Saturday 29 November 2014

Minkowski - Hans Rott Mahler Schubert, all aged 20

At the Barbican Hall, London, Marc Minkowski conducted the BBCSO in Schubert Symphony no 4, Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Hans Rott Symphony no 1. All three works were written by composers of the age of 20. It's best not to make too much of the fact that they all died too young, since none of them was aware he wouldn't grow old. It would be wiser to think of the programme as a study of the way different 20 year olds express themselves in their own individual ways.

Minkowski brought a delicious warmth to the Schubert symphony. Like most subtitles, the subtitle of this symphony is misleading. It's not "Tragic" in the grand sense of tragedy, a style which the Romantics could do with great fervour.  What came over best, in Minkowski's approach, was the mature poise of Schubert's structure. The arguments put forward for not quite Sturm und Drang are resolved in gracious repose. Minowski gets a golden Romantic glow from the BBCSO. Modern instruments, placed with period sensibility, can be very beautiful.

Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a cry of Romantic anguish. No doubt Mahler was upset by being dumped by his girlfriend, but the songs are not in any way autobiographical. This time, the title is a clue: "Songs of a wandering journeyman". The inspiration almost certainly came from the poems in  Des Knaben Wunderhorn,  several of which Mahler had already set before he wrote LefG, and which would shape his work for many years to come.

But the big reason for listening to this concert was to hear what Minkowski and the BBC SO would make of Hans Rott.  Rott is something of a cult figure with an obsessive following.  Nonetheless, his music hasn't attracted really top-rank conductors, apart from  Paavo Järvi, who launched his recording by repeating the claim that Mahler plagiarized Rott and suppressed his debt to him. It's true that Mahler praised Rott as a genius, but mourning a tragic, dead friend is not in itself a musical judgement.  Rott can only really be evaluated by what he wrote.  Minkowski, thankfully, presents Rott on his own terms as composer, so the music stands on its own terms, without the need for the kind of non-musical special pleading which usually sticks to Rott's reputation and attracts listeners who find image and supposed obscurity more interesting than actual musical context.

Minkowski conducted with even-handed sympathy, obliterating bad memories of Dennis Russell Davies' premiere recording.  Rott's music is pleasant enough, and for all we know he might have evolved into a good composer, but it isn't a good sign when music seems to sound like so many different things. We "hear" Mahler because we're primed to do so because of Rott's reputation, and performances tend to follow what we expect to hear. At a push, one could hear in Rott echoes of Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf, as well as of Brahms and Wagner. It's normal human nature to cross-reference with what you know. Rott's symphony sounds good because it sounds so familiar, poses no great demands  and is very much of its time.

Perhaps these days composition students are taught that copying is a good thing,  but surely the sign of a really good composer is originality?  At the same time as Rott was writing his first symphony, Mahler (two years younger) was writing Das klagende Lied. Das klagende Lied is infinitely more adventurous, bridging song and symphony, early German Singspiel traditions and "modern" music drama. And Das klagende Lied is a work inspired directly from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, which Mahler wass setting in song from very early on.   Mahler fans sometimes talk of Mahler's  entire output as "one great symphony", forming a consistent, cohesive arc from beginning to end.  In his Wunderhorn years, Mahler explores the great themes that make him so remarkable. Real ideas in music aren't little things like passages for horn or snatches of bird-song piccolo or spiky bits of percussion. Before the age of 20, in Das klagende Lied, Mahler is already exploring grand ideas like transfiguration and the ultimate triumph of new life over death.  Perhaps it's a good thing that Paavo Järvi doesn't conduct much Mahler since he doesn't get what Mahler is about. Minkowski and the BBCSO do wonders for Rott, but ultimately Rott is no Mahler.  PS, who wrote the  presentation on Radio 3 ?  Is this what BBC Radio 3 standards have fallen to?

World's first gay movie ? Anders als die Anderen

The world's first gay movie? Anders als die Andern, made in 1919, has been restored, though some  scenes are still lost, a testament to the vicissitudes of an era when homosexuality was an unspeakable crime. In Anders als die Anderen,  Paul Körner, a virtuoso violinist, has a successful career, but he knows he's "different to the others" in mainstream society. In a vision, he sees a parade of gay people throughout history, forced to conceal their identity in a hostile world. Körner has an adoring fan, Kurt Sievers, who follows him everywhere.  Kurt's pretty innocent and loves Körner as an artist. When a blackmailer confronts Körner, Kurt is shocked and runs away. Eventually, the blackmailer is tried and sentenced, but Körner is jailed too because homosexuality was then a crime.  Ostracised, and his career in ruins, he commits suicide. Young Kurt wants to die, too, but is told by Magnus Hirschfeld (no less) that he must live on, to fight injustice.

"Science, not superstition!"  The film uses "scientific" testimony to prove that being gay is part of human nature. Magnus Hirschfeld is seen giving an illustrated lecture with photos of "virile women" and transvestite men posing in their underwear, like specimens in a zoo. To modern eyes, that's offensive, but less so a hundred years ago when people went to freak shows and exhibited skeletons of Africans and other "sub-races". Dodgy science, as if human nature can be so easily classified. Maybe I've jjust got an aversion to pinning labels on people. At least Hirschfeld mentions the French Revolution and the idea that men are born equal. The idea that all people have a right to an identity fits better with modern thinking, though the rise of kook konservatism would deny that.  The director was Richard Oswald (1883-1963), who made dozens of films in the Weimar era, including the well-known Alraune (1928) starring Brigitte Helm, which deals with  quack science. Körner is played by Conrad Veidt, matinee idol, who  made many films in Germany before escaping to star in many more films as a dodgy German.  I also like the film for its  sets - "modern" architecture of the time, much of it destroyed in the Depression and war that followed..

Friday 28 November 2014

Pelléas et Mélisande Salonen - smooth or sharp?

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande at the Royal Festival Hall. Over the years, South Bank concerts have been let down by the choice of singers and choirs, but this time we enjoyed an almost ideal team of principals: Sandrine Piau, Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri and Jérôme Varnier.

Sandrine Piau created an unusually luminous Mélisande. Her background is in the baroque, though she's adventurous with art song and modern music as well, so her "white" timbre is almost ethereally refined. Her voice rang out pure and clear. This Mélisande felt supernatural.  Perhaps she's an elemental. Not all Lorelei inhabit riverbanks. Some live deep in the forests, enchanting huntsmen. Think Schumann and Heine. Piau's voice is at once transparent and opaque. Her tones sparkle, like light on water,  yet her poise suggests the impenetrability of a mirror which reflects back rather than reveals what lies within: a very good interpretation of who Mélisande might be. The dense forest in Act One isn't physical. Seductive strings, but chilling winds, in every sense.  It's a psychological jungle into which Golaud has strayed. Mélisande's first words are a warning. "Ne me touchez pas."  Piau's looks  also enhance meaning. While she sings of hanging her long blonde hair down from a tower,  we see the gamine of a grown-up Yniold, a boy child sung by an adult woman (Chloé Briot). Suddenly this throws the role of Yniold into greater focus, raising troubling new mysteries. Mélisande, for all her passive loveliness, wreaks havoc on those around her.

