Wednesday 29 February 2012

GSMD Britten Midsummer Night's Dream Barbican

High hopes for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's  Benjamin Britten A Midummer Night's Dream. Instead of the usual cramped GSMD theatre, this took place in the Barbican Theatre, which allows much more scope for ambitious work, and training in theatre skills, part of the GSMD brief. At the Barbican, young artists of the future have a bigger platform in every way.

A magical effect to begin with. The mechanical curtain was imaginatively clothed in sparkling metal strips. Then, the set revealed a dormitory, perhaps some spartan public school whose fees don't cover humane accomodation for the inmates.  Fair enough, for Britten was traumatized at boarding school, and his music retraces lost innocence over and over again. Then in come the lovers, Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia and Helena, who appear in 1940's military garb. Later, Bottom awakes in a bed suspended above the stage. If these images seem familiar, they're derived. like collage, from several recent professional productions including the ENO, Garsington Opera and Glyndebourne. That's not in itself  a problem, since GSMD students are there to learn.

Perhaps this production was a collaborative effort, involving as many students as possible in the process, but Director Martin Lloyd-Evans might have exerted tighter editorial control to ensure a coherent vision.  There are many levels in Shakespeare and in Britten, so A Midsummer Night's Dream provides wonderful opportunities for young directors and designers to engage with many ideas. This time, though, everyone seemed to be playing safe. The designs (Dick Bird) don't suggest that much thought has been put into the production. GSMD students are capable of very good work indeed. Read about their Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites last year here. That was outstanding, and would have done credit to a professional house.
When the energy of the cast is engaged, however, there are excellent moments. The mechanicals, in particular, moved precisely, as if in a chorus line, each man perfectly synchronised, arms askew. (Movement by Victoria Newlyn). Very impressive, but individual personalities are not well defined. Not even Bottom, whom Shakespeare singles out for special treatment. It's a wonderful role, which Barnaby Rea sang well, but wasn't called upon to develop theatrically. The lovers were well done, Ashley Riches's distinctive voice instantly recognizable, even in anonymous uniform. We need good countertenors and Tom Verney's Oberon had imposing presence. He's very young so could well develop an interesting profile. (Read more HERE about why Britten used the voice type and why this performance worked). Good singing from the choruses, particularly the fairy quartet, vivacous and well blocked.  Given the high calibre of GSMD's Technical Theatre course participants, one might have expected more imaginative special effects to create the magic the staging lacked. At the Linbury Theatre a few years ago, Puck was played by a circus artist, abseiling from wires, as if he could fly.

Nonetheless, best for last. Shakespeare and Britten wrote the Mechanical's stage play with such wit that it's impossible not to make it effective theatre. Now each singer  made his mark, each evidently enjoying himself camping up and having fun.  Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers sneer, but Shakespeare and Britten knew that amateur dramatics have quaint charm.

This production runs to 6th March. For more details see the GSMD website. More detail and a full cast list here  in Opera Today.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Musically superb Dvořák Rusalka Royal Opera House

Fairy tales aren't meant to be "pretty". From the first bars of the overture, Dvořák's music for Rusalka, now at the Royal Opera House, creates the opera as a powerful, disturbing drama. Rusalka belongs to the murky depths. She forsakes her world for love, but love, for her kind, brings death. Yannick Nézet-Séguin shapes the ominous shadows in this music, so when sudden leaps up the scale burst forth, they're like sudden flashes of lightning. When they subside the gloom seems all the more tragic. When the overture advances to mock heroic grandeur, suggesting the world of the Prince, we already know there will be no happy ending.

Dvořák writes similar extremes into the vocal parts. Rusalka and the Prince inhabit a tessitura so high that tension is built into their very lines. From this, ferociously high notes explode. The high C's tear upwards as if they're trying to leap free of their background. They're too beautiful to be screams, but they're a kind of call, through which the protagonists are trying to reach out for something beyond their grasp. Narrative, embedded in music. Words are secondary. Don't follow the text, even if you don't speak Czech. Follow the way the music shapes meaning.

Camilla Nylund and Brian Hymel, singing Rusalka and the Prnice, are absoutely stunning. Technically, these roles are demanding, requiring unusual range and vocal agility. Nylund and Hymel don't compromise by shading downwards, so we hear the full intensity of extreme timbre as it cuts and carries. We listen in awe as their voices soar up and down the scale, for the range is a source of wonder. We're not dealing with the "real" world here, but a hyper-intense world of magic. Nylund and Hymel are "acting" with their voices because Dvořák gives them so much, and they give in return. We've had good singing at the Royal Opera House this year, but Nylund and Hymel lift things to another, if stranger, level, for that is the nature of this opera. Nylund has long been a specialist in unusual repertoire and Hymel has made his name as the Prince. ("It's a role that's been good to me" - please see this interview wth him). In this performance, Nylund and Hymel show that they are forces to be reckoned with.

Nylund and Hymel are not helped by the fidgety direction (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revival director Samantha Seymour). To their credit, the directors have been faithful to the score as the movements faithfully follow the constant movement in the music, but it's hard on the principal singers whose primary duty is to the music. Nontheless, there are very good moments,  like Nylund moving stiffly like a doll when she's in the castle,"out of her depth" so to speak. Sheathed in impossible stilettos, she can only take painful steps. In this scene, she can't sing, so the direction expresses her pain extremely accurately.

The problem is far less with secondary roles like The Vodnik (Alan Held) and Ježibaba (Agnes Zweirko). Held gets to crawl about, but then that's the Goblin's nature. When he leaps onto the water fountain in the castle, you feel  his desperation and relief. Zweirko's jerky nervousness fits Ježibaba's music perfectly. Even the comic cat Mourek (Claire Talbot) and dancers at the ball fit the surreal quirkiness of the magic in the plot. They inject folksy whimsy, true to Dvořák's idiom.

Other parts of the staging are more obscure. Perhaps the designs (Barbara Ehnes) are meant to poke fun at nouveau riche ideas of 19th century opulence, and the idea of bordello hints at a rusalka's sexual nature, but they don't work. The set is best when it's simply lit  by projections. The downside is that the set provokes incomprehension because there's too much to take in.  Lazy thinkers won't get past the modern costumes, especially if they don't actually know the opera (which is usually the case) so it's wiser to give them less to be confused about. Frankly, there are far worse productions around, which deliberately sabotage both music and meaning.  The non-directed Met Götterdämmerung for example, 
Francesca Zambello's atrociously illiterate Don Giovanni. This production isn't good but could be a lot worse.

I hope this Rusalka will be broadcast, as freed of the staging, it's a musical landmark. Dvořák has written the drama into the score, and here the singers are doing what's needed to bring it alive. This was also one of the Royal Opera House's finest moments. Unlike concert orchestras, opera house orchestras don't get much variety of repertoire, but when they're playing for a conductor like Nézet-Séguin, they're transformed.    
photo: Bryan Hymel and Camilla Nylund, as The Prince and Rusalka, copoyright Clive Barda, February 2012

Lots more on Dvořák on this site and on stagecreft and singing.

Monday 27 February 2012

Rusalka ROH Bryan Hymel

Antonin Dvořák's Rusalka opens tonight at the Royal Opera House. It's the first full staging, though the opera was performed in concert form a few years ago.  Great cast - Camilla Nylund, Alan Held and Bryan Hymel and the long awaited ROH debut of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (For my review see here).

Hymel first sang The Foreign Prince at the Wexford Opera Festival, and now it's become one of his signature roles. He's a high lyric tenor, like Piotr Beczala who sang the part in the original Salzburg production. Voice type makes a difference, musically, even though the fashion these days is for Italianate and heavier voices. Dvořák wrote the part for a bright, agile voice type, so it "shines" as the Foreign Prince might have appeared shining to Rusalka, who was used to the darkness of her nocturnal lake.

The Foreign Prince isn't really a Romantic hero because he treats Rusalka badly. That's what happens to women who have nothing to say!  On the other hand, he's youthful like Rusalka seems to be, and like her learns wisdom through tough experience. Read what Hymel says about singing the part HERE in an interview with Opera Today.

It seems strange now that Rusalka was once relatively obscure (hence Wexford) though ENO did a staging 27 years ago. That was the one where the Rusalki were shown as children in a sterile Victorian nursery which is fine for the sexual repression in the story but is only part of what the opera is about. Fashions change in opera, and in voice types and in singing styles, just as speech changes over time. Listen to tapes of people talking in the 1920's or even 1950's.  So it's healthy that there's a shift towards astute performances of repertoire. Hymel mentions a renaissance in French repertoire and French aesthetics. It's already under way, with the plethora of Massenet and Berlioz we're hearing these days. A whole new terrain !
Lots more on Dvořák and other Czech composers on this site - please explore.

John Adams The Death of Klinghoffer ENO

Press reports suggested mass protests against John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO. But there was just one polite demonstrator, who'd left by the end of the evening. Perhaps he saw the show. The subject is emotive, and important, but Adams's treatment is not incendiary. It's the nature of his music. Repetitive, ruminative cadences, which suggest contemplation rather than imposed narrative. Perhaps it's the very anti-drama in this music that provokes response.

Adams's abstracted cadences evoke blurred boundaries : endless waves on the sea, the whirr of a ship's engine, the slow ticking away of time. Unfortunately, this music also evokes tedium. Facts about the hijack of the Achille Lauro are projected onto the stage to keep us alert, but the music is saying something else altogether. Furthermore, Adams sets text counterintuitively, so syntax is distorted in favour of unsettling stresses in places that would not occur in speech. Because our brains don't process language in this way, meaning is sacrificed. It's not good when you have to concentrate on sub-titles to figure out what's being sung.
Alice Goodman's libretto has been criticized for being opaque, but it closely reflects Adam's musical technique. Images are blurred and shift shape. In the opeming Chorus, it's deliberately unclear who the protagonist is. Is she a young woman in love or an old woman awaiting death? Or both? It's immaterial. She's a composite of millions who have been exiled throughout history. When music and text are both this oblique, the thrust of the drama is lost.  Perhaps Adams wants us to savour each moment in detail,  as we savour life itself, knowing it won't last, but the cumulative effect of the First Act is soporific.

Things pick up in the Second Act, when Adams frees himself from earnest pseudo-documentary.  Up to this point the action has mainly been in choruses. Now we have individuals with whom we can identify. Some of the words they sing come from transcripts made at the time, others are imaginative creations. It doesn't matter. In these arias there's dramatic reality. Leon Klinghoffer is presented as a likeable hero, and at last the opera has human focus. Alan Opie sings Klinghoffer so he comes over as a strong, reasonable man of authority, establishing a moral compass. The Aria of the Falling Body anchors Adams's wavering oscillations with emotional truth.

Michaela Martens' Marilyn Klinghoffer arias are tours de force, the last adding bite. The Captain (Christopher Magiera) in real life handled the situation with cool-headed professionalism. offering his own life to save his passengers, but Adams and Goodman don't dilute the focus from Klinghoffer to make the Captain a hero. Mrs Klinghoffer, in her grief, can't understand why her husband was killed without her knowing. It's a thoughtful detail to include in the opera since in these situations no-one knows everything all the time. Fine vignettes too from Lucy Schaufer (The Swiss Grandmnother), Clare Presland (The Palestinan Mother) and Kate Miller Heidke (The British Dancing Girl), so clueless that she doesn't comprehend the enormity of what's happening. In a much needed twist of humour, Adams adds snatches of pop music around the part.

Baldur Brönimann conducted the orchestra so details surfaced tellingly from the amorphous textures. He's a specialist in modern repertoire and understands how the genre operates. This music is not an undiffrentiated mass.

The staging, however, was much less sensitive. Directed by Tom Morris with designs by Tom Pye, it tried to give shape to Adams's oblique non-forms by over-emphasizing the literal, perhaps to create the sensationalism Adams and Goodman avoid. The dance sequences are awful, completely at odds with the story. This subject is not a game. It is more than just a struggle over a country, it's part of the eternal struggle between haves and have-nots. In this production, the Palestinians raise their fists in the classic gesture of the oppressed, For a moment it looks like a Nazi salute. What the hijackers did was evil, but it does not follow that the poor should not act, whoever they might be. The scenes where Finn Ross's video projections fill the stage are far more effective, and being semi-abstract, are more faithful to Adams's idiom.

The Death of Klinghoffer has its longueurs but it's an important statement. Twentyfive years after the Achille Lauro hijacking, terrorism is, if anything, more widespread and more savage than ever before. Twin Towers, the school in Beslan, the cinema in Moscow, and Utøya. Is there something to be learned from The Death of Klinghoffer? Many thanks to the ENO for giving us a chance to hear for ourselves. FULL REVIEW and details in Opera Today

photos : copyright Richard Hubert Smith, courtesy ENO

Saturday 25 February 2012

Jonas Kaufmann's Parsifal - early preview

Jonas Kaufmann will be singing Parsifal at the Met this time next year. Since these things are planned years in advance, those who knew, knew. But click on this link to see a promotion video. Not that we need any persuading!  On HD and apparently online too. The really devoted should get to Lyon from 6th March this year for the premiere of the production.  (Link to Lyon Opera Parsifal page.) It's easier to travel to Lyon and less hassle.

Katarina Dalayman (who can do real Wagner), Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, and René Pape.Not a dud among them. Is the Met making amends to Wagner's ghost after that disgraceful Götterdämmerung? Please read my analysis of the Met's descent into banality in that Ring HERE. (covering all four opera, tracing the descent from good theory to shabby non-singing, non-direction)

Friday 24 February 2012

Amsterdam Invisible City of Kitezh - full review

Rimsky-Korsakov's Invisibe City of Kitezh is on now in Amsterdam at De Nederlandse Opera. Marc Albrecht conducts an all-Russian cast in a Tcherniakov production that whizzes between extremes of gloriousness and frustration. A bit like the story. Since we often get semi-staged Amsterdam productions at the Barbican, pay attention ! And please read Jim Sohre's detailed review "Amsterdam's Invisble, risible Kitezh" in  Opera Today - brilliant writing, so evocative and impossible to summarize. Enjoy, enjoy, this is a great read! To hear a full broadcast of the opera with Svetlanov, not commercially available, read HERE photo : Monika Rittershaus.

Who is Rusalka?

Antonín Dvořák Rusalka starts at the Royal Opera House on Monday. The production is new to London, but premiered in Salzburg in 2008, provoking the usual controversy about productions that are not "pretty", regardless of what the composer might have intended.

But fairytales weren't meant to be pretty. As oral tradition they were morality tales that impinged on the Id, designed to scare kids off from, figuratively, "going into the dark woods at night".  The Brothers Grimm were grim. Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales have a tragic edge, as did the man himself. So demanding a "pretty" Rusalka is like howling at the moon. A Rusalka's beauty was illusion designed to trap the unwary.

Czech Rusalki and their male equivalents, the Vodniks  (Dvořák's name for the Water Goblin) were part nature spirit, part demon, often associated with the ghosts of young people who'd died in unpleasant situations. Like girls who fall in love with the wrong person and suffer the consequences. The female of the species are beautiful, but the men are supposed to look like Feodor Chaliapin, pictured right in an early production of Dvořák's  Rusalka. 

