Saturday 30 March 2013

"Is Wagner bad for us ?" Nicholas Spice

How does Wagner addict ?  Nicholas Spice analyzes Wagner's "astonishing musical charisma" :
On Leitmotivs : ".......;As the works unfold, the listener moves continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock – symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of musical narrative"

Musical argument as narrative structure : "......  In a play, there is a limit to how slowly (or indeed how fast) the dialogue can be delivered. Pauses and silences have to be used carefully. In Wagner, the music either speeds up the dialogue to increase emotional intensity....................It’s in the use of music to control the narrative flow that his operas may sometimes remind us of film, where it’s the camerawork that creates this plasticity."

On emotional involvement : "...The visionary simplicity of Tristan und Isolde permits us to take it in at a glance, and what we see in this glance is an impossible object. For it seems both large and small, intimate and colossal, at the same time. Here it isn’t a magnifying glass that Wagner gives us, but an electron microscope through which we see, blown up to a size that fills the frame, things which, with the naked eye, we cannot see at all. Or we could think of it as the musical equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider, an immense musical accelerator, built for the sole purpose of detecting the Higgs boson of the universe of love.".

Read the whole article or listen to the podcast of the lecture on which it is based HERE in the London Review of Books. 

Friday 29 March 2013

Golgotha Frank Martin - Amsterdam

In Amsterdam last week, Stéphane Denève conducted Frank Martin's epic Golgotha, with a superb cast that included Laurent Naouri. Vincent Le Texier, Yann Beuron, Susan Gritton, and Kate Aldrich. Friends were present, others listened online. Alas, I missed it, so please alert me if it's broadcast again.  

Martin's Golgotha gets performed fairly frequently these days, perhaps because it's an alternative to yet more Bach Passions. Those will never be equalled, of course, but Golgotha represents a different aesthetic. Bach was confident in his faith, but in our uncertain times,  Golgotha might speak to those who aren't so sure. 

Significantly, Martin began writing Golgotha in 1945, when Europe was torn apart by war. While he was working on it came news of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the start of the Cold War. The Soviets marched into Eastern Europe, and the Communists took China. It must have felt like Armageddon.  Martin (1890-1974) was Swiss, theoretically "safe" from political chaos, but moved in 1946 to Amsterdam. This was a huge mid-life upheaval, especially as the Netherlands was still recovering from the German Occupation. In Holland he saw a copy of Rembrandt's etching The Three Crosses which inspired him to write Golgotha. Jesus hangs from the cross in the centre, lit by a dramatic shaft of light from above. Whatever the light may be, it throws everything else into shadow. All the suffering that went before, the soldiers, the world, all meaningless in the face of the divine. Two thieves hang on crosses at the side. One mocks Jesus for willingly letting himself into this situation. The other, who knows a thing or two about lowlifes, recognizes that Jesus isn't a crook.  Jesus turns to him and says  Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  What it signifies is that even the lowliest sinner can be redeemed.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Lulu WNO

It was good that Welsh National Opera brought Alban Berg's Lulu to Milton Keynes on a snowy evening. The colours in this staging were so lurid that the London scene came as a relief. That would be an interesting idea to develop, since in some ways Lulu has been seeking death all along.  A much more obvious reason for the bright colours was that David Pountney and his design team (Johan Engels and Jeanne-Marie Lecca) were being faithful to the circus theme which sets the tone for the opera. "Hereinspaziert in die Menagerie". Actors with realistic looking animal masks filled the stage among uprights that looked like reels of film.  This was a good reference to the theme of cinema, for film, even more so than circus, deals with illusion. And Lulu is an opera about illusion, where nothing is quite what it seems.

"There's so much to look at" exclaimed a lady behind me. "Good " said her husband, "we don't have to listen to that music" Again that's a valid point, for this Lulu was a good way of bringing modern music to audiences who think modern music is dangerous. They loved the show, which proves it was a success. Seduced by the colours, the animals, corpses hanging from meat hooks, girl on girl action and two scenes of in your face full frontal nudity, West End audiences would have loved this too. There's something to be said for that.

Because this Lulu is touring together with Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen and Puccini Madama Butterfly, it's not unreasonable to seek a common thread between the three operas.  In his introduction, Pountney makes his concept clear. Berg and Janáček were writing in the same period, when proto-feminist ideas were gaining ground, and sexual freedom provoked challenge. Certainly this is the case with The Cunning Little Vixen, where Janáček explicitly equates the Vixen's personality with natural urges, justifying his own longing for Camila Stosslova who in real life held him at arm's length.  I've written extensively on Janáček 's Dangerous Women and their subversive challenges. I like my Vixens with fangs! Yet Janáček's heroines are ultimately projections of the composer's own fantasies.

Lulu definitely has a liberation context, for women's rights were very much a part of the Munich Secessionist zeitgeist which was much more radical than the softer focus Viennese Secession. Read about Franziska zu Reventlow and follow the labels below for "Munich" and "women, feisty".  This was the world that inspired Wedekind, Franz von Stuck, and later Strauss and Brecht. Without Munich, we would not have Weimar Berlin. Lots on this site about Weimar, too, and the connections between Brecht and Berg.  Plenty on Weimar film, too, which is relevant in any consideration of Lulu.  See Mädchen in Uniform here. So I'm more than sympathetic with  Pountney's basic approach.

Lulu does say she found herself while she was in prison without men, and Countess Geschwitz talks of studying law and helping women. Berg, whose own sister was a lesbian and a rebel, could have been tongue in cheek quoting quite a few women in that period.  But is Lulu a real person or a projection of other people's fantasies? Is she even a sexual being ? She's had a traumatic life on the streets since she was 12.  She is like an abused child who has learned that sex is a means of survival, not a pleasure. Her seductions are a form of aggression, not lust.  She doesn't trust enough to love.What is her relationship to the decrepit Schilgoch, who like Berg is asthmatic? Not for nothing did the composer double Schilgoch with the Animal Tamer, and write in many references to composing and music.

Given Berg's obsessive compulsive fascination with patterns and secret clues, we can't take anything too literally. Lulu can be interpreted as a cryptic drama arising from musical abstraction.  Krzysztof Warlikowski's recent Lulu with Barbara Hannigan and Christof Loy's much misunderstood ROH production access levels in this amazingly complex opera beyond anything in this WNO production. 

Helene Berg may have guessed at the real danger in Berg's Third Act, which to my mind marks an almost revolutionary new phase in Berg's writing.The Paris scene, for example, starts with the "circus" imagery, but now extends to a wider political sphere. It doesn't depict prostitution per se, but the way society prostitutes itself in pursuit of illusion.  The stock market scenario is central to meaning. Everyone trades, no-one escapes. Lulu is not a free spirit at all.  Some dislike the Paris scene because it's so diverse, but the real meaning is in the music, which spirals in concentric circles.  Is Berg entering new territory where the idea of narrative becomes supplanted by musical drama?  When Berg brings the men back in new guises, he's extending the idea of illusion still further. Jack the Ripper, for example, bears little resemblance to the "real" Jack the Ripper.  The London scene brings Dr Schõn back, which is good symmetry. When I first heard the Third Act soon after its its completion, I couldn't make head or tail of it.  One of the insights of Loy's production is that it takes away the obvious markers in terms of costume, and makes you think about the rarified inner logic. 

The two act version ends with Lulu's escape from prison and her seduction of Alwa on the same sofa on which his father bled to death.  This would have felt right until the full extent of Berg's work was revealed.  According to Douglas Jarman, "Of the 1326 bars only 87 were not fully notated in Berg's short score and with one exception, all these "problematic passages" could be completed with Berg's intentions either by following the indications provided in the score or by doubling the instrumental parts". The exception he mentions is the barrel organ music in scene two, but Jarman says "an indication to be found at the end of the Variation movement of the Symphonic Variations where the first four bars Berg's own orchestration".  So the Paris scene is true Berg almost in entirety and the barrel organ music is Cerha. Would we reject Mozart's Requiem or Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler 10 because they aren't 100% ? Earlier this year Daniel Barenboim conducted a "new" version of Lulu with major cuts, eliminating the Paris scene and the Animal Tamer, and adding spoken texts from Kierkegaard. The WNO production apparently uses a new edition prepared by Eberhard Kloke which changes the Paris Act which was original Berg. The emphasis seems to be to spotlight the prostitution dialogue between Lulu and pimp. Perhaps the WNO Lulu would have worked better in the two act version.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

György Kurtág Kafka Fragments Linbury

György Kurtág's Kafka Fragments is on at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House. Kafka Fragments is an excellent way to experience Kurtág's highly distinctive music.  Like so much of the composer's work, Kafka Fragments is aphoristic, as cryptic as  epigram, as concise as haiku.

