Modern".  In the first half, he combined John Cage's Seven Haiku for piano  with Schubert's Four Rückert Lieder in a new arrangement for piano, guitar and voice by Xuefei Yang, and Britten's Songs from the Chinese. John Cage believed in the role of random chance. Each of the three times Cage's Seven Haiku were repeated they took on the coloration of what they were heard after. Cage felt that what we process what we listen to based on our expectations and experience. Beautifully pristine playing by Julius Drake,

 Xuefei Yang's transcription of Schubert for guitar were good. Schubert loved the instrument dearly and wrote for it.. Henze is one of the greatest modern composers for guitar, as did Britten. Yang played her lithe transcription with sparkling grace, so one could hear the connection between guitar, pipa and erhu, a stringed instument that often seems to sing like voice. This was particularly apposite for the Britten Songs from the Chinese op 58, where Britten captures the spirit, though not the form, of Chinese music.The Songs from the Chinese were written after Britten's visit to the Far East but reflect his lifelong interest in non-western music.  These influences are obvious, and cannot be underestimated, though they're ignored by those who don't know their Britten. Please read my piece on The Prince of the Pagodas and on Mervyn Cooke here.

In The Old Lute, Britten evokes not a western lute but the sound of the Chinese pipa, which is quite different. Yang's delicate playing suggests that Britten knew exactly what a pipa should sound like. Those who haven't heard the pipa miss out on the subtlety of Britten's writing. Henze was greatly influenced by Britten, and understood the strangeness that lurks behind Britten's music which many performers miss, no matter how superficially correct their singing.  It's not for nothing that Henze fell in love with Bostridge's voice after hearing him sing Britten at Aldeburgh in 1996. Henze's extensive experience in writing for voice meant he could appreciate how unique Bostridge is, and inspired him to write music no-one else can do justice to.

There'll be another review of this concert by Claire Seymour in Opera Today.Please explore this site, more on Britten, Henze, Bostridge, Schubert and Lieder than any other

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Barenboim wins Gold, Beethoven, Olympics

Daniel Barenboim wins gold! Magnificent Beethoven 9th at BBC Prom 18. Beethoven's monument to tolerance, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and what they stand for : who could fail to be moved?  This was an act of faith. Whether or not music can change the world, we don't know, but if we don't believe in hope, we might as well give up.

Of course much of the appeal was  emotional. Who could not fail to be moved by the symbolism?  The finest moments came when the choruses broke into song. It was better that they were carried away with enthusiasm: much better this heartfelt freedom than polished perfection. The chorus on this occasion represented the world, voices of all kinds united for a shared ideal. Everything else fades into insignificance. This was a Prom that will live forever in history.

Perhaps the unconsionable Zil lanes served a purpose, for this time they were ferrying Barenboim, a genuine hero, to the Olympic stadium, rather than corporate freeloaders. Opening ceremonies of the Olympics are supposed to be grandiose to the point of crass, so there's no point in analysing this comic book rebranding of British history. Extravaganzas like this aren't even about taste. Like junk food, they're a great treat as long as you don't dedicate your life around them. Simon Rattle and the LSO (odd combination) let their hair down. Gosh, doesn't "real" music sound good in comparison.  But it was poignant that the NHS workers had  given so much of their time gratis, when their jobs are threatened because of cuts. No matter, everyone else volunteers, and the sponsors make profits. 

The real Olympics started when the athletes marched in. Marching behind flags always bugs me, even when the ostensible goal is co-operation. But look at the faces of these athletes. They are young, mostly non-intellectual and non-political. For them it's the biggest moment in their lives because they feel they are part oif something greater than themselves. Those who come from poor countries, without the huge machinery of state support, I admire most because they have a dream. The IOC uses them to justify its existence, though it would do lots more for sport if it used its resources in ground level support in developing nations than in a mega-advertisng beanfeast.

Nobody seemed to notice why the Ghanaians were wearing  black and red (Ghanaian colours of mourning) instead of kente finery. Their president has just died, a man almost universally admired for his decency, honour and high ideals.  He was proof that genuinely good people can rise above the shabby scams that characterize politics the world over. His death is a loss to all of us, not just to Ghana. So when the cameras turned to Daniel Barenboim, it felt like valediction. The Olympic ideal has been horribly, disgracefuly corrupted, but moments like these remind us of what could be. The Opening Ceremony was huge fun, but doesn't change the fact that there's a lot wrong with the IOC mentality. Peddling McDonald's and Coca-Cola doies nothing for health and fitness, and contradicts the idea that all nations are equal.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Boulez Le marteau sans maître Prom 17

Pierre Boulez Le marteau sans maître is as important as  Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, said conductor François-Xavier Roth, who conducted it with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Prom 17. Ironically, though Daniel Barenboim's Proms series features Beethoven, its greatest achievement long term may be in bringing Boulez to the mainstream. Barenboim is a man of courage and principle. He's confronted social injustice, and now he's challenging musical prejudice.

Boulez's Le marteau sans maître is a work for voice, though the singer (Hilary Summers) sings in only four of the nine segments. The work is a kind of meta-song. "Whereas Pierrot Lunaire is a theatre piece with instrumental accompaniment, the voice always prepondering" said Boulez in an analysis of the piece,  "Le marteau sans maître stems from the cell of a poem which is eventually absorbed in toto". In his early youth, Boulez was drawn to the poetry of René Char and wrote three cycles based on Char's work.  Le marteau sans maître  is thus crucial to any understanding of Boulez's career.

Char was a surrealist. In his poetry, images are compressed, as if by homeopathic distillation. The poet's brief phrases don't reveal meaning in the usual sense, but force the reader to respond intuitively. "Sudddenly", said Boulez, "You recognize yourself.... the illuminating paragraph seems simultaneously  to take possession of you, and to increase your potential, your grasp and your power beyond anything you had dreamed possible".

In Le marteau sans maître, Char's words are crystallized still further so their very relationship with obvious meaning  dissolves into the music itself,  like a droplet spreading concentric cirles in a pool of water. (Notice the limpid "water" imagery in the music). Words are used for musical quality, such as alliteration, and for emphasis. Boulez specifies that the singer is not a soloist. She sits with the ensemble, so the flow between players is uninterrupted. At the end, she intones abstract sound, almost the sound of body rhythms, and the flute (Guy Eshed) sings on her behalf, as had the viola (Ori Kam) before. It's significant that Char was anti-fascist long before the German occupation. On a very deep level, Boulez is reiterating Char's beliefs in the value of the individual against the mass. He uses a strict, almost mathematical structure of three internal cycles within the nine pieces and other more subtle interrelationships, but from this springs great freedom. Formality and ritual, but not repressive. Hence, the hammer without a master.

