Thursday, 21 June 2018

Seven Little Fooks

Seven Little Fooks (七小福)  a reference to folklore tales about seven kids who bring good luck.  In this case, a group of boys being trained in Beijing opera.  But they are refugee kids in a community of exiles : in the south, their northern origins don't mean much. Gradually they grow up and find work in Hong Kong kung fu movies. This is a film about their teacher, Master Yu Zhangzong, struggling to maintain his art in a world that doesn't care.  An exquistely filmed movie, sensitive to changing social nuances. Essential viewing, even for those who know only kung fu, since Chinese opera is the root from which martial arts grew. To understand kung fu, and Chinese culture itself, you need to know the world of Chinese opera. But this is also a very personal story, based on real people and real memories.  Clue : the eldest boy is nicknamed "Three Hairs". Translate that as Sammo and realize it's Sammo Hung who still carries his nickname though he's famous today. And who is "Big Nose" ? The now ubiquitous Jackie Chan, a bigger star than many in Hollywood.  In the movie Master Yu is played by the adult Sammo Hung,  who has won many awards, but must treasure this, since he's portraying the man who shaped him.  So Seven Little Fooks, (directed in 1988 by Alex Law Kai chui) is about real people, caught up in an era of unprecedented change. Evocative music by Lowell Lo Koon-ting.

It's December 1st,1962, when much of Hong Kong was stilll pre-war tenement, houses built on terraces, where people share communal spaces, like the neighbour, a tailor, who works in the yard and can't stand the sound of the kids singing.  A new boy arrives.  "Can I do cartwheels all day and not study?" he asks. "Then I'll sign for ten years!", he squeaks. His mother's crying,  but it's best for him, though the contract she seals with her thumb print (she's illiterate) is severe. If kids die in training, no questions asked.  That was the traditional way.  Notice the kid's name is Chan Kong-sang, which means Chan "Born in Hong Kong", marking his parents brief respite after 20 years of struggle in war-torn China.  He's now Jackie Chan.  And so the kids learn tthe basics of Beijing opera, as much physical fitness and gymnastics as opera in the western sense. That's why they neeed to start young to be flexible.  The school is very old style. The kids live communal and have shaved heads like kids in the North used to do. The local kids mock them, singing a rude song which the subtitles don't translate ("baldies, baldies, butter up your butts"). The kids give a performance but Big Nose fell asleep. The audience walks out "They've gone home to the radio" scolds Master Yu - the radio and big theatres being where top quality operas were done : small troupes can't compete.  So they get beaten with canes.  Mrs Chan comes to bathe the kids - no plumbing - and knows he's been beaten. But he says "Don't cry". Opera school is tough but the kids think they're freer than the ones in regular school, chanting by rote.   When Master Yu goes out the boys march into town to collect charity rice. On their way back they clash with the fancy kids and there's a brawl.   The taunt "Four eye'd boys, blind as turtles!" (meaning kids with glasses). Ponder that detail, it's important.  Wandering far from home, they need to get back by bus, but haven't any money so they con the driver and later escape without paying.  Watch them use their opera athletics to escape from the top deck !

Meanwhile Master Yu and his friend Uncle Wah chat in a teahouse. They trained together as boys themselves, in Beijing. "Rain or snow, we'd get up early and train". For what ?  Few make it big in opera. Wah works as a stuntman and stand-in for stars.  Bruises and broken ribs "Thirty years of good luck, thirty years of bad" quotes master Yu. "And then you're dead" says Uncle Wah. To cheer him, Master Wu starts singing, in the middle of the tea house, and Uncle Wah  gets his dream, to sing again, for a public.  When Master Yu gets home, the Cantonese tailor confronts him because  the opera boys punched his kid.  Master Yu holds his ground and defends his kids. Tailor and Opera master swap insults : scholars are too weak to work, too proud to beg : actors are prostitutes.  Another witty retort not in the subtiles "Chicken piss!". But when the Lunar New Year comes, they all celebrate together. 

Gradually the boys grow up, doing shows in proper cinemas. They also discover girls. Big Nose tries to impress by rotating a pot on his head, but modern girls are more interested in guitar bands.  One day, the leader of a Cantonese female troupe asks for help, since Beijing boys are much better at gymnastics. Master Yu doesn't have modern social skills either. He wants to buy the female troupe leader a "western" birthday cake, but none of the traditional bakers do that. He has to travel all round town until he finds one. Alas, the inscription says "Happy 70th, Grandad!. So Master Yu can't read!  It's extremely bad luck, since the Grandad it was baked for died that morning..... Master Yu isn't the only one  not up with the times. The Tailor can't understand modern fashion. His son "borrows" for Big Nose  the fancy togs his Dad's made for western customers and the two go out together. But the girl prefers the nerdy tailor's son who can "sing Beatles" as the girl's kid brother says. "You Beijing opera types no-one wants". Big Nose goes back, dejected but he's missed a show. Sammo substituted for him, but Master Yu beats him for covering up Big Nose's disobedience and kicks him out of the troupe. Sinc it's been his life, he has nowhere to go.

But business isn't going well and the troupe is dissolved.  Sammo reappears crestfallen and is  welcomed by Uncle Wah.  Master Yu goes to Uncle Wah's movie studio to get work for the boys.  He's forced to cut up a group photo so their heads can go on the register. Uncle Wah, who has been working as a stuntman for years, is getting old and has too many accidents.  He blows his last chance and suddenly goes insane, climbing up into the roof space in the studio, mad with grief, re-enacting opera scenes. An amazing scene. Master Yu climbs up and starts to sing an aria from The Emperor and the Concubine, where the Emperor has lost his,kingdom, but his concubine remains loyal.   For a moment, Master Yu and Uncle Wah are back to be stars again, singing together. Uncvle Wah thinks he's an opera star again. then he's taken away in an ambulance.

