Thursday 31 December 2015

Deceptive New Year's Eve

Japanese Americans celebrating New Year's Eve, 1944-45. Out with the old year, in with the new. Everyone's dressed up, looking good. But remember the date. It's wartime.  These people are in an internment camp, locked up because they're "enemy". Albeit a good camp, where the staff are decent peiople and join in.  Moral: don't judge by surface appearances, don't hate.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Florian Boesch - BR Klassik videostream recital

From BR Klassik, a video of a recital by Florian Boesch and Martin Martineau.  It's a superb performance, of course, but it's also an unusual opportunity to watch how Lieder specialists approach their art.  Filmed in one of the small studios in the radio station building, the focus is unusually intimate and focused. Only at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, do listeners get this close to performers, so close that the recital feels like personal interaction.  What a thrill it is to look inside the piano, as a singer does, and see the strings vibrate, the music physically quivering into life.

The audience, presumably invited, are paying attention, even though the seats look uncomfortable and some of the repertoire was difficult. For this is what makes Lieder unique. It's not "background entertainment", but intellectual engagement. The poet's ideas and emotions are conveyed by composer and performers and processed through sensitive listening. Not at all a passive spectator sport !

These days when the very word "intellectual" is a swear word, we need to remember the social history of Lieder. Opera as we know it now didn't really exist. People would go to the theatre for a good show, with music. Mozart "is" intellectual, but there's no reason why we can't just sit back and enjoy. Singspeile and more earthy entertainment were pretty much the norm, even for Beethoven, whom I can't even imagine doing showtunes.  That's why Rossini and Donizetti seemed so revolutionary. There was Schubert, raised in Italian as well as German tradition, trying to figure out how to write opera and never quite succeeding.

Socially, too, Lieder reached an intellectual audience. Most of the poets Schubert set were near contemporaries, often men whom he knew personally. Poetry absolutely is at the heart of the genre, and poetry means ideas. At Liederabends. people would flirt, and eat and chat, but they came for the mental challenge of hearing poetry translated into song. Kind of like a literary salon, with music.  While there's lots of strophic ballad in the genre, its highest points are reached in durchkomponierte art song.

Boesch and Martineau chose a challenging programme, quickly launching from the famous Der Wanderer D489 to Amphiaraos D166. There's no way you can get this song without a basic appreciation of Greek myth, though the forceful chords evoke powerful, if doomed, heroic resolve. The poet was Theodor Körner, who actually did die a hero, fighting Napoleon with the Lützower Jäger.  Boesch and Martineau did this song at the Wigmore Hall a few weeks before the Munich recital (read more here). This later performance was even more ferociously intense, bringing out the the structural progressions in the song so well that I rushed to read what Graham Johnson wrote about it.

As in London, they followed this with Gebet wäjhrend der Schlacht D171 and then straight on to the declamatory ballad  Die drei Sänger D329 1815. Schubert loved setting these sagas, though they are hard to carry off well without the communication skills Boesch and Martineau possess. Schubert didn't complete the song, so Boesch recited the rest of the poem so we could imagine what might have been. Then, on to Waldesnacht D 708 and Der Gott und die Bayajadere D 254, which Boesch sang with Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall at the start of the WH's complete Schubert song series. (read more here)   Again, being in a small studio and so close up made the experience even more intense. Boesch and Martineau created the lilting lines so they sounded exotic, even dance-like, evoking the fabled India of Goethe's imagination. For all its loveliness, this song isn't that easy to do. Boesch and Martineau bring out the sumptuous beauty in it, but also the turbulent anguish of the Bayadere ( a dancer) who sacrifices herself for love.

Three Liszt settings, Ein Fichtenbaum, Vergiftet sind meine Lieder and Loreeley.  Lovely piano parts, for Liszt was a pianist and "spoke" through the instrument rather than picking up on the bitterness of Heine's irony.   Boesch, however, compensated by articulating the words expressively, emphasizing the inner poetry. Watch his face as he sings, and listen to how he emphasizes meaning. .Then on to Schumann, also a pianist and married to one of the greatest pianists of her time.  Fantastic piano lines, and in Aufträge op.77, No.5  a fiendishly fast-paced, tongue-twisting, lyrical vocal part. Humour is part of its drama. At the end, Boesch burst into a huge grin.  The melancholy Meine Rose flowed gently, and Herzeleied Op 107/1 was lusciously plangent. 

These prepared us for a masterful set of 3 of the 9 songs from Lieder und Gesänge aus 'Wilhelm Meister', Op.98a, Wie nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß, Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, and An die Türen will ich schleichen.  Schumann's settings aren't as popular as those by Schubert and Hugo Wolf, but they are every bit their equal, with firm, contemplative and - dare I use a naughty word, "Intellectual". Boesch and Martineau delivered them with dignity and conviction so strong that one could almost feel the presence of the Harper warning us through his strange poetry. 

Two Schubert encores, Nachtviolen and Heidenröslein,, just as at the Wigmore Hall. . This latter is so ubiquitous that some think its folk song, but it isn't. It's Goethe.  Again, listen carefully to Boesch as he sings, pointedly stressing the subtle violence. The youth trifles and kills the rose but she fights back with its thorns. "Röslein sprach: "Ich steche dich,/ Dass du ewig denkst an mich/ Und ich will's nicht leiden."  Before antibiotics, you could die if a scratch became infected.  But the song switches quickly back to cheery insouciance and femininity which we know isn't as innocent as it may sound. Watch Boesch's expressions. Yes, this is a humorous song, though it packs a lethal punch!

Monday 28 December 2015

The Song of Malaya ; a song for the displaced

Tse Lo lin (紫羅蓮) died this week aged 90.  Song of Malaya (馬來亞之戀) (1954) was one of her most famous movies, for which she also wrote the script. The film is much more than a romance in an exotic locale. It deals with issues like the traumatic dislocation of war, the identity of overseas Chinese, and the moral and cultural obligations of an individual to society.  An extremely beautiful film and very moving. Tse also founded and managed the production company. She was then only 30 years old - quite an achievement for any young actress, anywhere.

Tse was caught up in the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and forced to participate in the high-profile film the Japanese Army made to commemorate their victory. It is an important historical document, since it was begun within weeks of the fall of Hong Kong on December 25th 1941, when the city was still scarred by battle. Re-enactments were filmed as accurately as possible, on location, with the supervison  of officers who had taken part. Tse played a small part as a local girl, but was most certainly not a collaborator. She was smuggled out in considerable danger, rejoining other members of the Hong Kong film industry who had regrouped as exiles in Free China. China had been at war with Japan since1931. Shanghai and Canton had been conquered. The biggest mass migration in history occured when around 25 million people became refugees,trekking from the coast to the Himilayas.  The charismatic  actor Ng Chor Fan already was a figure in the anti-Japanese resistance, having been an activist since the early 1930's, making patriotic movies and organizing refugee relief. Chinese cinema always has had a social and moral conscience.

