Thursday 31 January 2013

Violence and intrigue at the Bolshoi

Latest in the Bolshoi Ballet saga is the news that principal dancer Svetlana Lunkina has decided not to return to Russia after unspecified threats were made to her husband. Although the case is not related to the acid attack on Sergey Filin, the Bolshoi's Artistic Director, it suggests an underworld of extremes that could come straight out of an opera plot. HERE is a link to the best informed article written so far on the situation. It's from Der Speigel, which still believes in investigative journalism.  If only we had more of that in the UK, where some newspapers have become blatant tools for marketing. Once writers went out and got stories. Now they just retweet feeds. At least in Russia, some people stand up for what they believe in.  For a dancer, who works through visuals, becoming blind is almost worse than death. Yet Filin forgives his attacker.  The acid might corrode his face, but not his soul.   No wonder they appointed him boss at the Bolshoi, and not the other guy. Filin proves that real vision doesn't come only through the eyes.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Britten and Pears discuss Winterreise

Vintage footage from 1968 : Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears discuss Schubert Winterreise. This certainly isn't a performance that will go down as one of the greats, for Pears's voice is pinched and fragile, but it's worth hearing to see how Britten listens to Pears and interacts with him. Pears doesn't have anything original to say, but that's fair enough, this is very informal.  Winterreise is "like a psychologist's case book" says Pears. Fruhlingstraum, he says. is "the true romantic vison"  "In his dreams", he adds, Schubert sees "adorable things and then he comes back to reality", quietly adding ""well, we all know that, don't we?".

But watch Britten unobtrusively lift the level.  "I am sure that one of the things that so shocked them at the first sing through of the piece was that he could write so beautiful a tune and then interrupt it so horribly with these famous chords". This isn't a recital, and Britten plays far more dominantly than he might in a normal performance in order to make his point. "And the most extraordinary writing of all, is in Im Dorfe" he says. "Yes, those dogs barking in the distance" says Pears. Then Britten grunts a word that sounds like "in chains...." and starts to play with a heavy, dragging pace. Perhaps the dogs are chained, but it's the protagonist who really is shackled with emotional chains.

In the photo above, look at the two piano stools together, just like in the video. The camera might have been near the curtains at right. Behind the piano is another wall of books. This is the library/music room at the Red House, preserved very much as it was when Britten and Pears lived there.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Music from Japan Barbican Takemitsu

The latest Total Immersion weekend at the Barbican Centre features Music from Japan. Or more specifically, the music of Toruy Takemitsu, Toshio Hosakawa, Jo Kondo, Dai Fujikura and other contemporary composers. This isn't "Japanese" music in a generic sense, but music created by composers who write modern music, enriched by influences from a tradition that's even older than the western.

In the film being shown on Saturday, Takemitsu is shown sitting in a garden, explaining how gardens are a metaphor for music. A garden is like an orchestra, he says, consisting of lots of different elements which a musician can arrange in whatever order seems best. You can increase the impact of some elements by massing them, or extend their colours by planting with others that complement the palette. Sometimes some elements capture the eye, such as autumn leaves, while others remain a backbone, like pines. Textures vary: sometimes the delicacy of spring blossom, sometimes the tough character of tree bark. Then, too, there are extras, maybe the sound of water trickling from a bamboo pipe, or the chirping of crickets, or wind blowing through leaves. Or even the pattern of shade thrown by a cloud in the sky. A gardener works with nature, not against it. Thus a composer works with an orchestra, extending it and encouraging it to grow, but finding his ideas organically and in balance.

Takemitsu's music exemplifies an aesthetic which combines music, philosophy and a general regard for high artistic standards in all aspects of life.
What's more, these composers, though modern, reach huge audiences even though their work is "new". Everyone who's seen films by Kurosawa, Mizugoshi and others has heard Takemitsu, Ifukube or Riuchi Sakamoto, so new music is absorbed naturally into audience consciousness. Indeed, movies are built around music, like Shohei Imamura's Black Rain  which is a tribute to Takemitsu's Requiem for Strings. (more about that piece and the film here)   In the west, people make a fuss about the image of classical music as "elitist". They should look to Asia, if they want insights into the future of classical music.

HERE's a link to the Barbican day. Before that, on Friday 1st there's an all-day conference co-hosted by the Institute of Musical Research and the GSMD. It includes a performance of Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II with pianist Noriko Ogawa. Here's a lovely clip :

Monday 28 January 2013

Soile Isokoski Wigmore Hall Sallinen Dream Songs

Soile Isokoski and Maria Viitasalo made a welcome return to theWigmore Hall, London. Their recital was a masterclass in what singing really should be about: not simply sound production, but the expression of meaning. 

Isokoski has been singing Hugo Wolf since very early in her career.Her style is well suited to Wolf's songs.  No arch artifice here, no flashy exaggeration. Isokoski's natural, unforced simplicity portrays the young women in these songs as fundamentally nice people, even when they're flirting coquettishly. Auch kleine Dinge could be interpreted with sarcasm, since the lover 's main attrribute is that he's tiny. Isokoski's gentleness breathes sincerity. "Bedenkt, wie klein ist der Olivenfrucht", she declares, then delivers the punchline "und wird ihm ihre Güte doch Gesucht".

Isokoski has performed  Berlioz Nuits d'été (op 7)  many times. This was not quite as incandescent as I've heard her sing it in the past, but as compensation it was an opportunity to concentrate on listening to her technique.  Her foundations are so solid that you can admire her phrasing and carefully controlled modulation. If the lustre of her top was less than perfect, she made up for that with rich, almost mezzo warmth in the lower ranges. A voice might not be perfect at every time, but a really good singer knows when to use her strengths to communicate. No listener should expect recording-type results every time. Far better, I think, to hear someone like Isokoski manage her resources so wisely.

When Isokoski sang Richard Strauss Drei Lieder der Ophelia op 67 1918, she showed why she's such a good Strauss singer. Her Vier letzte Lieder from 2003, conducted by Marek Janowski, is  outstanding, even in a market full of good performances. Since Ophelia is a character from Hamlet, Strauss's settings lend themselves to dramatization. "Wie erkenn' ich mein Treulieb?" asks Isokoski sweetly, so the horror of the answer cuts sharply. "Er ist tot und lange hin".  When she sings about the naked corpse in Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss, her voice transforms as if she's witnessing a miracle. "Kein Trauen bringt Gewinn". This connects to the Christian prayer in Karl Simrock's German translation.

Isokoski also makes a speciality of the songs of Charles Ives. Many Americans in Ives's time were recent migrants, so Isokoski's heavily accented English works rather well, creating an image of America as a vibrant melting pot.  In On the Counter (1920) Ives satirizes "the same old sentimental sound" of popular songs by writing rolling circular figures for the piano. Isokoski sings the words "I love you"in such a humourous way that you can hear why Ives couldn't stand trite tunes. Not all divas can let their hair down emotionally but Isokoski hums and whistles with such gusto that she evokes the merry crowd in the opera house in Memories A) Very pleasant . This isn't the Met, full of reverence, but an "opera house" in the old fashioned sense of the word, where people went to have fun and didn't care what anyone else thought.

Aulis Sallinen's Nelja laulua unesta (Four Dream Songs) (1972) are connected to his opera Ratsumies (The Horseman). There are probably more operas written in Finland than anywhere else, and Sallinen is a major composer. Soile Isokoski has made them a speciality, taking them into her repertoire at a very early stage in her career. .Anyone who has heard her sing Sibelius Luonnotar will understand why, for Sallinen's songs are powerful, unleashing supernatural, superhuman forces.

The cycle begins with a chilling piano introduction, suggesting snowfall and driving winds. A Man Made of Sleep appears, but what does he signify? The songs require extreme control of range." Hän ei nuku nukuttamalla", sings Isokoski, leaping suddenly up the scale from low, rumbling incantation.  In Finnish each vowel is pronounced clearly, and there are many vowels in each word, often with umlauts. The language itself shapes this music, and Sallinen repeats phrases to maximize the impact. "Nukkuu unta näkemättä, ei sitä uni herätä" (he is sleeping without dreaming, no dreaming will awake him). The pace cannot be rushed, syllables must resonate.