Kurtág and Kafka were made for each other. The "fragments" are taken from letters and diary entries, chosen out of context and often incomplete. Each snippet thus becomes an entity in itself, disassociated from context but rearranged with new relationships. Kurtág often speaks of games of chance. His puzzles fall into place when performers and listeners engage with what they hear.

Kafka Fragments is intriguing because it tests the mettle of those taking part. Performances are surprisingly frequent, though it would be hard to better Juliane Banse and András Keller, who developed their approach together with the composer himself. See my review of their Wigmore Hall concert in 2011. The Linbury Studio production should be good because Claire Booth is singing. She's the muse of contemporary British music. The violinist will be Peter Manning.

Best of all, I think, will be Netia Jones's production. Jones has created a niche for subtle semi-stagings which don't overpower the music, but obliquely hint at levels of meaning. Remember Oliver Knussen's Sendak operas Higgelty Piggelty Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are (reviewed here) ?. And her Before Life and After, a semi staging of Tippett, Britten and Finzi, which has become a perennial on the live circuit ? (reviewed here).  Of Kafka Fragments, Jones says "We are presenting projected translations of the text all the way through. You have to be able to read and understand the actual fragments to grasp their many layers and to know why Kurtág has set them the way he has. The projections also offer moments of illumination. It’s not just about casting light in a physical sense, but offering visual guidance to enable us to grasp the meaning better: fleeting moments when something is illuminated before the light goes off."

This is a completely different approach to Peter Sellars' staging reviewed here, which massacred the music, the composer, and the author. "I get my best ideas when I'm cleaning the bathroom" he told us at the pre-event talk. Whatever Kafka Fragments may or may not be, it's not literal!

ADDENDUM : I was surprised how well Claire Booth created these pieces. While Juliane Banse sings with cool detachment, intensifying the surreal nature of the snippets, Booth sings with feisty, combative vigour. Both approaches are valid. These fragments don't come from formal literature but from random jottings, which reflect Kafka the man rather than Kafka the artist.  Booth brought out the wry humour that Kurtág loves so dearly. It's almost central to his music. "Schlaft, erwacht, schlaft, erwacht!" How boring that routine is ! Kurtág illustrates it so the line sways mechanically like a wind-up toy.

Netia Jones's staging was good because it evoked a feeling of print on paper : images of typescript in black and white, sometimes clear, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes only emerging in short bursts. It made me think about the fragility of written words. These fragments could so easily have been lost, but Kurtág has preserved them. He doesn't tell us how the pieces fit together. That's up to us. It's like a throw of the I-Ching. The runes come up on set sequences, but interpretation is intuitive.  Jones gives us clues, like a shaft of diagonal light, over which Booth walks, as if on a tightrope. We know it's just a film projection, but the image suggests many things.  What I .love about Kurtág is that he opens up possibilities. Listeners who need rigid rules will never "get" his quirky wit.

Monday 25 March 2013

Easter Weekend Highlights, London, Aldeburgh

Fancy something for the Easter weekend? A friend greeted me "Happy Easter", then corrected himself. "It's not about chocolate eggs and bunnies, it's a time for reflection"

Good Friday is the only day in the Christian calendar when Mass is not celebrated. The devout pray and contemplate. Not everyone else needs to do so, though. This Friday, there are no less than three performances of Bach St John's Passion BVW 245 . Richard Egarr conducts the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican with James Gilchrist, Sarah Connolly, Christopher Purves, Andrew Kennedy, Elizabeth Watts and Matthew Rose. Stephen Layton conducts the Orchestra of the Enlightenment and Polyphony at St John's Smith Square. More unusually, at the Union Chapel, Islington, is Benjamin Britten's English language version of St John's Passion. David Soar sings, so that's reason enough to go. He's good.

 The London Handel Festival is on, too, which is a big event. Laurence Cummings conducts the London Handel Orchestra in Bach's St Matthew's Passion BVW 244 on Friday at St George's, Hanover Square. With Lukas Jablonski, Tim Mead and Anna Starushkevych singing, this will be worth going to. Historic setting, too - this was Handel's local parish.  On Monday, go for Handel La Resurrezione HWV 47 with the same singers. Adrian Butterfield conducts at the Wigmore Hall..

On Sabbath day in the Passover, Verdi's Nabucco at the Royal Opera House, to remind us of context.  Whether the timing was planned or not, I don't know, but it's good.

You could also steer well clear of the city and go to Aldeburgh, where there's a mini Festival this weekend. Christian Curnyn conducts Purcell Dido and Aeneas at Orford Church (not Snape). "The subject matter and the dominance of fate and faith may be rooted in antiquity, but Purcell’s genius assembles compelling dramatic tableaux round an axis of an intense human tragedy, love, leave-taking and lament, sorrow and solace. Removed from theatre or concert hall to a church that resonates to Britten’s own music dramas, these concert performances promise to envelop an audience in the work’s intimacy, power and lyrical beauty – what Britten referred to as ‘those very Purcellian qualities of clarity, strangeness and tenderness’.  Two performances, starting at 9 pm. Before that, Exaudi sings an eclectic programme built around Britten's Sacred and Profane.  It includes Harrison Birtwistle's  Carmen Paschale, where a "medieval text sees the natural dovetail with the divine. His celebratory motet – with birdsong organ solo – premiered ten years before Sacred and Profane at the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival."

Sunday 24 March 2013

Complete Verdi - 75 CDs for £139.44

Seventy five Verdi CDs for £143.95 until 27th March when the price leaps to £169.99 !  Which still works out to around £2 per disc.  Postage (UK only) is a shocking £1.50. This set includes practically everything Verdi wrote, including orchestral and ballet music.  The choices are pretty good, too. For less than the price of a ticket to Don Carlo at ROH, you can get a complete reference library. At this price, libretti will not be included, but that's hardly a problem.  More details HERE.

A friend has also suggested 30 operas on DVD/Blueray for £499 going up to £550 HERE. 

Roger Quilter Shakespeare songs vol 1 Mark Stone

Roger Quilter's songs have special status in the canon of English music. Quilter (1877-1953) stands apart from the British music mainstream.He didn't have a choral or religious background. Independently wealthy, he trained in Germany, not in England. He found his niche in art song early, producing songs of graceful refinement, many of which are central to the English Song repertoire, and are frequently heard in recital and on recording. Until now, however, there has been no complete edition of his songs, so Mark Stone's latest series, The Complete Songs of Roger Quilter, is greatly welcomed.  Get it from Stone Records in hard copy or track by track HERE.

Quilter specialized in song, and set most of his songs to English poetry. In this first volume of this series of four,  Stone and his pianist Stephen Barlow focus on Quilter's settings of Shakespeare. Surprisingly, there are relatively few song settings of Shakespeare, given his status. Quilter set more Shakespeare than most composers. On this disc, we have Five Shakespeare Setting op 30, Three Shakespeare Songs op 6, Two Shakespeare Songs op 32, Five Shakespeare Songs op 23 and four individual settings. Quilter's choices include the extremely well known Come Away Death, Who is Sylvia, and Hark, Hark the Lark., and poems which have attracted few settings, like 'Tis St Valentine's Day.

