Thursday 31 October 2013

Wozzeck on Halloween - Royal Opera House

"The function of a composer is to solve the problems of an ideal stage director" wrote Alban Berg in 1927. "My intention was to give to the theatre what belongs to the theatre. ….. "No one in the audience, no matter how aware he may be of the musical form….. gives any heed to anything but the vast social implications of the work which transcend by far the personal destiny of Wozzeck. This, I believe, is my accomplishment."

Click here to my review of Berg Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, 2013. 

Berg knew the technical limitations of stagecraft in his time, but he also knew that, in Wozzeck, he had written something radical that transcended time. For him the opera’s message was paramount : his aim was to confront the audience and make it think. This most cerebral of operas received perhaps its most intuitive interpretation in the groundbreaking Keith Warner production at Covent Garden in 2002, of which is being revived this season. The original production was controversial because it was so thought provoking and challenging. In the last few years its been discussed so often that its insights are now better understood, and the opera’s multi level complexity even more appreciated.   Matthias Goerne, a veteran of four major productions of Wozzeck prior to 2002, and a man passionately intrigued by the opera, created the idea of Wozzeck floating lifeless in the glass cube near the end. It was, as Warner said at the time, a flash of inspiration no director would dream of suggesting. It expresses Berg’s central beliefs so vividly that any new solution to the staging will be haunted by the idea of Wozzeck silently confronting the audience, forcing them to address their complacency.

For who is Wozzeck ?  is he no more than a PTSD squaddie who kills his partner, as in the ENO Wozzeck, a piece of blatant Über-Regie which delighted audiences because it neutralized the darker implications of the story. Or is he just a pawn in a wider game, as Berg suggests ? Wozzeck's not even an anti-hero, but a hapless lout who kills because he can't think articulately. But who are the real villains ? Berg knew about military organizations (and hospitals) from first hand experience.  He didn't admire authoritarian systems. Note how the Doctor wails "O, meine Theorie!". His crackpot theories override science, logic and common sense but no-one questions. Theory above reality! Classic sign of obsessive compulsive disorder, which Berg himself might have suffered from to some extent. All that numerology and those cryptic mazes....;but Berg was "sane" because he could see where real evil lay..

Keith Warner's Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House tonight, is infinitely more perceptive. The stage is clinical, oppressive lights and sterile surfaces. Glass cases contain relics of "normal" life. Wozzeck's visions of mushrooms and organic matter thus take on greater significance.  Here life is neutralized. The Doctor is  a control freak whom no-one questions. The Captain is his enforcer, the men of the garrison fodder for the Doctor's experiments. Thus the Drum Major becomes a symbol of rude, vivid life though he's uncouth. Marie fancies him as a way out of her dreary existence. Wozzeck, trapped on all sides, can only react with violence.

The influence of film on Berg's music can't be under estimated. The Doctor may have origins in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1921) where "madness" must be locked up. But who is the madman - doctor or patient ? When Wozzeck drowns in the lake, many productions depict the scene in red, as Berg suggested, in line with the idea of blood which runs through the opera. On the other hand, Berg was not dogmatic, and in any case, blood no longer flows in Wozzeck and Marie because they are dead. It's enough that the moon is red, and the wate rin the tank is, too. Naturalism isn't essential, as the photo above shows. It's the 1931 production where the set show stylized trees, with "human" faces. The Doctor and the Captain hear Wozzeck's last struggles for life, but deliberately refuse to acknowledge any reality other than their own. In Warner's production, Wozzeck becomes another exhibit in the Doctor's mad scientist laboratory. He floats, apparently lifeless like an embryo in amniotic fluid. It's a powerful metaphor, and also links to the Child, and to Berg's penchant for symmetry.At the premiere, few knew how the effect was created, so felt horrifyingly dangerous - as so it should ! Wozzeck should not offer comfort.

 Wozzeck is an excellent choice for Halloween.  And like the festival, it's a lot more subversive than you'd think.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Les feuilles mortes: Kosma with harp

"Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi. 

Et le vent du nord les emporte Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli."

We've all heard the work of Joseph Kosma (1905-69). He wrote music for Jean Renoir's classics La grande illusion, La Règle du jeu, and for Marcel Carné Les enfants du Paradis and Les portes de la nuit, (1946). But Kosma was a serious "art" composer, who knew Bartok and Kodály. He worked for the Zig Zag theatre,  in Budapest, where Schoenberg and Webern were played. Moving to Berlin in 1928 he was part of Hanns Eisler's circle, and mixed with Bertolt Brecht. Escaping to Paris in 1933, Kosma knew no French, but said he was "determined to write songs whose aim would be not to merely entertain but also express man's fear of the menaces of the modern and inhuman world. For me it was  a simple question of conscience".

After hearing Matthias Goerne sing Schubert with harp instead of piano at the Wigmore Hall with Sarah Christ (more HERE), I wanted to hear more. Now, I'm listening to 30 Chansons de Joseph Kosma from the French label Mécénat Musical (disrtribued by Harmonia Mundi). The singer is Françoise  Masset and the harpist is Christine Icart. There are other collections of Kosma songs to listen to but I like this because harp gives them delicacy and innocence.

It matters, interpretively.  Kosma himself wrote : "Il me faiilait acquérir l'elegance de la mélodie français ; et por cela, je cherchais le poete qui exprimerait cette réalité avec l'esprit a foie étincelant et retenu qui caractérise les grands poetes français". Kosma worked very closely with Jacques Prévert, and twenty of the songs in this set are to texts by the poet. At least 21 of the 50 songs Kosma wrote to texts by Prévert end piano or pianissimo, dissipating elusively, hovering into uncertainty. 

When Yves Montand sang Les feuilles morte in the movie Les portes de la nuit (1946), he sang with gruff Gauloise-soaked rasps. When Masset sings it, her voice floats lightly. "C'est une chanson qui nous ressemble. Toi, tu m'aimais et je t'aimais.......Et la mer efface sur le sable, Les pas des amants désunis."  Now the song seems elusive, quite haunting, like haze above water and the silent falling of leaves. All three original verses, too, to extend the atmosphere.Yet there are troubling undertones to this lightness. "Rappelle-toi, Barbara" sing Masset in another well known song (from the same film). The poet uses "toi", and the song seems intimate, but he doesn't know the woman, or her male friend, or even if they're still alive. "Quelle connerie la guerre, Qu'es-tu devenue maintenant
Sous cette pluie de fer, De feu d'acier de sang"
. From quasi-folk melody to numbed grief in under three imnutes.

Like Poulenc and so many other Parisian sophisticates, Kosma could satirize the banal and make it witty. L'orgue de Barbarie, Art poétque  I&II  and Le miroir brisé dance along lyrically, but pack a stylish punch. Maset can sing with gleeful humour.  "Et la fête continue!" she sings with relish: one thinks of the circus master in Lulu. In La jour de fête she sings two contrasting voices. Masset's background is in baroque but she also sings new music and works in music theatre. The harp acts, too, Icart makes the instrument sound like a guitar in On frappe and Le guitare solaire. The transpositions, by Stéphan Aubé, are elegant and understated. 

Les feuilles mortes became a big hit and an English version was written by Johnny Mercer. There was also an American movie "Autumn Leaves" which elimanted the wartime and political context of the original French film.  The song became a jazz classic, recorded by Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald and others. All valid because it's a good tune, and the bar room setting of the original film lends itself to jazz club reverie. But, having heard this recording with harp accompnaiment, I'm much more attuned to Kosma as "art song", elusive and delicate.  Much closer in spirit, I think, to Debussy's Les Feuilles mortes" as my friend Mark Berry remarked.

photo : Masaki Ikeda

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Garsington Opera at Wormsley 2014 Beethoven

Garsington Opera at Wormsley commemorates its 25th anniversary next year with its most ambitious programme ever. “Wormsley has tremendous potential”, said Artistic Director Douglas Boyd. He adds, “and Mark Getty understands how it can contribute to the wider community, beyond opera. We are planning a Beethoven weekend which will include Beethoven’s Fidelio, a revival of the popular Garsington Opera production from 2009. We’ll link the themes of brotherhood, freedom from oppression and sacrifice which run through Fidelio, Beethoven’s Egmont and the Ninth Symphony."

