Monday, 31 March 2014

Royal Opera House 2014-15 season analysed


The Royal Opera House's 2014-15 season is a good balance of artistic venture and business savvy. London must be doing something right with sales running at 96% capacity and HD broadcast attendance running neck and neck with live performances. When opera houses and orchestras seem to be imploding elsewhere, it's worth taking careful note of the ROH strategy.

Seven new productions in the main house, plus others in the Linbury Studio, mixed with regular revivals.  In tough times, it's easy for houses to play safe but that is not good for the long term health of the arts. The Royal Opera House thus offers a well-planned balance of familiar and new

Shock! Horror! the new season opens in September not with a glizty gala but with something truly provocative - Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole. Not only that, but with prices max £25. The catch is students only but that's a positive. It will get the kids into the house on their own terms with their own peers.  BRILLIANT idea. No doubt there will be spoilsports who think young people shouldn't be exposed to four-letter words, but that's patronizing. Kids are sharper than they get credit for. Do-gooding "outreach" means zilch if you don't trust kids to think for themselves. What happened to Anna Nicole was obscene and Turnage tells it like it is. Although I didn't like it at its premiere Anna Nicole grew on me the more times I heard it. I'm going again and taking a whole bunch of under 30's. Read more HERE.
 
Other revivals include Der fliegende Holländer with Bryn Terfel, Adrianna Pieczonka  and Andris Nelsons - definitely not to be sniffed at! Terfel is also singing his signature Dulcamara in Donizetti L'elisir d'amore. I'm also looking forward to Tristan und Isolde with Stephen Gould and Nina Stemme in the greatly misunderstood Christof Loy production, the first ROH production to face orchestrated booing. Booing is intimidation, the denial of artistic expression. But I guess those who get their kicks from bullying will be out in force. Read my "More tradition than meets the eye" HERE and  HERE.

 Very exciting fare for those who like interesting repertoire:

1. Umberto Giordano Andrea Chénier with Jonas Kaufmann, making his role debut. Any role debut with Kaufmann is big news, and he can probably do this notoriously difficult part better than anyone else in the business these days. This opera isn't standard rep because it's hard to pull off without ideal singers but with this cast (Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lučić) the ROH will probably leave the Met's current production for dead. Antonio Pappano conducts  He's been  confirmed Music Director "at least" until the end of the 2017 season.

2  Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger with Mariusz Kwiecień . The music in this opera is ravishingly beautiful, expressing the love that dares not tell its name. It's a fabulous opera but its depths aren't often plumbed as deeply - and disturbingly - as they could be. Kwiecień pretty much "owns" the part of Król Roger, the king hypnotized by a beautiful, mysterious stranger. I can't imagine Kwiecień being coy.  Kaspar Holten directs, which I think bodes well. 

3 Rossini Guillaume Tell, is one of the hallmarks of Antonio Pappano's career : Listen to his recording with his Rome band, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.  He's bringing the same soloists to London - Gerald Finley, John Osborn and Malin Byström. We are in for a treat. This is another opera that's not easy to stage but will be directed by Damiano Michieletto. This is the French version of an opera by an Italian  It's not so much "about" Switzerland (which has French, Italian and German -speaking communities) but about freedom, the essence of creative art..

4  Verdi I due Foscaro . "Maybe", says Pappano, "not one of Verdi's finest works but important because it deals with an elderly father, who's seen a lot about life". Which may suit Plácido Domingo at this stage of his career - life imitating art. Francesco Meli sings the son and Maria Argesta (handpicked by Pappano in Italy), sings the son's wife.

5 Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.  Kasper Holten says he wants to do a lot more operas from the first part of the 20th century, which should be really interesting. What lies in store in future years ?  A Janáček project, he hints. Possibly more? Rupert Christiansen complained that there was too much Italian repertoire and no Russian. So what, I thought. We can't have everything all the time.  We've had Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, The Tsar's Bride, Tsar Saltan and Eugene Onegin. This year we have Król Roger (in Polish) , decidedly "East" German Brecht and Weill and Czech/Moravian Janáček to come. Mahagonny is an excellent choice because it's quite flamboyant by Brecht standards, with big choruses and bizarre situations. John Fulljames should bring out its subversive anarchy well. 

6. Verdi Un Ballo in maschera. with Calleja, Hvorostovsky, Monastryka and Serafin. Worth going to for the singing alone. The director is Katharina Thoma, so be prepared for erudite, intelligent  dramaturgy. She does not dumb down: we're well advised to study the score as carefully as she does. 

7. Mozart Idomeneo with Matthew Polenzani, conducted by period specialist Marc Minkowski, in his debut at the Royal Opera House - hooray ! Director is Martin Kušej whose work in Zurich sticks in  my mind. Should we expect feathers?

 8. Philip Glass The Trial (based on Kafka) - specially commissioned for Music Theatre Wales, with which the ROH has a long and fruitful partnership . Lots on MTW and Glass on this site - please explore).

9. Harrison Birtwistle The Cure, a co-commission with the Aldeburgh Festival, with support from the London Sinfonietta, paired with Birtwistle's The Corridor, which I heard at Aldeburgh a few years ago.

10. The Royal Opera House's role in promoting British opera should not be underestimated. That's MUCH more important than promoting Russian opera! The ROH is also presenting David Sawer's Rumplestiltskin (read more here)  and The  Lighthouse Keepers.  Sawer is emerging as a genuine talent, so don't miss this double bill when it reaches the Linbury next year. This is a joint ROH/BCMG venture. Don't underestimate the importance of these partnerships.

11. Monteverdi L'Orfeo at the Roundhouse. This is significant because it links ROH's stagecraft expertise with the Roundhouse's extensive work with students and young people, which I've written about in some depth here.


photo of Pappano and Holten, : Johann Person, photo of Eva Maria Westbroek : Bill Cooper

Royal Opera House 2014-15 season announced

Here's the link to the basics:
Royal Opera House 2014/15 season details HERE.
HERE IS MY ANALYSIS

 -Seven new productions in the main house
- Many others in the Linbury (incl Birtwistle and Glass).
- Partnerships with WNO, Operalia, The Roundhouse and others.
- -full HD and BBC broadcasts
- Big stars and new stars
- imaginative venture to bring in young audiences
- hints of seasons ahead !!!!!

HERE is my more detailed analysis

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Put-upon women: The Young Wife/Dido & Aeneas, OperaUpClose

From Roger Thomas:

Musically the two parts of this OperaUpClose double bill at King's Head Theatre, Islington, have little in common. Polish composer Katarzyna Brochocka's chamber “comic opera”, The Young Wife, a one-hander for soprano and piano, marries spiky keyboard writing, played skilfully by the composer, with largely recitative-cum-Sprechgesang from the singer. Dido and Aeneas retains most of Purcell's baroque original, reduced for a harpsichord, violin and cello trio by Alex Beetschen, with a few additional arrangements by Harry Blake helping to place it in the contemporary context of a US high school.

What the pieces do have in common is the perennial operatic theme of the put-upon oppressed woman with a tragic or near-tragic destiny. But both The Young Wife and Dido effectively master their own fates, tenaciously holding on to the autonomy to decide for themseves the resolution they will adopt.

 The Young Wife, which has a running time of one hour, is based on a novel by Gabriela Zapolska (1857-1921), neatly distilled by Brochocka, in an English translation from her own original Polish libretto, into 17 diary entries covering about a year in the life of a newly married 20-year-old. It is plain from the outset that the Young Wife has been forced into an arranged marriage – her husband, Julian, is uninterested in her, uncommunicative and, it transpires, unfaithful, and has married because his bride has a substantial dowry. This reviewer saw Sarah Minns in the role of the Young Wife – she undertook 18 performances of the gruelling run, with Maud Millar singing an equivalent number.
 
At first fearful of her new husband, Julian, and trying ineffectively to get closer to him, the Young Wife soon develops a protective shell of ironic commentary – with dashes of sharp humour. She is acerbic about the social milieu he has brought her into, particularly his mistress, Liza Troicka, whom the Young Wife learns to taunt (at least in her diary), and she goes into reveries about her true love, Adam. Discovering a cache of letters from Liza to Julian, the Young Wife contemplates the possibility of a divorce and marriage to Adam but realizes this is a vain prospect. Having given birth to a daughter, she continues to be obsessed by Liza and experiences premonitions of her own death. She writes a will, vindictively leaving her dowry to Liza – on conditions that she marries the hated Julian. She leaves the stage, leading us to believe she might indeed have given up the ghost. But after a piano interlude she returns to sing a last diary entry.