Like Hugo Wolf, Quilter lets the poetry  shine with beautifully measured poise. Shakespeare's words in their natural language are so lovely that it's unwise to cloak them with excess verbiage. Quilter doesn't need to obfuscate. He gets straight to the point with delicate economy of gesture. Quilter's Hark, Hark the Lark soars to an ecstatic climax in 64 seconds, like an outburst of spontaneous joy, not unlike Wolf's Er Ist's.  Schubert's setting of the German translation, Horch, horch die Lerch, is exquisite, but it's more Schubert than Shakespeare.

Orpheus and his lute, being an anthem to music, has attracted many settings.  Quilter was an almost exact contemporary of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward German. In Quilter's setting the piano evokes the rich timbre of the lute, while German's version has a wilder sense of joy. Quilter was a generation older than Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi. Quilter's settings of Fear no more the heat of the sun  and It was a lover and his lass differ from RVW's and Finzi's, but all show how the same words can be used with different effects. It's also interesting to compare Quilter's When icicles hang on the wall with Thomas Arne's, 200 years before. Different times, different approaches.

Similarly, compare Quilter's I will go with my father a-ploughing with the setting by Ivor Gurney. Gurney was an outdoorsman, who responded to the poem with a setting evoking the joy of nature. Quilter's version is more circumspect, closer perhaps to the poet Joseph Campbell. Mark Stone includes in this disc Quilter's settings of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Sound sample below :

Friday 22 March 2013

Mysterious Lutosławski Ravel Salonen Philharmonia

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Witold Lutosławski series at the Royal Festival Hall confirms his reputation as an authoritative Lutosławski interpreter. He knew the composer personally, but more importantly understands his idiom intuitively. In this superb concert, Salonen and the Philharmonia brought out the strange, intangible duality that makes Lutosławski's music so intriguing. Salonen's Philharmoinia series follows Simon Rattle's  Lutosławski series last year with the Berliner-Philharmoniker. Both conductors bring their own insights. Comparison is pointless. Salonen, however, has the edge because he stresses the elusive nature of the music. In this programme, he paired Lutosławski with Ravel with surprising results: Ravel has rarely sounded so magical.

Ravel Ma mère l'oye is best known as a ballet, but it's not necessarily episodic story telling. Instead of crude cartoon colours, Salonen and the Philharmonia produced luminous, gossamer-like textures infused with light.  If the tempi were a little slow, it was defined with real delicacy of touch, so it really did feel that the music was hovering in mid-air. This was Mother Goose for adults, with hints of hidden terrors.

In his extensive writings, Lutosławski said that we hear music in the context of our feelings. Salonen's Ravel thus created a mood from which Lutosławski 's Symphony no 4 (1988-92) flowed naturally. This symphony is short, but in 22 minutes it unfolds with the compactness of a much larger piece. Dark chords suggest foreboding. A solo clarinet appears, its bright textures luring us deeper into the piece. Strident strings suggest alarm, or danger : the pace quickens, pauses and returns with wild, driven legato. Strings like whips,  faced off by a solo trumpet, piano, and a trio of trombones.  Perhaps we are in some strange forest, where the flute flutters like an elusive woodbird.  The whole orchestra soars towards a wild climax, which suddenly disintegrates once more to solo clarinet and flute.  A short passage for small drum and percussion, oddly reminiscent of The Rite Of Spring and the music disappears, elusively. What might Lutosławski  be suggesting? Primed by Ravel,  I thought of Jean Cocteau's film  La Belle et la Bête.  Lutosławski's 4th is a Salonen speciality. He recorded it within months of the premiere. We were privileged indeed to hear him conduct it with the Philharmonia.

Matthias Goerne was the soloist in Lutosławski's Les espaces du sommeil (1975). This was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but Goerne is well on the way to putting his distinctive stamp on the piece.  The text is by Robert Desnos, the surrealist who died in Terezin. Lutosławski's setting has a hallucinatory quality. Extremes of pitch and volume unsettle any sense of repose. Fischer-Dieskau's voice has a lovely smoky quality on his recording, but Goerne's approach connects more deeply to the character of the music. "Dans le nuit....les forêts s'y heurtent confusément avec les créatures de légende  et cachées dans les fourrées." Goerne begins with a half whispered growl at the lower end of his register, blossoming forth into bright, clear colours that dissipate as soon as they're uttered.  Goerne makes us listen to the composer, rather than to the beauty of the singing per se. His voice is dignified, suggesting the hypnotic pulse of sleep, while his sharp diction reminds us that the mind is alert.  Les espaces du sommeil is a lovely piece but its true wonders lie in its mysteries. Protracted applause after this piece, and shouts of "Bravo!" which we don't often hear from staid RFH audiences.

Lutosławski's Chain 2: Dialogues for Violin and Orchestra (1984-85) is one of three otherwise unrelated pieces in which the composer explores the idea of a "chain" formed of interbraided links. It is almost more than straightforward concerto. In Chain 2, as Charles Bodman Rae writes in hisexcellent notes, "the strands are independent both melodically and harmonically, and their phrases begin and end in different places. The trick is in combining them into a coherent whole."  Jennifer Koh was the soloist, playing with great verve and freedom. Some passages reach such high tessitura that one thinks of Szymanowski, though that might not be deliberate on Lutosławski 's part. The two composers may be Polish, but they occupied very different worlds.

Salonen and the Philharmonia concluded with Ravel's La Valse. My companion had heard snippets of this as members of the orchestra were tuning. We wondered, surely they must know the work so well they hardly need to practise?  Perhaps the reason was that this wasn't any ordinary La Valse, but a much more unusual interpretation. This waltz sounds as if it were being heard through a dream, a dance recreated through the prism of memory and distance. Ravel himself described it as "an impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling motion"  Just as we'd heard Lutosławsk's Fourth through the prism of Ravel, we now hear Ravel through the prism of Lutosławski.  Mysterious, elusive and surreal. 
 Photo : Włodzimierz Pniewski & Lech Kowalski 1992

Thursday 21 March 2013

Perceptive overview of books on Britten

It's Britten's centenary, and there's a big demand for books about him.  But there;s precious little "new" information to unearth. The sensationalist syphilis story has been thoroughly debunked. It's a great angle for the prurient public but bears little relationship to reality. I'm quite appalled at how superficial, and even homophobic, some of the material is.  Read my article Pink Triangles and Britten biography HERE. There are so many aspects of Britten that could be explored, like his relationship with his father, and his connections to conventional British music circles. In the absence of new information, there's an even greater need for interpretive depth. That demands more academic rigour than tabloid journalism. It also benefits from genuine musical awareness. At last, HERE  is an perceptive analysis, worth all the other "reviews" put together. Indeed, I might say, more perceptive than some of the books.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Zamponi Ulysses on the Island of Circe

Last chance to catch an opera you may never hear again : Giuseppe Zamponi's Ulisse all'isola di Circe. "Né probablement à Rome vers 1615, Gioseffo Zamponi fait carrière dans les Pays-Bas du Sud en entrant, en 1648, au service de l’archiduc Léopold-Guillaume, gouverneur des Pays-Bas. Son opéra Ulisse nell’isola di Circe, le premier opéra de style italien joué dans les Pays-Bas du Sud, est créé à Bruxelles le 24 février 1650 lors du mariage de Philippe IV d’Espagne avec Marie-Anne d’Autriche. On sait que le spectacle fut rejoué à Bruxelles, en 1655, pour la reine Christine de Suède, avant d’être ressuscité en 2006 ". Strange choice for wedding music since Circe was a sorceress who murdered her husband and lives imprisoned on an island where she weaves sinister spells, surrounded by savage beasts who are in her thrall. When Ulysses's men land on the island they are turned into pigs. One wonders who the lions and wolves might have been ? Many rare operas are rare for a good reason, but Ulisse all'isola di Circe is a genuine discovery.