Stéphane Degout is the Pelléas of choice these days, so ideally suited to the part that all others pale in comparison. His Pelléas is uniquely complex. When Mélisande leans into the pool of the blind men, Degout's voice takes on a heady mix of horror and excitement: this Pelléas is thrilled by darkness as well  as shiny surfaces. When Pelléas plays with Mélisande, his voice sounds plausibly youthful, yet one senses, too, that Pelléas is  hypnotized by an ardour he can't quite articulate. When, at last, he declares his love, Degout sings with firmenss and authority. If Pelléas survives, he'll emerge a hero, because he has self-knowledge.  If he survives, that is.

Laurent Naouri sang Golaud to Natalie Dessay's Mélisande for Louis Langrée at the Barbican three years ago. His dynamic with Piau is of course different. If anything the dynamic between Naouri and Degout is even more striking. Sometimes Golaud is depicted as a brute, to emphasize the contrast between the brothers, but in many ways they are halves of  the same personality. Naouri is insensitive, but a caring, decent man, captured by forces way beyond his control. When Naouri sings La nuit sera très noire et très froide, his voice opens outwards, creating a sheen of sensitivity.  This is the "Pelléas" aspect of Golaud's personality. Perhaps he might have been more like Pelléas, but, as Mélisande notes, he's turned grey before his time. It's the Allemonde effect, established long before we even reach the palace.

And what is Allemonde?  The very name suggests that it's a metaphor for something much bigger than a castle.  Why is the atmosphere so stifling?  Why are the peasants in the countryside dying?  Jérôme Varnier shows why Arkel is much more than the marginal figure he's sometimes depicted as.  Arkel is the king, the grandfather, a survivor.  Something's very wrong indeed, and it has happened under Arkel's watch. The strength in Varnier's voice and the forcefulness in the vocal writing suggest that Arkel isn't quite the weak old man we might assume. "The last time I kissed you was the day you came", he tells Mélisande. What do we really make of that?  The better the opera, the greater the possibilities of interpretation. Performances like Varnier's remind us just how fascinating Pelléas et Mélisande can be.

Salonen and the Philharmonia are very good, and very good together, and Debussy is a Salonen signature.  Thus I was surprised by the bland over-refinement of this performance. Perhaps the marketing gimmick "Paris City of Light" hangs too heavily, for the "light" in Pelléas et Mélisande is an unhealthy, unholy light, not the sparkle of champagne  and good times. At noon, the sun parches and saps the will. The pool is enticing because it's cool and shadowed. Throughout the opera, Debussy switches between extremes, in order to dislocate and discomfort. Like Yniold, we should be afraid of losing balance. Smoothing out the contrasts might sound nice, but goes against the spirit of the music.  Pelléas et Mélisande may seem beautiful on the surface but surfaces are deceptive. Salonen and the Philharmonia are perfectly capable of producing more bite, but that bite might be too unsettling, given the naffness of the semi-staging (David Edwards)

The lighting (Colin Grenfell)  is wonderfully atmospheric and works well with the music, but why the narration, which consists of diverse chunks of Maeterlinck badly thrown together.  The opera itself is so good that it tells its own story. In principle, narration is fine, but this specific narration was delivered with an archness that was embarrassingly cringeworthy.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles Theater an der Wien

Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles opened last week at the Theatre an der Wien.  It was broadcast on ORF so if you're canny, you can track it down. It's definitely worth the effort, and could become  a favourite.  Diana Damrau sings Leila. She's exquisite. She rises to the challenge of the high notes with fierce, bright singing - exactly as one imagines the fearless Leila might do. The richness in Damrau's voice also adds an earthy sensuality to the part. She's matched by Dimitri Korchak (Nadir), Nathan Gunn (Zurga) and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad). All very strong performances, supported by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir (Erwin Ortner). Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducts the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien.

Les pêcheurs de perles is extravagant fantasy. Audiences in Bizet's time would have no truck with the modern nonsense that opera must be historically accurate. Musically, this is 100% French Grand Opera with all its over the top excess. The singing is glorious, and, if the orchestra is a little on the  wild side, that's quite in order. I haven't seen the production yet (Lotte de Beer) but the Austrian press says it treats the protagonists like they're in a TV gameshow. Which, in a way, maybe they are? Nadir  and Zurga compete for the pretty girl, and the passive audience of peasants enjoy the glitz and glam, unaware that the joke will be on them when Zurga torches the village.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Abel Gance J'accuse RARE screening

A superlative restoration  by Philippe Schoeller of Abel Gance's J'accuse (1919) was screened in Paris on November 11th, and is now available on arte tv, only until 11th December. It was made within months of the end of the 1914-18 war, and scenes were shot on battlegrounds scarred by fresh craters, and in trenches hardly recovered from damp and shellfire. In 1938,  Gance remade J'accuse, turning it (by his standards) into a fairly conventional war movie. This 1919 version is altogether more remarkable. The cinematography is state-of-the art. Nearly every frame is brilliantly inventive, using unusual angles and shadows.  Some are shot through a pinhole, with claustrophobic effect. Even the opening credits, which show the cameras used making the film lined in a row  like strange, alien creatures.  Gance would make his name with long, indulgent extravaganzas like Napoléon (1927) but this first J'accuse is a masterpiece of intense focus and concentration. Excellent new soundtrack, too.

A panoramic long shot with soldiers. A figure in silhouette blows a whistle; the soldiers instantly rearrange to form the word "J'accuse " with their bodies.Throughout the film, the words reappear in different forms, an insistent leitmotiv that cannot be ignored.  In a village, peasants are dancing. Jean Diaz, a poet, spots a woman, Edith. They fall in love. "Beware, she's married" says his mother. Jean keeps his poems in a journal "Les Pacifiques", lavishly illustrated with watercolours done in a stylised modernism. Somehow, a vision of Edith being raped by her husband.Her breast falls out of her blouse, revealing her nipple. How philistine Hollywood was, and how it blighted film as art. War is declared. The villagers celebrate. Edith's father, an old soldier, sees skeletons dancing. Edith's husband, François Laurin, sends her to his parents' home in the war zone. When Jean hears the news, the words J'accuse pop up, formed by images of women in chains.

Jean and François serve together in the trenches. The film captures the tension between the two in lucid detail. Despite their rivalry, they're friends and decent men. In the midst of battle, Jean writes poetry, while shells fall around him. Jean covers for François on a dangerous mission behind German lines, blowing up the German ammunition stores. Jean and François learn mutual respect. They both love Edith. Surreal juxtapositions of battle scenes, cultured images like the Three Graces, and more dancing skeletons.  Jean's mother lies dying, so he's called back home. The old lady has Torah candles in her room, a detail shown several times, so it must have meaning. He recites his poems for her: we see images of woods, sunsets, and images of Edith (filmed in transparency) seen juxtaposed over the surreal watercolour paintings in Jean's book of poems.

Running through a rainstorm, Edith returns to the village, telling Jean how she was raped by the Germans and now has an illegitimate daughter. Edith's father cannot tolerate the child's presence so she's sent to live with Jean, who dotes on her, yet shows her how to write the word J'accuse. Subtly, we're beginning to suspect all is not quite right in Jean's soul.

