Saturday 31 March 2012

Vigorous Rigoletto - Royal Opera House

How would a period instrument specialist like John Eliot Gardiner approach Rigoletto, Verdi 's sordid tale?  This was his first Rigoletto (though not his first Verdi) but he created it with great insight. There's a lot to be learned from period practice, and anyone who knows it well knows how rambunctious it can be. Gardiner knows the Renaissance was violent. Verdi isn't sentimental and the court at Mantua was cruel.  This was historically-informed practice adapted to repertoire often milked for lush effect. Gardiner's vigorous appraoch might not appeal to all, but it's extremely perceptive. He makes Rigoletto raw and shocking, as it should be.

David McVicar's 2001 production is bleak. The ducal palace is evoked by a metallic wall : shiny but hard . Michael Vale, the designer, uses a large wooden sructure that pivots like the twists in the plot, but the focus remains on the cast. Vocal perfoirmances take their cue from Gardiner and McVicar. Vittorio Grigolo bursts onto the stage in full throttle. "Questa o quella"  is thrown like a gauntlet. The Duke doesn't brook challenge.  Grigolo has the power and showmanship to create the Duke, bursting with arrogant machismo. Like the Duke, he's a force unto himself. The courtiers are a mob for whom subtlety means nothing. Grigolo's Duke uses swagger as a weapon. The Duke's brutishness come over well, moments of decorative richness adding a touch of devious artifice, totally in keeping with character. Yet Grigolo also manages to suggest the Duke's inner fragility. With Gilda, he can play the man he might have been had he not been born to a crown. The duet with Gilda is genuinely tender. In "Ella mi fu rapita", Grigolo let the Duke's mask drop for a moment, singing with genuine tenderness. In many ways this is the heart of the opera for it touches on the Duke's inner psyche. Significantly, Verdi keeps cutting "La donna è mobile" so the sections don't connect. Gardiner emphaszies the disjoint, for by this stage, the Duke is back to his old tricks, morally disintegrating again. Grigolo is a consummate actor and creates the part with more depth than he'll get credit for. The problem is that the Duke himself is hard to pin down.

There have been so many great Rigolettos over the years that Dimitri Platanias has a lot to live up to.  This is his Covent Garden debut, though he has done the role many times elsewhere. McVicar's concept has Rigoletto crawling like a broken spider, which is perfectly valid. Platanias is physically imposing, with a voice to match, so a different concept would perhaps suit him better.  Platanias does Rigoletto's anger rather than his anguish. His dialogues with Gilda show Rigoletto's fatherly side, but don't access the demented, tortured soul within. Nonetheless, he's a good counterbalance to Grigolo's Duke and to Matthew Rose's Sparafucile, sung with the power of an amoral  force of nature. Rose doesn't need to invest the part with histrionics. To Sparafucile, murder is a business transaction without emotional meaning.  Rose's detachment is chilling in itself. In his exchanges with Christine Rice's Maddalena, Rose's sibilants cut with suppressed sexual violence. They're not "brother and sister" in the modern sense of the term, but pimp and whore.

Ekaterina Siurina is an impeccable Gilda. It's her signature role with which she debuted with Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the age of nineteen. A beautifully rounded, sensual "Caro nome" expresses the passion in Gilda's personality, making her love for the Duke perfectly plausible. Gilda is too sheltered to articulate her feelings, but her instincts burst forth. Siurina's clear, ringing timbre and perfect pitch make the long cadenzas bloom with promise, expressing emotions that words can't convey. This intensity makes her sacrifice believable too. When Siurina appears dressed as a boy, her voice glows with purpose, for she's found a way to fulfil her love in a sacrifice only a cloistered Catholic innocent might chose. Ironically, Rigoletto loses his child becauase she's been brainwashed by her upbringing.

This was an extremely rewarding Rigoletto because it cuts past surface glamour and goes to the visceral drama.

More soon in Opera Today, including an article on the live broadcast on 17th April which will be shown simultaneously in cinemas all round the world.  Film is the next frontier in opera. More people will see any production on film than will ever see it in house, so it's essential that opera filming develops as an art form in itself, like conducting, direction, singing and staging. With Kaspar Holten at the helm at the Royal Opera House, perhaps issues in filmed opera wll be taken seriously.  I've written a lot about filmed opera and music and will be writing more.
Photos copyright Johan Persson March 2012, details embedded

Friday 30 March 2012

Glyndebourne Handel Rinaldo on TV tonight!

Don't forget, Handel Rinaldo from Glyndebourne on BBC4 TV tonight. Wonder how it will turn out on film, which is always different from live. Despite dodgy premise, there are some very good moments in this. Watch Sonia Prina fly thru the sky on her magic bike! And listen to Luca Pisaroni's divine Argante. Read about the live performance HERE . 
And HERE is a link to my review of the Proms performance

BBC Spirit of Schubert Opera Marathon

BBC Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert is pretty amazing : the secret is to listen carefully. Through the Night broadcasts are by far the best bet, because the material is well chosen. Also, no banal chatter, no desperate attempts to be trendy.  Just genuine music! It's been wonderful to hear so many of Schubert's operas together and also in context of his other work. It's more fun than listening on isolated CDs. For example, Die Freunde von Salamanka (Monday) with its chorus "Fidelio! Fidelio!". Guess where the young Schubert got that from.  Compare to the songs Schubert and Beethoven set to the same texts. Matthison's Andenken, for example.The poem uses a device of repeating phrases. Schubert's song is good but Beethoven's is a miracle! Or listen to the arias  from  Die Burgschaft (D435) with Elly Ameling (Tuesday). Listen to this in conjunction with the entirely separate song Die Burgschaft (D246) on Monday. The juxtapositions are part of the fun.

A dear friend and regular reader mailed me to say she felt Schubert's operas are like extended song cycles, with spoken dialogue and music. It's a great insight. That's the key. It helps you appreciate how Schubert's idiom works. Definitely not Grand Opera in the Wagner /Verdi sense but more intimate and personal.  Think about Weber's operas, whose charm lies in the songs and music. Hearing Schubert's opera in context with his part songs and choral work is illuminating. They're all part of the same flowing river. There's a lot of variety, too.  Die Verschwornenen (D787) is delightfully Arcadian while Der Vierjahrige Posten (D190) (Thursday) is a surprisingly strong work which would be excellent material for a ROH2  chamber production.  This would be more sympathetic to the kind of theatres where such pieces were produced in their own time. Listen to these two on the Thursday afternoon opera slot. Or Der Graf von Gleichen (D918) (Wednesday) with Florian Boesch. 

Yesterday there was a potentially interesting discussion when David Pountney and Lionel Friend were asked why Schubert's operas weren't better known. Not that they got to say much, poor guys, it's not that kind of programme..Part of the problem is that it's the British who don't appreciate Singspiele, not the works themselves per se. In German speaking countries, there's a lot more appreciation of the Singspiele tradition which starts from Goethean times and goes on to Brecht/Weill and Hartmann, Braunfels etc. Indeed, you could probably trace it back to medieval mystery plays. That's why there are such high quality recordings. Fierrabras, for example (last Saturday, the classsic Abbado recording) and the Opernhaus Zurich recording on DVD (read more here)  The plot is confusing, but instead of trying to make sense of it, Guth incorporates Schubert himself into the staging so it's perrceptive.

Alfonso and Estrella (Friday am) with an exceptionally strong cast (Fischer-Dieskau, Mathis, Prey, Schreier and Theo Adam). this opera is almost as well known as Fierrabras and there's a DVD, too. If only these broadcasts were available longer because there is so much to take in. Some of the recordings are hard to get hold of. So listen and enjoy.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Schubert Laboratory or Schubert Lobotomy?

BBC Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert runs on. It's being sold as a gimmick, with come-ons like "Schubert Lab" which examines Schubert "under a microscope". I kid you not! Those words are used. But music isn't scientific. It's subjective.You might learn facts like strudel making but you won't learn Schubert until you listen with your soul. And that's a skill that comes with time and the willingness to fully engage. This isn't Tom Service's fault. It's the result of a continuing process of dumbing down that's affected the whole culture business.

Fundamentally, the media are hooked on the idea that mass means value, not quality. Look at any newspaper. The more outrageous the article, the more comments, even though most of the comments are gibberish. But that doesn't matter, as long as the article gets attention. It's mob rule via new media.  Far from encouraging new ideas and opinions it stifles genuine, independent  thought. Live blogging, for example, works fine with breaking news stories, because no-one knows the story yet. Live blogging during performances is moronic. Sure we're responding every moment but until we've processed all the data we're in no position to understand the whole.  Someone told me recently about a broadcast where tweets went across the screen like subtitles. Yikes! The message there is, don't listen or watch, read what other people think, however fragmentary (and often brainless).  Everyone has an opinion, but it's what goes into making the opinion that counts, and it's not an instant process.