Perhaps it's because the performance is exceptionally good. The ensemble is Clematis, highly respected European baroque specialists. Clematis is conducted here by Leonardo García-Alarcón, who helped found the group in 2001. Why Clematis?  Clematis  is "a delightfully scented flower that represents the principles of idealism and of creativity. Such a name for an ensemble specialising in baroque music is more than justified, for it is creative in that this repertoire can only live if it receives an interpretation based on inspiration and renewal; it is idealistic in that such creative inspiration must of necessity be based on a great respect for the work as it appears in its original sources."  Poetry like that perfectly describes their grace and refinement. Period instruments are unfairly maligned because they are misunderstood, but they are essential to the whole baroque aesthetic. This performance is outstanding. a perfectly poised balance of energy and refinement, Instruments and voices blend in perfect rococco elegance. Listen to battaglia and to the "distorted" music that describes the effects of Circe's magic potions, and to the ballets which would have been integral to the opera.

The soloists are high level too. Cappella Mediterranea is another specialist ensemble whose members work closely together as well as pursuing separate careers. Céline Scheen  sings Circe and Furio Zanasi sings Ulisse. Interesting sexual tension between them : attraction and repulsion in equal measure. Dominique Vlisse, the countertenor, sings Argesta, doing a long monologue in an "animal" voice. Indeed, lots of "animal" noises and banter in this opera, which must be why it was once so popular. Venus (Mariana Flores) and Mercury (Zachary Wilder) intervene. Baroque was not boring ! This performance took place at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in 2012. Catch it on BBC Radio 3 for a few more hours. 

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Verdi I Lombardi - UC Opera Bloomsbury

Don't miss UC Opera's Verdi I Lombardi at the Bloomsbury Theatre.  I Lombardi and Nabucco are almost companion pieces, and the Royal Opera House is doing Verdi Nabucco from 30th March, on a much grander scale, for Nabucco suits grand designs. So if you're going to the ROH Nabucco, it's worth seeing the UC Opera I Lombardi as background.
Visually, the UC Opera I Lombardi i is so striking that it would stun audiences in bigger houses with better facilities. The drama starts with a simple, dark backdrop, a monochrome tower, a bright telephone box. The impact is immediate. Verdi set I Lombardi at the time of the First Crusade to conceal its message at a time when much of Italy, once the seat of the Roman Empire, was ruled by foreign powers.This isn't really a battle between Lombardy and Antioch. The Lombards are tearing each other apart with rivalries, rather than facing their true enemies. In Verdi's time, Italy was a disunited conglomeration of small states that could not rise above petty self-interest towards a greater goal.

Although Christian themes dominate the opera, I Lombardi is not anti-Muslim as such.  Oronte, the prince of Antioch, becomes a Christian without much inner anguish.  One can read a nod here to Italian nationalism, since Italians dominated the church, although the Austrians, also Catholic, dominated the state in Northern Italy.Verdi must have been aware of the impact Griselda's hymn to the Virgin Mary would have on audiences. Caught up in reverence, they might, for a moment, forget the pettiness of worldly values and unite in the contemplation of more noble ideals.  In the chorus "Jerusalem !", nearly everyone on stage joins in unison, transfixed by the vision before them.

This staging, designed by Will Bowen, directed by Jamie Hayes, and produced by Rosie Hughes, places the action in a land that hovers between modernity and a fading memory of the past, just as Giselda inhabits an alien land far away from her origins. Phone booths are relics. We don't communicate like that much now.  This is an allusion to the theme of nostalgia that runs through the opera and fuels visions of an idealized future.  The Tower is a Victorian photo of a real pub in The City of London, which you can still visit.. Once it was a tavern where cock fighting took place. It's a subtle detail but cogent. The Lombards are acting out a cock-fight on a grand scale.

Ellan Parry's costumes also follow this theme of unspecified timelessness.  We could be at any time in the last century, or in the present. The men wear sharp suits, as so many Italians aspire to, but preen themselves on machismo. Without true religion, crusaders are no more than street gangs spreading their turf. At the end, chorus and remaining soloists stand together, their faces shining as they contemplate Jerusalem, at last within sight. We don't need to see a mock up. We can hear it in the orchestra and in the voices of the singers, and see it in their shining faces. Jerusalem isn't a physical place but a state of mind.

 UC Opera is part professional, part amateur so the performances were good enough. Charles Peebles conducted. Katharina Blumenthal sang Griselda with firm assurance. John Mackenzie sang Pagano/the Hermit, pushing a supermarket trolley with neon cross. This was wittier than you'd expect. Pagano means "pagan", and the Hermit is an outsider, who has taken a vow of poverty. In these drab surroundings, the jewel colours of the cross shone even more brightly. Jeff Stuart sang Arvino and Adam Smith was a heroic Oronte.  Sally Harrison sang Viclinda and Carola Darwin sang Sophia. Andrew Doll sang the Prior. Edward Cottell sang Pirro  and Joseph Dodd was a distinctive Acciano.

For more information, see the UC Opera website.
Read the full review here on Opera Today

Royal Opera House - new Executive Director

The Royal Opera House has just announced that Alex Beard will take over as Executive Director, after the departure of Tony Hall. Beard is a surprise choice but that's refreshing - he doesn't come from the usual performing arts cliques, and doesn't owe anything to anyone. A position like this needs someone with fresh objectives, who can support the  new creative management at ROH, without too much baggage of his own. Beard is currently Deputy Director of the Tate Gallery,  and its nation-wide group of galleries, which gives him experience broader than "just" London.  The Tate is huge, and financially solid, which is more than can be said for many organizations.  Beard is also on the board at Glyndebourne, so he knows opera, opera patrons and how the business really works from inside.  He's also only 49, despite his long experience, which may suggest he has a good future ahead of him.

"He brings a wealth of managerial experience from his very successful partnership with Nick Serota at Tate, as well as the insights and perspectives that this role has given him.", says Simon Robey, Chairman of the Royal Opera House Board of Trustees. "I am confident he will forge excellent partnerships with our artistic leadership and our executive team, and that they will, together, lead the Opera House to still greater heights.”

Beard wasn't the person I was dreaming of when I speculated on who might be the new head at ROH. That man was more of a wild card, being so "European". Some of the other possible candidates were interesting, some would have been bad news. So Alex Beard looks like an inspired choice.

Monday 18 March 2013

Wagner Die Feen Chelsea Opera Group

The Chelsea Opera Group brought Wagner's Die Feen to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  Although some of the singing was very good indeed, the performance was, to be kind, somewhat  rough and ready. But this was precisely why it entertained. Wagner's Die Feen was written when he was only 20.years old. It's a work of exuberant teenage enthusiasm. To give it the polished sheen of his mature work would spoil its naive charm.

Growing up in Leipzig and Dresden, there was no way Wagner would not have been influenced  by Carl Maria von Weber. Echoes of Weber keep resounding throughout Die Feen, making us recognize just how great a debt Wagner owed Weber and the whole early Romantic aesthetic, which itself stems from the baroque. That's why it is essential to appreciate operas that might not be "modern taste", like Der Freischütz. Listening through the blinkers of modern taste is bigotry. We can't appreciate Wagner fully without understanding his roots. Although we recognize references to Mozart and Beethoven,  the Weber references dominate. Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann might have been heading in terms of creating new forms of music theatre. We're blinded by modern taste to think mainly in terms of late 19th century style. Die Feen is interesting because it shows Wagner working within Weber's style without much success. The ensemble writing, for example, isn't elegant.  We need to wait for the quintet in Die Meistersinger before Wagner releases true good-natured harmony. 

It's also interesting to hear how much Die Feen suggests about Wagner's later work. Even at this early stage in his career, Wagner is not following conventional icons, but developing his own. Ada is half-fairy, half-mortal, like Loge. She must hide her identity from Arindal, though they love each other and have raised a family. Lohengrin merely sails away from Eva on his swan-ship. Arindal and Ada are cursed with a ferocity that makes the curse of the Ring look tame. Ada is imprisoned not by a ring of fire but by a block of stone, from which she can only be released by love. The fairies in Die Feen are warrior-like precursors of the Valkyries. Even Lora, Ada's sister, is formidable, more Brünnhilde than fairy tale princess.