Yet how that "hammer" is wielded ! Instead of blasts of  masssed brass and percussion, the "aural violence" of the orchestral palette, Boulez uses a small ensemble, where instruments are carefully balanced in terms of pitch and timbre. Even lines are short, traceries of individual notes rather than full tutti.  Nor does he demand Lachenmann-esque distortions. These players aren't there to show off, but to co-operate. Boulez also employs instruments that suggest, but don't copy, instruments from non-western cultures. The guitar (Caroline Delume), suggesting the Japanese koto, xylomarimba (Adrian Salloum) and vibraphone (Pedro Manuel Torrejon Gonzales) suggesting gamelan and the African balafon. They exist, not as exotics, because they can express the non-dogmatic nature of the piece and its sparkling fragments, merrily moving together.  Even the percussion (Noya Schleien) employs no heavy timpani but a gong, maracas, bongos. On this occsasion I was struck by how Le marteau sans maître picks up on Messiaen's concepts. In a dawn chorus, many birds sing, but each is individual, and an astute listener can pick them out. In many ways Le marteau sans maître is also a precursor of Messiaen's Sept Haïkaï (read more here).

By choosing to showcase Le marteau sans maître in this Proms series, Barenboim is again making an extra-musical statement. This piece gives the musicians much more room to engage than the more complex Dérive 2 at the start of the series (more here) and it much more suited to their strengths.  Performance is a journey not an end in itself, as  a deep reading of this piece might suggest. François-Xavier Roth is a charismatic, slightly eccentric personality (in the best creative sense). He's sensitive to Boulez's idiom, and his rapport with the players was good. In  Le marteau sans maître, everyone's a player if they're listening properly. 

Please see my other posts on Pierre Boilez

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Der Doppelgänger but not as we know it

As far as you can get from Schubert. Der Doppelgänger Charles Panzéra, 1934 with solemn orchestral accompaniment, in French and in a style that's more Opéra comique than Lieder.  Later,  Gerard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin did a lot of French Schubert but in a different way. This shows that performances can be stretched a long way and still work, though they'll never becomes standard.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Chill out, Verbier Festival Figaro broadcast

While London is baking. chill out with thoughts of Verbier.  The 2012 Verbier Festival started last week, and the highlights are available on Medici TV. .Although I have a pile of urgent work to do, I got so hooked on Verbier's Mozart Marriage of Figaro that I dropped everything to watch and am going to watch again. It's that good ! Paul McCreesh  conducts the Verbier Festival Orchestra in a discreet semi-staging. Joshua Hopkins, Susanna Phillips, Gábor Bretz, Sylvia Schwartz. Bretz as Figaro is striking. Where have I heard this voice before? But he'll be heard again, as he's very interesting indeed.

Nonetheless what makes this broadcast so good is the orchestra. Now this is Mozart playing with wit and elegance. The music expresses the intricate stratagems and twists in the plot, which the brightness of this playing serves far better than stodgier, more conventional performance. This is why period performance practice pays dividends. This is the real legacy of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's revolutuion (read "Nikolaus Harnoncourt against the bland and safe")  By the 1950's the cult of celebrity conductor held sway to the extent that some conductors did what their admirers wanted, rather than what the composer might have wanted.  Conductor focussed, audience focussed, but not necessarily composr focussed. As Harnoncourt says, historically informed practice isn't about museums but about new possibilities. It's radical because it makes us think about music in context, without the heavy varnish of conductor self indulgence or received wisdom.  How can that be threatening? The Verbier Festival Orchestra use modern instruments, but with McCreesh they play with the alert freshness that HIP encourages. Listen to the broadcast on Medici TV here, it's in full though the site says only part one is available

Also available in full is a semi staging of Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande. The good news is that Stéphane Degout sings Pelléas, though he's not quite as electrifying as he was in Paris earlier this year.(read more here). But he's outstanding, so don't miss any opportunity to hear him. Magdalena Kožená is a less ethereal Mélisande than usual, but she reaches closer to the Earth Spirt that Mélisande might be, Many are thrown by what the role might mean, because she's so elusive, but  Kožená suggests depths of meaning, closer to what Mary Garden, who created the part, said Debussy intended.  José van Dam sings a rather tired Golaud, and Willard White a rather sprightly Arkel.  Catherine Wyn Rogers as Genvieve is very good and sings Marcellina too (though not at the same time)  Charles Dutoit conducts. He's a fairly neutral conductor, good but hugely outclassed by John Eliot Gardiner at the Proms (more here) .Now that's another conductor who doesn't do stodge.
 (This photo of the peaks over Verbier by Norbert Aepli, Switzerland)

An American at the Proms

Evan Tucker, you have made my day! Read Evan's post "The Proms wakes me up"  HERE (in Epileptic fits of Blogging.  It's great to hear things from his perspective. The BBC Proms are a beacon for the world. The British taxpayer funds them but anyone, all over the world can join in, free. The Proms are a better contribution to world peace than guns and missiles. Photo shows Prommers in the arena at the Royal Albert Hall (credit  David Hawgood)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Why the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? Barenboim Beethoven Prom 12

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's Beethoven and Boulez series at the BBC Proms is a landmark. Never has the orchestra received such a high profile. This orchestra is unique, and owes its very existence to something even greater than music.

Edward Said was a profoundly sensitive writer who wrote perceptively on culture, politics and music. He also believed in the concept that people can do something to change the world we live in. Said turned to Goethe, also a writer and thinker but also a practical man of government, who created in Weimar a haven for enlightened discourse. Muslims and Christians have been at odds for 1500 years. But Goethe, instead of following "party lines, imagines himself through the mind of a Medieval Islamic scholar. Said would have known better than most that Goethe's orientalism was European fantasy, but the point was that Goethe respected Hafiz and the culture he stood for, and his own art flourished as a result. So it's highly symbolic that Said and Barenboim chose Weimar for their summertime gathering of musicans from all over the Middle East. In music, we listen. And so we should in all aspects of life, even to those we don't agree with. Music can connect people on "neutral" grounds free of rhetoric. The orchestra is a symbol of faith in art and in humanity.

This is what makes the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra unique. It's one of the few bridges on which young people on all sides of the divide can meet and help one another. And the German connection goes beyong Goethe, for it's a direct challenge to that sector of the German/European past that embraced Hitler. That Germany could shelter the orchestra was a means of reparation. So I'm increasingly worried about the term "WEDO" to describe the orchestra. In German it would, in any case be "WODO". Since English is the world language perhaps it can't be helped, but Anglophone dominance is a slow form of cultural genocide. The Goethe/Hafiz/Weimar connection is so fundamental that it shouldn't be forgotten. Best, perhaps to refer to the orchestra as "Divan", its ancient meaning. For that is what an orchestra is, a meeting between individuals saerving a higher cause. [A friend and reader has just mailed me, confirming that "divan" in Persian means anthology, collection and poetry. So here is a painting of Hafiz's divan, It's not a sofa!]

The world is changing, not for the better, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchetra may have to change too. It's less easy now for young people to escape state control, and members have to be recruited from outside the region. The danger is that it could change into just another youth orchestra. But change is the lifeblood of any healthy institution. Members will go onto other things, and new members (some as young as 13) will join. May this orchestra never "grow up". Ultimately, its purpose is not to create perfect performance but to be part of a process by which its members - and ourselves - keep learning to listen.

That's why I've avoided writing too much about the performance other than that wonderful Jussef Eisa Boulez Dialogue de l'ombre double.  All these Proms have been thoroughly enjoyable because it's wonderful to be part of this emotional experience.  Although Barenboim can be a brilliant conductor (Wagner), he's also rather safe (Mahler).  He can challenge his players but there's only so much anyone can do with a temporary orchestra with players at so many different levels. No need for a gold standard : the process more valuable than the goal.

As Andrew Clements said of the first Prom in this series, "Barenboim's Beethoven conducting remains unreconstructed; it's thoroughly traditional, and the results are very like the performances he must have heard as a child more than half a century ago".  A friend emailed me "Tired Furtwängler". Nothing wrong with that at all. Beeethoven's symphonies are so good that they rarely disappoint, and the Fifth and Sixth above all. Besides, at the Proms, there's always an extra-musical charge, and in the case of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, that emotional bonus is absolutely paramount.. But if the orchestra is rebranded as the next Dudamel phenomemn, it will be a pity. It's hard not be brainwashed when tweeting twits roar, but that kind of adulation is a straitjacket, especially for the young. Besides, in the case of the Divan, there are too many nutcases in this world drawn to big events for the sake of their being high profile. This orchestra is too special for that. The photo shows young Daniel Barenboim with the President of the Federal Republic and the Chief Rabbi of Germany (Bundesarchiv)

Monday, 23 July 2012

Berlioz The Trojans Prom 11

Berlioz The Trojans (Les Troyens) came to BBC Prom 11 barely two weeks aftere its sell-out run at the Royal Opera House. This made a difference because all involved were still so fresh that the concert performance had the energy of true theatre, but without the constraints of staging.

By the time Troy falls, Virgil tell us that the hero Aeneas (Enée), has already had many adventures, with Gods and monsters. In this painting (Tiepolo), Enée introduces his son to a very un-Mediterranean Dido (Didon). The kid's wearing wings because a goddess has turned him into Cupid to break down Didon's vow of celibacy. Antonio Pappano's approach thus captures the adventure that characterized Enée's past. The Trojans can be done as a formal studio recording, but it's much more idiomatic when imbued with this innate sense of theatre. Pappano and his orchestra have already proven themselves at the Royal Opera House. Now they can, like Enée, take more risks. If anything, this Proms performance was freer, more spontaneous and closer to the spirit of Berlioz's audacious vision.

Significantly, Berlioz eschews the full Aenied saga. The scenes in Troy have such cataclysmic drama that they almost overwhelm, but they set out the background to what Berlioz is much more focussed upon. Didon, Enée and their people are refugees from different destroyed civilizations who meet in a place of temporary refuge. With his ability to write flamboyant pictures of excess, he throws us off balance by concentrating on the relationship between the two main characters. It may seem like an anticlimax to hear Didon (Eva Maria Westbroek) sing happily with her contented subjects, but Berlioz is deliberately creating a contrast between militarist warfare and domestic peace. Having lost Tyre, the people of Carthage are grateful for what they'e achieved. Didon is not Cassandre, but almost her opposite. Anna Maria Antonacci is a more "dramatic" singer, but Westbroek's warmth is exactly what makes Carthage so alluring to the dispossessed Trojans. Performance doesn't exist in limbo but grows from interpretation.

Didon and Enée are driven from the hunt by a storm, but it's not the storm that matters but the calm haven within which they shelter and fall in love. The duet Nuit d'ivresse is at the heart of the opera in many ways. Again, intimacy and understatement mean more than showily extravagant singing. All theur lives, these two have lived for the public, so to speak. At last, under cover of night, they can be themselves. Bryan Hymel's Enée is a good counterpart to Westbroek's Didon because they create the parts with such sincerity. Empires and glory have nothing on love, so the emphasis here is on naturalness, not histrionics.  The greater spontaniety of the Proms performance caused a slight wobble in Hymel's long  Inutiles regrets, but it added to character. Enée's heart breaks at the prospect of leaving Didon, but it is the crucial, soaring climaxes that show his resolve. Hymel sang this with flawless poise, faced as heroically as Enée faces his fate. Hymel is only 32, with great potential. Most of this cast are very young indeed, and enthusiastic, which gives this production its vigour.

Berlioz writes many vignettes into The Trojans to display his virtuosic command of form. In concert performance, continuity is less important, so we can indulge in the vignettes for their own sake. Ji-min Park's O blonde Cérès was magical,  and  Ed Lyon sang Hylas's Vallon sonore so movingly that I thought of the Steersman in the Flying Dutchman. Also firmly portayed, Hanna Hipp's Anna and Jihoon Kim's Hector. In the interludes for ballet, Berlioz demonstrates how he can write exotic, pastoral and orientalist portraits. Pappano and the orchestra delineated these vividly, showing how important they are to the fabric of the opera. Having heard this Les Troyens live on stage, in film and in concert, I'm convinced that this is one to cherish. It's human scale, not bombast, its warmth and naturalism informed by its insight into the meaning of the opera. True, this is an epic tragedy, but it wouldn't be quite as poignant if we didn't empathize with the personalities. Please read my review of the ROH performance, and the film broadcast - all different. See here in Opera Today for the synopsis, libretto and a non commercial stream conducted by Sylvian Cambreling.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Barenboim Boulez Beethoven Prom 10

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra continued their traverse of Beethoven and at the BBC Proms with Symphonies 3 and 4, but it was Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double that stole the show. Barenboim has done so much for music, as pianist and conductor. He's done so much for music as a medium for social change. And now he's brought Boulez to millions of listeners all over the world, dispelling silly notions that Boulez is too "difficult" or "too dangerous".

Boulez Dialogues de l'ombre double is breathtakingly sensuous and beautiful. Written for Luciano Berio's 60th birthday, it's a homage to friendship and heritage that operates on several different levels at once.  The  nonsense about "Boulez mellowing with age" is a cliché spouted by those who don't know or care. Boulez was radical,  so it was easy to demonize him. Besides, he was good, provoking so much jealousy that many were determined to ruin his reputation. Of course Boulez ruffled feathers. Creative people do. But what stands out is the warm regard in which he's held by those who know him. His relationship with Olivier Messaien was like father and son, all the richer because the son learned to stand on his own feet.

So listen to Boulez's Dialogue de L'ombre double without baggage and feel the emotional depth. Jussef Esia stood all alone in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, 6000 people in the darkness around him, whom he could not see.  But it's not one man and clarinet.  Tentative quirks  merging into long, searching chords. But faint echoes of another presence. The soloist listen and responds to elusive sounds, another clarinet recorded and projected from around the performance space.  That's the "dialogue", the double shadow. Boulez and Berio used technology to expand the palette, so the electronic sound is a reference to their work.  As clarinettist and phantom clarinet move around, perspectives change but the connection remains. The soloist leaps into flights of inventiveness, and his shadow spurs him on.  The soloist fades and ghost clarinet emits sounds that stretch so high and long it would be impossible for human performance.  Dialogue de L'ombre double is an intimate, sensitive piece, a true testament to creative ideals and to friendship.

So kaput to the notion that Boulez isn't emotional. And kaput to the idea that he rejects the past, because the piece references the past on many levels. It's based on a play by Paul Claudel, the Catholic mystic and surrealist whose work inspired many composers, like Walter Braunfels Die Verkündigung (read here) and Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher (read here). Connections to art and literature abound throughout Boulez's music. If "intellectual" is a term of derision these days, that's because the world has dumbed down so much that boorish redneck values rule.