In The Song of Malaya (aka Love in Malaya), Tse plays Yuk-kin, a girl who has lost her homeland and family in the war, and travels to Kuala Lumpur, searching for her father who had emigrated years before. Since Malaya had also been occupied by the Japanese, the background of social upheaval hangs heavily on the film.  Tse arrives in Malaya,  excited by the strange new surroundings, but she's dispossesed. Luckily, she's taken in by kind local Chinese, some of whom had been in Malaya so long that they had acculturated as Malay. She meets and is attracted to Mr Wong (played by Cheung Wood Yau) who runs a school for the Wah Kiu (overseas Chinese) so they can learn Chinese and understand their identity in a multi-cultural society.  He's from China, too, and, like Tse, has lost all contact with his family and native region.  Eventually, Tse meets up with her father, (played by Ng Chor Fan) who is now a westernized businessman with a Wah Kiu wife (Mary Man Lee) who wears sarong kebaya and acculturates Malay. Imagine the tensions.

Tse goes to live in Singapore with her Dad and finish her education. Her father's associate, Mr Cheung (played by Cheung Ying), falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Below, in the clip, we can see Tse sing about Malaya, new hopes and dreams and of friendship between Wah Kiu and  China-born. Watch the dynamic between her and her audience. She waves at Schoolteacher Wong, who waves back at her. But things are not to be. Wong's wife and son come out of China, but Wong dies, and presumably they're destitute again. Tse marries Cheung, and they plan a round-the-world honeymoon. But Tse knows where her destiny lies, and Cheung is a good man. So they use their money to continue Wong's mission to provide a good education for the Wah Kiu.

Tse, the woman, not the character, was deeply religious and stopped making movies in the mid-1960's  to raise a family. Her marriage ended early in divorce, and she moved to Seattle, bringing up her daughters.  So she, and they, became Wah Kiu, like millions of other Chinese who have emigrated and live often outside their roots. Not refugees like Tse's character in the movie, but displaced people who forge new identities. I wish The Song of Malaya could be released again because in some ways it's even more relevant now. In the second clip, which mixes the intro with short clips from the film, the scene at the building site is symbolic.The cranes work well, but the peasant hauls soil in a wheelbarrow. Together they build a channel for a river.  Hence, integration and commitment, not anomie.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Christmas 1915

One hundred years ago today, the "ChristmasTruce" when both sides in the trenches stopped fighting, for a while. The event of 1915 is very well documented. Something similar also occurred on the Eastern Front.

I wish it could be said that ordinary people could change the course of events, but we now know, even better than before, how the media shapes and controls how people think. With the internet, social media and mass, often uninformed communication, it's harder than ever to escape media manipulation.

The War on Christmas ?

What's with this "War on Christmas" business?  If  your faith is so weak that it's threatened by what other people do or don't do, then maybe it's time to  question what one really believes in.

Jesus said "love your neighbour as yourself."So, goodwill and forbearance to all, even to those who prefer hate.

The pic shows Krishna, the Hindu god, as an infant. 

Monday 21 December 2015

Wigmore Hall saves Christmas

At this time of the year the transport system closes down - cancellations, roadworks, traffic jams, possible bad weather, insane crowds in the West End......   No wonder the music business goes into hibernation at this time of year. There's no serious music at the South Bank until 22nd January (Calleja)! Unless you like Dudamel (though there's a solitary piano recital). The Barbican wakes up from Raymond Gubbay on 9th January with Pelléas et Mélisande, but having heard Rattle conduct it with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie, I don't think the LSO at the Barbican will top that.

The Wigmore Hall closes after 23rd December and reopens 27th, though the last pre-break concert, with Ensemble Correspondances, presents 17th century French Noël. On Monday 28th, the celebrated Max Emanuel Cencic (photo at right) sings Hasse and Vivaldi with Armonia Atenea.  I'm tempted because he's wonderful.  I first heard him live in recital  when he was 17 years old, after he left the Vienna Boys Choir.  Previously, I'd heard him as a 12-year-old treble singing Mahler Symphony no 4. His voice never really broke, and he trained it so he could keep singing male soprano repertoire. Thirty five years later, he's a countertenor with immense range and style. I've already booked tickets for New Years Eve at the Wigmore Hall with Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick – British choral music – Britten, Warlock, Howells, Holst, Moeran, RVW and Gerald Finzi.

The Wigmore Hall's first big Monday afternoon concert on 4th January features Benjamin Appl. He's very young but extremely promising (read more about him by searching this site). Appl is singing Schumann, Wolf and Brahms with Graham Johnson, no less. What a good way to start the new year!  The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continues on Wednesday January 6th with two concerts, both with Graham Johnson. Birgid Steinberger, Daniel Johannsen and Benjamin Appl sing Schubert's "Gothic Songs of Horror",  seldom heard live, while Christopher Maltman sings later in the evening. The Schubert Song series continues with a very interesting programme on Monday 11th with Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Reiger - don't miss this! Pisaroni has an intuitive understanding of the Lieder genre,  and a warm, Italianate timbre which suits these songs exceptionally well.  Do not miss!

Plenty more chamber music, early music and recitals, including the ever-lively Royal Academy of Music Song Circle (Jan 17) and then Classical Opera does a  Mozart evening with Louise Alder and Benjamin Hulett. By then, the Barbican is back to normal programming but the South Bank has a week yet to go.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Kurt Masur and Leipzig, his greatest achievement.

Kurt Masur has died, aged 88. Masur was much, much more than a conductor. He transformed his city, his nation and the world. Would Germany be united today without the movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Would the Iron Curtain still hold sway? The cataclysmic events of 1989 were only 26 years ago, but seem to have been forgotten, by too many.  To truly honoure Masur, we need to appreciate Masur the man, and what shaped him.

Masur was born in Brieg (Bryzg) in Lower Silesia, once part of Germany, now part of Poland.  That might mean nothing, but it's this background of war, ethnic cleansing and exile that affects people.  Christoph Eschenbach was traumatized, but he was only 5. Masur, who was 18,  could understand.  Masur's career was built on the rock-solid foundations of German Democratic Republic music-making. In the DDR, the traditions of German music remained resolutely untouched by what was happening elsewhere. The regime was repressive, but it also resisted capitalist pressure, maintaining a superb music education system, which supported the industry so it could do what it did best, without having to cave in to the commercial forces of a new era where recordings started a new mass market dictated by public taste.  What we think we know is shaped by market forces.  Harnoncourt's response was to go back to the roots (read more here). Masur and the East German tradition were "at" the roots.. Masur conducted the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra from 1955 to 1972, with breaks between, and conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1970 to 1996.  These two great pillars of the German tradition remained pure and largely intact. So Masur's repertoire was standard Austro-German, like Thielemann's after him? Better that conductors should do what they love best.

