Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Champagne and bombs - highs and lows of 2011

What fizzed and what fell flat? Some real surprises and not quite what you'd expect. Safe top choice, Gounod Faust at the Royal Opera House. No compromise on the economic mess, top quality production, top quality singing. More adventurous top choice, Puccini Il Trittico, also ROH, and especially Suor Angelica. "ReNUNciation" - a Cinderella opera to the fore, great singing from Anna Larsson and Ermolena Jaho. Another mega hit, Mozart Don Giovanni at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Fabulous singing, intelligent staging, provocative approach. When this comes out on DVD, get it.

Productions which help you re-assess wehat you think you knew are usually the most rewarding. We've all seen the same old production of Verdi La Traviata so many times, and Alfredo is almost always a lightweight. So when Piotr Beczala turned the role into a major creation, all assumptions overturned.  It was like hearing the opera afresh, from a new perspective. This is a singer who really knows what he's doing and is genuinely well informed about historic tenor style. There is so much hype about these days, but Beczala is the genuine article, who delivers beautifully, without fuss.

For the same reason I loved Wagner Lohengrin from Bayreuth. Hans Neuenfels rats make you realize that the opera is about Brabant and why people want to control it. The rats are funny, tragic, scary, but more "human" than the main characters. It's a completely different perspective and once the shock value wears off, makes the opera much deeper emotionally and intellectually. Obviously we won't get rats again, but this production is seminal because it expands understanding,

For non-staged opera, Handel Alcina at the Barbican, conducted by Marc Minkowski, part of an excellent series there of operas on the theme of Orlando Furioso, which were very good, with specialist French casts and players., At the South Bank, Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Tomlinson, DeYoung and Salonen showed how it should be heard and the semi staging showed how it can be seen. Probably way above the heads of those who don't relate to the quirkiness of this opera. At the ENO, Rameau's Castor and Pollux was also beyond those who couldn't see past the sex. Shocking, but not wrong. The whole point of the opera is that it's an allegory about the dangers of physical excess! So those who think it "must" be pretty because it's baroque need to study it and its period more carefully.

Popular opinion means nothing. Because Monty Python has many fans, most people loved Terry Gilliams's Berlioz Damnation of Faust for its cheap gags and irony-free racism.Unfortunately it proved Mel Brooks's adage about "Springtime for Hitler". People follow crowds when they don't think, in art as well as in politics. OTOH , I learned to love Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride at the Royal Opera House, not from the dull, lacklustre conducting by Mark Elder but from listening to Russian recordings afterwards, which bring out its true violent pungency. Then the mafia staging made total sense. Pity everyone else seemed to expect Sheherazade.  Similarly, to my surprise, I actually got a kick from Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole at the ROH despite the first act longeurs. Anna Nicole was hype, so the opera was a daring statement onn the dangers of trash, an irony lost on many.

On the other hand, 2011 saw other mega-hype bubbles burst (while some still grow). Both Havergal Brian and Mieczsyslaw Weinberg have been plagued for decades by "fans" who may not actually know their music but boost their own cachet by pretending to.  Brian's Gothic Symphony received its best ever performance and highest profile at the Proms, but killed the myth.  Similarly Weinberg's The Passenger (ENO) and The Portrait (Opera North) revealed the music for what it is. Fake fans went ballistic when their bluff was called. That's a good indicator of hype. Genuine music lovers can discuss things rationally. Fashion victims can't. Please see the comments under my post on Dudamel's Mahler at the Proms for more evidence. For much the same reasons, I didn't even bother with Nico Muhly's Two Boys, having spent 18 months trying desperately  to make sense of his other music. My theory is that the Met wanted to outdo the ROH's coup in getting a new opera by a major British composer, so the Met invested huge money in creating Muhly. At least Turnage already existed and had a genuine track record.

This year I've done a lot less orchestral music, song and recordings than I used to (well over 400 a year, once). I loved Vladimir Jurowski's Liszt Faust Symphony at the Proms, and Andrew Davis's Elgar Caractacus at the Three Choirs Festival.  Also Boulez Pli selon Pli, with Barbara Hannigan and Ensemble Intercontemporain, though it was the end of a long tour. Earlier performances must have been mind blowing! Although I've been doing Lieder for more than 40 years, most recitals this year were good rather than exceptional, and there were a few disappointments. A quiet patch, maybe. Recordings-wise, I loved José Serebrier's Dvořák Symphony no 9 "The New World", vindicating studio performance as an art form. Best CD of the year, though, has got to be Pierre Boulez's CD of Szymanowski's Symphony no 3 with the Wiener Philharmoniker. This is so astonishing, it ranks among my top favourites of all time. If you think you know Boulez, or if you think you know Szymanowski, listen to this. It's a revelation. Boulez is conducting two concerts at the Barbican next year, one in April with Tetzlaff and Scriabin, the other in May with Znaider and Szymanowski 3. I booked a year ago.

No comments: