Friday 28 February 2014

Glyndebourne connects with the Telegraph

Starting this summer, The Glyndebourne Festival is teaming up with the Telegraph.  The new partnership - launched in Glyndebourne's 80th anniversary year - will see The Telegraph stream three full length Glyndebourne operas online across the 2014 Festival season from May to September. Online broadcasts are more cost effective than HD cinema screenings, especially for medium sized houses like Glyndebourne. This is interesting news because it marks a move away from the Guardian, which has screened Glyndebourne online in the past. The Guardian's connections with the South Bank, Alex Ross and Dudamel may or may not have affected its coverage, but it's healthier when there's more diversity in the media.

This year's Glyndebourne Festival productions are :

Richard Strauss : Der Rosenkavalier - a new production directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Robin Ticciati  (Glyndebourne staged this opera in a different production as early as 1965)

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (revival)

Mozart - Don Giovanni (revival of the Jonathan Kent production which I loved and reviewed here)

Mozart  - La finta giardiniera  - new production with hot new director Frederick Wake-Walker who did the superb Britten parables at Aldeburgh (more here and here)

Verdi - La Traviata - new production by Tom Cairns

Handel Rinaldo - revival, which I reviewed last time round here)

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Carl Orff in Cowboy Country: Dr. Robert Olson Brings “Carmina Burana” to Longmont, Colorado

From David Woodward in Longmont, Colorado :

Carl Orff’s perennial musical spectacle Carmina Burana again manifests itself, this time in the small northern Colorado town of Longmont. This coming Saturday evening March 1st, Dr. Robert Olson will lead three Colorado soloists, lyric soprano Kara Guggenmos, tenor Dr. Todd Queen and baritone Thomas Erik Angerhofer and the Longmont Symphony Orchestra and Chorale in a concert performance of the work, on Sunday 1st March 2014.

Longmont is a diverse, well-educated community of about 90,000 folks located 40 miles north of Denver and 15 northeast of Boulder. Each of these three locales is home to a symphony orchestra, as well as many excellent instrumental and choral ensembles, among them the self-directed Sphere Ensemble and the virtuoso Ars Nova Singers from Boulder. Many of us were fortunate to hear the Wilhelm Killmayer two-piano/percussion arrangement of Carmina Burana in two wonderful Boulder Chorale performances last October.

The Longmont Symphony was founded in 1966, and Dr. Olson has been its Principal Conductor and Music Director since 1990. He is also the Director of Orchestras/Opera at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. He is known for his legendary efforts on behalf of the Colorado Mahlerfest, a Boulder event of concerts and symposia held annually since 1988 and awarded the gold medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society in 2005. His performances of the Eighth Symphony and the Joe Wheeler reconstruction of the unfinished Symphony nr. 10 alone have made him one of Mahler’s most credible American interpreters.

Selecting a companion work to the Carmina Burana for the concert evening always presents an interesting challenge. Dr. Olson has honored a patron’s request and has programmed Anton Webern’s concise 1908 masterpiece, the Passacaglia Op. 1, a work that reveals a deeper dimension of archaism: a dark contrast to Orff’s spectacle.

The present writer’s excitement and anticipation of Saturday night’s concert has a personal element, as it is my first time singing in public. In mid - December, the Longmont Chorale, a fixture in the community for nearly 80 years, sent out a call for singers from the area. I answered the call, and have been rehearsing with the Chorale since early January . The Chorale’s director’s Scott Hamlin and Ray Harrison, have provided educated and enthusiastic guidance to the Chorale members, and have expertly communicated the work’s joyous and romantic spirit. In one of the men’s sectional rehearsals a few weeks ago, Ray found a textual error in the Schott score in the carmine “Veris Leta Facies” - he spotted a “Phoebus” where there should be a “Flora” instead! We have dress rehearsals with the orchestra tomorrow and Friday night, followed by our performance this weekend. At this hour, our performance has nearly sold-out. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana Express is rapidly approaching its stop in Longmont.

 Photo of Long's Peak above Longmont in the Colorado Rockies, credit Scott Bauer

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Prince kisses Frog - Rameau Platée

As the opening credits for the classic Laurent Pelly production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Platée roll, we hear Marc Minkowski conduct Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble over a  shot of an elegant French palace. But wait! We hear the sounds of frogs croaking : the tumult almost but not quite shatters the poise of the orchestra. But that's exactly what Platée represents.(Details of Paul Agnew conducting Platée in London are here).

Rameau wrote Platée to entertain Louis XV and his court on the occasion of the Dauphin's marriage in 1745. The bride was a Spanish Infanta, but she was ugly. Platée is a frog whose realm is a pond in the wilds, the opposite of refined, elegant Versailles. But she/he has pretensions: she/he thinks everyone she meets will fall in  love with her. The part was written for a travesti, a man pretending to be a woman, which makes the satire rather cruel. As it happened, the princess died very young and the prince never became king. Yet given what we know of Rameau and the way he had to court the rich, perhaps the laughs are ultimately on the Gods and their abuse of power.

Laurent Pelly's production, (from 2002) uses a set, designed by Chantal Thomas to show the long Prologue in a theatre. Usherettes show members of the chorus to their seats but within minutes, order descends into relative chaos. the chorus members bounce up and down and swap places, "dancing" rather than staying put as they should. Study the detail in the movements, which replicate the liveliness in the music. Indeed, at times the horizontals of the set resemble manuscript paper and the chorus members notation. Rameau's music and precise dance figures come alive! Thespis, Momus and Thalie, the muses of satire, are exhausted after a night of drunken carousing, but the chorus wants a show. .

The Gods Jupiter (Vincent Le Texier) and Mercury (Yann Beuron) appear in (almost) plain clothes - more like mortals with problmes than all-powerful beings like the rulers of the House of Bourbon. Jupiter is the king of the Gods but his wife Juno is giving him strife, so he and Mercury concoct a cruel plan. Knowing that Platée is desperate for love, Jupiter pretends he wants to marry her.  But Paul Agnew's Platée the Nymph  is a creation of genius. The costume's brilliant: Agnew's masculine muscles look hilariously awkward with his pink water lily tutu. Incredibly good acting - every gesture frog-like and grotesque, yet painfully poignant. He jumps clumsily instead of dancing. Plateée is an amphibian out of his/her natural element, easy prey for the cynical Gods. Trumpets usher in formal, courtly music,  but the chorus are lit with green light,, with big google eyes: a chorus as one can hear at nightfall. A storm is brewing. Wonderful divertissements, choreographed with meticulous attention to the music. Drums roll. Jupiter descends from the heavens in a giant chandelier.  "Aquilons, trop audacieux, craignez ma colère". Don't mess with me,  you uppity water creatures! A stunning coup of theatre that would have the snobs at Versailles cackling with delight.

Rameau's music for Platée subverts the grandeur, however. "Qoui, qoui, qoui," he/she sings, "venez, venez, venez". Short squat flurries, not elegant legato. Mad cacophony from the woodwinds. Jupiter, now disguised as the "Hibou" in the text, covers his ears in disgust. Fireworks spew from Jupiter's hands, and La Folie appears, a vision of sparkling white, a glorious contrast to the grubbiness around her. Mireille Delunsch looks divine; madness purer and clearer than godliness. Her dress, significantly, is made from scraps of musical manuscript. at one stage she pulls bits off to "sing" them. This is a masterful stroke of theatre, extravagant in the audacious Baroque style, yet also pertinent to meaning. More wonderfully choreographed passages of male ballerinas en deshabillé. Delunsch walks towards the orchestra and "conducts" before launching into an extended display of maddeningly florid trills and rapid fire decoration. "L'amour est cruel quand il est outragé!". Her music then becomes plaintive "funebres,  underpinned by a menacing drone from the orchestra. A mournful dance for a wedding ? "Je veux finir par un coup de génie, ...Je sens que je puis parvenir au chef-d'oeuvre de la harmonie". Sure enough, harps are plucked solemnly and the nuptial ensemble join in harmony, starting with "Hymen, Hymen" and descending into a more ironic "Bon, bon, bon".