Some of the best music in Die Feen is written for the female voices. Ada's call for action is stunning, then completely upstaged by Ada's long, stirring monologue. It feels like a duel between voices as well as between roles. For me, Act 2 made the whole evening worthwhile.  Kristin Sharpin, as Ada, in particular, was impressive, especially the Hélas! monologue, with its sudden leaps up the scale. There's Hélas chorus, too, but the solo writing is infinitely sharper. Why don't we hear more of Sharpin? It takes some doing to trump Elisabeth Meister, whom we all know and love, and who was a superlative Lora. But Wagner gave Ada the bigger part. 

David Danbolt sang Arindal, another huge part complete with mad scene, a reference to Orlando Furioso, where the hero is unmanned by love and grief.  Early Romantic plots may seem ludicrous to us, but to audiences in their time, elaborate plots reflected the sagas of the baroque.  When Robert le Diable came to London, someone sneered that the production didn't take the opera seriously enough. But neither did Meyerbeer nor the generations who flocked to performances. The idea that everything has to be realistic, or that every word counts is an affectation that stems from much later. Wagner created the revolution, but he learned to do so from the early Romantic interest in individualism, poetry and philosophy.  

Good cameos from the soloists who included Mark Stone as Morald, Lora's lover, Andrew Slater as Gernot  and Andrew Rees as Morald.  Emma Carrington sang Farzana and Eva Ganizate sang Zemina, Ada's fairy handmaidens who resolve the convoluted plot by showing Arindal how to save Ada.

I'd really like to hear Die Feen with period instruments, to release the rambunctious energy in the opera. It isn't a great opera by any means, but if all we ever listened to was "great", our culture would be impoverished. In this Wagner anniversary year, we don't necessarily need more re-runs of repertoire we already know. Despite the ropey orchestra and chorus, this Die Feen was worth hearing because it was done with such enthusiasm. Better that a million times than stilted, superficial performances that take themselves too seriously and teach us nothing. The Chelsea Opera Group are largely amateurs, so it's much more important that they're emotionally engaged and enthusiastic. Please also read Mark Berry's review, which will also appear in Opera Today.

Sunday 17 March 2013

ROH 2013-2014 Linbury Studio Theatre

The Royal Opera House main hall season 2013-2014 is good. The more you delve the more intriguing it gets. Same, too, for the 2013-2014 season in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Real cutting edge stuff coming up, but tried and trusted too. What a pity that the Linbury is too small to accomodate the audience it could attract. Plus, the seating is so cramped that anyone over 40 or 5 foot 6 cannot sit in comfort. Perhaps ROH should be thinking like Nicholas Kenyon at the Barbican, who is outsourcing medium sized events outside the main building.  The Linbury is fine for bijou miniatures, but some of the performances here are important enough, and popular enough, to merit the performance spaces they deserve.

First off : The Wasp Factory, based on Iain Banks's cult novel, with a libretto by David Pountney.  It describes "the disturbing acts of a psychopathic teenager ..... as part of a self-invented warrior cult, he uses a home made apparatus called the Wasp Factory to determine whom he will kill next and how.". Composer and director is Ben Frost.  This is a co-production with Bregenz, Hebbel-am-Ufer, The Holland Festival and the Cork Midsummer Festival, which sounds promising.

Then a really big double bill: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek and Salvatorre Sciarrino's The Killing Flower (Luci mie traditrici) which tells the story of  Carlo Gesualdo, artist and murderer.  Sciarrino is one off the biggest names in contemporary music, His music is beautifully poised and magical. Don't let the subject matter deter you any more than the subject matter of George Benjamin's Written on Skin. (reviewed HERE).  Sciarrino is a sensitive and very well informed composer, so it's quite possible the work will be filled with references to Gesualdo's music, interpreted through a modern perspective. Read more about Sciarrino HERE. That's him in the photo above. Cool dude!

Another reason Sciarrino's The Killing Flower should not be missed is that it's being produced by Music Theatre Wales, the innovative company that specializes in interesting new music, like Philip Glass's Into the Penal Colony (reviewed HERE) which Glass liked so much that he's written a new opera specially for them, also based on Kafka. The Trial is in the pipeline for 2015. We're truly lucky that they have an arrangement with ROH. The only other place they're doing this double bill is at the Buxton Festival. The Killing Flower is being paired with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek, not in the original production but a relatively new Music Theatre Wales exclusive from 2011.  This is the opera that made Turnage's name when he was an angry young man. Read more about it HERE. Music Theatre Wales is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a good touring programme. More about that HERE

For the Christmas/New Year season, a family opera from Julian Philips, whose The Yellow Sofa is a big hit at Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Philips used to be a fixture at the Wigmore Hall, a genuinely erudite and perceptive man, of whom there are far too few. His music is good, too, accessible and stimulating. When he writes for kids he doesn't write "down" at all. This is how you capture the imagination of future audiences : give them good work and all else follows  How the Whale Became, to a libretto by Edward Kemp, is based on Ted Hughes's  The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales.

In February, a curiosity, Tippett's King Priam paired with Britten's Paul Bunyan. Tippett and Britten aren't natural bedfellows, and one might say this combines the best of Tippett and worst of Britten.  Anyone familiar with both operas will gasp at the logistics, particularly in a place like the Linbury. There's something so strange about this that a friend suggested that each might be done on different nights, which makes sense, but why do both?  I won't speculate as uninformed guesswork is the enemy of good sense. The English Touring Opera toured with King Priam (on its own) last year.

Luke Bedford's F4u5T sounds like a big departure from his usual style.  It was devised as a companion piece to Gounod's Faust which will be on at the Main House in April 2014, so it might be a humorous experiment rather than a through-composed new opera. Working with electronic sound artist Matthew Herbert, F4u5t is about a composer frustrated by convention, who is seduced by Mefistofeles in the form of a super computer. "Soon he is using his music to manipulate and physically control the world with thrilling but deadly consequences". Probably witty and this time not above the heads of the London press.

ROH is collaborating with the Aldeburgh Music Festival and Opera North for another double bill, featuring as yet un-named operas by Elspeth Brooker and Francisco Coll.  This will be Brooke's biggest ever break. Coll is a protégé of Thomas Adès who calls him "strikingly individual". But the libretto is by Meredith Oakes, so the Adès connection may weigh heavily.

Luca Francesconi's Quartett  will have its UK premiere at the Linbury in June 2014. This is a major work, premiered at the Salzburg Festival  in 2011 and then at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. It was produced by La Fura dels Baus no less.  This will, however, be a completely new production co-produced with the London Sinfonietta  and Opéra de Rouen, directed by ROH Associate Director John Fulljames. That alone guarantees it will be good.  Quartett is loosely based on a play itself based on Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses, which isn't a novel so much as a series of letters through which the tightly plotted strategems are revealed. I think it would suit Francesconi, whose chamber music is exqusitely detailed and tightly constructed, The Arditti Quartet champion his work: he's very good indeed. Surprisingly, Tony Pappano is another fan, which ups his street cred no end. Although the opera is as compact as the story, this will be one of the most important new music events in years: the Linbury just doesn't have the capacity to give this opera the space its audience needs.  Why this isn't at Snape or QEH or even Spitalfields, I don't know. It needs only two singers but "a vast symphony orchestra and chorus" plus recorded samples over live music.

Linbury 2013-2014 ends on a fun note with HK Gruber's Gloria - a pigtail. Anyone who knows HK Gruber will know how eclectic his inventions can be, mixing genres with wit and dark humour.  Gloria is the story of "a pig princess looking for love who is dazzled and wooed by a prince who turns out to be a butcher but at the last moment is saved from the chop by Rudi The Wild Boar".   Shades of Gesualdo thru Austrian comic book?  The director will be Frederic Wake-Walker, the production by The Opera Group, Fulljames' original company. Again, their work is so good that this will be a season highlight.  

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Thrilling Royal Opera House 2013-2014 season highlights

"Plenty of meat, and juicy bits" says Kaspar Holten about the new Royal Opera season 2013-2014.  Seven new productions on the main stage, Five new commissions, and 2 UK premieres in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Three Strauss operas, Wozzeck, Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato, in the production from Barcelona, TWO operas with Karita Mattila (Marie and Ariadne), TWO Jonas Kaufmann appearances (Des Grieux and in recital). Luca Pisaroni makes his ROH debut as Figaro, Bryan Hymel returns as Henri in Les vêpres siciliennes, Mariuz Kweicien sings Don Giovanni, Joseph Calleja, Anna Netrebko and Bryn Terfel star in Gounod Faust, Placido Domingo conducts Tosca....... so much else.