Back at the front, François rejoices at the news of Edith's return, though he doesn't know what's happened to her. The soldiers throw a wild party - African troops take part, playing strange instruments.  When he gets home, he finds the babe and think it's Jean's. Edith is remote. Heartbroken, François cuddles his dog. At heart he's a decent man who can't express himself the way Jean the poet can. Then he realizes that the child is Edith's. He tries to kill Jean but Edith tells him the truth. 

Jean and François both return to the front. Now the battle scenes are more horrific. A man is seen, smiling, but he's dead, frozen in the mud of the trench. We see a vision of an ancient Gaulois warrior standing beside the soldiers, who don't notice. The intertitles become more elaborate, like formal poetry. Back in the village, the children are playing, putting a pickelhaube on Edith's daughter, making her "shoot" a little boy. She refuses. Edith is seen, her arms stretched out, as though she's crucified. Back at the front, on the eve of battle, Jean has a premonition.. Long sequences of scenes from the battlefield: giant cannons and rows of soldiers running, the living among the dead. Already we see Gance's panoramic perspective that will appear so well in Napoléon. Jean goes mad and is taken to hospital.  François is wounded and dies thinking of his beloved dog, holding the hands of a comrade. 

Jean returns to the village, but walks through the streets at night, mumbling strange words. He's haunted, seeing ghosts everywhere. He tells the villagers about the "prodigieuse miracle", of the battlefield covered in crosses (see above)  which turn back into corpses, who then come alive. "Rise up, my friends!".  The corpses get up and march til they read the Arc de Triomphe. "Ils avaient la figure terreuse et les orbits pleins d'etoiles, Ils venaient innombrables du fond de l'horizon, comme les vagues reveillées".

Then Jean confronts the villagers, What have they done to respect the dead  The woman who parties instead of mourning, the men who've profited from the suffering of the poor, "J'accuse, J'accuse, J'accuse! " The corpses march into the village and confront the villagers.
François stares through a window. The villagers reach their arms out, but Jean tells them that the dead cannot come back. It's enough that the dead know that their lives were not lost in vain. The corpses depart, wooden crosses on their shoulders.

Jean retrieves his book and sees the paintings of peaceful scenes. "Le soldat a tué en lui le poete". He sees a ray of sunshine. "Attends-tu, soleil, avant de disparaitre. Chez les morts, ce soir, J'en vais. Et si mon main s'agrippe au bord de ma fenetre, c'est que, caprice amer !.....pour mourir je veux etre a la place ou je te chantais". And he accuses the sun itself "d'avoir illuminé l'effroyable Epopée  muet, placie et sans dégout comme un face horrible a la langue coupée, a ton balcon d'azur, sadiqument crispée, d'avoir regardé jusqu'au bout !" Jean collapses, lifeless. Outside, the lanscape remains immobile, as the sun rises. 

Weber Oberon English, German or Jonas Kaufmann?

Carl Maria von Weber Oberon at Cadogan Hall  with the New Sussex Opera. Like many Weber operas it's not easy to stage because so much predicates on magic. In this case magic plus medieval and exotic "Eastern" fantasy. The New Sussex Opera will be doing a concert performance with Adrian Dwyer singing Sir Huon, Sally Silver (Reiza) and Adam Tunnicliffe as Oberon. Like Felix Mendelssohn before him, Weber turned to England with great hopes.Weber even tried to learn the language so he could set the English text correctly. Unfortunately, he died,  It's important to hear Oberon in English, partly because it emphasizes the Shakespearean connections and also because English is a  language not well served in opera. It doesn't have the fulsome lushness of Italian, or the innate drama of German, nor the elegance of French.  So hearing Oberon in English, the language in which it was conceived, connects better to the natural ambience in the music.

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

There are  major recordings notably Keilberth, 1953 available on Opera Today which is not commercially available, and the 1971 version which Kubelik conducts with a big-name cast (Prey, Domingo, Nilsson, Auger, Grobe). These have been reissued in different forms, some without dialogue, but for me, spoken dialogue is an essential part of the experience. There's nothing realistic about the plot. Thus the importance of John Eliot Gardiner's recording, made in London in 1998. It's in English, which fits the ethereal brightnness of Weber's music beautifully. Period-informed practice reveals the originality in the writing.  There's lots of dialogue, as was common for music  drama in 1826, which Gardiner does not sacrifice. The text is hokey, but that's part of its quaint charm. In any case, without narration to hold the plot together, Oberon falls apart and becomes more like a series of disconnected sketches, which is unfair to Weber. Gardiner used a proper actor, Robert Allam, who could declaim in  hyperbolic form, capturing the hammy spirit of the libretto. Oberon is fun, especially if we enter into its improbable fantasy.

Another secret weapon in Gardiner's approach was Jonas Kaufmann. In 1998, Kaufmann was affordable, and was singing a lot of early 19th century work like Loewe operas and  Schumann music drama. Now he commands mega money from mainstream blockbusters.  But in Oberon, his voice is remarkably pure and fresh, ringing with and almost heldentenor ping. Ravishing. Hopefully the recording will bring more Kaufmann fans to Weber and early German opera. In 1998, Kaufmann spoke with a heavy German accent, but that hardly matters. Huon's a strange fantasy character and Charlemange ran the first European Union. Polyglot's fine in the circumstances. Besides, Kaufmann's voice is so utterly, absolutely magical.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Max Bruch Die Loreley - non-Wagnerian Wagner ?

Live from Prinzregententheater, Munich, Max Bruch's opera Die Loreley (op 16, 1863) on BR Klassik. The opera is rarely heard in full, and there's no complete recording, so this performance is quite a significant event.  As of January 2019 the recording is out. Please come back to this site, where I'm writing a more detailed review) BR Klassik pulls out all the stops. The Münchner Rundfunkorchester (conducted by Stefan Blunier) joins with the Prague Philharmonic Choir  (the opera was popular once in 19th century Prague).  A very good cast: Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora,Thomas Mohr, Benedikt Eder, Jan Hendrik Rootering and Sebastian Campione. The performance has been supported with talks, podcasts etc. As to be expected, the opera, with a libretto by Emmanuel Geibel, is in the Romantic style, but is surprisingly un-Wagnerian, harking back perhaps to earlier German music theatre. Certainly the choruses suggest Wagner, but the connections to Weber and Marschner are also valid. Critics at the time used Bruch as a stick with which to attack "the anti musical system" of Wagner, "There shrill dissonaces, no torture of the ears, no ugliness...,, no motivic references which trumpet 'I am the King' eccentric couplings of heterogenous instruments such as piccolo and timpani and similar trivial hocus-pocus...Let this beautiful and pure German work make its own way forward ! Our great theatres will not regret taking on this patriotic work of art" (quoted by Christopher Fifield in "Max Bruch: His life and works"

Bruch was in his 20's when the piece was written, so one shouldn't expect miracles. In 1863, Clara Schumann was impressed by the youth of the composer, though less so by the dramatic thrust of the opera. "The text, by the way, " she told a friend, "is awful". Bruch made several revisions. In 1887 in Leipzig, the young Gustav Mahler prepared the score for performance. In 1916, Hans Pfitzner revived it in Strassburg but it's never become entrenched in the repertoire. Nonetheless, on its own terms, it's hugely enjoyable, though I should add that I'm predisposed towards pre-Wagner German music theatre. To some the strophic folk songs might be a bit quaint.  But there are many good moments, not only for the main soprano but also for the main tenor and bass. The Final Act is impressively heroic. This performance is probably the best we'll get. Hopefully,  this will be rebroadcast and issued on CD. 