So the BBC Spirit of Schubert is an interesting experiment. It operates on many different levels at the same time, and its range is so wide you have to pick and choose. In Australia, car boot sales are called "Trash and Treasure". In amongst the tat you might find a rare gem. There are some marvellous things on this Spirit of Schubert  week, scattered around so you have to be alert and prepared for surprises. It's quite amazing how much there is. This series is not something anyone can run up in a weekend. Extremely rewarding, though sometimes you have to zap the mute.  For me that's part of the fun, and without fun, what's the point?

You never know what you might learn. Request shows are naff for many different reasons (often nerd territory) but these have thrown up unexpected wonders. One man asked for Peter Dawson's Erl King sung in stilted Victorian English (before German recordings were easily available) Yow, it was dated, but the beauty was in what it meant to the man, who heard it as a boy and became hooked. His Dad bought him a piano, though that was the last thing a military family needed to cart around. A window on a world now gone. But it's a wonderful story, because it shows that people can learn in all kinds of situations.

I love hearing about experiences like this. Once I met someone who had come to Schubert via John Cage. His insights were refreshing and taught me so much. Years ago, before Amazon and Paypal I was part of a gang who smuggled Lieder into China. Passionate listeners, who treasured every song. Every discovery is a step on the road to greater adventure. Hyper-ventilating instant opinions substitute the idea that learning is quick fix and finite.

Last night, at the Royal Festival Hall, there was a schools orchestra event. The place was full of excited under 12's with scaled down instruments. The kids had been having fun playing, improvising, learning to "really" listen and create.  Kids don't need dumbing down, nor adults.  Treat music with respect. In the concert afterwards, Lisa Batiashvili showed the same creative spirit when she conducted as well as played Mozart Violin Concerto No 3, in the absence of the scheduled conductor. It was a chamber experience, the LPO players communicating with her as individuals. Batiashvili's style is lithe and gracious, so the performance was very individual and personal. Exactly opposite to the Mahler 9 mechanically delivered and mangled. On paper, it looked OK, but as music it was awful. Sure, the conductor was a substitute, but this time the back up system did not work. The LPO deserved better.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

The man who wrote La Wally - Alfredo Catalani

Alfredo Catalani wrote La Wally, but what else do we know about him? He's an intriguing character, so admired in his time that his contemporaries considered him equal to Verdi and the next great hope of Italian opera. Arturo Toscannini revered him so much that he named his daughter "Wally" (rather less unfortunate a name than it would be now). "Catalani has been squeezed into musical histories as an ‘inbetweener’, for his great love of Wagner led him to write operas which seek to reconcile the Verdian tradition with the German music-drama. This lofty ideal has generally endeared him to neither the Verdian nor Wagnerian camps" writes David Chandler, who has collected and collated all known resources about Catalani and produced two new books on the composer.

Read Chandler's article "Alfredo Catalani : the Great In-betweener" HERE. The books are : The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani and Alfredo Catalani: Composer of Lucca. Get them on amazon HERE.  More still, on the publisher's site (Durrant Publishing).

Both are painstakingly researched, using original, contemporary sources, with additional chapters on the music and recordings. It's extremely well analyzed. Many music historians aren't necessarily good historians, but Chandler uses his sources intelligently. The books are very well written indeed. Highly recommended. I'd suggest that we need to understand Catalani to interpret Puccini and those who followed. (Puccini was born in the same town four years after Catalani but taken up by the powerful publisher Ricordi, who promoted him heavily). I had the great fortune to meet David Chandler last year at the Opera Holland Park production of La Wally. HERE is a link to his review "Between Heaven and Earth", in The London Magazine. This is by far the most authoritative review around. If only all commentary could be as thoughtful as this !  It's not only knowedge but the way knowledge is applied. Chandler also writes great stuff for Opera Today.

Belcea Quartet at the Sage Gateshead

An excellent demonstration was made of the first- rate quality of the Sage Gateshead's acoustic by the Belcea Quartet on Wednesday 21 st March. High quality strong playing is familiar in this venue where Thomas Zehtmair often leads  the Northern Sinfonia from the violin. Very fine recordings are also made by this partnership here. This concert though featured the visiting London-based Belcea Quartet, who performed a selection of Beethoven's string quartets, part of a cycle which is making a multi-city tour in both the UK and Europe. There are dates in Italy, Germany and Austria as well as England, giving the Quartet a busy touring schedule (further details on their own website). Particularly fine was No 15 in A minor (Op132), known as the 'Holy Song of Thanks' because Beethoven wrote it whilst convalescing from a serious illness, which closed the concert. The lengthy slow third movement was short of superlative and brought to silence a capacity audience.

Preceding this were No 1 in F (Op18/1), a relatively early work in a brisk and lively style, and No 9 in C (op59/3), one of the Rasumovsky series – a series which in my opinion are some of Beethoven's most satisying, balanced and interesting quartets. Its very haunting andante section of the second movement was a highlight.

This performance reminds the listener that the Sage is arguably the UK's acoustically finest concert hall north of Birmingham and furthermore showcases exceptional playing of these important and substantial works. The Belceas are also in the process of making a set of live recordings of the complete Beethoven Quartets at Snape Maltings which from this showing is a release to be eagerly awaited.

by Juliet Williams

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Andris Nelsons Baby Crisis

News flash from City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: "The Baton may have switched, but the Orchestra plays on".  What's happened is that Andris Nelsons had to pull out an hour before the scheduled concert in Dortmund last week. His 3 month old baby daughter was taken to hospital In Riga. It's clearly not something trivial, as Nelsons won't be back til next  month.  The baby's mother is Kristina Opolais, a sensational Madama Butterfly at ROH last year, who must have been 4 months pregnant at the time, though the audience didn't know. All orchestras have contingency stand-bys, and  Associate Conductor Michael Seal stepped in, and the concert and tour proceeded. So much respect to Andris Nelsons, who has his priorities right. 

Monday 26 March 2012

Verdi La Forza del Destino - Chelsea Opera Group

For sixty years, the Chelsea Opera Group has adorned London opera life. It doesn't do mass market, but focuses on unusual and obscure repertoire. This audience comes for the music! This fuels Chelsea Opera Group productions with the kind of commitment you get from true devotees who love what they're doing. Founded by David Cairns, they produced  Berlioz Les Troyens and even Benevenuto Cellini in the 1960's, conducted by Colin Davis, closely associated with them since their inception. London would not be what it is without the Chelsea Opera Group ethos and its audiences.

Starting this year's season at London's South Bank, the Chelsea Opera Group presented Giuseppe Verdi's La forza del destino, in the 1862 St Petersburg version rather than the more familiar 1869 Milan version. They have produced La forza del destino before, in 1959, 1966 and 1986. Some patrons have heard them all. Last year, there was an excellent production in Paris, with Violeta Urmana, Marcelo Àlvarez and Kwangchul Youn. The Chelsea Opera budget can't scale such stellar heights but compensates with verve. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Peter Auty and Brindley Sherratt gave performances so passionate that they filled the Queen Elizabeth Hall so effectively there was no need for staging. Jeffers and Auty sang these roles at Opera Holland Park in 2010.

In La forza del destino, Jeffers is a force of nature, expressing levels of Leonora's personality hinted at in the score. Leonora is virginal but passionate. She's planning to elope to South America, sacrificng her status for an outsider whose ancestors are descended from the god of the Sun (ie Incas). Leonora's father is a bigot, and her brother equally rigid, but Leonora has greater strength and depth of personality. Jeffers smoulders, caressing the low tessitura, soaring to crescendi and extended high passages. Forceful voice, well applied technique. Jeffers is a born diva, but her powers come from within, fuelled by intelligence and understanding of how music shapes role. Leonora is resourceful - who would chose to be a hermit in a monastery? - but she can't escape Fate. If Fate can destroy someone as strong as Jeffers's Leonora, there's no hope for anyone else. Verdi's "Fate" motif flows throughout the music, sometimes seductive and subtle, but relentless. It surges in the big strings sections, weighted down by celli and basses. But when Jeffers sings Leonora the crucial aria "Pace, Pace", she's accompanied by harps, for she's alone with God. Dramatic sopranos like Gweneth-Ann Jeffers are rare - why don't we hear her more often in this country? She's a resource we should appreciate.