Master Yu calls his boys together. He's spent 40 years in opera. Success or not, he's given it full committment.   The school is closed, the house is being demolished and the boys are starting out onn their own paths. so now he'll retire, abroad. He releases the tortoise he's kept for seven years to hold up his bed, feeding and watering it . Its back is strong and it it still knows how to walk.   Master Yu boards the ship, that's taking him away, forever.  "You persevered 40 years and so will we" says Big Nose. "Sammo look after them !" the master's last command.  When they're gone he looks at the gift they've left. A white paper fan with what look like scribbles. But when the folds are aligned the squiggles spell out 七小福, Seven Siu Fooks.  Below a photo of Master Yu who lived to a grand old age and his boys, now grown men.

PLenty moire on this site about Chinese movies, Chinese oopera and music, especially Cantonese. THis ius the only site in Englishwhich does these subjects from a wider social perspective.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Haunted Arabia - W Denis Browne

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915),  as a schoolboy at Greyfriars, Leamington Spa.  This photo might sum him up better than the usual photos of him in uniform, for his last music was written in June 1914. Almost exactly a year later, he would be killed at Gallipolli.  In this photo his youthful spirit  is captured forever, gazing wistfully but unafraid.  Browne went on to Cambridge and later studied with Busoni. He heard Stravinsky, and was impressed enough by The Rite of Spring and Petrushka to embark on his own ballet, never completed.  Today he's best known for a handful of songs, particularly To Gratiana, Dancing and Singing to a poem by Richard Lovelace (1617-1657).  Though that song is well represented on recordings,  most of the other songs are less well served.  I wish there were better versions on record of Arabia, for example, Browne's last completed song, which I've heard live in much better performance.

Arabia is an adventurous piece which seems to reach out, exploring new musical territory.  The poem, by Walter de la Mere, describes "the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon, 'mid the verduous vales and thickets under the ghost of the moon". The piano part moves with mysterious deliberation, firm single chords separated by silence, allowing the voice to ring out. The idea  might be to suggest a voice reaching over vast expanses. Not expanses of desert, though, but a "vaulted purple" where "flowers in the forest rise and toss into blossom against the phantom skies".  Warm breezes seem to propel the second verse, "Sweet is the music of Arabia" each line infused by gentle, swaying rhythms.  The vocal line rises high, and the piano part changes, suggesting the plucking of "strange lutes" that "ring loud with delight.......in the brooding silence of the night". Despite the beautiful sounds around him, the poet is haunted by someone, something others cannot see. "Stll eyes look coldly upon me, cold voices whisper and say "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his wits away". Not a romantic reverie ! Thus the jumbled images of moon and noon, of feverish, unhealthy imagination.  Ideal territory for the kind of English tenor who can express archness and horror behind luminous limpidity. Not straightforward at all. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Hommage à Gounod 200th birthday


Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Gounod celebrated in Paris last night by Palazzetto Bru Zane. Look HERE at the programme ! and watch it again HERE on arte.tv.  Excerpts from many of his operas, and Olivier Latry performing an improvisation for organ.  Gounod's reputation has expanded greatly : so much more to him than Faust (which is pretty brilliant).  PLEASE READ THIS IMPORTANT PIECE FROM PALAZETTO BRU ZANE who have done so much to expand knowledge of the composer and his repertoire.  Please see also HERE my review of the most recent Gounod rarity, his last oratorio Saint François d'Assise.  A new recording of Gounod's mélodies is being released soon, which I'll write about shortly

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Magical Ravel Ma mère l'Oye. Le Tombeau de Couperin - FX Roth Les Siècles

François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles Ravel Ma mère l'Oye, coupled with Le Tombeau de Couperin with Shéhérazade between them, latest in Les Siècles's Ravel series for Harmonia Mundi which began with their Daphnis et Chloé, so exquisitely beautiful that it remains by my desk for frequent listening.  This new disc focuses on two main works initially published for piano, but conceived with potential for orchestra. "To orchestrate, for Ravel" said Emile Vuillermoz, was to "exploit the colour of the istruments , to atch their timbres, to vary and nuance them down to the slightest detail, without ever losing sight of the overall balance". Ideal for Roth and Les Siècles whose forte is clarity and exqusite clarity, clean jewel-like sparkle enlivened by a feel for the passionate imagination that inspired the composer.  Ma mère l'Oye may have been written for children, but its magic is so strong that adults. too, can be drawn under its spell. With Roth and Les Siècles you don't get "kid stuff".  Indeed, the more sophisticated the players, and the more sensitive the listener, the stronger the sense of enchantment.

This performance of the full 1912 ballet version of  Ma mère l'Oye is almost too exquisite to be earthbound,  though it bristles with energy.  The first notes of the Prelude suggest the pipes of Pan, the switrl of flutes, the movement of some mysterious creature. Winds blow, and dizzying strings - spinning wheels - hypnotize us into reverie so we can dream, like the Beauty, sleep in the forest. More shivers and shimmerings, as the Beauty awakes to meet the Beast. the woodwinds sing,  and the lower strings growl : suggesting the Beast whose form is brutish but his soul refined.  In this mysterious realm (tender strings) lives too Le petit Poucet who is small and frail (birdlike woodwinds) but outsmarts the Ogre.  Magical harps, tremulous woodwinds evoke the even more exotic kingdom of Laideronette. Percussion in "oriental" patterns, as angular as the shape of pagodas, building up to elegant, though wistful melody.  Laideronette and her serpent friend are under a spell.  Roth and Les Siècles alternate slow and more agitated passages enhancing the flow. The Apothéose, in the jardin féerique is delicate, yet magnificent.

