Monday 31 October 2011

Vampyr - Carl Th. Dreyer

Carl Th. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a masterpiece every serious film buff studies frame by frame. But Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) is equally remarkable. The two films are very different. Joan of Arc is shot with extremely harsh lighting, bleaching out unnecessary detail, so every line and pore in Joan's face is exposed, like she herself is exposed and alone in her torment.  Vampyr, on the other hand, is a study in ambiguities.  What is happening? Who is the vampire, the old man, the old woman or the protagonist himself?

Vampyr is also fascinating because it's a sound movie with a score written by Wolfgang Zeller (1898-1967), one of the most innovative composers of film music when it was still an experimental art. The music for Vampyr ia a lot like the film - tonally ambiguous, mysterious, spare. Single instruments (wonderful brooding cello), merging in and out of a mist (mainly strings). Low rumblings, sudden sharp chords. Listen to the music without watching and it works on you emotionally - very unsettling. Film noir music before film noir existed.

Zeller worked with Walter Ruttmann whose Dadaist abstract films can be seen HERE on this site, and were made to be  shown with live music. (Ruttmann is the creator of Berlin, Symphony of a great City, which you can see in full download with analysis HERE)  Ruttman's credentials as a moderrnist are impeccable, yet he went on to write music fotr the Nazi film The Jew Suss, which I can't bring myself to watch for more than a few moments. After the war, he wasn't blacklisted, so I don't know what his denazification file says. We can't aassume anything. 

In Vampyr, a young man with a butterfly net (important detail) stops at a country inn. Already we know something's not right. A peg legged old soldier sits on a bench, and his own shadow comes down to sit beside him. In the inn, shadows of dancers are seen, and their music can be heard, but they don't exist in the real world, whatever that is. Then there's the star himself played by "Julian West" who looks Indian or something exotically swarthy, quite alien to whatever country the story is set in (anywhere from Northern France to the Baltic). "Julian West" is in fact Nicolas de Günzburg, whose family were Russian Jews, bankers to the Tsar. Günzburg, who financed the film, was supposedly fabulously wealthy but when his father died in 1933, it turned out the family was broke.  So Günzburg goes to New York and ends up editor of fashion glossies.

Watch Vampyr and see how Dreyer uses odd angles, so you're seeing things from odd perspectives. He makes the most of the discipline of black and white, using darkness and light as a palette to paint ideas. Details, like the Grim Reaper on the inn sign, and the peasant with the scythe in the field.  Just as the film seems to develop a narrative, Dreyer throws all into confusion. Julian West sits on a bench in the park, but his shadow gets up. It's so subtle you might not notice until you see his figure is transparent. Then he finds a coffin, and looks in. As the coffin is carried out, you see the treetops, the tower, and hear the tread of dull footseps. Is West now looking out, upwards from within? Watch the final sequence frame by frame. It's the mill, where the doctor, who may or may not be the vampire's helper, gets trapped  Fantastic shots of the machinery, wheels and cogs like infernal mechanisms. The machine grinds flour which suffocates the doctor. Will the bread (the staff of life) be tainted? Meanwhile, West and Léonie, the young girl who is saved from the vampire (whom we never see) are in a boat in a fog. They call out, echoing the doctor's cries. But they cannot hear him, nor he them.
PLEASE see here for Marschner's opera Der Vampyr (nothing like the movie)

Sunday 30 October 2011

The Dunce Bumps into the Ghost

Chinese Halloween Opera Bouffe! A Halloween movie you won't see anywhere but on a site like this. It's from 呆佬遇鬼, "The Dunce Bumps into a Ghost" (1957). You don't need to speak Cantonese to get it.The umbrella is walking by itself because it's possessed by a ghost. The man in the silk gown 劉克宣 Lau Hak-suen) is a loanshark. He grabs a piece of chicken off the servant but it turns into a joss candle (used in prayers) Then at his banquet the meal turns into paper offerings for the dead. A kid pees into the enamel spittoon, and the ghost empties the pot on the man's head. Then the umbrella comes in and the ghost appears. It's a young woman (紫羅蓮 Tse Law-lin) whom the man has conned and she's come for revenge.

The real star is the incomparable 紫羅蓮 Leung Sing por (1908-81), the "Dunce" of the title. He was a megastar, who sang dozens of opera roles and also made over 400 movies of all kinds. In this one he plays a humble repairer of wax umbrellas to whom the ghostly maiden appears because she needs help nailing the villain, and Leung's character is a nice, honest man. Leung gets to show his comedy skills, and act, and sing! This is a wonderful example of the way Chinese culture embraces a combination of genres: opera, movies, popular song, comedy, spooks, social comment, art and entertainment. In the west, so many barriers between genres.

Leung Sing por becomes the ghost's enabler. No-one can see her, they just see him talking to the umbrella. He helps the ghost cross water (they can't do that on their own) and go to a temple. (During this scene shot on a real village shrine a passerby runs past behind him. It's not in the script, these movies were shot on location, and ordinary people did get caught on camera). The papers he scatters in his path are "ghost money", blessed in the shrine, that give the spirit easy passage. The crooked businessman calls in crooked Daoist exorcists in to catch the ghost. I wish I could find those scenes as they are great folklore. Fancy ceremonies and conga lines of captured ghosts hopping in a line like zombies following the exorcist. But not this time. This lady ghost wreaks havoc!

Saturday 29 October 2011

Simon Keenlyside in Vancouver

From my friend Barbara Miller - Simon Keenlyside, Malcolm Martineau, Chan Centre for Performing Arts 25 Oct 2011

The lovely 1200-seat Chan Shun auditorium was largely full for this long-awaited recital by baritone Simon Keenlyside and pianist Malcolm Martineau.  I was feeling relieved and relaxed after a short and smooth border crossing that left time for a delicious dinner.  The program was in four sections: Selections from the Rückert and Des Knaben Wunderhorn lieder by Mahler, Butterworth’s first set of songs from A Shropshire Lad, Lieder by Strauss, and finally, melodies by Duparc and Debussy.   At the beginning it was announced that the recital was being recorded  for later broadcast over CBC (this in the context of warning us to be extra good about turning off cell phones, turning pages quietly, and waiting until the ends of sets to begin applause—we couldn’t let all of Canada witness Vancouver’s gaffes) .  It was not specified when this broadcast would take place; interested listeners should presumably check the CBC website.

The artists took the stage and began the Mahler set, which was sung and played well enough but didn’t come completely alive for me.  One big problem was Keenlyside’s distracting mannerisms, often seeming unsure of quite what he wanted to do with his hands, reaching for the piano but not always taking hold of it,  then quickly moving to the lapel of his three-piece suit, bringing both hands together, and at some points taking a handkerchief from his inner pocket and wiping his face. Some of these actions, combined with a few soft high notes being lost below the accompaniment in this set made me wonder whether he might not be feeling well, but if that were the case I don’t think he could have sung the whole recital as well as he did.  At times his gestures expressed the song very well, and he could be very still and attentive during postludes, which made me regret all the more the nervous energy that drove the gestures much of the rest of the time, presumably in the interest of making the lovely sounds he produced.

There were some very nice touches in this set, though.  In addition to Malcolm Martineau’s  ravishing nightingale effect in  “Ich ging mit Lust” and buzzing bees in “Blicke mir nicht in dieLieder”, I admired Keenlyside’s gutsiness in stage-whispering the word “glanzen” at the end of the third line of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”. “Liebst du um Schönheit” was beautifully sung, with expressive color contrasts bringing out the words.  The set ended with “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? “, sung with the energy and breath control it requires to sing the long melismas, eliciting an appreciative giggle from the audience at the end.  Overall the set was pleasant to hear but I didn’t feel completely connected with it.  I couldn’t help wondering whether these songs had originally been undertaken in observance of the recent Mahler anniversary rather than from a deep feeling for them on the part of the singer.