Don Alvaro is a long and taxing part, but without staging, the voice is more exposed and has to carry the drama. Peter Auty was more impressive than he was two years ago. In this performance there's an aria.cut from later editions, which commands, as the notes say, "high tessitura and neurotic tension". Auty threw himself into the spirit, singing with a heroism that captures Don Alvaro's personality. No matter how hard Don Alvaro tries, Fate will destroy him. Dying early is no escape. Pehaps Don Alvaro will suffer more if he has to find redemption. Certainly, Verdi's emphasis on spiritual rigour is blunted if Don Alvaro simply drops dead. The role isn't meant to be easy, and Auty understood the poignancy, rewarded by audience applause. Auty's young, by no means a  bland "English tenor" and has a lot of potential.

The plot pivots around Leonora and Don Alvaro but Verdi expands the idea of Fate in many ways. Don Carlo (Robert Poulton) doesn't think, or even feel much love for his sister. He's programmed like an automaton,  a manifestation of Fate as obsessive compulsive non-empathy. The part's against Poulton, though he sings well. But Don Carlo is killed because he doesn't even question things. Significantly, Verdi writes other characters to extend the concept of Fate. He didn't write Preziosilla (Antonia Sotgiu) simply for colour. She's not "gyspy slut" but represents something much more sinister. She is much more Mefistofele than Carmen, for she goads the soldiers on.  "Rataplan, Rataplan" can be macabre, a Dance of Death, but here it was genteel, the COG Chorus and The Imperial Male Voice Choir singing with enthusiasm, taken in by Fate in the guise of provocateur.

Significantly, Verdi develops the monastic roles. The peasants suffer poverty and war, yet do nothing to change their fate.  Fra Melitone (Donald Maxwell)  has some insight, but rails at the peasants for being poor because they have too many children. (Celibates don't understand). Melitone is also the gatekeeper and rule enforcer, a benign version of Don Carlo. Maxwell's too nice to be nasty, but creates the comic aspects of the part very well. Il Padre Guardiano (Brindley Sherratt) on the other hand is a figure as powerful as Leonora herself, with dispassionate objectivity.

"Charity" he keeps telling Fra Melitone, meaning charitable feelings not free food. This kind of charity is exactly what Don Carlo and his father don't understand. So they become tools of fate and die without having learned anything about life. Sherratt's Guardiano is magnificent, utterly authoritative. Perhaps he realizes that Padre Guardiano is the voice of God, or at least, some superior, all-merciful being who might have to the power to thwart Fate. Notice how Verdi writes the part for the same voice type as the the Marchese di Calatrava (Richard Wiegold). The two men are polar opposites. Sherratt sings with such resonance that you sense the character's emotional and spiritual depth. No wonder Leonora confides in him. Moreover, he breaks rules, letting her into the monastery. In the ending where Don Alvaro doesn't die, Padre Guardiano plays a pivotal role, implying that there are other values than revenge and pig headedness. Everyone dies in the end, but if you live properly, Fate doesn't win. Leonora has learned this, which is why she finds a kind of apotheosis in death. God has shown her mercy.

Minor roles add spark to any opera, but much depends on who is singing them.  I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Paul Curievici (Trabuco) again. He's so involved with the opera that his face expresses what's going on even when he's just listening. Intuitive expressiveness like this is a gift that can't be taught. This is the sign of someone who really acts, from his soul outwards. He's extremely young, so another talent to listen out for. I last heard him in the GSMD Poulenc Dialogues des Carmelites (more HERE)  In La forza del destino, he gets to sing a lot more, and does that well, too.

Robert Newton conducted the Chelsea Opera Orchestra and Deborah Miles-Johnson was chorus master. Three more Chelsea Opera Productions coming up this year - Donizetti Maria Padilla on 27/5, Massenet Don Quichotte on 25.11 conducted by ROH chorus master, Renato Balsadonna. More details on the COG website.
Full review and cast list in Opera Today.
photo of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, courtesy Gilder & Co, photo of Brindley Sherratt, c. Sussie Ahlburg, Askonas Holt

Boulez on Mahler

An hour with Boulez on his birthday

Hour long documentary in honour of Pierre Boulez. Could be cut a lot by judicious editing but it's Columbia's celebration of Boulez's 85th birthday two years ago today. Wait til Boulez himself speaks - gets straight to the point.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sensation but no scandal - Munich Eugene Onegin

Near hysteria in some circles over Munich Opera's Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin, the notorious "Brokeback Mountain" production. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised given that some audiences think Dvořák based Rusalka on The Little Mermaid.  But the production isn't scandalous, unless you're disturbed by homosexuality (and alas, many people are). On the contrary, this Eugene Onegin is thought provoking. Which to many is the biggest danger of all.

Kryzysztov Warlikowski and his set designer Malgorzata Szczescinak scare away the easily scandalized with a luridly psychedelic first act. But as Anna Netrebko says "I'm from Krasnodar where everything's so grey. We need bright colours".  Life in this provincial community is drab but the locals cheer themselves up by dressing up and having parties. Like the Larin community, they're in a time warp but too unworldy to know. The 1970's costumes evoke a period where people conformed, even when they thought they were hip. Although we don't see trees and nature, it must be Spring since the locals are enacting a kind of mating ritual. Girls preen like exotic birds, ogling the boys. The text keeps referring to marriage, as the basis of social order. So we don't see cartoon Russian caricatures? Instead, we get to see the people on the estate as human beings.

Tatiana (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) stands out even more as an individual than if she were styled in white dimity. The other women exaggerate their femininity, but Tatiana appears in blouse and trousers. It's not just that she reads and dreams, she's fundamentally not part of the pack. Larina (Heike Grotzinger) is particularly moving because she's not idealized Happy Mum, but a faded former beauty, keeping up pretences. Larina and Tatiana are personalities. Olga (Alisa Kolosova) is blandness in big wig and silly dress. She doesn't get to sing much because she has so little to say for herself. Tchaikovsky disappears her as soon as she doesn't fit the narrative.

This set makes you care about the people. In their cheap, tawdry finery they're trying to make something of their lives. The effemininate MC and the tacky male strippers - is this the best life offers these poor souls? And yet like millions of women they settle for what they can. This Eugene Onegin is about a whole lot more than the sexuality of the two men. The tragedy is far wider.

When Tatiana is alone, the gaudy set disaapears, replaced by atmospheric blueness. This austerity reflects her true character, When she writes the letter, she strips down, just as she's stripping off convention and propriety. Nice girls don't write compromisng letters to strange men, but Tatiana can see no other escape. Her long monolgue is directed with great subtlety. Scherbachenko moves with each nuance in the music, expressing it through her body as well as her voice. This is Regie made by someone who understands music, text and meaning.

Tchaikovsky makes a point of Lensky and Olga having been childhood friends. She's clearly less of a challenge than Tatiana, and we know from Kibbutzers that people raised as siblings often don't marry. Pavol Breslik is an outstanding Lensky. He sings with gravity and colour, so he doesn't feel like a baby-faced ingenue but more like a real man. Interestingly, when Breslik has to throw dopey kisses at Olga, Scherbachenko stand between them her features sharpened with contempt.  Tatiana's smart enough to size Lensky up, but even she gets Onegin wrong. Just as Taiana decides Onegin should be what she thinks he is, Lensky thinks Olga should be what he wants, even after he's dead.

There's a lot of dance in this opera, but Warlikowski understands that it's also in the singing parts. Again and again, pairings and reversals, carefully blocked movements and images. Scherbachenko and Onegin (Simon Keenlyside) waltz as if they're stalking each other. Later the scene between Onegin, Tatiana and Gremin (Ain Anger) is also tautly choreographed to express the tension in their relationships. Anger also plays Saretski, the second during the duel. It's not accidental. Warlikowski doesn't treat Gremin as plot device but makes the character potent, and provocative, in every way. Some Gremins are so geriatric that Onegin only has to wait til he drops dead. This Gremin strokes Tatiana's feet and legs. Thus when Onegin realizes that he's lost Tatiana, the element of sexual rivalry makes the tragedy more intense.

Significantly, Tchaikovsky doesn't write all that much for Onegin to sing, reserving the big arias for Tatiana and Lensky. Onegin is the man onto whom they project themselves. Both are jealous where he's concerned. Onegin's emotionally honest. He doesn't let Tatiana draw him into her plans, but neither does he denounce her publicly (which would have ruined her). Lensky, though, is more difficult to read. He and Onegin have been best friends for years, so how come he gets so upset by Onegin paying attention to Olga? Why is he willing to risk his life, and his friend's life, for a fairly minor misunderstnding? Even brainless Olga thinks he's "strange".  Breslik's Kuda, Kuda is elegaic, as if he's looking forward to death for some reason.