I love the photo at the top because it's surreal. It's an early postcard depicting a tour boat sailing down the Rhine, past the famous cliff where the Loreley is supposed to lie, luring sailors to their deaths. No doubt the tourists are thrilled, quaffing beer, wine and sausages. oblivious to danger. All this massive Loreley has to do is bend her arm down and scoop them up!

Saturday 22 November 2014

Inspirational Rameau Platée, Early Opera Company St John's Smith Square

Rameau's Platée is a perfect blend of fantasy and fun, an ideal entrée to Rameau's exuberant idiom. Paul Agnew is closely identified with it, since he sang the part of Platée in the groundbreaking production preserved on DVD. When news came that  he'd be conducting Platée for the Early Opera Company at St John's Smith Square, I was thrilled. The Early Opera Company and its much loved conductor Christian Curnyn are excellent, but their greatest strengths lie in Handel. Agnew's very presence seemed to electrify the players, who responded with  an exceptional performance, which will be remembered for many years.

Agnew brings to his conducting the insights gained from having sung the part so well. Yet he's infinitely more than a conductor who sings. He's been part of the Les Arts Florissants family for many years, so closely connected with William Christie that last year he was made joint Musical Director.  Agnew has also worked with other conductors and companies in the field, including Mark Minkowski. He's a force to be reckoned with.  How exciting it must have been for the Early Opera Company to work with one of the best in the business! Several of the singers at this performance have sung the same parts in other productions, but one got the impression that Agnew was inspiring them with new challenges. 

In the extended Prologue, Thespis (who symbolizes Acting), Momus (Satire) and Thalie (Comedy)  dream up the plot, in which Platée, a frog, falls in love with Jupiter, the King of the Gods. Mark Milhofer, Callum Thorpe and Emilie Renard sing the parts with "woozy" undertones: they're inspired by Bacchus, who loosens inhibitions.  Agnew gets the orchestra to "sing" too. Woodwinds chirp, strings play bright, chirping figures and the sole double bass ( Judith Evans) drones somnolent notes. We hear Nature, bathed in moonlit mystery, and the sounds of frogs and other pond-life croaking contentedly. As Citheron (Martijn Cornet) and Mercure (Mark Milhofer) plot their tricks, their voices ever so slightly flatten out with deliberately ugly edges. Wonderful characterization! These godly figures are dishonest, so they're really no better than slime.
Platée was written to entertain Louis XV and his court on the occasion of the Dauphin's marriage in 1745. The bride was a Spanish Infanta, who was very ugly.  Platée is a frog whose realm is a pond in the wilds, the opposite of refined, elegant Versailles. 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.  The man who sang the original was costumed so he looked as though he was covered in pustules. Thomas Walker (pictured left) entered, dressed in lime green, a nod to the frog suit Agnew wore in Laurent Pelly's production at the Opéra Comique, He wore a wig, fake cleavage and a beard, suggesting even more subversive levels in the opera Rameau would never have dared openly express. Walker sang Platée in Stuttgart, and knows it well, but I suspect Agnew will inspire him to explore it even further. There's a nice bite in his voice which he could use to sharpen the wit in the role. Platée is deeply humiliated by the Gods, but rises above their cruelty by being him/herself, returning to the pond where he/she reigns.

Singing Jupiter, Callum Thorpe has authority, but the liveliness in  his singing  reminds us that the King of the Gods isn't a nice man. He'd willingly hurt what he considers a lesser being in order to get back at his wife Junon (Emilie Renard). Renard and Emmanuelle de Negri (L'Amour, Clarine, La Folie) sang their parts in the recent Robert Carsen production of Platée which Agnew also conducted. Both have long-term connections with Les Arts Florissantes. it would be almost impossible to equal Mireille Delunsch's magnificently manic La Folie, but de Negri impressively negotiated the fiendishly difficult leaps up and  down the scale. 

Throughout the opera, Rameau builds satire into the very heart of the music. "Quoi,  quoi,  quoi,  quoi" the singers and chorus repeat.  The refrain sounds comic, like the croaking of frogs. It's also  a question that cannot be answered in an era when gods and kings can do what they want with impunity,but which must be asked by those with a moral conscience. In the absence of dancers, Agnew defines the detail in the divertissements, so they come alive with jaunty energy. Rameau's music takes its pulse from dance, and from physical expression. Rollicking good fun !. Life in the pond, amongst Nature, is so much more fertile than the false refinement of the Gods.

This performance also marked a new relationship between The Early Opera Company and St John's Smith Square. SJSS has long been a magnet for baroque performance, because it is, after all, a genuine period building.  The facilities are excellent, and the stage accommodates a reasonable sized orchestra. With companies of the calibre of The Early Opera Company, its profile should rise ever higher.

photo of Paul Agnew : Denis Rouvre

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Barbican Rameau Maître à danser Christie Les Arts Florissants

Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers. Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there's a difference. Rameau's music takes its very pulse from dance. Hearing it choreographed connects the movement in the music to the exuberant physical expressiveness that is dance. Furthermore, the very structure of Rameau's music is influenced by the intricate patterns of dance. Rameau was a music theorist as well as a composer: his nephew was Didérot, the encyclopédiste, so this precise orderliness is fundamental to the idiom. Think about baroque gardens, where the abundance of nature is channelled into formal parterres, though woodlands flourish beyond, and birds fly freely.This tension between nature and artifice livens the spirit : gods mix with mortals, improbable plots seem perfectly plausible.

In these miniatures, one hears The Full Rameau. "You don't have to wade through a prologue, five acts and a postlude, as Christie has quipped. With dancers, the music becomes even more vivid. Sophie Daneman directed. She's a very good singer, specializing in the baroque and in Lieder. She first worked with Christie on Hippolyte et Aricie some 20 years ago.  On this evidence, she's a very good director, too.

Christie and Les Arts Florissants presented two miniatures, Daphnis et Églé  (1753) and La naissance d'Osiris. (1754). both were written as private entertainments for Louis XV and his court at Fontainebleau, after days spent out in the forests hunting for game. The context is relevant. these pieces also commemorate the birth of two royal princes.  The Barbican stage was lit beautifully,suggesting candlelight in a darkend room, creating the right hushed tone of reverence.  The King wanted to be amused. The show had to flatter his image of power. Both pieces present Happy Peasants, acting out simple, innocent lives, thanks to the benevolence of their King. When the second infant prince grew up, he was crowned Louis XVI and built Le petit Trianon, to act out pastoral idylls.

There's so little drama in Daphnis et Églé that its basically a masque for dancing,  Daphnis (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and Églé (Élodie Fonnard), shepherd and shepherdess, are friends who gradually fall in love over a sequence of 16 tableaux.  Daphnis flirts with a stranger, singing a lovely air. Églé drags him away. Dancers supply interest in the absence of plot. Each of these vignettes represent a different type of dance. Françoise Denieau choreographed. Fans of early dance will enthuse about the finer details.  I enjoyed the diversity and intricate formations, charmed by  the natural precision of the dancers.  It felt like hearing the score come alive. Van Mechelen and Fonnard are familiar names on the French baroque circuit. Fonnard's particularly pert and dramatic  and Van Mechelen has good stage presence. The first performance of this piece in 1753 flopped, apparently because the singers were duds. Fonnard and Van Mechelen most certainly are not.

Daphnis et Églé works well when its slender charms aren't overwhelmed by excess opulence.  Daneman's staging reflects this innocence, A simple cloth is held up on sticks to suggest  peasant theatre.  Alain Blanchot's costumes (organic dyed fabric?) show the shepherds and shepherdesses in what would have been normal 18th century costume for their class, ie "modern" for the time. Daneman has worked with Christie since their first Hippolyte et Aricie together some 20 years ago.
La naissance d'Osiris is altogether more substantial.  This time the French shepherds and shepherdesses congregate around an Egyptian temple (not literally depicted), worshipping Jupiter, much in the way paintings of this period showed European landscapes populated with Europeans and semi-naked figures from Classical Antiquity. There;s a particularly beautiful part for musette (baroque bagpipes). The player gets to walk around the stage, among the dancers, just as at a peasant celebration. The idyll is shattered with a violent thunderstorm, the full force of Les Arts Florissants unleashed in splendid fury. Great lighting effects (Christoph Naillet). From up in the gods in the Barbican balcony, Pierre Bessière's Jupiter fulminates.  He will save the people by giving them his hero son, danced by a lithe young male dancer. Although the monarchy didn't know what was to come later, we can appreciate the poignancy in  these pieces because we do.

Since La naissance d'Osiris was written to mark the birth of Louis XV's second son (the future Louis XVI)  the allusion is audacious. The king of the Gods rules with divine authority, like an absolute monarch. The people know their place.  The piece is political  power game, Fonnard sang Cupid, with simple wings stuck to her back - sweetly naive, but firmed by Fonnard's feisty  singing. Sean Clayton sang A Shepherd and Arnaud Richard sang the High Priest. Eventually Jupiter takes his leave, and the Three Graces dance a lively trio.   

Although Rameau's music had to be written to please a royal patron, at heart its gentle good humour and humanity triumph. We in the modern audience were able to experience Rameau presented with great depth and sensitivity.  Plenty of  Rameau on this site - please click on label "Rameau" below

Monday 17 November 2014

Andreas Scholl Wigmore Hall - Art and folk, defying boundaries

Eclectic programming, as we can expect at the Wigmore Hall. Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin performed a very unusual selection showing the close connection between popular song and art song.  Snobs who sneer at crossover don't know music history. Scholl, being a countertenor has long enjoyed exploring early song, created long before the dividing lines between classical and pop were even defined. Read Oswald von Wolkenstein, King of the Road, for example where Scholl  sings the songs of a 14th century singer/songwriter who travelled across Europe in the company of soldiers, troubadours and other adventurers, a prototype perhaps of the Jacques Brels and  Bob  Dylans of our time.

Scholl set the mood with a song by Joseph Kilna Mackenzie, a hit on the modern folk circuit, and featured in a movie. It's a Highland lament, but utterly original.  Sergeant Mackenzie was a real person, who died heroically in the First World War, and a relative of the composer  The song thus connects to oral tradition although it's thoroughly through composed. The voice intones with grave dignity, while a drone wails around it, suggesting bagpipes or some even more primeval instruments. Scholl's voice ranges from  tenor to near falsetto: no fixed notions about fach, here, just pure and very personal music.  Then on to Randy Newman In Germany Before the War, a far less effective song, and Chava Alberstein (born 1947)  Ikh shtey unter a Bokserboym,  a modern Israeli version of a Yiddish folk song.  All three songs connect thematically, the artists responding to the troubled times of our era. Perhaps  pop reaches audience who need the message most.

Back to Scholl's "home territory" with a transcription of Machaut (Douce Dame Jolie) and three songs by Benjamin Britten based on traditional airs, like Greensleeves, Down by the Salley Gardens and The Ash Grove. Nobody quite sings these as evocatively as Scholl, whose agile voice gives them a magical elusiveness that seems almost not of this mundane world.  Maybe folk song should be gruff and rough, but Scholl shows how magical and artistic they can be.

Folk song traditions were created by women, as much as by men. Thus Sasha Argov: Shir Éress - "Lullaby", another "modern Israeli folk song.  The timbre is so high that it suits Scholl's voice perfectly,  Tamar Halperin played Debussy: Jimbo's Lullaby from Children's Corner and Janacek: Our Evenings from On an Overgrown Path with great sensitivity., and two of her own transcriptions of traditional melodies, black is the colour of my true love's hair and I gave my love an apple, enhanced by Scholl;'s plaintive, plangent singing.

The Lochamer Liederbuch of 1460 is the earliest published collection of early German song. It connects not only to popular folk song but also to Minnesang, the artistic lyrical song tradition that pre-dates "classical" song and Lieder. Scholl and Halperin ended with settings from Brahms Volkslieder collections, Darunter in Tal, All mein' Gedanken and In stiller Nacht. Long before most other composers, and British composers in particular, Brahms revived the simple humanity of folk music in a thoroughly "modern", distinctive way of his own. To emphasize the point, Scholl and Halperin then did a new version of In Stiller Nacht. Tradition lives on, ancient heritage inspires a brave new future.

Munich Manon Lescaut Kaufmann Opolais listening LINK

Highlight of the Munich season, Puccini Manon Lescaut with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. Saturday's performance was screened live on NDR, but you can catch the FULL audio-only transmission on BR Klassik HERE (click on the tiny little window). The Bayerischen Staatsoper pulled the video off their livestream programme at the last minute, but the film is in the can: perhaps we can hope for a DVD  According to Die Welt, it's pretty good.  Anna Netrebko pulled out at the last minute too, but her absence is no great loss: Opolais is sublime, even freer and more passionate than in London.

The same stars in two very different productions, which will be compared with each other for years to come (Rattle's Baden-Baden Manon Lescaut, despite an excellent Eva Maria Westbroek (reviewed here), doesn't come close). Antonio Pappano has the edge over Munich's Alain Altinoglu, though the latter is much more impressive in Puccini than he was in Don Giovanni (more here). Kaufmann and Opolais, however, are now confirmed as the dream pairing. Not only do they sing gloriously, but they respond to each other so well that the dynamic relationship seems extraordinarily real and personal. There's more to opera than good singing and acting: Kaufmann and Opolais stimulate each other, inspiring each other to ever greater heights. Netrebko is excellent, but she's also artist enough to know how well matched Kaufmann and Opolais are together.

The biggest difference is in the staging. The London production was directed by Jonathan Kent, who also created the ROH's very retro Tosca, and isn't a director known to shock. Yet it was attacked  because it showed Manon in the sex trade. But what were they expecting?  The whole premise of Abbé Prévost's plot is that she goes wrong because she sells sex for money and doesn't value love until it's too late. Please read my review of the London production HERE In Opera Today. 

I haven't seen Hans Neuenfels' production yet, but he, too, is a director whose ideas come direct from the score itself, unorthodox as they may seem at first. Please see my piece on Neuenfels' Lohengrin. Everyone who reads a score "interprets" if they are making any kind of effort at all. The better the composer, the better the opera, the greater the potential for greater understanding. "Trust the composer" anti-moderns wail, but it is they who should trust the music and artistry. From stills (not the best guide to any production) Neuenfels' production seems austere, maybe a good thing since musically it's so strong. Most reports i've read so far are very positive. But some focus mainly on Kaufmann's beard.  In real life, Kaufmann's very sexy and fairly hairy, so why shouldn't he have a beard when he's playing a character with intense sexual feelings?