The summer festival begins on 6th June with Beethoven's Singspiel Fidelio in the acclaimed production by John Cox (photo copyright Gary McCann) conducted by Douglas Boyd.  Rebecca von Lipinsky returns as Leonore, supported by Peter Wedd, Darren Jeffrey, Stephen Richardson, Jennifer France, Sam Furness, and Joshua Bloom. Beethoven's ideals deserve remembering in 2014, one hundred years after the beginning of the First World War. The special Beethoven Weekend, starting July 5th titled "Peace in our Time?" will focus on Fidelio's libertarian ideas and will feature talks, master classes, a recital by cellist Steven Isserlis and much more.  It will culminate in a commemorative concert including Beethoven's 9th Symphony, with the Garsington Opera Orchestra on stage for the very first time.

In Garsington Opera's long tradition of reviving rarities, Jaques OIffenbach's Vert Vert will receive its British premiere. Vert-vert should be fun. It's risqué! "Vert-vert" was a parrot in a genteel girls's school. How do the girls amuse themselves when he's gone? Robert Murray, a popular young tenor, sings the title role. David Parry conducts. Vert-vert is also being screened on the beach at Skegness as part of the SO Festival.

Leoš Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen starts 22nd June. Garry Walker conducts and Danoiel Slater directs. Read about his Die Entführung aus dem Serail here - how imaginative his Vixen could be! The casst includes Claire Booth, Grant Doyle, Joshua Bloom, Henry Waddington and Timothy Robinson.

 For more information see the Garsington Opera at Wormsley site here.

Lou Reed - Sunday Morning video clip

Lou Reed died Sunday, 27th October. He was 71. Amazing that someone so wild would have lived that long ! Most of that crowd around the Velvet Underground have long passed on. Whole generation of ghosts in NYC. But Lou Reed was a survivor. So it's kind of poignant to remember him with THIS CLIP singing "Sunday Morning" in France in 2012.

"Early dawning, Sunday morning, it's all the paths we've crossed so long ago"

Sunday 27 October 2013

Wagner Die Feen broadcast

Richard Wagner Die Feen is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Monday (and available for a week thereafter). It's the hoary old Edward Downes recording but it's free and worth listening to as part of Wagner performance history. As an artistic experience, the later recording, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is preferable. There are at least two other recordings, but I'm not devoted enoough or have time enough to have heard and compared them all.  Die Feen was written when Wagner 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. Listen to Act 2 , especially the Hélas! monologue, with its sudden leaps up the scale. There's Hélas chorus, too, but the solo writing is infinitely sharper.

Arindal, the husband, is 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. The idea that opera 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. 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

Explosion or implosion ? South Bank Centre

This aerial photo of London's South Bank was taken only six years ago, but it's hard to recognize now. These days you can't walk for the debris,  permanent building works, trucks parked willy nilly and most of London out for the weekend. Is the South Bank consuming itself ? Read this article "Are developers destroying the South Bank?" by Ellis Woodman in the Telegraph. 

The first part of the article deals with the proliferation of office space and high rises around the area.  But scroll down to paragraph 10 which deals with the South Bank Centre. Unlike many other organizations, which object to the developments, the South Bank Centre Board has entered into a financial deal with them. Woodman concludes "Anyone who values the public life of London might also care to take issue with the proposals. The number of shops and restaurants on the South Bank was already much increased by the 2008 refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall and the prospect of another influx raises real fears about the site’s continued relevance as a space of civic inclusion."

This puts ther £120 million plan to redevelop the South Bank Centre into wider perspective. Attention has been cleverly shifted to the skateboarding community, supposedly a soft target, to deflect closer examination. But what will the extra (and expensive) space be used for?  Billy Bragg, who once had credibility on the left, thinks "local people" whatever that might mean, will benefit from new rehearsal rooms, but how so?  As Woodman says "This fully glazed space is billed as a rehearsal area but its extraordinarily prominent location is more obviously explained by its appeal to the corporate events market. A large volume of new retail and restaurant space has also been deemed necessary to balance the books. Some of this is to be housed in a new “liner building”: a narrow, three-storey slab that will extend down the side of Waterloo Bridge before cantilevering bombastically over the riverside walkway", .And how do poor working class locals benefit when the area becomes upmarket office and luxury apartment space ?

The problem with the proposals is that they're piecemeal : either not at all thought through in terms of cost benefit to the arts, or only too well thought through in terms of disguising the benefits to non arts and non local interests.Surely proposals as far reaching as these should be examined in the context of London- wide or nation-wide arts policy ?

It's not just a South Bank Centre thing. The area is unique,. Arguably it belongs to ordinary people, even arts lovers taking secondary place. As has been suggested, a proper solution might be to deconstruct the monolith of the South Bank Centre altogether. Why not decentralize, as other bodies like the Barbican are doing ? Why not shift South Bank management across town, like the London Sinfonietta and OAE ?  That would free up a whole building and packs of open space. The fact is, the South Bank area is a valuable resource. Why not turn the place into an all purpose public space and relocate the arts facilities elsewhere ? Let those who benefit, ie the rich, finance the move. This is far too big an issue to be left on this level. Isn't there any consistent arts/community policy in this country?

See also "Still fit for purpose?" The Royal Festival Hall.

Still fit for for purpose ? The Royal Festival Hall

At last someone dares to say what many of us have been feeling for some time. The South Bank is no longer fit for purpose. Of course the South Bank should serve the community other than music lovers. But has the balance flipped irredeemably? Douglas Cooksey writes about his recent experiences,  but his words resonate with many others who use the South Bank, even for non-arts functions, like parents and families. Maintenance standards are now extremely poor. Is this the world's biggest public urinal? The day to day staff are not to blame. They are good people but it's not up to them to run the place.  Lifts and toilets are often out of order. Simply getting there is an issue, since the nearest parking is now the National Theatre. What goes wrong at the South Bank Centre impacts on everything nearby.

"London used to boast one of the World's great concert halls, the Queens Hall, which was unfortunately destroyed during the Blitz. Most other major cities with world class orchestras have purpose-built concert halls, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Musikverein in Vienna or Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

The Royal Festival Hall was erected at the time of the Festival of Britain and was never intended as a permanent structure. For most of the subsequent half century, lacking a proper concert hall, it came to be the centre of London's musical life and then by a curious extension of that peculiarly wartime 'patch-and- mend' mentality, it was renovated and dubbed 'iconic'. 

 Since the hall's renovation we know it as "Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall", open on all levels to the public, even during concerts. One could reasonably argue that it is no longer a concert hall in any real sense of the word but a public facility, and as such its management transferred to Parks &; Leisure. 

Does any other concert hall - or for that matter the Royal Opera House or any major London theatre - allow the general public unrestricted access at all times. No, they do not. As with the Festival Hall, these locations are also generally recipients of public funding through the Arts Council. The Royal Festival Hall is now used by non concert goers as a convenient meeting place and as free office space with Wi-fi. 
At peak times it is simply impossible to find a seat prior to a concert, not a pleasant experience for older people arriving, say, half an hour before a concert. Nor is it acceptable emerging from the main hall during the Interval to be confronted with every seat in the areas immediately adjacent to the hall occupied by groups who are frequently being addressed by a speaker or by raucous groups of people playing cards or by individuals busy on their laptops. These people can be quite aggressive, even intimidating, and often seem to resent the presence of genuine concertgoers who, unlike these free-loaders, may have paid top dollar for their seats. 