The third song, On kolme unta susäkkäin (Three dreams each within each) is perhaps the most disturbing and unsettling piece in the group. The piano tolls a staccato sequence, while the voice intones mysteriously. A woman is dreaming and within her womb, an unborn child is dreaming, too.  The mood is desolate, and Isokoski sings as if she's chanting a rune. "Minun täytyy syntyä ja koul" (I must be born and must die). Yet the line rises sharply upward, Isokoski's voice reaching crescendi before the sudden mood change in the last phrase. From thence, it's as if something powerful has been released. The final song is Ei mikään virta, (There is no stream that journeys so swiftly as life itself).  The final song hurtles forward. Words are repeated urgently,turbulently, Isokoski's voice crisp and agile.  "Kulkeva, kulkeva" (moving, moving) was enunciated high and clear despite the choppy pace. A tour de force, greatly appreciated.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Antique Shanghai Pop Music 1930-49

In the 1920's -40's Shanghai was the biggest city in the world, eclipsing New York. Before the 1840's, Shanghai was a small fishing village but its strategic position in the Yangtze delta meant that it was a gateway to the Chinese interior. Everyone in Shanghai was a migrant from somewhere else. Everyone's a newcomer, everything's new. This was a city that invented itself, a symbol of New China. Shanghai was so big, and its hinterland so vast, that it generated its own cultural momentum. HERE is a link to a programme which contrasts Chinese, western and Japanese music from the 1930's. Listen especially to the commentary, which is very well informed. Chinese popular music thrived in its own right, with its own self-generating market. It wasn't grafted on western roots, but sometimes adapted ideas from the west to Chinese expectations. These songs were by no means "covers" in the modern sense, but unique in their own right. Shanghai was sophisticated enough that anyone who really wanted western music could easily get it in nightclubs or on 78's. As long as attitudes to world culture are dominated by west-centric exclusiveness, we won't understand how audiences in China relate to classical music. And since China, Korea and Japan are possibly the future of classical music, we really need to know. Enjoy this download, it's free. More programmes available, just scroll down. Thank you Ling Tai Kor ! If you're interested, there's a lot more on this site about Chinese music, Shanghai, cross-cultural interactions, Chinese film and culture.

Saturday 26 January 2013

Weimar Lesbian exposé ? Mädchen in Uniform

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is one of the great classics of Weimar film. Beautifully framed and shot, it's a work of art in sheer visual terms. But even more importantly, it was the first major film to depict lesbian love. Whatever your orientation, though, this film is so good it needs to be seen by everyone: it's a key moment in film and social history.

The script was written by Christa Winsloe, who also wrote the original play the film is based on. Winsloe was also openly gay, and circulated in avant garde circles in Munich and Berlin in the liberal days before 1933. It's partly autobiographical, since Winsloe was herself a motherless child incarcerated in a disciplinarian Prussian school. Boys were sent to military schools like this from an early age, so the story could apply just as well to men as to women.  One thinks of Frederck the Great, brutalized by his father, his artistic soul turned to steel.

The school is run by a tough old headmistress. Perhaps she was traumatized herself by the kind of society that placed duty, honour and self-sacrifice above all else. The girls wear strange uniforms and are subject to constant rules and inspections. Nonetheless, their natural vivacity wins out. They play, intrigue and concoct plans to beat the system. Into this milieu comes Manuela von Meinhardis (played by Herta Thiele), who is sensitive and dreamy. Desperate for any kind of affection, she falls hopelessly in love with a teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) who shows her a little basic kindness. This story could apply to any unhappy, neglected child, even without the lesbian context.  When I first saw the film in its post-war release, I didn't pick up the gay connotations at all. Even the notorious kiss scene came over as perfectly natural, which is as it should be.

Christa Winsloe's original play ends with Manuela's suicide. In the film, Manuela is rescued by her classmates as she hangs over the precipice over the staircase, which resembles a "well of loneliness", though Winsloe's play long predated Radclyffe Hall's novel of that name. While Fräulein von Bernburg in the play dares not stand up to the system, in the film she defies the headmistress and makes the keynote statement "What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms".

The reason for the change isn't because the film was produced by a man, as is sometimes suggested, but because the film was part of the socio-political aesthetic of Weimar cinema. Winsloe sanctioned the change to emphasize the difference between the values of the past and the "new" German spirit.  The producer, Carl Froelich, later became a Nazi, but the star Herta Thiele, associated with Berholt Brecht and Ernst Busch. She's the star of the socialist flagship movie Kuhle Wampe (1933)  (full download here) with music by Hanns Eisler. Thus, in line with socalist idealism,  Manuela is saved by her comrades and justice prevails. If only real life was as straightforward.

Hanns Eisler's music for Kuhle Wampe is so brilliant that it almost eclipses the film. I'll write more about it later, but there's quite a bit about Eisler on this site. The music for Mädchen in Uniform was written by Hansom Milde-Meißner, a name that rings bells but I can't track on Google (which is NOT a substitute for real learning). The music is atmospheric, evoking the bells of Potsdam, military trumpets and mysterious undercurrents. Listen to the final scene, where the headmistress walks away from Fräulein von Bernburg and her defiant outburst. The old lady is dignified, walking stiffly and slowly down a corridor. But the music goes berserk, wavering madly. Will the headmistress crack up, or will she further suppress her instincts and those whom she controls?

There is a remake of  Mädchen in Uniform from 1958, starring Romy Schneider. It's pretty good, but softer focus. The girls in the 1931 version stage Schiller's Don Carlos, while the girls in 1958 stage Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this says something about the decline of modern popular culture. Good, well-educated Prussians would have realized what Don Carlos meant. Tyranny and the theme of thwarted love, absolutely the theme of Mädchen in Uniform.

If you like this read Franziska zu Reventlow, Queen of the Munich Secession,  Gay Salomé 1923,
Das blaue Licht -Leni Riefenstahl . Kuhle Wampe - full download and lots more on early Weimar film.

Friday 25 January 2013

Faking the crisis in classical music ?

While the economy heads for triple-dip recession, and millions starve around the world, in the cosy bubble of classical music rings the perennial cry "Classical music is doomed". The latest wail comes from Max Hole, Head of Universal Music, who thinks that classical music will die unless its traditions change. As usual, the Chicken Little chorus sings "The sky is falling!".  Of course classical  music faces a difficult future. But it's easier to blame audiences and performers than for Big Industry to face up to the challenges of social and technological change.

Hole's business is the delivery of hardcopy in an era when the way we hear no longer depends on physical ownership. Owning a recording is not at all the same as listening. It's wonderful that we have recordings, so we can hear a wider variety of music than we could ever possibly hope to hear live. But is there a correlation between the spread of recordings and the supposed decline of interest in classical music? Will new methods of delivery, eg films, internet channels etc change the way music is heard? Until only very recently there wasn't quite such a divide between "classical" and "popular" taste. Richard Tauber could get away with making dreadful "exploitation" movies with Jimmy Durante (read more here) but Katherine Jenkins gets vicious abuse for singing arias for the plebs. Good for her! Personally, I'm secure enough in my taste not to worry what anyone else thinks. That, I think, is the crux of the problem. It's not music that's at fault but social perceptions.

Status signifiers are constantly changing. Once, you wore Burberry if you were rich and stodgy. Logically, the new rich covered themselves from top to toe. Once peasants slaved in kitchens. Now having an Aga implies domestic virtue. Every day, 4x4 drivers act out their Inner White Van Man. So snobbery about classical music has nothing to do with reality. The whole idea that classical music is somehow elitist is nonsense. The less people know about reality, the more they project their own false assumptions. It doesn't matter what orchestras or audience wear. Dressing down Days misfire because they reinforce the idea that clothes maketh the man. Social as they are, performances are really about music. Anyone who cares more about how they look (either way) than what they listen to is a fool.