This feeling changed dramatically with the next group, George Butterworth’s first set of songs from  A. E. Housman’s  A Shropshire Lad. I always find it interesting when singers feel the need to speak from the stage, to explain their choices, as it were, and Keenlyside chose to do that with this set of “pretty English songs” as he at first labeled them.  I didn’t catch all of what he said (perhaps an incentive to try to pick up the broadcast), but I did hear him say that  these songs are thought of as “War Songs” due to Butterworth’s untimely death in the World War I trenches.  Rather than focusing on the horrors around them, soldiers tend to write about what they miss, which is what all travelers miss, home, pubs, friends, etc., and  Keenlyside  thinks that maybe these songs are “overcoloured by war”. The message I got was that a singer with an international career that keeps him travelling all the time (last night in Vancouver, tomorrow night in San Francisco, each a continent and an ocean away from home) may feel a deep personal resonance with the longings for the English countryside  he hears expressed in these songs.  Now we began to hear wider ranges in vocal color: “Loveliest of trees” began with a quiet, floated sound, the “wise  man” in “When I was One-and-Twenty” had the booming, authoritative voice of an elder lecturing a youth who reacted with a more meditative sound.  The artists took very short pauses between the songs, “Think No More Lad” taken as an attaca after “Look Not In My Eyes”, as if to shut down the dangerous thoughts lurking under the evocation of Narcissus.  “The Lads in Their  Hundreds” was almost chatty in its enumeration of the faces seen at the fair, pausing to ring out with the strength worthy of the largest opera houses on the last word of “the lads that will die”.  A flawlessly executed dialogue between the pale voice of  the ghost/memory of the dead friend and the resonant but uneasy voice of the living narrator gave the needed chill  to “Is My Team Ploughing”, which closed the set and the first half of the program.

The second half opened with the Strauss songs, where Keenlyside’s voice blossomed in the operatic phrases.  The program included the familiar “Das Rosenband” and “Ständchen” (on which every lieder duo seems compelled to make its mark these days, since it closed Strauss sets by both Christianne Stotijn and Measha Brueggergosman, at the recitals I heard last year).But I was more impressed by the floated phrases and strong vocal presence in “Befreit”, and the spookiness of “Waldesfahrt”, which suffered from the disadvantage of having the wrong  text printed in the program.  While the audience was left to try to figure out where in Körner’s poem “Im  Wald, im Wald” the singer was, I put the text aside as soon as I heard the opening line “Mein Wagon rollet langsam” from Heinrich Heine, and watched Keenlyside visualize the impish face at the window of his coach and the creepy feeling it gave him about his love.  In reading scholars’ speculations about why Robert Schumann’s setting of this text was dropped from the final “Dichterliebe”, I saw the complaint that Schumann’s setting lacks precisely this creepiness that Strauss captures, so it was a treat for me to see it expressed so well in Keenlyside’s performance.

The French set that closed the prepared program was beautifully executed. Keenlyside’s voice was particularly effective in the transparent, slightly nasal French vowels, adding a whole new feeling to the program.  Duparc’s “Le Manoir de Rosamonde” was almost fierce in its delivery, setting up the sensuality of “Phidylé”.  Whether the audience believed that the switch in composers from Duparc to Debussy indicated the end of a “set” or because it was so enraptured by the performance of the song, they burst into applause after Phydilé (sorry, Canada, sometimes you just can’t help yourself—I guess you had to be there).  The Debussy songs were among his lighter and more charming ones, beginning with the early  “Nuit d’Étoiles” and ending with the witty “Mandoline”,which closed with an articulated, meaningful look between the accompanist and singer on the final struck note that brought laughter to the audience.

After several curtain calls to acknowledge the standing ovation, the artist at last reappeared with music in the pianist’s hand.  There were four encores in all, the singer’s introductions to them making it clear that they had a great deal of personal meaning to him.  There was again a frisson of the itinerant singer’s possible homesickness when  Keenlyside said that, for him, coming home is coming home to Schubert, and therefore he would sing “Der Wanderer an den Mond”, where the traveler envies the moon for being at home anywhere.  The performance by both pianist and singer was less “folksy” and more legato and even boomingly resonant than I often hear it, and it was particularly poignant to see the singer blow a kiss afterward to the audience member to whom he was dedicating the song.  The second encore was actually announced as two songs in one take.  He explained that he wanted to sing Percy Grainger’s setting of “A Sprig of Thyme” for his cousin, finding Grainger’s folksong settings “not quite as louche as some of Britten’s arrangements.” But prior to that we were treated to a lovely performance of John Ireland’s “Sea Fever”.  Enthusiastic applause continued after these songs, so we were treated to one more encore, Schubert’s  “An mein  Klavier”, which, sure enough, Keenlyside sang to the nine foot Steinway grand piano itself, growing gradually softer and more intimate with each strophe, leaving us with this tender melody in our ears as we made our way through the lovely Chan center lobby to our cars.

Friday 28 October 2011

Roderick Williams - Sea Pictures???

"I'm not dressed as a mermaid," quipped Roderick Williams. He was singing Elgar's Sea Pictures. Yes! Sea Pictures, mezzo soprano territory, usually heard with full orchestra, but here in the less common piano song version, at the Holywell Music Room, part of the 10th Oxford Lieder Festival. The grand Elgar gestures are still there in the piano part (especially in Sabbath Morning at Sea) but the cycle as piano song is something altogether more immediate and direct. Williams make such a powerful case for Sea Pictures that he raises Elgar's profile as song composer.  This Sea Pictures is so much more distinctive than most of Elgar's other rather more stylized piano songs. At last we might hear programmes of English song with Elgar given due prominence.

Despite its preoccupation with folklore, English song is a 20th century genre, far removed from bucolic pastures. Yet it's not  pretension. Roderick Williams has transformed English song performance practice because he approaches it as music. He's direct, personal and immediate, completely without affectation. He's astounding good technically, lovely burnished timbre, impeccable phrasing. The transpositoin is perfect,  and even when the tessitura leaps, Williams is secure. He communicates as if he's in conversation, telling an interesting story he cares about. "I, the Mother mild" sings Williams, "Hush thee, O my child". We might be thinking Janet Baker, but Williams expresses the spirit of the poem, for Ellfinland exists beyond gender or time. The imagery in these songs is nautical and in some songs the mood is ebullient. But meaning is deeper. "The music seeks and finds me still, and tells me where the corals lie".

Oxford Lieder does rare repertoire well. Until Roderick Williams sang Ralph Vaughan Williams (no relation) Willow-wood, the cycle hadn't been heard since 1903, and was known only to specialists. In 2005, he recorded the version with large orchestra and female choir. The text (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) suggests furtive lovemaking in the woods. In this performance, Williams brought out the unhealthy, even sinister aspects clearly. The orchestral version may be more ambitious, but the piano version is far more expressive.

Charlotte Bray is composer in residence, with three of her works performed at this year's Oxford Lieder Festival.  Her Songs and Sonnets is a key new work, heard here for the first time. The poet is Fernando Pessoa, who turned multiple personality into art form. He's become cultish in recent years because his work is surreal, utterly unique. His perspectives open new dimensions: No wonder he fascinates so many composers. Read more about him here on this site.   In these poems, Pessoa is parodying Os Lusiadas, the Lusiades, the Homeric epic poem by Luis de Camões (1524-80) which is so iconic that it symbolizes Portuguese culture and identity.  Bray's response is interesting. She counteracts Pessoa's florid text with spare, open textures. Often the voice is unaccompanied, and the words declaimed rather than sung. Camões and Pessoa are formidable poets to attempt, so if Bray doesn't focus on structure, her detailed word painting is a reasonable response.

Williams and his pianist, Andrew West, began their programme interspersing songs by Fauré and Duparc with songs by John Ireland. Numerous correlations with the rest of the programme. Exotic images of travel,  songs better known for female voice, even the idea of neurosis if you connect Duparc with Pessoa.

Roderick Williams is perhaps the most original British baritone today, and I do include bigger names, because his voice is so distinctive, and he communicates so powerfully. He 's also adventurous with repertoire. "Next time", he said "I might sing Schumann Frauenliebe und Leben". It has been done before (Matthias Goerne) and brings out new perspectives in the familar cycle. Maybe Oxford Lieder should take him up on his dare.

Read about Roderick Williams in ENO's Rameau Castor and Pollux HERE. It's nice to see Roddy with his clothes on! But he must be covered in bumps and bruises after that production. And read about his Butterworth Complete Songs HERE - amazing !!!!