“I did not die!” she tells us decisively and cheerfully. “I have a lovely daughter. I put on some weight and became prettier. I take walks. Yesterday I saw Liza. She looked yellow and ugly! I looked sophisticated in my new cape and I nodded to her very condescendingly. I saw she was surprised. Winter is wonderful! The sun shines, and sleds ring. I don't give a damn about Julian! I think about Mr Adam very rarely, like someone whom I knew very little. I was stupid, viewing life from the tragic side. Childish and dreary! I'll go to the ice rink!”

Directed by Robin Norton-Hale, Minns portrayed the transformation from dependent, baffled insecurity to this self-confident autonomous outcome with great skill, managing to meld impressive acting and elegant physical agility with assured singing of a technically taxing score. No park and bark here.

Dido's autonomy, of course – choosing death over the pain of Aeneas's desertion – is of a different order. In this production of Dido and Aeneas, the baroque opera is transformed surprisingly successfully from ancient Carthage to Carthage High and its American football players and posse of cheerleaders. After all, Nahum Tate's libretto for Purcell had stripped away the purely divine intervention in Vergil's original that drags Aeneas off to Italy, replacing it with witches jealous of Dido who trick Aeneas into believing the gods are summoning him away. So, with a bit of invention and rewriting of the scene where the witches plot, Dido, Carthage High's Homecoming Queen, can be pitched against cheerleaders jealous of her fame and liaison with football star Aeneas. The machinery creaks a bit, but Aeneas, it seems, is destined to leave for a college football scholarship. Dido, meanwhile, is undermined by the cheerleaders' (“We're no angels; we're the witches/People say we're total bitches”) secret mobile-phone filming of Dido and Aeneas having sex.

But most of the original libretto is retained, the string/harpsichord trio effectively conveys Purcell's score and the singing is of a high standard, with Zarah Hible (Dido) and Ian Beadle (Aeneas) outstanding. Modern Purcell purists will not have approved. But an original baroque audience would probably have delighted in the madcap inventiveness and playfulness brought to the opera by director Valentina Ceschi and her team.

Photos: Christopher Tribble/Alastair Muir

Friday, 28 March 2014

Birtwistle Carter Wigmore Hall

Probably the greatest living British composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, turns 80 in July. He'll be the subject of a series at the Barbican and no doubt feted at the BBC Proms. At the Wigmore Hall, the BBC Singers joined the Nash Emsemble for the latest of their series on British and American composers.  Colin Clarke writes in Opera Today :

"So it was that Birtwistle bookended the evening. The first piece was his Fantasia upon all the notes (2012), commissioned by the present ensemble and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012. Scored for flute, clarinet, harp (the sound of the harp, although not omnipresent, was a Theseus-thread through the evening) and string quartet, the score breathed out a lyric expansiveness, its long lines fully honoured here and leading to a frenetic climax before the piece effectively disintegrated. The basis for the composition (“all the notes”) is the shifting scales of the harp, dependent on the pedals used. In this way, the harp, by no means soloistic, subtly guides the harmonic language of the piece. ........"

"Elliott Carter's Mosaic of 2004 (for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio and double-bass) began the second half. The harp part is virtuosic but in the pre-concert talk Birtwistle had contrasted Carter's treatment of the instrument to his own: Carter does not let the instrument resonate (and therefore, by implication, be true to its own nature). The complex pedal work is impressive indeed as a performance act and one does have to wonder if this aspect is part of the piece's basis, just as the viola is asked to be contra-itself and be very forceful; very un-viola-like perhaps. It is an interesting piece, certainly, but it was overshadowed to no small extent by the piece that most people had surely come to hear, Birtwistle's recent The Moth Requiem (2012)."

Read the full review HERE

And HERE's what I wrote about Birtwistle's Moth Requiem last year.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Pierre Boulez, 89 - Le Visage Nuptial


Pierre Boulez had his 89th birthday yesterday. What a character! For me, Boulez stands for integrity and artistic courage. We need him now even more as an antidote to that anti-intellectual trolldom. "Wer moderne Musik ablehnt, ist unkultiviert", he told Die Zeit four years ago. "Ich habe immer nur gesagt, was ich denke, das war für mich die Wahrheit. Diese Wahrheit schockiert bisweilen, wer schaut schon gerne in einen Spiegel. Oft habe ich es mit Humor versucht, aber Schlagzeilen sind leider humorlos......Man darf Unterhaltung und Kultur nicht verwechseln. Zum Parsifal-Vorspiel kann ich mir nicht die Zähne putzen. Die sogenannte ernste Musik verlangt Konzentration, auch Mühe. Das ist nicht elitär, die Verantwortlichen müssen nur mehr aufwenden, um die Menschen zu erreichen. Alle Arten von Nebenaktivitäten sind unglaublich wichtig geworden: So etwas wie Rhythm is it! müsste normal sein. Unser Musikleben ist heute doch so demokratisch, so offen wie nie".

Excellent concert last month at the Cité de la Musique in Paris by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Pascal Rophé. now available on medici.tv. Featured is Le Visage Nuptial. How magical it is! It's proof that modern music can be beautiful and emotionally intriguing.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

ROH and the Roundhouse - new Monteverdi L'Orfeo

The Royal Opera House and the Roundhouse have announced a new partnership. They're doing a joint production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in January 2015. This follows on the ROH Cavalli's L'Ormindo,  a joint venture with Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. It's the first time that ROH has done L'Orfeo, which is hardly surprisng: the opera is very early baroque, better suited to small, eclectic houses and period  performance. The Roundhouse in North London is edgier and gritter, an iconic space in its own way. This is the first time an opera has been staged there and the production has been specially conceived around it. Orpheus goes into the Underworld: glorious music but not a "pretty" story.

Marcus Davey, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Roundhouse, said: “We are really delighted to be fusing the expertise of the Roundhouse and the Royal Opera House to create an important new version of this great opera. Developing L’Orfeo together is an opportunity to think of our building in a new way and introduce our audiences – many of whom are under 25, to opera"  Although  the Roundhouse has a committment to young audiences, and will be planning events around the production, artistic standards should not be compromised. Christian Curnyn will be conducting the specialist ensemble the Early Opera Company, so musical standards will be very high.  The singers are good, too, and include Gyula Orendt,  Susana Hurrell, Susan Bickley and Mary Bevan. Audience new to baroque may rise to the challenge, and baroque regulars to a unique performance space.
 
Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, makes his opera directing debut. He is known for his many productions of Shakespeare plays. Utterly relevant experience. Monteverdi and Shakespeare were contemporaries.

ADDENDUM (because i was in a rush earlier). As I said last year when plans for the Cavalli L'Ormindo were revealed (more here) "For a long time, it's been apparent that the Royal Opera House needs a new medium sized performance space  for productions that are smaller scale than merit the main house but too big for the Linbury Studio Theatre. Perhaps the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse might fit the bill? Certainly it would be an interesting place to do baroque and other works loosely connected to the 17th and 18th centuries, but I don't think it's a long term total alliance.  Outsourcing is not a bad idea. The ENO has been using the Young Vic for years, and the Barbican is expanding across the road and to Milton Court. It makes business sense and doesn't involve spending millions. Only the South Bank seems fixated on  keeping things in one place whatever the cost or the logic"

By using alternative performance spaces the ROH can expand the repertoire it can offer at relatively low costs - no fancy building costs, for example. Opera fans benefit because they get more than can be fitted into existing premises, and more unusual repertoire. More importantly, perhaps, it's what Kasper Holten has been talking about for some time, creating a loose network of different opera companies. Thus ETO and Music Theatre Wales have a London "home". It's not practical for ROH to tour, so the arrangements aren't reciprocal other than in the sense that opera in general will benefit from the exchange of ideas and relationships. Intriguingly, the network might one day include European houses .  Long term this is good for the UK opera world in general.

Working with the Roundhouse has specific benefits. The Roundhouse has a good reputation working with young musicians and communities.  What it doesn't have, and will never have, is the ROH's expertise in theatre and opera.  It makes sense for them to connect and share, ratther than starting from scratch. The ROH will provide  musicians and stage nous, and the Roundhouse will be organizing its own activities around the opera.  :

Joined Up BBC Arts- Tony Hall's vision

Director-General of the BBC Tony Hall announced today his vision for the "biggest push we’ve made in the arts for a generation. There’ll be more arts on the BBC than ever before.....  I want Arts and Music to be as recognised with the BBC as BBC News is."