Thus to Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1898). Although this was to have been part of an opera,  Roth and Les Siècles bring out the tightness of its structure, demonstrating the strength of its design, as purposeful as a ballet. Though Stravinsky would not have known it (it remained unpublished until 1975),  this performance is so well-defined that the piece feels like a prototype for something Diaghilev might have considered for the Ballets Russe.

Roth values the importance of structure in French repertoire, evolving as it did from the baroque, where elaborations are built upon firm, disciplined foundations influenced by dance and formal patterns.  Thus Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, in his four movement orchestration, premiered in 1920. Thus the piece is as much an hommage to French style as a a series of memorials to Ravel's friends who died in the 1914-1918 war.  A vivacious Prélude, with the oboe as lithe and athletic as a creature of the forest (an unexpected link to Ma mère l'Oye). The dance origins of the Forlane are even more evident , a forlane being a folk dance form from Italy which Couperin adapted.  Hence the sprightliness, every "step" in the music sharply articulated and vibrant.  The Minuet is more formal but equally well  presented.  This is what period inspired performance means, not instruments per se but an understanding of repertoire itself.  The Rigaudon here is particularly impressive, combining elegance with boisterousness, and a tinge of sadness. Oboe and strings interact, two voices entwining like partners in a dance, or the two brothers Ravel knew, who went cheerfully to war and were promptly killed, by the same shell.  

Buddha behind Barbed Wire


Monday, 11 June 2018

Outstanding Parsifal-aware Lohengrin Royal Opera House

Klaus Florian Vogt and Thomas J Mayer, copyright Tristram Kenton, Royal Opera House
Wagner Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House.With some of the finest Lohengrin, most experienced specialists in the business - Klaus Florian Vogt,  Andris Nelsons and Georg Zeppenfeld - this was guaranteed to be an overwhelming musical experience.   Outstanding richness and depth in the orchestra,  with the scene on the Scheldt materializing in the music with such dramatic power  that anyone, even the most anti-war, could believe, for a moment in what was later to be called the "First Reich".   Horns and trumpets blazed from all round the Royal Opera House building, most appropriately from the Royal Box itself, bringing a vast, invisible army into the semi-civilized confines of an opera house. "Für deutsches Land das deutsche Schwert! So sei des Reiches Kraft bewährt!". 

Brabant is in turmoil, but only part of a wider struggle of cosmic proportions.  Heinrich der Vogler might have been a real person but Lohengrin is opera, not history.  For Wagner, Lohengrin isn't "just" a war story but the continuation (in advance, given that Lohengrin came before Parsifal) of a struggle between pseudo-Christianity and demonic forces.  If Lohengrin descends (somehow) from Parsifal, then Ortrud and Telramund connect to Klingsor and Kundry, their sexes reversed.  Hence the paranoia that underlies this opera and its strange, mystical resolution. And in times of extremist hysteria, the individual is suppressed. Elsa needs a super-hero, but when she gets one, he turns out not to be quite the man of her dreams.  The people of Brabant are conformists, easily swayed. Not so different from the modern world.  So it's nonsense to call David Alden's production "updating" or even semi-Third Reich. Grandiose manias, grandiose buildings and monotone masses have gone together since the dawn of history.

Thus the Prelude, conducted by Andris Nelsons with sublime purity, so the sounds seemed to shimmer with ethereal light. If Nelsons can do richness, he's even better at creating subtle atmosphere. Gradually, the mists give way to light, and the drama can begin. The King listens to Telramund's accusations and Elsa's strangely inert defence. But  lo ! Alden's staging (sets Paul Steinberg, video Tal Rosner, lighting Adam Silverman) creates the entry of the Saviour (for that is what Lohengrin is).  Huge, dark ripples projected over the stage suggested the movement of waves, concentric circles stretching outward, with flashes showing the wings of a large flying bird.   In this opera, it is not the swan boat per se that counts, but the imagery of water, and the theological connotations thereof. Again, think Parsifal.  The pettiness and intrigure of Court wiped clean away by the appearnce of the champion.

Significantly, Lohengrin is first seen with his back to the audience, his voice projecting to the back of the stage, intensifying the sense of mystery.  This is an interpretive insight, for Lohengrin isn't here "for" Elsa but for an unknown higher purpose.  Veiling Klaus Florian Vogt's magnificent voice in this way also serves to stress the character's innate humility. Unlike kings and intriguers, Lohengrin is above petty power games.  When Vogt turned round, his voice grew with the strength that comes from absolute confidence. "Ein Wunder ! Ein Wunder!" indeed.  Vogt has done Lohengrin so many times over the last 20 years (including with Nelsons)  that his voice should be familiar to all, but yet again, I was astonished by its flexibility and beauty.  Almost superhuman purity, so natural and unforced that it seems to come from within., not merely from technique. This is true artistry. Vogt is a Lohengrin for the ages: How blessed we are to hear him. 

Lohengrin spares Telramund, who confronts Ortrud, who set him up in the first place. The relationship between Ortrud and Telramund suggests the relationship between Klingsor and Kundry, this time the dominant partner female rather than male (though Klingsor isn't male any more). Ortrud is the last of the ancient house of Radbod, Telramund drawn to her by his greed for power, though he blames her when he fails. They  are important characters, not quite as secondary as they might seem, so deserve the attention they are given in this production.  Thomas J Mayer is a good Telramund, and  Christine Goerke is a magnificent Elektra amongst many others: particularly good in roles where the character is strong and proactive, if misunderstood.  Ortrud is forced by fate into dangerous measures.  We're not supposed to like Ortrud but Goerke develops the part so we can sense the woman behind the monster, sensuality behind piercing steel, her voice her sword.  Elsa always takes centre stage, but Ortrud is a far more complex personality, and needs singers like Goerke who can express the depths in the otherwise thankless part.  To some extent, sexuality is involved, as so often in Wagner.  Telramund had wanted to marry Elsa, but married Ortrud instead, and sex is very much part of their alliance.  But more pointedly, why does Lohengrin, a pure knight, want to marry ? The big bed, the wedding songs etc hint at the procreative purpose of marriage. Maybe it's convenient that Elsa asks the forbidden question  and needs to know who he really is. Like his father, Lohengrin doesn't follow through but returns to his higher mission.  Gottfried, the true heir of Brabant, will arise again at the end of the opera, resurrected from the non-dead without much explanation.