The city of Leipzig has been a centre of German culture and idealism for centuries.  Consider its "favourite sons" among them Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn. It also has liberal tendencies. When the Nazxis tried to rip out Mendelssohn's statue outside the Gewandhaus, the Mayor stood up to them. So when protests for freedom began in early 1989, Leipzig was at the heart of things.  Masur attended meetings at the Nikolaikirche, and stood with the thousands  who marched through the streets. Just as Furtwängler made a statement conducting Beethoven to make Goebbels squirm, Masur played Beethoven as a symbol of liberty and freedom.   In 1956 and again in 1968, the Soviets silenced protest by sending in tanks.  The Nikolaikirche movement's emphasis on non-violence grew from very realistic awareness of danger.  Just as Sibelius brought the world behind Finland against Russia,  Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra used their prestige to galvanize support invoking moral authority.

A few weeks after the "revolution" of October 9th, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra went on tour. At the time, we worried that they wouldn't be allowed out in case they defected.  When they walked onto the platform at the Sheldonian in Oxford, the audience began to cheer as a gesture of appreciation. The orchestra seemed visibly moved. Masur let them take in the solemnity of the moment for as long as possible, before launching into an impassioned evening of Beethoven.

Barely two years later, Masur left the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for New York.  In London, we got to know him well, when he was Chief of the LPO during the first decade of the millennium, while simultaneously heading the Orchestra Nationale de France and guesting elsewhere. So much for the nonsense idea that conductors should only manage one orchestra at a time.  A friend  said Masur was "too foursquare", but another said that it was his DDR heritage, which puts other tastes into perspective. ie not Bernstein or Karajan.  Masur went on to many things after Leipzig, but Leipzig will always be central to his legacy.  It is sad that it has taken Masur's death to alert the world that he had a huge career long before he went to the west. 

Here is a a link to the best and most comprehensive obituary. Extremely well written, by someone who knewe the subject well. Once newspapers used to employ serious professionals to do these things, and update them when the subject died. In this case, the un named writer seems to have stopped about 10 years ago because the info on London and Paris is sketchy and seems to have been filled in by someone else, as some other parts like the first paragraphs.  But it gives an excellent and personal insight,

Below a clip of Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Nikolaikirche.(not 1989)

Saturday 19 December 2015

Stalin's Little Helpers

Courtesy of a friend, vintage greetings from a happy surveillance society! And why Stalin ? Because he used Lenin as a front, like the kid with a mask. That's the thing about art in a totalitarian state - read the runes !\The kids are in mid 20th dress but how pinched and miserable they look ! The girl on the left looks like she's on trial  Little babushka looks like she wants to kill. . I didn't think we needed tp point this out, we've all heard Shostakovich.

You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He's making a list,
And checking it twice,
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!
He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake.
He knows when you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake.
He knows when you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Thursday 17 December 2015

London's new concert hall - the wider perspective

Plans for a new, world-class concert hall for London reach a further stage, with the approval of funds for a more detailed business plan.  Even before the initial feasibility study was made,  there were strong indications that the new hall would be connected to the Barbican, on the present Museum of London site. So the news isn't really "news" .  However, now that more details are emerging, it's time for more analysis.

Since the new hall will cost £278 million (at least), the public and media will be up in arms protesting.  Serious music isn't taken seriously enough in this country, so already there's opposition from many quarters. More worrying, though, is the opposition from within the industry itself, riddled as it is with balkanization and special interests. What we really need is a coherent national arts policy that deals with things from an international perspective.

London doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is a key part of the global arts ecology. Mess London up and it impacts on the world. Should we care? Yes, because the arts are also part of the economy and play a huge part in maintaining Britain's political credibility.  Britain is still perceived as a civilized nation thanks to its  progressive, generous cultural heritage

 For decades France had no real national arts policy, but the new Philharmonie has dramatically changed things. The Philharmonie is a stunning building with superb acoustics, and back-up facilities. It's so good that it could well revitalize the French arts industry all over, not shifting the balance so much as opening up new possibilities all round.  Paris was once the heart of  European culture.   Berlin has always been way ahead, part of the German-speaking musical ecosystem, to the extent that the Austro-German tradition eclipses the French contribution to music in many minds. This is what London is really up against. Stop swimming and you sink.

London's new concert hall won't, one hopes, be just another concert hall, but a genuinely innovative facility designed for the next 100 years. Sure, London has lots of venues but small venues like the Wigmore Hall, Milton Court, etc, serve niche audiences.  The South Bank was a flagship sixty-five years ago, but it's now overcrowded, its artistic purpose drowning under under other priorities.  A Philharmonie-type venture would be altogether in a different league.  It would be world class, attracting musicians and visitors from all over the world.  The arts market is now global. Listeners are as likely to be in Ulan Bator as in Pontypridd. One  huge international community linked by the internet and telecommunications, which render obsolete the boundaries of space and time. If you stop swimming, you sink. Britain's got to keep pace.

So the new centre will cost  £278 million?  Compare that with Boris Johnson's Olympicopolis, partly funded by the Smithsonian but also requiring £141 million in government funds, in theory offset against a supposed £2.8 billon income.  It's basically just another college site with museum attached.  At least the new concert hall would be something genuinely different, as opposed to another way of milking the Olympics' so-called legacy.  Keeping Boris happy is one thing, but what about the overall impact ?  Governments have a way of discovering money, as we've seen in the sudden decision to fight another, possibly unwinnable, war in Syria.  As Churchill supposedly said, what would be fighting for if we didn't have the arts? Bombs make enemies, culture wins friends.

Capital projects always attract funding, for various reasons, but it's also false logic to assume that the money could be better spent on  existing facilities. A sudden injection of funds like that that would be reckless, without a great deal of careful planning. You don't just divvy up goodies willy nilly.  As for austerity, the reasons behind that are ideological, not financial.

 Could the money be used towards music education?  But music education isn't just schools and music colleges.  Excellence in performance is in itself an important form of education. It raises standards and expectations, which, long term, also expand opportunities.  Music education was eroded long ago, by successive governments and a public that thinks of education as vocational training.  Besides, everyone is, or should be, learning all the time, but listening and experiencing the best on offer. You can't separate education from performance.