Rusalka are associated with water which gives life but can also mean death. While the mermaids of the ocean  have the freedom of the seas, water spirits in inland Europe are often associated with brackish water and dense, menacing vegetation.  One hardly needs Freud to link water with hidden desires and danger.  Anyone who listens to Schubert will know what babbling brooks can mean. Throughout Europe water spirits are a metaphor. Think Mörike's Nixe Binsenfuss, set by Hugo Wolf, who guards the fish from predatory fishermen, and of course, The Lorelei, who sing on the Rhine. And further back in time, the Sirens oif Greek mythology.

Rusalki and water spirits are often associated with sex, which is why they  present as beauties. Dvořák's Rusalka will sacrifice all for love.which makes her unusual for her kind, and more "human" to ours. So Dvořák makes us fall in love with Rusalka's beautiful music. Even the Prince learns that death is better than living without love. But let's not forget, Rusalka is a tragedy, and "deep" in many ways.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Gothic resistance fighter - Walter Braunfels Die Verkündigung

Walter Braunfels was one of the more important German composers of the early 20th century, related to Ludwig Spohr and connected to Pfitzner, Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Hindemith and others. His opera Die Vögel was the flagship of the Deutsche Grammophon Entartete Musik series, so popular that it's now almost standard repertoire. He was even featured (briefly) at last year's Proms. So why sin't Braunfels known even in these circles?

His Die Verkündigung (op50) was broadcast last week, a performance last year from Munich Radio Orchestra conductd by Ulf Schirmer. It was an important event, for Braunels was connected to Munich's artistic circles, and the only recording of Die Verkündigung has been out of print for years.

The new Munich Die Verkündigung is fascinating. It's very lively. Juliane Banse sings the heroine Violaine, a  taxing part where the tessitura leaps upwards suddenly from nowhere and has to fly. I've been following her for years: this is one of her best performances ever. Robert Holl and Hanna Schwarz sing her parents, and Janina Baechle her sister Mara. Adrian Erod sings Jakobaus, to whom Violane is betrothed, and Matthis Klink sings Peter von Ulm the Leper.

Peter von Ulm builds great cathedrals, but contracts leprosy. In a gesture of kindness, Violane kisses him, but the kiss is misinterpreted, and Jakobaus drops Violane. Eight years pass. It's Xmas and it's cold. Br Br Br the townsfolk recite in mock stylized wit, while "medieval" bells and drums sound and dog latin seems to be spoken. Peter is back and he's cured, "with the skin of a child". Mara is holding her dead daughter. Violane holds her while Mara reads the Christmas story. The child breathes again but now her eyes are blue like Violane not dark like her mother. Mara throws Violane into a ditch, but she's rescued. At which point, father returns from pilgrimage and the truth about the kiss is revealed. Violane has taken on Peter's illness and promptly dies. A lot more dramatic than it sounds, and brightly written. (the semi-spoken sequence is brilliant). There are even references to  Die Vögel in the jerky staccato rhythms, and lovely off-key horns..

The opera is based on a medieval miracle play, but curiously, it's not overly religious, even though Braunfels and the playwright, Paul Claudel, were both extremely devout Catholics. Indeed, on strictly liturgical terms, Die Verkündigung is blasphemy for it's about an ordinary woman who can raise the dead and cure the sick. God is not involved, though the Virgin Mary is implicated.  But maybe that's the point, for you don't have to be a saint to do miracles.

Notice when the opera was written - 1933/5 - when Braunfels' career was strangled by the Nazis. Die Verkündigung is about faith and the power that good people have to overcome evil. Claudel also wrote the play which Arthur Honegger set as Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, also in 1935. (read more here and here).And Braunfels wrote another opera, Jeanne d'Arc (Szenen aus dem leben  der heiligen Joihanna) between 1939 and 1943. In retrospect, his "inner exile" is clear.

It's significant, too, that Braunfels adapts Claudel's play,written in French, to German  and to an unequivocally "Germanic" pseudo-medieval style, complete with long spoken passages. The sort of thing the Nazis admired, without understanding the true meaning of medieval piety. K A Hartmann was to do much the same thing in his Simplicus Simplicissimus.
Please read lots more about Braunfels on this site - more on this genre here than any other!

Scriabin on speed? Szymanowski's Third, Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski conducted Karol Szymanowski's Third Symphony, the "Song of the Night", with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall. This is a magnificent symphony, almost certainly guaranteed to stun an audience into silence. Gosh, I wish I'd been there, the vibe must have been wonderful. On the other hand, listening at home on the radio means more objective listening  in musical terms.

There is no way Szymanowski's Third can possibly fail to impress, but it's a far deeper work than the BBC announcer's hype would have.  Sure there are references to Wagner and Debussy, but why? and for what purpose? And why was Szymanowski drawn to 13th century Persian mysticism?  And why specifically this poem, with its imagery of night, hidden intrigue, and distant stars? Szymanowski's Third is a lot more than Scriabin on speed.

The hyper perfumed ambience is a cloak for much more dangerous emotions. Like so many Europeans before him, Szymanowski was drawn to "orientalism" because it was associated with alien values, often suppressed in polite western society. Anything "foreign", "pagan" and "exotic"was danerous but offered alluring alternatives. Musically, too, orientalism was a way of experimenting with new musical form. It is nonsense that modern music was forced on the world by Schoenberg. He was part of a general search for new means of expression.  Szymanowski, in his own aristocratic, esoteric way, was finding a way to say in music which was his own. Although he was Polish, Szymanowski's outlook in this period was international, more attuned to Paris and St Petersburg. He knew about Stravinsky and Debussy, the modernists of his time. Even Wagner is not as great an influence as is made out, for though there are quotes from Tristan und Isolde, Szymanowski's style is different. And it's absolutely not true that he was influenced by Janáček (yet to write his greatest works), or Martinu who was only in his early 20's. Where did the BBC get that from?

It would have been more perceptive to think of the Third in terms of Szymanowski's other work, like the String Quartets, The Love Songs of Hafiz, the Fourth Symphony, Harnasie or Król Roger. None of these are obscure works by any means. Indeed, Król Roger (1926) is particularly relevant as the opera deals with homosexual love. The theme is the same as that of the Third Symphony, the "Song of the Night". Under cover of darkness, feelings that can't be expressed in daylight can find release. As Stephen Johnson points out in the "Discovering Music" segment broadcast during the interval, the text is about male love, or love between man and Dionysic semi-divine figure. Król Roger.all over, the Third in more modern lines but just as uncompromising.

Jurowski said that Szymanowski had an "almost autistic obssession with detail", though the bold sweep of this symphony would suggest otherwise. This music surges confidently, aware that it's breaking new, dangerous ground. If anything, it was Jurowski's over-focus on detail that inhibited this performance so the real intensity of Szymanowski's vision didn't really ignite. Less perfume, more potency. Still, it must have been a thrilling experience and a most enjoyable evening.  Music as good as this is never wrong.  For a first experience, it would have been astounding. But for the real Szymanowski listen to Antonin Wit, Boulez and even Simon Rattle, who led the Szymanowski revival in the early 1980's., when Szymanowski was still suppressed by the Communist regime.  (Free download of Wit's performance in Warsaw last year HERE) All the old Wit recordings are being reissued. Lots about Szymanowski on this site, please explore. Will be more, too.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale - Luke Bedford

Sunday night saw an energetic and energising performance by the Scottish Ensemble, directed from the violin by Jonathan Morton. The programme was heavily centred on the viola – 3 out of the 4 works featured the instrument in a solo role. Guest soloist was the charming Lawrence Power. Classic works from Haydn and Mozart enclosed modern British repertoire. The concert opened with an enjoyable and uplifting performance of the 44th ('Trauer') Symphony by Haydn, a composer whose symphonies are getting a lot of airing here in the 2011/12 concert season. The grief of the title was less in evidence than energy and positivity which filled the hall creating a charged atmosphere.