The Third Act begins when a figure with a colourful,  realistic frog head appears in a box above the stage, giving Minkowski the cue to start conducting. The frog enters the pitch and snatches the baton with a flourish at the exact moment the overture ends. The frog has been glimpsed before, observing proceedings. Now it's becoming part of the action. More dancing, as was de rigueur in celebrations like this, but the guests have been partaking of Bacchus, and their inhibitions relax. Cupid pops by, and the Three graces, all in underwear, as Platée begins to twig that perhaps love isn't all it's cracked up to be. When he/she spots The Frog among the guests, she greets him with a warm embrace. He hands her a bouquet of wild water lilies. Just as the wedding is about to take place, Juno (Doris Lamprecht) storms in to stop proceedings. The wedding guests drag Platée mercilessly on the ground. "Chantons, Platée, égayons nous". But Platée isn't fooled any more. Vivid exchange where she/he argues with Clitheron (Laurent Naouri) the satyr who set her up right at the beginning "Moi, Qui? Moi" "Toi, Oui, Toi" Then Platée sings, rather than imitates a croak, and jumps back into his/her pond.

Medici tv is screening this Platée from the Palais Garnier 2002, as part of its year-long tribute to Rameau. It is a timely reminder that the Baroque era embraced adventure, and French baroque in particular was fun and energetic. Rameau himself was an innovator and also something of a misfit in the upper echelons of the aristocracy.  So enjoy this Platée and the wonderful performances within, and appreciate its verve and intelligence. Pelly is a master of French style and works with the best in the field. Someone said of his Meyerbeer Robert le Diable that he "didn't take the opera seriously enough". On the contrary. He understands the genre fine: It's those who don't who should be taking him more seriously.

Monday 24 February 2014

Alice Sommer Herz "Everything is a present"

From Alice Sommer Herz's Facebook page:

"On behalf of Alice’s family, we thank everyone for all the words of affection and admiration rightly attributed to her. She passed away peacefully surrounded by her family.
Much is being written and broadcast, but not from many who truly knew Alice. The only fitting tribute to her is the film she loved the most, “Everything Is A Present”. Christopher Nupen was the one film maker who actually knew her well and who shared the same passion and understanding for music as she did. Most importantly, it was the only film she asked to watch again and again until her last days. So it is only appropriate we share with everyone what she loved most."

Alice Sommer's family

Alice is gone, but I will gift her "present" to some I care for, so the good she represented can live on. HERE is a link to "Everything is a present".   


Sunday 23 February 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer, 110, has died

Alice Herz-Sommer, aged 110, died in hospital this morning. She was the world's oldest Holocaust survivor, the world's oldest pianist and many other things. Her life is remarkable in many ways but for me, especially because of her dynamic approach to life.  Born in Prague in 1903, she was a professional musician. When the Nazis came, she was shipped to Terezin (Theresienstadt) where she played in the notorious camp orchestra. Even then, she was unusual because she had a young son to live for. He made her laugh when he sang songs from Brundibar. To laugh, in a concentration camp?  But that sums up Alice's personality.  When she was "just" 97, she told Christopher Nupen in his film "We Want the Light" that her twin sister was a pessimist and  that "tension" shortened her life. "Nature and music, that is my religion" she says, her face lighting up radiantly. "I am grateful to my mother who wanted us to learn, to know, to be thankful for everything ..... seeing the sun, seeing a smile, hearing a nice word. Everything is a present to be thankful for".

"Life is a gift", she often said. "Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not that of the hated"   Alice is an inspiration, positive therapy in human form. She's had a tough life, but hasn't become bitter. "Music is God", she has said, "in difficult times you feel it most". Think of the famous quandary, is a glass half full or half empty? But the glass is always full. The other half is air, without which we cannot live. Drink it gratefully!  Some people, alas, get their kicks out of being miserable and inflicting it on everyone else. Not Alice!

It's not how long you live, some have said, but how well you have lived. Not in material terms, but in terms of what you've learned and given back to others. In that sense Alice will be immortal.
Once I met Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and told her how she inspired me."But I didn't do anything, I just survived", she said, which is an understatement, but utterly sincere. People take responsibility for themselves. Another camp inmate (also with a young son) told me about grass shoots emerging from the ground after a hard winter."We ate them" she said, totally matter-of-fact.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Paul Bunyan ETO LInbury - the most penetrating review.

HERE is a link to Claire Seymour's review of the ETO's Paul Bunyan at the Linbury, London. Please take the time to read it because it's exceptionally penetrating and well analysed. Claire wrote the book The Operas of Benjamin Britten, the standard reference in the field  Lots of people came new to the opera, and most of them want to find out more and sharpen their appreciation. Alas most newspaper critics didn't seem to make the effort.

"Bunyan’s final words to the emergent nation weresomewhat lost, as the party-goers began clearing up the debris of thecelebration. Perhaps Steel was making a subtle point: Bunyan says, ‘Americais what you do/ America is I and you, /America is what you choose to makeit’, but these Americans did not listen and fail to recognise theirresponsibilities, individual and collective. In the closing moments, Steelattempted to add some political depth to the production. If the action hadalready suggested that the American Dream was flawed at the start, then thefuture certainly did not look good for these loggers, judging by the contentsof the wicker basket left by Bunyan for the loggers, like a prophesy to beresignedly accepted or actively resisted. Bent intently, and to the incredulityof the onlookers, Inkslinger withdrew first a pistol, then a lurid Guantanamojumpsuit, followed by an overly large Bible (presaging the influence of theChristian Right?), a shabby copy of Playboy, some fast food wrappers,a lap-top, a periwig and noose. This chain of emblems of the institutions ofstate and finance spoke powerfully. The final image of black soprano AbigailKelly, draped with a crumpled Stars and Stripes, was a poignant one.’ 

photo copyright Richard Hubert Smith

Friday 21 February 2014

Britten Paul Bunyan ETO Linbury London review

The English Touring Opera's Paul Bunyan.makes an excellent case for Britten's most misunderstood opera. When it premiered in 1941,  audiences couldn't figure it out. If anything, modern audiences are even less likely to get Paul Bunyan, accustomed as we are to gung-ho feelgood depictions of Americana, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, Aaron Copland's  Appalachian Spring, cowboy movies and TV. "From homespun culture manufactured in cities, Save us, animals and men"  HERE is a link to Claire Seymour's exceptionally penetrating review, in Opera Today. She wrote The Operas of Benjamin Britten, tye standard reference.

Paul Bunyan is a heroic myth, not reality. Fundamentally the piece isn't about Americana at all, and attempts to present it as such only damage its reputation.  Paul Bunyan needs to be understood on its own terms and in the context of Britten's creative development. Fortunately, the ETO production minimizes kitsch and maximizes meaning.  A professional cast is used, lifting standards way above well-meaning amateur earnestness. Conducted by Philip Sunderland, the score is revealed in all its gawky glory but without mawkish easy laughs. Liam Steel directs, using a set designed by Anna Flieschle where the  human qualities of the opera come into greater focus. The "Trees" in the Prologue were shown as simple planks of wood. The Blues Singers aren't camped up, nor are the hard-working labourers in the camp trivialized by being dressed up to look like animals.

Sunderland also doesn't indulge in cute for its own sake. Here, we could hear snatches from Peter Grimes in embryo, such as the slithering snake-like bassoons, and the way lines stretch along the range of voices in the chorus.  The all-important "wood dove"theme was played with suitable menace. Just as Siegfried is led into the forest by a wood dove, we  in the audience are being beguiled, led into a forest of dreams. Britten employed this Siegfried/ Wood Dove imagery in his The Sword and the Stone (1939), written for children. (read more here)  In Paul Bunyan, he resurrects it for grown-ups, with even more punch.
This being a "numbers musical" with a big cast, the kind of character development we might expect in normal opera doesn't really happen. But there is enough innate pathos of roles like Hel Helson and Johnny Inkslinger to give the opera depth. Superlative singing and acting from Wyn Pencarreg and Mark Wilde respectively, expanding the parts with utterly convincing dignity. We feel Henson's pain as he's taunted by nightmares mocking him for being less than a Nordic Hero. Henson doesn't articulate, but Pencarreg can express much more than is in the text. Helson is a counterpart to Paul Bunyan (Damien Lewis) both of them men from a different, more primeval era. Tiny (Caryl Hughes),  Hot Biscuit Slim (Ashley Catling) will move to Manhattan and Johnny Inkslinger to Hollywood, but Paul, Babe the Blue Ox (imaginitively depicted by a man under a blue blanket), and Helson don't belong in a polluted, commercialized world.

All the numerous cameo parts and choruses were deftly sung and blocked, keeping the pace lively even in the Second Act where the inventiveness in the music starts to pall  Britten had written "popular music" such as the Cabaret Songs (to poems by Auden) so satirical pastiche came easily to him. The many numbers like the Lumberjacks Chorus, The Quartet of Swedes, the Cook's Duet and Tiny's Lament rattle off cheerily but in such profusion the second half of the operetta starts to feel forced. For all its faults, Britten learned a lot from Paul Bunyan. The Christmas Party, for example, suggests the feast in Albert Herring, a much bleaker opera than most realize (read more here). The clumsiness of some of the musical writing in Paul Bunyan is in fact artistic licence. Parts of the piece sound corny because what they depict is corniness. Perhaps Britten is demonstrating the truth in Auden's phrase "From the accidental beauty of singalongs, Save Us, animals and men".

If Paul Bunyan isn't a hymn to kitsch Americana, what is it? In the opening chorus, the singers sing that the Revolution has turned to rain. Management/staff relations in the logging camp are better organized than in many real life businesses. Britten and Auden were well aware of Brechtian  dialectics and the political music theatre of their period, and this has some effect on the stylized, almost agit prop narrative. However,  Paul  Bunyan springs from a much deeper groundswell of pain and disillusion. Britten, Pears and Auden left Europe, hoping to find a new world uncontaminated by the strife of 1930's Europe. Britten's sojourn in America was comfortable, but he picked up on the darker sides of the America Dream. In Paul Bunyan, ancient forests are felled, the wood used for houses and railway tracks. "Progress" moves further west, and with it, conformity, gentrification and hypocrisy. "From patriotism turned to persecution, Save Us, animals and men". Peter Grimes and Billy Budd describe the fate of men who fall foul of bigots and mobs. Britten, Auden and Pears were well aware how J Edgar Hoover was hunting down "subversives". McCarthy's witch hunts would have come as no surprise.  Like Peter Grimes, Paul Bunyan and Babe are too big for their boots in a world where pettiness rules.

Paul Bunyan is a stylized vision of  "a Forest, full of Innocent Beasts. There are none who blush at the memory of an Ancient Farm, None who hide beneath dyed fabrics a Malicious Art ".

"It is a Spring morning without benefit of young persons. It is a sky that has never registered weeping or rebellion.............It is America. But Not Yet. 

WANTED: Disturbers of Public Order,. men without foresight or fear 

WANTED:  Energetic Madmen, those who have Thought Themselves a body large enough to devour their dreams 

WANTED: The Lost, those Indestructibles whom Defeat can never Change. Poets of the Bottle, Clergymen of a Ridiculous Gospel, Actors who should have been Engineers, and Lawyers who should have been Sea Captains. Saints of Circumstance, Desperados, and Unsuccessful Wanderers and all who can hear The Invitation of The Earth. America, youngest of her daughters, awaits the Barbarians in marriage"

photos Copyright Richard Hubert Smith

Cast List : Conductor Philip Sunderland, Paul Bunyan Damian Lewis, Jonny Inkslinger Mark Wilde, Hel Helson Wyn Pencarreg, Tiny Caryl Hughes, Hot Biscuit Slim Ashley Catling, Sam Sharkey / Andy Anderson Stuart Haycock, Ben Benny Piotr Lempa, Fido Abigail Kelly, Moppet Amy J Payne, Poppet / Moon Emma Watkinson, Western Union Boy Matt R J Ward, John Shears / Blues Singer Adam Tunnicliffe, Cross Crosshaulson / Farmer Matthew Sprange, Blues Singer / Crony Johnny Herford, Blues Singer / Crony Henry Manning, Jen Jenson / Crony Maciek O’Shea, Pete Peterson Simon Gfeller, Goose / Wind Hannah Sawle, Goose Lorna Bridge, Goose / Heron Annabel Mountford, Blues Singer / Squirrel, Helen Johnson Beetle Susan Moore, Young Tree / Boy Emily-Jane Thomas

Thursday 20 February 2014

Broadcast Alerts Feb - March

From Andrzej ;

Wednesday - 27 February 2013   War Horse NT live Cinema
Thursday - 28 February 2013 18.30 Matthias-Passion - Berlin Phil (Gerhaher) Berlin Cinema
Saturday - 01 March 2014   Prince Igor MET Cinema
Saturday - 01 March 2014 23.20 La traviata   TV France 3   
Saturday - 08 March 2014 23.20 Acis et Galatée   TV France 3
Tuesday - 11 March 2014   Werther MET Internet Sirius radio - free
Friday  14 March 2014 19.00 Le Nozze di Figaro Genova Internet Internet
Saturday - 15 March 2014 18.30 La Bayadère  Munich Internet Internet
Saturday - 15 March 2014   Werther MET Cinema
Sunday - 16 March 2014 21.00 Keenlyside   Internet WCLV on Sunday 16 March at 4pm EST - 9pm UK 
Sunday - 16 March 2014 21.40 Elektra Aix-en-Provence TV Arte HD  

Wednesday 19 February 2014

A Goethe Palindrome Wigmore Hall Sunday 23rd

Royal Academy of Music Song Circle, Sunday 23/2 4pm Wigmore Hall
    Christina Gansch soprano 
    Rozanna Madylus mezzo-soprano
     Richard Dowling tenor 
    Ed Ballard baritone 
    Samuel Queen baritone
    Thomas Primrose piano Chad Vindin piano
The Academy Song Circle makes its annual Wigmore Hall appearance for this group of ten Goethe poems, set to music by two of the following : Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Loewe, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Good singers!

"There are many ways of structuring a Lieder recital – songs grouped according to theme, chronology or poet, for example – but the palindromic approach has the advantage of revealing how different composers have reacted to the same words, without juxtaposing the songs in such close proximity that they cancel each other out."

King Priam and Paul Bunyan ETO

The worst of Britten and the best of Tippett?  English Touring Opera presents Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan with Michael Tippett's King Priam at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House. HERE IS MY RE£VIEW OF PAUL BUNYAN. The combination is interesting on many levels. Ideally both operas should be considered in relationship with each other, though I don't really expect this to be done. But it's worth a thought because this combination doesn't often come around. ETO is most definitely to be admired for mounting this ambitious pairing.

Both operas employ large casts, but with relatively little depth of characterization, almost large oratorios more than opera in the usual sense.  Labels like "comic operetta" are meaningless in themselves unless analyzed. Paul Bunyan is whimsical but it in its own way it deals with isssues even more complex than Tippett addresses. In 1941, Britten was experimenting with a new kind of music theatre. Peter Grimes was just a few years away, but by then Britten has learned to use music to create personalities who feel authentic and involve us in their dilemmas. King Priam, written 1958/61, is shaped by the composer's need to express theoretical themes in the guise of narrative. Perhaps it's significant that Tippett's great masterpiece, Boyhood's End, grew from the connection between Tippett, Britten and Pears. The textual perambulations mesh well with Tippett's setting. It's a wonderful piece. Yet one wonders what Britten would have done with it, given that the subject would have been so dear to his heart.

Britten's Paul Bunyan is usually mounted as if it were a straightforward musical about America. But is that what it really is? Taking Britten (and Auden)  at face value,  prettified is never a good idea. Paul Bunyan is a curious beast. Sometimes it sounds like a parody of a Broadway musical, even less rugged than a prettified Hollywood western. The rhyming couplets are deliberately faux-naive. Britten is Tourist in the Redwoods.  He's not even attempting realism. America, or the idea of America symbolized by the Paul Bunyan myth, meant something different to him from the America that surrounded him when he went there in April 1939, before the outbreak of war, when Britons still believed that Chamberlain could hold Hitler at bay. Britten-haters use his sojourn in America to attack him for being unpatriotic, ignoring the fact that he returned at some danger to himself and joined the war effort in other ways than by fighting. So what was Britten searching for when he went to America?

Far from writing a hymn to Americana, in Paul Bunyan Britten engaged with the ideal of America as Arcadia, knowing full well that ideals often don't work out in reality. The "brave new world" he was hoping to find turned out to be just as crass as the Europe he'd left. Britten knew about McCarthy and the purge of Un-American intellectuals. Some years ago Donald Mitchell, the eminent Britten scholar, was doing some research under the Freedom of Information Act and came across a letter signed by J Edgar Hoover himself in 1942 condemning Peter Pears, and another from 1967 condemning Britten. In both cases, the "evidence" is heavily blacked out. "A strange footnote", writes Mitchell, "a rare insight into a disreputable feature of 20th century politics in America and nearer home".Indeed, Peter Grimes clearly deals with the persecution of individuals by a mob of repressed conformists desperate to impose their paranoia on what they don't understand.

So the clumsiness of some of the musical writing in Paul Bunyan is in fact artistic licence. Parts of the piece sound corny because what they depict is corniness. Like Peter Grimes, Paul Bunyan and Babe are too big for their boots in a world where pettiness rules. Paul Bunyan is a stylized vision of  "a Forest, full of Innocent Beasts. There are none who blush at the memory of an Ancient Farm, None who hide beneath dyed fabrics a Malicious Art ".

"It is a Spring morning without benefit of young persons. It is a sky that has never registered weeping or rebellion.............It is America. But Not Yet. 

WANTED: Disturbers of Public Order,. men without foresight or fear 

WANTED:  Energetic Madmen, those who have Thought Themselves a body large enough to devour their dreams 

WANTED: The Lost, those Indestructibles whom Defeat can never Change. Poets of the Bottle, Clergymen of a Ridiculous Gospel, Actors who should have been Engineers, and Lawyers who should have been Sea Captains. Saints of Circumstance, Desperados, and Unsuccessful Wanderers and all who can hear The Invitation of The Earth. America, youngest of her daughters, awaits the Barbarians in marriage"

The words ring out with the false theatricality of a "Wanted" poster in the Wild West. The words are framed by a woodwind melody that might evoke birdsong in a virgin forest. But note its sour tone. This is no Wood Dove. Britten's Paul Bunyan may not know fear but he's no Siegfried.

Monday 17 February 2014

ENO Rigoletto

ENO Rigoletto - I would have gone for Quinn Kelsey alone ! .Claire Seymour reviews the new ENO Rigoletto at the Coliseum HERE in Opera Today.

"Overall, a major problem was that despite the tense and visceral musical fabric drawn from the orchestra by conductor Graeme Jenkins, the dramatic momentum was weak. Too often Rigoletto was to be found asleep in the chair and the scene changes were clunky. Thus, there was a noticeable hiatus between the two scenes of Act 1: we stared at gauzy black curtain while furniture was shifted noisily shifted beyond. Moreover, too often innermost conversations were presented in a dislocated manner. For example, when Gilda and Rigoletto conversed earnestly and intimately they were placed at opposing extremes of the fore-stage, facing the audience. If they cannot connect with each other, how can we emphasise with their tragedy? "

"In Verdi’s score, after the conventional operatic ‘last breaths’, Gilda is granted a conventional ‘resurrection’: the nineteenth-century heroine’s standard final words of forgiveness and self-condemnation. Verdi’s opera must close with Rigoletto’s wild cry of grief and despair: ‘The curse is fulfilled.’ But, Alden’s Gilda rises like an angel and floats towards a glaring light, presumably to join her mother in the afterlife. Alden declares that Rigoletto is an ‘incendiary work’; but, here he unequivocally quenches the fire. The cold brightness that illuminates Gilda’s final steps ‘blinds’ us - the black veil that has separated us from the action has smothered the flame of sympathy too."

Silent Rosenkavalier bei Dr Caligari

A silent version of Der Roskenkavalier by the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In 1926, Robert Wiene made a version of Der Rosenkavalier with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself. The film was screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the opera itself had premiered fifteen years before. It wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word. 

The plot follows the novel from which Hugo von Hofmannsthal  derived the libretto, with extra scenes like the battlefield on which the Feldmarschall rides to victory and an opera bouffe in a small theatre, where the principals watch their dilemma being acted out. Obviously, the music for the opera would not fit. In any case, what would be the point in a silent movie? Instead Strauss wrote a new soundtrack, based on an orchestra of 17 parts, which mixed extracts from the opera with snippets from other works  including Arabella, Burleske, Till Eulenspeigel and  Also sprach Zarathustra. He  threw in bits of Wagner and Johann Strauss for further effect. Strauss himself conducted the blend live while the movie screened. How would today's opera snobs react?  They take themselves too seriously, methinks, because the Silent Rosenkavalier is a heady cocktail of good film and fun. It captures the savage satire while dressing it up with visuals so frothy they border on excess. This in itself is a dig at the materialistic culture that values frills, yet turns fresh young women into commodities in a cynical marriage marketplace. Swoon at the wigs and acres of lace, but this is no costume drama.

The technical film values are very high, as one would expect from the director of Dr Caligari (full download here) and Genuine the Vampire (more here). Scenes are carefully planned so they seem like tableaux in some elegant object of art, designed to distract from the grubbiness around it.  The Marschallin's boudoir suffocates in luxury: one imagines that any man kept like this would lose his masculinity. For all her wealth, the lady isn't happy. She sighs and uses exaggerated gestures and poses: Wiene is satirizing popular theatrical excess. Baron Ochs wears embroidered silks but is a boor. He somersaults, arms and legs akimbo like a broken puppet. Later, when Octavian challenges him to a duel, he collapses  though he's barely been scratched. The camera pans closeup on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.

The scenes where the Men of Property and their lawyers work out the marriage contract are brilliantly done. Backgrounds dissolve into darkness, so the rococco filigree of the costumes and wigs frame faces whose features twist in angular contortion. Outside, in the garden, gigantic gryphons five metres high tower over the party goers. In contrast, the actress who plays Sophie expresses her personality with great sensitivity. Sometimes she looks like a nine year old, too naive to take in what's happening. Her jutting chin and turned up nose indicate her petulance.The rich folk cram into a tiny theatre in the Mehlmarkt to watch a play about "the Proud Father and his humiliation", narrated in rhyming folk poetry. The Marschallin plans a masked ball. Great crowd scenes. Mystery letters direct Octavian and the Field Marshal (straight from the battle) to meet a woman in the grotto of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The last reel of the film is missing but the inconclusive ending isn't a problem. We know what's going to happen. the last frame shows the little black boy, with his plumed turban, drawing a curtain and gesturing silence.