Sunday 16 November 2014

Gala du tricentenaire de l'Opéra Comique

The Opéra Comique marked its tricentenary  with a gala spectacular on Thursday, now available on  Highly recommended: it's brilliant! The house is seen in all its glory - but wait - the boxes have been invaded. Pierrot chases Columbine among the  modern patrons. It's a reference to the origins of the Opéra Comique, in fairs and numerous small theatres  some 300 years ago. Riotous good fun - subversive humour. French opera wasn't timid! A figure resembling Louis XIV appears, holding a banner marked "1680", a reference to Molière and the Comédie Française.  A quartet of figures in 18th century costume  perform an extract from Antoine Dauvergne's Les Troquers, premiered by the Opéra Comique in 1753. In contrast, a selection from La Fille du régiment (another Opéra Comique premiere) including 'Salut à la France', where Julie Fuchs sings, draped in the tricolour and wearing black boots.  François-Xavier Roth leads the orchestra into the march from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Pierrot reads a letter from the Opéra Comique to Berlioz, not very conplimentary. Anna Caterina Antonacci appears and sings  'D'amour l'ardente flamme'. A stunningly beautiful moment. Then Bizet walks on, nervously, defended by a splendid Big man (Michel Fau) dressed as Carmen as seen in the Opéra Comique premiere, which was a scandalous flop. Yet now it's the world's favourite opera.  So much for dismissing things first time round. Antonacci sings the Habanera, underlining the point. The figure of Offenbach appears, dozing, teased by Fau's spicy Carmen. Sabine Devieilhe twitters 'Les oiseaux dans la charmille' and Vincent Le Texier sings 'Scintille, Diamant'.

The stage turns pink, yellow and purple for Delibes' Lakmé : lurid colours for the luridly exotic coloratura. "Où va la jeune hindoue", sings Devieilhe.  More ultra-high notes to come - Patricia Petibon scales the heights with 'Air du Cour-la-Reine' from Massenet Manon. A print from the original production is projected onto the plain backdrop while Petibon and  Frédéric Antoun sing the scene in Saint-Sulpice. A wonderful juxtaposition of past and present, showing how intelligent video and lighting can achieve marvellous effects. In an instant, the visuals change, flames pouring from the backcloth, filling the stage - what directors of the past would have given for that!  

Pierrot reappears, talking about new technology like electricity. Another total change of scene: we're in a naturalistic grotto of green and blue. The orchestra plays Debussy, but who's singing ? Michel Fau now dressed as Mélisande with a blonde wig. while Jérôme Deschamps, another actor, does Pelléas. It's hilarious, but also connects spoken theatre with what for many (like me) is the epitome of musical theatre. Now the scene doesn't change. Instead Vincent Le Texier and Stéphane Degout sing the scene in the caves: after the comic interlude, the menace seems even more oppressive. Harps and flutes introduce the next "scene" change: instantly Pelléas is outside, in the "open air"  Another striking scene change, the backcloth first showing an orchestra (reminding us of the music), then a nightscape outside an "Eastern" castle with palm trees. Degout sings "A travers le désert" from Henri Rabaud Mârouf, savetier du Caire. No need for camels. They're in the music. 

With Antonacci.  Le Texier, Degout, Petibon, Fuchs, Devieilhe, Antoun, François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles for an orchestra and Accentus, the specialist choir for the chorus, the Opéra Comique brings together the finest, liveliest performers in the genre. But this is far more than a semi-staging with skits.  Fau and Deschamps connect the musical pieces to their history, and to the history of the Opéra Comique, and transform the stage so we feel the power of creative imagination.

The Cunning Little Vixen Gangnam Style !

Friday 14 November 2014

"I'm a creative animal" - Barbara Hannigan

"I'm a creative animal" says Barbara Hannigan. Watch the documentary (51 minutes) from SRF, Switzerland  HERE.

Wigmore Hall Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Intercontemporain

Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the great new music ensembles, made a welcome return to the Wigmore Hall  London, built around Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire,, with Salomé Haller. With characteristic wit, Ensemble Intercontemporain preceded Pierrot Lunaire with Luigi Dallapiccola Due studi (1946-7) and  Bruno Mantovani Carnaval for clarinet, piano and cello. (2014), enhancing the multiple connections between them. .

As a very young man, Luigi Dallapiccola heard Arnold Schoenberg  conduct Pierrot Lunaire in Florence in 1924.   In Due Studi, written 20 years later, Dallapiccola uses twelve-tone rows, but the influence of Pierrot Lunaire is much more subtle. There are two movements, Sarabanda and Fanfara e fuga.  Tight dialogue between Hae-Sun Kung (violin) and Hidéki Nagano (piano).

Ensemble Intercontemporain did the Wigmore Hall an honour by giving the world premiere of Bruno Mantovani's Carnaval for clarinet, piano and cello. (2014). which will be heard next week at the  Opéra Bastille.  Mantovani is a major figure in new music, greatly respected and widely performed, so this premiere was a significant event. Carnaval evolves over eight sections, each strikingly individual, yet written so tightly that the piece works, as a whole, like a powerful mechanism. "Clarinet and cello battle it out, their weapons adjacent notes - E and F -in a high register. Then they stop." writes Paul Griffiths in superb programme notes worthy of past standards at the Wigmore Hall  "The conflict, however remains, the two instruments  reiterating their points....with glissandos from the cello answered by arabesques from the clarinet". In the second section, the piano dominates, then withdraws as cello and clarinet soar in a heady maelstrom of flying quarter tones. ".....Dynamic wobbles and arpeggios.....luminous flurries and tremolandos are revisited before the music works back to a steady tempo"

Carnaval connects to Pierrot Lunaire in that it evolves through a series of different, and very individual "tableaux" to express something  that can't be articulated in speech but has strikingly vivid dramatic effect. The structure is tightly compressed, intensifying the sense of constant movement and sudden change. Disconcerting, but in a thrilling, satisfying way. Hopefully it will be performed again soon: hardly had the notes trailed off, than I wanted to hear it again, and again. It's that good. Jérôme Comte played the clarinet, Éric-Maria Couturier played the cello and Hidéko Nagano the piano - just three instruments, but they packed a powerful punch. 