Read the full text of hs speech here. There's nothing specially new in this per se. This new statement follows on from the outline Hall unveiled last October (read more here). He's firmed up on specifics, e.g., announcing a remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilization. That was a symbol of the time when the BBC was indeed the arts conscience of this country, leading the way with innovative content and far-sighted commissions. The problem is, society has changed. Perhaps the world has dumbed down: we can't expect organizations to remain unscathed, especially in an economy where many vested interests compete. The BBC must justify itself. Big organizations need scrutiny, but with that comes bean-counting silliness: Look at any big organization, private or public. The odds are against visionary leadership. Hall did good things for the Royal Opera House, but I suspect the age of the Reiths is over. Good luck to Hall for trying, at least.

At least Hall is addressing technological change. The Space failed because it was disastrously mismanaged, but in principle, it could take off.  If the French and Germans can do umbrella arts web channels why can't the British? The BBC is in a better position to do this than anyone else, even if it drives Murdoch and other competitors nuts. It just doesn't make sense to scrap an organization that's way ahead of anyone else. In the US, opera houses and orchestras are in meltdown. So much for the model of private funding. The arts aren't a luxury but fundamentally important to the ethical health of the nation, especially when education standards are dropping. 

Innovation depends on good people. I'm not convinced that creating Arts and Music supremos will do the job, per se, unless they're good at what they do.  The bigger the ambit, the less detail.  Once BBC Radio 3 was serious music. Now, there's no music at all after 10 pm. It's unfair to blame presenters, some of whom are less inane than others. The rot comes from applying Radio One values to a genre that suits people without Attention Deficit Disorder.

One  thing Hall skirts around is the international nature of the BBC. It represents Britain.Whatever any government of the day might do, the BBC symbolizes Britain as a force for good in the world. It does more for foreign policy than guns and bombs. The perceived political bias that so upsets so many is largely irrelevant on a world scale. (In any case cultured minds learn to think for themselves.) Although there's more competition within the UK from other media providers, the realities of a digital, global economy suggest that size matters. Organizations have to be multinational. If the BBC is to fulfil this international role, it might need to rethink its funding base. Now, we're getting really radical.

photo : Deskana

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Broadcast Alerts - March/April

Mozart La Finta Giardiniera at Glyndebourne this year, directed by Frederick Wake Walker : Prepare by catching it live from Opéra de Lille . Emmanuelle Haïm and the Concert de l'Astrée, which will be pretty hard to beat, musically.

From Andrzej, forthcoming broadcasts for March/April

30 March 2014 Marco Spada Bolshoi Ballet Cinema LIVE Feed

05 April 2014 La Bohème MET Cinema LIVE Feed
05 April 2014 19.00 La Bohème Genova Internet Live stream http://www.streamingcarlofelice.com/la-stagione.html

08 April 2014 18.30 La Bohème MET Cinema Italian Feed

09 April 2014 Butterfly (Opolais) MET Internet
09 April 2014 La Scala Orchestra La Scala Cinema LIVE Feed

12 April 2014 19.15 Arabella Salzburg TV 3SAT

15 April 2014 Butterfly (Opolais) MET Internet Sirius

16 April 2014 19.15 Manon Lescaut Baden Baden TV 3SAT

20 April 2014 17.00 Berlin Phil (Rattle) Baden Baden Cinema LIVE Feed

22 April 2014 19.30 Otello Naples Cinema LIVE Feed

24 April 2014 19.30 Vikings - Live from The British Museum Cinema LIVE Feed

26 April 2014 Così fan tutte MET Cinema LIVE Feed

28 April 2014 The Winter's Tale Covent Garden Cinema LIVE Feed ??? The Winter's Tale Covent Garden Cinema Feed for Japan

29 April 2014 Le Nozze di Figaro Paris Cinema Not live 29 April 2014 18.30 Così fan tutte MET Cinema Italian Feed  

Monday, 24 March 2014

Roger Wright moves to head Aldeburgh Music

Simon Robey, Chairman of the Council of Aldeburgh Music, today announced the appointment of Roger Wright to the position of Chief Executive, starting September 2014. The news isn't - yet - on the BBC website, but basic details are HERE. What a high-profile catch for Aldeburgh! The announcement doesn't say much, understandably, but raises many questions.

When the much respected Jonathan Reekie stepped down in December after sixteen years at the helm,  it was obvious that he would be a hard act to follow. So this could be interesting. Aldeburgh is unique: will it continue to champion Benjamin Britten's eclectic vision or will it be remodelled as a mainstream music theme park?  And what does that mean for BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Proms? Roger Wright's been Controller of BBC Radio 3 for 15 years, BBC Proms for seven years, which isn't far off the usual life span. Leaving the BBC is a major career change, especially as Wright has been touted as a future head of the corporation. But Tony Hall made a similar switch himself.  "Conductor Chess" applies equally to heads of organizations. Each move leads to other possibilities. I won't speculate, but "watch this space".

Kiss me, Figaro! Merry Opera Company

Pop up opera in pubs? Here's a twist. The Opera House, a Wetherspoons pub in Tunbridge Wells, was built in 1902 but became a cinema in the 1930's, then a bingo hall. Now, for one night only it reverts to being an opera house again. The Merry Opera Company is using Tunbridge Wells Opera House for Kiss me, Figaro!  "It's not quite an opera, nor yet a musical or a straight play. As one of the jazz standards in the piece comments about Love, Kiss me, Figaro! is "the oldest, yet the latest thing" - it's a new piece but it contains music from the last 400 years of opera, Lieder and early 20th century popular song" says Merry Opera's  John Ramster  "It's definitely a virtuosic evening: our talented troupe of singers have to perform and sing in several styles from a filmic naturalism, to comic opera, to high drama, and also cope with some music theatre dance breaks along the way"

Although this is marketed as fun, there's possibly more to Merry Opera than meets the eye. For one thing, they're also doing The Messiah on separate dates. And they're touring in twelve cities, with two London dates. Some of the singers are good enough to be familiar names, and there's even a video trailer. There are numerous small opera groups like this but Merry Opera shows initiative and organizational flair, which I respect. Look at the promotional video - it's rather good. They also have a very well made facebook page.
Snobs should not sniff. Opera is a very tough business to crack but performance is good, healthy fun. No way is this going to threaten Bayreuth, ROH or La Scala but it's perfectly reasonable entertainment. But it's a niche that needs good marketing "Not as many people as we would like in Tunbridge Wells appreciate opera,"says the manager at the Tunbridge Wells Opera House, which is perfectly understandable. But if Wetherspoons sells it as community entertainment it might be onto a winner. Much more exciting than "music nights" with dodgy folk duos or fake Elvises. The regulars will have fun (if there's beer) and they might attract a middle of the road local audience. Such events are the lifeblood of local communities. The Donald Gordon Grand Tier crowd might not come, but ordinary people who like a good night out might have a good time.

Here's the video again:


Sunday, 23 March 2014

New ! Walter Braunfels Der Traum ein Leben Bonn


Walter Braunfels' Der Traum ein Leben (The Dream is Life) opens 30 March at Theater Bonn. It's going to be broadcast three times - Deutschlandradio Kultur | 5. März 2014, 20:03h ,WDR 3 - WDR Bühne | 22. Juni 2014, 20:05h SWR | and  13. Juli 2014, (time unspecified).  It's going to be worth hearing as the cast includes Endrik Wottrich as Rustan, the anti hero, and Graham Clark as Old Caleb (not much singing, but can Clark declaim!) The conductor is Will Humburg, and the director is Jürgen R Weber, who has an interesting website with lots of photos and insights into the creation process.

Braunfels'  Der Traum ein Leben  is based on a play by Franz Grillparzer  and follows the story of Rustan, a young man who lacks talent but has delusions of power.  He's easily led astray by his slave, Zanga the Moor. After a cataclysmic dream, he realizes that worldly success isn't for him. The "Moorish" elements of the story provide a supernatural context, where dervishes and demons operate like magical forces. This is a life journey, not unlike The Magic Flute, where the hero finds himself. Or not, in Rustan's case. It's interesting to think of the play as a metaphor for Grillparzer's life. He liked travelling to exotic lands, but wasn't particularly happy or successful. On the other hand, the play was written in 1834, when he was still fairly young.