Young Wife - new opera for solo soprano

OperaUpClose opens the 2014 season with a double bill of Purcell's exquisite 17th century tragedy and the UK premiere of a Polish 21st century social satire. Dido & Aeneas tells the story of a powerful female ruler undone by her love for the young hero Aeneas

For me the draw might be a new opera for solo soprano. This genre is always a challenge, so this has great potential. Katarzyna Brochocka's Young Wife is a gift of a role for solo soprano, accompanied by piano. Portraying the pressures and pettiness of a stifling arranged marriage with biting wit, Young Wife was a finalist in OperaUpClose's inaugural Flourish new opera writing competition and is directed by OperaUpClose's Olivier Award-winning artistic director, Robin Norton-Hale. The sopranos are Maud Miller and Sarah Minns. For details, please see here. Kings Head Theatre

Divas and Scholars - Rossini Study Day 27/2

On February 27th  Robert Hugill will be lecturing on Rossini's sequence of opera serias written for Naples. The lecture is part of the Divas and Scholars study day on Rossini at the Cadogan Hall. Richard Peirson from English National Opera will talk about The Barber of Seville as well as his long career working behind the scenes as a repetiteur/opera coach. He will work with opera singers Adrian Powter and Jessica Eccleston on Rossini repertoire. The two singers will perform arias such as the favourite 'Una voce poco fa'. Pianist Christian Dawson will examine Rossini's life with piano illustrations. Robert's own lecture will look at the nine operas Rossini wrote for Naples, including Otello and Ermione, illustrating them with recorded examples. You also get lunch! If you don't fancy a full day, then Divas and Scholars are also running a series of evening lectures, on the History of Opera. And if you do fancy a full day, then in addition to the Rossini day there is a Donizetti day on 13 March which will include a masterclass from Nelly Miricioiu. Further information from the Divas and Scholars website

Sunday 16 February 2014

Roland Hayes sings Roger Quilter

Roland Hayes (1887-1977) was one of the first Black classical singers to reach the big time. His parents were sharecroppers, his mother a former slave. The odds were stacked against him in those days of Jim Crow. But he succeeded.

 "In April 1920, Hayes sailed for London, England, accompanied by Lawrence Brown, his pianist since 1918. Hayes found a new voice teacher and managers who helped him with bookings. For the first year, he performed regularly but found little financial success. Finally, he gave a critically successful recital at Wigmore Hall and was "commanded" to perform before British royalty. This led to engagements in cities across Europe. Most received him warmly, but Hayes had difficulties when he went to Berlin, Germany. He described the performance: Well, I came out on stage, and there was a burst of hissing that lasted about ten minutes. I just stood there, and then I decided to change my program. As soon as it was quiet, I began with Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh." I could see a change come over the hostile faces, and by the end of the song I knew I had won."  - See more at:

Hayes's repertoire may have been fairly extensive though it seems that he was primarily a recitalist, as many singers were in those days if they didn't do the opera circuit. There's a 2 CD set of his recordings, released by Preiser Records, where he sings early music and baroque as well as Lieder and spirituals. The clip below (not on the Preiser set) was made in 1939/40. It's Roger Quilter's It was a Lover and his Lass, published in 1921, just months after Hayes arrived in Europe. Contemporary new music!

Friday 14 February 2014

Andris Nelsons for Lucerne, succeeding Abbado

Conductor Chess! In a stroke, Andris Nelsons changes the game. The Lucerne Festival has announced that Andris Nelsons will succeed Claudio Abbado as Director of the Lucerne Festival from this summer Abbado was unwell for a long time, so the question of a successor would have been under consideration for some time. From Lucerne:

 "Two different programs will be performed, each featuring works by Johannes Brahms. Claudio Abbado himself had planned these programs for the summer. “We are extremely pleased to be able to have Andris Nelsons, one of the leading conductors of our time, agree to take on these LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA concerts,” says Michael Haefliger, Executive and Artistic Director of LUCERNE FESTIVAL . “We are furthermore happy that we are able to present these two Brahms programs originally conceived by Claudio Abbado. In this way, the memory of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA’s founder remains alive in the Festival’s artistic programming as well.” 

"At the start of the 2014-15 season, Nelsons will officially assume his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since the 2008-09 season , he has been at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and with the CBSO he made his LUCERNE FESTIVAL debut in the summer of 2009. Nelsons will be heard during LUCERNE FESTIVAL at Easter on 12 April, when he will conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the third act of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Along with the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA’s concerts, during LUCERNE FESTIVAL in Summer he will also lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on 30 and 31 August.":

In chess terms, this is a masterstroke which takes control over the board. Lucerne is fundamentally important because it connects to the best and most interesting orchestras in the world. Like it or not Europe is where the action is, in artistic terms.  Nelsons is a pedigree racehorse, he needs challenge. 

Wigmore Hall 2014-2015 season announced

John Gilhooly has just announced the Wigmore Hall 2014-2015 season

Highlights :
Maria João Pires series
Henry Purcell: a celebration
Paul Lewis series
Martin Frõst Artist in Residence
Florian Boesch Artist in Residence
Mozart Odyssey
Wolfgang Rihm Composer in Focus
and much more!  More detailed analysis to come. For a summary of the 2014 Summer Season see HERE.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Floods and Der Fluß

On Tuesday I drove along a narrow strip of road elevated above the flood plain. It was surreal - miles of brown water on each side, as if I were sailing through a strangely waveless ocean. Unnatural quiet - where were the trees, cars and people?  Even the birds were silent. Yesterday, in the stormy winds I did not risk the trip again.  Today the floodwaters keep rising to unprecedented levels. Luckily for me, I'm safe : many aren't and will be suffering the consequences for months to come.  That's the irony of living in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Nature asserts itself to remind us that material things mean little in the wider scheme of things. Mess with the river and the river gets its own back. The floodwaters may be smelly and full of debris, and when they recede, the land will be wrecked. Yet eventually, the Thames will return to what it always was.

So I've picked a gentle song about rivers, Der Fluß, Schubert D693 to a poem by Friedrich von Schlegel.  For a translation go to Emily Ezust's Lieder and Song Texts page.

Wie rein Gesang sich windet
Durch wunderbarer Saitenspiele Rauschen,
 Er selbst sich wiederfindet,
Wie auch die Weisen tauschen,
Daß neu entzückt die Hörer ewig lauschen
 So fließet mir gediegen
Die Silbermasse, schlangengleich gewunden,
Durch Büsche, die sich wiegen
Vom Zauber süß gebunden,
Weil sie im Spiegel neu sich selbst gefunden;
Wo Hügel sich so gerne
Und helle Wolken leise schwankend zeigen,
Wenn fern schon matte Sterne
 Aus blauer Tiefe steigen,
 Der Sonne trunkne Augen abwärts neigen.
So schimmern alle Wesen
Den Umriß nach im kindlichen Gemüte,
Das zur Schönheit erlesen
Durch milder Götter Güte
 In dem Kristall bewahrt die flücht'ge Blüte.

Are we in a Golden Age for male voice?

Are we in a Golden Age for male voice?  There are those who believe only long-dead singers are worth listening to. But that's moronic. Nothing in this world remains the same: we don't speak as people did 100 years ago, so we can't sing the same way. This isn't a value judgement, it's simple reality. Just as repertoire has broadened, so has the range of voice types. Just look at the nominees in the 2014 Opera Awards (an unfortunately generic term).

Stéphane Degout
 Bryan Hymel
 Peter Mattei
 Luca Pisaroni
Stuart Skelton
 Michael Volle
 Ludovic Tézier

How can you really compare? Each is excellent in his own way.  How can we compare baritones and tenors?   Or those who specialize in different genres?  Whoever wins will deserve all the praise he gets - but so will others, and some who aren't on this particular list, like Piotr Beczala (who saved the Met's Rusalka from being a dead loss), Schrott, Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann.. Singers need awards because they are good publicity. so good wishes to all of them.

 But most Awards serve the interest of those promoting them, not primarily the singers and certainly not the state of the art. So take this competition for what it is and instead celebrate the wonderful choice of singers we have with us today.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Theodora Handel at the Barbican

Rosemary Joshua triumphs in a superb Handel Theodra at The Barbican, London.