The entry into the bridal chamber was introduced with such vitality by Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra that the staging, for once, did intrude. With music as gloriously performed as this, there was no need to distract by having actors run in between the seats. In the orchestra stalls, where we were seated, it was annoying and would probably have been missed by anyone further above.  Jennifer Davis sang Elsa at short notice in place of Christina Opolais (who's getting divorced from Nelsons). In the Second Act, she showed her mettle, singing with more volume and colour than she had in the First Act. While she doesn't have the depth of, say, Annette Dasch or Anna Netrebko, two fairly recent Elsas with robust personalities, she's still young and will develop over time.  In this Third Act, in the bridal gown, Davis's good looks expressed the part impressively.  Vogt looked genuinely protective, the luminosity of his singing taking on warmth andmasculine  tenderness.   As Elsa became more petulant, Lohengrin became more alarmed, and in Vogt, we could hear heartfelt regret.  Telramund breaks in - symbolically breaking the hymen in this staging - Lohengrin impaling him on his sword, handed to him by his bride. (Lest anyone query the imagery, it's in the plot).

Significantly, Wagner immediately moves the action back to  the armies assembled on the banks of the Scheldt, the conflict between East and West taking precedence over personal tragedy.  Earlier above I described the phenomenal impact of the musical introduction to this scene.   Nelsons led the orchestra with such intensity that the musical logic carried all before it. Whatever questions may be embedded in the plot,  "Wir geben Fried und Folge dem Gebot!", just as Wagner intended.   Intensity of a different, otherworldly kind, when Lohengrin explains what is about to happen. Vogt has sung "Im fernen Land" many times, and, if anything, his delivery glows with maturity. We forget that it's a "hard sing" testing range and heft, but Vogt illuminated it as if transfigured., yet still tinged with human suffering. The conjuction of Lohengrin, Parsifal and Christ may be theologically way off beam, but in Wagnerian terms, it's perfectly apt.  The King in this opera isn't a fighter, but a judge, almost a Pilate figure, hence the excellent characterization by Georg Zeppenfeld, delivering with real authority. No glitz and gold, but a man of depth.  Notice, neither Wagner's Heinrich nor Lohengrin are men of impulsive violence. Toward the end, Vogt walked quietly to the back of the stage.  Gottfried appeared, and Nelsons ended the performance with a magnificent final coda.

Cast and conductor made this a memorable experience, but the production itself will be worth reviving because it’ss well thought through and true to meaning. Infinitely more  conducive to inspired performance that the old production where the singers were trapped in dalek suits. 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Les Arts Florissants : An English Garden

At the Barbican, London, Les Arts Florissants conducted by Paul Agnew, with soloists of Le Jardin de Voix in "An English Garden" a semi-staged programme of English baroque.   The term "garden" here refers to two of Sir William Christie's passions, music and gardens, and to the concept of baroque gardening, bridging nature and art.  Baroque gardens turned landscape into theatre, combining art and nature for maximum impact. 
Les Arts Florissants has for several seasons created "gardens"  where  music and song are arranged, like bouquets, to delight the senses.  This "garden" brought together the beauties of the English baroque, with highlights from Purcell,  Locke, Gibbons, Handel, Arne, Ward and Dowland.

Like a formal themed garden the programe was set out in two distinct parts, "The Mystery of Music" and "A Night of Revels". The scene was set by The Curtain Tune, an instrumental prologue to Matthew Locke's The Tempest (1674) an early English semi-opera adapting the spirit of Lully and Moliere to British theatrical tradition.  This Tempest was loosely based on The Tempest of William Shakespeare, where Nature, magic and art come together in glorious mayhem.  As the orchestra played, the singers entered the hall,  hidden in darkness, their voices ringing  out clearly.  Placing the two parts of Orlando Gibbons The Cries of London at the start and end of this "garden" gave it structure, but the choice was inspired.   Gibbons depicts the sounds of London, market traders calling out their wares "Hot apple pies, hot, Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, fine....buy a rope,,,white cabbage, white young cabbage".  Each brief cry follows its own rhythm and the interplay between these simple calls creates intricate polyphony. "Low " society transformed into "high" art.  Thence to Handel "O the pleasures of the plains" from Handel's Acis and Galatea , Purcell's If music be the food of love Z379 and Thomas Tomkins' Music Divine.

Lest all be gracious artifice, Thomas Arne's The Singing Club, a nod to the English taste for communal singing.  It's humorous - a good singer singing about a singer who can't sing too well.   Then a return to fantasy, with Handel and Purcell songs about music and the muse St Cecilia.   The songs also showcased individual instrumental colour - flutes, lutes, pipes and violins, paired with complementary voices. From Thomas Arne's The Fairy Prince, "Now all the air shall ring"  came the rousing final chorus "God Save the King!" Though Arne gave us our national anthem, the king in this case wasn't George III but the king of Fairyland, since Arne's masque  is an adaptation of Ben Jonson's Oberon, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare. One singer waved the Union Flag . I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the music, but suddenly the whole audience burst out in a roar of spontaneous applause. The singers were also waving the flag of the European Union, and the audience loved it ! British culture connects to Europe. Were it not for Handel, Mendelssohn and many others, where would British music be ?  And the flags were perfectly appropriate, since the kings of Arnes's time came from Hanover.