Braunfels wrote the opera in the years after Hitler came to power, when the composer's career was sidelined by the Nazis. Perhaps he was reflecting on the situation he and so many others were facing   Those of us who haven't lived under mad regimes probably don't realize that "internal emigration" can be, for some, a valid option. The plot also predicates on a feckless fool following a false Fuhrer, Braunfels's music for Die Traum ein Leben is vividly expressive; theatrical enough to fool Nazi tastes. Lush harps create a "magical" atmosphere. But listen to, to the flickering flames which suggest Hell and the hahahaha of demons. The cataclysmic "dream" sequence is violently intense.  This tale isn't fairy tale kitsch. The pounding percussion,  screaming strings and wild vocal lines suggest damnation.

Der Traum ein Leben  is much darker than Verkündigung (Read my "Gothic Resistance Fighter " here) and suggests the savagery that was to come in Braunfels' Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna (Read my "Braunfels Medievalism as Moderrnity" here). There's more on Braunfels and indeed more on composers of this genre on this site than anywhere else, The only recording was made in Regensburg in 2001, which is readily available. I'm looking forward to hearing the Bonn production.

Handel Theodora Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Handel Theodora, HVW 68 (1749) recorded live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on10 Feb 2014, and broadcast yesterday, is available on demand now on France Musique til 14 April. It's in English, of course, and rather good. Harry Bicket conducts The English Concert. Soloists are : Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Kurt Streit, Tim Mead, Neal Davies,  Steven Caldicott Wilson,and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

How interpretation can change a song

1937 and 1959

Wardsbrook - Sussex summer festival

I don't as a rule quote press releases verbatim but this is an exception because it's so snappily written :

"Wardsbrook Concerts’ annual festival of song in a magnificent Tudor barn in Ticehurst, East Sussex is fast becoming one of the summer’s essential musical fixtures. Founded last year by British tenor Toby Spence, his brother Magnus and conductor Edward Gardner, Wardsbrook announces a dazzling line-up for 2014 including Dame Felicity Lott (Sunday 18 May), Ian Bostridge (Sunday, 25 May), Christiane Karg (Sunday, 8 June) and Gyula Orendt (Sunday, 22 June).

Commenting on Wardsbrook Concerts, Toby Spence said: “We had no idea whether we could find an audience for art song in Sussex on a Sunday morning when we launched last year but we did and, more than that, they want more. Song is an exquisite art form that enables both performer and listener to venture from German Lieder to French romanticism with a little American light stuff thrown in too. It’s onwards and upwards for 2014 with a terrific line-up of singers.”

Five reasons to come:

1. Dame Felicity Lott – Sunday 18 May This year’s Wardsbrook season is opened by one of Britain’s best-loved sopranos, Dame Felicity Lott, who has graced every major concert platform in the world. True to form, she brings classic French repertoire to Wardsbrook with songs from Fauré, Debussy, Lenoir and Bernard as well as Reynaldo Hahn who, although Venezuelan, wrote in the classical French style. She also sings German songs from husband and wife team Robert and Clara Schumann as well as “lighter” repertoire from Ivor Gurney, Frank Bridge and Richard Rogers. Dame Felicity is accompanied by Sebastian Wybrew, recently described by the Daily Telegraph as being “out of the top drawer of today’s young musicians.”

2. Ian Bostridge – Sunday, 25 May Ian Bostridge has chosen an all-Schubert programme for his Wardsbrook debut. The Guardian newspaper describes him as “one of the world’s greatest lieder tenors”. The actor Simon Russell Beale said that Schubert “can make time stand still”. What better way to spend a Sunday morning in early summer than listening to Ian Bostridge sing such great Schubert songs as Im Frühling and Aus Heliopolis I and II as well as the haunting little song, Ins stille Land.

 3. Christiane Karg – Sunday, 8 June The recital by the beautiful young Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg was one of Wardsbrook’s highlights last year when she made her debut on a hot summer’s day in June. Her enchanting performances on the concert platform have charmed audiences the world over. This year Christiane brings a mixed programme of Schoeck, Wolf, Schoenberg, Strauss and Debussy. Christiane is accompanied by Joseph Middleton who has been described by The Times as “the cream of the new generation.”

4. Gyula Orendt - Sunday, 22 June Toby Spence hopes that Wardsbrook will introduce at least one rising star each year. This year it is baritone Gyula Orendt who was born in 1985 in Transylvania. He studied singing at the Franz Liszt Conservatory Budapest and in 2010 he won the Franciso Viñas Competition. Since then he has been a member of the Volksoper Wien and joined the young artists programme of Staatsoper Berlin. He is now a full-time member of the Berlin Staatsoper. until 2015. Gyula will sing Mahler, Schumann, Kodály and Bartók songs.

5. St Michael’s Hospice All profits from Wardsbrook Concerts will be donated to St. Michael’s Hospice in Hastings. St Michael’s Hospice provides palliative care for adults with life limiting illnesses such as cancer, heart failure, chronic respiratory disease, neurological conditions and HIV. The hospice has 30 beds, a Day Therapy Centre and a 24/7 Hospice at Home Service and, since opening in 1987, has cared for more than 12,500 people. St Michael’s relies on public support to raise the great majority of its annual running costs of £5 million. Box Office Tickets cost £75 including a two-course lunch and wine. For more information about Wardsbrook Concerts, visit: www.wardsbrookconcerts.org.uk or email info@wardsbrookconcerts.org.uk. All the recitals take place on Sunday mornings, followed by a two-course lunch and wine."

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Will children ever learn about opera ?

Good article by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph : "Will children ever care about opera?"  He went along to the latest initiative, under the auspices of ENO. Every arts organization has to do these because funding these days involves making a social case for the arts, and this venture seems well organized and earnest. Top marks for effort. Unfortunately the funding system predicates on the idea that the value of the arts can be measured. The Funding Gods need statistics to prove that the arts are worth supporting, so arts venues are forced to divert scarce funds towards ventures like this which make nice paper offerings but don't necessarily have much effect.  Trouble is, it's impossible to quantify the value of the arts.

As Christiannsen notes "one boy asked the perfectly intelligent question: “Why does it sound so posh?” To which there came no good answer." For all I know, these well -meaning efforts serve to reinforce public assumptions that the arts are not for them but for some strange elite. Even the word "outreach" implies a value judgement.  It drives me crazy when broadcasters gush like excited children peeking in on adult mysteries. But the arts are about human emotions and the expression thereof. Why should there be divisions between insiders and outsiders? We all have a right to think, to feel and to learn. Once the arts are saddled with social and cultural baggage, non-artistic standards creep in, because it's human nature to need to conform to the received wisdom of the crowd. Almost by definition, individuality and innovation go against the herd instinct. How, then, to justify the arts by terms which don't fit its unquantifiable values?

Without creativity, mankind might not have evolved. The arts represent this spirit of adventure and improvement. "Stop learning and you die", my father used to say. Maybe there are millions of walking corpses out there but as long as artists remain, we have hope.

Perhaps one way ahead is to think of opera education as a form of emotional intelligence. Music is therapeutic. Even in supposedly wealthy societies, it fills inner needs that might otherwise be hard to articulate. Funding the arts is public health for the soul.

We also make assumptions based on middle class, western models.  In other cultures, the arts have intrinsic value. In China, for example, you're not considered fully educated unless you have some awareness of the arts. Perhaps that stems from Confucian literati values, but it's so much a part of the way people think. Even if parents are poor, they want their kids to succeed and better themselves. Lang Lang's father was a musician but screwed up by the Cultural Revolution and poverty. So he pushed his son to breaking point. But Lang Lang has character and came back to music when he felt right doing it on his own terms. He's idolized not just for his music and for being famous, but because he's an inspiration. Westerners might sneer, as they do so often with Chinese achievements, but Lang Lang proves what an individual can do, despite all, odds. See "Vom Starkult zur Liebe um die Musik" on BR Klassik.