"Theodora was in many ways Handel's most unsuccessful oratorio; a small group of admirers liked it but the general public did not. His only sacred oratorio set in Christian times, it used a non-biblical story and is essentially an exploration of inner faith with a heroine who goes off willingly to martyrdom. Handel's concerns in the piece transcend Revd Thomas Morrell's libretto. Time and again he subverts Morrell's underlying meaning, using his music to give Theodora an intensity of faith which overcomes the libretto's combination of piety and masochism, and to make the chorus of Romans into jolly hedonists rather than Morrell's rather vicious crew."

"Joshua brought a simplicity and a radiant intensity to the title role which made the character live. Technically the music seemed to hold no challenges, from the opening moments of her first aria Fond flatt'ring World, adieu, you felt she really meant it. Handel helps things along here by the austerity of his orchestration, with unison violins, and in all of Theodora's arias there is a sense of Handel paring the music back in some way."

Read Robert Hugill's review in Opera Today. This is one of the best, and most analytical [pieces of writing on this subject in ages. Highly recommended !

Glorious Wigmore Hall Summer 2014

The Wigmore Hall is even more impressive when you compare it with much bigger venues.. The WH can't afford (or accommodate)  celebrity orchestras and conductors,. Instead it targets more serious audiences who want good music, not necessarily pricey tickets.

The Wigmore Hall does do big-name orchestras  and voices, but in a concise way. Christophe Rousset brings Les Talens Lyriques to Wigmore Street twice this season. First, on 13/4  they're giving Leçons de ténèbre - Couperin and Charpentier. Since this falls during the solemn rituals of Hioly Week, the programme will have special extra-musical significance. This concert will go very nicely with the Charpentier and Lalande concert on 12/4 with Le Poème Harmonique (Vincent Dumestre) , who have done so much for Lalande. Then, on 28/4, Les Talens Lyriques return for a programme of arias written for Farinelli. Farinelli was of course a castrato. Such voices would not now exist, so Rousset has brought in Ann Hallenberg. She will be singing Giacomelli, Hasse, Neapolitans Nicola Popora and Leonardo Leo, and several pieces written by Farinelli's brother, the compoaser Riccardo Broachi.

In 1728, Handel met the French violinist and composer Jean-Marie Leclair in London. The London Handel Players commemorate this  exchange with a concert on 10/4. This will be an important event as Lawrence Cummings and Adrian Butterworth are Leclair specialist, having edited some of his works. Stile Antico promises something even more glorious on 11 May with "Treasures of the Renaissance": vocal works by Byrd, Gombert, Clemens non papa, Lassus, Tallis, Praetorius, Palestrina and a world premiere by Huw Watkins. Watkins thing for detail might work very well here.

More French sacred music on 30/5 with Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet - Charpentier, Lully and a rare piece for women's voices by Louis Le Prince, chapel master at Lisieux, 150 years before St Thérèse was born. Two more must-go baroque evenings in July: Philippe Jaroussky improvises on Henry Purcell with L'Arpeggiata on 10/7. and the Cardinall's Musick celebrate their 25th anniversary on 27/7. In between, other gems like Iestyn Davies,  Lawrence Zazzo, Florilegium, The Early Opera Company and the English Concert. 

If your tastes are more moderrn, you weill already have booked for Ensemble Intercontemporain on 27/4 doing small ensemble pieces by Berg and Kurtag plus Schumann and Yann Robin (UK Premiere). Also unmissable, the Arditti Quartet on 15/5 -  Scelsi String Quartet 4, Kurtag, Lachenmann and Julian Anderson. In a slightly different vein, there's an Edwin Roxburgh Study Day on Sunday 26/4. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group return to the Wigmore Hall on 20 June for a wonderful programme (Knussen, Henze, Elliott Carter, Adès, Woolrich etc)

"Normal" Wigmore Hall fare is pretty enticing too - Prégardien and Bostridge singing Schubert (not together), Marc-Andre Hamelin, Perényi and Schiff, Imogen Cooper, Ma and StottAnna Prohaska, The Jerusalem Quartet (Shostakovich), the Elias String Quartet (Beethoven) and a Rachmaninov Song series.   

Saturday 8 February 2014

True or false ? Erinnerung an die Marie A

"An jenem Tag im blauen Mond September
Still unter einem jungen Pflaumenbaum
Da hielt ich sie, die stille bleiche Liebe
In meinem Arm wie einen holden Traum!".
One day in 1920, Bertolt Brecht happened to be on a train to Berlin and jotted down the words of this poem.  The song, which fits a n old popular tune, has become one of Brecht's "greatest hits". There have been many attempts to explain it. Is it autobiographical?  Is it literary? Or is it one of those things that just pop into one's mind from the unconscious?  Plum trees don't blossom in September, at least not in Germany.  Perhaps seeing a random cloud jogged the memory. Once the poet embraced a woman under a blossong plum tree. He's forgotten the woman's face, and doesn't remember what happened to her  Perhaps the "Frau hat jetzt vielleicht das siebte Kind". Having seven children suggests the end of romance and adventure - perhaps the girl is now hardened and worn, youth vanished, like the cloud the poet glimpsed when his mind should have been on other things. Perhaps the trees have since been chopped down. Clouds are ephemreal: ever changing, transient. As are our lives.

 "Doch jene Wolke blühte nur Minuten
Und als ich aufsah, schwand sie schon im Wind".

Thursday 6 February 2014

A Dog's Heart - Lyons

"If satire is your thing you will not want to miss this opera about human testicles grafted onto a dog."

writes  Michael Milenski in Opera Today about Coeur d'un Chien, or A Dog's Heart in Lyon.

"Raskatov made vulgar music (snorts and farts) and he made music vulgar incorporating liturgical hymns and famous old folk songs into the musical flow of his sensational text (the last line of the first act, shouted by the dog transformed into Communism's “new man” is “get fucked!” in the libretto, and “lick my dick” in the supertitles). The composer recognizes that contemporary ears are accustomed to an infinity of musical and random sounds thus he has no compunction in raiding Monteverdi’s recitative, using extreme voices (shrieking higher-than-you-can-imagine sopranos) or making hoarse, coarse sounds through megaphones (the opera ends with sixteen players shouting vowels through megaphones into the faces of the audience. Underlying all this is Raskatov’s basic musical language heard from time to time which seemed to be more or less Webernesquely minimal."

HERE is what I wrote when A Dog's Heart ran at the ENO London in 2010

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Elgar's Music for a "Lunatic" Asylum

From SOMM ecordings, who specialize in the more interesting byways of British music, a new recording of Edward Elgar's Music for Powick Asylum.

Elgar was 21 in January 1897, struggling to develop a career. He was offered a part-time job at the Worcester County and City Lunatic Asylum, in then treminiology of the time, where his duties as Bandmaster were to conduct an ensemble of staff.  Psychiatric practice was relatively primitive, therapies  designed to contain and restrain, rather than heal. Perhaps music soothed the inmates and gave them a glimpse of better things. Powick was a warren of maze-like buildings, a factory for the sick and outcast.  Victorian asylums were authoritarian places, where doctors and benefactors were on a different social level to  their patients. Perhaps it was assumed that patients could be "improved"  by finer things like music and parklands.

Elgar's Music for Powick is interesting because he was writing for the specific needs of the Asylum Band, who weren't professional  musicians but staff members with different abilities. These made up a rather eccentric orchestra of piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium and bombardon, up to eight violins, occasional viola, cello and double bass with piano, a maximum of 19 players.

Over  six years, Elgar composed four sets of Quadrilles, a set of Lancers and five polkas for the Asylum band. Also included on the new SOMM CD are several first recordings. The Minuetto in G, which Elgar wrote as an audition piece through which he obtained the job, and thus connected to the Powick group. There's also a Singing Quadrille where Elgar mainly uses well-known nursery rhymes. The work remains only in sketch score but the performance version was specially prepared for SOMM by Andrew Lyle who edited all the music for Powick, for the Elgar Complete Edition.