 After that glorious final paragraph of Mahler's 4th Symphony (Kein Musik ist ja auf Erden/no Music like this is to be heard on Earth) faded into profound silence earlier this year one emerged to the raucous blare of rap on computers. During yesterday's Philharmonia concert with Ashkenazy, a concert which was actually being broadcast live on Radio 3, in the quieter sections of Manfred it was even possible to hear sounds of the meetings going on just beyond the entrance doors at the side of the stage. It seems that genuine concertgoers at the Royal Festival Hall have now been reduced to second class citizens and any magic of the concertgoing experience effectively destroyed. 

The solution. Either ban non concertgoers from the Royal Festival Hall's upper levels (as used to be the case) or create a new purpose-built concert hall, preferably in the vicinity of Kings Cross. With the arrival of Eurostar and now blessed with excellent underground and overground transport links, Kings Cross would surely be a far preferable location. Having attended more than 1,000 concerts at the Royal Festival Hall since I moved to London in 1970, one has increasingly come to view going to the Southbank with distaste and trepidation, poor value for money and an assault course to be endured rather than enjoyed. By contrast, either the beautifully renovated Usher Hall in Edinburgh or Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, both of which I visit regularly, offer a totally different quality of concertgoing experience and an environment where great music-making can be truly enjoyed. "

Compare the South Bank to the Barbican, also cursed by architecture that seems designed to destroy the human soul. The buildings may be brutal, but the management has done a lot to make the place functional and user-friendly. There have been huge improvements in recent years and the place is well looked after. Students use the facilities during the day, which is good, but they don't take precedence over everyone else. At the South Bank I was once attacked by a man who said I was "invading his personal space " by sitting down at the table (with four seats) which he was using as an office. These "sitters" are not the poor or indigent who need somewhere to keep warm. They have expensive laptops and phones and conduct businesses. Basically, the Barbican cares about those who use it. The balance between uses is reasonable, and new ventures like Milton Court,  St Lukes etc spread the arts into the wider community.

And now the South Bank wants another £120 million.As Richard Morrison said in The Times, the present South Bank buildings are "dysfunctional disasters as well as architectural eyesores. It would surely be simpler, and certainly far more honest, to knock them down instead of trying to dress them up. And it would be a far better use of £120 million to commission a completely new array of arts pavilions next to the Festival Hall, including the world-class, 1,400-seat concert hall that London desperately needs — buildings that could be far more beautiful and fit for purpose than the clapped-out Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery ever were, or will be." 

Saturday 26 October 2013

Shelter from the storm ? What's on broadcast

A big storm is predicted for Sunday/Monday night. A good opportunity to stay safe and warm at home (if you can). ; I've been unwell since Wednesday so I've been collecting stuff to listen to. Here are some highlights :

Tonight on BBC Radio 3 LIVE from the Barbican, Marc Minkowski conducts Poulenc: Figure Humaine and Concerto for Two Pianos, Ravel Mother Goose Suite (complete) and Rousssel Symphony no 3 with the BBCSO,  the BBC Singers, pianists Guillaume Vincent and David Kadouch. Even the interval feature is Les Six., an excerpt from the 6pm BBC Singers concert tonight. .A friend has travelled to hear this  it's that good. Lucky me I won't miss it, even tho' I was thinking of Nézet-Séguin at the RFH. This concert stays available online on demand for a week.

Tomorrow Sunday live aus Berlin, Simon Rattle conducts Schoenberg Gurrelieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker with an all-star cast. This will be worth hearing, and will of course rermain in the archive. You could do a "Battle of the Gurrelieders", since BBC Radio 3 is rebroadcasting Gurrelieder from the 2012 Proms (reviewed here). But strictly speaking, I think comparative listening is for nerds not for "real" listeners, since every performance is unique. 

On medici TV,  Gaspare Spontini La Vestale, recorded live from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées Paris,with Ermonela Jaho singing Julia. Written in 1805, La vestale is very early for Romantic opera, closer to Fidelio , Mozart and even Haydn than to later Italian or French opera. Hence this production is faithful to period aesthetic. It's classical simplicity is as pure as the vestal virgins themselves.  Jaho creates Julia with the right mix of passion and heroic torment. I enjoyed this so much that I'll be writing more when I feel better. 

Thank you aussiegall for the pic, a great motto to live by !

Friday 25 October 2013

Salvatore Sciarrino Killing Flower (Luci mie traditrici)

Why was only one performance of Music Theatre Wales' production of Salvatore Sciarrino's Killing Flower (Luci mie traditrici) scheduled for the Linbury Theatre? Tickets sold out so fast that even middle-level Friends of the Royal Opera House didn't get a chance. No hope for ordinary Friends or the public. Chances are that the Sciarrino audience is bigger in London than, say, Buxton or Llandudno, where it's toured and touring to. New music does sell, and Sciarrino's big news.  It will be interesting to read what the fashionable crowd make of Killing Flower.

Coming to Sciarrino's Killing Flower via his chamber music prepares you for its strange, exquisite beauty.  Please read some of my earlier posts on Sciarrino's music, especially like this. which describes his ideas and techniques. 
A disembodied female voice is heard, singing unaccompanied, from a distance. The melody is seductive, but strange, like renaissance music heard distorted throuuh the filter of of time. What has become of those inn the drama that's about to unfold?  Already we're thinking ahead, beyond the initial drama. Legato gives way to fragments of disjointed sound. Sentences are short, snatched moments of connection that break off leaving images half-formed, like conversation in real life, where meaning is conveyed through unconscious signals. Darkness, blood, lilies, roses, breath, death. Like most of Sciarrino's music, you listen with your senses alert, picking up details. What is that growling, snorting sound behind the singers? It's at once metallic and animal, suggesting something horrible to come. .

In the Italian version of this opera, the word "poco" emerges clearly at the critical points, hinting at changes of direction. Suddenly we hear Renaissance music, of a sort. How sweet and grave this sounds! the formal dance gives way to a new scene. It's noon and the couple are in a garden - we hear twitterings and rustlings  and strange scraping sounds. Two high-pitched voices, which break into soaring arcs. La Malaspina and the Guest are up to something: we hear the servant commenting, in dark muted tones. A longish orchestral passage, circling sounds, growling, breathing."E questo?" sings Il Malaspina, "What's up?", the words repeat and twisting on themselves. Violent crashes in the orchestra, rumbling thunder. Poisonous thoughts are seeping into Il Malaspina's mind: listen to the "water" sounds in the Prelude to Act II,  the wailing contortions and plaintive squeals. The wife thinks she's got away with things, but the husband has other plans. Their voices encircle each other, stalking and hyper observant.

Notice the elegant formal structure of this  opera, suggesting mazes and stratagems. In the third intermezzo, the dance music we heard before becomes more jagged, with turbulent sounds - wind? Blood rushing in one's ears?  The "inferno" mentioned in the text?  Slow deliberate drumbeats, like the tense pounding of a heartbeat?  Tense, whirring vibrations. Sciarrino makes us use our ears and imaginations. In the final scene, the couple hover over the bed where they once loved. At first, they're speaking, but gradually she realizes what's happening. Is this murder or a suicide ? Il Malaspina's last words are oddly matter of fact. The music has already spoken.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

MORE Les vêpres siciliennes ROH

More on Verdi Les vêpres sicilennes at the Royal Opera House in Opera Today, by Jim Sohre :

"Pride of place must go to Michael Volle’s exquisitely wrought Guy de Monfort. Having greatly admired Mr. Volle in German opera, nothing about his prior achievements prepared me for the depth and power of the impression he made in this role. The language suits his mellow (yet substantial) baritone to a “T” and he explores and deploys an entire range of colors and emotions from the very bottom of the role to the extreme top. There was not a note he produced that was not fraught with great detail, no phrase that was not informed with emotional nuance. He did not so much sing the part, as live it, and quite simply stole the show"

"Brian Hymel has come a long long way since I first admired his promising Faust at Santa Fe. His mastery of French styling is evidenced by his triumphs in ever more challenging assignments on world stages .....................His utterly secure, freely produced top gleams and sails into the house with power and brilliance. He has learned well to use forward placement and pure, limp production to make the voice meaty in the lower passages. With skill and artistry the tenor has grown into ‘the‘ leading exponent currently performing this repertoire."