This season's so exciting that it will take time to digest. As Holten indicated, if you care, you aim to do the best you can. In this world nothing is perfect, but if your heart is in the right place, you have integrity. That's the kind of commitment I admire. With Holten and Pappano, we won't get boring or dull.  I'll write about the more specialized Linbury Studio Theatre programmes later because they're good. But here are the main house highlights.

Verdi : Les vêpres siciliennes (17 Oct -11 Nov 2013) Top class singing - Bryan Hymel,  Marina Poplavskaya, Erwin Schrott, and Michael Volle. This should be very different, but stimulating.Dance fans will compete to see this because it's not the usual I vespri siciliani but the original French version with the half-hour ballet. Royal ballet dancers will be joined by dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet. "It will be spectacular" said Holten, and Pappano beamed in agreement. It's what he does well. It won't be a cheap production, but quite extravagant. The director will be Stefan Herheim which will be even more intriguing. Herheim is controversial, but extremely well respected.(see my review of his Rusalka here)  The anti-brigade will be up in arms, but that's their loss. Herheim is well regarded as a Wagner director, (Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser etc so consider what's next :

Wagner : Parsifal (30 Nov - 15 Dec 2013).  This will be directed by Stephen Langridge with the same team as behind his Birtwistle The Minotaur, reviewed here. What's he going to make of the pseudo Christian iconography? René Pape sings Gurnemanz as he did in the recent Met Parsifal (see review here "Religion or Religiosity?) , and has indeed done the role so many times he probably owns it. Simon O'Neill sings Parsifal and Angela Denoke sings Kundry.

Strauss : Die Frau ohne Schatten  (14 March - 2 April 2014). This will be the production from Milan, directed by Claus Guth. Much the same cast as in Milan - John Botha, Elena Pankratova, Emily McGee and Michaela Schuster. The other Strauss operas this season are Elektra (Christine Goerke in the Charles Edwards production, read more HERE) and Ariadne auf Naxos (June, July 2014). It will be interesting to compare this Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Christof Loy with the Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos (Katharina Thoma).  ROH has Karita Mattila, Glyndebourne has Soile Isokoski.

Poulenc : Les Dialogues des Carmélites ( 9 May- 7 June 2014)  Simon Rattle conducts an excellent cast : Magdalena Kožená, Annas Prohaska, Emma Bell, Deborah Polaski and Sophie Koch. Robert Carsen directs.

Puccini : Manon Lescaut (17 June - 7 July 2014) Following the Massenet Manon revival in January, this is a new production, with an all-star cast: Jonas Kaufmann, Kristine Opolais, and Christopher Maltman. Antonio Pappano conductrs. Jonathan Kent is the director.

Mozart : Don Giovanni (1 - 24 February 2014).  Mariusz Kweicin makes this a must, but look at the rest of the cast - Véronique Gens, Malin Bystrom, Alex Esposito, Elizabeth Watts.  What makes this interesting, though, is that Kaspar Holten is directing. His film Juan (reviewed here) was a film based on Don Giovanni. This time he's directing Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Quizzed about his Eugene Onegin at the ROH, Holten said that it was his 64th directorial production. Although many critics panned it, including me, (read more here), many in the audience liked it. I can vouch for that, seated as I was surrounded by people who loved it.  I'm glad I saw it because it was stimulating. I believe we should go to an opera to hear someone else's perspective. Whether we agree or not, what we learn from the experience is far more important than being judgemental.

photo : Peter Suranyi

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Edinburgh International Festival 2013

Edinburgh International Festival 2013 details are out now. The season starts on 9th August with Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, with mezzo Yulia Matochkina and the Edinburgh Festival Chorius.  Royal Scottish National Orchestra are wonderful in Russian repertoire, so this will be worth hearing. Valery Gergiev conducts and  Daniil Trifonov plays Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3. 

The next night will be just as dramatic, though very different. Edgard Varèse Intégrales and Amériques, with Berio Sinfonia.  Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Synergy Vocals. Highly recommended. More Varèse later in an eclectic event by Ensemble MusicFabrik mixing Varèse with Frank Zappa with John Cage.

Then, Opéra Lyons brings a semi-staged Beethoven Fidelio to Edinburgh, conducted by Kazushi Ono, with a good cast including Erika Sunnegårdh and Nikolai Schukoff.  Fidelio will be the highlight but consider a very different new Lulu, based on Berg but reinterpreted by Olga Neuwirth. It's directed by John Fulljames, and is a joint venture between The Opera Group and Scottish Opera, Bregenzer Festspiele and Young– Vic in association with the London Sinfonietta. Automatically this lifts it out of the ordinary. It's significant enough that there is no way it's not going to be heard later in London. Frankfurt Opera is presenting a double bill of Bluebeard's Castle and Dido and Aeneas. Bartók and Purcell together? Frankfurt could pull this off, especially as it's directed by Barrie Kosky.

From Munich, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons do two concerts, Beethoven Piano Concerto no 4 with Mitsuko Uchida, and Mahler's Symphony no 2. Daniele Gatti conducts Mahler's Eighth Symphony on 30/8 with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

Definitely a must: René Jacobs conducting the superb Scottish Chamber Orchestra  in Haydn Symphony no 104 "London" and Beethoven The Creatures of Prometheus on 25/8. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Strauss, Haydn and Beethoven (Eroica).
Mitsuko Uchida is also doing a solo programme of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann on 13/9.  Nicolai Lugansky, Andreas Haeflinger, Olga Jegunova and Pierre-Laurent Aimard to come as well.  Christophe Rousset is giving two harpsichord recitals, and also leading Les Talens Lyriques in a very interesting Couperin programme. Lugansky returns to play Rachmaninoff 3 with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra.

Lots more, including Robin Ticciati, The Arditti Quartet, Gerhaher, Werner Güra, Dorothea Röschmann, Ian Bostridge, Véronique Gens and Bernarda Fink, Philip Glass, the Jacquin Trio, The Hebrides Ensemble, The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and more. Visit the Edinburgh International Festival site HERE.

photo: Thanks to Stuart Craie from Edinburgh

Opera elitist ? What "Big Question"?

Is opera elitist? That was the "Big Question" posed by a joint Telegraph and ROH event online yesterday. Perhaps the really big question should have been "What's the point?" As television goes it was embarrassingly amateur.  As debate, it wasn't. Perhaps this is a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon need to dumb things down to the lowest possible level. Thank goodness for Mark-Anthony Turnage, who said "If this was Germany, we wouldn't be having this debate". Elitism is a construct which says more about those who use it as epithet than about the subject itself. So what if "the masses" think opera is elitist ? Opera doesn't become elitist because some people think it ought to be. And what's so wrong about elitism, anyway? What's wrong with artists trying to be the best they can possibly be? Do we want a culture based on mediocrity, simply because mediocrity isn't "elitist"?

Out came the usual clichés about ticket prices and suitable clothing, which have been defused long ago.  Football and pop concert tickets can be more expensive than box seats at ROH. As for evening dress, some people actually like glamming up for a sense of occasion,. Social attitudes are projected onto opera which have nothing to do with it as art form. Opera has become a battleground in class war.  In Anglo-Saxon society, it is misused as a status symbol. "I spend, therefore I have taste". And it's not just people who don't do opera.  On any opera discussion group there'll be those bragging about how much they own/have travelled/have read etc. but precious little about what they've actually gained from the experience. In some cases it's bluff.

The whole issue of elitism can be defused by one simple solution. Listen. Listen to what's happening in the music, respond to the drama, enjoy and learn from whatever you experience. It does not matter how much you know or don't know, or what your status is, as long as you engage. As long as you're paying attention it doesn't matter what someone else is wearing, when to applaud, etc etc. It's not elitism we should be worrying about but snobbery.  Unfortunately, it's human nature to be insecure, and to scam.