Although the duel scene takes place in an anonymous hotel room, it's lit in surreal pale blue. You feel the frozen emotional wasteland and hear it in the music. Seeing it is largely irrelevant. Rigidity (Saretsky's rules) contrasted with confusion and fear. Onegin and Lensky's final duet is heart rending.What are these two feeling? Breslik paces the room, then removes his shirt and gestures towards his belt. It could be as innocent as Onegin's dancing with Olga. Onegin panics and shoots him dead.  Tchaikovsky's stage directions make it clear that Lensky hasn't a chance and doesn't fire, so the shooting itself is no big deal.

This is when Warlikowski's production becomes truly controversial. Second and Third Acts are bridged seamlessly, so Onegin visualizes dancers in the Overture, which merges into the ballroom scene where he confronts Tatiana and Gremin.  Bare chested dancers, wth leather gilets, jeans and cowboy hats, cavorting on the bed. Not quite Sugar Plum Fairies. Onegin is profoundly distraught, not just by Lensky's death but by what the dancers imply. Perhaps he wasn't so innocent when he danced with Olga. Perhaps he was jealous she was marrying Lensky?  He feels guilt, for many reasons. He holds the gun to his head, and it's gently removed by a chambermaid.  This is good, because she's the same woman who sang Fillipievna (Elena Zilio), who had no time for romantic extremes. Onegin's confused dream sequence leads him to the final confronation, with Tatiana and Gremin.

Onegin and Lensky aren't gay so much as men questioning their identity. Orientation isn't necessarily hard wired from birth, but can be suppressed and change. Warlikowski connects the bargains the women on the Larin estate make so they can survive in the real world to the compromises men made in those days when heterosexuality was enforced. Being gay was treason because it defied the "natural" order, again symbolized by the fruitfulness of the Larin estate. Onegin is an outsider, and doesn't do the marriage game, but he's not against society per se. It's society that doesn't make room for him. It's not invalid to read homosexuality into Eugene Onegin because it's a way of explaining Onegin's isolation. Besides, Tchaikovsky himself was homosexual, and there was no way he would have been able to deal with the topic expliciutly. While it's not good to read too much autiobiography into his setting of Pushkin's story, it's likely that he could see connections. Madam von Meck, for example, wrote letters rather than have flesh and blood relationships, and Tchaikovsky had a fake marriage that didn't fool those who knew where his real interests lay. Pushkin of course died in a duel about women, but Tchaikovsky was creating a new work of art.

For my review of the Kaspar Holten Eugene Onegin at the Royal Operas Housde, pleas see here. 

Saturday 24 March 2012

Boulez pulls out of Barbican concerts

Bad news! Pierre Boulez is unwell and has pulled out of the two concerts he was scheduled to conduct in May at the Barbican. He has had eye problems for some time, and recently had to pull out of conducting the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has been connected since the 1970's.  He had several operations since 2009. I thought he didn't look well at his October concert in London with Ensemble Intercontemporain, the orchestra he founded, but put it down to the exhaustion any man who will be 87 on Monday might feel after conducting all over Europe. (Read about that HERE). So Peter Eotvos is conducting on 29th April (Scriabin, Szymanowski Violin Concerto no 1)  8 May (Szymanowski 3, Bartok). I'm gutted, because Boulez is exceptional in this repertoire, and his recording of  Szymanowski is ground breaking. Read about that here on this site under the label or search "Szymanowski Boulez". On the other hand, it's much better that Boulez should rest and recuperate. We want him around in 13 years so Elliott Carter (aged 117) can write a centenary tribute.

Friday 23 March 2012

Fierrabras : Schubert's operas - BBC spirit of Schubert

Schubert wrote nine symphonies, but ten operas, though many are incomplete and known only in fragment. Everyone knows the symphonies, but few the operas, even though the composer wrote so well for voice. The Spirit of Schubert week starts on BBC Radio 3 today and is worthwhile because it covers not only "greatest hits" but relative obscurities.

Read the schedule carefully, because among the naff stuff like celebrity chatter and request shows (shades of the 1950's!) there are some good things. This schedule would have taken ages to organize because it's so varied. (logistical things amateurs couldn't do), But listeners can pick and choose. No-one's compelled to listen to evertthing, though there are probably worse ways to pass your time.

The highlight is Fierrabas on Saturday night, online for a week after). The performance chosen is the classic version conducted by Claudio Abbado, with Karita Mattila, Josef Protschka, Thomas Hampson, Robert Holl and László Polgár singing Boland.That cast shows the regard in which the opera is held, as music. I learned Fierrabras from the Zurich Opera staging (2005) which has Polgar as the King, Jonas Kaufmann as Fierrabras, Michael Volle, Günther Groissböck, Juliane Banse etc. cond. Franz Welser-Möst. The plot is convoluted and involves frequent interactions by Christians and Moors, thwarted lovers who marry past race/religious barriers and have similar names (Roland and Boland, enemies) and voice types (for much the same reason as Mozart uses similar voice types in Don Giovanni).

The Zurich production was staged as if in a toy theatre of the period with a silent actor playing Schubert, pushing the "wooden" characters into life, and working the narrative out on a blackboard. .The groups of male singers are costumed and made up like facsimiles of Schubert which makes the plot even more confusing. Giant piano and pieces of period furniture. But it's very intuitive. The idea is that Schubert, not a theatre man as such, is working in his study, imagining how characters might function, animating them with his music. .As drama, Fierrabras is clunky, so the Zurich production (Klaus Goth) reminds us to focus on the music, some of which is good. Fierrabras is unlikely ever to be standard rep except in concert performance, but it is by no means untypical of other German Singspiele of its time.

Because our assumptions of what opera should be are defined  by Wagner and Verdi, it's often hard to appreciate that they were the exceptions, rather than the norm. Schubert's operas, like Alfonso and Estrella  fit in with German mores of the time, further being eroded by the radical appearance of Rossini. his German style is by no means obscure, so there's no excuse for mixing performance values. Listen to Christine Brewer mangle early Lieder on one of thye BBC shows. Or rather, don't. Schubert was by no means a theatre innocent as he's sometimes portrayed (curse the "little Mushroom" caricature).  At the age of 14 he started going to the opera, and was present for the Vienna premiere of the second version of Beethoven's Fidelio. He also had connections with Salieri and knew Mozart's work. So think Die Zauberflöte, when thinking of Schubert's operas. Schubert isn't in that league, but that's where he's coming from.

So I've used a painting from 1827 of a man who resembles Schubert, not one of the usual pictures. It's by a painter called Gábor Melegh (1801-31), a direct contemporaray of Schubert. It's interesting because it's a "modern" painting (for the period) but the style is vaguely Renaissance and Italianate. "Modern" hat and teacups, 16th century perspective - see the table). It embodies the idea of modern, Germanic Schubert connecting to Italy. Hunt about carefully through this BBC Radio 3 Schubert week as there are some treasures embedded. Sakontala, Die Verschworen, (Moll, Moser) Der Vierjahrigen Posten (Fischer-Dieskau, Schreier) HERE, and hughly recommended, Schubert choral and part songs on the Choir from Sunday, one of the few programmes which the BBC has not dumbed down. Aled Jones knows what he's talking about and is genuinely informative. Support him.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Sensitive Florian Boesch Die schöne Müllerin Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau's Schubert Die schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall was outstanding. Over several decades, I've heard hundreds of performances, but this was exceptionally perceptive. This was a wholly original, perceptive reading, informed by great insight. In Die schöne Müllerin the brook speaks through the piano. A brook flows forth with force. This isn't a pretty little Bachlein, even if the protagonist is fooled. It powers a large commercial millwheel. This master miller employs many staff, and the brook keeps them all in work. The millwheel crushes grain into flour. The brook also controls the miller lad's mind and crushes him with overwhelming force.

From the outset, it was clear that Malcolm Martineau understood why Schubert wrote such pounding, repetitive rhythms into the piano part. They are so shocking tthat most pianists soften them to make them more "musical", but when they're heard with this force, you realize that the brook is a personality. That's certainly how the miller's lad sees it. "Vom Wasser haben wir's gelent, vom Wasser". Right from the start, he's doing what the brook tells him. The energy in the piano part is compulsive rather than merely compelling, so Martineau's approach is psychologically right. The poem, too, reflects this hard-driven quality, with words repeated at the end of sentences, for emphasis. Boesch sings them purposefully, "Das Wandern", ""Das Wasser" and "und wandern" yet again. Piano and voice in harmony, but it's the unison of goosestep march.

Also perceptive was the way Boesch and Martineau revealed the jarring contrasts between each song. The hard-driven march gives way to more seductive rolling patterns, then voice and piano diverge. The miller has spotted the mill. Boesch's voice warms with hope, "War es also gemeint?", but Martineau's dark pedalling tells us no. Am Feierabend is often sung gemütlich, for the miller's lad now feels part of a community.. But the imagery includes the millwheel, still grinding when the workers are at rest. Martineau's attack is ferocious, for the brook is, and will become ever more jealous. Later, the young miller will obey, but for the moment, he's still contemplating love. Significantly, the voice is relatively unaccompanied at the start of Der Neugierige, and Boesch's voice finds lyrical stillness. But the brook attacks again in Ungeduld, with its manic pace. Seldom have these mood swings seemed so bi-polar. In Mein! Boesch sings as if he's won the girl. Martineau's playing reminds us that the brook might think quite something else. Emphatic, brutal last note, no quibbling.

Many years ago, Matthias Goerne's first recording of  Die schöne Müllerin revealed the young miller as emotionally disturbed, living in schizoid fantasy. It's a perfectly valid interpretation, though Goerne was to adopt a more conventional but superlative approach in his recording with Christoph Eschenbach (review here - it's one of the best). Boesch, however, makes the young miller sympathetic. Because it's easier to identify with a miller created with such warmth, the brook's vindictive pursuit seems all the more tragic. Boesch's rich timbre makes him plausibly masculine, so the rivalry between the miller and the huntsman isn't entirely one-sided. No less than six songs in this 20 song cycle deal with the miller, the hunstman and the girl, with music and the colour green and all that signifies. The songs were performed without a break, since they're a last interlude, when the miller still inhabits the real world.

With the minor key Trockne Blumen, the young miller enters the death zone. Boesch sings quietly but it's an unnatural calm. His last cry "Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter is aus!" was a last backwards look at happier times. Martineau makes the last chords resonate into silence. The miller will not live to see Spring. The brook now "speaks" through the text, as well as through the piano. Miller and brook are becoming one again, the miller's soul absorbed by the brook. This is surreal, even by the Gothic norms of Romantic poetry. Boesch makes interesting connections. His hands may clasp involuntarily, but the stillness of his singing suggests quasi-religious sacrifice. Did the poet Wilhelm Müller think of pre-Christian fertility rites, or to primeval myths of female water spirits luring men to their doom? It hardly matters. Boesch's eerie stillness is disconcerting, as if the miller is willingly being hypnotized.

The last song, Das Baches Weigenlied is a lullaby but most certainly not serene or comforting. Rolling rhythms again, but now the piano part falls into gentle repose. The brook is now speaking through the voice part and through the miller. It's not the miller who is now at peace. He's dead. The brook has consumed him and no longer needs to rage. Schubert sets the song lyrically, but it's the culmination of a nightmare, straight out of the aesthetic that gave rise to Erlkönig (and indeed to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) As I've said many times before, only the shallow hear shallow in Schubert, but it needs to be said if we are to learn from him. This recital shows us what real Lieder singing is about. It's uncompromising psychological truth. Full review to appear in Opera Today.

Roman Statkowski Maria from Wexford

Listen to a broadcast of Roman Statkowski's opera Maria from the Wexford Festival HERE on BBC Radio 3 online for 7 days. Murder, unhappy marriages and intrigue ! But listen to the Overture, from a Polish recording which I haven't been able to track down.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Eugene Onegin Munich live stream

Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin live stream from Munich, Saturday night 24/3 at 7pm German time (6pm UK)  Watch it free on this link here. See the video trailer HERE and enjoy production photos HERE. The video shows the original cast from 2007 (Michael Volle!). This is the famous and controversial Krzysztof Warlikowski production. "Warlikowskis Interpretation, die den Titelhelden als Gefangenen seiner unterdrückten Homosexualität porträtiert, wird seit der Premiere viel diskutiert, hat sich aber mittlerweile zu einem Publikumsmagneten entwickelt." Is Onegin in the closet? That would explain a great deal. It also puts his feelings for Tatiana into context. He doesn't love her as a woman but as an idea of something vaguely female, which could be as nebulous as Mother Russia. And why does Lensky make such a big deal about a silly non-issue? What's he trying to suppress?  (Shades of Ken Russell Women in Love?) .You can just bet that this will probe a lot deeper into the opera than Deborah Warner's ENO version (Please read my "Applauding the scenery")  So they're not wearing Pushkin costumes?  (the picture is Pushkin's own drawing of himself and Onegin on the banks of the River Neva). (anyone who can decipher Pushkin's handwriting might know what the pair are up to).  Fact is, Tchaikovsky was gay and couldn't very well be open about it then. At the very least this should start people thinking about the composer, the music and why he might have written what he did. This revival stars Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ekaterina Scherbachenko.

Monday 19 March 2012

Fritz Kreisler plays Kreisler Tambourin chinois 1910

Fritz Kreisler, composer as well as virtuoso. This is Kreisler's op 3 Tambourin chinois, from 1910. In fact the recording was made in 1910 too, so what we have is avant garde new music, new technology and a composer experimenting with an alien musical form. Sounds familiar? Sounds nothing like Chinese music to me, but that doesn't matter at all. Kreisler is enjoying himself writing perfumed exotica. Evidently the piece meant a lot to him. Twenty five years later, he records it again with a different pianist, much sharper. Please see my numerous other posts on composers playing their own music, eg Mahler plays Mahler, Grieg plays Grieg and even Brahms !

Sally Beamish premiere, SCO

On Saturday, Edinburgh saw the UK premiere of Sally Beamish's percussion concerto performed at the Queen's Hall by Colin Currie with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who are a co-commissioner of the work. Appropriately for the season of Lent, it was a meditation on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, taking the form of a series of 'dances' in different styles. These with their contrasting styles showcase effectively the wide range of percussion instruments deftly and energetically used by the soloist. Some humorous touches feature, such as the use of bottle chimes in 'Gluttony'. A tango used in 'Envy', the second of the seven dance sections, is particularly enjoyable.

These dance sequences are briefly preceded by an opening section featuring flute along with the percussion soloist, the music from this opening returns briefly to be re-stated in a closing section, described as being as if a sleeper awakes from a dream, the dream being the central series of dances. The flute has a demanding part at several points and Fiona Paterson is to be commended for her performance of this. Woodwind is generally emphasised in the scoring, the clarinet also being featured effectively in the passage for 'Pride', subtitled 'Cadenza No 5'. Ms Beamish honoured the audience with a personal appearance and her work received a standing ovation.

The second half of the evening saw an able performance of Beethoven's 7th symphony, a work which conductor Joseph Swensen has made an especial study of. Swensen is a former Principal Conductor of the SCO and it was interesting to compare their sound under his baton with that of his successor, Robin Ticciati. Although Ticciati is taking on new commitments as Music Director at Glyndebourne, he will be remaining Principal Conductor of the SCO until at least 2015. Not only areb there opportunities to hear their very successful collaboration during this year's Edinburgh  International Festival but we are told they will be making several further performances together in the 2012/13 concert seas, details of which will be announced very shortly

SCO's Beethoven performances continue this Thursday (22nd March) with the Fifth (under Ticciati) and on April 21st with the Eighth (under Oliver Knussen, who also conducts his own Two Organa and a new work). Both concerts are to be given in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, on consecutive days.

by Julie Williams
Photo : Ashley Coombes

Sunday 18 March 2012

Paris Mussorgsky Khovanshchina

Two competing productions of Modest Mussorgsky Khovanshchina. on from 22 January 2013 at Opéra Bastille, the other now on at the Met, which was broadcast Saturday on BBC Radio 3. Rather solid performance (Kiril Petrenko) good enough singing, best being Borodina's Marfa. But look at the Paris version - Mikhail Jurowski,  and an all-Russian cast (Galouzine, Diadkova) and a very interesting set, not that you should really tell by photos  (Richard Hudson, diector Andrei Serban). Gut instincts good.

The clincher is price. Eurostar about £200 return, and only 2 hours from St Pancras. It's practically local. Decent hotels and food, of course and you can bring back fresh bread. I was looking at costs for Edinburgh, for Charpentier and Les Arts Florissants. I'd much rather hear extraordinary performances of unusual music than familiar pieces, however worthily done. (and you can hear the Wagner in Wales). Eleven hours by train for £300, plus hotels etc. No wonder I haven't been back for years. There are people who could live for weeks on that kind of money, which matters to me. Besides, the Paris Mussorgsky may be on French TV and much of Edinburgh will almost certainly be on BBC Radio 3, saving on carbon emissions and conscience. .

Viennese operetta as Chinese opera

What a scream! A proper Cantonese opera, but also a satire on Viennese operetta. The plot's straight out of 1920/1930's kitsch, milked for all its dotty craziness, but set to musical form that's authentically Cantonese. For most non-Chinese, Chinese opera is hard to penetrate because it involves much understanding of cultural values and customs. Romance of Jade Hall (璇宮艷史)  however, is ideal for western audiences because the plot is a send-up of 1920's and 30's kitch. Ruritanian kingdoms with autocratic aristocrats in crazy costumes, playboy lovers and lots of natty arias. Ukelele solos and badly played gypsy violins! Even a skit based on the tune Oh Susana. Corny enough in Mitteleuropa, hysterically funny with a Chinese cast camping it up for al its worth.

Prince Ali (pronounced Nali) (Cheung Ying 張瑛, famous matinee idol) ventures incognito into other kingdoms where he becomes a hearthrob nightclub singer. Regular fans will squeal at the sight of him with curly wig and lipstick, like a round eye.  Exiled from one kingdom for chasing too many women, he's arrested in another, where the Queen (Law Yim-hing 羅艷卿, another legit Cantonese opera singer) fancies him but can't marry a commoner. Convoluted plot ends well when Ali's true ID is revealed. Best of all, the Prince's sidekick, who wears shiny silk suits and plays the ukelele is Leung Sing Bo (梁醒波) the greatest comedy opera singer and actor of all time. The Queen's comic sidekick is Lolo, Tam Lan-Hing (譚蘭卿) who often paired up with Leung Sing Bo, and is his counterpart in every way. Choruses of palace maidens and princes from fantasy kingdoms.

Otherwise this is true, traditional Cantonese opera (and the movie coyly starts out like that). Rhythmic recitatives, inventive arias, percussion-led interjections. A great introduction to Cantonese opera form. English and Chinese subtitles, but the Cantonese original is best, full of wit and pun. 

Saturday 17 March 2012

Paris Pelléas et Mélisande -streaming live

From the Opéra de Paris (Bastille) live streaming of the current production of Debussy Pélleas et Mélisande.  Philippe Jordan conducts, divinely,  feel the sparkling waters in those teasing diminuendos, and the heat rising off the earth  as notes langorously surge upwards. Feel claustrophobic in the damp, sinister caves. But like Pélleas, you might be desperately gasping to escape the staging.

Robert Wilson is the director, so expect neo-classical elegance, a bare stage lit in blue,  black silhouettes suggesting forests and castle. The idea is valid, since Pelléas et Mélisande is a nocturnal fantasy, lit with the strange quirkiness that would inform Pierrot Lunaire. Wilson connects the opera to the psyche from which dream creatures like Pierrot emerge. The picture above comes from the earliest animation of the Pierrot story, made by Émile Reynaud in 1892, using techniques that would be swept away by the advent of film. Watch the streaming on Medici TV HERE and recognize the black and azure.

Maeterlinck's symbolism intuititively revealed the subconscious, years before The Interpretation of Dreams.  Wilson's Personenregie has the singers move in slow, deliberately anti-naturalistic gestures as if they're trapped in a semi-conscious state. But Pelléas et Mélisande works because it's disturbing. The music shifts, unsettling perspectives. The deep well, the high tower, blinding heat, dank odours - all part of the turbulence. The narrative seems imposed upon somethiung infinitely more elusive than mortal minds can grasp. Wilson's frozen stasis doesn't reflect the troubling contrasts in the music, nor really express the hidden, dirty horrors that lie within. We see the dead peasants neatly lying on the ground, but only from the music do we know they starved while trying to escape.

Into this psychological concentration camp, Mélisande appears. What does she represent? Golden rings, golden hair that flows like a waterfall and traps poor Pélleas, eyes like luminous, pure pools. Wilson is right that she's not "innocent" so much as amoral, part of the same nightmare that holds Pélleas and Golaud. The real innocent, Yniold, moves almost like a normal person and wears a bronze doublet. Thus the scene where Golaud upsets Yniold by getting him to betray those he loves is extremely effective. Was Golaud himself once a Yniold? He seems to strike out at the boy, who flinches. The blow is held, suspended mid-air, since it's target isn't the son but the father.

Wilson's stylization reminded me of Herbert Wernicke's Tristan und Isolde where the lovers stood suspended in sterile cubes, while Wagner's passion surged all round them. At the time, I wrote that it was "Tristan und Isolde on Prozac" but psychologically, Wernicke was right. Traumatized people turn in on themselves to escape emotion. It's not that they don't feel, but feeling hurts too much.  So I'm certainly not going to dismiss Wilson's approach, even though it misses so much oif what makes this opera so remarkable. Excellent moments of insight, but three hours of blue, white and black can make you comatose. Maybe that's the point, but it's hard to take without a large cognac. (Another reason for watching the repeat broadcast at home.)

On the other hand, the stylization highlights the music, which is as it should be. There are advantages. Jordan can let the pace unfold, so the shimmering detail in the orchestration can refresh. Debussy is telling us so much in abstract sound that it frees our imagination to create images of our own. The absolute last thing you want in Pelléas et Mélisande is literal hyper-realism. Jordan gets elegance when needed, but doesn't spare the angular brutality when it's hinted at. Golaud's music is specially well defined,  which is important because too often he's treated as stock villain. This opera is Golaud's tragedy, Pelléas and Mélisande the agents that cause his downfall as much as characters in themselves.

Vincent Le Texier is an uncommonly complex Golaud, who commands sympathy. He moves like a statue because that's the staging concept, not his own, but he sings with such resonance that it feels like he's suppressing extreme emotions that will wreck him if he lets them out. The scene where Le Texier's Golaud hits Mélisande growls with deep-felt violence. Again, Wilson shows that the blow doesn't make contact, though Mélisande flinches. Golaud later begs forgiveness, and Le Texier sings as if Golaud were a small boy again connecting to his mother. 

Debussy's writing for Pélleas is transparently beautiful, and  Stéphane Degout sings exqusitely. He's Pelléas as diaphanous ideal, the purity of his timbre luminous. Although the staging is one-dimensional, Degout's singing isn't. He expresses Pelléas's terrors well, the anguish in the voice all the more moving because he's established such refinement in the character. Pelléas may sound like god, but he's trapped like a mortal.  On repeat listening, the depth of Degout's characterization is even more compelling.

Elena Tsallagova sings Mélisande. She looks like a ballerina, and sings with equal grace, but Mélisande is an elusive role, almost impossible to fully interpret. Wilson's non-staging helps Jordan, Le Texier and Degout, but leaves Tsallagova to her own resources, which is is attractive rather than compelling. Anne Sofie von Otter sings Geneviève, and Jérôme Varnier adds personality to the otherwise small part of the Doctor. Franz Josef Selig sounds vigorous and warm as Arkel, which is good - while he lives, there's hope. It's in the plot! Similarly Julie Mathevet's Yniold is vibrant. Her voice is so high that she really sounds like a young boy, but she has the vigour to make Yniold's fears cut. And gosh, does Jordan make the orchestra sound wonderful, in this almost concert performance.

Friday 16 March 2012

Edinburgh International Festival 2012 - Big on Baroque

As regular readers have seen Scotland has a special place on this site! So a look at the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival. It's not quite as eclectic this year, but equally esoteric, with a strong emphasis on the baroque.

The Big Event, on opening night 10/8, is Frederick Delius  A Mass of Life. It's billed as "one of the grandest choral pieces ever written" (well?) and is so rarely performed that even snotty Sassenachs should head north for it. (though it's almost certain to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3). Note, it's a "mass of life" not "for" life because it's based on Nietzsche not on Christianity per se. Andrew Davis conducts the Royal National Scottish Orchestra. This is Delius's biggest and most dramatic moment - read lots more about him on this site.

Stick around for Janáček The Makropulos Case. It's a new production, from Opera North, but being heard first at Edinburgh, and only later tours ON's usual cities, so this is a big deal, too. It gives Opera North international, high profile coverage. Who knows, we might even get it in London, where the last few ON productions did not get critical acclaim. Ylva Kihlberg sings Emilia Marty, Richard Farnes conducts and Tom Cairns directs. Wagner Tristan und Isolde too, with Ben Heppner and Jennifer Wilson, but this isn't a "first" like the Opera North Janáček but one which will premiere in Cardiff with the Welsh National Opera.

By far the biggest highlight, though, will be Marc-Antoine Charpentier David et Jonathas. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants and a  superb mainly French cast (Quintans, Charbonneau) almost guarantee this will be an artistic triumph. Staged by Andreas Homoki, it's a new production, jointly commissioned with the Aix en Provence Festival, Opéra Comique, Théâtre de Caen and Teatro Real. Tristan und Isolde and The Makropulos Case  may be popular but real opera devotees will red letter Charpentier and Christie 17-20/8.  Certainly, I'd rather top quality something I don't know than ordinary familiar. Les Arts Florissantes are also doing another very special concert on 19/8 with excerpts from French baroque operas - Lully, Rameau, Charpentier but also Grabu and Cambert. Down south, the Royal Opera House is reviving 19th century French opera : prepare by coming to terms with French baroque.

Philippe Herreweghe will bring the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and Collegium Vocale Ghent to Edinburgh on 20/9 in a programme built around Bruckner's Te Deum. Plenty more for baroque fans. Philippe Pierlot and The Ricercar Consort will gve two concerts of English baroque - Blow, Purcell, Byrd and Tye. Voice people will head for the recital with Blaze, and Mena, also on 20/8 (presumably daytime and evening with Les Arts Flo, which makes a short trip feasible)  David Daniels is doing a  baroque recital on 29/9 and Iestyn Davies on 18/9. Countertenor Paradise! Harry Christophers and The Sixteen are doing Purcell King Arthur on 27/8.

Vladimir Jurowski brings the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Edinburgh on 14/8. Designed around Rachmanininov's The Bells, it includes rarities by Myaskovsky, Schedrin and Denisov. It's a much more adventurous programme than most of what we've heard at the South Bank, so again it's one Londoners could learn from.

The backbone of the Festival will be visting orchestras like Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra (Lutoslawski). No prizes for guessing who'll feature in this year's Proms! Londoners probably won't flock to hear Gergiev and the LSO or Salonen and the Philharmonia because we can hear them all the time. But much more interest in Scottish specialities like the excellent Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Ticciati). Also, Scottish composer Craig Armstrong's opera The Lady from the Sea.

Of even greater interest to Londoners, (alas, we're insular) are the chamber operas. Huw Watkin's In a  Locked Room and Stuart Macrae's Ghost Patrol  form a double bill, to be heard in Edinburgh from 30/8 then at ROH2 in London from 27/9. Also, James Macmillan's Clemency. This was a joint venture between the Royal Opera House (Linbury) where it premiered in May 2011, the Scottish Opera, and the Boston Lyric Opera. Notice the links between the different companies and also with Music Theatre Wales (joint proiducers of the Watkins/Macrae double bill). Anyone who's been paying attention to the content of the new Royal Opera House programme will have picked up on the pattern - co-operation, joint ventures, cross fertilization. This is a good way to go in difficult times. The ROH is miles bigger than all the others, but ivory tower is not nearly as creative as working with lively independents. Incidentally, Peter Maxwell Davies, honorary Scotsman's early opera The Lighthouse is coming to ROH2 in October. That premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. Entirely coincidentally, it's about events in a lighthouse, but not quite like Armstrong's The Lady from the Sea.

Read more on the Edinburgh International Festival's website. Public bookings start 24/3.

photo copyright  2005 David Monniaux

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Nash Ensemble, Edinburgh

The Wigmore Hall's resident Nash Ensemble graced Edinburgh for the closing concert of the New Town Concert Society's 2011/12 series. Their programme opened with James Macmillan's 2007 Quintet for Horn and String Quartet, continuing the horn-featuring programming the Edinburgh concert scene has seen this season. This work shares the sound world of Macmillan's widely acclaimed large scale work, Tuireadh, a lament for the Piper Alpha disaster, but is for smaller forces. It also showcases the hunting and military aspects of the horn's character as an instrument, contrasting these with passages for various of the players suggesting a keening lament, further referencing Tuireadh. Of these latter sections, an extended solo for the viola – here ably performed by Lawrence Power, who featured in last week's performance here with the Scottish Ensemble – stand out and is one of the most delightful passages in the entire work.

Although the Macmillan piece was both interesting and enjoyable, for me the highlight of the evening was a sensitive and evocative performance of Brahms's lovely Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (Op40), another work again featuring the French horn. This also shares with Macmillan's quintet the feeling of an orchestral scale of work, notwithstanding the use of compact forces, especially in this trio, it has much of the expansiveness of the Second and Third Symphonies. The works also share the element of mourning, this Trio being written in memory of Brahms's mother, who had died only four months before it was completed. Yet another parallel between the works is the referencing of the use of the horn in hunting, Brahms portraying a forest scene in the scherzo and featuring the hunting horn in it, giving a foreshadowing of Mahler.

The use of the horn gives a typically Brahmsian tone quality, as with the use of the clarinet in the chamber trio he wrote for that instrument, although there is also a clear homage to Bach. This work's emotional heart is in its yearning Adagio third movement, again a feature which draws parallels to the great Adagios of Mahler, whose debt to Brahms was vividly illustrated in this work, such as that of his Fifth Symphony.

This was followed by a good account of the Dvorak Quintet for Piano and Strings (Op81), allowing horn player Richard Watkins a well earned rest. This was a good performance of a work which although widely performed I consider over-rated; to my mind it would have been preferable to have continued with more Brahms and played his own superior Quintet, or to have selected the other major and pleasing romantic 19th century Quintet, that of Schumann.

by Juliet Williams
photo: Hanya Chlala/ Arenapal

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Daring and purpose - Royal Opera House 2012-2013

Fascinating Royal Opera House 2012-13 season mixes daring with prudence – passionate. "Opera is an emotional fitness centre", says Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, because it exercises many different feelings. Through opera, we engage with the drama of being human. Running an opera house is more than just business. Its "product" is creativity. If opera houses scale back and play safe, they lose the vision that makes opera thrilling in the first place. Holten's strategy for straitened times is daring. Grow the audience from strength, giving patrons something to get excited about, whether they're new to the genre or not.

Six new opera productions, higher profile revivals and an ambitious programme of external events that will expand the reach of the Royal Opera House far beyond Covent Garden.  More live HD broadcasts, so ROH premieres can reach wider audiences. More links with smaller, independent companies. Even an experimental pricing structure. The whole atmosphere is a buzz, reflecting Holten's dual responsibilties as manager and as creative artist.

Obviously the big Wagner Ring will dominate the autumn season. It's sold out, despite sky-high prices, but Wagner's anniversary is most definitely a special occasion. This production is aimed at a more general audience than a core of Wagner aficionados. Bryn Terfel, Susan Bullock and other stars ensure its success. This is a new Keith Warner production, conducted by Antonio Pappano. Wagner is always interesting and the sheer sense of occasion is part of the attraction. It takes the Met to really destroy the Ring. The ROH Ring should keep the house afloat for years.

In December, Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable makes its first London appearance since around 1890.  Once, Robert Le Diable was un succès fou, a sensation to which all Europe flocked, for it marked a new style in French opera. Heinrich Heine attended, incorporating it into his poetry "Es ist ein großes Zauberstück, Voll Teufelslust und Liebe" (read the full story here).  The painting at right is Degas, Ballet from Robert le Diable (1876). Some of the arias are very well known, since Joan Sutherland was very fond of them. So hearing it in context is a great opportunity. There's a renaissance in 19th century French opera, and the ROH has been on the crest, with Massenet, Berlioz and Gounod. The cast is superb. Brian Hymel who so impressed as the Prince in Rusalka, will be singing with Diana Damrau, Marina Poplavskaya, John Relyea and Jean-François Borras. This repertoire diverges from the Italianate style so fashionable at present, so  it's good news for opera adventurers exploring "new" perspectives.

Benjamin Britten's centenary falls in November 2013, so the eyes of the world will be on how Britain honours the greatest opera composer it has produced. Britten often visited the ROH (he used to eat at Bertorelli's) but he wasn't really part of the ROH in-crowd then. So it's good that the Royal Opera House is giving him his due, and with a twist Britten would have appreciated.  Had the ROH been boring and played safe, we'd get another Peter Grimes. Instead, Holten has chosen the extremely rare Gloriana, which even Britten true believers don't know well. This is thrilling, as Gloriana is problematic to stage, for Britten experiments with Elizabethan form.  There's only one recording (dull) and an Opus Arte DVD with Opera North (brilliant) which treats the work in cinematic style, which is an excellent solution. (review here). It would be hard to top that but the Royal Opera House has resources few other have, and Richard Jones as director could make it work. Strong British cast:: Susan Bullock, Kate Royal, Toby Spence, Mark Stone and other stalwarts, conducted by Paul Daniel. Definitely a "historic event".