This was followed by a new work by Luke Bedford, Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale, which used the same instrumentation as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, which was later performed to close the concert. Bedford's piece was inspired by a story of two conjoined twins in the19th century who became singers, saving themselves from a lifetime of slavery or freak shows through their musical talent. The soloists seem at times to be 'joined at the hip' but at other times to be locked in a power struggle. The harmony/struggle between 2 string soloists is a little remniscent of George Benjamin's Viola, Viola. However this is neither a duet like Benjamin's work, nor is it a double concerto like Mozart's. The soloists open without accompaniment and orchestral colour is added gradually and stepwise, to give an increasing depth of sound as the work builds up. In this (though otherwise having a different sound world) it has something in common with Gerard Grisey's Vortex Temporum, (More here) where the viola opens alone and is joined by gradually increasing forces. It's a really interesting work, and I shall look forward to the opportunity to hear it again on Thursday, when the performance is broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

After the interval an English work of a very different character, this time from the first half of the twentieth century, was featured, Alwyn's Pastoral. At a moment when English pastoralists are getting a lot of airtime, this is an undervalued work which was delightful to hear. It is a pastoral idyll with a virtuostic solo for viola at its centre. Power excelled in this and his playing was very enjoyable.

This concert programme is being toured by the Scottish Ensemble, with performances in Perth, in Glasgow (also broadcast on Radio Three) and Friday at London's Wigmore Hall. Catch it if you possibly can, the standard of playing is excellent and the broad repertoire showcases this instrument well.

The Scottish Ensemble are following this with a spring tour again focusing on string repertoire but programmed to go back in time from Ligeti's 1969 Ramifications to Bach's Violin Concerto, via Webern, Debussy, Bruckner and Mendelssohn. They also have a new CD out on EMI, featuring the trumpeter Alison Balsom – with whom they toured n September 2011 – playing Seraph, a new concerto for her instrument by fellow Scot James Macmillan. Review here to follow. Macmillan's work can also be heard here in Edinburgh not long hence on Monday 5th March when his Horn Quintet is performed by the Nash Ensemble, also at the Queen's Hall. 
By Juliet Williams 

Salomé and Hérodiade - free downloads

Last chance to hear Jules Massenet Hérodiade, his version based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert. This is an epic pseudo-historical extravaganza where Jean (John the Baptist)) is the head of a mass following, while Hérod wants to beat off the Romans. Although Hérod lusts for Salomé, it's very chaste.

Big choruses, elaborate dance numbers, and a vast array of minor characters. It's only 2 and a half hours but when you get into the mood, it doesn't drag (much). The last two acts are the shortest but most gripping. I've grown quite fond of it. Some very nice writing therein, like Salomé's diaphanous music, and the duets between Salomé and Jean who is a manly hero. Listen for Hérodiade's piercing curses, Choruses and processions, big fanfares. I love the Act 4 chorus where the chorus recite rhythmically, to steady drum beats. An inordinate number of trumpets for ancient Israel. A sort of French Nabucco?

The performance is from Flanders Opera  in 2011, and is conducted by Dimitri Jurowski, youngest of the clan. Quite a lively reading, and from the photos a non-kitsch production. The photo I've used is Theda Bara the 1920's vamp in her 1918 silent Salomé. Click on photo to enlarge for detail - look at Herod's nifty sandals) This film is of course completely different to Nazimova's 1923 Salomé of which more here and here (full download).

While Massenet's Salomé is decorous, Richard Strauss's Salomé is anything but! Strauss is much more into dark, kinky corners and tortured psychology. Until 5th March you can watch a full download of Strauss Salomé from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels HERE. Conducror is Carlo Rizzi, director Guy Josten. Doris Soffel, Amanda Echalaz, Chris Merrill and Scott Hendricks. Interesting bit of trivia. Massener's Salomé received its premiere in the same theatre 130 years before.

Monday 20 February 2012

Opera without words - Berlioz Roméo et Juliette - Elder, OAE,

Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought Berlioz Roméo et Juliette to the Royal Festival Hall. Extracts from the piece are heard often enough, but hearing the whole work shows Berlioz's intentions more clearly. This Roméo et Juliette  is an orchestra-drama, where the story unfolds in the vivid musical tableaux the music evokes. Voices are only part of the orchestral palette, used solo or tutti when needed. to develop orchestral colour. This is a hybrid form, an opera  with arias and no "roles". Just as Mendelssohn wrote Lieder ohne Worte, Berlioz writes opera without words,

This Roméo et Juliette was conceived to be heard on stage, for much of its impact is visual and theatrical.  Hence the large orchestra and unusual instruments, and the massed choirs, on this occasion dressed in jewel-hued shirts to highlight effect.

Although much is made of the work's roots in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, perhaps it might be even more prescient to hear this Roméo et Juliette as part of a platform of new ideas about music drama that were growing in the 1840's and 50's. We think of Wagner and Verdi when we think of opera history, who obliterated the altogether different approaches with which Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann were experimenting. That I think is the real significance of this piece. It's an outgrowth from oratorio, but even more radically it is orchestra-theatre, very different from opera convention in its time.

Indeed, its connection to stage play is paramount. Berlioz became obssessed by Harriet Smithson when he watched her perform Shakespeare in Paris.  The picture at right shows Smithson and Charles Kemble in  a contemporary production of Romeo and Juliet. The picture above comes from a production in the 1840's. In an age before close ups and amplification, theatre practice would have to have been more stlyized than we're used to now. Perhaps Berlioz, a music and theatre critic, intuited that good orchestral writing had the potential to express feelings in greater complexity than most actors were capable of. Berlioz's flamboyance often seems to stem from a need to do bigger and flashier than anyone else. This extravagant emotionalism may have been what drew Wagner to Berlioz.  How different it is from the elegance of Mozart and the charm of Donizetti! Sadly, just as Romeo and Juliet were doomed, Berlioz and Harriet were not happy together.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment must have enjoyed themselves, for each instrument is a player in this piece. Berlioz was fascinated with instrumentation, and wrote the seminal treatise on orchestration cherished by Strauss and Mahler, and still useful now. Berlioz included the saxophone, then newly invented, long before the instrument became associated with jazz. Part of the fun in Roméo et Juliette is the way Berlioz highlights small details. An ophicleide (also a "new" instrument then) lurks among the trombone, darting out for a surprise attack in the opening Tumulte which depicts the Montague/Capulet struggle. The ophicleide is "nastier" than a tuba, a flick knife as opposed to a scimitar. Berlioz is writing brutish street fight, expressing much more than words might do.

Many other witty effects like the percussionist standing stage front, so you don't miss him, beating two metal bells. An allusion to the bells of the procession or to the Mass in general?  In the Queen Mab sequence (the scherzo in part II), the magical fairy is evoked by delicate flutes and piccolo. Mendelssohn wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night';s Dream in 1826, and discussed it with Berlioz when they were in Rome four years later. Similar luminous delicacy, more refinement here than in the rest of Berlioz's sprawling, freewheeling adventure.

Although Patricia Bardon's French was unintellligible (she was substituting at short notice), it wasn't as much of a problem than it might have been. Juliette only sings for a short time, but her musical signature (plangent harps), lingers throughout the piece. She's in a tomb, but not dead, as the music reminds us. John Mark Ainsley sang the tenor part, but Berlioz placed much more emphasis on Père Laurence, who gets the biggest "part" in this piece when he sings the recitative and aria that implore the Montagues and Capulets to make peace. The bass Orlin Anastassov was a powerful presence, using his voice to quell the tumult. The part evidently appealed to Berlioz,  for it binds together all the orchestration, solo and tutti, vocal and instrumental. It's also grand theatre. COMPLETE REVIEW HERE IN OPERA TODAY

Sunday 19 February 2012

Riccardo Muti and Johnny Cash

Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette at the South Bank last night but I'm not feeling well. The guy behind me who coughed and spluttered non stop for  2 hours (no interval). I don't mind coughing per se but this was vindictive germ spreading  and he didn't give a toss about the music. So til tomorrow Berlioz, today Riccardo Muti and Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash was an ex-convict with drug and alcohol problems which he overcame through his music and marriage to June Carter of the Carter Dynasty. He used to sing in prisons to give the inmates something to aim for.