Sibelius Luonnotar Barbican Oramo

Tonight at the Barbican, Sakari Oramo conducts Sibelius 3 and Luonottar with the BBC SO. This should be very interesting indeed, as the soloist is Anu Komsi,  one of the Komsi twins,well known specialists in unusual and modern repertoire. Each of them has phenomenal range. Although one doesn't need to speak Finnish to sing Luonottar, it probably helps, as it's extremely difficult to sing. Even those who can negotiate its challenges need to connect to its cosmology. This is the primeval creation myth from the Kalevala. It's also seminal in Sibelius's development as composer. If you can't make it to the Barbican, it's being broadcast live and on demand on BBC Radio 3.  Please also read my article on Luonnotar analysing its form and meaning. Video clip included!

For background, listen to this week's series about Finnish Composers before and after Sibelius, as it's quite well researched. Explains a bit why Finland has more musicians per capita than most anywhere else in the world. 700 operas at last count years ago. It also puts modern Finnish composers and conductors into perspective. Of the present generation, Sakari Oramo, Esa Pekka Salonen, the Komsi twins, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho all closely networked.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Chailly Beethoven 1 & 7 Barbican Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra returned again to the Barbican, London, for the second concert in their Beethoven symphony cycle (read an overview and review of the first concert here). If anything, this performance was better than the previous evening. Tours are wonderful, but take their toll. The Leipzigers are playing 27 concerts in four countries in a month, plus masterclasses, media events and the necessary socializing that is a natural part of the business. Pretty heroic. Listeners have to make allowances. But it's a small price to pay for the sheer joy of live music experienced communally.

Chailly has been stressing Beethoven's modernity and the Leipzig Gewandhaus tradition of performing great music when it was still brand new. This is an extraordinarily healthy approach to music, given the regressive nonsense against modern music in some quarters. Chailly and Leipzig to the rescue!

This Beethoven 7th nipped along as if hardwired into some power source, yet its fundamental elegance shone through. Nicely poised first movement, a fine tension between the lyrical passages, pauses and the glorious forward thrust of the main theme. The allegretto thus unfolds spaciously from firm foundations. The repeated ostinato figures progress as if in procession. Canter into gallop in the presto. Rapid fire ostinato introduces the final movement, which builds up to whip-cracking fury. Yet the Leipzigers are completely disciplined, their energy focussed. Alarums, flying figures and firm, assertive final moments.

Steffan Schleiermacher's Bann, Bewegung mit Beethovens Erster (fixed, moving with Beethoven's First) was a perceptive opener. Schleiermacher's spellbound by innate tension in Beethoven's First, where elegaic lyricism confronts ostinato, the pulse alternately abrupt and sweeping. Stimulating conjunction. These new commissions aren't meant to be heard as stand alone music, so there's no point in sneering that they're not up to Beethoven standard. No one can be, Schleiermacher's piece is an imaginative reaction to Beethoven, and as valid as any commentary.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is off to Paris for the weeked - working - and back in London on Tuesday 1st. This concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on demand. Listen to some of the spoken parts. So read me here on Classical Iconoclast to get things from source. Big grin !

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Beethoven Chailly Leipzig Gewandhaus Barbican

Triumphant start to Riccardo Chailly's  Leipzig Gewandhaus Beethoven cycle at the Barbican. This is major. It feels like a pilgrimage in reverse, because the Leipzigers are touring, bringing their Beethoven live to audiences in Vienna, Paris and London.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus was founded in 1732, before Beethoven was born, and its permanent orchestra in 1781, when Beethoven was just a boy. To Leipzig audiences, Beethoven himself was once "new music". This orchestra has a fabulous reputation. Nearly everything they do is interesting. When Riccardo Chailly went to Leipzig, some wondered how he'd develop the ochestra's traditional rich, warm sound. But the relationship was a match made in heaven. Together, Chailly and the Leipzigers have produced truly amazing things. They're phenomenal. The new Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus full Beethoven Symphony boxed set, just out, should be unmissable, even in a market gorged with Beethoven cycles. It's not on amazon yet, but you can buy copies in the Barbican foyer.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's Beethoven tradition goes back to when Beethoven was a "living composer". This photo shows the orchestra's Beethoven tribute in Berlin in 1952, with Franz Konwitschny. Perhaps being in the DDR preserved the orchestra's musical integrity, as it wasn't subject to commercial influences, but Leipzig has a radical tradition. The protests that started in the nearby Nikolaikirche, supported by Kurt Masur and many members of the orchestra led to the overthrow of repression and the re-unification of Germany. In 1989, a few weeks after the protests, the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra made what was then a rare appearance abroad. It was an emotionally-charged experience, for them as well as the audience. I remember them looking up at the Sheldonian around them, their faces lit up with awe. It can't have been the architecture, since there's just as much (or was) in Leipzig as in Oxford. It must have been the sense of occasion. And they were playing Beethoven 3, the "Eroica".

Under Chailly, the Leipziger's Beethoven is heroic, too.  Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is so wonderful that it even sounds good when played by school bands. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra lifts it into another stratosphere altogether. Chailly's tempi are fast, so the music feels driven as if by metaphysical forces, yet the orchetra is so technically secure that there's no strain whatever. This is Beethoven, exhilarated by the discovery of the new, in music and in the times he lived. Such energy, though I suspect the recording and other performances will be even better. Oddly, the pauses between movements were unusually long, which I don't understand. Chailly was mopping his brow a lot. But if he's under the weather, he's still leagues ahead of most anyone else. In 20 days, Chailly and the Leipzigers have performed 19 concerts - 8 more to go !

This traverse of Beethoven Symphony no 2 was more stately, for it's not as shockingly innovative as the Fifth. The second slow movement here was elegantly structured, emphasizing Beethoven's mastery of form, the bedrock which sustained his audacious ventures into new territory.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performed most of Beethoven's music when it was contemporary, so it's appropriate that it should commission works by present day composers showing their response to his example. Beethoven's Fifth is such a towering phenomenom that it's become part of world culture. Even those who've never heard of Beethoven as composer know his name through Beethoven the Dog movies. Beethoven 5 eclipses all else, so respect is due for Carlo Boccadoro's Ritratto di musico, which held up credibly. Boccadora reimagines the Fifth, focusing on the relationship between strings, winds and brass, but with prominence given to timpani, percussion being a 20th century addition to orchestral colour. It's almost like a jazz combo writ large, with interesting syncopated effects. I particularly liked the solo bass being tapped, not plucked or bowed, the wood producing a nice archaic sound, a reminder of the period instruments Beethoven and the Leipzigers' ancestors would have known.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Shocking but not wrong : ENO Castor and Pollux Rameau

One reason why Castor and Pollux hasn't been staged in England is that Rameau is French.  Not because the British are xenophobic (which some are) but because Rameau's sensibility is so very different from what we might assume opera should be. This ENO production, a joint venture with the Komische Oper, Berlin, of Rameau's Castor and Pollux is surprisngly faithful to the real spirit of the opera and its times.

Castor and Pollux is an allegory, that grows not from the plot so much as from the intellectual response of the listener. Hence the formal stylization and long passages of music without dialogue or apparent action.  Little tour de force elaboration in the vocal lines for the sake of show. In Rameau's time, the musical passages would have supported dance sequences, to focus the mind on abstract depictions of the philosophical virtues the plot predicates upon. Don't assume this opera "needs" elaborate costumes that inhibit movement. To Rameau's audiences the abstract sequences were symbolic, more masque than amusement for its own sake. Castor and Pollux is a whole different frame of mind, which we may well have lost in this modern age with its focus on easily digested instant gratification.

Castor and Pollux are privileged men who have every reason to enjoy the pleasures of love and life. But they deliberately choose self-sacrifice for a higher destiny. They become the Gemini, preternaturally bright stars, that guide sailors through the sea. To quote a Schubert song, Dioskuren, Zwillingssterne.... mich beruhigt auf dem Meere, Eure Milde, euer Wachen. Twin Stars, who calm those at sea (in every way) with their watchful calm. They symbolize, no, less, faith despite adversity.

So, take your bearings from the fundamental meaning of Castor and Pollux and the production, shocking as it is, falls into place. Castor (Allan Clayton) and Télaïre (Sophie Bevan) are madly in love, but she's supposed to marry Pollux (Roderick Williams). Pollux's loyalty to his brother is so great that he magnaminously releases Télaïre, whom he loves too, so that she and Castor can be happy. In contrast, Télaïre's sister, Phébé (Laura Tatulescu), is so jealous that she conspires with an enemy to destroy the kingdom, which results in Castor's death.  Like twins, the sisters are dressed as a pair, but their closeness is the cause of the friction. Castor and Pollux  represent sibling love so strong that Pollux is willing to stay in Hades if his brother is saved.

Barrie Kosky's production (designed by Katrin Lea Tag) uses an abstract set but it's minimalist for a good reason as it throws what drama there is into stark, high profile. Although the stage looks bare, each of the panels is textured to reflect light. It shimmers luminously, like starlight. And like starlight, it's beautiful in an understated subtle way. Again, contrast. The huge mound that represents the earth and underworld isn't subtle at all, and quite dangerously angled, as if the singers might suddenly fall to their doom.

The sexual aspects of this production will titillate those who enjoy being scandalized, but there's purpose in that too.  Castor and Pollux is also an allegory on Death and Birth.  The dead Castor burrows into the ground and pops up again, as if the earth were a birth canal. But birth isn't possible without sex. Yet  its grubby aspects serve as counterpoint to the pure, rarified and non-sexual love between Castor and Pollux. If some of the scenes go on too long, that's because the music needs time to make its point. Fortunately, there's a lot of wry humour in the depiction, such as the series of knickers that will never end.  And those who give in to removing their knickers can't move with their clothes around their ankles. The idea, I think, is concealment and revelation. Or not, as they're in the realm of shadows.

The Hades scene was specially striking. All these images come from depictions of the underworld familair to the illustrations of the period. Ghoul masks and even references to Persephone and  Orpheus. The two men (the tall one's wonderful) with headresses of leaves and flowers connect to primeval  fertility magic, completely appropriate to the meaning of this opera. Jupiter (Henry Waddington) and his High Priest (Andrew Rupp) are represented in a way that period audiences would have recognized. As for nudity, anyone who's seen classical art or sculpture shouldn't be surprised.

Christian Curnyn's a leading baroque specialist, and the score was masterfully expressive. Superlative  period performance, highligting the fundamental precision and transparency in the orchestration. Rameau wasn't a music theorist for nothing. Small drums lightly brushed and tapped - absolutely no need for the banks of timpani that verismo would demand.  Exquistely delicate writing for strings, the refinement reflecting images of starlight.  The Gemini twinkle, but they're powerful forces in the firmament. Curnyn's light, but assertive touch was perfect. I didn't like the constant pounding of feet in the first Act, but in a way that underlined the pedestrian nature of the kingdom before the supernatural took hold. I thought of Lully, conducting with a staff, providing extra percussion. At the end,  Sophie Bevan runs round frantically. She represents physical energy, but she's going round in circles, since she has no higher purpose.

The tremolo in Allan Clayton's Castor was resolved as the performance progressed but was fine later. Roderick Willliams' Pollux was perfect, his delivery never forced or excessive, completely in keeping with Rameau's elegant idiom.  He has to do a lot of fighting in this part, rolling and writhing on the ground, which might take its toll as the run continues, but on first night, his singing was superb. Sophie Bevan's Télaïre was wonderful. She has animal magnetism, and youthful vigour: the positive side of earthly virtues. Her singing was clear-toned and pure, true to Rameau's high textures. How maddening Télaïre's purity must have been to Phébé, but Laura Tatulescu's characterization gives a relatively minor role strong impact.

Many things could be tweaked in Barry Kosky's directing, but this ENO Castor and Pollux has merits once you start thinking Rameau's terms.

photo: Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams, credit Alastair Muir, Roderick Williams and Ed Lyon, credit Charlotte van Berckel

Aaaah, Miah !!! Swedish Songs, Oxford Lieder

I have a friend who has worshipped Miah Persson since she was a student. So when she married and moved to England, he was bereft and I was thrilled. How fortunate we are to be able to hear Miah, especially at Glyndebourne. .Her Mozart is outstanding, but then, so too is her Britten, her Strauss, her Sibelius, her Mahler, her baroque..... She has exquisite lyrical tone, and a range that moves easily and flexibly. But what makes her special is her wit and charm. When Miah sings, you always sense musical intelligence. Megastar as she is now, she hasn't forgotten her roots, so it was wonderful to hear her at The Oxford Lieder Festival in a programme of Swedish songs. Indeed, she made her mark in Britain with her Hyperion CD "Soul and Landscape" in 2003.

"Soul and Landscape" refers to the Gösta Nystroem group of songs Själ och landskap, which she sang again in Oxford, this time with Matti Hirvornen, a superlative interpreter. Landscape is briefly sketched - snowfall, sea, rocks, wind, but the real landscape Nystroem and his poet Ebba Lindqvist are dealing with is internal.  Terrain is a metaphor for longing: open horizons of the soul. Matti Hirvornen shapes the delicate traceries, bringing out the elusive grace in these songs. He's much, much more idiomatic than Roger Vignoles was (sorry, but it's true). Persson's voice has blossomed beautifully, and she sings with much greater colour and depth. No comparison bertween the 2003 recording (where piano is too heavily miked) and this exquisite live performance.

Even more magical is På reveln (On the rocks) from 1948. Almost unbelievably diaphanous textures (Hirvonen is brilliant). The vocal part is luminous too. Livets drömlika skö sin evighets rand. (life's dreamlike beauty... on the edge of eternity). The song is as gossamer as the wings of the white butterflies in the text, which flutter in the sunshine. Again, it's a mood poem, for the poet Anders Osterling is standing on rocks between sea and land. Soon the tide will draw in, and the night, and the moment will be gone forever.

Miah Persson doesn't often sing in places as small as the Holywell Music Room (120-140 at a pinch). She made no compromises given the size of the room, and seemed to relish the chance to sing as intimately as if she were singing in her own home. A set of Ture Rangström songs, to poems by Johan Ludwig Runeberg and Bo Bergman, (who lived until 1966). Echoes of Edvard Grieg (hear En Svane in Sommarnatten), but otherwise these songs occupy a strange, but comtemporary world even when the texts coyly refer to maidens and trysts. Pan is glorious. Livets stora hunger stiger stark och god, och mitt sommarblod sjunger. (Life's deep hunger rises strong and my summer blood sings.) Anna Larsson sang this same song the previous evening: a unique chance to hear mezzo and soprano versions in close proximity.

Grieg's German songs op 48, and Jean Sibelius's Swedish songs to conclude. Phenomenal phrasing, lovely warm timbre. Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring flys away swiftly) and War det en Dröm? Which summarizes the spirit of these songs. Scandinavian summers don't last long, and hard winters will return. But for a moment, live to the full and enjoy. Which summarizes so much of the life-affirming, open-hearted  nature of this music, despite its Sensucht.

photo : Mina artistbilder

Monday 24 October 2011

Opera as social signifier - major article

How are opera houses configured and why? A major article in the Financial Times examines how the design of opera houses has changed in response to changes in music and society. Read it here. Wonderful photos. (mine is La Fenice). It's a significant article because it shows that there's never been just one type of house or acoustic. Or opera, for that matter. The article's also significant because it states that which most dare not say. Some opera patrons could not give a stuff about music.

In Italy, opera audiences were socially diverse, though the masses were kept away from the nobs. Important consideration for health and hygiene reasons, not that the nobs washed either. English houses had a similar demographic. Nell Gwynne supposedly met the King while selling oranges (albeit at the theatre not the opera). Opera houses were ornate, not just because they catered to the rich but because they extended the idea of fantasy and glamour that made theatre an escape from brutal reality. But, as Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message". Going to the opera became associated with class and wealth.  The Old Rich had nothing to prove, but the New Rich needed something to signal their status. So if you had money, you spent loads at the opera, whether or not you cared what was on.  A bit like vanity plates on cars. The really posh don't need to advertise. Opera as social signifier and opera as art aren't the same thing.