Three of the most important British composers are highlighted this year. Britten, Harrison Birtwistle and George Benjamin, "The 3 B's" quips Holten. Perhaps the most significant British opera in recent years, Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, is revived at last in January. Get to this, since the DVD is inertly filmed, something I hope Holten will address at some stage, since film is the next frontier in bringing opera to audiences outside the house. Like any other part of staging it needs to be done well. John Tomlinson, Christine Rice, Andrew Watts and Johan Reuter return, and Alan Oke sings the part created by Philip Langridge (read the interview I did with him here about The Minotaur and about Birtwistle, his close friend).

George Benjamin's new opera, Written on the Skin, premieres March 8 2013. This is a very important occasion indeed, and will be heard in eight European cities. Benjamin's not a fast writer, but painstakingly scrupulous, and this is his most ambitious large work to date. The libretto is by Martin Crimp, with whom Benjamin created the masterpiece Into the Little Hill. Read more about that here. The plot's dramatic. A rich man hires an artist to illuminate a manuscriipt. The rich man kills the artist when the latter falls in love wuth the former's wife and has him baked into a pie and served for dinner. Barbara Hannigan sings the wife,  which means the part will be fiendishly inventive and demanding. That's Hannigan's speciality (read about her singing Boulez here on this site). Obviously a countertenor role to match, this time Bejun Mehta. Benjamin is a quinessentially European composer, so it's good that Written on the Skin will be broadcast live, internationally in HD.

The Royal Opera House has always been good for Verdi. The new season brings a Verdi Immersion, three operas in sucession, a sort of Verdi Ring, since his anniversary coincides with Wagner's. The series starts, appropriately, with Nabucco, in a new production by Daniele Abbado and Alison Chitty. Plácido Domingo and Leo Nucci alternate Nabucco. Domingo's presence alone will make this an attraction. He's an icon as much as a singer. Acting isn't affected by age. Domingo can project character, which is what this role needs.  Since it's Nabucco, the Royal Opera House chorus will be in their element. and they're so good they could carry the show. Nabucco is followed by Don Carlos in May and Simon Boccanegra in June/July. Although the latter are revivals, if they're worth doing, they're worth doing well, so the ROH is are injecting high-quality standards worthy of the best new productions. Antonio Pappano is taking over the conducting and Verdi is his speciality. Absolutely top quality singers - Harteros, Kaufmann, Kwiecień, Furlanetto, Halvarson, Hampson. Even if you've seen these umpteen tmes before, this time they will sound fresh.

It's good that the Royal Opera  House has in Holten a director who is a hands-on theatre person, because that ensures he's on the ball as an artist. February brings his first ROH production, Tchaikovsky's  Eugene Onegin.  Partly Russian cast with Simon Keenlyside for popular appeal. Robin Ticciati, the new incumbent at Glyndebourne, conducts. Since the ROH will be working more with other houses like the innovative Music Theatre Wales, what might this signify, if it means anything at all? Chances are that this time the audience won't mindlessly applaud the scenery as they did at the ENO, but instead pay attention to the music.

Also an indicator of new creative times is Gioachino Rossini La Donna del Lago in May, a new production directed by John Fulljames, Associate Director  This is significant because it was to have been a co-production, but the Royal Opera House pulled out and created their own.  This is radical, but it's much better to do good work than regurgitate a turkey. Operas have a long run in time, so it's a wonder this doesn't happen more often and save more reputations, time and money. Holten describes Fulljames as the ROH "dramaturge", an artistic philospher with very strong theatre skills, as anyone familiar with his work over the years will recognize. Fulljames's new production was put together efficiently, using pre-existing technical resources for new purposes. This isn't recycling, but resourcefulness, as it takes a genuinely creative mind to work round difficulties. Much trickier than working from a blank canvas. Perhaps this is a good way forward at a time of budget restraint?  The cast includes Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, specialists in this repertoire, so for singing alone, this new La Donna del Lago will be intriguing.

The more you look into the Royal Opera House 2012-13 season, the more there is to look forward to! Further details on the ROH website HERE and on Opera Today.
photo: Peter Suranyi

Tuesday 13 March 2012

The misfortune of Miss Fortune - Royal Opera House

An absurd plot has never stood in the way of a good opera. Unfortunately, Judith Weir's Miss Fortune  at the Royal Opera House isn't much of an opera. It's an anomaly in an otherwise fertile career which has made Weir one of the significant British composers of our time. Every composer has dry spells. It's just bad luck that while Weir is getting maximum attention, Miss Fortune does not show her at her best. Better a revival of A Night at The Chinese Opera or Blond Eckbert than this mishap.

The surmise is reasonable enough. Billionaire parents instantly lose all they have. "I'll work, I'll live, I'll eat" sings Tina (Emma Bell) their daughter, "I'll find my way on the street". Perhaps, but the hardships she comes across are so sanitized that they're hard to take seriously. Of course this is a fairy tale, but real fairy tales have bite. Miss Fortune is so shallow you couldn't drown a gnat.

So don't come expecting real emotions in this opera, and certainly no element of social analysis. The whole opera predicates on the idea of Fate in the form of a doppelgänger in a natty tie-dyed dressing gown. "I'm with you everywhere" sings Andrew Watts, trying his utmost to sound convincing, but there's so little substance in this text that even he can't bring out the malevolent possibilities in the character. Fate isn't fair, it's insane. Countertenors have the range to madden and confound, but the music here is so even-tempered that it makes little impact.  When one of the breakdancers spins dangerously on the top of his head, risking his neck and spine, he expresses more about the nature of fate than anything in this music. It's not a good sign when a choreographer can say more about the meaning of an opera than a composer. Wonderful dancing, however. These men (members of the Soul Mavericks) were so good that they almost rescued the whole show.

Lord and Lady Fortune (Alan Ewing and Kathryn Harries) have parts to sing that are more slapstick panto than depth, and Weir's writing for them is very good, setting each at counterpurposes to the other, which expresses personality. But poor Tina! She's such an inept cipher that Emma Bell hardly has to do much more than follow the notes. Hassan (Noah Stewart) and Donna (Anne-Marie Owens) are stock characters too, dutifully realized. .

The problem lies in the libretto. Judith Weir is brilliant at writing atmospheric, descriptive music, but such music needs something to hang on to, like flesh needs a skeleton (another image of Fate).This libretto is so weak, it's embarrassing. The banality of the text follows the banality of the narrative, and the music doesn't rise above it.  For example, sharp-suited Simon the Yuppie (Jacques Imbrailo) comes down from his office ("it's not far away") to tell Donna the Laundromat Lady that his shirt is the best laundered and best ironed he's ever worn. That's about the level of discourse in this opera. The Deus ex machina is a lottery ticket which may or may not change Fate, but it's so artificial we don't really care. Imbrailo's singing was by far the finest singing of all, exquisitely shaped and warmed with sincerity. Imbrailo is such a genuinely nice person in real life that perhaps  he can identify with the better aspects of Simon. But the beauty of his singing was at odds with pedestrian vocal demands in the score. If only the part had been written with more substance, doing justice to this level of singing.

The staging on the other hand was superb. Wonderful set by Tom Pye, based on two triangular objects suspended above the stage, onto which were projected  a fantastic array of light effects and videos (Scott Zielinski, Leigh Sachwitz, Flora and Faunavisions). This was truly magical.  Inventive costumes (Han Feng) and strong direction by Chen Shi-zheng, who injects the proceedings with a charm lacking in the music. You could have spent the whole evening marvelling at this staging.  Miss Fortune and Rusalka are mirror opposites, one wuith good music and dull staging, the other with wonderful staging and uninvolving music. But we shouldn't go to the opera to enjoy the scenery, even when it's as good as this. It's the characters that make an opera, and their feelings, as brought out in the music.

Paul Daniel is an excellent and much underrated conductor who made his name in the ENO glory days when Weir and Turnage were in their prime. He has experience and inspired good playing from this orchestra, better than several conductors we've heard in recent months. Hopefully, he'll be back again soon - he's an asset.

There were so many positives about this production. It would be hard to imagine a better range of resources utilized to make it work. But Miss Fortune is fatally flawed because it just isn't very dramatic. I longed for Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, which has grown on me with time. Anna Nicole had its dull moments, but its grotesqueries were so engrossing that they held attention, even if they made you want to scream.

More, with full cast and more photos to come in Opera Today
Photos : Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House