Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein


The UK premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Outscape with Alisa Weilerstein, Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Symphony orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (Alisa's younger brother).  Dusapin is one of the true greats of contemporary music, A high-profile and prolific composer whose work is performed by some of the top names in new music, and well represented on recordings.  For a change, that fount of skewed non-knowledge, Wikipedia, is worth reading, so kudos for whoever did the entry on Dusapin.

Long, brooding lines from the lowest register of the cello set a pulse, shadowed by bass clarinet.   The cello seems to be channeling something beyond audibility. I wondered if the piece grew from silent bars. Background noises - the tapping of wooden blocks, free-wheeling, piping piccolo.    Slow, swaying movement built up of almost imperceptible tones and intervals   Weilerstein draws out the line, which gradually levitates up the scale.  Orchestral colours change, as the cello voice rises and falls, the clarinet calling extended legato.  For an ostensibly "slow" piece, there;s a lot going on, subtle gradations created by carefully poised control.  Eventually the pace builds up, the cello weaving wild, angular lines,  then suddenly retreats to low, plaintive  lines which gradually fade.   A beautiful piece that seems to circulate in its own seamless sphere.

In the context of this programme, one might be tempted to think in terms of hyper-fervid dreams, but I think that would be pushing the case too far.  It's good on its own terms.   Like so much of Dusapin's work, it's meticulously refined and exact. If you mess with microtonality, it ends up mush ! Fortunately Weilerstein is a virtuoso, so there was no danger of that happening.  Dusapin's Outscape  is a joint commission between the BBC, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris, and Stuttgart Opera.  Joshua Weilerstein conducted on this occasion. Outscape has also been conducted by Susanna Mälkki (Paris), Markus Stenz (Stuttgart) and Cristian Macelaru (Chicago).  There's another performance in November in Porto with Baldur Brönnimann and Anssi Kartunnen.

Before Dusapin, Jean-Féry Rebel Le Chaos from the 1737 ballet Les Elémens, a good choice since this links the French baroque to modern avant garde. As I've written before (please see here), the connections are very strong indeed : music history didn't start and stay in the late 19th century.  The baroque spirit, though exuberant and audacious, predicated on the idea that civilization was an improvement on barbarity.  Hence Chaos, which which order emerges : art, not abandon.   French baroque dance was formal, almost a form of stylized exercise : thus again the need for firmness of concept.  Dusapin studied with Xenakis, an architect before he became a composer.  Hence concepts of mathematical precision and detail,  from which grew developments like microtonality.  (lots more about Xenakis on this site)   Precision isn't restrictive by any means. Clear thinking is a basic springboard for sophisticated creativity.

Romanticism wasn't "romantic" in the modern sense of the word. The Romantic fascination with death, and the unnatural was a means of pushing boundaries, of exploring dangerous emotions.  For many, that meant experimenting with mind-altering experiences in many different forms.  Drugs and alcohol free inhibitions. They're a short cut to the subconscious and the adventures within. Yet they are also an escape from reality. The interval feature on the BBC repeat broadcast is informative and worth listening to, for background on the early 19th century use of drugs.   Opiates were semi-respectable, even though the dangers were recognized.  How far Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is drug-induced reverie or not, there's no point in speculating since it's a very fine piece of music, enhanced by dramatic extremes.  Not unlike Grand Opéra in purely orchestral miniature.  Another connection between Dusapin, who writes a lot of very abstract opera, and Berlioz.

Joshua Weilerstein is an interesting speaker.  Presumably more preparation had gone into Dusapin's Outscape, since this Symphonie fantastique was more reverie than nightmare.  It was good, though, to dwell on the less histrionic parts of the piece and focus on the orchestration. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

Harrison Birtwistle Deep Time : Barenboim Prom 4


The UK premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time, at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall,  with Daniel Barenboim who conducted the world premiere at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in May.this year.  Just as Barenboim's Elgar pedigree goes back a long way, so does his relationship with Birtwistle.  They've known each other since the 60's. Barenboim also gave the premieres of  Birtwistle's Exody in 1998 and of The Last Supper in 2000.

In an interview for his publishers Boosey & Hawkes, Birtwistle explained the term "Deep Time".  "...coined by John McPhee in a 1981 book Basin and Range, which refers to the idea of measuring things on a vast temporal scale beyond human comprehension such as the age of rocks. The concept of Deep Time follows on from the work of the 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton who proposed that the processes of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation have ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, a state of perpetual change...."   It's an idea which fits in well with the concepts that seem to lie beneath so much of Birtwistle's work: stratas and layers,  levels of time parallel and co-existence, puzzles, mysteries and patterns, often evolving as if generated by abstract but organic life forces.  Earth Dances, of course, and The Triumph of Time but also mysteries like The Minotaur and Silbury Air. 

Deep Time seems to evolve out of nothingness. Bars are marked in silence until sound emerges almost imperceptibly. Slow, circular figures dragging forward contarst with sparkling figures comprising short, quick-paced cells.   Rhythms build up quickly to an exuberant angular dance, which then morph into flying figures which float above the steady pulse.   Crashing metallic percussion, the growl of dark, low brass and woodwinds. Base, middle and top notes like a complex but earthy scent.  Large, dense structures and fleeting whips of high-pitched sound, propelling forward thrust.  A soprano saxophone calls, marking intervals: wooden blocks are beaten in typically wayward Birtwistle zig-zag patterns.  Planes of sound from strings and winds, suggesting boundless vistas.  Towards the conclusion, trickling, tiny fragments, quirky changes of direction, and a return to long, slow, rumbles. As the music passes onwards,  cymbals clash and long planes stretch until at last the music dissipates into nothingness once more. Not before the brass and metallic percussion assert themselves once more, in quirky farewell.  I didn't think so much of inexorably slow forces but of a multiplicity of actions on different levels.  Birtwistle is never boring!  He turned 83 this weekend, but creatively he's lithe and agile. 


Crossed and fractured lines - La voix humaine Sarah Minns


From Roger Thomas

When Denise Duval premiered Francis Poulenc's tragédie lyrique La Voix Humaine, in 1959, she wasn't exactly young. But recordings of her performing it reveal a bright, youthful voice and impressive acting skills. A regular in new Poulenc works, Duval fulfilled what the composer called for in his brief notes on the musical interpretation: [the role] "ought to be performed by a young and elegant woman. This is not about an elderly woman who has been abandoned by her lover."
 
At Kings Place, London, Sarah Minns, with Richard Black (musical director) an expert hand at the piano, in Poulenc's own piano version of La Voix, uses the English translation by Joseph Machlis issued by Poulenc's publisher, Ricordi, in 1977. Minns is a few years younger than Duval was in 1959 and ideally fits Poulenc's call for youth and elegance. She is also one of the most capable actors in classical singing in London. That is crucial because, to be successful, La Voix Humaine -- a 40 minute-plus psycho-drama for soprano (called, simply, Elle) in conversation on the telephone with a former, or still fleeing, lover, whose voice we never hear, with alternating emotional support and assault from the piano score -- is no place for acting wimps.
 