Riccardo Muti, who as far as I know doesn't have that kind of past, also likes playiing in prisons, because he's sharing his love with those who might not otherwise be exposed. He speaks of bringing Bellini. Verdi and Puccini to a women's prison. "They were very impressed, and they made very nice and intelligent comments about what they heard. They said that they didn't expect that they would like this music so much, because this music was so new for them. And again, they were so wonderful and full of discipline and very attentive. So I think today we have to use this great weapon that we have -- that is music -- to put people more and more together. In fact, that is my experience, through all the concerts that I do for friendship, going around the world, in cities like Sarajevo or Cairo."

Audiences like that don't have any preconceptions of what they should and shouldn't like. Nor do they need to prove anything to anyone else about what they know or don't know.  They are also prepared to listen, and not take things for granted like Mr Anti-social cougher. So Muti is right, this is the power of music.

On the other hand it might not work on everyone,. See photo on right. It's Vladimir Putin. (Doesn't Muti resemble Johnny Cash?)  Music can be misused, but that doesn't means the musicians are necessarily at fault, just how close they let themselves come to politicians. Musicians in and from Venezuela are criticizing the way Hugo Chávez has appropriated El Sistema. (Read the full article here.) Soviet and Nazi era orchestras give examples of how tricky it is to negotiate the perils of powerful regimes.

Friday 17 February 2012

Erwin Schrott Mozart Don Giovanni Royal Opera House

Erwin Schrott triumphed as Don Giovanni in the Mozart/da Ponte series at the Royal Opera House. Schrott exudes charisma, which gives him an advantage not every singer can muster, for Don Giovanni is a larger-than-life personality who needs to be expressed in the grand manner.  It's pointless to nitpick a portrayal as passionate as this. Schrott creates Don Giovanni in all his malevolent glory -- virile, confident, arrogant. bursting with animal sexuality, yet manages to hint at the manic obsession that drives the  character. Schrott hints at these fears in brief, quieter moments, and slips back into macho mode with increased vehemence. Stunning. To match the well-toned voice he also has a well-toned body. At last, director Francesca Zambello's bizarre idea that Don Giovanni should dine semi-naked  with the Commendatore makes a little sense. You're hypnotized by Schrott's biceps and pecs, and forget, for a moment, how silly it is that he should be costumed like this for what he knows to be the biggest confrontation in his life.

Schrott is brilliant but even he has to work within the limitations of Zambello's brainless staging and untypically leaden playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Constantinos Carydis. Also the more reason in this production to appreciate the efforts of the singers, who rise above what they have to deal with. Leporello, for example, should give Don Giovanni a run for his money. He's a servant, but not entirely subservient. He's also to some extent culpable for Don Giovanni's crimes. But in Zambello's production, he's portayed as a buffoon, even more peasant-like than Masetto's peasant friends. Why would a sophisticate like Don Giovanni hire someone this bucolic? Nobody could possibly be fooled by this servant in his master's clothes. So the production plays against anything Alex Esposito might make of the role. He sang in the 2008 version of this production, and has done the part many times, so he should have been aware how the production takes the bite out of whatever Mozart and da Ponte may have meant it to be.

Ruxandra Donose is a fiery Latin Donna Elvira, with a spirited edge When Donna Elvira sets out to confront Don Giovanni, she wears what looks like a dirty dress, hem ruched up over her calves in a way no aristocratic lady would dare to be seen.  It's probably not the way to play power games with Don Giovanni, master of intrigue, but Donna Elvira is no strategist. Donose's "Mi tradi" takes on a wild air, expressing Donna Elvira's emotional trauma.  Donose has a very strong background in French repertoire, so imbibes its values of intelligence and clarity. This enhances her feel for the fundamental poise of Mozart's style, even in an opera which should be as dangerous as Don Giovanni.

Carmela Remigio was making her Royal Opera House debut as Donna Anna, though she's taken the part of Donna Elvira many times (Please read this interview in which she speaks about the challenges). She specializes in 18th century opera, so brings a late baroque sensibility to what she does. She's far closer to the spirit of Mozart than this maudlin production deserves. She sings with tight focus, suggesting Donna Anna's tension, struggling with feelings she can't articulate. Her sexuality is aroused, but she's trapped by what society expects of her. Fortunately, Pavol Breslik's Don Ottavio is sensitively portayed and sung with more authority than the role usually gets. Donna Anna might  luck out, after all. Breslik's tender "O mio tresoro" was interrupted by the loudest snort I've ever heard from any audience. I don't condemn coughing as it's involuntary, but it's not funny to choose to blow one's nose with such violence at this point. It sounded like a boo, not at all fair on the singer.

Throughout this opera, Mozart plays with the idea of switching identities, expressed through the balance of voice types. Kate Lindsey's Zerlina was pert and bright, almost strident, but a good foil for Matthew Rose's deep, authoritative Masetto. Inspired casting!  Rose's Masetto is big in every way, not simply because he's so tall : this is a resonant voice, one can imagine him  taking on Don Giovanni, at a stretch, and certainly the Commendatore.  As for the Commendatore he was hardly present at all. Instead, a huge golden object kept swaying in the background, eventually revealing itself as a giant hand, its finger pointing at Don Giovanni. One of the truly horrific moments in the whole repertoire, reduced to something out of Monty Python, worse still but prettified and shiny.Whatever Reinhard Hagen might have done with his role, he was completey upstaged, for no obvious dramatic or logical reason whatsoever.

Judging from the audience reaction, this Don Giovanni should be a great hit, though not necessarily for the best artistic reasons. Many  burst out laughing at the subtitles, as if to prove they got the joke. Yet if they really know the opera, they'd know it's not a comedy. Its wit is savage irony, for the story is essentially tragic. Don Giovanni's sex addiction is a sign of weakness, a symptom of the corruption of a power structre held together by exploitation. In this world of peasants and aristocrats, everyone gets screwed.  Instead, Zambello's production ignores the fundamerntals, and plays up irrelevancies like the Madonna, crucifixes and the objects Masetto's friends carry for no clear purpose.  It trivializes the drama by introducing an inordinate amount of stage noise, further encouraging new audiences to think of Don Giovanni as merry slapstick. This is Regie-opera at its worst, but because it's colourful, those who don't like directors will be fooled. So thank goodness for the singers in this cast, who have salvaged what they can, and used their experience and instincts to present a wonderful evening of song. For the singers, and for Erwin Schrott, this production should not be missed. (It runs to 29th February) FULL REVIEW, CAST LIST and MORE PHOTOS in OPERA TODAY.

photos copyright Catherine Ashmore and Mike Hoban, Royal Opera House February 2012

Carmela Remigio Donna Anna, ROH

As I predicted earlier, of all three Mozart da Ponte operas at the Royal Opera House this season, this second cast of Don Giovanni would be the one to catch.  The singing this evening justified the whole exercise. Erwin Schrott had firm tone in body as well as voice. For a change, it made (some) sense of director Francesca Zambello's bizarre idea that Don Giovanni would dine semi-naked with the Commendatore. Was she trying to suggest Don Giovanni was out to seduce the Stone Guest? Surely a smoothie like Don G would have more finesse. Yet the sight of Schrott with his chest bare and those tight red pants.... sigh!  But Anna Netrebko was sitting in the audience (two seats from me).