So the next stage in the process will cost £5 million?  Better that money be spent on good planning, like working out the acoustics, a business model, transport infrastructure and so on, rather than making mistakes that would cost more to fix in the long run. From what I've read so far, some ideas seem OK and others much less so, like the idea of listening pods (why not stay home?) and the lack of front  and back-of-house facilities, which could prove fatal.  Abandoning the Barbican is all very well, but is it actually suited to jazz and world music ?  The South Bank does that, diluting its committment to classical music.  What happens to the BBC SO and the BBC source of revenue ? What about the LPO, the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta and the OAE ?   The Paris Philharmonie builds upon existing arts ventures, eg IRCAM, and provides a home for many orchestras. Like all big projects, it was controversial, but it's worked. A good new centre needs to be flexible enough to allow for the future. Short-sighted savings are foolish. Remember the decision to keep the M25 narrow.

The new concert hall for London is big and will take years to come to fruit. Instead, the level of debate is so low that some think it could have been dashed off to bring Simon Rattle back to London (where I suspect he'd like to be anyway). The project is so big that it needs sophisticated evaluation, pro and con.  But while we have arts thinking that predicates on piecemeal and special interests, I don't know how that will come about.

Photo : By Acabashi (Own work)

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Tulip Face - Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri

Robert Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri  (Op 59 1843) in a recent performance from Paris on BBC Radio 3 (starts around 12 mins). This is an excellent performance, as clear and lucid as the diamonds and star-studded Heavens that light up the imagery in Thomas Moore's saga Lalla Rookh (1817)  upon which Schumann based his oratorio.  Jérémie Rohrer, who conducts the Orchestra Nationale de France (ONF), is one of the young generation of French conductors whose background in baroque provides strong foundations for their approach to other repertoire: lucidity, intelligence, and an absence of self-indulgent waffle. In other words, respect for the composer and the period, whatever instruments might be employed.  These values are important in Die Paradies und das Peri because they highlight the clarity of Schumann's conception. Rohrer is definitely worth listening to, even if you're used to Gardiner and Harnoncourt.

Be wary of the BBC description, though. Das Paradies und die Peri is not rare, nor religious. There are many recordings and Simon Rattle has conducted it live frequently. But its position in Schumann's output and in music history is still misunderstood.   I first encountered the piece when John Eliot Gardiner led a Study Day into it  at the South Bank. It was "new" to many then, and, to be frank, I couldn't get it at all, despite Gardiner's insights. It's surprisngly radical, and doesn't fit into neat categories. Compared with Schumann's Lieder and piano works, it's huge. Consider Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust which he began working on a year after Die Paradies und die Peri, and continued to work on as he began Genoveva (Op 81 1850) and also the Requiem (Op 148 1852). Schumann could turn poems into song cycles on a grand scale. What might he have achieved if he had not succumbed to illness and died so young?

Then there's the overwhelming influence of Wagner, whose Die fliegende Holländer premiered in Dresden in 1843.  Modern approaches to opera are defined by Wagner and Verdi, but Schumann represents an alternative. Both Schumann and Wagner owe huge debts to Carl Maria von Weber, but both were heading off in new directions of their own.  Schumann's dramatic work may have been eclipsed in the past, but it needs to be re-assessed.

Die Paradies und die Peri is also seminal because it shows the depth of Schumann's engagement with literary sources. Even for the son of a Leipzig bookseller, Schumann was exceptionally well read and up to date on the latest literary trends. Moore's Lalla Rookh developed the fashion for orientalist fantasy, which intrigued the Romantiker imagination, opening up new horizons  and  alternatives to  western European constraints. The Generic East implied unparalleled extremes, and emotions too wild for Christian convention.  Lalla Rookh is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights on acid. Moore was an opium addict, like Thomas De Quincey and, later, Charles Baudelaire. Nothing like a bit of dope to break inhibitions.  Nonetheless, the literary style of Lalla Rookh is itself utterly relevant. It is written in an exaggerated, verbose style so highly perfumed that it's almost unreadable now, but that was part of its original appeal. Exotic names and words pour forth in hallucinatory frenzy, creating a haze of soporific delights.  How thrilling these references to strange, obscure places, people and objects to readers who had no idea of the real East, or Asia or Africa for that matter.  It was enough that the words sounded wonderful, and, significantly, musical on their own terms."Lalla Rookh", incidentally means "Tulip Face" which was a compliment in times when tulips were prized imports from distant lands. 

If anything, Schumann plays down the text so it flowers in his music.  The peri flits freely  between Egypt, Africa,  Syria ^the land of roses", "Cashnere (Kashmir) and other places including "Peristan" (the land of Peris?) and ends up by the throne of "Alla" surrounded by non-Islamic lotus blooms.  but Schumann's music is thoroughly German. Some figures, especially in the choruses, evoke the sturdy rhythms of Der Freischütz or even Der Vampyr, but the general style is distinctively Schumann. The solo vocal parts rise out of the orchestral ensemble as if they were glorified instruments.  The Angel, for example, is often seated between the chorus and the orchestral,players, so her voice shines forth from above the soloists.  Read more about what i've written in the past about Die Paradies und die Peri  HERE and about Genoveva HERE.  .And don't forget the excellent Rohrer performance available for roughly two more weeks.  And also Paul Dukas La Péri - poeme danse (1912) which follows, illustrated in the top photo. .

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Cesti Orontea La Nuova Musica Wigmore Hall

Hottest ticket in town! The Wigmore Hall was packed for La Nuova Musica, presenting Antonio Cesti's Orontea. Cesti (1623-1669) was a fascinating character.. He became a monk aged only 14, but discovered the allure of wilder things, becoming involved with a group of artists known as the Accademia dei Percosi (The Academy of the Stricken) led by the charismatic painter and poet Salvator Rosa.  "Stricken by the theatre and its popular,  bawdy delights", as Rick Jones writes in his informative programme notes, Cesti turned to opera, then a new art form.

Cesti then came under the patronage of the Medicis in Florence and took avidly to the lifestyle, breaking his vows of chastity and poverty. In 1651, he was kicked out of the Franciscan order for leading a "dishonorable and irregular life", and moved to Innsbruck where he served the Archduke of Austria.  It was here that Orontea was written, between 1654 and 1657, to a libretto by Giacinto Cicognini, a friend from Percosi days. Eventually, Cesti returned to Rome hoping to be released from his vows, but was pointedly humiliated by being put to work in the papal offices. He managed to get back to Florence, where Orontea became so popular that it was staged in 20 cities in 20 years. It was then lost for over 300 years until copies were discovered in Cambridge and Bologna.  René Jacobs made the benchmark recording some 10 years ago, so La Nuova Musica and conductor David Bates have a lot to measure up to. But how wonderfully they suceeded!