In her programme notes to this OperaUpClose production, director Robin Norton-Hale tells us that in the opera's preparation she and Minns mapped out what the unheard lover at the other end of the line might have been saying. An eminently sensible strategy, which added colour and authenticity to Minns's responses. There is clearly a back story in Jean Cocteau's libretto (based on his 1928 play). Elle's lover is already well on the run. From what Elle says on the phone it emerges that he is seeking to retrieve letters they have exchanged. And the lover has abandoned his pet dog at Elle's apartment. The dog passage is apparently sometimes cut by directors who see it as a baffling non-sequitur, but Minns's extremely sensitive delivery of the description of the dog's state -- pining for his master, refusing to eat, lurking in the hall, turning vicious -- makes it clear that the dog is a surrogate in suffering for Elle. "In spite of his intelligence, he surely cannot guess the truth."

But since Elle's phone conversations are fraught with deception -- about what she is wearing, where she has been and with whom (lunching with Martha?), when she has in fact been in a sleeping-pill swoon -- how do we know for sure that the dog is not still full of joie de vivre and eating well? Or maybe stiffly starved to death on the doormat. Elle's changes of mood are adeptly handled by Minns: her frustrations with the party line (nothing to do with the Parti Communiste Française -- if you are too young to have experienced one, check Wikipedia); her barefaced lying bravado (not that the unheard voice does not offer his own fair share of deception); her descent into despair, sometimes retracting her lies to the point of admitting to what is effectively a suicide attempt. Another crucial episode -- when "Madame" interrupts on the party line for the third time. Elle's anger at the eavesdropping as portrayed by Minns is visceral and scary. ("But, Madame, we're not trying to be interesting, I can assure you ... If you really find us so silly, why are you wasting your time instead of hanging up?"). In her anger, Minns powerfully reminds the audience that we too have been salaciously listening in on a private conversation for the past half hour or so.

Simplicity and elegance are key features of this production, with a nod towards the 1930s. Minns wears white silk pajamas, sometimes with a fur-collared overcoat over them (set and costume designer: Kate Lane). Lane's set is minimalist and subtly lit (lighting designer: Richard Williamson). At first I thought the wire mesh panels might be overstressing Elle's isolation and mental imprisonment, all of which is more than adequately spelt out in the libretto. But I rapidly concluded that they amounted to rooms in the apartment that Elle could wander around while remaining visible. A telephone expert did suggest to me that the phone flex might be out of style for the 1930s. But nothing is perfect in this world, is it? 

Certainly no directorial overkill here. Do we really need the audience being guests at a party in Elle's apartment (she's not well enough to organise one), or videos of the voiceless lover? No, not when what is all there already in the libretto and piano score is so skilfully presented.

 La Voix Humaine continues at Kings Place Hall 2 on 6 and 20 August; on tour at Redbridge Drama Centre, London E8, on 3 October, and North Wall Theatre, Oxford, on 20 November.

 Photo: Christopher Trimble

Barenboim nails the Proms: Elgar, Citizen of the World

Two giants of British music - Edward Elgar and Harrison Birtwistle with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, Prom 4 Royal Albert Hall.  Barenboim's Elgar credentials go back decades to the early years of his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré, when they made exciting music together with the trendiest young crowd in the business at the time. Over the years Barenboim's approach to Elgar has matured, becoming more magisterial and more elegant.  Though Elgar was thoroughly English, he was not a "Little Englander". Though celebrated by the Establishment., he wasn't born to the Establishment but made his own way. In his day, there was  integration between British and European music. Elgar was a citizen of the world well aware of what was happening around him.  

Thus Barenboim's sophisticated, cosmopolitan Elgar Symphony no 2 in E flat major, where the "Spirit of Delight" flowed with graceful confidence, truly "nobilimente".  each theme suggesting open vistas and expansive horizons.  There are hints of the kind of music one might associate with celebration - holidays at spas, gala occasions, even the Proms of Sir Henry Wood. But the mood changes. Celli and basses introduce a darker mood.  The themes return, but more urgent, descending into haunted quietude. When the expansive tutti return, they seem defiant, rushing towards frantic climax. Speaking like a poet, Elgar said that this was "a sort of malign influence wandering through a summer night in a garden".   The themes in the Larghetto were stretched,just enough to emphasize the idea of fragility, of holding onto something elusive.  "Rarely. rarely comest Thou, O Spirit of Delight" ...... "Wherefore hast thou left me now/ Many a day and night?  Far less funeral march than personal and deeply felt nostalgia for something inevitably slipping away.  

Thus the wildness of the Rondo, swirling cross-currents, cut off mid flow in a short,  sharp climax. .   Elgar wrote, enigmatically, "Venice and Tintagel" , referring possibly to pleasant times he'd enjoyed in the past, both places being popular with turn of the century travellers. There are even hints of tea dance music and jazz.  Think Thomas Mann Death in Venice, though Elgar got there first., completing the symphony before the novella was published. In the circulating themes and sense of constant movement, perhaps we can imagine the idea of throngs of tourists, each on individual voyages, which will inevitably come to an end. The bustle and wild, whipping lines with which the movement ends certainly suggest hurried departure.   Elgar and his peers weren't to know that the era of European expansion was soon to end, but we cannot blank out our awareness of the war and what followed. Nor should we : music isn't just ink on paper.  Art engages the soul.  Thus the final movement, the  Moderato e Maestoso,  seemed to glow, the last chords fading slowly, like dying embers.  Dignified and very moving.  

At Prom 2 the previous evening, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin had performed Elgar Symphony no. 1 in A flat major (1908) together with Sibelius Violin Concerto (1904) with soloist Lisa Bathiashvili. Two works by almost contemporary composers, written within a similar period.  Interesting combination, but not nearly so intriguing as Prom 4 pairing Elgar Symphony no 2 (1910) with Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time (2017).  Since that's an important new work, it deserves a piece all on its own, which I've written about here.  

But one more observation on Elgar the European.  For their encore on Saturday, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin launched into the famous Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March no 1.  Brilliant wit !  That piece has become hackneyed in the popular mind, having been associated with jingoism, flag waving and Last Night of the Proms silliness.  Which is ironic since pomposity is not a good thing.  "Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!"  Othello is in agony, having been tricked by Iago into doubting Desdemona.  His past victories and the status he won through war have come to naught. He'll end up losing everything. Because he's listened to a fraudster!   It was wonderful to hear the piece played as serious music and as a proper concert work. Refined and stylish, yet also beaming with good humour. How many in the audience "got it" I wonder ?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Secret messages ? First Night of the BBC Proms 2017


Secret messages? The First Night of The BBC Proms 2017: as always a thrilling sense of occasion. But what occasion, and who was it really for?  These are questions that the BBC and Proms team need to address. It's not enough to rely on formula.  This year we've seen what happens when politicians function like robots. spouting empty slogans on autopilot.   Big institutions like governments can't hang on to power "by right", but must earn their place. The evening kicked off with a new British work, to show how hip the Proms Team are.  For a change real music! Tom Coult's St John's Dance is an interesting exercise in perpetual motion and tempi, engrossing enough to hold attention, without being too taxing. Certainly better than some of the mindless pap we've had some seasons.  But beware! St John's Dance was a form of mass hysteria, where people kept dancing on, unheeding to their deaths.