Read the whole review HERE.  
 and read my review HERE (They complement each other)

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Wagner Das Liebesverbot streaming

Wagner's Das Liebesverbot streamed on Opera Today with libretto). Not Sawallisch, but Heger, Vienna, 1962.

Angelo: Ernst Salzer; Antonio: Willy Friedrich; Brighella: Ludwig Welter; Claudio: Anton Dermota; Danieli: Franz Handlos; Dorella: Hanny Steffek; Friedrich: Heinz Imdahl; Isabella: Hilde Zadek; Lucio: Kurt Equiluz; Marianna: Christiane Sorell; Pontio Pilato: Herbert Prikopa. Orchester des ORF Wien. Chor des ORF Wien. Director: Robert Heger. Live performance, Vienna, 1962.

Monday 21 October 2013

Oxford Lieder James Bowman Britten Remembered

Always something challenging at the Oxford Lieder Festival! James Bowman  appeared at the Holywell Music Room with Andrew West. It was a special experience, far more than an ordinary recital. Bowman was the greatest countertenor of his generation and has been semi-retired for some time, but he's an Oxford man born and bred. The city really should honour one of its finest sons.

More than any modern composer, Benjamin Britten revived the countertenor voice, writing new material that made the most of its unique potential. Bowman was still a student when he met Britten in 1967, so his presence as part of Oxford Lieder's Britten Remembered weekend was an opportunity to hear his personal memories. Bowman was singing with Pears and Britten decided to conduct. Mischief! But Britten was most amused. "When Ben smiled", said Bowman, "The sun came out".

So Bowman sang Britten's arrangement of Purcell's Sweeter than roses and two songs from A Charm of Lullabies (A Cradle Song and The Nurse's Song). Another Oxford Lieder exclusive! Bowman got special permission from the Britten Pears Foundation to transcribe the Earl of Essex's second Lute Song from Gloriana. The Earl of Essex has no taste in music but he wants to suck up to the Queen, who is, as Bowman said gravely, "not amused". So what does Essex sing? even more doggerel. Bowman's countertenor brought out the wicked satire in the song to delicious effect.

Bowman crowned his recital with "I Know a Bank" from A Midsummer's Night's Dream because Oberon was one of his signature Britten roles, along with The Voice of Apollo.  But more rarities. Bowman sang Night from This Way to the Tomb,  a "Masque and Anti-Masque" by Ronald Duncan, who wrote the libretto for The Rape of Lucretia first performed the following year. Note the irreverent title.

During Britten's final illness, he and Bowman were looking out of the window at Snape onto the reedbeds, with the tower of Iken Church in the distance, "I'd like to be buried there" said Britten quietly. "What, not in Westminster Abbey"? joked Bowman. "I don't want to be buried anywhere near Hubert Parry", Britten snorted.

As Bowman said, Britten couldn't abide most British composers, and had an ambivalent attitude to Vaughan Williams, but admired Peter Warlock. The two men could hardly have been more different. "Warlock was a practising Druid and Britten was a teetotal....whatever" What they had in common was a feel for strangeness. Staunch Catholic Hillaire Belloc might have had Sussex (vaguely) in mind when he wrote My Own Country but Warlock's setting evokes mystery. Bowman's singing touched me greatly. I watched how he carefully moderated the tricky bits and created emotion through his phrasing and expressions.  At the age of nearly 72, his voice isn't what it was but his experience remians intact. That is the mark of a true artist.

"I met Ralph Vaughan Williams when I was a chorister", Bowman told us. "We were taken to see this huge pile of Harris tweed with a mop of white hair on top. It moved, and I shook his hand". Exactly how a small boy would perceive a grand eminence. Bowman sang RVW's The Call and From far, from eve and morning and then returned to Britten. He sang If thou wilt ease thine heart, a setting, of a poem by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  Britten rarely set early 19th century English poets but Beddoes was an outsider who ended up a suicide. Tenors have recorded it : countertenors like Bowman bring out its surreal side. To ease us into the night, Bowman sang more Britten folksong settings, The Trees they grow so high and Down by the Salley Gardens

Oxford Lieder, with its focus on the art of performance, showcases young singers and pianists  every year with "Fifteen minutes of fame". This year, tenor Nick Pritchard and pianist Ian Tindale. They sang three Britten Soutar songs and two folksongs including I wonder as I wander, whose corny humour must have appealed to  Britten's boylike sense of humour. Pritchard and Tindale also did Um Mitternacht, one of Britten's few Goethe settings, which showed their fluency in German, but were even more impressive in Salley in our Alley, which gave Pritchard a chance to exercise his comic gifts.

Lots more coming up this week at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Sunday 20 October 2013

Pretty but dead - The Rape of Lucretia Glyndebourne Touring

Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia is uncompromisingly difficult. Once penetrated, it reveals its true beauty. Like Lucretia herself. Fiona Shaw's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera is a postcard. No doubt this production will be widely popular but Britten it is not. It will , however, appeal to those who prefer their opera pretty and undemanding. But let's not forget, Lucretia is lusted after because she is beautiful.  Like this production, she ends up dead.

It is a measure of John Christie's visionary foresight that The Rape of Lucretia  premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, so hearing it at the modern house at Glyndebourne made me think of the background and initial reception. Britten was a radical choice. The Rape of Lucretia was state-of-the art new music at the time,  a radical departure from conventional opera mores. Christie had courage. Nearly seventy years later, The Rape of Lucretia is appreciated because it is contradictory in the typical Britten mode, throwing out clues that defy easy answers, deliberately discomforting simple interpretation. The real protagonists, in many ways, are the Male and Female Choruses. They contemplate the moral, philosophical and political aspects of this opera. Ignore that fundamental distancing and lose its meaning. The much misunderstood "Christian" framing device doesn't work if it's taken literally. It's Britten's oblique way of occluding meaning. Even the text is calculated to throw us off balance, rhymes falling off-centre (fail = all, not fail =fall) for example. Singers have to be alert.

The Rape of Lucretia is not a narrative. It's not ordinary theatre, unless one wants to emasculate Britten and what he stood for.The set designed by  Michael Levine suggestsd an archealogical site, That's good, because the Male and Female choruses are looking back on a distant past where values were fundamentally different to their own. It also reflects the idea of Tarquinius wandering through the maze-like interior of Collatinus's mansion. It's perfectly plausible that Tarquinius's real erotic fascination is with Collatinus, like himself an Alpha male. The opera begins with male bonding and rivalry, a metaphor for politcal dominance. Tarquinius has screwed the Romans, so it follows that he should do the same to Collatinus''s inner sanctum. The set is covered with "mud" rather like Barry Kosky's ENO Castor and Pollux (see more here) but there it served a meaningful purpose. Fiona Shaw's Rape of Lucretia looks nice but sits on the surface. No digging, no depth.  Like Deborah Warner's Eugene Onegin (more here), there's no point in applauding scenery. But perhaps the "public", whoever they are, prefer their opera shallow.
What saves this production is the cast. Allan Clayton sang the Male Chorus with great intelligence. His diction is precise and clear, so those who were paying attention could revel in his committed, dignified delivery. Kate Valentine sang the Female Chorus. She's not remotely as forceful as Sarah Connolly was in the 2001 ENO Rape of Lucretia,  but such intensity would have been wasted on this determindedly straightforward production. In 2001, Christopher Maltman almost stole the show with his gym-toned physique. Duncan Rock, the sexiest man in the business, is an equally stunning Tarquinius, instinctively pacing the stage like a panther. Rock can do animal energy in real life: in the theatre, he's a natural asset. David Soar was an exceptionally strong Collatinus, so good that he elevates the role was above the limited part it plays in the libretto. Soar and Rock are outstanding: one could build a very astute interpretation around them.