Perhaps this explains the innate conservatism of some opera audiences. A few years back there was a fuss about the number of small German opera houses (many ironically built for real kings and nobles).  "The trouble with German audiences" said some, "it that they have too many opportunities". Ergo, limiting attendance to the Met is good for art? All the more reason to read the article in the FT.

Many more posts here on architecture, theatre design etc. 

Håkan Hagegård Papageno in Swedish

Håkan Hagegård sings Papageno in Swedish. How young and sweet he looks, but it's 1975 and he's only 30. This is from Ingmar Bergman's Magic Flute, an adaptation of Mozart made for Swedish TV. Maybe that's why it's "snowing" below.  It was screened in full on Saturday in Oxford as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival 2011. Hagegård was there to talk about the film, and also gave a keynote Masterclass. One of the important things about Oxford Lieder is the way experienced singers like Hagegård (and Wolfgang Holzmair, Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Felicity Lott, Dame Felicity Palmer and others) share their skills with young performers. There's nothing like learning from someone with real platform background. Masterclass participants are uniquely privileged. Plus, they get to listen in on all concerts, talks and events, and give their own recital on Wednesday 26th October.

I wish I'd been to the film and to the short course on singing in Swedish. Although German speakers can more or less make out what's being said, specific sounds are very different indeed. No hard gutterul "g"'s but the fluid, softer Swedish "g" that sounds like the English "y". Hence "Runebery" not "RuneberG". Probably many more useful tips. There was a Smörgåsbord too, hosted by the Swedish Embassy.

What a thrill it was for me was to be sitting near Hagegård during the 10pm concert on Saturday in New College ante chapel. Susana Andersson sang and Sholto Kynoch played a programme of Alfvén, Petersen-Berger and Stenhammer with 3 songs from Liszt to mark his 200th birthday. Also, another premiere of a new work, this time Albert Schnelzer's Requiem, which starts with a dramatic fugue on the piano. Piano-song mini-Requiems are very different from gargantuan, elaborate Requiems. Very good singing and playing - and this was Sholto's fifth recital. Such an enjoyable concert. More on Oxford Lieder HERE (Anna Larsson) and HERE and more to come.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Anna Larsson Swedish Songs Oxford

It's ironic that Jean Sibelius is the best known composer of Swedish song. But Sweden ruled Finland and much of Scandinavia for many years, and Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish, not Finnish. That should indicate the richness of Swedish culture. This weekend of Swedish Song at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2011 should help  raise awareness of the glories of Swedish Song.

Daniel Grimley perceptively analysed the songs in the recital which followed. This is the kind of depth we need more of. Grimley knows his subject well (he wrote the book on Grieg, landscape and identity) and has perceptive things to say. Too often these days talks and notes are "filler" produced by people who have no idea what they're talking about. It's anti-learning. (I walked out of something at the South Bank recently, as did several others).

Anna Larsson and Matti Hirvonen chose an eclectic programme which started with Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea), by Gösta Nystroem (1890-1966). Sweden was neutral in 1944, but as Dr Grimley said, Swedish people weren't immune to the chaos around them. The "Song of the Sea" describes the ocean, sometimes windswept and turbulent, sometimes seemingly still in the moonlight, a thing of beauty which can turn menacing. Delicate diminuendos, sparkling figures that evoke images like light on water, or ocean spray. "Who are you who walk here, transient and fragile, who are you who trample the summer meadow?"  (Ute i skåre, Among the Rocks, Ebba Lindqvist). The landscape seems perfect, but behind it is unfocussed dread. Sonorous depths, especially in the piano part, evoking the power of nature, perhaps. In Havets visa (the sea's song) the poet Hjalmar Gullberg (1898-1961) briefly mentions the "voice which parts waters and makes light", but is even this haven completely safe? The last song, also Gullberg, ends "I await the moon, the friend in all misery, with him I can speak of the dead".

Anna Larsson was a wonderful Princess in the recent Puccini Suor Angelica (review HERE) and we're lucky she sings regularly in this country (twice at the 2011 Proms). Nystroem may be close to her heart, as she sang with great feeling. The cycle is a pinnacle of the Swedish mezzo repertoire. It's been recorded several times and there's also an orchestral version, though the piano version is more direct and intimate. The BIS recording (Birgit Finnilä) is probably best known, but there's also one by Nina Stemme from 2004 (she sounds very young). Larsson's mature enough that she can express the existential angst central to this wonderful cycle, with great depth. Because she's secure at the top and bottom, she sails the range smoothly. That upwards/downwards flow is itself part of the music for it reflects the movement of the seas.

Always pay attention to Oxford Lieder because here is where things happen.  Many new works, carefully chosen. Carin Bartosch Edström's Four Nocturnal Songs received its world premiere, and if the reception was anything to go by, it ought to be heard many times more. It's very distinctive. Firm ostinato on the right hand, rolling, circular figures on the left, creating brooding, internal tension. Matti Hirvonen is a leading exponent of Swedish piano music and a great song partner, who's worked with most Scandinavian singers from Elisabeth Söderström onwards. In this performance, you could hear why. The piano part in this cycle is dominant, and Hirvonen sculpts it firmly, for it's the foundation of the work, from which the voice emerges, as if in incantation.
Hearing Edström's Four Nocturnal Songs for the first time, one senses the originality of conception, even without a detailed reading of the words. The rumbling piano part suggests deep, primordial forces, over which the voices rise, as if from the still of the night. Indeed, the power of this cycle stems from its understated resolve. No need for histrionics in the voice part, for it's so well integrated with the steady rhythms in the piano, which rise and fall like breathing, with some quite magical quirky flurries.

The poems are by Edith
Södergran (1892-1923) a Swedish speaking Finn, like Sibelius, who lived in Russia, and the Karelia, which was later ethnic cleansed. It's significant. Södergran grew up in a time of war, revolution and chaos, In one poem, a star crashes into the poet's garden. "Don't go out in the grass with bare feet" she warns, "my yard is full of shards" (It sounds better in Swedish). Then "Don't get too close to your dreams, they are madness". The third song, Nattlig Madonna is, as Dr Grimley said, an anti- lulllaby.  While her child sleeps in the night, a mother hears an angel sing. O vad världen växte ut i alla vidder närden lille sov! I think it means that while the child sleeps, the world outside is changing. At the very end, Larsson's voice ascends steadily up the scale. Morgonen stiger röd ur oceanen (Morning rises red from the ocean). It's beautiful, yet unsettling. Gentle and non violent as it is, Carin Bartosch Edström's Four Nocturnal Songs is very moving and assured. Defintely worth hearing again. Edström may not be known In Britain, but she's very experienced - check her out on Google.

Larsson and Hilvornen followed with four relatively familiar songs by Ture Rangström, including Vingar i natten (Wings in the Night), made famous by Anne Sofie von Otter, and songs by Strauss and Mahler, of whom she's one of the better intrepreters. But the Nytsroem and  Edström cycles were by far the highlight of the evening. Larsson and Hirvonen are performing the same programme tonight in Amsterdam (except the Edstrom songs)

Lots moreon Oxford Lieder on this site,pleasesearch.You might also like a piece on Onerva, the Finnish poet and  a description of the seminal film Korkalen

Saturday 22 October 2011

Jette Parker Young Artists Linbury Theatre

Without young artists, no art form will thrive or grow. The Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artists scheme nurtures good things from young artists so that their performances attract thoughtful audiences. All members of the Royal Opera House Young Artists scheme are professionals, not students, and have extensive experience even before they come, as former Young Artist Simona Mihai put it, "to be polished like gemstones". Graduates of the scheme include Marina Poplavskaya, Jacques Imbrailo and Ekaterina Gubanova.

Most of the Young Artists are singers, but the scheme also covers other aspects of opera-making. The singers, director and conductors in the scheme created this special performance of Massenet Le Portrait de Manon and Berlioz Les Nuits d'été to demonstrate their skills.

Massenet composed Le Portrait de Manon in 1894 as a one-act sequel to Manon. It is an excellent choice, coming after the Royal Opera House productions of Manon and Cendrillon. Knowing the background is valuable, as Le Portrait de Manon is essentally an epilogue to Manon. However, this Young Artists production was good enough that it could stand on its own.