Sir Henry Wood created the Proms on the principle that people were perfectly capable of learning if inspired by excellence and extremely high standards. His vision doesn't apply today when arts policy aims for the lowest possible denominator, on the assumption that people are too stupid to cope with anything that isn't dumbed down.  If arts managers don't have faith in their own product, how can they hope to convince others? And where is the real market?  Even the BBC has twigged that it's a fallacy that the arts depend on audiences who don't like serious music.  So why not put that into practice? The whole thrust of British arts policy is reductionist, uncreative and wrong.  White Papers might repeat the same old assumptions but that doesn't mean they're right and can't be stopped.  British arts policy is fundamentally misguided because it does't reflect economic reality.

Until such time as policy makers have the guts to question, we can but hope that some centres of excellence remain.  Like Beethoven, for example, whose vision and courage we need more than ever in this era of small-minded shallowness.   How wonderful to hear Igor Levit playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no 3 in C minor, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Fact is, excellence is by its very nature elitist.  Ordinary people are perfectly capable of smarting up rather than dumbing down.  Hooray!  This is what real music is all about: raising horizons.  For his encore, Levit chose Beethoven's Ode to Joy, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt.   Culture doesn't exist in isolation: it crosses borders.  The arts business is international and must remain so.  Not long ago,  Her Majesty the Queen opened Parliament wearing a blue and yellow hat.  She's not allowed an opinion, but she's no fool, and she's not easily swayed by populist media.  Long may she reign!

Extravaganzas are part of the fun of First Nights of the Proms, so this year we had John Adams's Harmonium.   Four hundred and fifty singers - the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Youth Choir, joined by additional forces, ranged all round the back of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.   Impressive to look at, and very well performed.  Harmonium predicates on huge swathes of sound composed of tiny cells   Sometimes the singers aren't singing text but creating planes of wordless noise.  Not being a fan of the composer, I won't comment on the piece as music, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.  The whole musical part of the Prom over in record short time to allow endless chatter and self-promotion on the part of BBC marketeers.

Each year I cover 30-40 Proms, so please keep coming back.  Please see my other pieces on the Proms, this year and in the past and on the Proms and Arts Policy. 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, in London


Datong, the Chinese Utopia, grand finale to the Chinese Music Series in London, the biggest ever showcase of Hong Kong culture presented in the west, comes to the Richmond Theatre on 27th and 28th July. Datong, the Chinese Utopia, has been described as "a century of Chinese history distilled into three acts". The opera, composed by Chan Hing-yun to a libretto by  Evans Chan,  examines  China's recent past through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Youwei(康有為) and his daughter Kang Tongbei ( 康同璧).  Kang Youwei (1888-1927) was a scholar from  Nanhai, near Foshan in Guangdong province, whose ideas on the modernization of China appealed to the young Guangxu, inspiring the "!00 Days Reform" in 1898, which was soon suppressed by the ultra-conservative Dowager Cixi. The Emperor was imprisoned and Kang Youwei went into exile.  The title of this opera refers to Kang's book, the Datong Shu (大同書) revealing a vision of a global utopia of human equality and solidarity, where divisions of race, class and gender would no longer apply.

The opera begins during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard movement demanded a new world order based on the abolition of the past.  Kang's daughter, Kang Tongbi, lies on her deathbed, her daughter beside her.  Years before, things were so different. Kang Youwei believed that feudal family structures kept China backwards, and that women should be equal to men. Thus Tongbi travelled the world, studied abroad and held feminist values, the prototype "New Woman" of early 20th century modernization.

Kang Youwei's ideas on reform were complex, confronting capitalism, religion and social organization, and so wide ranging that  they are recognized on both sides of the modern Chinese political divide. In his lifetime, and in exile, his ideas on equality brought him up against widespread racism.  In this opera, we see Kang meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in the wake of anti-Chinese leglislation then sweeping the United States, We also see Kang Tongbi chiding foreigners who treat Chinese as lesser beings.  Lots of food for thought. In times of tyrbulence and division, we could do well to consider Datong The Chinese Utopia as an opera and as an introduction to Kang';s ideas.

Datong the Chinese Utopia, premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015 to great acclaim. In London, the cast will include  Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi, Carol Lin as The Empress Dowager and as Tongbi's daughter (an interesting reversal)  and Apollo Wong as Kang Youwei, with David Quah in supporting roles.  The conductor is Lio Kuokman, the director Tang Shu-wing.  A film about Kang Youwei by Evans Chan premiered in 2011.  (see clips below) . Please read more about the Hong Kong Music Series HERE  (Beyond the Senses, Chinese Chamber Muisc as Theatre) and 

HERE. (Music Interflow, St John's Smith Square) (Photo credits : Yankov Wong)

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Véronique Gens Visions from Grand Opéra

Ravishing : Visions, Véronique Gens in a glorious new recording of French operatic gems, with Hervé Niquet conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester.  This disc is a companion piece to Néère, where Gens sang familiar Duparc, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies. Here Gens presents extracts from Grand Opéra, reflecting her Tragodienne series of operatic arias.  Visions is a stunner, rich and so rewarding that you want to rush out and hear each opera as a whole.  This might be easier said than done, for some of the operas here aren't well known. Thus, all the more reason to get this recording because some real gems are included which  you've almost certainly not heard done as well as they are done here. Véronique Gens is a great pioneer of French repertoire. So intoxicating is this recording that if you come to it as a taster, you could end up addicted.

Visions - visions of ecstasy, religious or romantic, exotic dreams and horrifying nightmares, virgins, nuns and heroines, plenty of variety, yet each piece a work of theatrical imagination  Alfred Bruneau's Geneviève (1881) for example, from the cantata the young Bruneau dedicated to Massenet.  The piece begins with a dizzying evocation of a storm. If this sounds Wagnerian, the scène lyrique that rises from it is decidedly French. "Seigneur ! Est-ce bien moi que vous avez choisi?", for she is just a shepherdess tending a flock.  But the nation needs her, and  she must put her mission above herself. From César Franck's Les Béatitudes (1879),  a moment of quietude interrupted by the fierce scream that introduces the récit et air de Leonore from Louis Neidermeyer's Stradella (1837), its rhythms influenced by Rossini, enhanced by florid vocal frills.  Benjamin Godard's Les Guelfes (1882) is represented by an orchestral prelude  introducing a song describing Jeanne d'Arc's journey to Paris, her way lit by angelic harps.  