Pealing bells ushered in the "Night of Revels"  with "O let the merry bells ring round" from Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.  Two Purcell songs about Night  and dreams "See, even night herself is here"  and "One Charming Night" from The Fairy Queen Z629 and John Ward's Come, sable night.  Sophie Daneman's semi-staging created great atmosphere. A singer herself, she's worked with Les ArtsFlorissants  for some years, creating sensitive semi staging.  Here she had the singers carry lights in the darkness, so we could see as well as hear  the patterns of interaction.  Night, though, isn't just for sleep.  Thus the group of songs for merriment, starting with "In these delightful,pleasure groves" from Purcell's The Libertine, or the Libertine destroyed Z600, followed by "Welcome black night"  and later "Cease these false spirits" from John Dowland's A Pilgrim's Solace which is about, to put it coyly, married love.  Two Bacchanals from Purcell (Z627 and Z360) release unruly spirits.  Men are pitted against women in Purcell's 'Tis women makes us love Z281. "Tis women makes us love, 'tis love that makes us sad. 'Tis sadness makes us drink, and drinking makes us mad!" Delivered, of course, with great panache.  Then the  famous "Fairest Isle, all isles excelling" from Purcell's King Arthur or the British Worthy Z628, soothing and graceful.  Night leads to morning and three songs of dawn from Handel and Purcell  Then, back we are to London at the break of day, with the bustle of market traders and callers in Part 2 of Gibbon's The Cries of London.
This well-planned Garden of Delights came to life with Paul Agnew leading Les Arts Florissants. 

Part of the Les Arts Flo mission is the nurturing of youthful talent : hence Le Jardin de Voix, the academy for young singers, whose soloists gave vivacious performances. Some are very promising and deserve a good future. Their names - Natasha Schnur, Natalie Pérez, Eva Zaïcik, James Way, Josep-Ramon Olivé and Padraic Rowan.

This review also appears in Opera Today.  Please also see my review of Julian Prégardien and Teatro del Mondo : Orpheus : Songs, madrigals and arias from the 17th century and lots more on Les Arts Flo and Frech baroque on this site

Photo: Roger Thomas

Monday, 4 June 2018

Schütz : Auferstehungshistorie - La Chapelle Rhénane

Heinrich Schütz : Auferstehungshistorie and Musicalische Exequien from La Chapelle Rhénane led by Benoît Haller. La Chapelle Rhénane built its reputation on Schütz, with four of its original eight recordings dedicated to the composer.  This acclaimed series is now being re-issued by Christophus Records, with new recordings planned for 2019.  Schütz (1585-1672) was born one hundred years before J S Bach. He studied with Monteverdi, and is a link between the Italian and German baroque. He lived through the Thirty Years War, perhaps the most savage conflict Europe experienced before the 20th
century. Millions were killed, entire regions devastated. Although Schütz worked in relative safety for the Elector of Saxony, the world around him had been in turmoil since the Reformation. For Schütz, comfort was not a given.  Schütz founded what is now the Staatskapelle Dresden but he didn't have job security. When he fell out of favour at court, he became destitute. His family died young. He lived on alone until the age of 87, which in those days was like being Methuselah.

The beauty of Schütz's music lies in its spirituality, inspired by the austere piety of the early Lutheran faith.  The Auferstehungshistorie, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, op3 SWV 050, was written for Easter 1623, sixty years before Bach was even born. The brightness of the singing in this La Chapelle Rhénane performance accentuates the purity of expression that makes this work so moving.  Benoît Haller sings the Evangelist, his voice light and flexible, interacting well with the other singers emphasizing the polyphonic texture of the work.  This highlights the fine balance in groups with a combination of voices, for example the voices singing Jesus. Good variety, too, in the part for Kleophas and his companions, their lines interweaving rhythmically.  In the section "Die Elfe zu Jerusalem versammt", six voices, male and female, interact, emphasizing the unity of voices singing the words of Jesus "Friede sei mit euch!". The Conclusio draws together the whole ensemble, the word "Victoria!" repeated with joyous enthusiasm.

From the Resurrection to a funeral, with Musicalische Exequien op 7 SWV 279-81 (1635/6) for Schütz's patron Henry, Count of Reuss-Gera.  A single voice intones "Nacket bin ich von Mutterliebe kommen",  other voices and instruments then cradling around it. This is followed by three other sections, "Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt", "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" and "Under Leben währet siebenzig Jahr", forming between them a cycle from birth to death, tenor leading in the beginning, basses towards the end, the finale for whole ensemble.  A motette separates the first and second parts, forming a bridge between the reflections on life in the first part and the acceptance of death im the last. The mood in this Canticum Simeonis is solemn yet serene, for "Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben".     

Friday, 1 June 2018

Flaming June - Lohengrin and more!