A few years ago, the Royal Philharmonic Society paid for Alex Ross to come to London to make a keynote speech about the future of classical music.  All he actually said was that audiences should clap whenever they want to. The idea was picked up by the Guardian (as usual) and for a while some audiences dutifully applauded any chance they got.  But common sense prevailed, and thankfully the fad stopped. REAL audiences go for the music. There's nothing wrong with genuine, spontaneous applause, but very rarely are performances that exceptional that concentration should be broken so people can clap. It shouldn't be routine. There's nothing wrong with applause per se, but anyone who is really listening pays attention. Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between applause and boredom, especially in opera. Clapping gives people something to do with their hands when their minds aren't engaged. 

Another hole in the Hole argument is the idea of physical and architectural boundaries. "The very buildings in which you play are often seen as forbidding and not places many people think they’d be comfortable entering."  So we should pull down the Royal Opera House and torch the RFH?  Of course you can downsize the Ring, but it's not the same as a Ring in full glory. In any case it depends on the repertoire. Stockhausen and many in his wake wrote music that addressed the way music adapts to different performance spaces. You can put a string quartet in helicopters but they'll be doing something different to what they'd be doing at the Wigmore Hall. But they'd still be paying attention to the music and to each other, which is what performance is really about. Putting operas in pubs, and orchestras on the streeet might be smart marketing, but ultimately they're cheap gimmicks.

Above all, why assume people don't listen unless conditions are exactly right?  Lots of people come to classical music by accident, so to speak, listening randomly on the radio.  One of the reasons western classical music is popular in Asia is because it was often used as background music in movies, and often very well chosen. Youth ticket schemes are good because they show young audiences that they don't need to be intimidated by social expectation. With good sponsors, like Deutsche Bank, these schemes help venues pay the bills. But they also mean that regular patrons can't buy the seats they want, even though there are swathes of empty seats when you get there. But if there are no wealthy sponsors, venues lose out.

Similarly, it's short sighted to rely on celebrity gimmicks and presenters. What is the South Bank paying Alex Ross for the use of his name when the same concerts could have been put together by anyone?  He should be paying them for the publicity, not the other way around.  At a time when governmments are hostile to the arts, this suggests that venues have money to throw away. Public money shouldn't go to private profit. Anyone could have devised these concerts. Indeed, they reinforce a standardized, bland approach to repertoire that emphasizes conformity. Sure, audiences will flock to these concerts because they're safe and predigested.  Short term that makes accountants happy. But what are the long-term effects ? 

Passionately, I feel that music should be an adventure, with endless possibilities. Individualism, personality, pushing boundaries: these are the things I value in  music, and which I think audiences are mature enough to value as well.  All art thrives on creativity and freedom of spirit. That diversity that will save the arts, not quick-fix mantras.
 (Photo : Kevin Bowman)

Thursday 24 January 2013

Italo Montemezzi - L'amore dei tre re

Intrigue and adultery in 10th century Italy!  Italo Montemezzi's opera L'amore dei tre re (1913) is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from Thursday 24th January, online and internationally for seven days. There are quite a lot of recordings of this opera, including one conducted by the composer himself in 1941 with Enzo Pinza, Charles Kullmann and Grace Moore. There's also a version with Anna Moffo, Placido Domingo, Cesare Scvipi and the London Symphony Orchestra, in the days when it did lots more opera than it does now. The BBC is broadcasting a performance from Polish Radio Symphony conducted by Lukasz Borowicz, which is available on CD, though not readily available outside Poland.

 L'amore dei tre re isn't exactly obscure, though it's not quite mainstream. It's interesting because it reflects Italian opera in a post Verdi, post Wagner flux, with elements of Puccini and Debussy. It's a symbol of early 20th century Italy, on the eve of the First World War..That war transformed Europe to the extent that any account of music history is worthless unless the trauma is taken into account. Things changed, not simply because fashion changed, but because the world could never be quite the same again.  So it's interesting to listen to Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re and think of its underlying subtexts, particularly the trans-Alpine influences. Perhaps it's not entirely coincidental that librettist Sem Bennelli's melodrama focuses on the relationship between Avito, the rightful King of Altura, and the German Achibaldo, who conquered the land by force. Archibaldo's son Manfredo marries Fiora, who is faithful to Avito. In the murderous power struggle that follows, all are killed except Archibaldo, who is left alone and blind.

There's a new book Essays on the Montemezzi-D'Annunzio Nave by David Chandler who wrote and edited the two key works on Alfredo Catalani, composer of La Wally, both reviewed HERE in Opera Today. Chandler's book on Montemezzi is extremely important because it brings Montemezzi scholarship up to date. La Nave is a swashbuckling saga, with a libretto by no less than Gabriele d'Annunzio. Read more about it HERE. There are no commercial recordings of La Nave, so you'll have to study the score. Or listen to L'amore dei tre re, free on the BBC.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Nash Ensemble Wigmore Hall, Warlock Britten Bax RVW

Now this is the kind of music writing I love to read! Claire Seymour, the Britten specialist, on the recent Nash Ensemble concert at the Wigmore Hal.  Read the full review here in Opera Today. 

"..............The desolate tones of Peter Warlock’s darkly prophetic The Curlew, for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet, dominated the first half of the concert. Setting four poems by W.B. Yeats, Warlock evokes an almost unalleviated mood of despair; much of the vitality of the music derives from the composer’s uncannily apposite setting of the text, and tenor Mark Padmore’s eloquent, unmannered delivery of the rhythmically elaborate text did much to communicate the vividness and immediacy of the work. The opening instrumental mood-painting was moving and atmospheric: the plangent cor anglais (Gareth Hulse) announcing the eponymous bird’s plaintive lament, answered by the gentle repetitive murmuring of the flute’s peewit (Philippa Davies). The players adroitly established the bleak vista before the first, delayed entry of the voice, “O curlew, cry no more in the air”. Throughout the instrumental fabric was clearly articulated, both solos and ensemble presenting thematic wisps with delicacy and dolefulness - a perfect illustrative backdrop for the melancholic texts. The string players wove an intricate web of tremolo and sul ponticello traceries, complementing the woodwind’s mournful diminuendos and echoes. "

"Padmore shaped the vocal lines intelligently, although perhaps he did not fully reveal the emotional disturbance at the heart of the work, for the text and score demand that we be truly discomforted and perturbed. But there was affecting contrast and drama. With the opening of final stanza of ‘The Withering of the Boughs’, the tenor evoked tentative intimations of hope and new life, warmed by a string rocking motif, which was then immediately and unequivocally destroyed by the voice’s exposed quasi parlando repetition: “The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.” The composer instructs the singer to use a “low tone - almost a whisper” and Padmore executed this challenging line with consummate control.................."

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Jonas Kaufmann Weber Oberon

Jonas Kaufmann sings Huon de Bordeaux, Duc de Guienne, who has killed Charlemagne's son and is sent on a mission to kill Haroun el-Rashid, Caliph of Bagdad. He escapes with supernatural help from Oberon, King of the Elves. If that's not enough, Huon is marooned on an island with Reiza, the Caliph's daughter, who's captured by Brigands and sold into slavery. Wild tempests, stirring storms, exotic orientalism and more than a touch of forbidden sex with infidels. Also, magic hunting horns and Oberon, rushing to the rescue astride a swan. The story is based on an English translation of a German text based on a medieval French chanson de geste, Huon de Bordeaux. In the 8th century Charlemagne really did exchange emissaries with the Turks, but the love drama and fairy elements are sheer fantasy. What a heady mix! Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon shows how zany the early Romantic Imagination could be, still coloured by the wild, exotic excesses of the baroque.

Long before Jonas Kaufmann became a megastar, he sang a lot of this kind of repertoire. In the earliest recording I have of his, he's singing in the chorus, unnamed, in Robert Schumann's Der Rose Pilgerfahrt. Also from1998,  Kaufmann sings Hassan in Carl Loewe's Die Drei Wünsche. The part isn't big and he's placed last but if you want to hear Kaufmann in his Stuttgart period, this is the one to go for. Die Drei Wünsche. is a lot of fun and should be better known. It's worth hearing Kaufmann at this stage in his career, because his voice was so bright and pure. He seemed destined for stardom in early Romantic German and Italian repertoire. He succeeded, and more. This recording was made in 2003 and has now been reisuued.

So enjoy Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon in the vigorous recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. There are other major recordings notably Keilberth, 1953 available on Opera Today which is not commercially available, and the 1971 version which Kubelik conducts with big-name cast (Prey, Domingo, Nilsson, Auger, Grobe). These have been reissued in different forms, some without dialogue, but for me, spoken dialogue is an essential part of the experience. Maybe modern audiences don't have the patience or empathy for opera other than on their own terms: witness the incomprehension meted out to Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable in the London press. But we need to appreciate repertoire as it might have been for its contemporaries. In this year when we'll be inundated with indifferent Verdi and Wagner, we need more than ever to remember they didn't define the form.

So John Eliot Gardiner's version is a good compromise. Naturally, it's authentic, as the work was originally created in English for Covent Garden in 1826.  A narrator (Roger Allam) speaks the narrative around which the singing hangs. And we get Jonas Kaufmann singing Huon the Hero, exqusitely well. This is Lohengrin in embryo. In the lovely aria "From Boyhood", Kaufmann sings an extremely high note which fades into low strings, before developing an elaboration of the words "For life without honour, I live not to see". Kaufmann sings with a heavy German accent which is a positive accent for the text is so un-English  it would sound daft otherwise. Huon after all is Frankish, consorting with fictional Turks, Arabs and Fairies.

The last thing we need in Oberon is heavy-handed literalism. Because Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on authentic instruments, the dynamic is fleet, elegant and spirited. Oberon is magical fantasy and needs to fly free to be truly effective. The singing in Kubelik is more accomplished, but refinement isn't really idiomatic. Kaufmann and the cast around him shine because Gardiner's orchestra brings out the period clarity that is in the music. The hunting horn which plays such a role in this opera really sounds like a hunting horn, whether played quietly as if from a distance or loudly sounding alarm.  The "oriental" sequences aren't authentic, but all the more fun becuase they're invention. The storm music is magnificent, played with gusto, the intruments pushed to the limits. Period performance isn't precious. It connects better to the lively spirit of early Romantic music theatre where everyone knew they were experiencing fantasy, not cinematic realism.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Baroque Rocks Barbican

Baroque rocks the Barbican! Plenty of good things coming up this year. The Barbican is on to a good thing with baroque and chamber operas because the hall is neither too small nor too cavernous. Concert performances also let us focus on voice and the unique purity of period instruments. See Robert Hugill's article  in Opera Today for more details of the next three concerts coming up in the next month - Joyce DiDonato, Handel Radamisto and Lully's Phaeton. Read the full article here, it's a detailed and informative summary of the treasures to come. Joyce DiDonato's programme is very interesting, so this should be a treat.
Handel Radamisto on 10/2 promises to be a treasure, too. David Daniels singing the title role in a concert performance with Harry Bicket conducting the English Concert with Patricia Bardon as Zenobia, Luca Pisaroni as Tiridate, Elizabeth Watts as Tigrane, Brenda Rae as Polisenna and Robert Rice as Farasmene. The ENO Handel Radamisto (here) was good, but the Barbican cast is grande luxe.

"Christoph Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques perform Lully’s Phaeton with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Ingrid Perruche, Isabelle Druet, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Foster-Williams, Matthew Brook, Benoît Arnould, Cyril Auvity, Virginie Thomas", writes Hugill, "Lully wrote the opera to a libretto by his regular collaborator Philippe Quinault and the work premiered at Versailles in 1683. Its plot, dealing with the hubris of Phaeton, son of the Sun god, can be seen as an allegory of the punishment awaiting those mortals who dare to raise themselves as high as the sun (i.e. the Sun King, Louis XIV). The opera is the 10th of Lully’s 14 tragedies lyriques. As with all operas in the form, it mixes aria with choruses and extensive dance episodes which are integrated into the plot."  Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques are among the best in the business. Even if you're not a baroque specialist, this will be a good experience.
On May 29th Christopher Hogwood conducts Handel Imeneo with the Academy of Ancient Music. David Daniels, Rebecca Bottone, Lucy Crowe, Vittorio Prato and Stephan Loges. On 15th June, Paul Agnew and Les Arts florissants bring us Monteverdi Madrigals. The really hot ticket, though, will be John Eliot Gardiner's 70th Birthday celebration on 25th April. He's conducting the LSO. Not baroque, not period instruments but Stravinsky Appollon musagete and Oedipus Rex.  Appollon s a ballet,  and Oedipus Rex is stylized, almost ritualistic. They are 20th century pieces but could be invigorated by JEG's energetic, period-informed liveliness.
photo of Joyce DiDonato credit Sheila Rock

Friday 18 January 2013

When icicles hang by the wall

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
Tu-who! Tu-whit! Tu-who! --

A merry note! While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
 And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl
Then nightly sings the staring owl: Tu-who! Tu-whit! Tu-who! -- A merry note!

Shakespeare's Winter Song from Love's Labour's Lost.  Listen out for the owl's cry, accompanied by flute. Atmospheric and humorous. Who thinks early music can't be fun?

This version from Passacaglia, soprano Julia Gooding. "A track from Passacaglia's 2010 album 'A Cheerful Collection - Songs and Sonatas from London's Pleasure Gardens' (BCR003). Performed by Passacaglia with Julia Gooding (soprano). CD available worldwide from and as a download from iTunes, Amazon and most other online music stores. For more information about Passacaglia visit"

John Tomlinson The Minotaur Birtwistle Royal Opera House 2013

 John Tomlinson stole the show - deservedly - in the revival of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House. Thunderous applause and then a surprise. A table was wheeled onto the stage with a giant cake. "We're celebrating Sir John Tomlinson's 35 years at the Royal Opera House" said Antonio Pappano, beaming with joy.  "I wasn't expecting this", said John Tom, visibly moved. We can see curtain calls anytime, but this one we will never forget. The house roared approval.

Harrison Birtwistle wrote the The Minotaur  as a gift to John Tomlinson because it's a role he could be singing well into old age, long after he ceases to sing other parts.  Tomlinson's acting skills are so strong that he can dtraw on inner reserves few others can tap. Any gruffness in the voice becomes a positive asset because it expresses the ravages the Minotaur has experienced. When Tomlinson sounds vulnerable, he's showing how the Minotaur, for all his ferocity, is himself vulnerable. He shows us the man Asterios, behind the mask. Half naked, and with a tail, Tomlinson manages to look both strong and fragile at the same time. He shows just how young the creature really is, younger than Ariadne, closer perhaps to the Innocents whom he is forced to kill.

Although the cadences sway upwards and downwards, like the paradoxes in the plot, the middle register is warm and natural, the lines ending in diminuendo. At the very end, Birtwistle clothes the Minotaur’s dying moments with remarkably subtle counter-tempi. The Minotaur is at last liberated from the prison that is his body, and for a few moments his soul is expressed in music of great purity. This is a role that needs sensitive, thoughtful interpretation, and John Tomlinson has its full measure. "Between most and least, between man and beast, to nothing". As the Minotaur dies, the small boy within the monstrous frame is released. The mighty John Tomlinson becomes a frightened lad with stumpy, childlike legs, singing a broken lullaby. It is almost impossible to imagine another singer bringing to the role  Tomlinson's depth of characterization. We were indeed priviledged to have had another chance to hear him as The Minotaur. I, for one, shall never forget.

Because I've written about The Minotaur and about Harrison Birtwistle so many times over the years, I don't need to write another "review" as such, even though my ideas continue to develop that I could write volumes.  Birtwistle has written another intricate maze. a "place with more dead ends, more flaws and fault-lines than the human heart”. But you could read more HERE and HERE 
and HERE (Ruth Elleson's review of the premiere).

Much credit to the Royal Opera House for commissioning and reviving The Minotaur which looks set to become a classic. Good performances from Christine Rice, Johan Reuter, Alan Oke, Andrew Watts, the choruses and Elisabeth Meister, a striking leader of the Keres.

photo credit : John Tomlinson as the Minotaur, Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House

Thursday 17 January 2013

Moses und Aron - WNO joins ROH

Great news! The Royal Opera House is teaming up with the Welsh National Opera. Starting summer 2014, the WNO will have a residency in London at the ROH. First production will be Schoenberg Moses und Aron which in  itself will be a big event. Then, Richard Ayres’s Peter Pan in 2015 and a new main stage commission in 2016 to mark WNO’s 70th anniversary.

As I've said before, this is a sensible rationalization of opera resources throughout the country. Co-operation rather than fragmentation means companies get greater coverage. Diversifying also preserves the individuality of different houses. Everyone benefits, especially audiences who get better choice. Kaspar Holten and Antonio Pappano are on to a good thing, building upon links with Music Theatre Wales, Scottish Opera, etc etc. The arrangements the ROH had with the Bolshoi and Russian comapnies in the past weren't well received, but WNO is a different prospect.  See my post on WNO's British Firsts series here which mentions Richard Ayres Peter Pan (Cardiff for 2015  as well as ROH) and Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland (Cardiff  2017, and ROH same year, soon after)

WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director David Poutney said:
‘We are thrilled to have the chance to present over the next three years some of our most ambitious programming within the prestigious surroundings of the Royal Opera House – a superb platform for WNO’s work and an enrichment of the ROH repertory. This three-year programme creates artistic gains for both organizations, which are keen to affirm the importance of artistic collaboration and ambition in a time of financial stress’
Director of The Royal Opera Kasper Holten commented:
‘In this era, collaboration is key, and I believe that the more opera companies can collaborate and work together, the stronger case we will all be able to make for opera – and the wider choice of repertory we will be able to offer. I am thrilled about David’s exciting plans for WNO over the next few years, and we are very happy to be able to showcase some of the company’s most exciting projects in three consecutive years.’

Artur Schnabel, Eichendorff and Football

What connects Josef Freiherr von Eichendorff, the Prussian poet and administrator, with Artur Schnabel, the pianist, and Manchester City Football Club? Bert Trautmann, the football player who broke his neck during the 1956 FA Cup Final and continued to play on. Trautmann escaped death because one of the vertebrae in his neck wedged at an angle so that his spine and throat weren't severed. All his life, Trautmann seems to have defied the odds. Joining the Luftwaffe aged 17, he served in a parachute regiment in Russia, where only 90 of his 1,000-man divison survived. He's still alive, aged 90, having lived in England, Wales, Germany, Spain and Burma. A kind reader lent me the book Trautmann's Journey (Catrine Clay 2010).

So how does Artur Schnabel fit in?  One of Trautmann's comrades was Heinz Schnabel, nephew of the pianist. Heinz Schnabel was called "Der Alte" because he was in his late 30's while most of the unit were teenagers. Schnabel  was a dapper gent but tough as nails, having parachuted into Crete before serving on the Eastern Front. Trautmann and Schnabel were posted to defend the bridges at Arnhem in 1945. In the tension, Schnabel began to recite a poem. It was Eichendorff's Sensucht. Trautmann hadn't experienced anything but the Nazis. Schnabel, however, was old enough to remember another more cultivated world, where what his uncle stood for was respected.  So Trautmann, who'd been a Hitler Youth because he didn't know anything else, was huddled with Artur Schnabel's nephew, part Jewish war hero.

To Trautmann the poem was lovely and reminded him of childhood. Schnabel chose well, for the poem refers to "zwei junge Gesellen" far from home, in a rugged landscape, singing as they head forth.

Es schienen so golden die Sterne,  Am Fenster ich einsam stand
Und hörte aus weiter Ferne Ein Posthorn im stillen Land.
Das Herz mir im Leib entbrennte, Da hab' ich mir heimlich gedacht:
Ach wer da mitreisen könnte In der prächtigen Sommernacht!

Zwei junge Gesellen gingen Vorüber am Bergeshang,
Ich hörte im Wandern sie singen Die stille Gegend entlang:
Von schwindelnden Felsenschlüften, Wo die Wälder rauschen so sacht,
Von Quellen, die von den Klüften Sich stürzen in die Waldesnacht.

Sie sangen von Marmorbildern, Von Gärten, die über'm Gestein
In dämmernden Lauben verwildern, Palästen im Mondenschein,
Wo die Mädchen am Fenster lauschen, Wann der Lauten Klang erwacht,
Und die Brunnen verschlafen rauschen In der prächtigen Sommernacht.

photo : Old El Paso

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Birtwistle The Minotaur - remembering Philip Langridge

Sirt Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur starts Thursday at the Royal Opera House.  It's a landmark in modern British opera.  "If anything", Philip Langridge told me in 2008, "Birtwistle’s music has become more impressive with time. John Tomlinson, for whom he wrote Gawain, asked about the two different tempi in the Minotaur’s death scene. Birtwistle explained that they represented the body and the brain, which doesn’t stop until death is finally reached. Birtwistle isn’t, Langridge says "very ‘subconscious’ but he writes straight, without a method or plan", he adds. "When Harry says he’ll write a piece for you, you think you’ll have to take a deep breath and sing loudly. But that’s not the case". Four years ago, Birtwistle wrote Today, Too, for Langridge, accompanied only by flute and guitar. "It was so quiet, so gorgeous…....he’s always written well for the voice."

Philip Langridge created the role of Orpheus, in The Mask of Orpheus and later King Kong in The Second Mrs Kong so the relationship goes back many years. How does the Minotaur fit in with Birtwistle’s earlier work ? "I’ve noticed a huge difference. I was talking to John Tomlinson about this, who has also known Harry for a long time, and we felt that this was perhaps the first time we’d heard real melancholy, except perhaps in the Io Passion" (written for smaller forces, and also directed by Stephen Langridge). “It is very beautiful. The great thing is that he is able to write the Minotaur for a great stentorian bass and yet it’s terribly melancholic. The feeling is in the orchestration and in the vocal line, too. The Minotaur has an ‘inner voice’ which speaks for him in the opera, and it’s terribly sad."

"When the Minotaur appears in the fifth section of the opera, John Tomlinson, who plays the role, has to roar unintelligibly while he’s goaded by the crowd, who call him “man-freak” and other cruelties. Only when he is asleep can he express himself. As the libretto puts it, "In dreams I seem to speak like any man….I howl the words, I cry the words" Indeed, Birtwistle says that the Minotaur is the only “true” innocent in the drama. Theseus and Ariadne both have mixed motives, but the Minotaur had no choice, born into a situation over which he had no control. "There are people like that in this world", Langridge added quietly.

The Minotaur is a work of depth and maturity. During the Toccatas, an image of an ocean swell is projected onto a screen on the stage. Like the waves, the music pulsates, surging with power that comes from deep forces within. Similarly, Theseus has to go "below" to achieve his mission. Ancient myths have psychological resonance, which is perhaps why they fascinate.

The Minotaur is half man, half beast, who kills and must be killed in return. Yet who really are the monsters in the myth and in this opera? The Minotaur's mother conceived him in sin, for which he, blameless, is punished. His sister Ariadne lets him be killed so she can escape the island. Theseus, the "hero", misleads Ariadne so he can use her help. Later he kills the Minotaur by stabbing him, treacherously, in the back. Bloody as the Minotaur is, he's not as scary as the faceless mob, sitting in judgement, who urge him on to kill, then rejoice when he is killed himself.

No-one knows how to break the pattern until Ariadne goes to consult the Oracle at Omplalos, the centre of the world. The Oracle is implicit throughout the opera. The Minotaur himself is aware of it, for it was the Oracle that decreed his incarceration in the maze when he was a child. Although the action takes place in the Labyrinth, the Oracle is the pivot on which everything turns. The Oracle scene is barely ten minutes long, but it's the most important of all.

It's spectacular. The Snake Priestess (Andrew Watts, countertenor) bursts forth, towering 5 metres above the ground, intoning a bizarre, undulating wail. The Snake Priestess is a conduit to the Gods. The scene is illuminated in harsh, unrelenting glare, even more distressing as the rest of the opera unfolds in shadow.

Only Heirus (Philip Langridge), half man, half priest, can interpret what the Snake Priestess intends. He's the channel, the gatekeeper. He knows Ariadne's first question wasn't straight, but then the Snake Priestess stops mid flow and allows Ariadne another question. Perhaps it's because Ariadne's faced the truth: she's scared. Langridge looks perplexed because this is utterly unprecedented, but he hands her the clew, the red thread that will lead Theseus to safety.

"We worried that lines like 'The question is : what is the question ?' might seem strange or comic, but suddenly realized how direct they really were", said Langridge. But the Oracle gets to straight to the point, "like the Mafia". Hierus is only the spokesman, he can only channel and repeat the rules about "only one question". Ariadne faces up to her fear and answers correctly and there’s a pause. "What happens?" asks Langridge, "obviously something was not understood by the translator and suddenly the Snake Priestess tells Ariadne she will set sail with Theseus to go to Athens, even though she’s not supposed to get the extra answer. " So what’s the significance? Perhaps it’s because Ariadne admits to fear. Langridge adds, "I work with young artists and most of their problems arise from fear of failure. However nervous they are, the one thing they won’t admit is fear".

The Minotaur sings without words, as do the innocents and the crowd. Singing without words seems a feature of this opera but one can gauge, from the enthusiasm of those involved, that there’s lot more to this opera than conventional narrative singing. The indications are that voice is used as an instrument might be used, to create evocative sound which can be interpreted on several levels. The orchestra plays a huge role in Birtwistle’s music, so in a sense, voices too are used orchestrally. Singing without words can become extremely moving used in this way, especially when a composer is expressing things too complex for language.

"Singing without words", said Langridge, "taught me things about myself, I think. You can’t ‘act’, you have to really ‘be’ that person, gradually becoming the person." He adds "The Mask of Orpheus was a baptism of fire. It started off with a sunrise, it was the birth of Orpheus. The music started very quietly, half an hour before, when people were still coming in. They saw this summer aura on the stage, and gradually the volume of the music increased and slowly the lights went down. People were saying, ‘Have we started ?’ I was all the time in complete darkness, under a huge tarpaulin which covered the stage, and they had ropes at the side of the tarpaulin which pulled it up very, very slowly. It was a fifteen minute sequence from when the ropes started to lift and I appeared, singing ‘I am Orpheus’. "

After the Oracle scene in the Minotaur, it's a foregone conclusion that Theseus's mission will succeed and that Theseus and Ariadne will depart. What the Oracle isn't saying is that Theseus will dump Ariadne as soon as he gets away, but that is another story.

There are so many levels in The Minotaur which reveal themselves obliquely, like corners in a maze. The Minotaur is child-like, John Tomlinson's round belly and short legs looking meek beneath that magnificent bull mask.In the film, too much light shines through the mesh it's made of, showing too much of Tomlinson's face, which is a pity. The mask is more mysteriously, the big, bleak bovine eyes pleading. Tomlinson's singing is magnificent. He roars balefully as the beast, but as the man he's painfully vulnerable. His last song dissolves into pitiful diminuendo as he reverts to infancy. "Between most and least, between man and beast. Next to nothing".

Sunday 13 January 2013

Nash Ensemble Wigmore Hall Warlock The Curlew

The Nash Ensemble are a treasure, one of the finest chamber ensembles in this country. Their flexibility allows them to explore repertoire in many forms. With their unusually sensitive, intelligent choice of programmes, they revitalize the way we hear things.  Perhaps the Irish connections in this Wigmore Hall recital inspired the strange mysticism  that made this programme so very special.

Sir Arnold Bax identified passionately with a magical vision of Ireland. The opening chords of the oboe in Bax's Oboe Quintet (1922)  suggest a more primeval version of the Shepherd's flute in Tristan und Isolde. Is Bax referring to the irisch Kind, and to Isolde's tragic past? Gareth Hulse played with assertive, though melancholy grace. This is an inherently dramatic piece,the oboe operating as a voice, calling out into the distance, answering itself with sensual reverie, the high passages tearing at one's emotions.  The plaintive central movement, the lento progressivo, might suggest half-remembered folk music, but it's too sophisticated to be a mere quote.The Nash Ensemble, who make this piece something of a speciality, created the jig finale with wild, jaz- like energy. Bax knew Ireland too well to over-sentimentalize, particularly in the wake of the Easter Rising.  His archaic Irish dream lives in the period in which it was written.

In contrast, Elgar's early encores for violin, Salut d'amour (1889), Chanson de matin and Chanson de nuit sounded genteel though played with poise (Marianne Thorsen) . If Bax suggests open seas and open skies,  Elgar here suggests Victorian propriety. We appreciate both when heard together. Both composers set the context from which Peter Warlock's The Curlew was to arise.

Warlock's The Curlew deserves to be recognised as one of the masterpieces of British music., and indeed of modern European music as a whole. It's shockingly prophetic. Warlock started writing it in 1921, when Benjamin Britten was 8 years old, still at home with his mother, a detail which is poignantly relevant to Britten's situation. Although I don't know if Warlock's score is in Britten's library, it would seem that he almost certainly knew the piece, as it's startling how much it presages Britten's later work. The Curlew contains the long, keening lines, the tonal ambiguity, the hovering between old forms and new, and above all the sense of uncompromising fatality we hear so often in Britten. The utter desolation in Britten's Curlew River might have its roots in The Curlew. Even Peter Grimes might be distant kin  to the doomed soul in Warlock.

The Curlew begins with plaintive cor anglais  reminiscent of the oboe in Bax's Oboe Quintet. Gareth Hulse was kept busy. The mood deepens with viola and cello (Lawrence Poweer, Paul Watkins), evoking the idea of endless sky and sullen earth, Warlock responds perceptively to W B Yeats by establishing the oppressive atmosphere long before the entry of the voice (Mark Padmore). "Oh, Curlew, Cry no more," Padmore sings "....there is enough evil in the crying of the wind". The Curlew isn't song in the conventional sense but a tone poem with voice. Notice too the drooping diminuendoes, dragging down the creature of flight, and the back and forth chords the cello defines.  These are significant for they suggest a bleak panorama.

Yet the landscape here is nternal, not external. Three times Warlock repeats Yeats's line "No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind: the boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams". In the third strophe of the third song, Warlock writes exotic lyricism: one can also hear the call of some distant bird. But it's an illusion. The phrase repeats for the last time in hollow monotone, declaimed in half whisper, rather than song. The voice is silenced while the instruments speak in hushed murmurs. Guided by the cor anglais, the voice returns once more for the final, minimally accompanied song before it breaks off into sudden silence.

Warlock's The Curlew is such a disorienting piece that it is not comfortable to listen to in the communal environment of a recital hall. Alone, in the darkness and in private, you can give yourself  wholly to the piece and experience its searing impact. The Nash Ensemble have had The Curlew in their repertoire for years and are  perhaps its finest interpreters.  Padmore sings clearly, but doesn't have the surreal, poisoned intensity that John Mark Ainsley and others bring. The Curlew is such a queer bird that I don't think its strangeness can be fully realized without a disturbing emotional edge to the singing.

After The Curlew, I'm usually too ravaged to listen to anything, but in the real world, concert-goers need something relaxing to send them home.  Since the Nash Emsemble can call on Craig Ogden, they can present Benjamin Britten's Songs from the Chinese op 58 (1957). for voice and guitar. Perhaps Britten chose guitar because it vaguely replicates Chinese plucked instruments like the pipa or zheng, but experienced performers are few and far between in the west. The guitar adds an oddly Spanish timbre which for me contradicts the "Chinese" nature of the poetry, even in the westernized translation by Arthur Waley.  Padmore was more in his element here. In The Old Lute, the voice part is written to suggest the sound of a lute, whose sound is "still cold and clear", Padmore stretching the o-o-o-o in the vowels so they perceptibly chill. Similarly, Britten writes a turbulent rolling rhythm into The Autumn Wind which Padmore sings with elan.

The concert ended with another Nash Ensemble speciality, Ralph Vaughan Williams String Quartet in C  minor (1898). This fell into such obscurity that it was not heard in public until the Nash performed it at the Wigmore Hall nearly 100 years later. It's pleasant if undemanding. I was reminded of the line in The Old Lute, "How did it come to be neglected so ? Because of the Ch'iang flute and the zither of Ch'in"

photo of full Nash Ensemble : Hanya Chlala ArenaPAL

Opera in a Bamboo shed

Opera in a bamboo shed? Those who know opera only from a western perspective have no idea what happens in the rest of the world.  Chinese opera long pre-dates western opera, and is far more deeply embedded into popular culture than those in the west can comprehend. So when Hong Kong starts a major initiative into Cantonese opera traditions,  its significance is major, culturally and politically. It's a statement of regional identity. 

Over the Lunar New Year, the huge West Kowloon Cultural District hosts Bamboo Theatre, a series of 11 Cantonese operas held in a purpose-built outdoors bamboo shed. When Zaha Hadid's Guangdong Opera House opened, therre was much ill-informed, even racist  negativity from people completely insensitive to cultures other than their own. The West Kowloon Cultural District dwarfs the Guandong initiative many times over.

Tickets to the Bamboo Theatre operas sold out immediately, a sign that the genre is by no means as obscure as the English-language media might suggest.  Cantonese opera continues to be performed throughout the region, and classic opera films are often broadcast on TV. Traditionally, opera was performed in large temporary bamboo venues specially built for the occasion. Opera companies travelled, often by foot, carrying their props with them. Opera came to the people, not the other way around.  Fixed-site theatres became popular at the turn of the last century, starting a new variant of the tradition. One of the 1930's art deco theatres near West Kowlon is being restored.  But temporary theatres meant that operas could be performed anywhere, even on remote islands, bringing villagers into contact with wider regional culture.  Performances often coincided with important religious or clan events.

Once I was hiking and noticed streams of people with flags heading across the fields. They were going to a festival held by 3 villages every 60 years. All the villagers who'd emigrated came back with their children and grandchildren, many raised abroad, coming to connect to their roots. Talking to some emigrés I realized that some worked in the Dutch drugs trade. Haha! But most overseas communities are legit, and triads also have a positive, non-criminal role in traditional Cantonese communities. A BBC film crew was on hand, so the documentary is in the archives.  Magnums of VSOP brandy consumed, thousands of oysters (a local speciality). Outside the matshed theare there were 40-foot high effigies of village gods, to confer prosperity and protection. Arias and plots in Cantonese opera are fairly familiar, so the emphasis is on the skill of the performer, and a strong sense of personal input. None of the affectation or oneupmanship that plagues some western attitudes to opera.
The photo at the right shows how big bamboo theatres can be. Building bamboo scaffolding like this is an art in itself, still practised in Hong Kong with its massive skyscrapers. The big red structures are also made of bamboo, decorated with paper flowers and coloured silks, nowadays lit at night with electric lights. Theses banners appear whenever restaurant and shops open: a traditional art that certainly hasn't disappeared.

Hong Kong University is sponsoring a long-term project into regional opera, with emphasis on three village traditions, though traditional opera certainly isn't just confined to rural areas.  A few years ago a huge bamboo theatre popped up on a vacant lot among the high rises in Sheung Wan, one of the oldest districts on Hong Kong's main island, though it's completely urbanized now. HKU is doing the project because it integrates many different disciplines of study: history, culture, engineering and sociology. The project also connects the community with the university and validates regional identity. Enjoy the video below, with English subtitles:

Saturday 12 January 2013

José Serebrier tours China

In China, people take classical music seriously, so it's interesting . People listen, children get involved.  So it's always interesting to read about concerts and audiences there. Last year José Serebrier toured China with the Youith Ochestra of the Americas, bringing together young musicians from North and South America with Chinese musicians :  a fruitful exchange that worked both ways.  Read more here.

This year, Serebrier toured China again, this time with the Russian National Orchestra, which he's been conducting for a long time and with whom he's made many recordings. The tour started in Beijing, inside the Great Hall of the People, in Tian An Men Square, built by the Ming Emperors. It was a joint concert between the RNO and the China National Symphony Orchestra. Serebrier and his counterpart Maestro En Shao presented a programme based on the theme of oceans. The Ming Dynasty connection is implicit, for it was during the reign of the Emperor Yongle that Admiral Zheng He sailed through Asia with his magnficent  fleet.

Serebrier and the RNO gave eight more concerts in six cities, "bringing music to such culture-hungry people, spreading the message that music, of all kinds, brings people together beyond cultural or political barriers, helping to create an atmosphere of understanding and paving the way for closer communication between peoples"

 In the West, we take music for granted, and often think in mean-spirited terms.  So it's heart warming to read about Serebrier's reaction to the ordinary people who came to his concerts in China. "The most important element for me was to touch the hearts of the public, to move them and give them an artistic experience that would inspire them to come back for more music, to touch their souls. It was fantastic to turn around to accept the public’s applause and to see all those smiling faces. Many of these people were first-time concert goers, so the challenge was especially important for me to inspire them and to leave them with a warm, glowing feeling."  This is what music should be. We should never forget. To lose the magic of music and of listening, that's like losing life. Read more here.

Friday 11 January 2013

Broader view - Royal Opera House 2013-20

Yesterday, the Royal Opera House announced its new works and relationships for 2013-2020. I got the news out quickly (read more here). Now's the time for more reflection. First, the announcement covers only new works and relationships, it's not the whole programme for the next seven years. It's not replacing anything but extending ROH's involvement in other forms of opera. Second, it's not cost cutting, but a consolidation of ROH's position vis-a-vis the rest of the opera community in UK and beyond. No new Chief Executive  has been announced yet, but Kaspar Holten and Tony Pappano have been thinking ahead for quite some time, guided by Tony Hall's support. What's the long-term broader view ?

Not all opera is grand scale. So much repertoire - new and old - is better suited to smaller performance spaces. Late 19th century houses do not define opera. The Met mindset, for example, with its emphasis on expense and ostentation creates expectations which aren't necessarily in line with art. Obviously ROH is never going to abandon core repertoire, because large houses can, in theory, do it better than anyone else, and can afford the kind of top-quality singers that maker revivals such a pleasure. ROH has been instrumental in bringing good new work to the stage, like Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, Thomas Adès The Tempest and George Benjamin Written on Skin. Not everything works as well as those do. But since when did every new opera emerge as a timeless classic ?  Thousands fall by the wayside, for every one that becomes standard rep. And vice versa. But the main thing is that ROH keeps the genre revitalized. They could also be doing more early music and baroque. As I've said many times, the Linbury is too small. Perhaps ROH will think "outside the building"?

Chamber opera carries less financial risk but it's also good from an artistic perspective, because it concentrates the mind.  If a composer can say something in intensive close-up, then he or she develops the skill to create something more ambitious. George Benjamin's Written on Skin wouldn'tbe possible without Into the Little Hill. Or Adès The Tempest without Powder her Face. Thank goodness we have Holten and Pappano to keep our minds focussed on opera as art form. How easy it would be to abandon ideals for short-term populist gratification.

Last year, Holten announced that ROH would forge closer partnerships with the smaller, independent companies, which are often cutting edge. That's John  Fulljames's background, impossible to underestimate. Already we've seen the shift from in-house productions to opted in imports such as from Music Theatre Wales who are so good that their In the Penal Colony inspired Philip Glass to write The Trial for them. MTW also has a partnership with Scottish Opera, which also has a programme supporting new opera. Earlier this year, ROH supported Scottish Opera's season, by giving them a presence in London. (read more here) .

Relationships with European houses and festivals are also very important. The Barbican has a connection to the Holland Festival, which is how we get so many interesting ventures via Pierre Audi.  The Welsh National Opera "British Firsts" series from 2013-18 connects to Amsterdam (read more HERE)  It's very interesting that WNO is doing Unsuk Chin's Alice through the Looking Glass in 2017 while ROH is doing it in 2018/19. Will they be different productions? Will the same score be used? The Santa Fe version this summer was reorchestrated, which might be an advantage as I found the original Munich version  rather too verbose. These days, joint productions offer economies of scale and extended coverage, so they are the way forward.  ROH is working with Oper Frankfurt and Deutsche Oper Berlin. The more I read about Georg Friedrich Haas Morning and Evening, the more I'm looking forward to it in London in 2015. 