Lucretia herself is a complex figure and her rape is not, by any means, merely a physical act. Even her husband is quick to forgive, despite the political and status implications. It's perfectly reasonable to read The Rape of Lucretia as a depiction of male/female relationships and ignore the wider meanings. It's true that the text refers to her lips (use your imagination) but I'm not comfortable with the idea of Lucretia as an object to be gazed upon. Like Collatinus's favourite flower, the orchid, Lucretia is tougher than she looks. Indeed, it's arguable that she's even a woman, given Britten's predilection for curiously male females. Angelika Kirchschlager's Lucretia (Aldeburgh 2011, Oliver Knussen) was astonishingly powerful because she wasn't passive. Claudia Huckle's Lucretia was nicely sung but devoid of directoral insight. Do we end up gazing lubriciously like Tarquinius, or do we think for ourselves, like the Male and Female Choruses?  This production should be a box office hit, sadly because Britain isn't yet ready for Britten.

Friday 18 October 2013

Verdi Les vêpres siciliennes Royal Opera House

Kaspar Holten promised that Verdi Les vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera House would be a spectacle, and he was right. The sheer presence of singers like Bryan Hymel, Michael Volle, Erwin Schrott and Lianna Haroutounian guaranteed its success, and Antonio Pappano's impassioned conducting made it orchestrally thrilling. Indeed, I suspect the singing will get even better as the run continues. Musical excellence is a given with this cast, conductor and orchestra. The big news was Stefan Herheim's ROH debut. 

Like the recent Salzburg Don Carlos (reviewed here) as opposed to Don Carlo, Les vêpres siciliennes, as opposed to I Vespri Siciliani, is bringing greater respect for Verdi's French language operas. Les vêpres siciliennes isn't a rarity. It's been staged several times in Europe in recent years (including Christof Loy in Amsterdam) and was heard in London in 1968 at the Camden Festival. These operas change casual assumptions about opera history. Verdi is enhanced, as an international figure and as a composer for orchestra.  Les vêpres siciliennesis a long, unwieldy creature as was the style of the era. Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable confused London critics whose knowledge of period probably isn't vast. The challenge, for the Royal Opera House, is to present antique repertoire in a way that modern audiences can relate to. I was privileged, last night, to sit beside a lady who had never been to an opera before. Les vêpres siciliennes is a daring choice for a first opera, but this lady was thrilled! Which goes to prove that audiences should listen with open minds and open hearts.

Stefan Herheim's Les vêpres siciliennes may not be as astoundingly brilliant as his Salzburg Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (see review here), but Verdi isn't Wagner and this isn't, perhaps, Verdi at his best. But Herheim develops the innate ideas in the drama. The set, designed by Philipp Fürhofer, reminds us that we are watching an opera, most certainly not a historical document. It was frightening how some London critics were unable to cope with La donna del Lago  (more here) as Rossini's vision of Scotland as opposed to the reality of Scotland's past.  Until audiences in our time drop the silly notion of setting specificity - which didn't exist until very recently - we need sets like this to remind us that opera is art, not history. Theatre-within-theatre sets might be a cliché is inept hands, like Robert Lepage's taxidermy Adès Tempest (reviewed here) but Herheim has always been interested in the process of creative development, and we need to focus on Verdi or miss the point of this version of the opera in French.

The Overture unfolds to a scena where soldiers attack ballerinas. It's absolutely in keeping with the brutality of military occupation, and validated later in the libretto. It also connects to the use of ballet in French opera, and perhaps to the way artists are screwed by those who want mindless entertainment, not art. The auditorium lights up and we see the punters in the boxes in the stage theatre laughing. At the very end, when peace seems possible, good people are massacred. So much for "patriotism" and easy answers. It's not easy to stage a massacre in the limited time the music provides, so throwing light back onto the ROH auditorium throws responsibility onto the audience. Like Verdi, we too have to be creative and enact the horror in our minds. The story doesn't end when the music stops.

Herheim shows how dance is integral to the opera. Dancers don't just appear for the beautiful Four Seasons ballet (as was planned) but are incorporated as silent figures at many points in the drama, again  reinforcing the idea of art as opposed to reality. In the final act the ballet has more dramatic purpose than many expect. The celebrations are delightful but the charm is artificial, just as the plot at this stage is hopelessly fanciful. The music and the dancers are pretty but the opera will end with blood. hence the constant tension in the undercurrents in the music. Appearances are illusion. Henri (brilliantly sung by Bryan Hymel) turns out to be the long lost son of Guy de Montfort (equally brilliantly sung by Michael Volle).On these sudden changes, the opera pivots, much like the movement of a ballerina.  The vast choruses sway: who are the patriots, who are the persecutors? Procida (Erwin Shrott) is initially a sympathetic character, whose "O Palermo!" rouses us to his cause. But he's more interested in killing than compromise. At the wedding ball he appears in disguise, dressed as a ballerina in black tutu, with red sequins that suggest blood. It's in keeping with the text and also reinforces the theme of dance as metaphor. Even the distorting mirror walls in the set reflect the distorted images in the drama.

Herheim productions are so detailed, and so thoughtful, that images repay careful consideration. The skull masks the chorus wear, for example, hide their faces but also remind us that, even in the midst of a party, Death awaits. When the invaders attack women, a small boy stands up to them, waving a toy sword. Later he becomes a Cupid. Artists often have signatures. This child figure is typical Herheim, suggesting purity amid conflict, and the ultimate validity of idealism.  Bear this image in mind, carefully, because this production generated nasty speculation from those desperate to disparage Herheim and Holten. Even the change of choreographer was construed as anti-Herheim, even though the background to the dispute was much more complex and not related solely to the production. This Les vêpres siciliennes fully vindicates itself. Go, listen,. learn and enjoy.

Jim Sohre  has reviewed this in Opera Today
photos : copyright Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House

Thursday 17 October 2013

Oxford Lieder Festival "Frozen Landscapes" and Benjamin Britten

Alas, I've had to misss so much of this year's Oxford Lieder Festival but next week's recitals are so good that they will be worth the wait. Friday's concerts revolve on the theme "Frozen Landscapes and Winter Journeys"  There's a special excursion at the Pitt Rivers Myuseum, perhaps the quirkiest museum in the country, with shrunken heads, "native" artifacts, Inuit tools and models of ships. Currently there's a special exhibition about the Andrée expedition. In 1897, Swedish explorer Solomon Andrée tried to fly to the North Pole in a balloon. Thirty years later, his photographs and diaries were discovered in the remains of his final camp in the frozen wastes. Like Amundsen and Scott in the Antarctic, it's a story of courage against the adversities of nature. Absolutely the stuff of Lieder!

Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch are doing Ralph Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel in a rush-hour concert (5.45) followed by Winterreise - of course - with Robert Murray. This will be Winterreise with a difference - there'll be readings from the diaries of Scott of the Antarctic and a pre-concert talk by Peter Clarkson of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

In the late night concert, Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch return for Dominick Argento's settings of words from Andrée's diaries. Above, one of the "lost" photos showing a photo of the site where Andrée's balloon crashed. It's amazing that the photos and diaries survived.