The three female parts were stunning. Carmela Remigio, absolutely luscious singing. Please read this interview with her in Opera Today where Mark Berry talks to her about singing both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira.  What a sharply focussed mind she has - no wonder she sings with such poise and intelligence.  Ruxandra Donose's Donna Elvira was passionately Latin, with a wild edge that made sense of the strange costume change. Surely an aristocrat like Donna Elvira wouldn't wear a dirty-looking dress with an uneven hem? Donose is stuck with that outfit, so she uses it to emphasize Donna Elvira's abandon.  Donose is good at creating character - once she vividly explained the dynamic of L'heure espagnole to me. Both Remigio and Donose show how truly experienced singers can make more of a role than they get from some directors.

Also impressive were Kate Lindsey's pert Zerlina, Pavol Breslik's sensitive Don Ottavio, and Matthew Best's Masetto, transformed into a bigger personality than sometimes happens, and not just because Rose is 6 foot 7. Alex Esposito's Leporello suffered from poor directoral concept. No way would a sharp card like Don Giovanni employ a yokel, especially not one so buffoonlike he's more peasant than the peasants. All along, Mozart is telling us that service isn't subservient and that servants and masters can switch.  Zambello should read da Ponte.

Definitely catch this cast if you can. Excellent, enjoyable singing. Pity this very excellence showed up the production!  MORE to come soon, but read the interview - Remigio is so articulate.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Philip Glass - In the Penal Colony CD

At last, Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony is available on CD. In a strange penal colony, prisoners are tortured by a bizarre machine. A visitor arrives, determined not to be involved. But the horror is so great that his resolve is breached. When the Officer is confronted, he cannot cope. His whole psyche is trapped in this psychotic system of arcane ritual.  In extremes of obsessive compulsive disorder, insane things seem mperfectly logical to those trapped within. It's also a paradigm of totalitarian society, where authority isn't questioned.

When Music Theatre Wales performed In the Penal Colony at the Linbury Theatre at ROH in 2010,  (review here) the experience was profoundly shattering. As it should be, given the subject matter and the intensity of the performance. What normal person could feel otherwise? The audio recording cauterizes some of that pain, and allows more detailed listening.

Now we can really appreciate Glass's oscillating cadences and how well they express the psychosis in the tale. The whole penal colony operates like an infernal machine, where everything is regulated, and everyone mechanically obeys ritual, no matter how insane. The Officer himself is a prisoner, for he's compelled beyond reason to carry on what his predecessor did, even though the machine is falling apart. Glass's oscillations whirr and churn., like a machine, yet they adapt to fine gradations of nuance. Nothing is actually mechanical, or repeated without purpose. A powerful current moves under this music, drilling its way into your unconscious, just as the psychosis infected the penal colony. Glass's music is telling us to beware. Listen perceptively and hear the pulse behind the mechanical drone. Hear the "human heartbeat" within and you won't be hypnotized.

Glass describes mind-numbing situations, but his music only numbs if that's how you respond. In Satyagraha (see reviews here and here), Gandhi is overwhelmed by Empire and colonialist values. He breaks through when he rejects industrialism and the machine values it represents. Thanks to mass communications and technology, we're more controlled by machines than any other society before. That's why Satyagraha and In the Penal Colony are much more than brilliant pieces of music theatre. They are timely warnings of what it means to be human. Get this recording - it's an investment in staying sane. Read more about Music Theatre Wales here. They won an award for their oustanding Mark Anthony Turnage Greek, and are one of the more innovative music theatre ensembles in the country. As you will hear on this CD.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Eclectic Aldeburgh Music Festival 2012

The British don't appreciate Aldeburgh. Indeed, many don't appreciate Benjamin Britten's unique place in British music history. Just as the town faces the North Sea, Britten's horizons were European. The Aldeburgh Festival brought Shostakovich to the west, and the Hesse connection brought German interest. To truly understand Britten's artistic nature, appreciate Aldeburgh for what it is. Britten's vision was English, but eclectic, not insular.

What a pity he missed meeting Béla Bartók, who came to Aldeburgh in 1923, in a concert organized by a teacher in a girls' school. In those days, it wasn't unusual for artists to circulate outside big cities. When I was transcribing Elizabeth Schumann's papers she was organizing pianists and concerts in tiny, out of the way places in England to supplement on her visits to England.  Béla Bartók's visit to Aldeburgh is explored in a talk on 22/6. His music features throughout the festival including three important recitals by the Keller Quartet, who specialize in modern Hungarian composers, and an unmissable recital with Dezső Ránki on 15/6. He's playing late Liszt, Bartók, Hadyn and a premiere by Barnabas Dukay.

Three recitals by Miklós Perényi, a recital and a masterclass with Menachem Pressler, two concerts by Peter Serkin, one with Gabriela Montero and Alfred Brendel, talking about Liszt and illustrating with piano. And of course Pierre-Laurent Aimard himself, on his own and with Matthias Goerne. The Arditti Quartet and Helmut Lachermann, whose music also comes under the spotlight. Lachenmann will be there himself and Ensemble Modern, the great European ensemble who rarely grace our shores. Seriously important figures, attracted to a small seaside town by Aimard and Aldeburgh's reputation.

Oliver Knussen's Aldeburgh connections are impeccable, too. He's a former director of the Festival and still a major presence, and lives up the road! Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop! will be this year's opera offerings. They were inspired by the tales of Maurice Sendak, so reflect Knussen's quirky imagination. He read the stories to his daughter, "the Muse of Higgelty Pigglety Pop!". The operas are coming to the Barbican later in the year, semi straged by Netia Jones. Excellent cast, including Claire Booth, Susan Bickley, Rebecca Bottone and others. These are more than "children's operas" (a concept Britten would have loved)  and will remind us how important Knussen has been for music in this country.

Knussen's British but spent his formative years in the US. So it's significant that he's included in his keynote concert Charles Ives' Washington's Birthday as well as a new work of his own.  A rare chance to hear Charles Ives' uncompleted Universe Symphony on 24/6. This is its European premiere, and will be conducted by James Sinclair, Ives scholar, "using every corner of Snape Maltings its airy acoustics and unique idyllic natural surrounds as a single vast performance space".  Interesting to compare the ideas with John Cage Musicircus, the day before, this time with Exaudi.  Every Cage musicircus is different - there's one on March 3 at the ENO, by Cage's intimates.

Perhaps the last thing Britten wanted was to turn Aldeburgh into a theme park for his music, attracting day trippers and English Defence Leaguers after "The Britten/Britain Experience". He'd be rolling in his grave to think of himself and the ethos he loved rebranded in that way. Instead, Aldeburgh honours Britten by reecognizing what he really stood for, which is artitsic integrity and creative growth. Aldeburgh is a Festival for and by musicians.

Real Britten fans know his music well enough to cope with things like Before Life and After, Netia Jones's dramatizations of Britten, Finzi and Tippett with James Gilchrist as soloist. When this was on at Kings Place in 2010, it was excellent, and should be even better at Aldeburgh.  Britten's music doesn't need to overwhelm the Festival, for his ideas pervade the whole Festival, encompassing music, walks, community events, visual arts, early and modern music, film and achitecture. Booking starts this week. Complete brochure here.
Please look at the many things I've written about Aldeburgh in past years, and about the various composers featured. Also tips on food and shopping!

photo: William M Connolley

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Bittersweet Polish Valentine

Bittersweet in many ways! An extremely rare recording made off Kraków radio in 1958, a scrap of which almost miraculously survives. Listen to it HERE in good sound quality. Thank you so much to the man who found this tape, and to his father who lovingly made it off air. The tenor is Jan Kiepura, and the soprano Marta Eggerth. He was a famous tenor with an opera background, she a Hungarian-born operetta star, who appeared in Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán's Czardasfurstin, or Die Herzogin von Chicago  (read my review here).