It doesn't at all matter if Jussef Esia isn't as mindbendingly fluent as Alain Damiens. Indeed, I loved this performance because Esia was so clearly sincere and committed to expressing the meaning of the work. It's a tribute to him that he conveyed something very personal (even though a Proms debut like this must be terrifying).  He's 27 years old and plays in the orchestra at the Bayerischen Staatsopernorchester.  It is also a tribute to Daniel Barenboim for having faith in nurturing young musicians. And it aso shows his faith in the power of Boulez's music to reach out and touch people whatever the silly clichés about him might suggest.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (known as the Divan to those aware of the origins of its name. It's not English) and Barenboim produced a wonderful, life-affirming Beethoven Symphony no 3 Eroica, and a good Beethoven Symphony no 4, but it's Esia's Boulez that will stay in my soul. Listen again on BBC Radio 3 and on TV (better, because it's sensitively filmed and you see closeups). Listen, too, to Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, which Boulez wrote after the death of another friend and mentor, Bruno Maderna. That masterpiece was also written to incorporate performance space into music. It's a radical idea in terms of 19th century concert concepts, but as Boulez shows, it links to much earlier musical traditioins (read what I've written about it here) Please also see my mother posts on Boulez, (Le marteau sans maitre HERE)  Barenboim, and the Proms (I usually do around 40)
photo : David Underdown, Proms 2008

Indiscretions of youth

Indiscretions of youth? Peter Anders sings Tchaikovsky in 1943. Invade a country, invade its culture. So it ever was.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Barenboim Beethoven 1 & 2 Boulez Prom 9

(for my review of the second Prom Boulez Dialogues de l'ombre double Jusef Eisa see here). Never has one man conducted an entire Beethoven series at the BBC Proms, but that says as much about the industry as it does about Daniel Barenboim, whose traverse of the complete Beethoven series began tonight  with the First and Second Symphonies. Barenboim is a good conductor, and we'll be well served. But part of the significance is that Barenboim is conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he and Edward Said created to briung together young musicans from all sides of the Middle East. Youth orchestras often feature at the Proms, but the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is unique. It's a statement of faith in music, and in its potential to affect hearts and minds.

Far too often performances are judged by impossible standards, but perfection in the real world is exception rather than rule.  Beckmesser in his rush to prove himself, missed what Hans Sachs. understood : that any performance is part of a continuum, where we all, performers and listeners, continue to develop and discover new things. Performance isn't an end but a process. Hearing the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made me feel just how much we owe Said and Barenboim. Some members of this orchestra go on to great things, but each one has already been on a journey simply by having taken part.  In the early years, the orchestra had to operate from Spain and Germany. Players weren't completely safe, and faced endless hurdles.  If anything the world since then has become even more politically polarized, but still the orchestra survives as a symbol of hope. We need hope in these times, when the world economy is falling apart and extremism runs rife.

So I listened to Barenboim's Beethoven Symphony no 1, and thought of hope. Beethoven was young, but confident. This symphony is like a calling card with which the composer announces his arrival.. Haydn and Mozart are in the background, but Beethoven's embarking on something new and original. Symphonies will never be quite the same. The verve which these musicians threw into their playing was life affirming. No matter what might happen in the future, for this moment they were filled with creative energy. Even though they're not a permanent orchestra, they are technically very strong. What gives them the edge over most of their peers is the sheer committment they put into what they do. Barenboim's more than a conductor, he's an inspirational leader.

It's significant that Barennboim followed Beethoven with Boulez. Boulez gets a lousy deal from the media because he doesn't play safe or conform. Dérive 2 is a gloriously piece, sparkling with life and invention, growing organically from itself  so much so that Boulez kept finding new things in it.  To dismiss it because it's modern is irrelevant. Audiences have always been shaken by the new. Even Beethoven. This performance wasn't as scintillating as it might have been with Ensemble Intercontemporain but that's irrelevant too. For me, it was uplifting to see these players engaging with the piece. These players have generally had more mainstream interests, but Barenboim is nudging them in the direction of the future, and their own futures. 

A well paced Beethoven Second followed. Watch Barenboim smile on the TV broadcast. He's proud of his people. Wait til they move onto the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th. Incidentally, be cautious about the interval programme. Parts of it are interesting like the historic footage of young Boulez cheerfully conducting at the Roundhouse 50 years ago, surrounded by men in fashions they'd rather forget they fancied then. Their grandchildren will cackle. But the curse of inanity strikes as usual. "Is it true that Boulez heckled Stravinsky?" asks the presenter, quite reasonably. But no response. William Glock wrote about the Boulez/Stravinsky relationship. Stravinsky was exploring serial rows, and Boulez knew Stravinsky's music well. When they finally met, they sat together, rapt with attention. Boulez might have made a greater mark in America, but there were many who didn't want that to happen for reasons of their own.  Hence the unfair reputation, which keeps being repeated. What we think we know is shaped by who shapes the media, and English language media dominates. But that's another story. Read Paul Griffiths on 20th century music, not Alex Ross and lesser sources.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Handel Judas Maccabaeus Prom 8

"See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums".

Huge expectations for Handel's Judas Maccabaeus Prom in that most dramatic of venues the Royal Albert Hall. Britain über alles?  Those who found Elgar's Coronation Ode at the First Night of the Proms hard to stomach should have been grateful. But for Handel and his contemporaries, knowing the Reformation, Civil War and hard won prosperity, Judas Maccabaeus reinforced the idea of progress. Victory and Liberty in Judas Maccabaeus was a rallying cry for a British national identity.

Triumphalism today is harder to take when we've seen what bullying nations can do. Can we really justify truly brutalist, bombastic performance after Iraq and much worse horrors of the last century? Particularly as the heroes who fight our battles come home to unemployment.

So I appreciated why Laurence Cummings and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment  focussed on the music rather than the meaning behind the oratorio. Handel's extreme dynamics and fiery flourishes can be heard in the context of their time with period instruments. At times the valveless horns wailed balefully, but that wildness is part of the spirit of the piece. An 18th centurty orchestra imitating the instruments of Biblical times. Period playing gets a negative image because people think it's effete, but as the OAE have shown time and time again, it can be spontaneous, rambunctuous and (dare I say it) rather jolly.

Tim Mead stood out. He really did sound as if he'd flown in "on eagle wings from Capharsalama".  John Mark Ainsley, who has probably done more for Handel singing than anyone else in this generation, was a good, if rather domesticated Judas. Alastair Miles was more the freedom fighter Simon. Christine Rice and Rosemary Joshua both superb and expressive as the Israelitish Man and Woman. Nicely enthusiastic choruses.

It's worth listening to this Prom online, so you can catch the excellent interval programme. Ruth Smith, author of Handel's Oratorios and 18th century thought "To me it is suffused with grief and fear, with exhortations to pray for peace". In recent years the standard of BBC Proms programming has declined so badly it's usually agony when the music stops. It's that obsession with airhead celebrity which dumbs down culture everwhere. So make a special point of listening to the Twenty Minutes interval programme because it shows what intelligent commentary can be like.