Monday 11 March 2013

Band Aid or Surgery - rethinking the South Bank Centre

"The Festival Wing". That's the name for a project to revamp the South Bank by building a glass dome in the space connecting the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery More details HERE from Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios, the architects. The South Bank Centre also has an online exhibition HERE.  There are also plans to redevelop the area behind the RFH and Belvedere Street. There's also an article by Rowan Moore in the Observer HERE.

The South Bank Centre long ago outgrew the space on which it was built sixty years ago. Filling the gaps between the buildings make sense up to a point,. Yet those concrete wastelands between the buildings were part of the original design concept. Just as the original designers intended, the empty spaces have been colonized by "ordinary" people, though they probably didn't think in terms of skateboarders, graffiti and urine. Concrete aesthetic leads to such things.  There's nothing wrong with them in principle because it livens things up. 

But the primary purpose of the South Bank is culture. Culture does, I think, include graffiti, but a skateboard park isn't the most cost effective way of delivering culture on land as valuable and unique with magnificent views over historic London and the Thames. The proposals seem reasonable for what they are but do they really solve the long-term problems facing the South Bank? Are they band aid quickfix where major surgery is needed?
The problem with the South Bank is that it tries to do too much for too many  Music events of all types from orchestral concerts to pop concerts, visual arts and literature, theatre and multi-cultural events, chidren's activities, funfairs and foodfairs. Can any single venue cater to all? I'm not the only person to notice the watering-down of the South Bank's classical music services.  Once the South Bank did innovation, like the Messaien and Nono festivals. Now it does pre digested, over simplified commercialism like The Rest is Noise. Anyone could have programmed that. In an age of cutbacks why should the public purse pay for Alex Ross ?

Moreover, the South Bank is one of the few public open spaces in the area; it also serves as an important social service. Where else can Londoners take their kids, chill out and have fun in this area? It's also an escape from the office blocks and social housing in the vicinity. Restaurants and shops are an essential part of the mix, and they bring in much-needed income. Trouble is, the South Bank these days hardly resembles a cultural centre anymore, which defeats its whole raison d'etre. Parking is almost impossible, and disabled facilities poor.  Even the RFH needs a rethink, rather than cosmetic updates.

Another inescapable fact is that the South Bank can be, and should be, a national and international arts centre. That means offering top quality which isn 't available anywhere else. Then it would attract visitors from all over the country, and from abroad. It's politically trendy to be local-friendly but the Unique Selling Point of the South Bank is that it has the potential to be the flagship of British culture,  Just as the Royal Opera House puts London on the international map, so could the South Bank. Already, the Barbican is fulfilling this role with its alliances with other venues and far sighted vision. If the South Bank is to bea glorified community centre, couldn't it be a centre for a much more focussed community ?

Architects design buildings, they don't design cultural policy. The responsibility for that lies not only with South Bank management but with the Arts Council. Where is the vision ? Where is the leadership ?  How do piecemeal patches fit in with a wider overall strategy for the arts ?

A much more comprehensive solution to the South Bank's problems might be to diversify and decentralize. Even the Barbican is expanding to new premises and areas.  Notice that the Barbican retains core facilities like the Barbican Hall while outsou4rcing services that can be housed elsewhere.. The beauty of the Barbican approach is that they go into the community, rather than expecting the community to come to them.  There is no sacred rule that different facilities have to be housed in the same place. Of course there are people who turn up on the day and take whatever is on offer, but that kind of market is inherently limited,

Big scale facilities like the Royal Festival Hall can't be relocated, because they cost so much and are so specialized. But things like poetry workshops can happen anywhere. If the South Bank were decentralized, other parts of South London would benefit it things were spread around a bit. Think of LSO St Lukes rejuvenating Old Street north of the river.  It's infinitely better to do a few things extremely well than cram too much together.  There's no reason why the South Bank should become a bazaar. An arts centre should aim at excellence, rather than watering down its main purpose to look trendy. 

Of course the proposals may all be pie in the sky, since they've only secured £20 million of the £120 million they need. And let's face it, while culture may be essential to the life of a nation, so are health services, education and welfare. These proposals are all very well, but it might be more cost effective in the long term to rethink the whole concept of the South Bank in a much more radical way. Throwing money at problems doesn't make things better. Vision is what vreally counts.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Cuban Chinese Opera Singers

Cubans singing Cantonese opera? A hundred years ago there was a thriving Chinese community throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America,  descendants of coolies and merchants. The communities were big enough that they could sustain Chinese culture, even though most of the people had little contact with China.  Here is a link to a remarkable film  based on unique archives. Although it is in Cantonese, it's easy to follow because there are English subtitles and some amazing archive photos.

The film focuses on a woman called Ho Chou Lan, who was born in 1920 to a mixed-race Cuban -Chinese family. Her natural father died when she was one month old. Her mother remarried an immigrant from Toi Shan. called Fong Biu. Thus Ho Chou Lan grew up speaking Cantonese, with a Chinese education. Fong Biu was an opera fanatic, so he taught his stepdaughter from the age of 4. By her teens, she was appearing professionally. The Cuban Chinese community was big enough to support a troupe of local-born opera singers, some mixed race.

Most of the Havana Chinese community have left Cuba, but Ho Chou Lan  still lives there, in great poverty She knows enough Chinese to read the typesets in an old printing press: once  there were 4 Chinese language newspapers in the region. She shows us a yellowed manuscript from which she can sing the old operas. She also kmows what the operas are about and can explain  some of the idioms. Later, she gives a performance in what seems to be someone's living room. She puts on a traditional costume and sings from memory. Her grandson accompanies, playing the cymbals. He's Cuban, hardly a trace of Chinese, but he can pick up the rhythms of the old lady's song and improvise. Someone plays a western violin. There is another singer, also in costume, but she's learned phonetically and doesn't really have the sounds in her soul, like Ho Chou Lan does.  For the film maker, Lau Pok Chi, from Hong Kong, these women are fascinating, remnants of a once thriving Wah Kiiu  (overseas Chinese) world.  "They've never seen China", he says, "I wish we could take them to Toi Shan"; that's the district where their ancestors came from. There are houses there built in a vaguely western style, with money the emigrants sent home. It's preserved as a historic monument. Ho Chou Lan is something of a monument, too.

Illuminating George Benjamin Written on Skin Royal Opera House London

George Benjamin's Written on Skin sinks deeply into the psyche. A  Protector wants brightly coloured images to display his power and wealth. He is a megalomaniac brute who thinks he can control everything in his domain from the fruit on his trees to his wife's "obedient body".The Boy dutifully creates exotic images of "azurite and gold" on precious parchment, meticulously executed in fine detail.  Medieval art wasn't representational.  Stylized depictions were meant to suggest concepts, not literality. Perhaps medieval art and modern art have more in common than we realize. Uneducated as she is, The Woman intuits that art can take on meaning of its own. Images can lie, yet also reveal eternal truths.

This, no less, may be what Written on Skin is about, despite the sensational narrative. Ostensibly the action takes place in a medieval manor house. The Protector thinks wealth will buy him eternity. A thousand years later, the lands he knew have been obliterated by "Saturday car parks" and multi-lane highways. Even the Occitan has been absorbed into France. In this exqusitely poetic libretto, by Martin Crimp, past and future are superimposed on each other, reinforcing the idea that worldly certainities are impermanent. Things change, but artistic vision is timeless.

This sense of duality operates throughout the opera. The Protector thinks he controls everything around him. The Boy thinks that being an artist (and presumably a monk)  protects him from earthly engagement. Both are trumped by The Woman, who wants the Boy to paint a a "real woman" with passions and eyes that "grow black with love". The boy can see the flecks of gold in her grey eyes, but his eyes, too, turn black. The Protector sees the painting and suspects. The Boy lies to protect the Woman, but she's having no more subterfuge. "I am Agnès" she cries, "I am not a child!" 