Three other short works included here are the Fugue in D minor for oboe and violin, written for his oboe-playing brother Frank and a friend. Duett, another miniature fugue, was a wedding present for a friend who played the double bass and Elgar himself most probably played the trombone part.  The  Andante & Allegro for Oboe & String Trio was composed when Elgar was still in his teens. The disc concludes with the last of the pieces in the Powick music, the wistful, poignant polka Blumine, written in May 1884, one month after Elgar's engagement to Helen Weaver had been broken off.
For more details, please see the SOMM website

Wagner Die Feen Wiener Staatsoper

Wagner Die Feen at the Vienna Sate Opera? One could dream. Last year Wagner's early opera received several performances, including one in London with the Chelsea Opera Group (read my review here) but none could be quite so original as the special Oper für Kinder production that was done in Vienna, not in the main house but in  the tiny auditorium . Die Feen isn't Grand Opera though the teenaged Wagner might have had great ambitions for it. The plot is corny and there are so many characters it's hard to keep track. But in the intimate atmosphere of a tiny theatre, the audience is drawn into the action. Belief can be suspended, so the magic takes effect.

In German-speaking countries, opera for children is of a very high standard indeed, simplified but not trivialized. The full three-hour score has its longueurs, but this production compresses the essentials into a compact 47 minutes, so the dramatic flow is sharp and concise. We enter into the spirit of the opera, communing with this strange world of fairies, mortals and lovers as if they were real people like ourselves. Beautiful set - colours of the earth and nature, blended with fantasy shades of sapphire and delightful light effects.  The image of a doe flies across the stage: birds and paper hearts evoke the simplicity of folk art. Nature is not naive, though. Figures emerge from holes in the dense undergrowth. I imagined the smell of damp soil. The Fairies wear white tutus with overskirts like leaves, much in the way fairies might have been depicted in small German theatres in the early 19th century. The mortals enter the realm of the fairies clad in early 20th century explorer gear - a delightful comic touch.

Through productions like this we experience the magic of opera. "Glaubst du en Feen?"  an invisible  woman's voice asks. We're entering an exciting fairy tale. We can learn the Overture and the lengthy arias later. For now we engage with the spirit of the opera. Children have a natural capacity for wonder.  Perhaps all creative artists have this kind of imagination. Far too often in this world our souls are poisoned by negativity.  How can we really function without empathy and feeling?  This production is so good that adults would be well advised to learn from it.  It's available on demand on the Wiener Staatsoper Mediathéque.

Monday 3 February 2014

Richard Strauss Feuersnot - streaming from Munich

Richard Strauss's Feuersnots are breaking out all over! Above a still from the production in January at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (read more HERE) . There's another new production in June at the Volksoper, Vienna, which should be interesting, too. There was a concert performance in December in New York conducted by Leon Botstein. Botstein's reputation is built on performing works unknown to his audiences, but his performances are so leaden that he does music great disservice. It's not as if recordings aren't available. Better then to listen to the concert performance of Strauss's Feuersnot from Munich, currently streamed on BR Rundfunk.  Ulf Schirmer conducts the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. 

Presumably some of the Munich singers are Bavarian,  because some of the text in in Strauss's native dialect, not High German. That's important to meaning, as Strauss is poking fun at the po-faced Bayreuth cult promoted by Cosima Wagner, whose deadly grip on the Wagner legacy did more to parody Wagner than any cheeky Strauss skit. When Feuersnot premiered in 1901, it bombed. Audiences were still too enthralled by the Cosima cult to appreciate just how funny Feuersnot can be. Strauss lays the satire on thick, but with pungent verve. Great "Wagnerian" sweeps of sound, exaggerated til they almost break the bounds of taste. Hyper-fervid emotionalism, not in the noble service of Heiligen Deutschen Kunst but in the service of Bayreuth fanaticism. Hitler swallowed the authoritarianism of Bayreuth. It possibly enflamed  his sense of divine right. Strauss's satire is a timely reminder that loving Wagner doesn't necessarily lead to fascism.

In Feuersnot, a provincial town  not so different from Nürnberg is gathered on Midsummer's Eve (Johannisnacht) but not to celebrate poetry and song. The children are gathering wood for some kind of pagan conflagration, which involves the worship of fire. Sweet, innocent children's voices, as perky as  dancing flames: but what do these flames signify? Kunrad the alchemist lets the townsfolk chop his house down to feed the bonfire: destruction rather than creative art. He loves the Mayor's daughter Diemut a hoch dramatisch soprano. Together they jump over the flames and he kisses her. But Diemut and her father play devious tricks. Kunrad is cast outside, like his former master who was driven for practising the dark arts. Diemut has Kunrad humiliated by being suspended in a basket, strung from the rafters, in front of the whole town. He uses his magic to create a "fire famine" dousing all the fires in town until a hot-blooded virgin surrenders to him. So Diemut, who does lust for Kunrad, does the deed, vividly illustrated in the orchestra. Suddenly all the fires are ignited and the town glows with unnatural brightness.

Strauss parodies not only Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg but also Tristan und Isolde, numerous different themes in Die Ring des Nibelungen and even Liebesverbot.  There's nothing timid about Feuersnot.  Diemut has the hots for Kunrad, the local "bad boy" but uses her social status to play power games with him. Even in 1901, Strauss was warning about fanatics who fuel flames to get what they want. So enjoy Feuersnot for the satire it is, and appreciate Ariadne auf Naxos in the same spirit. Please read my analysis of the Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos HERE which further explains Strauss's subversive thoughts on Wagner and on the making of opera. Strauss, in his self-depreciating cheerfulness, put himself down, but he's a much more interesting composer than many appreciate.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Innovative Don Giovanni Royal Opera House

The new Mozart Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House London is so innovative that it will take time to sink in fully. What is Don Giovanni but an opera that operates on many different levels?  Many will panic at the very idea of anything new. But Don Giovanni is so  rich that anyone, including the audience, who doesn't keep learning from it, will not do it justice. This production has so much insight  that will enrich appreciation of the opera itself,  and of the process that goes into the making of opera. Kaspar Holten has pulled off a great feat: this Don Giovanni could be rewarding for years to come. Indeed, I think we'll appreciate it even more once the initial shock effect wears off.

Women's names appear on the backdrop, gradually developing into a torrent in tinier and tinier script. We are seeing the Catalogue unfolding before us. There are so many names that they become undecipherable, the identities of the women blurred. What sort of man keeps a catalogue of conquests?  What motivates such obsessional behaviour? Don Giovanni's relationships with women are mechanical, bringing no lasting pleasure. What is really behind his compulsiveness? This production is psychologically penetrating and exceptionally subtle. The images often suggest marble, a stone that seems soft to the touch but is enduring. Like women, perhaps, or like the Commendatore's statue. Don Giovanni smashes a stone head but ends up trapped behind stone walls. Is he in the Commendatore's tomb or in some frozen womb?

This sensitive approach to the opera reveals itself in the multiplicity of visual images. The central structure , designed by Es Devlin,  resembles MC Escher's etchings of palaces with staircases that lead nowhere, and buildings that reverse themselves in precise, but irrational ways.  Like Don Giovanni's mind. He compartmentalizes his emotions, locking them in a maze of subterfuge. He needs escape routes if only to escape responsibility for himself.  Perhaps he seeks challenge in order to prove himself? Gambling with the Commendatore is the ultimate dare. Leporello's scared but Don Giovanni is defiant. Suicide by Stone Guest?

Onto this structure, numerous images are projected, allowing exceptionally rapid changes of nuance and detail. Music develops  with every note and operates on many simultaneous layers. Physical stagecraft just can't compete. It felt as if we were watching notation dance and come to life. At one stage the singers are seen each in their individual vortexes, moving forwards while being pushed back by the force of the visual projections. We know it's video, but the image is so powerful that it expresses the force of the music and the psychic trauma the characters are going through.Luke Hall's video designs elevate projection into an art form. A hundred years ago, electrictyb transformed stagecraft : now we are heading into  a new doimension.