The second Oxford Lieder Festival weekend is themed around Benjamin Britten. James Bowman will be giving  a masterclass on Saturday afternoon, and is singing the keynote concert on Sunday 20th.  Britten was one of the first modern composers to appreciate the counter tenor voice. This is an aspect of Britten's work that';s rarely given the recognition it deserve : Bowman is in an ideal position since he knew Britten and sang the first Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice. This will be unique, from a historic and scholarly point of view. Lots more very unusual Britten this weekend, including Britten's work for two pianos, the Colin McPhee arrangements of Balinese gamelan. There'll also be a mid-week screening of Tony Palmer's Nocturne,  a new film on Benjamin Britten (reviewed here).

Wolfgang Holzmair has been a patron of Oxford Lieder for many years. He's much loved and appreciated in return. Holzmair is unusually erudite, even for a Lieder specialist. As a young man he said he could never sing Lieder with a non-native-speaking pianist. Then he met Imogen Cooper, and a legendary team was born. Cooper's Schubert is exceptional: she understands the spirit and the words as if by instinct. Moreover, they're doing Schubert's Mayrhofer settings, some of which are so beautiful that they make Mayrhofer sound (almost) as wonderful as Goethe.

Toby Spence, Kate Royal and Christoph Prégardien are giving important recitals. I'll be at Prégardien, for sure! But fundamental to the Oxford Lieder ethos is the idea of practical perfomance. Singing is an interactive experience.. Hence the numerous masterclasses and opportunities to sing and develop. Oxford Lieder has helped launch many careers, and enhanced appreciation of the art of song.  Fifteen years ago, Lieder had a relatively low profile in this country, except for top level, high profile events in the Wigmore Hall. Oxford Lieder changed things, dramatically. Young British and European singers and pianists now have greater opportunities to learn and to share. Audiences, too, have grown to cherish Lieder and art song as a genre with unique delights and values. I am honoured and privileged to have supported Oxford Lieder almost from the start.

For more information see the Oxford Lieder site

Irvine Arditti 60th birthday Wigmore Hall

Irvine Arditti celebrated his 60th birthday at the Wigmore Hall. Contemporary music would be nowhere without Arditti and his Quartet (past and present). For nearly 40 years, he's helped shape new music. He can play at such a technically challenging level that works can be created that might otherwise exist only in a composer's dreams.  In turn, he inspires new work written specially for him. Indeed, the Arditti Quartet can be credited with creating modern string quartet repertoire. But he's modest. For his big birthday, he's chosen pieces he's played many times, and enjoys: just right for a celebration among friends. Perhaps that's his secret: he loves what he plays and communicates his enthusiasm to those who listen

Arditti began with Brian Ferneyhough, with whom he has been so closely identified for decades. Not one of the astonishingly inventive Ferneyhough string quartets but one of the composer's early pieces, Intermedio alla ciaconna for solo violin.(1986). Ferneyhough is one of those rare composers who can talk music in his own inimitable way. "Intermedio", says Ferneyhough, "is based exclusively on a series of eight chords, capable of static (symmetrical)  or mobile (asymetrical) modes of extension"   What I heard was Arditti playing impossibly long unbroken lines which seemed to glitter with myriad, frantic detail. "Fictional polyphony" adds Ferneyhough, a way of using a solo instrument to suggest "secondary parametric levels of organization".

No-one really competes with Ferneyhough, so Robert H P Platz's strings (Echo VII, 2008)  seemed sedate in comparison. Hearing members of a quartet playing in different parts of a performance space is nothing new but livened up proceedings. Hilda Paredes's Cuerdas del destino (2007-8) was lively: lots of ideas jostling for attention. Perfect for the occasion.

Altogether more demanding - and more satisfying - was Francisco Guerrero Marin's Zayin I and II for string trio 1983 and 1989) part of a cycle of seven movements. Like Ferneyhough, Guerrero Marin was fascinated by complex organic forms. Zayin I exploded with vibrant energy. Sounds shattered and multiplied. Crack! Crack! sang the instruments, a lot of wood and playing close to the neck of instruments. The score must be black and crackling with densely written notation.  So many sounds in the smallest possible time. Very earthy: I visualized ferns springing out of the soil, in slow motion then speeded up, their fronds unfurling in myriad replicas of their basic structure. Ferns or fractals? Ferns seem fragile but their fronds unfold with powerful energy. there were ferns before man entered the world... Zayin II felt more unified, the instruments buzzing like a hive of bees, contained within the restraint of an enclosed structure, itself a creation of endless repeated smaller cells. When I'm tired, my mind translates sounds into colours. Zayin I and II were almost sensory overload. But how I enjoyed it! When I got home, I ordered the CD.

And then, John Cage, Eight Whiskus for solo violin (1985) Perhaps Whiskus is another adventure linked to numerology and patterns, like Zayin and so much of Ferneyhough, but I loved its quirky wit. Tiny, elusive epigrams which sound oddly like a folk tune plucked on a banjo by a fiendishly virtuosic banjo-player. If the composer had jumped on stage it would have been so typical of his sense of humour.

Akira Nishimura and Irvine Arditti are old friends. Like so many pieces before and to come, Nishimura's String Quartet no 5 Shesha  (2013) was written specifically for Arditti. "Shesha" is a snake, and both composers were born in the Year of the Snake. The piece is a  "celebratory small ring carved of sound in the shape of a snake" said the composer. For me it worked in purely abstract terms, leaping and slithering rapidly: long, slippery legato that tests and taunts Arditti's characteristic technique, playing to his strengths.  Who thinks new music can't be fun ?

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Britten War Requiem Pappano Bostridge Hampson Netrebko

The new EMI  recording of Britten's War Requiem with Antonio Pappano, Ian Bostridge, Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko could re-shape the way the piece is heard. That's not necessarily a bad thing as we get into lazy habits if we expect to hear the same thing done the same way all the time. All too often, performance practice smothers music under a fire blanket of false familiarity. Instead of listening to the music, we end up listening to what we think the music "ought" to be, which is not at all the same thing.

Britten's War Requiem is specially prone to that kind of non-listening. It's dangerous. With so many performances of the piece coming up, it's high time to ditch the baggage that's accrued to the piece and listen to it on its own terms.  What IS the War Requiem ? Everyone knows it was written to mark the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, but what does it really mean?

First piece of baggage to ditch: it's not part of the British choral tradition, unless we assume all choral music is "British" and traditional. Britten uses the Requiem Mass format, just ass hundreds of composers have done before and since. But is he using it in a traditional, religious way? Yes, in the sense that the piece concludes with virtues Christianity espouses, in theory. The Mass gives the piece structure but it's a starting point, not an end in itself. Far more original is the way Britten creates the piece as a paean to Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen came from a family who had aspirations far greater than their actual income. He couldn't afford public school or university so his route to education was to enter the church. It wasn't a vocation. He suffered what seems like a massive breakdown and went to France - before the war. Joining the army came later. Not at all a steady career progression. Owern was middle class, "new" Britain, gay and an outsider, who made his own way. A lot like Britten himself. So approaching the War Requiem as music, and through Owen, suggests very different interpretations from than conventional performance practice - a "tradition" of only 50 years.

Antonio Pappano's Britten War Requiem is electrifying. He approaches the piece as drama, ditching the baggage of piety. Pappano understands the violent climaxes and sudden, shattering cut-offs into silence. This is "modern" music, just as Coventry Cathedral was rebuilt as modern architecture. Angularity, strength, unsettling discordance - much closer to meaning. Ditch Abraham's willingness to sacrifice, and Isaac's meek subservience. If people break the cycle of blind obedience, they can stand up to society's dependence on war as a means of resolving conflict. Pappano conducts the Choir and Orchestra of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, who aren't subservient to British and Brittenish baggage. This orchestral playing and choral singing is exceptionally intense, so the piece re-emerges vividly and violently anew. I'm reeling from the impact. I don't know where this was recorded, but it puts paid to the myth that the War Requiem "needs"church acoustics. Packaging doesn't make a piece work. Performance (and intelligent listening) does.