When I was  in kindergarten, we learned by what I now recognize as Carl Orff methods. I banged a tambourine tunelessly, but I got a lot out of it. Music lessons were the highlight of the week. The emphasis was on participation and performance, with theory and appreciation coming later. We even learned the rudiments of composition. I used to write mood pieces like an infant Takemitsu. Western classical music was everywhere - in the movies, in ads, in social events. It was no big deal.  If anything traditional Chinese music and opera got the highest respect. But we learned that music was an inextricable part of life. Our school used to win nearly every event in the Schools Music Festivals (which included poetry recital and chamber music).  Winning wasn't the point at all, but excellence. We'd have felt lost if we hadn't learned something and enjoyed the experience.

Below, a class of 8 year olds, singing for sheer joy. How fresh and engaged they sound . Listen to the pianist - she's not much older. Whatever these kids go on to do in life, they've learned that music is fun, and emotional responses are part of being fully human.  The conductor was my classmate Christina. While I was inept, she reached Grade VIII almost without trying, She has an exceptionally beautiful soprano voice: through her, among other things, I learned to love Lieder while still at school. But what a wonderfully intuitive teacher she is! She motivates kids with her enthusiasm. Later, they''ll go to to more difficult things but the groundwork has been laid.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What's really wrong at the Met?

"The Met : What's really wrong"? a probing analysis by Dawn Fatale (love ya) in parterre box. A whole lot more thoughtful than the typical internet rage that "sounds like  Republicans who argue that food stamp spending can be cut because they read a story on redstate.com about people trading food stamps for alcohol". I can hardly wait for Part Two with ideas on how to get the business model back on track. 

The cultural divide between the US and Europe is so fundamental that there's no point making comparisons. Just praise be that the Royal Opera House runs close to full capacity. Having this morning shelled out big money for Manon Lescaut, I can see the point of flexible pricing structures. There isn't one single, amorphous "audience" out there but many different audiences with different expectations. The secret, I think, is balance. Cut back on big-name stars, and kill the goose that lays golden eggs.  Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel sell because they're good. Placido Domingo sells because he's loved. Non-opera goers will pay big money for someone they've heard of, and why not?  They're entertained and they help keep the house going. Which is what we really want, don't we? OTOH there are some people who'd like to be tricoteuses, getting their kicks from someone's  demise. As I've been saying for years, some like opera as an art form, others as an arena for bloodsports.
 
PS I was amused by the idea in the article about British singers at the Met. We get an unusually high number of American singers in London, some of whom are good enough to compete with the best Europeans, but some who aren't.  After hearing the Met's attempts at Britten, it should be mandatory  to hire conductors who understand the idiom ie not Conlon. But maybe the US isn't ready for the real Britten, with his ironies and contradictions. In  many ways, Britain isn't ready for Britten, either.

China National Symphony Orchestra

From Rudolf Tang in Shanghai  :

The China National Symphony Orchestra has been running without an artistic director for 13 years, weird for a premiere league orchestra. What happened? Here is the story.

The China National Symphony Orchestra has announced the second half of its 2013-14 season. It is customary for CNSO to announce the complete season in two halves. The first half was usually revealed in September and second half in early March. Earlier this month TAN Dun was appointed Guest Artistic Director of CNSO. The orchestra has been running without an Artistic Director for 13 years. In 2000 CHEN Zuohuang resigned from CNSO as Artistic Director amid probably the most chaotic moment in China's orchestra history when Long YU founded China Phiharmonic Orchestra and pinched 36 musicians from CNSO. Almost disbanded from the shortfall, CNSO named Muhai TANG as Artistic Director to succeed CHEN. However TANG fell out with YU Songlin, then President of CNSO and fled to his Swiss home without any notice.

TANG's flight was considered a cowardly move. His post was revoked afterwards. YU remained as President for another three years before he was replaced by GUAN Xia, the current President. GUAN, a prolific film score and orchestral composer by profession, decided not to err as his predecessor had committed. The Artistic Director has been kept vacant since then while five conductors were engaged to share the baton: SHAO En as principal conductor, Michel Plasson as principal guest conductor, LI Xincao as resident conductor, CHEN Xieyang as chief conductor, CHEN Zuohuang as honorary conductor. In this way none could challenge the authority of GUAN.

Highlights of its second half include a Chinese composer's concert featuring CNSO leader LIU Yunzhi and cellist LI Yang conducted by SHAO En in April, the return of its principal guest conductor Michel Plasson in Bizet and Ravel with Paris-based pianist WU Muye, three screenings of the Academy Award short animation *Peter and Wolf* as its summer education programmes. The 13-14 season closes on July 25th at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing with LI Xincao conducting Mendelssohn and Bartok. The orchestra has planned an extensive Latin American tour in 2014.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

"She Fell in Love with a MAD GENIUS"

"She Fell in Love with a MAD GENIUS". So ran the publicity for Song of Love, the biopic of Robert and Clara Schumann. You know those two, they had a "love story so beautiful it was set to music". That's a nice way to describe Dichterliebe and so much else.

Katharine Hepburn plays Clara Wieck with a strong American accent, while Robert Schumann (Paul Henreid) speaks exaggerated Germanic English. Within twenty minutes, the courtship,  trial and wedding have taken place and they have seven children. Johannes Brahms, who also speaks American, drops by. Brahms ends up doing household chores and paying undue attention to little Julie. Robert has "headaches". Clara suddenly decides to play concerts again. Her career, she says, is "fleeting" so she'll sacrifice herself so he can write. So when she gives a recital, the maid appears with young Felix in tow, who wants a feed. So Clara plays at a furious pace, to get back to her "real" work. Brahms plays the Weigenlied to soothe Julie, who's about 10 .

Robert's going mad because he can't write an opera and "gets headaches". At a recital, Franz Liszt plays an arrangement of Du meine Seele . Clara takes over at the piano and plays it even more beautifully, even though she chats throughout. Schumann conducts Szenen aus Faust in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, but starts to go insane. Hepburn visits Schumann in the asylum, where he plays  Traumerei. Suddenly, it's 1876. Brahms is listening to the premiere of his Symphony No 1. Brahms takes Clara dancing and, over dinner, proposes to her.  Julie is forgotten.  Alas, a gypsy violinist starts to play Du meine Seele, and Clara knows she can't marry Brahms after all.  "He still lives" she cries. And so she dedicates the rest of her life to playing Schumann's music. At her farewell, she plays Traumerei for royalty just as she had done when she was a girl.

Though this isn't a very good movie, it's interesting because it shows how Hollywood in 1947 expected audiences to know who Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and even Carl Reinecke were. Professional pianists were engaged, while the actors mimed. The orchestra in the scene in  the  Leipzig Gewandhaus was the Metro Goldwyn Meyer Orchestra. conducted by Michael Steinberg. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Massenet Werther from the Met

On air now Massenet Werther from the Met, here on BBC Radio 3.The bad news is the appallingly infantile commentary.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Follow that Falcon ! Die Frau ohne Schatten ROH

Like all good nightmares, Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten is bizarre and perceptive, at the same time. And like all good dreams, what you get from them equates to what you put in. In  the Royal Opera House's new Die Frau ohne Schatten, at the Royal Opera House London, previously at the Teatro alla Scala Milan, Claus Guth gives us a simplified cartoon-like version of one of the most surreal fantasies in the whole repertoire.  There are many different levels in Die Frau ohne Schatten, but primarily it involves a search for a shadow. What does this shadow mean? How is a shadow attained? Guth doesn't engage with human or mythical personalities, but on the animals. It's very Walt Disney. "Ignore the ideas", the show seems to say, "Follow the Falcon".

In principle, there's no reason why a single point of entry can't penetrate mysteries. Alice in Wonderland followed a rabbit down a hole. Of course, the Falcon dominates the music. It pops up over and over, at critical points in the drama, invisibly leading the protagonists forward. It's perfectly reasonable for a staging to depict it in physical form, and certainly easier for some audiences than more metaphysical productions. But what does this Falcon mean ? A Falcon is a hunting bird. Diana, the Goddess of the Moon and thus of dreams, is also the Goddess of the Hunt, and of virginal sterility. We don't need to know how Keikobad fathered the Empress with falcon and gazelle DNA, suffice to understand that there is something mysterious and unnatural about her predicament. Until she finds a shadow, by fair means or foul, .she and/or the Emperor are doomed.