Esa-Pekka Salonen Torchbearer no 40

Esa-Pekka Salonen's wielding a different kind of baton next week - he's carrying the Olympic flame through part of the City of London. It's part of his job to promote the Philharmonia in every way possible. And he can do it in a way not many conductors can. Presumably he'll be running fully clothed. For more, read the Philharmonia site.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Christie Charpentier David et Jonathas Aix

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas live from Aix-en-Provence is now available streamed outside France on arte.tv This is one of the big highlights of the baroque year. It's major profile because William Christie conducts, and anything he and Les Arts Florissantes dedicate themselves to is a milestone. The production travels to the Opéra comique in Paris, to Caen, Madrid and concerrft stagings in Edinburgh and elsewhere. Christie excels - watch the elegance of his conducting (very well picked up on film),

Musically this is divine, the intricate correspondances  done with exquiste clarity and delicacy. In David et Jonathas, this freedom of spirit is very much part of what the opera is about. David is a hero, who has killed Goliath, but the times he lives in are turbulent. War, intrigue, bluff and counter-bluff, the sordid stuff of politics. Although David is loyal to King Saul, he's forced to flee to the Philistines who welcome him. Despite negotiations for peace, war breaks out again, Briefly David and Jonathas are reunited, but Jonathas is killed. Saul dies, heartbroken. David becomes King.

We know the plot from the Old Testament, but Charpentier fleshes it out with wonderful music. The parts for David and Jonathas are beautiful: theirs is a love story as much as a symbol of purity against a background of sordid violence. Christie chooses his singers well. Pascal Charbonneau, who sings David, frequently reaches countertenor territory. The part was written for alto, to contrast with the very low baritone of Saul, (Neal Davis)  and the bass of Achis (Frédéric Caton). Ana Quintans sings Jonathas. It's a trouser part because a high. bright voice shows how young and beautiful Jonathas was, beloved by all.

The interplay between voices and orchestra  is superb, the formal patterns of baroque art expressed in music. Brightness and depth, constant weaving of textures - political intrigue woven into the very fabric of the form.  Christie's precision keeps the layers bright : no room for approximation in this score.

 Thus Andreas Hoimoki's staging worked extremely well with the clarity of Christie's approach, and with Charpentier's idiom. The set (Paul Zoller) is as simple, throwing focus on the singers, yet a pine panelling background lit as luminously as this evokes the golden glow of baroque paintings and indeed the instruments in the orchestra.

Intelligent use of space and boxed space to create the flow of exterior and crowd scenes, and interior, private intensity. The long non-vocal passages might once have been filled with formal masques. Here, they're used to hint at background. Jonathas, as a young boy, stands before the bier of his dead mother. The young David enters and comforts him, but Saul's disturbed to see them embrace. He in turn embraces the portrait of his late wife which mesmerized hius son. Costumes are timeless, sufficiently middle eastern to remind us of Biblical times.

The Israelites and Philistines are distinguished by their music rather than by costume (some of the Philistines wear a red fez), but again this is true to plot. For thouands of years before 1948, there was conflict in these lands. Charpentier and his audiences weren't in the least bothered about historical accuracy, so neither should we be. Indeed, seeing Jonathas clothed in short pants (not robe) is a subtle reminder that David and Jonathan relationships have happened throughout history. Homoki doesn't over-emphasize, but Charpentier and his audiences weren't naive. Chorus scenes are well blocked, almost like choreography: I kept thinking of 17th century paintings, utterly approrpriate to Charpentier's period.
(photo : Pascal Victor)

The Fricka of Country Music - It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels

Kitty Wells is dead, aged 92. "Feminist Country Godmother to Britney Spears" runs an artiile in the Atlantic but that doesn't tell half the story, and the Britney Spears bit is demeaning.  Another article here in the Telegraph

More than ten years before Betty Friedan and women's Lib, Kitty Wells was a pioneer when there weren't many roles for women in Country music, or indeed the whole social milieu of Country music, dominated as it was by Bible Belt patriarchy, which even men didn't know how to question. Alcoholism was the angst of the misfit in the Country scene. Kitty wasn't the first female Country or Cajun singer, but she was different from nice girls like the Carter family who knew their place. Kitty was happily married for 74 years, almost certainly not leftist. You bet she never burned her bra or flag. But she stood up to things. "Will your lawyer talk to God and plead your case on high?" "Making believe, you're somebody's love, never mine".. "Have I lost you to a woman half my age?" Without Kitty Wells, perhaps no Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette or Dolly Parton. And thousands of nice girls in white cardigans and aprons started to think, why should we take things lying down?  Real change happens when the non-urban, non-intellectual proletariat are roused. Kitty Wells, with her Southern belle gentility, deserves a place in the Valhalla of modern womanhood.

 Kitty became famous almost by accident, after recording a riposte to Hank Thompson's The Wild Side of Life which blamed womern and alcohol for leading him astray. No, sang Kitty, using the same tune. "It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels,.... Many a time married men think they're still single, that has caused many a good girl to go wrong. It's a shame that all the blame is on us woman, ....from the start most every heart that's ever broken was because there always was a man to blame".  It's overstatement of course, but understandable given the heirachical situation at the time. Women (and men) aren't born bad, they're made bad. So even if Kitty Wells, the Fricka of Country Music,  upholds marriage and good behaviour, she's not judging those who fall. 

Ultimately, feminism liberates men as well as women because it shows that there are other ways to be. Again and again, in Country music people are destroyed by this either/or dilemma between perfection and dissolution. Britney Spears went off the rails because she couldn't cope. Many times I hoped she'd learn not to blame herself but the crazy world around her. Singing, she doesn't need to learn from Kitty Wells, but how to stand up for herself.

Lots on this site about Country and Cajun music, feminsism, fesity women and Lieder. Please read here how the Lieder and Country Music traditions ironically connect.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Strauss Sibelius Saariaho Juanjo Mena Prom 5

Juanjo Mena made his Proms debut last year before he officially became Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. This year's Prom gave him much higher profile, and a more challenging programme with which to show what he can do. Strauss Also sprach Zarathrustra and Sibelius 7th Symphony are huge pillars of the repertoire, almost guaranteed to shock and awe. The Willis organ with its 9997 pipes was designed for big statements like Zarathustra. It's almost impossible not to respond, especially given the sense of occasion that amplifies any performance in the Royal Albert Hall. Mena's Sibelius 7th had grandeur, though there's more to this most unusual piece that rips apart the very notion of symphony in just twenty minutes. Still, Mena has what it takes to wow and that's what we got.

Kaija Saariaho's Laterna magica was inspired by Ingmar Bergman. It evokes the mood of those aspects of Bergman's films where brief, unspoken glances carry great portent.  Bergman didn't need grand gestures to make a point. In that sense, Saariaho captures the essence of the director's style, whose black and white starkness is so different to her own multi coloured washes of sound. Saariaho refers to the "magic lantern", the first film machine that used light to capture movement on film. "While I was working with different tempi, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece's identity. A fiery dance thythm inspired by the flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided  by speech, and an acceleratingn ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture" writes Saaiaho, in the programme notes. Saariaho's more usual voice emerges "music without a clear rhythm or pulse ... dominated by  strongly sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns".