From history to fantasy, Félicien David's Lalla Rookh (1862).  French orientalism gloried in exotic images. This song is exquisite, its delicate perfumes warmed by the beauty of Gens' clear, pure expression.  It also evokes the aesthetic of the Belle Époque. Thus a song from Henry Février's Gismonda (1919) a reverie with tolling bells where a solo violin shadows the voice.The protagonist is a nun, but longs, without much hope, for sensual love. Camille Saint-Saëns's arrangement of Étienne Marcel's Béatrix is altogether stronger stuff . Cello rather than violin, and mournful winds and a resolute vocal line. Béatrix knows that the love she knew will never return. "O Beaux Rêves évanouis ! Éspérances tant caressées!". This song is reasonably well known, and Gens does it beautifully.

This selection from Jules Massenet's La Vierge (1880) begins with an orchestral interlude. The Virgin Mary is about to die. The mood is subdued.  But the Gates of Heaven open showing the Virgin a vision of Paradise.  "Rêve infini, divine extase, l'éther scintille et s'embrase!" Gens voice glows, illuminated by rapture. After that explosive high, we return to the relative sedate Blanche from Fromental Halévy's La Magicienne (1885)  who chooses the cloister, and to the prayer of Clothilde from Georges Bizet's Clovis et Clothilde (1857). Another song whose loveliness lies in its simplicity, again ideally suited to Gens's clear, pure timbre.  .To conclude, L'archange from César Franck's Rédemption (1874) a vision of the End of Time.  "L'homme rebelle n'obéit pas", and God, in anger chastises him.  "Mais que faut-il pour son pardon? Après des siècles d'abandon , une heure de prière!"  A rousing and rather cheerful end to a very good recording.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Abendstern Tannhäuser - Bayerische Staatsoper Munich


Wagner Tannhäuser at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich,  with Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros and Georg Zeppenfeld, conducted by Kiril Petrenko.  That the singing was brilliant is no surprise, since these singers are so familiar that what they do isn't "news", though I'll write more later.  What was a surprise was the staging, or rather the thought that went into the dramaturgy.  The Overture seemed to make no sense at all. Venusberg represents unbridled sexual excess. Wagner's description is unashamedly explicit - Sirens are bathing - naked - in waters pouring from a cave hidden by cliffs, lit in lurid flesh tones. A vagina !  Modern audiences couldn't cope. Yet here we saw maidens in Grecian garb, as elegant as marble figures.  An Abendstern Venusberg? "Wie Todesahnung, Dämm'rung deckt die Lande,umhüllt das Tal mit schwärzlichem Gewande". Venusberg aping Wartburg? Upside down, I thought, at first.  But maybe that was the point. Venusberg and Wartburg represent opposite poles. Venusberg symbolizes sex, creativity, and life: Wartburg symbolizes denial and death. Which, in fact, is more "pure"?  Thus the Cupids around Venus's couch are unformed blobs of flesh: a shocking image, but again that might be the point.  Venusberg is tainted. Tannhäuser needs to get away if he is to develop.  

In Tannhäuser, Wagner develops his ideas on the role of art in life. Tannhäuser is a precursor of Walter von Stoltzing, the two Siegfrieds and Parsifal, who don't spring fully formed from the start.  Hence the Sirens at Venusberg, firing arrows, an image that doesn't make sense til we journey a while with the production.  If you don't know what you're shooting at, don't shoot! You might just be wrong. Wagner's heroes start out thinking they know everything. They only grow when they learn to learn.  Nothing wrong with that, as Wagner shows.  In our own time, when anti-intellectual populism prevails, Wagner's message is frighteningly prescient.  Like the Knights of the Grail, the Knights of Wartburg are aggressively insular, blocking out ideas other than their own, resenting dissent.  Tannhäuser could have an easy life playing their games, but he chooses not to, striking out on his own. He searches for truth whatever the forces against him. And Elisabeth sides with him, sacrificing herself.  Tannhäuser may never unlock his Grail, but redeems himself because he has vision. For Wagner, religion "is" art, so the quest for artistic integrity can never end.   An artist seeks enlightenment, not playing to the crowd.  Thus the Grail Knights desiccate until they learn compassion. What will happen to Wolfram and the Minnesingers of Wartburg with their sterile dreams and inhibitions? An insular community based on denial, and hatred of women in particular, isn't conducive to creativity. 

The best Tannhauser I've ever heard live was Johan Botha (read my tribute here)   Klaus Florian Vogt comes pretty close: two voices of exceptional beauty and purity.  In fact, I can't think of any time when I haven't loved what Vogt's done, even outside opera.  Fortunately, the action in this production was understated  - "Abendstern" stillness - so we could savour the voice and its subtle nuances.  Vogt's voice is glorious, but he can convey Tannhauser's weariness, suffering and, at last, humility."0 Wolfram, der du also sangest, du hast die Liebe arg entstellt!"  and later "Hör an, Wolfram, hör an! Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büsser noch sie je gefühlt, sucht' ich den Weg nach Rom"  When Tannhauser sings like that, Wolfram is eclipsed.  Even in small, trelatively unobtrusive moments, Vogt excels: "Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich! "  The voice is luminous, Vogt;'s face glowing as if lit from within. . 

Christian Gerhaher is the Wolfram of choice these days, after his  astonishing breakthrough in the part seven years ago.  He's had his ups and down in recent years, so it was good to hear him back on form here: much better than in Vienna in 2015 though not quite as astounding as in London.  I've been listening to him since he was young and unknown, nearly fifteen years ago and have his first CD.  He's an opera fan's idea of a Lieder singer, better in opera than in art song, though it would be nice if he'd broaden his repertoire.  I'd like to hear Matthias Goerne as Wolfram in the alternative cast, with a darker, more mysterious timbre.  Anja Harteros we hear a lot of live, too.  So what if she doesn't do the Met ? The European market is huge, the population's coming up to 750 million.  Rich as her voice is, there's a sensitivity to her singing that suits houses like Munich and London (ROH capacity 2200). She's an unusual Elisabeth, but interesting. Elisabeth's a strong, independent-minded person who stands up to the bullies in her community.  Harteros's Elisabeth is no warrior. Her weapon is prayer. Hence the air of humility which Harteros brings to the part expand characterization, and makes the role even more sympathetic.  Georg Zeppenfeld, another much-loved regular, creates a forceful Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen.  Unlike Wolfram and the other Knights, The Landgraf is decisive: a Gurnemanz, a leader among conformists.  Elena Pankratova's Venus was full-throated and voluptuous. As always, minor parts and chorus at the Bayerische Staatsoper are wonderfully cast.