When Salomé Haller entered for Pierrot Lunaire, it was almost immediately apparent that the performance would be neither wan nor pallid.  She didn't need to wear a Pierrot costume as did Albertine Zehme, the former actress who created the part for Schoenberg himself.  (See photo at right, where she's not in costume.)  Haller wore a dark suit with a glorious brooch of mother-of-pearl in the shape of two moons, one large, one smaller. At first, she simply presented the music as incantation. We were drawn into this surreal world as if by hypnosis, so that we were responding ourselves to what the songs might "mean" - a more creative process than listening passively. Haller began to "act", in much the way Sprechgesang isn't quite singing nor quite speech. This ambiguity worked well, suggesting stylized formality rather than realism. Is Pierrot real or a creation of the imagination  Who are these other personalities like the blasse Wässerin, the Dandy and the Madonna? The closer one gets to literal meaning, "das Bild des Glanzes zerfloß"

Pierrot Lunaire can turn the idea of narrative song upside down.  In this performance, what struck me was the relationship between voice and instruments that speak without words. Sophie Cherrier's flute sang, as flautists have sung for centuries, from Greek times to the present. When she exchanged flute for piccolo, the sound seemed even more ancient, even more plaintive.  This close relationship revealed the complex  structure that underpin's Schoenberg's creation. Wandering tonality and elusive images are held together on firm, orderly foundations. The songs don't work together as narrative, but reveal ideas constantly re-forming, and changing perspectives.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Live aus Wien Bychkov Khovanshchiina Saturday

Mussorgsky LIVE from the Wiener Staatsoper this Saturday, 15th November, 1930 Vienna time, on . Semyon Bychkov conducts Mussorgsky Khovanshchiina with Mit Ferruccio Furlanetto (Iwan Chowanski), Christopher Ventris (Andrei Chowanski), Herbert Lippert (Golizyn), Andrzej Dobber (Schaklowity), Ain Anger (Dossifei), Elena Maximova (Marfa), Norbert Ernst (Schreiber)

Wednesday 12 November 2014

ENO Old Vic and the Myth of Imbalance

The ENO has been forced to pull out of its venture with the Old  Vic Bristol. This production of Orfeo was eagerly anticipated because the Old Vic is one of Britain's oldest theatres, ideal in size and ambience for Monteverdi. Bristol is a prosperous town with an active arts scene, so a collaboration with ENO would have been one of the most exciting events in the West Country in years.  a significant disaster, yet precipitated by the Arts Council England's  decision to slash the ENO's funding by 32.7% over the 2015-2018 period  Most classical music organizations, including orchestras, are getting cut by around 5%, except for the ENO and the Barbican, which is being slashed by 21%. Read my piece Wrestling through Waffle - Arts Council Funding 2015-18..

Tom  Morris of the Old Vic, who would have been directing, said “Bristol Old Vic remains committed to bringing an innovative and accessible production of this exquisite opera to our beautiful theatre and we will continue to explore ways of achieving this within the next couple of years.We are deeply sympathetic to ENO in their current situation and share their frustration in having to postpone their ambition to perform further throughout the UK.” He's wise enough to know that arts organizations should stick together in tough times. Politicians and the public they fool would like nothing better than to divide the arts community.

It's ironic that London organizations get slammed for not reaching out to the regions, yet have their funding slashed so they can't afford to do so when they want to? Crazy logic. The blame lies squarely with the doctrinaire political stance of Arts Council England and its political masters. It's time to challenge the assumption that decentralizing the arts is a good thing.  Much is made of the way taxpayers are "forced" to support the arts, and London, and that  the "poor" support "the rich'. But that's how the whole system is based, not just the arts. There's more than a whiff about Pork Barrel in the air.The more organizations are pushed to "outreach" the less they have to spend on their core activities.

Last week, a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report concluded that the Arts Council's anti-London bias doesn't go far enough, and that there should be more sweeping changes  limiting London’s access to National Lottery funding for the arts to its proper per capita share (equal to that of the rest of England) – this idea was originally proposed in Rebalancing our Cultural Capital; earmarking any future increase in ACE’s grant in aid for the English regions beyond the M25 area; a redoubling of efforts at brokering cultural partnerships involving businesses, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, universities and international organizations, particularly within the EU, which might provide additional funding sources. Furthermore, they recommend that local government organizations should be pushed to do more, even if they have other priorities and needs to address.

The whole foundation of this philosophy is political, and bears no relationship to the realities of arts management.  Politicians exploit the notion that the arts are somehow elitist: for the rich and educated and London-based.  It's easy capital, since most people outside the arts don't know or care what happens. Marshal the  Sun mindset, the universal Luddite, the remains of outmoded class warfare - and bingo! You get votes! As Harriet Harman said, she didn't see her constituents in the audience at the Royal Opera House, so she supports reducing funding to one of the nation's internationally acclaimed flagships of the arts.

The reason why London dominates is simple: there needs to be a critical mass of expertise, below which true excellence can't be reached. London has been the centre of the arts in this country for centuries. London organzations inherit traditions that shouldn't be ignored.  Without London, we wouldn't have a world-class cultural heritage. Strangle the centre and the whole body dies.

The reality is that the arts aren't cheap and excellence only comes when there's a critical concentration of effort. Existing London organizations have that critical mass of expertise and excellence. Throwing money at micro organizations simply doesn't make economic sense.  It would take billions to redress the balance between London and areas outside London. No matter how worthy smaller organizations are, they can't duplicate what already exists in London. London is the golden goose from which all things flow. It just doesn't make good business sense to kill that goose and assume dozens of mini-geese will arise in its place.

In any case, talent isn't something you can turn on like a tap. Talented people excel when they can bounce off other creatives. Some of course thrive on isolation, but throughout history, arty types have flocked to together (often in big cities) for a reason.  In London, people learn their trade from the best in the business, nationally and internationally. Talented people are always going to be a minority, so why not let them thrive together  Forced redistribution doesn't work in many aspects of life. Certainly not when the assets are human, intangible and unregimentable.

So the government wants to dictate that local government should pour funds into local arts  What's the point of shiny new arts centres when the pressure doesn't come from the people but from above - and from bureaucrats in London. So much for the idea of "redressing imbalance". If there's a solid artistic foundation in any particular area, fair enough, but we don't need more horrors like the National Centre for Popular Music, which cost £15 million nearly 20 years ago, and which folded within 18 months.

Monday 10 November 2014

Anthem for Doomed Youth - Wilfred Owen 11/11

Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes 
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. 
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
 Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

Rameau Platée comes to London with Paul Agnew

Paul Agnew conducts Rameau Platée with the Early Opera Company on 20th November. My review is HERE.That's Agnew in the photo above, when he was singing Platée in 1999 with Marc Minkowski. Platée is one of Rameau's best-known works, ranking with Les Indes Galantes. More details of the London performance HERE.  Agnew defined the part, and has probably sung it more than anyone else. He's also conducted the opera many times in recent years, including Paris, Vienna and New York.  So his presence in London will be reason alone to catch the London concert performance next week. He's replacing Christian Curnyn,. the Early Opera Company's much loved regular conductor, but Agnew is mega star billing in Rameau circles.What an opportunity to hear the best of Rameau with one of the best interpreters! This performance marks the beginning of a new relationship between the Early Opera Company and St John's  Smith Square.

Platée is a key part of Rameau's canon. Indeed, I don't think it's possible to understand Rameau without appreciating this remarkable work. It has all the key features of Rameau's style – energy, and vivacious dance rhythms, in a fantasy where gods, mortals, and animals mix with imaginative exuberance.  Not quite "good" humour though, as Platée was written 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 very ugly.  Platée is a frog whose realm is a pond in the wilds, the opposite of refined, elegant Versailles. 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.  The man who sang the original was costumed so he looked as though he was covered in pustules. Yech! Quite possibly the French Court wanted this subject in order to put the Spanish in their place. Dynastic marriages were politically loaded, and had nothing to do with love..