It was clear that Anne Schwanewilms was indisposed. Normally she'd have sailed graciously through Struass' Vier letzte Lieder, making them the high point of the evening. Singers are not machines, they can't be expected to do perfection at all times. I'm not going to blame her. In any case, she's good enough to realize that she should have cancelled even at the last moment. Better this than singers who aren't even aware that the songs are beyond their abilities. We heard a shockingly awful Four Last Songs a  few years ago which left many aghast at its demented nerve. Schwanenewilms can sing Strauss, so let's forgive her.

Listen online here for 7 days, and to the TV broadcast on 19th July.
photo : Sussie Ahlberg

Verdi Otello, Royal Opera House,

Perceptive analysis of Verdi Otello at the Royal Opera House. Another example of good music writing, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and constructive. The production is ancient, but Claire Seymour finds something new to say about it, and the singing. (Harteros, Antonenko) Read the whole piece in Opera Today. 

"The Christian iconography of the lush, Veronese-inspired Renaissance backdrops may be stretching the ‘tragic hero’ notion a little too far, especially given that the excision of most of Shakespeare’s first Act reduces the racial and religious antagonisms of the drama; moreover, the absence of Othello’s final ‘redeeming’ Act 5 monologue, which renders his suicide a restitution of nobility and an act of selfless service to the state, means that we feel pity but perhaps not catharsis at the end of the opera. But, the Crucifixion allusions do add to the timeless quality of the whole.

More George Benjamin Written on Skin (Aix)

HERE is my review of the London premiere of George Benjamin's Written on Skin. Last week I wrote about George Benjamin's Written on Skin at the Aix Festival and gave links to two reviews, one quite detailed, from Michael Milenski in Opera Today (with photos). It's now a great pleasure to present another well written review from Liam Cagney in the Telegraph.  It's good that there are writers around who think analytically. I like reading reviews to learn how a performance fulfils the music, so appreciate writers who care. Benjamin's Written on the Skin is an extremely important piece, innovative in many ways. Although I've listened to it several times, I still can't do it justice in a few brief lines. Today I've been listening to Into The Little Hill and reading the score of Luke Bedford's  Seven Angels which was way above the heads of most London critics, who couldn't get past the idea of role-playing angels acting out scenarios. Now perhaps they can. All three operas, Into the Little Hill, Seven Angels and Written on Skin predicate on the concept of multi level, stylized narrative. Benjamin's Written on Skin is amazing, and the more you put into it the more you get.

More Proms Pelléas et Mélisande JE Gardiner

 "There will be plenty of hyperbole, bombast and bravado during this ‘Olympic’ Promenade season; but, on this evening Eliot Gardiner reminded us of the genuine potency of refined understatement."

Please read this review of BBC Prom 3 Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande here in Opera Today by Claire Seymour. Reviews in themselves mean nothing. What counts is what the reviewer has put into the analysis. This is good!
"Eliot Gardiner demonstrated a masterly appreciation of the way the subdued sonorities and gentle articulation of period instruments could perfectly convey the shadowy elusiveness and obscurities of Debussy’s score. The instrumental fabric was beautifully blended: orchestral motifs — such as the oboe’s opening arabesques depicting Mélisande’s elusive diffidence — were gracefully etched; delicate, half-whispered gestures, bloomed into swelling torrents of sound. The combination of control and flexibility was impressive as the shifting tonal colours, floating modulations, rhythmic elasticity, half-cadences and flowing, interweaving inner parts conjured a darkly brooding restlessness. The short scenes never seemed fragmented; instead, an air of timelessness was created as we moved from dark forest to enchanted well to gloomy castle. The transition from the second to third scenes in Act 3, as we rose from the subterranean castle vaults to the glaring daylight of the castle terrace was exhilarating."

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tour London in music

Tour London through music. The city is gridlocked by the paranoid Olympics, so you can't do it any other way. Even the government is saying "Don't go into town!".  Which defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. I'd be at the Wigmore Hall tonight for Prégardien/Drake but can't face traffic mayhem. Go if you can, it will be good.

So enjoy In London Town : A musical tour of the historic sights of London, a new release from independent label SOMM records. Visit the Tower, Rotten Row, the Royal Thames and take in the Blitz, too.  Visualize!
1. Concert Overture: Me And My Girl (The Lambeth Walk) Noel Gay, arr.Iain
2 Knightsbridge March (The Household Brigade & Harrods) Eric Coates
3 Westminster Waltz (Big Ben & Westminster Bridge) Robert Farnon
4 Rotten Row (Hyde Park) Wally Stott
5 Covent Garden (The Historic Flower Market) Eric Coates
6 Overture: Yeomen of The Guard (The Tower of London) Sir Arthur Sullivan
7 London Fantasia (The London Blitz) Clive Richardson
8 Get Me To The Church On Time (My Fair Lady - Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)
Lerner & Loewe
9 Greensleeves (Hampton Court Palace) Arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
10 Four Dances: Merrie England (At the Court of Queen Elizabeth I) Sir
Edward German
11 London Bridge is Falling Down (Tower Bridge) Alan Abbott
12 Elizabethan Serenade (Buckingham Palace) Ronald Binge
13 Prelude: Water Music (Diamond Jubilee Pageant on The River Thames) G.F.
14 Three English Dances (The Historic Mayfair) Roger Quilter
15 The Sea Hawk (Main Title) (Greenwich: Cutty Sark & The Maritime Museum)
Erich Korngold

Monday, 16 July 2012

Pelléas et Mélisande Proms Debussy

John Eliot Gardiner brought Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande to the BBC Proms (prom 3) at the Royal Albert Hall. This was a recapitulation of the 2010 production at the Opéra Comique, Paris. Gardiner conducted the same cast.  Only the staging (Braunschweig) was missing, though you could spot resonances of it even in concert performance. (Listen online here for 7 days)

Pelléas et Mélisande can be interpreted in many ways, for its very nature is oblique. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have a very distinctive sound. It's not instrumentation so much as idiomatic style. Gardiner creates an almost luminous account that seems to shimmer with the light and haze so integral to the story. Heat lies heavily on this opera, suffocating the inhabitants of the castle into psychic stupor. It's high noon in the garden by the well where Mélisande teases Pelléas and throws her golden ring into the depths. Who is Mélisande, and what does she represent?  As Gardiner conducts the interlude that leads into this scene, the orchestra creates Mélisande in sound - high, bright textures, limpid sonorities that suggest water, depth and danger. From this halo, Karen Vourc’h's voice emerged, exotic and elusive.

Gardiner, like Boulez before him, understands Debussy's extreme contrasts. Light and dark, oppressive heat, morbid dankness. Note the images : tower, well, caverns, linked by the symbol of Mélisande's long hair. Pelléas can't breathe underground. He's a creature of light, like Yniold, while Golaud inhabits depths. Laurent Naouri's Golaud was forceful, while hinting at Golaud's many inner fissures. He recognizes in Mélisande something he needs, but cannot comprehend why. In the forest scene, he faces away from her as if he's afraid of her power. In a fully staged production this makes sense, though less so in concert staging, where the voice is somewhat lost to the side of the hall. But Naouri is so good that he fills space with presence. Golaud as anti-hero: quite an achievement.