Des Grieux (Zhengzhong Zhou) has grown old and bitter, so trapped in his grief that he's irritated when his lively young nephew Jean (Hanna Hipp) falls in love and wants to marry. The set (Sophie Mosberger) is very well designed, emphasizing Des Grieux's isolation, despite the trappings of wealth. There's a long rumination, in which Des Grieux sings about his past. Zhengzhong Zhou worked two years in France, and sang Valentin in Gounod's Faust earlier this month, so although he's only 27, he characterized Des Grieux's personality with emotional depth. His makeup was so well done, he looked as mature as he sounded. Pablo Bemsch, as Tiberge, Des Grieux's friend, was also very convincing, extending our sympathy with the predicament. Des Grieux isn't being unreasonable when he opposes Jean's marriage : perhaps he doesn't want the young man to be hurt as he was.

Love and youth will triumph, after all, as this is opera. Hanna Hipp is one of this year's new members of the Young Artists scheme, but she impressed greatly even as a student several years ago at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Here she's a vivacious young scamp in trousers. Maybe Des Grieux is right, Jean's too young to be tied down. But Hipp and Aurore (Susana Gaspar) are spirited, and their confidence in their roles makes the resolution inevitable. Stunned by Aurore's appearance, dressed as Manon, Des Grieux remembers and relents. If Manon the opera is tragic, Le Portrait de Manon is an invigorating romp, and in this performance, deftly executed.

Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été is a song cycle, and even in the 1856 orchestral transcription heard here, doesn't transfer easily to the stage. In theory, there's no reason why not, and the undercurrent of dream unifies the group of songs. While the staging for Le Portrait de Manon was concise, enhancing, adding to meaning, the staging for Les Nuits d'été was clumsy. One bed might have sufficed. These songs express states of mind, not different characters.

Pablo Bensch had been interesting as Tiberge earlier, so I was looking forward to his Villanelle. Unfortunately orchestra and singer weren't properly aligned, the winds entering insensitively, throwing the vocal line off kilter. Fortunately, Bemsch was better supported in Au Cimitiere. Hanna Hipp and Susana Gaspar sang the other songs. The balance was good, making a case for mixed voices. Berlioz sanctioned this, but it's usually impractical in recital. Another good reason for paying attention to Young Artists Events, where repertoire is often approached in interesting ways.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Rimsky-Korsakov The Golden Cockerel

The historic complete recording of Rimsky-Korsakov The Golden Cockerel (Le coq d'or) is available online for a week on BBC Radio 3
This is the famous 1985 recording from Bulgarian radio. It's so vivid that your imagination can create the scenes more gloriously than any "real" production constrained by practical concerns.

The main body of the opera is prefaced and followed by a short scene in which The Astrologer tells us what's about to happen. It feels like he's opening the lid of a lacquered box, so the contents spill out like amazing, fantastic jewels. You don't really need a libretto - everything's so sumptuous that words almost get in the way. The Astrologer should be a tenor altino, a tenor with an extremely high range that's almost falsetto. Tessitura to challenge reality. This is fairy tale in music, glorious illusion for its own sake.

The plot isn't realistic, either. King Dodon thinks the Queen of Shemaka is invading his land. The Astrologer has a Golden Cockerel that can speak. The King's sons attack the Queen but are smitten by her beauty, and are killed. Next, the King is smitten, too - who wouldn't be seduced by the Queen's arias? Trills and mellismas so fiendishly impossible that you're left gasping, how does she do it? Magic, of course. Then the lethal kick that's at the heart of every good fairy tale. The Astrologer wants the Queen as his reward for helping the King save his country  The king kills the Astrologer, but the Golden Cockerel kills the King. Magnificent fugue at the end of Act 3 (the end of the main opera) : a magic storm that chases the Kingdom away. Then the Astrologer returns, announcing that it was all fantasy. The lid on the gilded lacquer box is closed again.

This performance is fabulous, in the real meaning of the word. The conductor, Dimiter Manolov, shapes details like a jeweller crafting gems: tremulous strings, resonant but clean vibrato, swooping diminuendos that cut through the richness, reminding us that under the magic, there's something unnatural and even chilling.

The Golden Cockerel is well known as Diaghilev's Le Coq d'Or where ballet was added to make the heady concoction even more potent. The picture above is one of Natalia Goncharova's designs for the Ballet Russe. She made equally splendid designs for each scene, even for backdrops and the opening curtain. How spectacular it must have been!  And then the 1914-18 war and the Russian Revolution. So maybe The Golden Cockerel is a last glimpse of a magnificent dream.

Overnight broadcasts like "Through the Night" are full of hidden treasures like this Golden Cockerel, and serve a purpose, especially for more eclectic (and discriminating) tastes.  Apparently they might be phased out as part of the BBC cuts. Already, there's no music on BBC Radio 3 after 10 pm. Technology has changed. Time slots are irrelevant in our 24/7 internet culture. So it's vital that we give "Through the Night" credit. Real enthusiasts don't switch off at 10 pm and go to bed. They're listening everywhere at different times. Please read more here about why we should be worrying about the long term implications of then BBC cuts.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Wagner's Dutchman has flown away - Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera House

When this production of Wagner Der fliegende Holländer premiered at the Royal Opera House in February 2009, Bryn Terfel was its raison d'être.  His absence was sorely felt, even by those who aren't usually seduced by his charms. In this revival, the draw was Jeffrey Tate's return to Covent Garden after nearly 20 years.

Minimal stagings can work when they highlight meaning and music. Tim Albery's production (designed by Michael Levine) is a blank canvas, which styles The Flying Dutchman rather than suggests much about who he is. No portrait of any kind in sight.  Instead, a toy boat. The boat itself is wonderfully staged, and it's a masterstroke to see real water on stage, lit so its reflection shines magically into the auditorium. But it doesn't convey the wildness of the open ocean, nor the turbulent psychic storm around which this opera predicates.

Perhaps Albery's interpretation is that the opera predicates on Senta and her frustratons,  the Dutchman being a projection of her fantasies.  Anja Kempe's Senta was extremely impressive in 2009. Then, she was a perfect foil to Terfel's solid, taciturn Dutchman. Kempe's energy created Senta as driven to extremes to escape what to her might have seemed mind numbing conformity. The Dutchman is her "get out of town" card,  rather than a cursed soul. It's a valid interpretation, given Albery's factory staging of the spinning scene, and marginal references to the haunted ship. It's a concept worth exploring, though rather too simplistic. Senta's not Tosca. Wildness is tricky to sing into this part, and occasionally Kempe relied more on forcefulness than finesse.  Nonetheless, she can do it well, and should settle further into the run.

Egils Silins was a late replacement for Falk Struckmann as The Dutchman. This was his Covent Garden debut, and possibly his highest profile performance to date. Although his voice isn't particularly distinctive, he's secure vocally and does seem to have a feel for the part. In a production where the singer has more to work with and is less exposed, he'd make a bigger impact. Part of this stems from Albery's approach, where the Dutchman is reduced to little more than Senta's dreams.  It takes an unusually powerful and charismatic singer to counterbalance these limitations.

Stephen Milling's Daland was forcefully secure, even too noble, given that the character has an unpleasant streak of venality, which would work well in Albery's concept, but wasn't developed. Still, it's enough that he sang well. Endrik Wottrich's Erik had problems with pitch and intonation, but was reasonably well acted. Clare Shearer's Mary was excellent - no fault of hers that the role here was a cipher.

The role of Steersman is much bigger, and critical to the plot, for the Steersman is guides the ship into the distance. Both Senta and the Steersman dream, but Senta can't think past the present. John Tessier has to sing suspended up a rope ladder, but hasn't quite the character to make the part as compelling as it might be.  But then many productions don't make enough of the role, and this production doesn't, either. It's odd, given Albery's interest in images of conformity, as the Steersman is part of the crew. As always, the Royal Opera House choruses sing and move perfectly. The vocal battle between the Dutchman's crew and Daland's crew isn't quite as horrific as it might be, but the Steuermann, laß die Wacht! refrain was sung with such jaunty zest that it left no doubt that these sailors and their families had no time for spooks and neurosis.