Nicola Luisotti's conducting emphasized agility and brittleness. This wasn't a full-blooded Romantic interpretation, but something at once late Baroque and surprisingly modern. How poisonously dissonant the fortepiano, harpsichord and cello continuo sounded! Don Giovanni was elegant though he used his grace for evil purposes. (Luisotti played the fortepiano).

Watching this Don Giovanni was stimulating because the visuals, for once, kept up with the constant motion in the music, which reflects Don Giovanni's obsession with staying ahead of the game. This production elevates video into art form, much in the way that electricity transformed stagecraft a hundred years ago, yet it's also pertinent to meaning.  Don Giovanni is a master of deception. Portraying his personality through tricks of light  intensifies the sense of constantly changing illusion.  When Leporello hides, we can still just about see him, camouflaged in moving shadows. When the Stone Guest appears, he materializes as if from the very structure of the building,  By this stage in the opera, the images are becoming more recognizable, as if reality is starting to intrude on Don Giovanni's  consciousness. The Stone Guest stands above  the image of an eye, a reference to the all-seeing Eye Of God, often seen in Catholic symbolism,  and also in Freemasonry.  Normal physical staging could not produce this level of detail.

When Don Giovanni is drawn down to hell, he's seen trapped behind high walls that fill the whole stage area. All his life, Don Giovanni has survived by manipulating people. Suddenly, he's all alone. What can be more horrifying to someone like that to be alone and having to confront himself ? Being entombed alive is far more chilling than comic book hellfire. Moreover, he hears the Sextet, taunting him from a distance. The "happy ending" is sometimes unrealistic, like an add-on moral lesson. Here, it's incredibly poignant.

Part of the joy of this production was the way the visuals stayed as backdrop, allowing the singers to take prominence. The big set arias were given full prominence. in this production, Mariusz Kwiecień was very much the central character. His elegance suggested Don Giovanni assumed his superiority as if it were his natural right.  As the net closes in on the character, Kwiecień sang with  vehemence verging on demonic, without losing his innate poise.

Véronique Gens was outstanding as Donna Elvira. She sang with such richness and dignity that she brought out the tragedy in the role. Donna Elvira throws herself at Don Giovanni : she's just as obsessive as he is, and possibly disturbed, but Gens makes us feel her tragedy. When she sings her last big aria, she is so compelling that we feel sympathy for Don Giovanni lurking in the darkness. Perhaps he's learned the real meaning of love, too late.

Malin Byström sang Donna Anna. with presence, well supported by Antonio Poli's Don Ottavio. Elizabeth Watts was a lively Zerlina and Dawid Kimberg sang Masetto. Alex Esposito sang Leporello.  As the run progresses, the singing will settle, so I'm certainly going again, and catching the HD broadcast on 12th February. For more, please read Opera Today, where Claire Seymour will be reviewing.

photos copyright  ROH Bill Cooper 2014

Hong Kong Lunar New Year Fireworks

People burn fireworks to celebrate the Chinese New Year. In Hong Kong  traditional ropes of red firecrackers were banned after the riots of 1967 - at least that was the excuse. Firecrackers and high-density urban areas don't go together. Are dead and maimed children worth the rituals of "tradition" ? Instead, Hong Kong developed a new heritage - massive public fireworks displays and laser lights over the harbour. Everyone joins in and celebtates together.

Saturday 1 February 2014

NOT Là ci darem la mano

Ahead of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House tonight, NOT Là ci darem la mano but Dort reichst du mir deine Hand. Heinrich Schlusnus and Erna Berger sing Don Giovanni and Zerlina auf Deutsch. Once, singing in the vernacular was not uncommon. Sometimes singers would even sing in their own language if they couldn't master the local language.  The ENO was founded on the premise that English audience "needed" English words even for basic repertoire. Nowadays, we have (I hope) learned the importance of syntax and stresses in vocal music but this clip goes to show that performance practices in the past were very different to what they are now.

Gorgeous Janáček Jenůfa La Monnaie Bruxelles

From Brussels La Monnaie/De Munt, a visually stunning Jenůfa, which explores Janáček's  opera from many different angles. Initially, the approach is disorienting, but gradually the wider perspective emerges,.illuminating the drama with great insight. 

Jenůfa was Janáček's breakthrough into opera. While it's not as innovative as the masterworks of the 1920's, it is distinctive.. This new production, directed and designed by Alvis Hermanis,  places the opera firmly in the context of art nouveau and more specifically, the work of the Czech artist  Alfons Mucha. The music unfolds to a stage that resembles a beautiful, gilded frontispiece of a book. A row of dancers line the lower section of the stage, in the way that books were often illustrated at the time. The costumes, by Anna Watkins, are exceptionally beautiful, using elaborate embroidery and needlework techniques. How we can glory in this folkloric richness! But the exaggerated puffed sleeves remind us we are watching a work of the imagination. The singers and dancers move in formal, stylized gestures, resembling theatrical traditions of bygone times.

These wonderful tableaux aren't merely decorative but serve dramatic purpose.  This rural village is ruled by rigid convention.  Hence the background of formality, and the dancers who move like puppets on strings. Their hands are covered with gloves, like Petrushka the marionette. 

Kostelnička (Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet) is the Sacristan's widow, whose duty it is to uphold religious values. But she loves Jenůfa (Sally Matthews) and does not abandon her. She'd prefer that Jenůfa  and Števa (a nicely bouncy Nicky Spence) would marry and legitimize their child. To get ahead in this village, you must conform, like the Mayor and his wife.

Herrnanis sets the Second Act in a more realistic setting, which could be any small,  sad town in Eastern Europe. A tiny TV, a beat-up kitchen, and religious icons on the wall show that  people like these have aspirations. Kostelnička took on a man's job but is ground down by poverty and lack of opportunity. She wants her stepdaughter to have a better life. Significantly Števa refuses to marry Jenůfa because he can see in her stepmother what she, too, might become. He doesn't want to be trapped in a cycle of responsibility and hopelessness. Charbonnet creates a complex Kostelnička, still young enough to dream,  but  withered before her time. It's a powerfully convincing and sympathetic performance. When Charbonnet tries to hide the baby's clothes in the freezer, the pain on her face shows how Kostelnička already knows how little the death will achieve. Eventually, the frozen waters will release the evidence. Kostelnička is doomed.

The private intimacy of the Second Act gives way to public formality. The stylized theatre returns. The music is angular, sharp and turbulent, like the river in full flow.  Charles Workman sings Laca with a clarity that suggests almost Heldentenor idealism, but he hands Jenůfa a bunch of cloth flowers. It's heartbreaking. It is Spring, and Jenůfa longs for the freshness and  freedom Laca once represented. The dancers, in pale grey and white, move to the front of the stage, tossing and turning like waves, illustrating the turmoil Kostelnička tries to suppress. This is a very effective way of creating theatre on multiple planes, without overpowering the singers. The orchestra, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates jagged dissonances that reflect the horror  Jenůfa must now face. At last the dancers and choruses fall still, so all attention turns to Charbonnet and Matthews. The Frontispiece set now highlights raw human emotions. Hermanis has drawn the threads of the staging together. As the finale wells up in the orchestra, Laca and Jenůfa embrace in silhouette while the dancers form a  vaguely neo-classical backdrop of movement and life.

Get to this Jenůfa if you can get to La Monnaie.  If not, it's available on line on demand on for a limited period. Highly recommended for Charbonnet and Workman's singing and for Hermanis's sensitive, intelligent direction.  Hermanis's work reminds me of Stefan Herheim, where details are used with purpose and in support of meaning, not merely as decor. At the end, the singers take their bows "in character" with stylized gestures, but big smiles. A witty blend of theatre and reality!