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. Jupiter, Mercury and Juno might misuse Platée  as a pawn in their intrigues, but ultimately it's the humble frog who learns the true meaning of love, and finds wisdom. Apart from Platée herself/himself, the pivotal part goes to an extravagant character sometimes L'amour, sometimes La Folie. Love and madness! In the end, Platée returns to the pond, where she/he is in her/his natural element. Presumably the Gods still scrap, but the implication is that Platée is happy.

Please read my piece Frog Kisses Prince HERE  a review of the 1999 production filmed in 2002  - absolutely essential viewing!

Saturday 8 November 2014

Georg Trakl Spiegelspiel Austrian Cultural Forum

Georg Trakl died 100 years ago this week. Look into his feral eyes - he's posing neatly for a formal portrait but those are the eyes of a Wild Child. Trakl was born in Salzburg, like Mozart, and was drinking excessively and doing drugs by the age of 13. He trained as a pharmacist, a dangerous choice in a time when opiates were freely available for medical use, and pharmacists mixed their own organic barbiturates. But he was a famous poet, whose brilliant works  are  well known in German-speaking countries.  His poems have been set by Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith, Wilhelm Killmayer, Wolfgang Rihm and even Oliver Knussen.

On Tuesday November 11th there ;s a special recital at the Auistrian Cultural Forum in London – Georg Trakl: Spiegelspiel, A dramatic song cycle by Austrian composer Louis Mander, who will be conducting an interesting piano quartet and three singers.  The texts will be English, from a recent translation of Trakl's poems. Read more HERE.

When the 1914-18 war broke out, Trakl, who worked for the Austrian army medical corps, was sent to the Eastern Front (more gruesome than the Western Front); After the battle of Grodek in what is now the Ukraine, Trakl had to treat nearly a hundred wounded and dying men with little back-up. He was overwhelmed.  He wrote to Ludwig Wittgenstein, his friend, but by the time Wiitgenstein arrived, Trakl had overdosed on cocaine.

Below, Trakl's poem Grodek The translation is a new one which I worked out spontaneously last night. A good exercise. Trakl's poetry is idiosyncratic. Seemingly simple images convey opaque meaning. His cadences break off rather like the cadences in some esoteric music, heard from afar. Grammar Nazis will not get this guy. He's best read in German because the sounds of the words make a difference. Like Hölderlin, it feels like Trakl is transcribing "music from another planet".

"In the evening, through autumnal woodlands, come the sounds of death-bringing gunfire, resonating over golden fields and blue lakes, above which the sun sheds a gloomy glow. Night falls around dying soldiers, whose wild screams break forth from shattered mouths. Quietly over the reed beds, blood-red clouds where a Savage God lives, spilled blood flows in the moonlit coldness."

"All roads end in black decay. Under the golden canopy of stars and branches, shadow sisters (valkyrie) stumble through silent groves to greet the ghosts of heroes with bloodied heads, with the soft tones of  reed-pipes and the dark flutes .of autumn.  O proud suffering!  The searing flames of the spirits today will feed a conflagration to curse generations as yet unborn"

Friday 7 November 2014

What's with the shark ? Mozart Idomeneo Royal Opera House

What's the fuss about the shark ? Mozart Idomeneo at the Royal Opera House last night (I was at Boris Godunov on Monday)  Very musically satisfying, with Marc Minkowski at the helm. The infamous shark appears for only a few moments, borne aloft by the chorus, yet everyone seems fixated  by it. Surely London audiences must be aware that Idomeneo is set on the island of Crete, in the middle of the Mediterranean.  Who is the God of the Sea? Neptune (Poseidon), upon whom Crete is utterly dependent. Neptune, being the God of the Sea, is often depicted with fish and with waves.  Hence, too "the sign of Pisces" - a fish. The Cretans were bereft when their king was lost at sea.  So when he's saved by Neptune, they think it's a miracle. Why shouldn't they hold a religious procession, parading a symbol of their God? Many other Mediterranean cultures do the same today, though the religion is different.

In this production, Neptune doesn't materialize in the midst of a thunderstorm waving a triton, but he haunts Idomeneo throughout the opera. Perhaps the mpst powerful gods are those who are invisible, conjured up in the minds of those who believe. Neptune's presence is felt, invisibly, in the music, its moods as changeable as the ocean. We hear howling winds, ominous clouds and gentle breezes, as soft and sweet as zephyrs. We only have to listen. Marc Minkowski is one of the great Baroque conductors of our time, so the Royal Opera House scored a coup getting him behind this Idomeneo.  Although the Royal Opera House orchestra isn't a period instrument ensemble, Minkowski had them playing with a proper period sensitivity. The harpsichord dominates, creating cleaner, leaner sound than one usually hears. Perhaps Idomeneo harks back to an earlier era, to Haydn, rather than to the hurly-burly of Viennese popular theatre. With this aesthetic, it might seem too cool and formal to be one of Mozart's "greatest hits",  but for those who care about music, Minkowski's approach was immensely rewarding. Yet when Minkowski took his curtain call, some smartass booed.  Some come to opera these days to bully others, not to listen to music.

Given Minkowski's  elegant touch, Matthew Polenzani's Idomeneo  was very effective. He's done a lot of Mozart, and this is the best yet. Measured, well paced and well balanced, his voice suggested a king not driven to extremes by his own flaws but by the caprices of nature. His interactions with Idamante (Franco Fagioli) felt human, as if they were real life father and son. Very good singing from Sophie Bevan (Ilia) and Malin Byström (Elettra)  Please read Claire Seymour's review of the singing HERE in Opera Today.

It is in this musical context that I think Martin Kušej's direction needs to be considered. The minimalism of the staging may enrage some, but it focuses attention on the music. The story itself supports Spartan – oops, Cretan, treatment. The people have been at war, and have suffered. In the First Act, the people are seen in pale-coloured garments, moving in stylized fashion, not unlike sculpture in Greek art. Stark black and white suggest the dilemma Idomeneo has to face. Neptune is not a benevolent god. He demands human sacrifice. Thus the red banners and blood soaked mass that extrudes from a crack in the palace walls. Anyone who's been in  a fish market can figure out what that might be. Idomeneo's disembowelled spiritually because he has to kill his own son. So much for religion. Technically, the revolving stage mechanism ) is very effective since it avoids clumsy scene changes. It's much more sophisticated than the series of boxes used in Katie Mitchell's Idomeneo at the ENO (read more here). It manages to suggest the cliffs above the beach and the marble palace in which thr Cretan royal family live. The trouble is, though, it's no fun  to look at. Perhaps it shouldn't be, since this isn't a pretty story, but it looks tacky and incomplete. the lighting is a joke./

Kušej has been played up in the media as some kind of monster, often by people who repeat what they've heard about things they haven't seen, but he's more banal than dangerous. .He doesn't take as many liberties with opera as, say, Klaus Guth, whose Die Frau ohne Schatten (more here)  changed the whole meaning of the opera, but which was wildly praised by London critics. Kušej's Don Giovanni for Salzburg was better than the soulless Sven-Erik Bechtolf production which replaced it this year (read more here)  What matters about any production is not updating as such, but how the ideas reflect the music and the drama. Kušej's Idomeneo isn't his best work, but it's more dull than enraging. Thank goodness for the music!

photo : Catherine Ashmore, 2014, courtesy Royal Opera House