La Nuova Musica  have a reputation fore imaginative flair. This performance was vigorous, energetic, and above all fun, true to the composer and the audacious spirit of his time. The impact was magnified at with its warm, close acoustic. Orontea requires a fairly large orchestra - two harpsichords, two theorbos, one with a longer shaft than the other, two violins, a violone, a viola da gamba, two  baroque guitars plus an impressive set of woodwinds, large and small, one with an unusual curved chamber that creates sounds as strange as it looked.  This instrumentation allowed a wide range of sounds, some strikingly exotic, mingled together. Themes change and switch, keeping you on your toes, so to speak. Even by the standards of the baroque, the plot is convoluted.  The central figure is Alidoro (Jonathan Mc Govern) a charming opportunist, whose fortunes rise and fall and rise again. Everyone adores him anyway. Cesti himself sang the part in performance, so perhaps there's an element of self satire, as if Cesti is cocking a snook at the very idea of order.  Orontea, the Queen of Egypt (Anna Stéphany), sings of freedom, then falls hopelessly in love with the mysterious stranger Alidoro. Her adviser, Creonte (Timothy Dickinson), tries to set things straight. Instead, though, we enjoy a  barrage of crazy sub plots, fights, drunken orgies, cross-dressing skits and earthy humour. Immediately I thought of Cavalli and Giasone in particular. Sure enough, Cesti knew Cavalli and sang in Cavalli's operas. There's no room in the baroque for timid. Perhaps there's also a throwback to the medieval idea of Lords of Misrule.

Early audiences were given printed copies of the text, complete with candle attachments.  At the Wigmore Hall, we were helped by surtitles projected on the wall above the stage, in a free translation with rhyming couplets which apparently catches the irreverent spirit of the original.  From where I was sitting, I couldn't read a thing but that proved not to be such a bad idea, for the opera makes perfect sense when you stop worrying about literal meaning, and focus instead on the madcap delirium that soon becomes oddly engaging. Vocal performances were vivid, which helped a lot. In addition to the three principals above, Mary Bevan sang Silandra, Michal Czerniawski sang Corindo, Anat Edri sang Giacinta, Christopher Turner sang Tibrino and Edward Grint sang Gelone, the amiable drunk.


Saturday 12 December 2015

Prurient Prokofiev Fiery Angel Bayerische Staatsoper

Sergei Prokofiev The Fiery Angel at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, brilliantly conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.  As an opera, The Fiery Angel poses difficulties, but as abstract music it works so well that Prokofiev adapted it to become his Symphony No 3. Musical values dominate the score, adding depth to a narrative that poses as many questions as answers. Renata is clearly mad.  Her obsession with Madiel dominates her life to the exclusion of all else. She assume Madiel is an angel but her delusions are sexual. rather than spiritual. So why does a seemingly strong personality like Ruprecht get sucked int the maelstrom? Listen to the orchestra, though, for the music makes madness seem quite plausible.  Jurowski is in his element. He's more elegant than Gergiev, and wilder than the eminently sensible Neeme Järvi, though you need to hear all three.

The Fiery Angel is Prokofiev's Faust. Hence the litany of occult mumbo-jumbo that explodes in the First Act, heralding the entry of the Fortune Teller (Elena Manistina) a gorgeous camp caricature who disappears for the rest of the opera.  This occultist laundry list tumbles out of the score like madcap music: the composer isn't bothered what the words means, because they sound good, as words. Later, when Renata (Svetlana Sozdateleva ) and Ruprecht (Evgeny Nikitin) think they've summunoed up a spirit, loud knocks burst forth from the orchestra in almost joyous delirium, as if Prokofiev is suggesting that the gullible will hear signs in anything.  

Less succesful, though, is the staging, directed by Barrie Kosky, with sets by Rebecca Ringst.  The Faust theme is universal, so in principle there's no problem with changing the 16th century rooming house into an ultra deluxe modern hotel, though you wonder how  a nutter like Renata got in.  M\ybe everything's in her head, anyway. Perhaps we're in Renata's dream world, since, when the scene moves to Cologne, the room stays the same. Some audiences won't notice, seduced by chintz and fake rococo furnishings.  Renata's ravings become predictable after a while, the part being written for high-flown hysteria.  Sozdateleva is fairly young, but doesn't quite capture the Lulu-like innocence that so entrances Ruprecht. She can act well, though, twitching like a lunatic resisting restraint, her eyes rolled back as if the Devil himself were swallowing her soul.  The score doesn't give Ruprecht all that much to do, vocally, so a talent like Nikitin doesn't get to show what he can really do.  

When the opera descends into the demonic, things liven up. Again, the orchestral interludes are paramount, illustrated here by dancers, wonderfully costumed by Klaus Bruns.  Ladies appear in evening dress, revealed close up as muscular men, covered in tattoos. A visually magnificent introduction to the appearance of Agrippa von Nettesheim (Vladimir Galouzine) another well-cast cameo.  

The dancers return in the tavern scene, where .the Faust references are vivid. Kevin Conners' Mefistofeles is brilliantly conceived, with an amazing costume which suggest a clown gone mad.  Fabulous three-corner hairdo, like the horns of Satan. Again, there's not a lot to sing, but Conners acts well, moving in tight ensemble with the dancers, who this time are devilish grotesques. A pity, though, that Kosky's prurience gets the better of him. Mefistofeles's penis (not Conners') hangs out from his pants, and later he sodomizes Renata and eats "her" penis as a sausage. This may be true to the morbid sexuality in the opera, but I'm not altogether sure that Prokofiev would have taken it so literally. It's all a bit schoolboy, detracting from the otherwise good characterization in the costume.  

Igor Tsarkov sang Faust, elegantly though oddly garbed. Again, this may well be a good reading of Prokofiev's intentions since the roles of Faust and Mephistofeles are ironically reversed.  

In the final Act, even Ruprecht is disposed of, more or less, and the narrative centres on Renata, now in a convent. The dancers now are nuns, dressed as Jesus, blood pouring from their crowns of thorns.  Kinky, but then a lot of religious imagery is kinky if you think about it.  Even after her exorcism, Renata is still condemned as an agent of Satan.  The poor girl gets screwed in every way.  Sadly, Kosky seems to enjoy the sex bits too much to grasp the cynical detachment of Prokofiev's sardonic irony. The costumes are great, but I think I'd prefer a less infantile interpretation and one that picks up on other levels of the opera.