Kiril Petrenko conducted. The Overture and other orchestral passages were written to accommodate dancers, so a certain amount of rhythmic liveliness is in order, In many productions, the dancing is much more exuberant : Venus hosts orgies, and her sirens dance in order to seduce.  Petrenko's tempi were on the slow side, more langorous than orgasmic, but coolness works better with the "Abendstern" imagery, and the idea of the Moon. (Wagner would,of course, have been familiar with Goethe and his relationship with the Duchess of Weimar.)  The orchestral playing was well judged and rather elegant, again matching the marble and silk stylishness of the staging.  I would have liked more punch in the Pilgrimage music to emphasize themes of movement and physical travail.  Still, in music as good as this, there's plenty of room for interpretation.

Excellence from Munich is pretty much the norm. What's "news" is the staging,. It's controversial because it's not simplistic, and can be unsettling. Lots of stylized symbolism and abstraction, but also a lot of detail to reward careful observation.  Plinths with key words like "Kunst" spell things out to make things clear.  Amidst the sterile orderliness, a glass case with squirming, indistinct objects, like trapped life forms.   Rocks are seen, from which gold can be extracted - a metaphor for Tannhäuser's development as man and artist. The Minnesingers seen wrapped in white, like nuns and curtains like shrouds. This is by no means as strange as it seems, since they are a mystical order, vowed to purity and self denial.  To Wagner and to Tannhäuser, asceticism is living death, a rejection of creative growth.  The Minnesingers don't know what they're missing because they block out the world.  That's why they're so scared when Tannhäuser praises Venus.  Tannhäuser and Elisabeth sing to each other in front of tomb-like structures with the names "Klaus" and "Anja" carved thereon. An interesting if quirky way of reinforcing the idea that art is an act of creative imagination, made by living people. 

The director, Romeo Castellucci, is new to me. He seems to do a lot of theatre work, hence perhaps the formal, stylized abstraction of the designs, costumes and lighting.  Much more intriguing, though, is the thought that clearly went into the dramaturgy, by Piersandra Di Matteo and Malte Krasting. Opera is more than ear candy. Especially opera by Wagner, for whom ideas, drama and the human condition were inextricably linked.  These days the word "concept" is used as a swear word, but all it means is joined-up thinking, connecting different ideas, examining things from different perspectives. Di Matteo and Krasting understand how the music connects to ideas, and how this opera connects to Wagner's other work and even extra-musical concepts like classical antiquity. The staging is a lot closer to the libretto than meets the eye.  Tannhäuser is allegory, a fantasy, a work of art about art.  How else does a medieval German hook up with a Greek Goddess? And as Tannhäuser discovered, an artist needs to create to live, to keep learning and keep developing.  He chose the more difficult path to Rome. The Pope didn't understand, but too bad.  His loss, not Tannhäuser's.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Music Interflow - Hong Kong Music Series SJSS


Starting the Hong Kong Music Series in London, Music Interflow- a Dialogue of Two Cultures at St John's Smith Square. Presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council,  the series shows what Hong Kong has achieved, in a city with a thriving creative community.  This concert, organized by  Professor Lo King-man, demonstrated the varied influences which have gone into making Hong Kong a uniquely vibrant artistic force.  Hong Kong has a lot to be proud of! In Britain, people's ideas about Hong Kong are shaped by western media, so this Hong Kong Music Series is important. The two major highlights are yet to come - Beyond the Senses,Chinese chamber music as music theatre (Read preview HERE) and Datong : the Chinese Utopia, an opera that examines the modernization of China through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Yu-wei and his feminist daughter.  British audiences owe it to themselves to pay attention.

Professor Lo King-man (pictured in the middle above) has been one of the great figures in the Hong Kong arts scene for five decades.  He was Director of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts,  the equivalent of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School put together.  Under his leadership, the Academy introduced degree programmes, and specialist schools including one for Film and Television, a major industry in Hong Kong and source of the New Wave in modern Chinese cinema.  He also set up the Centre for Chinese Traditional Theatre Studies  In Hong Kong, music education is part of the school system, and standards are extremely high.   Thus the Academy for Performing Arts is built on strong foundations.  Now retired from the Academy, Professor Lo is Artistic Director of Musica Viva, an organization supporting performance.

Music Interflow began with six pieces by Hong Kong composers written for Chinese instruments. Tradition adapted for concert hall, capturing the sense of personal imagination that is so much a part of Chinese chamber music. Some pieces were for ensemble, some for soloists, Xu Lingzi's Guzheng particularly impressive. Clarence Mak's Meditation on Mount Jingling inspired a dizzying virtuoso display showing the potential traditional instruments can provide in terms of colour and expressiveness.  A strikingly original piece. Doming Lam is another great figure in Hong Kong music, his place in Hong Kong music represented by his Three Night Songs of Li Bai, an early work, where the piano line is western, but the vocal line is Chinese.  Read more about Doming Lam and Clarence Mak HERE.  Appositely, three Britten Songs, followed, arranged for two voices and piano. Britten was fascinated by non-western music while still in his thirties. Perhaps his awareness of norms beyond the western canon animated him as a composer: he represents a new. and highly individual thread in British Music.  Britten and Pears did spend time in Hong Kong but weren't able to experience Chinese music in the community it came from. Things didn't happen that way in 1956. Significantly, Doming Lam Three Night Songs of Li Bao dates from almost the same time, in 1957. Imagine the Music Interflow if society had been different.  Read my article Britten and Pears in Hong Kong. Also see Britten : The Prince of the Pagodas.

Equally eclectic was the second part of the programme. Six Miniatures of Yin and Yang (Meilina Tsui):  Western music but with a distinctive Chinese personality.  Yet more unusual perspectives: Holst's Venus and Jupiter, from the The Planets, transcribed for two pianos.  "Yin" and "Yang" in an entirely western context! Just as the concert had begun with Chinese chamber ensemble, it ended with western chamber ensemble with Frank Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet and Ottorino Respighi's Il tramonto, with a setting of Shelley's The Sunset in Italian.  Superb singing from Carol Lin (in sparkling gown in photo above). The piece is dramatic, like a miniature opera, where multiple moods are portrayed in the space of roughly 15 minutes. A tour de force. Lin floated the word "O" so it felt eternal, as it should, but even better was the elegant richness of her singing in the tender, lyrical passages that make this piece so moving.   

Performers featured : Mary Wu (piano), Nancy Loo (piano) Alexander Wong (piano), Xu Lingzi (guzheng), Carol Lin (mezzo), Colette Lam (soprano), Ho Siu-cheong (dizi), Chan Pik-sum (erhu), Zheng Yang (violin), Wei Ningyi (violin),  Chris Choi (viola) and Xu Ting (cello)

Composers featured: Tsui Wai-lam, Lui Man-shing, Chan Man-tat, Meilina Tsui, Doming Lam and Clarence Mak, Holst, Britten, Frank Bridge and Respighi

Please see my other pievces on Chinese music, Chinese movies, Chinese historyand on Hong Kong. This is one of the very few sites which covers Chinese culture and arts in English.  And I cover a lot on British music, especially Britten.