In this production, shadows are everywhere right from the start, simple tricks of light. That's fine, but as the drama unfolds, they aren't  replaced by greater substance, symbolic or otherwise. Instead, dancers with falcon and gazelle costumes  dominate the stage. They're lovely to look at, and the Falcon dances like a moth, but  the over-use of these figures turns the opera into quasi-ballet, distracting from the drama in the singing and in the orchestra. But what do these animals really mean? And why are the unborn children shown as beasts of the kill? On a Disney level, they look cute, but in terms of the opera, that throws meaning  out of line. Fortunately, in the last scene, they become "real" children again.

The stage is decorated with pseudo-psychological symbols, like a bed. Purity, sleep, sickness, death and sex - get it ?  In principle, that would be fine, but the clues stop there, and aren['t integrated into the development of the personalities of the protagonists. In von Hofmannsthal's text, The Nurse, for example, is not just a "Nurse" but an anti-nurturing figure who tries to keep her charge infantilized.  The Empress has to banish her if she is to grow. Michaela Schuster can be wonderful in this part as she was in  Salzburg (more here).  She is an asset, technically far more secure  than Emily Magee's Empress, but here she is wasted. Guth relegates her to one-dimensional hospital nurse, whatever the words she is singing might say.

At the end, The Empress is seen in bed again, as if nothing has happened and the whole drama has been no more than a bad dream. Perhaps. But that sums up Claus Guth's approach to the opera, turning it into fairy tale.  So much for the quest for a shadow, "Mother Knows Best". Except this mother figure is malevolent. Indeed, so is Keikobad, depicted as a gazelle with a walking stick. So much for the savage protest of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the satire Strauss builds into the music. If Die Frau ohne Schatten can be summed up in one phrase (and it probably can't) that phrase might be : challenge authority., find your own way.

Johan Botha lifts the production onto an altogether more elevated plane. His singing is flawless, his voice rings with gleaming lucidity, each note "crystalline" yet tinged with deeper, more complex nuance. When he appears, it's as if he's descended from the Gods. He simply outclasses everyone and everything around him. For a moment, the trivia of the production fades away. We are hearing perhaps the finest Emperor in the business today. Botha is phenomenal. It's worth catching the show for him alone. Fortunately, the staging focuses on him alone, and at this point is vividly dramatic.

Semyon Bychkov is rarely less than good,  and the Royal Opera House orchestra plays with verve and just the right amount of sour dissonance. Bassons and low winds snarl, commenting on meanings not borne through in the staging. Bychkov, who is usually more refined,  goes for volume when more sublety might be more effective. I longed for Christian Thielemann in Salzburg (more here) , who made the orchestra sing, so orchestra, voice and meaning were fully integrated. In a Big Bang production like Guth's, noisiness is perhaps a virtue.

Emily Magee sang The Empress and Elena Pankratova sang the Dyer's Wife. Magee is popular, but in this production, the role was so ill-defined that she was eclipsed by the goings-on around her. It didn't help that she and Pankratova were costumed alike. The roles are mirror images of each other  but the staging was confusing. Pankratova rang out with passionate intensity, creating the desolation in the character by voice alone. In Warlikowski's Die Frau ohne Schatten for Munich (read more here) she smouldered with sexual frustration. Guth downplays her abilities, just as the Nurse suffocates the Empress.  Johan Reuter sang Barak, with many good moments and a few lost notes, but effective enough. I wonder how much effort went into rehearsing the singers in character, when so much attention was paid to the animals ? In theory,this is a great cast, all well experienced.What wonders might there have been ?

photos : copyright ROH Clive Barda 2014

Friday, 14 March 2014

Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten Salzburg - exceptionally musically sensitive


Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten opens at the Royal Opera House. (read my review here). This opera fascinates because "Shadows" occlude its meaning on many levels. Yet, just as the Kaiserin has to engage with feelings rather than steal a shadow, so should we engage with the opera.  Every interpretation should reveal something. The one thing to beware, I think, in an opera which predicates on oblique contradiction,  is anything too literal.  That's why I love the Salzburg production from 2011, directed by Christof Loy.   It overthrows the whole notion of staging.  Its paramount focus is the opera itself.
 
It's ironic that those who hate "modern"stagings cannot recognize a production where the music comes first and above all else. Christian Thielemann's conducting is magnificent: crystalline clarity, austere yet passionately, painfully sensual. In this production, the orchestra truly sings along with the voices: there are few distractions to the inherent drama in the music. Indeed, this production underlines an important theme implicit in so much of Richard Strauss's music: the idea of art replicating the making of art.

At first, the production seems like a concert performance. For that the patrons of the Salzburger Festspielhaus have paid a fortune?  that alone says something about the way culture is consumed.  The set references Karl Böhm's historic first recording. The sophistcated Salzburg audience is looking onto a simpler, spartan world that no longer exists. More irony. The cast wear coats because Böhm conducted in an unheated room, but the "coldness" also reflects the situation. In this strange kingdom, the moon controls destiny. The images of falconry, deer and hunting suggest death, not life. This coldness can't continue. The singers are wearing coats because they're embarking on journeys toward change.

Beware the literal. Just as the opera operates on two planes, so does the production. This staging works on a disconcerting metaphysical level, but it's deceptive (rather like the opera). Notice the detail in the direction: the singers interact like singers would, rather than "characters" playing parts, The Nurse (Michaela Schuster) darts spiteful glances at the Kaiserin (Anne Schwanewilms) as if there's form between them. As the opera evolves, we realize that there is some deeply repressed rivalry. Only when the Kaiserin rids herself of this malign mother-figure can she grow. Schwanewilms, who owns the part these days, is superb.  She can concentrate on her singing, capturing the nuanced detail of a concert performance.  Loy's direction is singer-oriented, and the entire cast rises to the challenge. Musically, this production is a revelation - as things should be.

The First Act unfolds in a place and time that defines definition. "Updating" is an utterly irrelevant concept. Just as in many Wagner operas, by the time the opera s begins, tjere's a whole history we piece together through clues in the text. Falcon heads and deer are perfectly reasonable ways to depict this strange world with its images of the moon and hunting. Falcon cries haunt the music, calling out even when they're not mentioned in the text.  Perhaps we even hear gazelles in the fleeting, energetic twists in the strings.  But it's far more disturbing, I feel, to see it staged in this much more metaphysical, abstract way. The singers are seen clutching copies of the score.  Factotums appear on the margins and in corridors, even when they sing. Nothing here is quite what it seems, for very good reason.  Living without a shadow is unnatural. The Kaiserin needs to come down from the lands of the Moon and live among mortals.

Gradually, imperceptibly, the singers enter "acting" mode, their movements becoming more naturalistic as they begin to engage with their innermost feelings.  The set gets busier and more animated: we see action take place in rooms above and to the side of the stage. As the action warms up, so does the lighting, and the possibility of shadow. The sterility of the staging is significant, for the "moon" is sterile, and the Dyer's Wife (Evelyn Herlitizius) has no children. The lushness in the orchestration serves to emphasize the alienation in the Dyer's Wife and the Kaiserin. In the lushness of the orchestra we hear what they are missing out on. Here there are no visual barriers to deaden the sadness.

Die Frau ohne Schatten often gets a bad press because the relationship between Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and his wife is misunderstood in a superficial Kinder, Küche, Kirche manner. Everything we know about Strauss's relationship with his wife suggests the opposite. No way was Pauline de Ahna a woman to be pushed around. If anyone did the pushing in that household, it was she. The Strausses imbibed the ideas of the Munich Secession, and its liberated attitude to women. In its own way, Die Frau ohne Scahtten is fairly explicit about sexual repression. The fantasy scene is witty: figures in feathers dance around the Dyer's Wife - flamingos, not falcons!  The shadows are getting sharper now she's coming to terms with her needs.   Much in this opera is alluded to rather than explicit, but the text is reasonably clear what having children really means: the continuation of life. Keikobad is dead, and the Nurse is banished. Barak and his wife will start their own family. We see the minor characters in the staging reappear as child versions of themselves : children everywhere, re-enacting the process of growing up. It's not about "self" but the continuum of life.