Kiepura and Eggerth worked together extensively, blending their careers and branching out into film. A good symbiotic relationship. Together as a pair they were even hotter than apart. Kiepura spent many years in the US before returning to Europe in the 1930's, so during the war, he and Marta went into exile. But their return to Kraków must have meant a lot to them. Listen to how Kiepura talks enthusiastically to his Kraków audience, explaing what the English song means, and hear how they roar with appreciation. The song is "I'll see you again" from Noel Coward, Bittersweet. "....I'll see you again whenever Spring breaks through again, though my world may go awry, there my heart will ever lie, with the echo of a sigh, goodbye". Kiepura died suddenly in 1966, but Eggerth lives on and will be 100 years old this April. So bittersweet memories all round.  And HERE is a clip of Eggerth and Kiepura in a German film of La Bohème made in 1936. "Ah, Mimi!"

The Invisible City of Kitezh - full broadcast

Princess of Nature and the woods, Fevronia has come to Kitezh to marry Prince Yuri. But the Tatars are about to attack the city. So Fevronia uses her magical powers to disguise the city and make it invisible. Except on the shore of the lake, where it's reflected in a blaze of glory, its bells ringing elusively.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Invisible City of Kitezh is lusciously gorgeous, divinely escapist. When Gergiev conducted it nearly 20 years ago, it was a sensation. Still only 3 versions currently available but HERE is a link to another, not on the comnmercial market. It's Evgeny Svetlanov. Enjoy! Please also read my other posts on Rimsky-Korsakov, like The Golden Cockerel and the Tsar's Bride (which I love - pity the ROH performance was boringly conducted, and the audience unprepared).

Monday 13 February 2012

Met Götterdämmerung - the tragedy

The Met's Siegfried was Wagner as Walt Disney might have presented it. But at least Disney had charm. The Met Götterdämmerung isn't even a cartoon, but a sketch discarded before its ideas are even formed. The Met Ring cycle started with technical problems, but what killed it was its complete inability to connect to Wagner or his music. Its failure, though, highlights what the Ring really is all about: don't put faith in material items, but focus on deeper values. The Met has not learned the lesson of the Ring. It's still relying on big money gestures, not on artistic insight. That's the real curse of the Met Ring. To sell, it has to sell out. (Please read here for more)

With Götterdämmerung, no-one can blame Robert Lepage's Machine, for now it's reduced to little more than a blank screen onto which light shows are projected. All pretence at engaging with Wagner's emotional power is discarded. This is a showcase for celebrities. Perhaps that's why Lepage doesn't seem to have bothered about directing. Experienced singers like Terfel and Kaufmann can direct themselves, and both know what Wagner's is about. Thus Die Walküre had outstanding moments, by far the best installment in the cycle. For a moment, it seemed that the Met Ring might at last deliver. But then the artistic schizophrenia started and sabotaged all hope. (Please read more here).

Deborah Voigt may be a diva, but she's no Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde may be a spolied brat Daddy's Girl, but there's a lot more emotional complexity in the part than Voigt's frighteningly one-dimesnional portrayal even begins to suggest. In Siegfried, Voigt's unvaried fast vibrato was interesting since it suggested a dove cooing as it made its nest. In Götterdämmerung, it  distracted like a maddening tic.Voigt's acting was restricted to widening her eyes and clenching her chin, her vocal tone unvaried. One minute, she thinks she sees Siegfried coming, then she sings about being betrayed. Emotionally it's a huge switch, reflected in the music, but Voigt hardly twitches. Brünnhilde's entry into the Hall of the Gibichungs can be a soul-destroying experience - it is for her - but Voigt's aplomb wasn't stirred. Fans who've come to hear a diva do her thing were probably thrilled, but in Voigt's self-absorbed triumph. there was no room for Brünnhilde 

Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris are made for each other, vocally and interpretively so well matched that one wonders what they'd sound like with other partners. It wouldn't have been fair to judge Morris's performance in Siegfried as he said he hadn't had time to rehearse. Everyone loves an outsider who becomes an overnight sensation. It's human interest and the Met PR went into hyperdrive. They needed a sensation to distract from the productions!  So they made a possibly scripted mini film about him which was extraordinarly effective, creating a fan market. Morris looks good, but his isn't a voice with much inherent colour or range. It's light rather than truly lyrical, and tires easily. As Martin Bernheimer says. Morris's "prime virtues involved stamina, cheer and availability." The Met PR keeps rambling on about stamina, but Morris's voice fell apart badly in the third act. Of course it's a tough part but it's not impossible. A lot of work has been done on him since Siegfried, with good results in the lower register but it's not clear if this is a voice with longevity.

In any case, stamina alone is not a virtue, nor is cheer. There is a lot more to Siegfried than Morris develops. He's good looking, which is enough to convince the fans. But like the Rheingold, glitter isn't enough. Everyone hails Seigfried as a hero, but Wagner shows that Siegfried's a gullible boor who doesn't actually like women and whose successes come from not knowing fear. Siegfried has magic props to help him on his way, but he doesn't have wisdom. There are dark sides to Siegfried, and Brünnhilde's the real hero of the Ring. Morris's pretty, boyish Siegfried works well with Voigt's little girl Brünnhilde, but in this production, neither are called on to do much. Ironically, another lesson of the Ring is that self-awareness and self-knowledge aren't the same thing.

In that sense, Hagen is a kind of hero, for unlike Siegfried, he has an inner life and questions himself when he's lost in dreams. (Please read some of what I've written about him here). Hans-Peter König is a very experienced Wagner singer, who understands that the role is more than boom and gloom, which might throw those expecting Hagen as stock villain. Wagner underlines the mystery in the role with music that becomes tonally ambiguous, but unfortunately the Met's horns took this too literally and went out of tune, diverting from König's subtle, dignified performance.  In comparison, Eric Owens' Alberich was a comic book buffoon (Owens is good but this was a carry over from the comic book Siegfried).

As Waltraute, Waltraud Meier's huge Wagnerian heritage helped her too, though for good reason, she didn't seem much inspired in relation to what was happening around her. Iain Patterson's extensive European experience also informed hs portrayal of Gunther. Gunther isn't as weak as the Met PR would have, for he, like Hagen (must be in mum's genes) intuits the enormity of the situation. In one of the few good moments in this production, Patterson washes his hands of Siegried's blood in the waterfall where the Rhinemaidens sported. The implication may be that we're all culpable if we don't stand up to venality as Brünnhilde (not Voigt) does.

The Rhinemaidens sang joyfully, sliding down The Machine when the music slides and dips. This time no silly fake swimming as in Das Rheingold. Please read more here. The Norns were less appealing, one being rather poor. Choruses were lusty and animated, sounding much more sincere than some of the principals.

Utterly daft ending. Ludicrous horse, wimpy immolation. Someone in the cinema audience where I was thought it meant that The Ring ends happily with the lovers going up to Heaven. Perfectly reasonable conclusion, given the misguided staging, as if Lepage and co had given up altogether.

It's occured to me how delighted some people might feel about the failure of this new Met Ring. Perhaps seeing the Met humbled to the level of  third-rank provincial might cheer some, but it's a loss to everyone, even outside the US.  Fabio Luisi was well respected in Europe and brings a fresher. more elegant brio to the orchestra, opening up new possibilities. But maybe there are too many who oppose change at all costs, and want to bring back the old order. Alas, the Met Ring is old order beneath a new veneer.

Please also see Boulezian here.  Dr Berry is the author of Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fires : Politics and Religion in Wagner's Ring.