And so to Jeffrey Tate's long awaited return to London. Fortunately Albery did not stage the protracted Overture, so we could concentrate on the orchestra. Tate's pace was electric, injecting the malevolent atmosphere the staging tried so hard to suppress. The energy dissipated at other points, which was a kindness to the singers, who didn't have to compete, and to Albery's staging, which was so much at odds with the demonic, elemental fury in the music. When the Dutchman's crew descend back into the bowels of their ship, Tate lets the orchestra burst forth again. They're back on the ocean again, metaphorically defying storms and tribulations.

Please read the review which will appear shortly in Opera Today, and the review from 2009. .

Photos : copyright Mike Hoban, courtesy of the Royal Opera House, details embedded.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Flying Dutchman - Ava Gardner?

Wagner Der fliegende Hollander starts tonight at the Royal Opera House. (Please see my review HERE) But here's another Flying Dutchman but not as we'd know it. The music isn't Richard Wagner but Alan Rawsthorne, a combination of lurid technicolor and stiff upper lipped Britishness.

What's more the Senta character is Ava Gardner, and she gets to sing the arias, too. Indeed, she plays the Dutchman as well, wandering through life unable to love, though her beauty drives men mad. "The measure of love is what one is prepared to give up for it". So a man throws his precious racing car over a cliff, another committs suicide. But she doesn't care.

This Flying Dutchman is set in sunny Spain, so the film can work in a long, implausible reference to Carmen and matadors. Spain is also warm enough that Ava gets to swim stark naked out to the mystrerious yacht in the bay. Onboard she meets The Dutchman, who paints portraits instead of being in one. He paints her! It's James Mason. Bizarrely, the Daland character is an archeaologist who's found a manuscript supposedly written by the real Flying Dutchman in the 17th century, who killed his wife (Ava) thinking she was unfaithful. Hence the curse.

Then the movie turns from Wagner to Carmen. Montalvo the matador is Ava/Senta/Carmen/Pandora's ex, so we get to watch a long drawn out scene in the bullring, where he gets killed, not Carmen. Montalvo had tried to kill the Dutchman, so he's Escamillo and Don José in one. Meanwhile Ava/Pandora/Senta realizes that she loves the Dutchman so much that she'll give up her life for him. She dumps the Erik character (the racing driver) she's about to marry and swims out to the yacht. That night, a demonic storm. Next morning, two bodies wash up on the beach.

Interestingly, this movie was made just before Ava Gardner became a major star. She was a Southern belle, but dusky enough to play exotic characters rather than the Bette Davis type. Rumour has it that Ava passed for white, but wasn't. Hooray again for people who break out of racial stereotypes!

Mixed Britannia BBC

This song makes me weep. It's so specific that it seems like it's about a real woman. She's half African, half Norwegian, went to Cambridge, acculturates white. But her feelings do not count.  She can "can never get away from the fact, if you're not white you're considered black". It's a calypso by Lord Kitchener, from around 1950 when mixed race was much less common than now. The man assumes the woman is acting superior because she doesn't fancy him. Years later when Lord Kitchener sang the song in Jamaica, he made it even more sexist, as if the woman was doing a crime for choosing not to sleep with him. At least calypso songs deal with race issues openly. But why should any woman, or any person, be defined by race?

Currently there are several programmes on the BBC about race issues. George Alagiah's Mixed Britannia must have taken ages to make because it's extremely well researched and outstandingly well made.They've uncovered completely new material, which has lain unnoticed in the archives and needs to be publiicized. Like the "Eugenics" movement which tried pseudo-scientific measurements of "mongrels" as mixed race people were called in those days. Someone must have realized where such things led, as they were quietly phased out after the Nuremberg race laws in Germany.

That didn't stop vindictive racism. As soon a WWII ended some bright spark had the notion of rounding up Chinese in Liverpool and shipping them back to China. The men were rounded up in the street, like animals,  and put on board a waiting ship. Many of the men werre long established UK residents, and had wives and families, but weren't allowed to make contact, or collect their belongings and papers. So hundreds of women and around 1000 children thought they'd been suddenly deserted, and never found out what happened..

If the men did make it back to China (they may have been dumped in India), the country was still in chaos, millions of refugees, destitute and homeless. Ironically many of these men would have worked for the British navy and merchant navy, where thousands of Chinese were enrolled, a huge proportion killed serving the British war effort.

Fortunately most normal people are sane. But racism is alive and well, for too many have vested interests in fuelling hate. The recent riots showed just how skewed assumptions really are.  Far Right white gangs attacked the police, immigrants gave their lives to defend their neighbourhoods, and  looters were most colours and classes. So programmes like Mixed Britannia are vitally important, to remind us that race is packaging, it isn't the person within. 

Please also see my posts on race issues, under labels like Africa, Chinese stereotypes, social issues etc. Watch the full movie Within Our Gates here too, the earliest known movie by a Black American that confronts things like lynching and exploitation. Also full download of Broken Blossoms, and a critique of Piccadilly, the Anna May Wong film much lauded by the BFI as progressive. The more I think about that film, the more offensive I think it is, but its appeal to Chinese outside Chinese culture is genuine, and needs to be analysed. You might also like this piece on Ghana Freedom, which mentions George Appiah, whose marriage to Stafford Cripps's daughter Peggy features in the second Mixed Britannia episode. Theirs wasn't the first high profile mixed marraige. My mole in FCO archives told me about the Govt of South Africa protesting mixed marriage in Britain, threatening to quit the Commonwealth. There are thousands of other stories waiting to be told. Like, a Colonial Police Officer held prisoner in a Japanese camp wants to marry. Under colonial rules he needs his commanding officers' approval.  They're all prisoners in the Japanese camp too but they forbid the marriage because the fiancee can't prove she has no mixed blood. Of course she can't. She's Eurasian. This is April 1945, right at the end of the war, but these colonials don't twig that the world's changed. Imagine what the Japanese thought. (and the irony still rankles with non whites today)

Monday 17 October 2011

Faust embastillé par la mise en scène?

"Faust embastillé par la mise en scène?, so writes my friend Dodorock on his unique blog De chez toi.  Thanks to him, we can watch Gounod Faust straight from Paris, Opéra Bastille, (Philippe Jordan, Roberto Alagna) hours after the show on 11th October. and also read a selection of reviews. Controversial, huh? One critic wails that Gounod's been turned into grand Guignol. On the other hand Faust's predicament is the ultimate grand Guignol, for Méphisto is leading Faust into crazier things than he could ever imagine.

Watching the production live and on film are different experiences. This film, directed by François Roussillon is probably clearer, since the camera can pick up on tiny telling details you could easily miss on a big stage. The set (Johann Engels) is panoramic for a good reason : it represents Faust's search for knowledge. Hence bookshelves straight to the top of the stage area, statues, telescopes, astrolabes, and a rhinoceros, like the one Louis XV kept at Versailles. The idea is that the universe is so full of exotic things, we can never stop searching. Faust has realized that he'll never take it all in, which is why he calls on Méphisto to restore the youth he hadn't appreciated when young. Central features: a gigantic crucifix and a glass dome under which a miniature green jungle thrives. A golden calf and huge skeleton. Such abundance, yet Faust knows something's missing. Like Einstein writing on a blackboard, he scrawls "Rien!" on the wall.

Méphisto arrives quietly. Paul Gay looks more than 2 metres tall, elegantly attired, sophisticated. A brief shot of a painting behind him, barely glimpsed, of the traditional Devil in red jumpsuit and pointy tail.  If the Devil, in real life, was so easy to spot, why follow? Why anyone needs to see him as fire spitting demon, I don't know, for the whole point is that mortals choose their own fate. Méphisto merely facilitates.

Remi Corazza sings Old Faust, who transforms into Roberto Alagna's Young Faust. On film, the switch is amazing, as it should be. It's a miracle, by the devil.  Alagna is surprisingly good, though he's more Italianate than Gallic, but that's no problem. Faust is an eternal archetype, German with Goethe, vaguely middle European in Marlowe. Alagna's physicality is superb. His Faust has erotic animal energy, with much moree individual personality than Grigolo at Covent Garden.(please see review HERE) Sex is the life force that motivates Marguerite, too, and Siebel and Marthe. 