Phillip Addis sang an elegant Pelléas. very well attuned to Vourc'h's Mélisande. I can't forget Stéphane Degout's extraordinary Pelléas at the Opéra Bastille production in March 2012.  When we assess performance, we're always influenced by factors other than the performance itself and need to make a concsious effort to appreciate the actual performance on its own terms, not on our own. Addis is good and it's not his fault, but mine, that I imprint Degout. When Addis sings with Naouri, their balance is excellent : that's praise indeed.

Nice cameos from Dima Bawab as Yniold, and from Elodie Méchain as Geneviève. But what can I say about John Tomlinson's Arkel? Granted the role is that of an elderly man, but even the most magisterial of singers can't do the part justice when they themselves grow old. Tomlinson still looks good, and acts well, and the audience exploded with applause.

Tallis Top of the Pops !

The Tallis Scholars' recording of Thomas Tallis's magnificent Spem in alium, for 40 unaccompanied voices, has today reached Number 1 on the UK's Official Classical Singles Chart, ending a 3 week run at the top of the chart for Luciano Pavarotti.

According to The Official Charts Company's sales data, the past two years have seen a surge in individual classical track download sales in the UK - up 46% in 2011 on 2010 (from 834,000 to 1.2 million). This trend has continued in 2012, and in the first quarter of this year, some 284,000 classical downloads were sold, a 34% increase on the 212,000 sold in the first three months of 2011.

The Official Charts Company's managing director, Martin Talbot, said: "It's fantastic to see Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars enjoying chart success off the back of the 50 Shades Of Grey publishing phenomenon, coming just months after the Military Wives became the first choir to top
the Official Singles Chart. It shows the changing ways in which classical fans are buying their music - track by track, as well as album by album."  No problem about changing the way classical music is bought. But OTOH I'm really scared that someone in his position should think Military Wives is the way ahead for classical music. Long live the Tallis Scholars!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Brilliant new Nixon in China - Paris

A dear friend recommended the Paris production of John Adams Nixon in China. Since the Peter Sellars version upsets me so much I couldn't face watching but now I've got round to seeing it and my view of the opera is transformed. This new production, from the Théâtre du Châtelet, directed by Chen Shi-zheng, is exceptional. It brings out levels of meaning and beauty in Adams's work, and completely reedefines the opera. The trouble with the old Sellars production for the Met was that it was crudely literal: a series of tableaux based on newspaper images, with no attempt to delve deeper. It was so superficial that it put me off the opera altogether (read more here). This new Paris production is completely the opposite, remarkably perceptive about the opera and its meaning.

When Nixon arrived in China in 1972, he was entering completely alien territory. China was an unknown entity to the west. America, at the height of its empire, was confident of its place in the world. Then suddenly, Nixon and his entourage were rocketed into another empire, where American values had no place. They might as well have been time travellers in a sci fi situation. No stupid Air Force One prop here. Nixon and his team materialize in Beijing like visitors from another planet.
Forget what Sellars said, even though he was instrumental in the creation of the opera. John Adams Nixon in China is infinitely more nuanced, whether he or Sellars realized it or not. Perhaps Adams intuited the meaning of the opera more deeply than he realized.  Chen Shi-zheng's production gets to the soul of the opera. No silly reproductions of newspaper photos, instead a set as stylized as the interaction between the two sets of politicans. They are playing a kind of psychological chess, sizing each other up in a formal game of greetings and entertainments.

Sellars steered well clear of meaning by focussing on decor. For Chen, meaning is the whole purpose. The set is simple, but exquisitely beautiful. Glowing gem-like colours which evoke the colours of China - blue greens, azure, red and gold. The two teams of protagonists stalk each other, probing emotionally. Mao himself reveals nothing. He conquered China by being devious: even Zhou Enlai has to watch his back. Nixon knows he's out of his depth, but that's a credit to him. No gunboat arrogance, no shouting at the natives. Compared with modern politcians, Nixon was "no crook".  In Chen's production, Pat Nixon's role is very well developed. She's a sensitive soul who believes what she's told to believe. She's a perfect politician's wife, turned into an emotioinal Barbie Doll for display purposes. When  she comes to China, her cultural bearings are lost and she responds as a human being to the ballet enacted in front of her.  In the process of their China journey, Pat and Nixon learn something of themselves and of the wider world.

This brilliantly intelligent production lifts John Adams opera onto a greater level. Apart from being psychologically more astute than the Met production, this Paris production is infinitely more musically perceptive. Adams's series of repetitions and patterns replicate in the stage movements and choreography. When you watch the rows of uniforms intricately weaving and counter-weaving, it's like hearing the music come alive. Telling details, too, like the Little Red Book turning into streams of folded red paper as the cadres chant slogans.

 Performances are good: indeed the fact that few of the performers are English speakers helps a lot to create atmosphere. Two more days to catch this amazing production on arte.liveweb. Don't miss it. Please also read my analysis of the Met production  and also watch the original ballet on which  the ballet in the opera is based. Full download of The Red Detachment of Women HERE. It does make a difference to know the original ballet, because it's a stylized telling of a very real story of the struggles Chinese people had to undergo. It sets Maoist China into context. It's also a ballet of women's liberation, to which Pat Nixon responds.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Battle for the soul of classical music

Epic Battle on the Classical Music Charts!  On Monday, the new chart comes out. Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman are challenged for top spot on the classical Hit Parade by the Tallis Scholars Spem in alium. The Classical Charts matter, because those who don't listen to a lot of classical music pay attention when it's marketed like pop. So do your bit for "real" classical music by downloading the Tallis Scholars Spem in alium from iTunes. Doesn't matter if you have the original recording from the early days of CD. Now you can have a handy version for your mobile and other apps. Join the digital revolution! Play Tallis on your headphones and drive hoodies mad. "What's that, dude?" You never know, they could convert.

It's pointless to knock Bocelli, Katherine Jenkins, Alfie Boe, Brightman, Garrett etc because they make thousands of people happy. They give people who otherwise would not listen to classical at all an alternative to pop. Why are people so threatened by anyone different to themselves? What does it prove?  No-one is forced to listen. Throughout history, there always has been a mass market for crossover of many kinds. It's nothing new.

Better to offer "real" classical music, in the faith that the downtrodden masses can choose for themselves. They might start with Spem in Alium, and go onto other things. No doubt, many who came to Puccini from Nessun Dorma have expanded their listening choices. This is the market that goes for Hildegard of Bingen and Gorecki's Third. Taste goes both ways, too. Many years ago, a taxi driver asking what I do, scolded me for not liking Tavener's The Protecting Veil, his favourite song of all time. So I listened again but it still didn't grab me. But we both had a choice.