Summer is at last upon us !  The big, big event is Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House starting Thursday 7th.  Klaus Florian Vogt is the Lohengrin of choice these days.  He and Andris Nelsons have done Lohengrin in the past, including at Bayreuth.  Word from those who have been in on things suggests that they're on top form. This should be memorable ! Nelsons could have been a cert for Bayreuth, Berlin and Lucerne but missed out by leaving Birmingham too early.  Fortunately for us, and him, Lucerne and Leipzig are hardly small time.  Luckily, conductors have a long shelf life so good things lie ahead.  Kristine Opolais was to have sung Eva, but she and Nelsons are getting divorced, so Elsa von Brabant will now be taken by Jennifer Davis, a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme 2015–17. But Christine Goerke is making her role debut as Ortrud, which is thrilling. Every performance brings out something new in an opera. A very strong and dynamic Ortrud could bring out the demonic levels in this opera. Ortrud is the Klingsor of Lohengrin ! and the part is much bigger. Thomas  Mayer sings Telramund, and   Georg Zeppenfeld - another reliable Wagner stalwart - sings Heinrich der Vögler.  This is a new production, directed by David Alden with a set by Paul Steinberg, so expect strong lines.  There is a lot more to Lohengrin than kitsch ! The costumes for the last production were a joke, so heavy and dalek-like that they must have been torture to move around in : singers need to feel comfortable to do their best, so treating them as props instead of people is not conducive to art.

At the Barbican on Monday 4th June, Franco Fagioli sings Vivaldi with the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Gianpiero Zannoco), which should be splendid, and on Friday 8th  Paul Agnew  conducts Le Jardin des Voix and Les Arts Florissants in a programme devised to "paint the whole landscape of English song, from the Tudor court to the Georgian era. Music by Dowland, Gibbons, Purcell, Handel and Boyce". Major Bach weekend coming up 15th to 17th June with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Bach cantatas, motets, sonatas and more, with soloists Isabelle Faust, Jean Rondeau and Jean Guihen-Queyras.

At the Wigmore Hall, Sunday 3rd June, Shakespeare and Music with Anna Prohaska and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Georg Kallweit) - settings of Shakespeare by Purcell, Dowland, John Blow and Matthew Locke. On Tuesday 5th June, Stéphane Degout sings Fauré, Brahms and Schumann (Kernerlieder).  On Monday 11th, Collegium Vocale Gent bring an all de Lassus programme.  Ian Bostridge, Christine Rice and the interesting young cellist Edgar Moreau coming up, too.  He's doing Franck, Poulenc and Strohl.  And of course, Imogen Cooper on 26th June.

At the South Bank. standard warhorses, Fauré Requiem, Symphonie Fantastique etc with reliable conductors like Jarvi and Dohnanyi.  The real star events are at the end of the month. On 26th, Dangerous Liaisons with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - " the sounds of Versailles, blending elegant French dance from the court of Louis XIV with greatest hits of French music from the era." in semi staged,  performances with DANCE of music by Lully, Charpentier, Clérambault, Destouyches and Rameau.  Then on 28th Schoenberg Gurrelieder with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia, which was brilliant when they did it in 2007 and should be even better now. This I booked a year in advance.  Seats still available in the rear stalls, but that's OK. Gurrelieder is loud, sound won't get sucked away under the balcony overhang.

In previous years the month of June meant, for me, Garsington Opera and the Aldeburgh Festival. Garsington is still going strong but Aldeburgh has become as stale as BBC Radio 3. What's the point of going any more, especially if the music is better in London ?

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Rossini Stabat Mater - Mariotti, Teatro Communale di Bologna

Michele Mariotti
From Teatro Communale di Bologna, Rossini Stabat Mater, conducted by Michele Mariotti, on Operavison with Yolanda Auyanet, Veronica Simeoni, Antonino Siragusa and Marko Mimica and the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Mariotti's Rossini credentials are impeccable. Though still only 39, since 2007 he has been Chief at the Teatro Communale di Bologna, one of the Rossini hotspots, and loves the repertoire with a passion.  He grew up in Pesaro, so Rossini’s music is in his genes. “Every summer",  he told me five years ago, almost to the day,  "I was so excited when the Festival started at the Teatro Rossini. I went to everything I could get to. It was wonderful to be with people like Riccardo Chailly and Claudio Abbado, Leo Nucci and so many great names. I went to rehearsals to see close-up how they worked. I was very young of course, but I could ‘live’ Rossini’s music. That’s why I feel so close to the patois, and care about it so much. If you play Rossini, you understand that you have to find a way into the music through what it means. If you see a dot on the note you know it means playing short, but interpretation is much more. Everything has to be elegant, sweet, swift, evoking the atmosphere".

Indeed, this can certainly be said of Mariotti's Rossini Stabat Mater., "elegant, sweet, swift, evoking the atmosphere” Like all Stabat Mater it is religious in that The Virgin Mary is mourning the death of Jesus.  But it is also distinctively Rossini, stamped with his exuberant personality. At heart, Rossini was a showman.  His Stabat Mater is flamboyant, but that's the way he was. Mariotti makes the piece feel personal.  Catholicism uses all the senses to heighten the emotions of devotion.   Flowers, incense, candles, architecture, music - all part of the mix.  Like theatre !  Consider religious ecstasy, an extreme state combining spirituality and sensuality.   Rossini famously said that one of the few occasions when he cried was after his mother's death.  It's not hard for any one brought up Catholic not to connect the love of one's own mother with the images of the love of Mary for her Son.  
From the first bars of the Introduction, the surging rhythms are vintage Rossini. The tenor appears briefly but unmistakably, to re-emerge in glory in the aria "Cujus animam gementem". Introduced by rich strings and dramatic chords, this aria could come straight out of an opera. Note the flourish on the last line "Nati poenas inclyti." which rises to crescendo and then drops to hush.  Similarly the throbbing tension in the orchestra which sets the scene for the song of motherly love.  Two singers, soprno and mezzo, not one, symbolizing universal motherhood but also allowing for deliciously intricate harmonies extending the interplay of two well balanced voices. The bass aria "Eja, Mater, fons amoris", is even more dramatic, suggesting power and authority.  The Quartetto, which follows, feels even more reverential, the higher voices rising like angels above the lower (bass soloist leading).  Tenor, sopranos and bass alternate, creating intricate patterns.  The serene Cavatina gives way to a spectacular aria "Inflammatus et accensus", where the mezzo's voice soars to the heavens while the brasses blare and the full chorus declaim.  Magnificent ending, percussion blazing.  The second Quartetto "Quando corpus morietur" begins quietly, swelling to crescendo, soloists and chorus in unison.  Paradisi gloria ! The voices surge in glorious tumult, strings, winds and brass flying, punctuated by percussion. Mary suffers, but her Son has died to redeem mankind.  Brief moments of silence give way to the final chorus "Amen ! Amen ! Amen !". Rossini's Stabat Mater isn't gloomy, but he understands the liturgical purpose.   With its swift "scene changes" and dramatic spirit,  Rossini's Stabat Mater "is" opera.