Friday, 7 July 2017

7/7/37 - a world event unmarked in the west

7th July 1937 - 80 years since the  start of the Japanese invasion of China.  The "Marco Polo Bridge Incident or 七七事變 is a hugely important anniversary, prelude to the massacre of Nanjing, the conquest of Shanghai and the war in the Pacific.  Luguo Bridge (as it's known in Chinese) was strategic because it's so close to Beijing, the symbol capital, though the seat of government had been moved to Nanjing by the Nationalists just ten years before.  Manchuria  was invaded in 1931, but 7/7/37 was an attack on the core of the nation.  Chinese from all regions took part in the resistance in the North. Eventually, the war moved South, too, precipitating one of the largest mass population upheavals in world history. No-one in China remained unaffected.  Effectively 7/7/37 marked the start of a cataclysm that's engulfed China for decades, its repercussions still being faced today. Mao and the Communist Party, for starters. To understand the present, it is absolutely essential to understand the past, and from the perspective of those who experienced it.  Nowadays it's fashionable to think in simplistic terms. There are some who'd even deny the impact of the Opium Wars. Imagine the situation reversed.  But the present doesn't exist in a vacuum. Identity is reshaped, distorted and revised, but the broader the perspective, the less likelihood of getting boxed into corners. Polarization is the enemy of truth.  Thus the more we learn, the better we can interpret.




Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent, Paris F X Roth



Camille Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent from l'Opéra-Comique, Paris, a joint production with the Palazetto Bru-Zane. A performance so vibrant and vivid that it should bring Saint-Saëns's operas back into the mainstream.  Saint-Saëns was just  30 when he completed it, quite an achievement for a young composer who had hitherto written a few works for chamber ensemble.  Le timbre d'argent (The silver bell) is an ambitious piece, in the extravagant tradition of Grand Opéra   It has all the elements of French operatic style - a spectacular plot enlivened by fantasy and the supernatural, showpieces for singers and chorus, lively interludes for dance and unusually imaginative orchestration. Heard here in the 1913 full  edition prepared by the composer, the opera straddles 19th and 20th century French music theatre.  The plot is based on Faust, and clearly inspired by Berlioz and Gounod with whom Saint-Saëns  was connected.  The stylish vivacity in the orchestration is wonderfully realized by the Orchestre Les Siècles  conducted by François-Xavier Roth, The choir is Accentus, no less, and soloists include Edgaras Montvidas and  Hélène Guillmette.

It's Christmas and the choir are singing jolly songs  "Noël ! Noël !"  Hélène (Hélène Guillmette) and her maid Rosa (Jodie Devos) are singing, too.  But Conrad (Edgaras Montvidas) moans about his miseries. Perhaps it's a wry joke on the composer's part to set the part for a tenor with a heroic timbre who can't really be as sick as he thinks he is.  A chill sets in, the violins trembling, chords breaking off in fear. Again we hear the merry choir "Tra la la" but the dance turns to death march.  Spooky winds, swirling figures but Conrad keeps singing"I am cursed!  Worse is yet to come.  The strings buzz madly then diminish.  An alphorn (?) calls and angels sing in the choir.  An apparition appears out of the brume. "Flee, flee, J'ai peur " sings Conrad. Is it Conrad's doctor Spiridion (Tassis Christoyannis)?  Or Mefistofele?  Conrad's fevered mind can't tell. Spiridion gives Conrad a magic bell to soothe his spirit.  Thus, the pure clean ring of a silver bell. and a scream.  ,Dums roll, violins spin dizzying patterns., the brass calls, the choir sings alarm.

A long orchestral interlude represents Conrad's journey through space and time   He is fixated on the vision of a dancer, who symbolizes, the epitome of beauty.  The dancer dances, but doesnt sing. In an opera full of singing, that's a telling note.  The music zings, but with an unnatural glow,  angular, crazy rhythms, hurtling forward, brass and strings pumping along. Spiridion's lines are long and curving, like a serpent. He's tempting Conrad, an innocent in Eden.  The musical,writing is almost cinematic. A wailing solo violin suggests a village musician. Or the Devil, who has the best tunes. Thus Hélène's showpiece aria.  "Le bonheur est chose légère", is haunted.   But the harps, strings and choir suggest  that all is not yet lost.  There are comic moments, like an aria for baritone (Spiridion) mocking marriage, deliciously vulgar, almost music hall.  Another wonderful orchestral entr'acte, whizzing strings  punctuated by ebullient percussion. The choir sings a raucuous song: the punctuations suggest glasses being raised, or high-kicking dance.   The libretto includes references to dancers playing roles in the action, but I only know the audio.  The mood changes to horror. "Maudit, maudit" sings Conrad, as he realizes the price that must be paid fir his quick-fix cure. Some innocent soul dies when he profits.

More musical, adventures in the Third Act, portrayed through orchestration: suggestions of folk song, almost, like bagpipes. The choir sings a jolly chorus "Bonjour! Bonjour!".  But Conrad's song , though lyrical , is pensive.  He's thinking of  Hélène.  She joins him in a duet, their voices fluttering around each other like the butterflies in the text.

Several more opportunities for dancing.  Exotic "oriental" music, vaguely Arabic, before the orchestra explodes in a climax that might be a storm. From the tumult whizzing figures arise from the strings, flying figures perhaps suggesting winds of change.  Music as scenic as this stimulates the imagination, its pictorialism exists in the mind, not in reality.  A fanfare of brass announces another chorius "Tra-lala", so vigorous that you're drawn in.  Again, the music is punctuated by fierce outburts, "Un, deux, trois, quartre" , sings Conrad, while the orchestra beats time behind him. More ominous percussion, but the mood is broken by the voice of Hélène, singing a melody so pure and lovely that her voice suggests what the true timbre d'argent might be: not Spiridion's silver object, but Hélène herself.  Spiridion resurfaces.  Hi song, though sinister, is oddly moving.

Another orchestral interlude, marked by melancholy violin.  Conrad's torn between Spiridion and  Hélène. The bell rings in the orchestra, tolling like a church bell.  The orchestra joins in with fulsome melody. Hélène calls.  Conrad responds.  Thunder strikes, but from the tempest in the orchestra we hear the sound of harps, and the solo violin again, its melody now firm and clear. The line rises upwards then descends, and the orchestra sings a gentle song, not quite a lullaby.  The female voices in the choir sing of love.  has the crisis passed? In the distance the choir sings a hymn.  Possibly, it's still Christmas.  "Mon coeur!" Conrad cries.  The bell theme returns, quietly.  Conrad and Hélène unite at last, in duet, surrounded, haloed by the orchestra. The choir sings "Alleluja!"  With a final. affirmative crash, the opera ends.  Conrad's saved, by love.  Listen to the broadcast here. 