At first, Inva Mula as Marguerite, moves like an automaton, singing the King of Thule song as if the slavish loyalty in the song was drilled into her. When she finds the jewel box, she's transforemed. While McVicar had Gheorghiu squeal with delight at fake gemstones, the Paris director, Jean-Louis Martinoty emphasizes Marguerite's inner awakening. Méphisto is with her as she takes off her robe. Mula and Alagna grope each other with  X rated realism. They sing the double duets with real relish, as if both are discovering Eros for the first time.  The film cuts to a shot of the glass dome with the jungle which was there all along side stage. A glimpse of Dürer's Adam and Eve flashes on screen, almost certainly missed live. I'm less convinced by the green light and foliage that now fill the stage but Martinoty is making a valid point. God or Devil, it's humans who make the choices.

The soldiers return from war as walking wounded, which give Gloria immortelle a poignant kick. Like Faust, Marguerite, and Siebel, they've bought into dreams.  From this point, illusions are shattered. Méphisto appears dressed as a red robed bishop, possibly on stilts, as he towers above all.  He tramples on the giant crucifix, which lowers like a drawbridge between Hell and Earth. "Marguerite, sois maudite!" intones Gay, with dark portent. The ancient goddesses rock baby pigs and owls, in a parody of Marguerite rocking her dead baby, and feast on a table that was once the Crucifix. A skeleton descends from the ceiling. "Quel etrange ornement" indeed.

Then crucifix becomes guillotine. On stage, this might have been clumsy. On film, we see the soldiers, townsfolk and sundry  personages parade in a mock religious procession - Gloire immortelle, now kinky and twisted. Then Siebel emerges, carrying Marguerite's head which gets put, not into a tumbril but into the kind of glass case with holy relics you see in hallowed sites.  She gets to Heaven though not quite in the usual way. Méphisto doesn't need to drag Faust  physically down to Hell. He merely points, and Faust meekly follows. What happens in Hades can't be much worse than damnation on earth. No wonder Fench critics weren't comfortable. But it's a valid realization of the plot.

Philippe Jordan conducts the orchestra of L'Opéra Bastille, with sardonic pungency. Definitely a whiff of sulphur here! In the love duets, the orchestra is specially verdant and romantic, but Jordan has a feel for the mad march that underlies the greater arc in the music. From the overture to the end, the pace is brisk, controlled but sharp. Mépghisto's music is particularly vivid. The staccato "footsteps" are deft, almost magical, matching Méphisto's sly, unhumorous  "Ha ! Ha ! Ha !"
Here is, thanks to Ddorock, the link to the broadcast  Lots more on Faust, Goethe and other Faust operas/movies on this site too, please explore.

Adriana Lecouvreur at the movies

The fabulous Royal Opera House Adriana Lecouvreur is on at the movies !  Click here for details of cinemas near you (international).  It was the best thing on last year and is, I think, a keeper. Read more about the production HERE and HERE.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Schubert Part Songs, Oxford Lieder 2011

What might Schubertiades have been like? At the Oxford Lieder Festival, we probably come close. The atmosphere is intimate, many in the audience are old friends. Often, Schubert's audiences were the performers. In those days before recording or radio, people made their own music, at home or in genial company.  Part of being socially "accomplished" then meant learning the piano or guitar, and singing.

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival focuses on all the songs Schubert wrote in the last years of his life, so the programme on Saturday night was eclectic. In the first part: two Schlegel settings (Abendlied für die Entfernte D856, and Abendröte D690, and two Schulz settings, Im Walde D834 and Um  Mitternacht D852. :and a setting of Schubert's rakish friend Franz von Schober Schiffers Scheidlied D910, who is in the Moritz von Schwind drawing above (tho' I can't remember offhand which one he is). Singers Raphaela Papadakis, Victoria Simmonds, Nicky Spence and Mark Stone who sang an all-powerful Die Allmacht D852. Schubertiades tapered off as Schubert's friends married and/or went off to other pursuits, but von Schwind is recalling Schubert himself at the piano, sometimes joining in with the singing in his light tenor. Sholto Kynoch didn't sing, but his playing was particularly eloquent and graceful. That's why I kept thinking "Schubertiade", where the man at the piano is the one we should never overlook. For a change I could luxuriate and enjoy the piano part. All five joined together for Gebet D815, voices interweaving and alternating. It's not a very sophisticated song but when five performers are in harmony like this, it's a good experience.

What a pity that I was so tired I couldn't make the second half, because the offerings were even more unusual. Nun wer die Sehnsucht  kennt D877/1 in the version for two voices, two settings of Wilhelm von Schütz, better known as a dramatist, Lied der Delphine D857/1 and Lied des Florio D857/2, both of them songs of veiled flirtation, perfect for home performance where players could say in song what they dared not express directly. Der Hochzeitsbraten D930 is much more buffo, and often gets included in part song programmes because it's a hilarious skit, a mini-mini opera that lasts a few minutes but has major impact. Therese and Theobald aree getting married, so they go poaching to get supplies for their wedding feast. Kaspar, the gamekeeper (good part for a baritone who can act, as Stone does) catches them red handed. Theobald tries to bribe Kaspar, but Therese flirts with him, which is rather more effective. You can guess why this song, sung with gusto, is often a show stopper. Here, though, the concert ended with Der Tanz D826. This was an inspired choice, given that Oxford Lieder is focussing on Schubert's last years., It's a dance, but more danse macabre than peasant hi jinks:
Es redet und träumet die Jugend so viel,
Von Tanzen, Galoppen, Gelagen,
Auf einmal erreicht sie ein trügliches Ziel,
Da hört man sie seufzen und klagen.

Bald schmerzet der Hals, und bald schmerzet die Brust,
Verschwunden ist alle die himmlische Lust,
"Nur diesmal noch kehr' mir Gesundheit zurück!"
So flehet vom Himmel der hoffende Blick!

Jüngst wähnt' auch ein Fräulein mit trübem Gefühl,
Schon hätte ihr Stündlein geschlagen.
Doch stand noch das Rädchen der Parze nicht still,
Nun schöner die Freuden ihr tagen

Drum Freunde, erhebet den frohen Gesang,
Es lebe die teure Irene noch lang!
Sie denke zwar oft an das falsche Geschick,
Doch trübe sich nimmer ihr heiterer Blick.

(for translation, see Emily Ezust's wonderful Lieder and Song Texts page, link at right - an essential  resource for anyone interested in voical music.

Hindemith Cardillac Vienna - full broadcast

Full broadcast of Cardillac, Paul Hindemith's iconic opera from 1926, available on BBC Radio 3 online, on demand for 5 more days. It comes from the Vienna State Opera, recorded late lat year. Franz Welser-Möst conducts.

Juha Uusitalo is Cardillac the goldsmith, who thinks strictly in terms of his craft. Even his daughter means nothing to him, because, unlike gold, women can't be forged and twisted into shape. Cardillac is so obsessed with the jewellery he makes that he can't bear to let go. Everyone who buys a piece gets murdered. Control freak anal retentive to the nth degree. It's probably impossible to make Cardillac sympathetic, even when he's torn apart by the mob. Juliane Banse sings Cardillac's daughter, who loves her Dad despite knowing he's nuts. Her lover is The Officer (Herbert Lippert).

The plot's fiendishly complicated, a lot like the intricate jewellery Cardillac designs, so don't expect to get it easily without visuals the first time. It grows on you, though, even though emotionally the opera pushes you away, just as Cardillac himself pushes people away.  Please read my analysis of the 1985 Munich production, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and Jim Zychowicz's review of its re-release.There's also a more recent Paris production, conducted by Kent Nagano. There are at least 3 audio recordings, of which Keilberth (Fisher-Dieskau/Donald Grobe/Elisabeth Söderström is most interesting. It's not "obscure", but one of the more seminal works of the period. Just not very "feelgood".

See the production photos on the BBC site. Much is made of this production being based on silent film, though the Paris production had the same concept. But I think it works fine, to bring out the stark film noirish aspects of the story. Cardillac himself thinks in black and white terms, and the music reflects that off-centre edginess. Lots more on Hindemith on this site !