I've met many conductors, composers, singers and directors in my time, but Mariotti struck me as being genuinely level headed, inspired by deep musicality.  A genuinely nice person ! His sensitivity to Rossini is instinct, but is also grounded firmly in formal and structural discipline. “I studied composition at the Conservatorio Rossini in Pesaro" he told me, "but I didn’t want to be a composer. I wanted to understand the “science”, the technique of composition, so it would help me understand how to conduct. Composers don’t write ‘from God’, they use processes to express themselves. Rossini wrote more serious opera than comic, and he retired from opera soon after Guillaume Tell, so we have to understand that too. He is abstract, more intellectual, though you can’t compare him to Verdi, any more than you can compare Chopin to Bach”.

“I think you have to respect tradition, but you have to respect that not all tradition is good. Sometimes it can kill the character of the music. You have to keep asking yourself questions, because the world is always changing, and we can’t forever do the same things. When a composer finishes writing the score, the opera as a work of art is not finished. Every time it is performed, it lives again in new interpretation. A painting in a museum doesn’t change. But every time you go and look at it, you can see something new. You don’t go with a pencil and change the nose, the eyes or anything like that. But you are looking at it in a different way. In opera, every performance is a new way of listening, because the performers are different, and the situation and the audience are different too. So when I study a score, I need to know the tradition but also understand that there is never only one way to do it”.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Pan European Orpheus : Julian Prégardien, Teatro del mondo

"Orpheus I am!" - An unusual but very well chosen collection of songs, arias and madrigals from the 17th century, featuring Julian Prégardien and Teatro del mondo.  Devised by Andreas Küppers, this collection crosses boundaries demonstrating how Italian, German, French and English contemporaries responded to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Orpheus himself is described in the first set, beginning with a song by Robert Johnson (1583-1633), it begins with strong single chords and bold exclamation : "Orpheus, I am, come from the deeps below, to thee, fond man, the plagues of love to show".  Dramatic declamation "Ha-a-a-ark ! how they groan who died despairing". Ma, divertirmi lo voglio from a opera from 1683 by Antonio Draghi (1634-1700), with an extended central section where low timbred strings - violas de gamba and theorbos-sing a grave yet sensous melody, enchanting the beasts of the wild. The pace picks up more brightly as Orpheus moves on.  Maurice Greene (1696-1755), who was Master of The King's Music to George II, set Shakespeare for Orpheus with His Lute, the vocal line elegantly decorated, and accompanied by flute and harpsichord. It is followed, aptly, by Greene's successor, William Byrd's Come woeful Orpheus an instrumental piece for violins and violas de gamba.  In contrast, a return to a much earlier sensibility, with Als Orpheus schlug seine Instrument, by Gabriel Voigtländer (1596-1643). The vocal line is pure, with minimal accompaniment, each strophe clearly defined - almost a Minnelied ! Voigtländer, who was part of Wallenstein's army in the Thirty Years War, published a well known collection of songs.

Eurydice is introduced by Antri ch' o miei lamenti  by Jacapo Peri (1561-1633), first performed at the Pitti Palace. Accompanied by baroque organ and muted strings, it's a stately piece, the vocal line laudatory.  Similar orchestration for Nachtklag, from Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-1655) to a texts by Martin Orpitz, the "Father of German Poetry" and contemporary of Shakespeare.   Kindermann, who came from  Nuremberg and would have known of Hans Sachs as well as Orpitz, so his Opitianischer Orpheus from which several,pieces on this recording are taken, sounds like an interesting work which might be worth hearing in greater depth. Jacopo Peri's lively Al fonte, il prato, and Fransceco Rasi's Filia Mia are followed by Claudio Monteverdi's Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi, from Orfeo, Orpheus's song of love for Eurydice.

But as we know, Eurydice dies on her wedding day.  Mournful pipes (flutes) and organ introduce Luigi Rossi's Les pleurs d'Orphée ayant perdu sa femme from Rossi's opera Orphée, a great success at the Palais Royale in 1647.  Two airs by Thomas Campion, Break now, my Heart and Oft have I sigh'd , give vocal expression to Orpheus's grief.  From Jacopo Peri's opera L'Euridice, Non plango. where the vocal line is at once plangent and dramatic.  From Johann Erasmus Kindermann's Opitianischer Orpheus, the air Jetzund kommt die Nacht herbei  Orpheus plans to challenge Death itself.   An anonymous Passacaglia for lautenwerk (lute-klavier) strings marks Orpheus's entry into the Underworld.  Henry Purcell's Charon the peaceful shade invites invokes Charon who ferries the dead over the River Styx.  Domenico Belli's Orfeo dolente was one of the most popular operas of its time(1616), and here is represented by Numi d'Abisso.  It's followed by an elegant threnody on baroque harp, Toccata secondo by Giovanni Maria Trabaci (1575-1647)and Monteverdi's Qual Honor also from L'Orfeo.  