Sunday 12 February 2012

ENO Tales of Hoffman

Mark Berry in Opera Today :
"......The pipe emblazoned upon the stage curtain and the pipes being smoked by Hoffmann and the students seem to hold the key to the director’s conception. Whatever it is that is being smoked would appear to lie behind the visions. Fair enough, but there is perhaps a little too much of the surface psychedelic, especially during the second (here, first) act, and not enough truly Romantic, Gothic darkness"

Robert Hugill in Planet Hugill:
"The good news is that a pretty full version of the opera was being used, which benefited Christine Rice's Niklausse, enabling Rice to present the fullest possible version of the character complete with the aria in the prologue and a lot else besides. The bad news is that the opera was performed with sung recitatives. No explanation given. That the cast were all English speaking would seem to have been a good opportunity to perform the work with spoken dialogue; in Munich the cast were polyglot and singing in French, so one can understand the desire to use the recitatives. My problem with the recitative version is that of pacing, it seems to inflate things (recitative is inherently slower than dialogue)."

Krauss Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos

IMPORTANT Broadcast ! Clemens Krauss conducts Strauss Araiden auf Naxos, Berlin, 1935. This is historically significant. The conductor is Clemens Krauss who knew Strauss well. The cast is historic too -Viorica Ursuleac (who later married Krauss), Erna Berger and Helge Rosvaenge. It's been in circulation for several years, available from several different sources incl mp3 from amazon and HERE.

The picture above is  Ariadne auf Naxos by Lovis Corinth, the Munich artist, who was part of the Munich Secession, which predated the Vienna Secession which gets all the publicity because it's more commercially exploitable. This illustration was completed 1913, the year after Strauss completed his opera, so Corinth might have known of it, at least by repute. Notice how Corinth sends up classical antiquity and the conventions of formal art.  Ariadne's lying in an explictly sexual position, but unconscious, while Bacchus and his merry band look like they're about to trample her. And that "island", geologically impossible!

Saturday 11 February 2012

Schubert's industrial winter

Es ist so still, so heimlich um mich.
Die Sonn ist unten, der Tag entwich.
Wie schnell nun heran der Abend graut.
Mir ist es recht, sonst ist mir's zu laut.
Jetzt aber ist's ruhig, es hämmert kein Schmied,
Kein Klempner, das Volk verlief, und ist müd.
Und selbst, daß nicht rassle der Wagen Lauf,
Zog Decken der Schnee durch die Gassen auf.

The poet, Gottfried von Leitner, describes an industrial scene, normally full of noise and activity. Blacksmiths, tinsmiths, rattling wagons. This is an industrial landscape. But now the sun has set and heavy snow is falling, muffling all sound.  The city is deserted, anonymous under a blanket of snow. The protagonist sits alone in the dark. Then the song becomes truly magical. Is it moonlight that fills the room with magic, or is it a memory of someone now lost who returns in silence to cheer the one she (presumably) left behind? Earthly struggles are forgotten in this peaceful repose. Ist gar ein stiller, ein lieber Besuch, Macht mir gar keine Unruh im Haus. Schubert's setting of Der Winterabend (D938, 1828) makes much of stillness and inward contemplation. I've written about this song many times, like HERE, but there's so much in it, there's always room for more this week on snow and on Schubert - scroll down or see; Cold Song, Der Gondelfahrer and Werner Gura at the Wigmore Hall.  Celebrating 45 years of listening to Schubert !

photo: Martin Ortner, Marienzell

Mo-or-or-ore Co-co-co-cold Song !

More of Henry Purcell's Cold Song! First, above, the original Cold Genius from Purcell's King Arthur (Le Roi Arthur) from Le Concert Spirituel, conductor Hervé Niquet. Le Concert Spirituel are important French baroque specialists, so the performance is pretty authoritative. The highly admired 2004 performance is available on CD and DVD.  Second, below, Klaus Nomi's version. It's a marvellous piece of performance art though he's not  a particularly good singer. Not a patch on Andreas Scholl! But it's evidence that good music can be adapted for creative purposes. Different voice types from the original, but true to the baroque spirit of invention. "Pure" in baroque is an oxymoron.

Friday 10 February 2012

Sally Beamish - Scotland and beyond

Sally Beamish is a composer much in the news at the moment. Feb 2nd saw the performance of her arrangement of Debussy's Suite for Cello and Orchestra  by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, with Steven Isserlis as soloist, broadcast live by BBC Radio Three from Glasgow's City Halls and available via the 'Listen Again' facility on the iplayer. Sally Beamish has beautifully orchestrated the two surviving movements and arranged three other pieces to sit alongside them, making a substantial 'new' work and this was its Scottish premiere.

The ever-popular Isserlis was undoubtedly the star of this show, and in particular his playing – immediately after the interval - of Two Hebrew Melodies, which opened an all-Ravel second half. The haunting Kaddish (Hebrew prayer for the dead) has been notably played as an encore by Daniel Hope on the occasion of the death of Ligeti (when he happened to be performing with the CBSO in Birmingham's Symphony Hall) and arranged not only for violin but also for viola (for example on the recording Violent Viola by the Dutch violist Esther Apituley. I like these other arrangements for the high strings, which perhaps are closer in their range to the human voice, but Isserlis' playing was haunting and beautiful, the highlight of the evening for me.

He also excelled in the premiere of the work he had commissioned – the completion of a fragment for Debussy's Suite for Cello and Orchestra  by  Sally Beamish. She has beautifully orchestrated the two surviving movements and arranged three other pieces to sit alongside them, making a substantial 'new' work and this was its Scottish premiere. There is a gradual transition in the third movement  from Debussy's sound world to her own. One of the highlights of the work is an energetic fourth movement with strong dance-like rhythms, which is then followed by a beautiful slow movement which concludes the piece with the addition of a just slightly faster coda.This is a complex and interesting work which deserves more than one hearing to fully understand it. The combination of French and Celtic sound-worlds is an intriguing one.

This was logically preceded – to open the concert – with Debussy's La Mer,  a work likely to be heard often in this anniversary year. This Scottish rendering was big and passionate; a powerful and stormy sea rather than the light ethereal watery world this work can sometimes conjure up. This was an intriguing and quite pleasing interpretation, if at just a few times a little heavy.

The all-Debussy  first half was followed by an all-Ravel second half, maintaining a French theme throughout the evening. The Hebrew Melodies were followed by Une Barque sur l'Eau and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, with La Valse concluding the programme, the dance theme of these last two works mirroring the dance-like conclusion of the Debussy/Beamish suite which concluded the first half.

A violist as well as a composer, Sally Beamish has written extensively and sensitively for strings. In addition to a new string quartet premiered at last year's BBC Chamber Proms, and earlier two quartets, she has created three concerti for her own instrument. Also one each for violin and cello, and a series of pieces for cello and piano dedicated to Robert Irvine, by whom they have been recorded on the BIS label BIS CD 1171, with the composer's own accompaniment.

On  Feb 3rd, she was interviewed by Suzy Klein on BBC Radio Three's In Tune about a piece she had written for the OAE, unique in being a new work written specifically for period instruments. Entitled  Spinal Chord,  it is inspired by the experiences of a friend of the composer who broke her spine in a riding accident; the slowness of the music reflects the slowness of the recovery. It is to be premiered on Sunday 5th February at Southampton's Turner Sims Concert Hall, and performed in London on 10th Feb with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Three's 'Hear and Now' on 21st April.

Sally Beamish's talent though extends beyond the stringed territory, taking in collaborations with the saxophonist John Harle and the flautist Sharan Bazaly to choose but examples. Further details of her output can be found on her own informative website, which is linked to a generous and high quality listening and streaming facility provided jointly by BIS and Naxos, where several works of these works can be heard. Sally Beamish will also be BBC Radio Three's 'Composer of the Week' in the week commencing 27th February.  Next month sees another premiere for her, this time the world premiere of a new Percussion Concerto commissioned by the SCO and premiered by them on Saturday March 17th at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. Coverage on this site is promised.

by Juliet Williams