Now I've watched Kosky's Handel SAaul at Gl6ndebourne on film, where you can see the close ups. Live it would have been imporessive because you see the giant floral feast and display, and the pretty costumes. But close up you see the diussiapation - which is true to meaning - but yet again Kosky's obssession with grim, joyless sex. Two naked old men, groping each other, one asproutuing breasts the other feeds on. Yes, it's an image, but overdone and rotesque. plus the same ewarth floor as in Castor and Pollux ! Cet P was OK because it is about sex. But the same critics who raed about that adored Saul ? Go fiure.

Please also see my piece on Boito Mefistofele also from Munich, which was excellent - René Pape, Opolais, Calleja

Friday 11 December 2015

What's really ahead for the ENO ?

At last, something of a debate about the future of the ENO, thanks to an open letter in the Times signed by eminent dignitaries, and, signfigantly, Antonio Pappano, who knows something about the real business of opera.  Pappano is right: the public is entitled to know what's really going on behind the scenes.

The ENO is an important part of the overall arts network in this country and abroad. What happens to the ENO impacts on everything else.  The real problem is that there is no coherent arts policy in this country, and even less understanding of Britain's role in the ecology of the international arts. There have been many reports in recent years, worryingly all written in the same kind of corporate-speak, which makes one wonder if there's some kind of self-perpetuating industry generating reports for the sake of creating reports. So everyone says the same, they must be right ?  Not.

What we really need is cogent analysis. Will that be possible with an Arts Council England structurally hamstrung on a philosophy that negates the simple fact that Britain is a centralized country?   Or policies that reflect demographic change?  And that technology is changing the whole way the arts  and audiences operate. The arts are very much part of the British economy, and possibly one of the biggest exports, not only in financial terms but also in terms of national prestige.  The arts also have significant foreign policy impact. In an era when hearts and minds count as much as bombs, we'd be crazy, to undermine what puts the "Great" into Great Britain. The previous ENO Chairman, Peter Bazalgette,  moved on to become Chairman of Arts Council England. He said he was not involved with the decision to slash funding to the ENO. However, he should have been in a position to appreciate where the ENO fits into wider arts policy, nationally and internationally.

So why not a coherent, consistent arts policy that deals with wider issues? Pigs might fly. There are far too many vested interests with too much to gain from breaking  things down into bite-sized pieces so they can be consumed more easily. The NHS, the BBC, the transport infrastructure and much else were built up by public funds and commitment. Now they're morsels ripe for commercial cherry picking. The media, politicians and the public don't do joined-up thinking anymore, so no-one cares.  But there is a strong business case for supporting the ENO as part of the national arts industry. I've written about this many times  See HERE for example. 

So what's ahead for the ENO? First, we need to get away from the constant rehash of the same old canards, like the resignations of Martyn Rose and Henriette Götz. Neither of them were in their jobs long enough to have much impact.  Even before she joined the ENO, Götz was smart enough to walk away from a car crash before it happened.  Since the media don't actually do journalism anymore, they fall back on the same old  clichés. What is relevant about the Martyn Rose resignation was that he claimed that John Berry was "the problem not the solution". Just as in many organizations, internal feuds are part of the system, it's no big deal. Businesses don't always operate on purely business principle.  So the real question, now that Berry is gone, would be how that logic still stands. 

The rescue plan for the ENO predicates on piecemeal measures like turning the building into a café, which, frankly I don't think means a bean. Much wiser to use parts of the building not usually open to the public for corporate events and so on.  

The idea of cutting the orchestra and chorus is also short sighted. Savings would have to be offset against the impact on personnel. Musicians can't find work elsewhere because the summer hiatus happens all over the country.  Besides, musicians are the lifeblood of the company. Trash them and sacrifice what makes the company good.  The ENO hosts other performing enterprises, notably Russians ballet and some English National Ballet productions,  so it's not as though no income is coming in.

Then there's the Coliseum itself, the  biggest theatre in the West End , wonderfully situated in a perfect position   How commercial interests would just love to get a bite of that!  Booting the ENO out might be good for some, but it would cause further problems for the ENO.  It occupies the Coliseum under an agreement which means it doesn't pay commercial rent. If it went elsewhere, rents would escalate, while a less prime position would make it less convenient for visitors.  Higher costs, less sales? Not smart. In any cse, I'm not convinced that commercial interests could make the Coliseum pay, though they might think so.

Touring is also not an option. The projected production at the Old Vic in Bristol fell flat because it was too expensive.  Because the industry operates on a co-operative network, whereby different companies host each other's productions.  More could be done in this way, though. The ENO could become "Opera North London" or "Scottish Opera London" just as the Royal Opera House hosts outside work. The ENO did the WNO's Mastersingers of Nuremberg which to many was an even better experience, even without Terfel.  This kind of integration between houses benefits all and makes money. If only policy makers understood how the business works!

For 2013-2014, the ENO published a version of its accounts which showed an optimistic surplus (more here). Of course it's not a full account, but as a private company it's not required to open its books. So what is the basis of Arts Council England's savage cuts? Let someone else analyze that. I'm not paid to do investigative journalism – if such a thing still exists.  We don't have the figures either way, and have to go on Arts Council England's say-so.  But against the figures, whatever they may be, we need to balance them against wider considerations.  Success cannot be measured by crude things like bums on seats.  Closing the topmost gallery, for example, would instantly change occupancy stats. No-one goes there anyway.  The true value of the ENO lies in its place as an integral part of British cultural life,.Which is why we need a coherent national arts policy which addresses reality.

LATEST : In the Times, Raymond Gubbay has written a letter criticizing the ENO for not doing shows over Xmas shows, which is a bit unfair as other places eg the South Bank, don't do normal programming in this season.  Gubbay does shows at the Barbican at Xmas, and he and Classic FM use the Royal Albert Hall for shows of their own.  Even  more signifigantly, though, Peter Jonas, who was Chairman of the ENO when the Coliseum deal was done, reveals that, if the ENO were to be shut down, the Coliseum might revert to the Arts Council.  I can't quote the Times verbatim, but anyone who sunscribes can do so themselves.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Luigi Nono Prometeo Metzmacher Paris stream

Ingo Metzmacher conducts Luigi Nono's Prometeo: Tragedia dell'ascolto (1984)  live from the Philharmonie Paris, available for a while on France Musique HERE.  Absolutely worth listening, and repeat listening, because this perfomance beats the 2007 recording (Peter Hirsch) which everyone has. Altogether more intense, more electrifying.  Ensemble Recherche is the main orchestra (of 11 separate ensembles, some large, some small) here with Metzmacher (as with Hirsch), but this time they sound even better. Perhaps it's Metzmacher, perhaps it's greater experience gained with time, and very probably  the wonderful acoustic of the new Philharmonie, which allows a unique integration of all the different sounds and levels in the piece.