As the Kaiserin faces judgement, there's a wonderful moment when Schwanewilms looks upwards at the empty office. We hear the sounds of the falcon and see the falcon's colours in Schwanewilm's red  hair. When the Kaiser (Stephen Gould) appears in the upstairs office, warmth suffuses her features, though she moves with nervous gestures, like a bird.  The confrontations between The Kaiserin and the Nurse are also particularly intense, like a duel between Ortrud and Elsa von Brabant.  "Higher forces are at work" spits a demonic Michaela Schuster, blazing with violence, draped in black. When all thye principals join in, singing at each other, but together, the turbulence in the orchestra suggests transition : sweeping, soaring discords as if the sky were exploding and the oceans rising. The stage goes black - the music is speaking. Schwanewilms appears in a corner.  As the poignant solo violin plays, she walks, alone, spotlit on the dark emptiness of the stage. It's like seeing pure music come alive. In the orchestra, we hear the invisible "water " motif. sparkle around her. Wonderful connection between meaning, visuals and music. Stephen Gould's voice rings out clarion like as he sings the Kaiser. The Kaiserin has struggled with herself and won. Only now,, we see a Karl Böhm figure smiling down from above.

In the darkness, the stage is transformed. It's Christmas, when a Child is given to the World as Saviour.  The barren frame  set finds fulfilment and becomes a proper performing space. The "Cherubim" wear blue sailor suits, like the Vienna Boys Choir. The Austrian colours of red and white hang from the balconies. The soloists appear in elegant evening dress. Again, the music "speaks". The singers's long, high lines cross and interact, and the orchestra adds richness and grandeur. Even the on stage "audience" joins in, waving rhythmically.  Look ! There's The Nurse forced to spend her life among mortals and fidgety little kids whom she hates ! Schwanewilms turns away, and sees the young couple who had been extras on the set embrace. 

Christof Loy's production is exceptionally sensitive to music and meaning, and it has inspired exceptionally good singing and playing. Performers like Thielemann and Schwanewilms aren't going to give this much if they don't believe in what they're doing.  The booing mob think "Regie" means regimentation, but in the real world directors have to motivate performers who know their music well. Co-operation and harmony - the very message of the opera. Strauss knew first hand how the business worked. Maybe there are those who know better than performers of this calibre, but I'm prepared to respect their taste and artistry.
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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Boult, Bax, Peter Pears, Communist?

Among the files just released by the National Archives, Kew, is a file on Peter Pears and his "Communist" connections. (KV2/3844 ). The earliest document  is an extract from Special Branch Report no 256 dated 30 June 1951 on The Musicians' Organization for Peace. "This body, operating from 3, Gloucester Gate Mews, NW1 and claiming to be non political, was set up at a meeting of 60 musicians (400 were invited), at the Bonnington Hotel WC1, sponsored by Sir Adrian Boult and Arthur Benjamin".  Boult is President and Vice Presidents include Gerald Finzi, Maurice Jacobsen, Parry Jones, Peter Pears, "Thomas Russell (COMMUNIST)" [upper case on the file],  Sir Arnold Bax and Benjamin Britten. A later memo (1952) also lists, inter alia, Lennox Berkeley, Michael Tippett, Humphrey Lyttelton and Paul Beard as vice-presidents.

Then there's a minute dated 2.4.53 stating that Britten and Pears were "Both members of the League of Democracy for Greece". "As you are aware", states the minute writer (Special Branch?) Britten and Pears "are in close contact with the Royal Family, and for this reason, the Foreign Office wish to be briefed on their security backgrounds".  The League of Democracy for Greece "although Communist-dominated is a rallying point for all those who are opposed to the present Government in Greece". But there's no evidence that Britten or Pears are implicated in other organizations.

In 1959, Pears applied for a non-immigrant visa for the US. On 26/2/59 the Foreign Office tells the US Embassy that the Musicians' Organization for Peace Executive Committee was "for the most part composed of Communist Party Members and Communist sympathizers". In 1955, Pears's name still appeared "amongst the Vice-Presidents listed on the Organization's headed note paper; included also are other distinguished musicians not known to have Communist sympathies".

"On 30 January 1955 Pears sang on behalf of the Musicians Organization for Peace and associated Peace Groups  at a concert entitled 'Voices for Peace' which included some Communist Artists and was advertised in the Daily Worker". However, the Foreign Office concludes "We do not know precisely what are Pears's motives for associating with the Musicians' Organization for Peace. There is no evidence from other sources to suggest that Pears has Communist leanings."


Three Choirs Festival Worcester 2014

Tickets go on sale 15/4 for the 2014 Three Choirs Festival, this year in Worcester, the city where Elgar grew up. This is also the first year the Festival has been curated by Dr Peter Nardone. Moreover, this year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The Three Choirs Festival mirrors a type of Englishness that has survived centuries of strife and change. Perhaps we can better appreciate that "Spirit of England" by engaging with The Three Choirs Festival and what it represents.

This year's Three Choirs opens on Saturday 26th July. Perhaps the Opening Service at 11.30 in Worcester Cathedral will mean more than usual, given what is being commemorated. You don't have to be a Christian to care. We all share (I trust) universal faith in goodness, humanity and hope. At 2.30,  Roderick Williams, easily the greatest baritone in this genre, presents a recital on The Great War in English Song, built around George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad. Butterworth was killed in the Somme in 1916. There's a lot about him on this site, including something I found in the War Office archives which no one had found before. Please use the "Butterworth" label at right.

This year, London's Globe Theatre  tours to Worcester: a very special event indeed. The Globe will be doing Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing at 3.30 in the College Hall. T.hen, at 745 in Worcester Cathedral itself, Britten's War Requiem. Britten wasn't a Three Choirs regular, and the piece isn't conventionally religious. Please read what I've written about the War Requiem, Britten and Britten's pacifism on this site, using the labels at right. If ever there was an occasion when the Three Choirs ethic and Britten dovetail, this will be it. This War Requiem could be a coming-together on a very deep level.

Many concerts during Sunday 27th. Alternatively, you could visit Elgar's Birtthplace at Broadheath three  miles from the city centre. Excellent museum, with very well stocked CD shop. There will be other opportunities to visit during the week, and specially curated Walking Tours through the countryside Elgar was so fond of visiting. Sunday night will be a good chance to savour Three Choirs hospitality at the King's Hall - Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding! After which one will be well fortified for Dvořák’s Stabat Mater in Worcester Cathedral, which Dvořák himself conducted at the Three Choirs Festival in 1884. The Choirs was very much in the vanguard of "new" European music when it was new.

This tradition continues: On Thursday, 31/7 in Worcester Cathedral, Torsten Rasch A Foreign Field will receive its premiere. It's a Three Choirs commission,  and will be heard with Elgar's The Spirit of England and Vaughan Williams' A Lark Ascending. The concert, titled Reflections of 1914, will be another significant coming-together. Two of the greatest British composers, responding to a war that would change their world, and a youngish German composer who has travelled the world, reflecting on what went before him.  Rasch grew up in a tradition very close to the Three Choirs: he was a boy chorister with the Dresdener Kreuzchor, which produced Peter Schreier and Rudolf Mausberger (lots about them on this site too). Rasch's music embraces wider genres. He emigrated to Japan as a young man and has worked in theatre, film and multi media.  Read more about him here.

But without Elgar, no Three Choirs Festival would be complete. This year's Elgar highlight will be The Apostles, on Friday,1st August in Worcester Cathedral. This is a hugely ambitious, even extravagant work and should be stunning with the massed choirs. Good cast, too : Andrew Kennedy, Brindley Sherratt, Sarah Fox, Claudia Huckle, Neal Davis, Marcus Farnsworth, conducted by Adrian Partington. This week  BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Mark Elder's Proms Apostles which I wrote about here. The photo shows Elgar conducting The Apostles in Worcester at the 1905 Three Choirs Festival. Don't recognize the organ? The performance took place in The Public Hall, Worcester, demolished in 1966 when the city centre was rebuilt. .

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Richard Strauss Feuersnot broadcast


Another chance to hear Richard Strauss's Feuersnot, op 50, conducted by Ulf Schirmer. An extremely vivid performance, recorded live in Munich not long ago with a cast who can sing idiomatically and a conductor who understands the composer and the savage satire in the work   Good performances like this are essential especially for relatively little kmown work. Bad performances do more harm than good.  Read HERE for what I wrote when it was televised by BR Klassik in February. The photos come from a production earlier this year in the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, which looks like fun. Note the wry references to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg!