Soloists are Ian Bostridge, Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko. Bostridge is the ne plus ultra of Britten performance. His voice evokes the elusive qualities that make Britten so unique - qualities so disturbing that society in his time might not have been able to cope with. Britten's a hard nut to crack because he's oblique, evading easy scrutiny, even perhaps to himself. Now perhaps times have changed and we can begin to grasp his true originality. Bostridge's Agnus Dei suggests a terrifying image, glowing with surreal, apocalyptic light.

Hampson's anti-war credentials run very deeply indeed, and here he sings with sincere commitment, striking even in a career full of intense, passionate performances. He's too honest to attempt to sound German though he probably could since he sometimes slips into the accent when he's not singing, since he speaks German all the time. For Wilfred Owen, "war" meant the Somme. First World War propaganda was crudely racist. By connecting to The Boche as human beings rather than as barbarians, Owen was making a powerful statement. What Coventry suffered was minimal compared with what was happening elsewhere, but it was symbolic. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's presence at the premiere was essential. This is a performance practice worth respecting because it embeds meaning on a very deep level. On the other hand, it's not easy to sing, so if top German soloists like DFD or Goerne aren't available, it's better to use a good non-German, and Hampson is as German as any native English speaker could be.

Anna Netrebko, a Britten specialist?  I wouldn't expect her to sing The Governess or Les Illuminations but here's she's excellent. Britten's championship of Shostakovich and Rostopovich gave them an international profile that protected them from the full force of Soviet repression. A Russian soloist is also valid performance practice, though the text is in Latin. The soloists doesn't have to sound "Russian" whatever that might be, as long as she can create the part musically. It functions at the pinnacle of the choir, surrounded by other voices, much in the way the Archangel St Michael stands out from other angels. St Michael is a warrior who, in the Book of Revelation, defeats Satan and heralds the End of Time when the dead shall be raised. He's also one of the few angels in the Old Testament. The part brings Russia and the Holocaust into the War Requiem, otherwise so much a memorial to the Western Front. Netrebko sings with fiery, operatic intensity, absolutely in keeping with what the part may mean.  One reason why the War Requiem is often misunderstood is because listeners are more attuned to conventional big displays rather than to the real narrative of the piece which pivots around the quirky, surreal settings of Owen's poems and on the two male protagonists. The female soloist and the choir(s) serve as illuminating backdrop. The female soloists shouldn't dominate, but Netrebko' projects such strong personality that she makes you want to cheer.

More on Britten here than on any non dedicated site

Chéreau Strauss Elektra Aix Festival

In pursuit of times past........I've been desperate to track down Patrice Chéreau Strauss Elektra for months, since it premiered at Aix-en-Provence in July. Now he's dead, it's even more precious. From what's been written about it, it sounds fascinating. But every time I've tried to watch, I get the message "Une erreur s'est produite.  Vous n'avez pas le droite de visualization". That's fair enough because they don't want to jeopardize future sales, on DVD or live. Perhaps they're even planning to film again later. In any case the production's travelling to Paris and places beyond.

Which raises the next question. What countries are these available in? For some years, my friends have been comparing notes to see what the pattern in, because the results are very consistent. So please click on this link and let me know what countries get blocked. (private email and comments welcome too)

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Crazier than Jason, Cavalli Elena

Franscesco Cavalli's Jason (Giasone 1649) is making the circuit with the English Touring Opera this season. Cavalli is hardly unknown : The Royal Opera House did his La Calisto (1651) as recently as  2008 and William Christie did La Didone (1641) at the Champs Elysées in 2012. Cavalli used the conventions of Classical Antiquity but reinvented them with audacious exuberance, in keeping with the sophistication of his era. Baroque tastes were irrepressible, not at all "Victorian values". erhaps now we're ready for Cavalli again.

Cavalli's Elena (Il rapimento d'Helena, the Abduction of Helena 1659) was performed this July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Exceptionally wonderful performance : watch it while it's still available on There are  13 principal parts, many en travesti, some appearing in dual roles, but don't get bogged down in the convoluted plot. Enjoy the sheer earthy energy of the music.Belly laughs are built into this score, inventive flourishes underpinned by gutsy orchestration. Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterannea prove that period instruments can pack a powerful punch.

A spectacular prologue sets the mood. Three graces in costumes referring to the baroque's fascination with the exotic surround Iro, the jester. Outstanding performance by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whose range is so high he can sing countertenor with ease, dropping his voice to the gutsiest depths to emphasize the more salacious aspects of the part. But watch his acting - part ingenue, part knowing roué. He's  unique. I'll be following his career. When Neptune (Scott Conner) appears, Iro and the graces become "waves", in his wake : beautifully languid lines to sing and play. Neptune reminds us that, disguised as a swan, the God raped Elena's mother. The maiden who will eventually become Helen of troy has lust and deception in her genes. It's no surprise then that Menelao Valer Barna-Sabadus dresses as a girl, he's so convincing that men want to seduce him. He's a wonderful singer. When he and  Emöke Barath (Elena) duet, the interplay between their voices is utterly exquisite  There's frisson of innuendo, but the vocal qualities are so pure that you focus on the beauty of the music.

All round excellence in the singing, shoiwing what a good ear Cavalli had for blending different types of voices in similar fachs. Fernando Guimaeres's Teseo was rich and dark, and Solenn Lavanant Linke's Ippolye/.Pallade was womanly, but demented. This meeting between Theseus and Hippolyte is deliciously mad, though the voices balance perfectly.  There are several mezzo trouser roles, some also in duet, which display the range to great effect. Big guys have fun too. Brendan Touhy  sings Diomede and Creonte, he gets to cross dress and prance semi naked but its the poise of his singing you remember - a real character tenor a rarer type than you'd expect, who can act with a voice steady throughout the range. Elena and Menelao in dresses, Teseo and Ippolyte in pants, declare their love, watched by Castor and Pollux, sing a beautiful quartet, garlanded by sweet toned woodwinds. But do they live happily ever after ? Elena (Helen) ends up in Troy, but that's another story.

This Cavalli Elena is a delight, especially for those who enjoy what high, clear voices can express. These singers are so confident that they can play around with technique when it enhances humour. Utterly brilliant.  Don't miss the battle scene (around the 2 hour mark), which is hilarious ! As the Financial Times critic said, Cavalli's Elena was the "Some Like in Hot" of its time.

Handy link : Royal Opera House HD screenings schedule

Here's a handy link to the Royal Opera House HD screenings, live and recorded. Tomorrow, Don Quixote and on 4th November, Verdi Les Vêpres siciliennes which premieres Thursday. Use the search box on the web page to find out what's on where in 1000+ cinemas all round the world.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Britten War Requiem Jurowski Bostridge Goerne LPO

Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne are an ideal partnership in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, as demonstrated at the Royal Festival Hall with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bostridge and Goerne's voices complement each other perfectly. Between them they cover the whole range in the score but, much more importantly, they access the deepest levels of meaning.

Britten's War Requiem is now played so often that it's become the very kind of warhorse Britten did not want it to become.  It's often performed in churches because it was written for Coventry Cathedral,. But few remember that the Cathedral was completely built anew, a statement of faith in modernity and the power of change. The War Requiem references the past, but celebrates new beginnings. Far too often, it's performed as a soothing act of public piety, instead of challenging complacency. How can we, who have known the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Dresden, Nanjing  and the endless wars of attrition in the Middle East, find meaning in a piece which refers to the Western Front in the First World War and the Latin Mass? By treating Britten's War Requiem as music, as opposed to reverential ritual, Jurowski and his soloists restore it to a drama of human conflict and surreal transformation.