To signify Orpheus's attempt to lead Eurydice out from the Underworld, another instrumental interlude, Prélude 4 from Antoine Francisque (1570-1605)'s Le Trésor d' Orphée, and another song Ach Liebste, lass uns eilen again from Kindermann's Opitanischer Orpheus.  More Jacopo Peri (Giote al vcanto mio) and Johan Steffens (1560-16161) Orpheus die Harfen schlug so fein for salterio (hammered dulcimer). Steffans (1560-1616) was North German, and in this context represents the more understated northern baroque aesthetic. Orpheus could not save Eurydice, and had to return to the world alone. But Kindermann and Orpitz have the last word. "Doch wann du wärest gleich da, wo die Sonn aufgehet, und ich im Abende, wo Hesperus entstehet, so scheidet uns doch nichts"  (If you could be where the sun rises and I in the evening, when Hesperus rises,  we cannot be torn apart)  Eventually Orpheus will die too, ripped apart by furies, but until then he plays his lute and is at one with nature.  Thus the finale, an anonymous piece The Indian Nightingale, probably English, for almost the whole ensemble - flutes, violins, salterio, baroque harp and harpsichord - exqusitely pure and Spring like, evoking the song of the nightingale, Nature's equivalent of Orpheus and his lute.   Lively, fresh performances from Andreas Küppers, and Teatro del mondo, with Julian Prégardien singing in a range of languages and different styles.  His voice is youthful,as Orpheus was, and plaintive when needed.  It doesn't matter a bit that his English isn't as perfect as his German or Italian. He's charming and has a lucid voice, which is what counts. Geoirgian England was full of German musicans.  In any case,this excellent recording proves that art transcends nationality.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Undead ! Janáček Aus dem Totenhaus, Bayerische Staatsoper

all photos : © Wilfried Hösl

 Leoš Janáček From the House of the Dead, (Aus dem Totenhaus) from the Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich,. Unlike Frank Castorf’s Ring for Bayreuth, whose import escaped me,  here he keeps much tighter forcus on the opera itself, with strong results.  The staging reflects the music remarkably well  and the visual details amplify meaning.  Janáček's opera isn't "realistic". The prisoners are trapped in claustrophobc dystopia. Their minds take flight when they're given a chance to stage an entertanment. Nothing is logical. Gorjančikov, the politcal prisoner, is presumably most dangerous to the regime, yet suddenly he's freed, and the Major falls over himself to pretend the beatings didn't matter. When things are upside down, naturalism takes second place to artistic expression.  Janáček's  music is astonishingly innovative, especially in this new performing edition by John Tyrell. The story begins and ends with Gorjančikov, who's middle class and intellectual : he doesn't belong and doesn't do much.

 The strongest characterizations are given to the other prisoners, nobodies whose tales are told in a series of vignettes that seem to unfold in parallel. Gorjančikov, leaves, but perhaps the others remain eternally in limbo, their stories repeated by thousands of others.  Years before Berg created Lulu  Janáček is writing an opera that moves like cinema, where things operate on simultaneous levels and time frames. Bear this in mind regardiung the set design (Aleksandar Denić) comprised of enclosed spaces, like the prison itself, which allow changes of focus.  That's why there's a caneraman wandering among the crowd. What he's filming is shown close up on a large screen behind the main action.  

Castorf’s focus on meaning emphasizes the Eagle, the "Tsar of the Forest" brought wounded into the gulag and set free at the end.  As a device, it's rather too obvious, but blame Dostoyevsky, not Janáček or Castorf.  Some productions treat the Eagle as the symbol it is, but Castorf and the  dramaturgist develop it as a fully fledged character on its own terms. They use a dancer,  garbed in brightly coloured exotic feathers, at once an object of fantasy and a real personality.  To complicate matters,the Eagle seems to be played by the same woman (Evgeniya Sotnikova) who sings Aljeja and the Prostitute and plays Akulka, the woman Luka loved and Šiškov murdered.  This might seem confusing but is in fact consistent with several underlying themes in the opera, so we'd do well to pay attention.   The prison is all-male. a reversal of the natural order.  The strage play the prisoners put on for entertainment unleashes dark memories : women are brutalized because they're thought unfaithful. Women have no status other than as projections of male insecurity.  They're all prostitutes,  even if they're innocent virgins.  This is a perceptive insight into Janáček and his relationships with women.  He felt imprisoned by Zdenka, and liberated by Kamila Stösslová, the modern "new" woman who made her own rules. (Please see my article Janáček's  Dangerous Women from 2010.

So the conflation between The Eagle and the female presences (not all of them actual roles)  in this opera makes sense. It al;so makes sense then that Gorjančikov wants to take Aljeja under his wing not just from idealism but because he's as beautiful as a girl, and pure.  In an age when we know about sexual abuse and sexual bullying in prisons, the idea that Gorjančikov should grope Aljeja should come as no surprise. Quite possibly Gorjančikov isn't a nice guy even if he's a prisoner.  There were some less effective moments like the screens with text,  the Spanish monolgue, and skeleton costumes that suggested the Mexican Day of the Dead. This opera is plenty enough macabre without needing camp.  But the emphasis on tattoos worked fine: all these people carry stories and tattoos are often the literature of the dispossessed   And there's a chicken coop on stage,   a reference to the hens in Cunning Little Vixen

Veteran Peter Rose made a fine Gorjančikov, and Evgeniya Sotnikova desrevs special praise for her efforts above and beyond the usual range of Aljeja. Aleš Briscein always impresses so his Luka (Filka) was very good.  Bo Skovhus was a very good Šiškov.  Charles Workman was Skuratov, and the supporting cast and chorus solid. A word of praise for Simone Young, the conductor.  She's generally been more reliable than inspired but here she was passionately on message, shaping Janáček's craggy angulars while also letting the quieter melodies fly.