Nono conceived Prometeo for performance at the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Venice, pictured above, which has now been in disrepair for many years. At the first performance, the orchestras sat on specially built structures, designed by Rienzo Piano, (pic at right) which hovered in space. One of the musicians who played in that first performance said the structure added to the sense of danger and impermanence so integral to the piece.  I've heard Prometeo live only once, at the Royal Festival Hall, London,  in 2008, conducted by Diego Masson with the London Sinfonietta. A great experience, but acoustically dead at the RFH.  Here is what I wrote then.

This Paris Prometeo really is something else!  Metzmacher, who was the second conductor when it was performed in 1988 in Nono's presence,  says "Prometeo is not a normal's a kind of voyage, maybe on water, there are no landmarks. Nono said, "to wake up the ear is to wake up the human being'"  Listen to Metzmacher below:

Shock - Kasper Holten leaves ROH

Half an hour ago, the Royal Opera House announced that Kasper Holten will be leaving the Royal Opera House from March 2017. Here's his statement:

"I love working at ROH – and with all the amazing colleagues here – and it feels very painful to let go of that in 2017. But when I moved to London, my partner and I didn’t have children. Now we do, and after much soul searching we have decided that we want to be closer to our families and inevitably that means we make Copenhagen our home where the children will grow up and go to school.

So when Alex offered me an extension of my contract for another five years beyond summer 2016, I have decided only to ask for an extension of seven months, giving the ROH time to plan for my succession and for me to continue the work as long as possible. I will therefore leave my position in March 2017 after Tony and I open our new production of Wagner’s Meistersinger here at ROH. But my work isn’t done yet, so please don’t do too many farewells quite yet!"

This is sad news for those of us who genuinely love opera as a living, ever-growing art form. Holten breathed new life into the ROH, with his imaginative flair and love for the genre. Unfortunately the world seems to be descending into a mire of self righteous, blinkered philistinism, not only in the arts but elsewhere.  What lies ahead? I hate to think. But I wish Holten and his family everything good, and thank him for a few years of interesting, stimulating work.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

No plaster saint : Verdi Giovanna d'Arco La Scala Netrebko Chailly

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, starting the new season. Primas at La Scala are a state occasion, attended by the President of Italy and other dignitaries. This year was even more special because, after a long run of Barenboim and German opera, the focus was on Giuseppe Verdi and on Riccardo Chailly, La Scala's "favourite son", who started his career there more than 40 years ago, mentored by Claudio Abbado.  Chailly has conducted Giovanna d'Arco many times before, but this performance  outstripped expectations : totally committed, utterly magnificent

Giovanna d'Arco is sometimes described as flawed but this performance shows its true worth. The production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, deals with the deeper levels in the story. Anna Netrebko is fast making the role her own.  Giovanna isn't a glamour figure, but Netrebko makes the part glow, as if, like the saint, she's transfigured from within. This Joan of Arc is  vividly portrayed, so inspired by her mission that even her father thinks she's possessed by supernatural forces.  No plaster saint, but a personality with depth and conviction, as worthy as any Verdi heroine.

The prologue plays over a stage lit so all we can see is black and white. This forest is a forest of ideas, where nothing is really black and white. Joan of Arc is revered as a saint but was burned at the stake for heresy.. Nowadays, hearing voices would get Giovanna  medicated into stupor.  Invisible voices rouse her. The dark room fills with colour.  From this materializes Carlos VII, (Francesco Meli), a vision of gleaming gold.  The idea of a king appealing to a simple girl thus makes psychological sense. The crowd, however, don't understand. Verdi writes hellfire into the orchestration, whips of sound rising like the flames which will eventually destroy Giovanna's body but not her soul.  Unlike the chorus, Giovanna is paying attention. Carlo's long aria inspires her to rip her nightgown into a makeshift tunic and cut off her hair. Even as baby-faced gamine, Netrebko looks right. And then she sings "Oh ben s'addice questo, Torbido cielo" and we hear Netrebko transform into the saviour of her nation. The set lights up like a medieval church and Netrebko dons the golden armour Carlo was not worthy to wear.

In Act II, Verdi focuses on Giacomo, and on a father's anxieties, even at this moment of triumph. We see the populace, and soldiers in armour, and glimpses of Rheims cathedral, yet we also see Giovanna's bed. For Giacomo, the real drama revolves around his daughter's soul. Patriot as he is, he's a parent above all. The crowds mill round, but for Giacomo (Devid Cecconi) the bed is a symbol.  The bed is also is a consideration which matters in an opera which makes so much of the idea that the king wants to marry Giovanna. Lit with white light, the bed reminds us that Giovanna's soul is pure and will remain forever virginal. Modern minds might detect psycho-sexual complexities in  Giovanna's actions. Perhaps Verdi intuited as much, for he wrote the demon chorus "Fuggi, o donna maledetta", here illustrated by blood-red  monsters with with phallic horns.

Captured, Giovanna, relives her past victories in her imagination. The crowd dress her in gold plated armour, for she is, indeed, protected by the justice of her mission.  Now we see the towers of the Cathedral rise up, and Carlo VII astride a golden horse. But Giovanna is facing death. Soon, though, she divests herself of the worldly glory the armour represents. We see Netrebko again in a simple white shift.

But  Giovanna d'Arco is not  religious or even particularly spiritual.  The plot diverges greatly from what we know of the historical record.  Verdi's librettist was Temistocle Solera, who gave the composer Nabucco and I Lombardi, with their coded references to political liberation.   Giovanna hears the sounds of battle, and only towards the very end dedicates herself to the Virgin Mary (who is, tellingly, a plaster saint in this production). Thus we don't see flames, or a show trial. This isn't the director's fault. Verdi himself  created the final act so it unfolds through a series of dialogues between Giovanna and Giacomo, which could not possibly happen in real time.  Even at this point Giacomo seems more bothered by his daughter's virginity than her imminent death. Vocally, Netrebko and Cecconi bounce off each other so well that literal reality isn't relevant., Instead we have emotional truth, which is far more powerful and closer to Verdi's fundamental ideas. Giacomo comes at last to understand Giovanna's sacrifice, and Carlo VII to respect her for what she's done for France  Then, at last, can Giovanna be released from mortal concerns, and rise up to the skies, vivid blue like the cloak of the Virgin, only brighter, stronger  and more gem-like. 