At last, the Tallis Scholars are entering the classical Hit Parade, and getting the attention they deserve. So promote The Tallis Scholars by getting Spem in alium on iTunes, Spotify etc. so they top the charts and capture the imagination of the public. Says a Tallis Scholars source: "This week's battle  between The Tallis Scholars, the pre-eminent Specialists in Renaissance Choral Music, and two of the 21st Century's leading crooners has re-kindled the debate on what truly is great Classical music."

Maximum Impact First Night of the Proms 2012

MAXIMUM IMPACT for the First Night of the BBC Proms 2012. My review of the First Night of the Proms 2013 is here.  Big choirs, big orchestras, Four big name conductors and the cream of British composers. No flag waving, except for someone waving an Olympics flag to upstage things. It was a sorry sight, since the BBC Proms stand for everything the paranoid, sponsor-obssessed Olympics are not. Fortunately thousands in the Royal Albert Hall and listening on the net/radio  had their minds and ears on less squalid things. Glorious music, glorious Britishness in the finest sense, genuine, sincere pride. Listen to the interval commentary on i-player which describes the difference between a plodding Land of Hope and Glory and the much more sophisticated version we heard tonight, freer and more positive. My mother was a destitute refugee liberated from camp in 1945, who attended the Last Night of the Proms in 1946. For her it was an overwhelming, cathartic experience which banished sufferings past in a blaze of genuine Hope and Glory. This Coronation Ode shows that bigots can't hijack the idealism Elgar and his contemporaries must have felt 110 years ago. Utterly stunning performance led by Edward Gardner. . Listen and read more about the cast HERE

What does being British mean, after all. Frederick Delius's UK connections were so tenuous that he'd fail the Immigration test questions. Born German, he left Bradford as soon as he could get away, fathered a child with a Florida black woman, partied in Paris and paid homage to Grieg in Norway, and wrote music that recalls Debussy. But "British" he became because the nation needed an icon. And when British music circles have heroes, they're fanatical about them. Delius Sea Drift is for me beautiful as abstract music, since I find the poem mawkish even though it's by Walt Whitman. Fortunately Bryn Terfel gives it vigorous, even gruff treatment which lifts it above sentimentality and gives it extraordinary power. Boyo Delius works well! Mark Elder conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Elgar's Overture Cockaigne (In London Town) is a regular Proms perennial, but it was good to hear  Roger Norrington's warm hearted, lively account, perfectly in tune with the good natured Coronation Ode. Martyn Brabbins conducted Michael Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, which fitted the mood of optimism at the time the Prince was born. God Save the Queen, Long May She Reign!  Even to age 116. Couldn't they have chosen something to praise a woman who has done more for the monarchy than anyone else? Including Princess Diana, who deserves much more attention than she's had this Jubilee year. Mark Anthony Turnage Canon Fever (note one "n", it's a pun) was a reminder thast British music is alive and well. Much quirkier and original than he's been for a while. Some First Night Fanfares disappear without a trace. This one will stay fresh.

Speaking of Britishness, the Olympics and British music, there was some discussion on the BBC Proms site, which I can't track down (might have been pulled). Someone objected to having Beethoven 9 at the Proms on the opening night of the Olympics, because Beethoven wasn't British. "Would the Germans have played British music at the 1936 Olympics opening?" someone asked.  But Beethoven transcends national borders. Alle Menschen werden Bruder. That's the real spirit of the BBC Proms and should be of the Olympics, too.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Verdi Otello

Verdi Otello at the Royal Opera House tonight, umpteenth revival, though all depends on the cast.  Review coming up soon, but in the meantime HERE is a full download of Otello, with John Botha (oooh!), Falk Struckmann, and Krassimira Stoyanova. Daniele Gatti conducts. Wiener Staatsoper, 2006. Full libretto and related material too. Opera Today does things well.

Eleanor Vale, Wedmore Opera John Barber

Benjamin Britten believed in the value of community opera. Albert Herring, for example, works well when it's performed by the "ordinary" townsfolk it depicts. Next year, the Aldeburgh Festival is presenting Albert Herring in Britten's birthplace, Lowestoft, with local participants.

Community opera is a genre in itself, with its own rationale and values. It brings communities together. All kind of people contribute : everyone gets a chance to enjoy and be creative. Even the big houses like Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House have education programmes that reach out to new audiences. Britten was right : community opera has social purpose.

John Barber's Eleanor Vale at Wedmore Opera fills the brief.  Large choruses and crowd scenes, so everyone gets to have a go. Big scenes for the children, who are clearly having a wonderful time and will treasure the experience for the rest of their lives, as will their families. Barber's music is lively and full of variety, filled with witty allusions. Part of the fun is picking up the witty allusions clothed in Phillip Glass-like sonorities. Modern music need not be scary! Nor does it have to be difficult to sing, an important consideration in these circumstances. The libretto, by Peter Cann, is droll, shiny as an apple, but sharp, which makes the rot at the core of the plot all the more potent.

The main role of Eleanor Vale holds the whole opera together and gives the opera distinctive character. Eleanor Vale rides into a Victorian Somerset village astride a man's bicycle. Barber can write much more demanding music for Eleanor. She stands out from the crowd in every way. It's a role for a professional with a strong personality, for it is the backbone that holds the entire opera together. Sarah Minns creates the part perfectly, indeed I think it was written for her. She has a clean, bright voice with enough depth to convey the more sinister side of Eleanor's personality. Sweet charm shields savage menace. Crows end up dead on the doorsteps of human carrion eaters. Dogs that chase Eleanor's bike end up dead. Eleanor wreaks havoc on the small-town small minds who destroyed her mother. Minns, who is a regular at Opera Holland Park, Grange Park Opera and elsewhere, has the voice, stamina and personality to keep this opera afloat (perhaps not the best choice of words given what happpens in the plot).

Nicholas Sharratt sings Matty the Mender, who's "travelled as far as Bristol". He fixes bikes and tries to fix Eleanor but she's beyond mending. The best writing in this opera focusses on Eleanor, but the dialogues between Matty and Eleanor give both singers a challenge which they meet well. Minns and Sharratt (I enjoyed his performance in Maconchy's The Sofa in 2007) both have solid experience and interesting voices. They're both in the photo above, with Adam Green as the Headmaster. He's a regular at the ENO and in concerts, both in the UK and abroad. He was good, but the role wasn't big.

Wedmore Opera, founded nearly 25 years ago, shows great foresight in commissioning this new opera. Barber's Eleanor Vale is "Somerset local interest", which is good, and places Somerset on the repertoire map.  But it's an opera with basic human interest, which could transfer well nearly everywhere, Suffolk perhaps, and even London. The big crowd scenes can be cut down easily, when community participation isn't of the essence. The orchestra is small enough for Eleanor Vale to exist in chamber version. Indeed, it's almost like there are two operas here, one communal, another more concentrated version waiting to emerge. Perhaps they could co-exist?  Tighter focus would overcome the natural difficulties that come with amateur performance.  The punch in the libretto and score would hit harder if audiences could hear it more clearly. Ironically, away from the countryside, Eleanor Vale might blossom with the spark contemporary music specialists might give. Eleanor Vale shows that communuity opera can work when the basic concept is good. And the role of Eleanor Vale is a gift for a young, bright soprano, though it needs to be properly cast, as it was here. This is an opera that should be heard again.