As with his Peter Grimes (reviewed here) Jurowski's approach focuses on the intrinsic musical form, free from received performance practice. The very structure suggests fragmentation, which Jurowski wisely doesn't smooth over. An unusual chamber orchestra, with two harps, emerges from a more conventional full orchestra and choir. The brass in the Dies Irae sounded military rather than heavenly, matching the tense march rhythms in the chorus. An explosive, violent atmosphere, for war is neither romantic nor patriotic. "Bugles sang, saddening the evening air", sang Goerne, dark tones supported by horn, lit up by solo flute. The tenor/baritone passage felt like a joust - short, sharp thrusts, parried swiftly.  Brief choral respite before "Great gun towering toward Heaven" Goerne sang."May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!". No solace here. When Bostridge sang "Move him into the sun", he created an eerie atmosphere, suggesting the strange, unsteady light and stillness that can descend over battlefields when tumult subsides. Far more perceptive than pure sweetness of timbre. "Was it for this the clay grew tall"?

The "Abraham and Isaac" passage in the Offertorium was superbly surreal. One minute, we're in a battlefield and now witness Abraham in biblical times slaying  his son and "half the seed of Europe, one by one." Then suddenly, we're transferred to the Sanctus and its ringing bells, suggesting a holy point in the Mass.  The soprano, Evelina Dobraceva, substituting for Tatiana Monogarova, sang with great purity. But what sort of "Hosanna" is this?  Tiny, tense figures in the orchestra, suggesting unease. Pounding timpani. Goerne sang powerfully, but with restraint and clarity "Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified, nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried". The baritone part is traditionally taken by a German, for extra-musical reasons, but I think it also works because the singer's accent emphasizes the universal timelessness of the piece.  Latin, furthermore, is a language everyone can connect to but no-one really knows how it's pronounced, nor ever will.

From this arises the Agnus Dei. Bostridge sang with truly incandescant intensity. This is no conventional "Lamb who takest away the sins of the world"..The text is Wilfred Owen, who gave up the church. Bostridge held the high, final "Dona nobis pacem" so it seemed to float off into the ether, suggesting cosmic mysteries we can intuit but not completely comprehend.

Swirling dissonance in Libera Me, cross-currents in the choruses well articulated. "Tremens factus sum ego" sang Dobraceva, her voice rising to near-scream. The orchestra seemed to explode, cymbals crashed, and a wall of wild, waving sound engulfed the auditorium. Then Bostridge with minimal accompaniment. " guns thumped, or down the flues made moan".  Perhaps we are in some strange no-man's land, or afterlife? Bostridge's instinctive feel for the surreal reached apotheosis. "Strange friend", he sang "Here is no cause to mourn". The depth of Goerne's timbre suggested a voice rising from the grave, or from the depths of the earth. The men were surrounded by the small ensemble, so each subtle detail can be heard clearly: two violins, oboe, two harps, creating a sense of separation from the orchestra and from the world.  Owen's Strange Meeting describes enemies meeting on common ground, away from past conflicts, so it's a good reason for using German singers. (Russians and women weren't really in his remit).   "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" sang Goerne with gentleness, "I knew you in this dark". No rancour, no bitterness now, but a new dawn of reconciliation.

Please see my review of the new CD Britten War Requiem : Pappano, Bostridge, Hampson, Nebtrenko.   Orchestrally and choir wise, Pappano/Accademia Ste Cecilia Rome leaves Jurowski/LPO for dead  Bostridge and Goerne, however were outstanding because they fitted so well together and got the surreal, danegrous quality of the texts more instinctively.
Claire Seymour, author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten, reviews this concert for Opera Today.

Saturday 12 October 2013

First Shakespeare movie 1899

The first movie based on Shakepeare, 1899. Normally, we see only stills and read contemporary reports, but we don't often get a chance to see "real" acting and body movements. Herbert Beerbohm Tree was the foremost Shakepearean actor of his time and created the mould for Shakespearean staging in the first half of the 20th century. How stylized and formal this acting is!  Chances are, Shakespeare himself did things differently, but we'll never know. No movies in Shakespeare's time.

Friday 11 October 2013

BBC Future : Tony Hall unveils his vision for the BBC

BBC Director General Tony Hall unveiled his new vision earlier this week. Perhaps it didn't get quite the attention it should have thanks to the "Powerpoint Presentation" style of the speech. Full text here. You can almost see the bullet points and autocue prompts beeping across the screen......

In realspeak,  it amounts to an awareness of new forms of technology.  "More than 9 million devices accessed BBC Sport Online on transfer day. 40% of requests to the iPlayer now come from mobile devices – 40%. A couple of years ago the figure was just 6%. We had one and a half million requests for our sitcom Bad Education before the first programme had even been broadcast. What a great opportunity this is. And we’re going to embrace it just as we embraced television, just as we embraced the internet. Just as we created Freeview and the iPlayer. We are going to reinvent what we do, bit by bit, step by step, to serve this new audience."

True : The BBC embraced television very early on and innovations like i-player and international online broadcasts  What Tony Hall says is that they're going to expand i-Player to reflect the changing ways people connect to the media. No more "listening to the radio" but accessing content on other devices whenever it suits the listener/viewer. Some shows to go onto i-Player plus even before they go on regular media.  

How does this translate for the Arts, especially classical music ? "I want", says Hall, "for BBC Music to be a brand that stands proudly alongside BBC News or BBC Sport." ......"We’ll make sure that the arts don’t disappear into niche channels by bringing more landmark arts shows back to BBC One and also to BBC Two."  This IS significant because the arts are part of normal life. Thousands must have followed the BBC Proms simply because they can on TV at prime time. The downside might be that this kind of viewer might expect something populist rather than art for art's sake. But still, there was once a time when audiences accepted upmarket rather than dumbed down. It's scary that kids today, according to another recent report, are less educated than their grandparents.

Hall also announced the launch of The Space, the BBC's joint venture with the Arts Council of England. When this was first launched in July 2012, I hailed its potential. (read more here) "The potential for is umbrella for the arts of all kinds. Strength in numbers, economies of scale. I don't know if thespace is experimental or permanent but it's a good idea. It could be a treasure trove. If the French and Germans can do such things, why can't we?"

The BBC has bigger archives than any other arts institition in the world. If these were made available, it would be like unlocking the biggest gold mine the world has ever seen. A decade ago, the BBC wanted to open its back catalogue. Record companies didn't want the compeition.  With links to other bodies like the National Theatre,  the British Film Institute and so on, The Space could become the flagship of British arts. The prospects are dazzling. Tony Hall doesn't mention many specifics apart from hinting at new commissions and ventures, but in theory The Space could do for British arts what i-Player has done for the BBC.

The 2012 launch of The Space mwas an unmitigated disaster. First the name, so bland and forgettable that it showed up lower on google than a completely separate arts venue with a similar name. Serious rebranding needed, and a professional marketing strategy. The original Space was created by techno geeks with no insight into the arts whatsoever.. Items were included just because they happened to be available : no broad vision, no basic insight into what's happening in the arts world. Thetre needs to be real vision, and genuine understanding of the arts in their broadest form. A good business principle : getb the product right and the rest will follow.

Part of the reason the original Space failed was because the Arts Council England isn't a visionary organization. There's no vision in the British arts in general. That's why we have disasters like the management of the South Bank, fiddling about with short term sales targets, losing the raison d'être for its very existence. So we're stuck with the piecemeal thinking of a horrifyingly expensive rebuild, pushed through by questionable methods. Please read my Band aid or Surgery? and National Theatre slams South Bank Proposals. If the Arts Council did proper policy planning, we might not be in this situation. For once, I agree with Richard Morrison, who sugeested pulling the South Bank down and starting from scratch.

Where is real leadership - and vision - going to come from ? As continuity announcers used to say "Over to you, BBC".