Benjamin's Written on Skin is a departure from the 19th century idea of what opera should be. Despite the vaguely modern set, and very modern music, Written on Skin is much closer to the medieval approach to art.  The narrative is oblique, despite the barbarism in the plot.  We cannot, and should not, impose our own ideas on what the Middle Ages "should" be. "Wild primroses and the slow torture of prisoners"  as the Boy sings in Act One. Crimp's text is exquisite allegory. Poetry doesn't operate like prose: overstated literalism would kill the gossamer magic.

Thus Benjamin's music operates as poetry, elusively, obliquely, but with enough passion to make the drama progress even when the words seem static. The illustrations in medieval manuscripts depict cataclysmic scenes as if they're suspended in time. Perhaps in a past incarnation,  Benjamin painted  illuminations, where detail is captured with surreal intensity. Although Benjamin's writing makes a virtue of ambiguity, his orchestration is stunningly pure and clear textured. Low-timbred strings like double basses and a viola de gamba, high-pitched keening woodwinds, a glass harmonica and an unusual percussion section which includes bongoes, a whip and Indian tablas. This replicates the clean outlines of medieval illumination: no muddy shadows, but intense, unnatural colour. The percussion also suggests the vigour and simplicity of early music. We can "hear" the musicians of the Occitan in the sophisticated Royal Opera House orchestra. It's curiously unsettling, but perfectly in keeping with the opera.  Benjamin himself conducted.

As in their previous opera, Into the Little Hill, Benjamin and Crimp use indirect speech. Phrases like "Said the Boy", or "Said the Woman", are embedded to the text, intensitfying the unsettling sense of allegory. Yet character is very well defined. The Boy and the Woman are playing the roles the Protector wants them to enact. Their long, wailing lines with strange distorted syntax suggest the stylization of mystery plays, or even Greek chorus. Individual words are gloriously embroidered and illuminated, so they shine out from the background of wavering rhythms.

Bejun Mehta sings the Boy, his countertenor at once disturbing and beautiful. Barbara Hannigan sings the Woman, her part even more demanding because the personality develops so dramatically. It is she who is the catalyst for action. As the Woman sits bowed but uncowed, Hannigan's voice expresses the frustration the Woman cannot articulate. When she suddenly pounces on the Boy, Hannigan's voice explodes with sexual tension: animal-like but desperate. She throws herself at her husband who, despite his macho image, can't cope with her being anything other than "pure and clean". At this point, Benjamin's  music for the singers changes. The Protector (Christopher Purves) now gets the long, wailing legato, where previously his music erupted in short, brutal staccato. Now Agnès has the short, punchy lines and spits them out with new-found assertiveness.

When the Protector kills the Boy, we can hear his compromised feelings in the music. Is the Protector himself secretly attracted to the Boy? Purves sings with a strange tenderness suggestingb that the Protector might be killing his own desires.  Agnès is fed a meat pie. "How does it taste"? sings her husband. She understands the horrible truth. "I shall never, never, never get the taste out of my mouth" she sings, her voice reaching heights of horror, her lines once again stretching out in extended wailing.

Mehta appears as an Angel, surrounded by other angels who had also appeared as Marie and John, Agnès's sister asnd brother-in-law, now supposedly dead. Victoria Simmonds and Alan Clayton sang the roles. The Boy is now  a protagonist in a painting, no longer man but immortalized as a work of art.  Just as he had painted a woman falling, suspended in mid-air, Hannigan mounts the stairs at the side of the stage and disappears, followed by a group of retainers moving in slow motion. We don't need to see her fall. We already know. "Art" has become "life".

I'm not generally a fan of Katie Mitchell, but her directing in this was perrceptive. She and her designers, Vicki  Mortimer and Jon Clark, have made split-level sets something of a signature, but in Written on Skin the style works well with the meaning of the opera.  Most of the action takes place, claustrophobically, in one room. The other rooms on other levels show the world that goes on outside the trapped manor house. Perhaps the Boy is a quintessential Artist, who consciously enters other worlds when he creates a work of art? He leaves his street clothes behind when he enters the Protectors's realm. Later, he's dressed as an Angel. Perhaps it's a subtle reference to the relationship between artist and patron, as well as to the relationship between art and artist.

Written on Skin is only Benjamin's second opera. His first, Into the Little Hill, also to texts by Martin Crimp. was a highly condensed chamber opera  about which I've written extensively. Read more HERE. Since Benjamin was hitherto a miniaturist, who worked slowly because he took such meticulous care, I was concerned how he'd write a full-scale opera for a large house like The Royal Opera House  and the seven other houses in which it is touring, I needn't have worried. Working with Martin Crimp seems to have stimulated Benjaminto new levels of creativity. Although Written on Skin is stylized and abstract, it is inherently dramatic, on its own terms. Dare I say it, but I do feel that this will be one of the defining operas of the early 21st century, because it is so visionary.George Benjamin's Written on Skin will be broadcast (audio only) on BBC Radio 3 on 22nd June. Please see the full review with cast list in OPERA TODAY.

photo : Bejun Mehta as The Boy, Christopher Purves as The Protector, Barbara Hannigan as The Woman, credit Stephen Cummiskey

Thursday 7 March 2013

George Benjamin Wigmore Hall series

George Benjamin's Written on Skin is on at the Royal Opera House from tomorrow.  HERE IS MY REVIEW. There is no way I am missing Written on Skin. To appreciate Written on Skin, get to know Into the Little Hill.   Opera is a relatively new genre for  Benjamin, so it's also good to  approach it in context with his other music. AND HERE IS MY REVIEW OF THE WIGMORE HALL CONCERT comparing Into the Little Hill with Written on Skin.

Benjamin  is next year's Wigmore Hall composer-in-residence, so the Wigmore Hall is doing a Benjamin series culminating in George Benjamin Day on April 6th. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will be doing Benjamin's first opera, Into the Lttle Hill, this time in concert performance with Hilary Summers and Susanna Andersson singing. This was a watershed for Benjamin, previously known for his painstakingly meticulous working methods.  Woring with Martin Crimp, the librettist, challenged Benjamin, who worked at what was, for him, breakneck speed. Taking risks makes for highly charged drama. Into the Little Hill is a tightly focussed chamber opera, whose depths reveal themselves obliquely. I love Into the Little Hill. I've written about it extensively. Read my piece on the performance at the Linbury  HERE  Given Benjamin's penchant for detailed embroidery, I wondered how he'd cope with Written On Skin, to be heard in a large House. If the stunning Aix-en-Provence premiere is anything to go by, he's mastered larger form. Perhaps on some level, Benjamin identifies with the artist who creates detailed, glowing illuminations.

The programme will also feature Francesco Antonioni's Ballata and David Sawer's Rumpelstiltskin Suite, based on Sawer's opera Rumpelstiltskin, another BCMG speciality. Read my article "Gold and Straw" HERE about the full opera when it wass staged at the Spitalfields Music Festival.

The concert will be preceded by a talk with John Gilhooly and a concert at 11.30 featuring Benjamin's music for small ensemble (Carolin Widmann, Adam Walker and Marino Formenti)  which will include the beautiful Shadowlines. played by Benjamin himself.
If you can't wait til April 6th, don't worry. On March 20th Benjamin is pianist at a concert with Fretwork, the viol consort, Tabea Zimmermann, Antoine Tamestsit and Susan Bickley. For me the draw will be Upon Silence, a very early piece from 1990 for mezzo soprano and seven strings. They'll also be doing Benjamin's Piano Figures (2004) and Viola, Viola (1999) .  Piano Figures is a series of ten miniatures each built around a mood growing from a simple motivic cell. As in many things in life, "simple" doesn't mean "easy". These pieces don't demand extreme virtuosic technique, but they do challenge the mind. Each vignette builds on a mood or image ("Spell", "In the mirror", "Whirling") but moves on swiftly without exhausting the possibilities. That sense of rapt listening comes through in Viola, viola (1999). Themes bounce between each player, the balance constantly shifting. Long, exploratory lines, countered by affirmative semi-staccato, a pulse connecting, then gracefully receding. The rest of the programme will include works by Alexandcer Goehr, Benjamin's mentor and teacher.