François-Xavier Roth, has a thing for Saint-Saëns. He's conducting Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No 5 in F major, 'Egyptian' at the Proms on 16th August, together with the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns. Samson et Dalila. which Philippe Jordan conducted at the Opéra National de Paris last year (Read more here).  The Palazetto Bru-Zane, which organized this production of this  Le timbre d'argent, also presented Saint-Saëns Prosérpine last year with Véronique Gens, conducted by Ulf Schirmer.


Monday, 3 July 2017

Lieder on a battlefield - Schubert Körner Schlegel Wigmore Hall


Liederabend on the battlefield! Not Schubert at the piano, but Theodor Körner, poet and freedom fighter.  On the night of 26th August 1813, Körner played the piano and sang for his comrades into the early hours. The next day, astride his horse, and dressed in black Lützower Freikorps uniform, he was shot, and died, aged only 21.  The Lützower volunteers fought a heroic resistance against the forces of Napoleon. Many of them were intellectuals, but as soldiers they lived rough, often camped in dense forests, living amid nature, sometimes aided by peasants. All the elements of the Romantic spirit ! Romanticism and the very idea of German identity was thus forged through steel.  Literally Schwertlied, (the song of the sword) the patriotic poem Körner wrote for that final Liederabend depicted above. "Hurra, du Eisenbraut! Hurra!"   Körner's mystique was that, even in battle, he was an artist, and had a death wish, another Romantic meme.  One can imagine the impression Körner made on Schubert, a geeky kid from a poor background.

Thus the background to this recital in the Wigmore Hall's Complete Schubert Songs series. Here Schubert's settings of Körner were presented with settings of Friedrich von Matthisson, Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August.  The Körner songs chosen, however, were more light hearted than heroic.  Sängers Morgenlied I  D163 and II D165 follow the same text, the first setting somewhat tentative, the second more developed.  These were written within the same few months in 1815, when Schubert also wrote Liebesrausch I D164, and II D179, the first a fragment, the second with palpitating figures in the piano part, suggesting the fervent heart in the text.  Also from this period but more individual were Liebeständelei D 206 and Das gestörte Glück D309, two songs of coy flirtation.  When Markus Schäfer, the singer at this Wigmore Hall concert, recorded these songs with Ulrich Eisenlohr some years ago, his voice was light and agile. It's still charming, though he has to push the lines a little more.

Schubert's settings of Friedrich von Mathisson are more varied.  Entzükung D413 (1816) and Stimme der Liebe D418 (1816) are somewhat impersonal declarations of love, one lit by bright sunlight, the other by sunset. The rhyming couplets in Liebenslied D508 (1816) don't inspire Schubert to great  heights. Interestingly, Mahler, drawing his text from folklore, wrote a rather livelier Scheiden und meiden.  Skolie D507 (1816), however, is a drinking song. For a moment we were back to the youthful vigour of Körner and Burschenschaft societies. Vollendung D579a and Die Erde D579b were discovered in the 1960's. D number apart they bear no resemblance to the well-known Der Knabe in der Weige D579.

Friedrich Schlegel as a young man
Just as Schubert was inspired by  the ideaism of Theodor Körner, he was inspired by the idealism of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), another, though older, contemporary.  Schlegel's cycle of poems, Abendröte"Alles scheuint dem Dichter redend, denn er hat den Sinn gefunden, und das Allein einzig Chor manches Lied aus einem Munde".  The Gods of classical antiquity fade and Nature itself takes precedence.  The poems are vignettes : mountains, rivers, bushes, stars, a small boy and a butterfly, described in naturalistic terms.  Schubert wrote the songs in random order, from 1819 to 1823, the most prominent,  Die Abendröte.D690, last of all, though it forms the first part of the group on Schubert's manuscript. Its undulating piano lines suggesting the downward movement of the sun and the awakening of sensuality. "Berge, himmelan geschwungen" in every sense.  

Whatever Schubert's intentions may have been, the group of 7 of the 11 settings when performed together in this order has a certain logic. In Die Berge D614 (1819), the vocal line rises upwards, "Sieht uns der Blick gehoben", the middle section of the last word suddenly rising to a peak.  The piano part is confident, almost swaggering and upbeat.  In the middle strophe the pace quickens, strong single chords for emphasis.  With Der Knabe D692 (1820), we're down to earth once more, the high tessitura suggesting youth and fragility.  Der Fluß D693 (1820), is one of Schubert's most famous songs, its sensuous curving line flowing like a river. The vocal part soars and dips : there are parallels between this song and Schubert's last great masterpiece Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (D965) (read more here).  Perhaps the protagonist is a young shepherd looking down from a mountain to the river below. creating a nice connection with the other songs in this group.  With Der Schmetterling D633 (1819) we return to brisk, sunlight physicality, the piano part suggesting flapping wings. Die Sterne D684 (1820) recaps the mood of nocturnal repose in  Der Fluß  while the text of Die Gebüsche D646 (1819) reiterates the mood of the first song, Abendröte.: "Durch alle Töne tönet im bunten Erdentraume.ein leiser Ton gezogen Für den, der heimlich lauschet". 

August von Schlegel
Augmenting the settings of Friedrich von Schlegel, four settings of poems by his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) less successful in a material sense, but also influential, and cosmopolitan.  Lob der Tränen D711 1818, Die gefangenen Sänger D712 (1821), Wiedersehn D855 (1825) and Abdendlied für die Entferne D856 (1825) plus one of Schlegel's translations of Shakespeare, Ständchen D889 (1826) "Horch, horch, die Lerch!"   Ace programme planning!  Markus Schäfer with pianist Piers Lane gave an earnest performance, but the choice of songs was so erudite that it was well worth enduring the horrendous traffic jams in central London before and after the show.  Hyde Park was mayhem, roads blocked for 50,000 fans and Justin Bieber.  Meanwhile, at the Wigmore Hall, our minds were focussed on philosophic ideals.


This review also appears in Opera Today 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Schreker Die Gezeichneten - Metzmacher Warlikowski


Franz Schreker Die Gezeichneten from the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, easily the most rewarding full performance ever. Metzmacher gets Schreker – revealing his modernity and originality.   There are many kinds of "modern". The idea that 20th-century music can only be atonal/tonal, or dissonant /romantic, is nonsense, a notion compounded by audiences who don't actually listen, but think through preconception. Schreker was a highly original composer, very much a man attuned to the creative ferment of his time, fuelled as it was by new ideas and social change.  Die Gezeichneten flows from the same Zeitgeist that produced Freud, Expressionism, modern art and literature.  In the libretto, Schreker makes a wry dig at Puccini and Strauss, meaning, I think, Johann rather than Richard, for Die Gezeichneten has a lot in common with Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Both operas, written at the same time and premiered within a year of each other, explore the nature of creative art through a lens of morbid psychology, which is a theme which runs through much of Schreker's work.  Directed by Kryzsztof Warlikowski, this production is musically sensitive and well informed, and also connects the opera to other currents in art and society in its time. This Die Gezeichneten goes a long way to restoring Schreker's true status in cultural history.