Handel Rinaldo Baroque Puppets


Tickets are now on sale for Glyndebourne's Handel Rinaldo, (read my review here)  But at the Baden  State Theatre in Karlsruhe, a really special Rinaldo staged with puppets! In Baroque times, puppetry was a respected art form.  Baroque marionettes sprang from much older traditions that hark back to medieval street and religious theatre. Wood carving craftmanship, still very significant in many parts of Europe, adapted well to the elaborate Baroque taste for fantasy and extravagance. Kings might experience Baroque spectacles on a grand scale. Through marionette theatres, humbler audiences could enjoy things on a more miniature scale. Puppets aren't real but they're magical, and fun.

This new Rinaldo  has been created by Carlo Colla & Figli is a world-renowned Italian puppet company that has been staging performances of classical tales and plays for more than 200 years. Have a look at their website for photos of their productions and also of their workshops. Puppeteer Paiero Corbella told Deutsche Welle about the painstaking craftmanship behind the tradition. "While the secondary characters have only six strings, the main characters in the production have up to 25 strings. That way, explains Corbella, they can carry out complicated movements such as placing their hand on their brow in a tragic gesture or moving their mouths to mimic the singing. Having this range of movement is important in order to capture the historical traditions of Baroque theater, which is based on stylized, emotional gestures".

This Rinaldo is being performed with the Lautten Compagney, whose conductor Wolfgang Katschner says  "We are combining historical music with a special kind of historical theater - which results in something very magical and beautiful, The marionettes act out the libretto [the opera text] in a very naive, simple manner to magical effect." Read more here.

Lots more on puppets and their use in opera on this site, follow the label "Puppets and circus" on the right

Monday, 10 March 2014

Britten Prince of the Pagodas, Birmingham


At last, a new production of Benjamin Britten's  ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, which might erase memories of the gauche production John Cranko choreographed in 1957,  which the composer disliked so much he didn't really touch the genre again. As music, The Prince of the Pagodas is a milestone in Britten's oeuvre because he's experimenting with ideas and sound he absorbed in the Far East, which would lift his music onto an altogether more adventurous plane. From The Prince of the Pagodas, we look forward to Curlew River, The Turn of the Screw and to Death in Venice. Dance infuses much of Britten's work. In Death in Venice, Tadzio's dance on the beach invokes the very spirit of life and art, and brings Apollo himself into the world of mortals,

What might Britten have achieved had he created ballet for more sympathetic interpreters? Until now, we've had to rely on Oliver Knussen's 2006 recording to hear an intelligent account of the music.  The Royal Opera House revived the streamlined Kenneth Macmillan choreography  in 2012.  (read here what I wrote then). But it's high time the ballet was completely rethought afresh.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet, in conjunction with the National Ballet of Japan, commissioned a new production, choreographed by David Bintley. Claire Seymour, author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten, went to Birmingham to experience the new approach.

"In a programme article, Bintley explains that he sees Pagodas primarily as a ‘love story with no reason, purpose, conclusion or romance!’; he has aimed to make ‘another kind of love story, not expounding on the Eros type love of a man for a woman, but portraying something more mystical and subtle … the love of a girl for her brother, a father for his son and ultimately that of a family reunited after much trial and tribulation’. 

"......These changes have many merits. Sakura is more strongly characterised and the narrative given more focus and drive, through the introduction of the quest in Act 2. There also opportunities for additional digressions which allow for the introduction of a host of contrasting contexts and characters, and also provide ‘action’ for some of the longer musical episodes.....Perhaps the balance between pathos and humour is not quite right, though, leaning too far in favour of the comic"

Read the full review here in Opera Today. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Gluck Alceste - psychologically perceptive despite the singing


"They see me as a threat but I'm here to do good. Every strong woman in history has had to walk down the same path. I think it's the strength that causes confusion and fear"

Alceste, Queen of Thessaly, gives an interview. The very fact that Alceste should be allowed to give her side of events will enrage the kind of folk who think no-one is allowed insights other than their own. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski.'s production for the Teatro Real, Madrid, doesn't overdo the Princess Diana metaphor too much. Alceste (through Angela Denoke) comes across as a plausible, sympathetic personality. In any case, when the music begins, she slips back into role. In this performance, Denoke's pitch wavers and her consonants elide into vowels.  But  she acts so well that she projects character so well that she's utterly compelling. She dominates the screen, expressing Alceste's deepest feelings  with blazing intensity. A wonderful portrayal: one can forgive the lost notes. This is, after all, a Queen driven to extremes. What happens to her is horrific,  but her dignity and courage shine through.  Denoke's phrasing is plummy, but the raw honesty of her acting shows deep committment. I was immensely moved.

The Overture is stunning. Alceste knows what's happened to Admète. It's a private moment where she can show her vulnerability.  Shaking, Denoke tries to light a cigarette but her hands tremble too much.  When the trumpets announce Évandre, (Magnus Staveland)  who brings the news, the chorus reacts with grief, but as Queen, Alceste has to retain regal composure.as she addresses the populace. Here, they're shown as patients in a hospital with marble walls, whose austerity accentuates the rich, jewel-coloured satins worn by Alceste and her entourage's glowing colours.  Throughout history, royals have been expected to carry out semi-divine civic functions to calm their sujects fidèles.  Diana wasn't the first or last. In the darkness of the Temple, Gluck evokes a mood of elegant dignity. Warlikowski introduces long moments of silence, intensifying dramatic tension. A ritual is being observed. When Willard White's High Priest cries out "All-powerful God", the effect is  striking, even though White's voice is now ragged and dry.

The scene in which Alceste confronts the Underworld is brilliantly realized by designer Malgorzata Szczesniak.  The stage becomes a vast, metallic surface onto which fleeting images of the family and court are projected. Denoke seems tiny in comparison. As she sings, her shadow is shown upside down behind her: everything's in reverse. White light, rippling surfaces: Apollo's beams pierce this dark veil with cold, merciless cruelty. "Divinités de Styx, Ministères de la Mort" sings Denoke. "I will not implore your Mercy". Her pitch may be wayward, but she finds "new strength", her voice now warmed by love. The Court rejoices. Paul Groves sings Admète fluidly: this King takes things as his due, without question. Again, Warlikowski  emphasizes unspoken music. Delicately plucked strings while Alceste dances, and later when the penny starts to drop for Admète. How crude the "Spanish" dance seems in contrast! Similarly in the short interlude before "O! malgré moi, faible coeur", Denoke poses in front of a mountain of opulent roses, her face a mask of anguish. As Denoke sings front stage the flowers are lit with golden light. "Oh, how quickly the dream of life fades" sing the chorus.

Thomas Oliemans sings Hercule with macho energy. When he hears what's happening to his friends,  his cockiness collapses. He starts to shave, but his hands lose their grip, and foam pours over him. This is an interesting detail. Hercule represents male strength, while Alceste represents female strength but both are sensitive to feelings. Alceste wanders through the gates of the Underworld where bodies are being prepared by unworldly undertakers. Admète has followed her, rather than live on alone. As he sings of love, the corpses re-animate, one pair in frantic embrace.  Thanatos (also Willard White) sings to the sound of trumpets. " Charon t' appelles, entends sa voix!" Alceste starts to be wheeled away. The corpses twitch and squirm, as if electric currents are forcing them, unnaturally, into a parody of life.

Groves's singing becomes heroic, while Hercule,  stands helpless in the background, his face painted like a sad clown. Admète can't defy the gods, but Hercule, a god, can. He swings his fencing iron, invoking Apollon himself, who releases Alceste from the curse. Denoke, Groves and Oliemans sing the trio of happiness, which is taken up by the chorus. But can Alceste live happily ever after, having entered Hades? The brass fanfares and drum rolls in the finale suggest stately  power. King, Queen, Hercule and the royal children are having breakfast together: one egg, one orange juice, like in a hospital. But Alceste is in a wheelchair, tended by Thanato's assistant. Her body is present, but does her soul wander? Perhaps Admète's love is now being tested.  Perhaps Alceste is learning that you don't have to be superhuman to be loved.

This ending may be different, but it is thoughtful, and reflects a psychologically sensitive reading of the opera. Alceste is strong, but like so many strong people, strength comes at a price. She does good for others, and does her duty. But at what inner price.  Controversial as this ending might be to some, I think it enhances the meaning of the opera, and reaffirms its place in the repertoire. Contrary to received opinion, a good opera can support many different responses. The singing overall, may be better on some recordings, but anyone who cares about this opera would do well to learn from this extremely perceptive interpretation..

Please also see what I've written about Warlikowski's Die Frau ohne Shatten  and Eugene Onegin