Thursday 10 January 2013

Anna is back! Royal Opera House 2013-2020

Announced 20 minutes ago,  plans for the Royal Opera House for 2013-2020. Run-in times for any production at a house like Covent Garden are long, so it's hardly surprisinmg that they have a good idea of what they're planning to do years in advance. Kaspar Holten is adamant. "New work is not and should not be at the periphery of our programme, but right at the core of what and who we are." as ever the case in opera  in the past.  Even classic staples were once "new". Those who want endless revivals of old productions will still get their fill, but ROH is doing its bit to keep the art alive with new work and new commissions.  Please see also my latests piece analysin g the situation more broadly HERE.

For really new work, the run-in time is even longer. For 2020, ROH plans to "challenge leading European composers Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK), Luca Francesconi (Italy) and Jörg Widmann (Germany) to create large scale new operas. The vision is for four distinct operas, each one in part inspired by the composer’s response to a set of questions developed in collaboration with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “What preoccupies us today? How do we represent ourselves on stage? What are the collective myths of our present and future?”

Scandal is nothing new to opera. Think of the extremely hostile reception of Carmen.  After the initial shock of Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole wore off, the opera and production grew on me. I think I'll get a lot more out of next time round in 2014/15. (read what I wrote of the premiere and aftermath).

Music Theatre Wales is back with a new commission for Philip Glass based on Franz Kafka's The Trial, also 2014/15. This should be a major event if it's anywhere near asd good as Glass's In the Penal Colony (reviews here and here), whose success inspired Glass to work again with Music Theatre Wales, one of Britain's most innovative smaller companies. What a pity the Linbury Studio Theatre is so small and cramped. Hopefully, they'll do a longer run to compensate. If only there were a mid-size theatre at ROH! Could they not do a deal with somewhere else?

The Royal Operas House doesn't go out on a limb alone but works with other houses like Bregenz, Opera North., Houston and the wonderful Holland Festival. So we can look forward to Ben Frost’s adaptation of Iain Banks’s cult novel The Wasp Factory, and Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, (a new version directed by John Fulljames and co-produced with The London Sinfonietta and Opéra de Rouen after the piece's 2010 premiere at La Scala Milan).  A new opera from Luke Bedford, too, who is one of the most interesting of all youngerr British composers.  Read what I wroite about his Seven Angels here and here - another opera completely misunderstood by some, which also deserves to be heard again. Really good things need time to percolate past first impressions. Bedford's new opera is on the theme of Faust which shouldn't be too hard to take on board. A new Christmas opera from Julian Philips, whose The Yellow Sofa was a huge hit for Glyndebourne Touring. And we''ll get Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland hot on the heels of the WNO.

Lots more to read - HERE is the press release. .

Tattooed opera composer runs for President

Tattooed from head to toe in black, red and blue, Vladimir Franz is running for President in the Czech Republic. Can't be much worse than some politicos. Read more HERE.   He could become the subject of a surreal opera ! His opera "War with the newts" (2007) opens at Prague Opera House tonight. Based on the 1936 Capek novel. See also

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Les misérables - the music not the musical

Yet another movie version of Victor Hugo's Les misérables! The saga could have been written for cinema, given its sprawl and extreme drama. Barricades and underground sewers are a bit beyond most normal staging. But it's perfect for film.

There's the 1925 silent Les misérables, which runs for six hours. I've seen only extracts, which is maybe just as well.  Then there is the 1934 sound film, directed and written by Raymond Bernard, which runs only 4 and a half hours. This has been restored and is available on DVD  It's faithful to the original novel,  with direct quotes and strong, pungent characterisations.  And the music was written by Arthur Honegger of whom there is a lot on this site if you search.

Honegger's score for Les misérables is vivid without being over hysterical like some film music. The story was powerful enough to support the action, so the music works as music and sounds good even without the visuals. Audio alone, some movie music cloys to the point of vulgarity. Honegger's Les misérables works as music.  With a basic knowledge of the story, you can fill in the narrative, but Honegger's music unfolds like a symphonic poem in its own right. Plus, it runs less than an hour.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Hugo Wolf Wigmore Hall Kirchschlager Henschel Drake

Julius Drake's latest Hugo Wolf Songbooks recital at the Wigmore Hall featured Angelika Kirchschlager and Dietrich Henschel. These singers have very different voices indeed, so Drake's programme made the most of the contrast.

 The logic behind the song selections revealed itself as the recital progressed, but the evening started with five Mörike songs which Kirchschlager sings so well. Her distinctive, warm timbre adds depth to Wolf's songs, bringing out the sensuality fundamental to their interpretation.  When Kirchschlager sings Wolf, there's nothing precious or effete, even when, as in Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchen, the girl is so young that she cries "Grief ich eine Schlange" while less innocent ears know what she's really snared in her net. Kirchschlager's forte is natural graciousness.  She's ideal in Wolf because she's subtle, capturing the delicate charm beneath which Mörike shields dangerous thoughts. In Das verlassene Mägdlein, Wolf writes turbulence into the piano part, expressing the emotional tempest the servant girl feels even though she's attending dutifully to her job.  On this occasion, Kirchschlager was singing into words, as if the songs were a vehicle for hochdramatischer grand opera. She's good enough that she was still enjoyable, but it's not her usual style, nor one particularly suited to these songs.

Perhaps this concert was an experiment in turning Wolf's songs into theatre.  It's perfectly reasonable to group Wolf's settings of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister poems into a kind of narrative. The saga is so well known that most listeners understand where the songs belong. Kirchschlager, Henschel and Drake presented the three Harfenlieder songs (plus Spottlied)  with the three Mignon songs, and Philine and Kennst du Das Land.  

This was a welcome chance to enter into the world of the strange old harper and Mignon. Mignon is very young, but has a horrible backstory of abuse.  Kennst du das Land is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, but part of its impact comes from the intense emotions it evokes, emotions almost too extreme to be expressed by a child. Sorrow is central to her personality. "Nun wer die Sensucht kennt, weiss, was ich leide!". The rcihness of Kirchschlager's voice suggests that there are mysteries to Mignon's personality which we may never know. When she sings the downward phrases at the end of Mignon 1 ("und nur ein Gott"), her voices seems to swoon. Julius Drake shows how the phrase is replicated in the piano part, the piano reinforcing what Mignon cannot tell. 

In some repertoire, a voice like Dietrich Henschel's is an advantage. Recently he sang Bernd Alois Zimmermann's  Ich wandte mich um und sah an alles Unrecht (Ecclesiastical Action) for Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall (read review here) where the harsh, apocalyptic subject requires a singer who can sing forcefully, often in tricky, disjointed phrases. Henschel sang that well, but singing Wolf is a different prospect.. Henschel was acceptable in the Harfenspieler songs, because  Goethe deliberately contrasts the ravaged Harper with the angelic Mignon.  In the earlier part of the recital, with other Goethe settings, like Prometheus and Grenzen der Menscheit his singing as marred by excessively wide dynamics. Phrases were pulled out of shape, harsh vibrato overcompensating for dry tone.  It didn't help that Julius Drake pounded ferociously.  He's one of the best pianists for song but here gave his singer no quarter. Henschel's good enough to know when things aren't going well for whatever reason. When Kirchschalger finished singing Philine, Henschel remarked on the final lines "Jeder Tag hat  seine Plage, und die Nacht  hat ihre Lust". Everyone has bad days sometimes. He then approached Spottlied with gruff good humour, defusing some of the bitter envy in the text, which is a perfectly valid interpretation. 
Hugo Wolf been called the "Wagner of the Lied" but this refers to the way he rethought the relationship between poetry and song. Indeed, Wolf's sensitivity to miniature nuances precludes Wagnerian treatment. While it was good to hear the Wilhelm Meister songs together, they aren't music theatre but songs to be sung as lyrically as is reasonable.  The encore was Leopold Lenz (1803-62) Nun wer die Sensucht kennt., for two voices and piano.