Metzmacher conducts the Vorspiel so the surging pulse heaves, as if propelled by ocean tides.  Salvago's Elysium is an island, as isolated as the man himself, surrounded by currents beyond his control.  The moon controls tides. The image of the moon appears in the libretto, intensified by musical figures that describe darkness and flickering light.  To the Greeks, the moon symbolized Athena, the goddess of art.  For Goethe, the moon symbolized chastity, inspired by his patroness, the Duchess of Weimar.  As the Vorspeil proceeds,  we see Salvago (John Daszak) , his head covered by a bag, looking towards an orb of white light that dominates the darkened stage.  Later, when Carlotta (Catherine Nagelstad) is seduced, the orb turns red (as described in the text).

Complex dichotomies operate throughout this opera, reflecting conflicts that can never be reconciled.  Ugliness and beauty, creativity and destruction, purity and corruption: thus the churning tensions in the music.  Metzmacher isn't afraid to emphasize the contrast between lush orchestration and the savage undercurrents.  Luxury is deception. Like the grotto, beauty is delusion.  Women are violated. Lust is joyless, motivated by power, money, and something even more sinister. Carlotta succumbs, as graphically described in the text and music. Wisely, Warlikowski doesn't depict the scene, concentrating on Tamare's braggadocio and the music around it. Salvago isn't as upset by the idea of Carlotta being raped as by the realization that she might have had a part in proceedings.  We see her dressed in white, her dress back to front.  The ensemble that follows isn't a trio, because all three characters are singing at cross-purposes.  No dissonance but no harmony, either.  Wonderfully astute writing on Schreker's part and well executed in performance.

Salvago creates Elysium to please his friends, as if by creating art he can compensate for his physical ugliness. How far is he culpable when his friends misuse his grotto for evil?  Carlotta falls in love with him partly because she can see good in him, but also because she sees the potential for artistic creation of her own.  In some ways, the second act is the heart of the whole opera. Carlotta's friend paints only hands, but the hands she paints are so expressive that they can portray whole stories. Art is invention, but can reveal deeper truths.  Thus Carlotta, an artist, sees  more  in Salvago than meets the eye.  Thus scene is brilliantly depicted, with imagination and sensitivity.  A second stage appears behind the singers. At first we see what appears to be a dragonfly, which turns out to be a young girl. She has the head of a mouse.  Her family are around her, too, sometimes interacting. Humans with mouse heads. We are in Die Frau ohne Schatten territory, or rather the world of surreal symbolism that fascinated a generation familiar with Classical antiquity, discovering psychology and Jungian archetypes. Clips of silent movies appear  behind the action. Scenes from Der Golem, and Frankenstein, where a "monster" shows tenderness to a little girl, then scenes from The Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu where the "monster" isn't benign.  Thus Warlikowski makes connections between Die Gezeichneten and other Schreker operas, with other cultural memes which confront sexuality and fear.
 
Warlikowski doesn't need to show Carlotta with paintbrush and easel.  Her painting exists in her soul.  Does she love her creation more than reality?  Why does he pull back, paralyzed with inhibition, when his wildest dreams come true as she declares her love ? Why does she, too, pull back on the eve of their wedding ? Does she intuit that their relationship will be sterile due to his inhibitions ? Does she respond to Tamaro because he's sexual, or because he has the courage Salvago lacks?  Christopher Maltman, as Tamaro, is a hunk. Salvago lives in his head, while Tamaro lives in his body. He doesn't like mirrors because they make him face himself.  But can he escape? Warlikowski's staging (sets by Malgorzala Szczesniak) hints as what is not said.  Mirrors, often distorted, appear now and again, sometimes as physical mirrors, sometimes as subsidiary characters like Mattuccia (Heike Grotzinger) and Pietro (Dean Power), usually roles so small they don't get attention, but which exist for a reason. Salvago isn't the only person trapped in games in the guise of service to others.  A wonderful touch - Metzmacher himself is glimpsed on stage from time to time, reflected in the mirrors.
 
In this production, Salvago's spoken monologue is included, which makes a difference  since it shows how he reflects on his own condition though he can't break out of it.  Though he  didn't rape women, he is morally culpable by making the violence possible,. Extremely moving, especially since Daszak delivered it with great dignity.

Schreker writes an angelus into the music before the party.  Angels appear on stage, but angels dressed in nude suits.  They (male and female) are supposed to resemble showgirls but they dance so deftly en pointe that they're clearly ballet dancers with great technique.  The wedding guests are prissy: they don't like nakedness but sex is all around.  Later a voluptuous stripper bumps and grinds beside Salvago, who doesn't notice.  Either he's too uptight or he can't see the beauty beneath her poundage.  Eventually, like so many others before her in this production, she ends up inert, in a display case, unused.

At the end, Tamare sings about a village fiddler gone mad because  the girl he loved found another man. This is a reference to a medieval legend, which pops up often in German literature and song.  Salvago asks for his cap and bells. Has he gone mad, or are he and Tamare re-enacting an old saga ?? There are so many levels in Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, skilfully blended together,  Warlikowski's silent movie clips and business suits extend what is already in the opera, though  few productions come as close to its true spirit.  Altogether, the finest Die Gezeichneten that I can imagine, full of detail and sensitive to music and meaning.  Bayerische Staatsoper productions don't usually make it to DVD, but the audio recording to get is  the one on right HERE. Lothar Zagrosek, DSO Berlin from the Decca Entartete Musik series, which is the benchmark reference. Outstanding, and even Matthias Goerne (aged 26) in a minor role.

Please see my other articles on Schreker, Braunfels and others (including Strauss), and on silent film and Weimar.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Anders Nelsson loves Hong Kong

Anders Nelsson is a shining example of what people can do when they genuinely integrate with the community around them. Inequality exists in all societies, all round the world., it's no one's "fault", it's just the way things are.  In some situations inequality can be exacerbated by other factors.  The man in the video below is singing in Cantonese. His accent's so good you might think he's dubbed.  But it's Anders himself.  He's fluent because he integrated so completely into the community that he bridged the divides in society around him.  When he was young, he was a pop star, who we adored.  Now, he's loved even more deeply because of what he's done with his life since.  It possibly helped that his parents were missionaries, who took Christian values seriously. They were also poor, and lived among the community they served, as equals. They weren't part of the power structure.  It's all too easy to be an Eternal Tourist, enjoying the benefits of a place but not really connecting on equal terms. Anders is proof that things can change.