Photos : Brescio-Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Sunday 6 December 2015

Roderick Williams, BCMG Wigmore Hall - New Songs to English Poetry

At the Wigmore Hall, the London premiere of a major new work by Howard Skempton, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with Roderick Williams and BCMG, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Samuel Taylor  Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner intrigues because there's nothing quite like it in English verse. Though its tone suggests ancient saga, its subject was unequivocally modern, in the sense it caught the Zeitgeist of the Romantic era's fascination with the "Gothic". The Mariner breaks unspoken  rules and kills the Albatross. He and his shipmates are cursed, dying of thirst though there's "water, water everywhere" around them.  Two centuries later, the Rime still haunts. The Mariner's journey is a descent into the darker unconscious. Like the wedding guest, we "fear thee, ancient Mariner ! I fear they skinny hand!"

Howard Skempton's setting grows from the ballad, so symbiotically it seems a "living thing". The vocal part reflects the strange obsessive nature of the text which draws the listener in as if hypnotized.  The cadences rise upwards and down, at a pace which suggests a hard march. Coleridge began the poem while hiking on the moors.  Roderick Williams is a remarkable narrator, capturing the demented undercurrents in the verse. The lines run like a form of Sprechstimme, not recitation, yet not quite singing. This nightmare does not let a voice take full flight. Williams has a gift for natural, direct communication, without theatrical histrionics. He makes us sympathetic to the Mariner as a mortal man, which makes his fate all the more tragic.

The voice is accompanied at first only by the cello (Ulrich Heinen), legato drawn drone-like, as if it were some ancient, primitive instrument, or, indeed, a force of nature, like a sinister wail.  The cello carries the music for a while, until other voices join in in subtle combinations. The double bass (John Tattersdill) quietly murmurs, suggesting sinister depths.  The viola (Christopher Yates) leads the violins. When the ship is becalmed -- "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean" -- the music hovers almost imperceptibly, as if listening out for a breeze. When things change, the piano (Malcolm Wilson) and other players create a tumult.  When the visionary figures appear, the high violins at last take flight.  Coleridge  writes movement into his lines, which Skempton translates into abstract sound.  We listen, as if spellbound to the strange, unworldly atmosphere.  Maurice and Sheila Millward, who suggested the setting and commissioned the piece, had insight. Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a remarkable work which needs to become part of the canon of British music.

The BCMG Wigmore Hall concert began with  Dominic  Muldowney's An English Songbook (2011) with a new song, "Smooth between the Sea and Land", a BCMG commission receiving its London premiere. This song is a setting of A E Housman, and reflects the poet's distinctive timbre, which stands out in contrast to the three settings of W H Auden, whose arch sophistication demands music of equal bite. Muldowney;'s "At Last the Secret is Out"  and "Funeral Blues" reflect Auden's verbal intelligence, Yet when Roderick Williams sang "Stop the clocks.....", one could feel the sensitivity which Auden concealed behind his combative, cynical surface.

Songs to poems by Edward Thomas  and John Betjeman bridged the divide between Auden and Housman,  with Muldowney creating a  nice, almost bluesy feel as if shadowing the spirit of the 1920's.  Muldowney responds even better to Shakespeare. His version of "Winter " nips along, as if skidding on ice. "tu-whit, tu-who, a merry note", sharply  manic. Finest of all, Muldowney's "Fear no more the Heat of the Sun".  This song is the heart of the cycle, connecting to "Funeral Blues" and "Winter", but also in mood to the other songs in the group. It's a wonderful song, at once elegaic, yet tender. With Skempton and Muldowney, the art of English Song is alive and well.

This review  appears in Opera Today

Personal message from Nikolaus Harnoncourt

With this brief but personal note to his "Liebe Publikum", Nikolaus Harnoncourt has announced his retirement at the age of 86.  The note kind of sums up Harnoncourt's direct and personal way of doing things.

In his own quiet way, Harnoncourt transformed music, not just period performance. When he began conducting in the early post-war years,  he became aghast at the fashion for safe and bland performances. Concentus Musicus Wien began as a group of musicians playing for their own pleasure. They had to copy manuscripts by hand, and track down authentic instruments to experiment with, some of which were bought with private funds. This "band of renegades " as was described in an interview (READ MORE HERE and listen to the interview HERE), (Link is still live after nearly 4 years) were exploring new approaches to repertoire, informed by what a composer might have heard. " I tried to understand what a composer meant".

Friday 4 December 2015

Michael Gerzon remembered

Today Michael Gerzon would have been 70. There he is, far left (as he was in life) in Oxford in 1975.  We met at the ultra-geeky Tape Recording Society at Ruskin. He almost burst into tears when I said I did splice mixes with scotch tape. It hurt his ears even to think about that.  He was a brilliant theoretical physicist, and adapted his genius to inventing new concepts in sound recording. Dolby, whom he knew, made money, Michael never did,  though his ideas on ambisonics are still around. I'm not a techie, but we remained close friends for the rest of our lives together. So intensely close that I  needed space but never stopped caring very deeply. That's what real friends are for.

A few days before his unexpected death,  he called me at 9 am. Neither of us are morning people, so I was surprised. He said he'd wanted to speak to me all night and had waited for a semi-civilized hour. (No internet in those days.)  We talked 3 hours non stop, which by Michael standards isn't very long at all. He had a phone "chat" with my father which lasted 8 hours with mutually agreed toilet breaks. Maybe one day I'll tell what we talked about but it was very, very intense and personal. A few days later I phoned but no answer.  That night I had a dream, while still awake, and heard Michael say, simply, "I am on a journey to the stars" or some such, and felt an overwhelming coldness envelope me tightly. Later I had a hunch nd rang the John Radcliffe Hospital, where \I'd visited him many times before. Was he there ? "was" was all they'd divulge.  Michael was a scientist and rational but what was nice about him is that he was intuitive, and very deep  as a human being. By the way, those radiators in the photo aren't radiators but Quad Electrostatic speakers. I still have a pair, vintage 1957, that need refurbishing. Still got the tuner, too.  .

Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci ROH

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci  at the Royal Opera House. This Cav & Pag is worth seeing, even if it's pricey, because, in its quiet thoughtful way, it reminds us what opera is really about.  "Io sono il Prologo" a figure (Tonio) intones. What we are about to experience is an artificial creation, designed by "L'autore". But "l'artista è un uom e che per gli uomini scrivere ei deve. Ed al vero ispiravasi" . It's not outward trappings that make an opera but the emotional truth in the human drama within.

Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's  Pagliacci work together well because both deal with extreme feelings in non-extreme circumstances. In these villages, people observe religious and social rituals. Their lives unfold as if determined by  a script, their "author" being convention. Yet the script collapses when they act on their feelings. It's not for nothing that both operas predicate on the idea of betrayal. Adultery upsets the institution of marriage, yet denying the feelings that lead up to it would be emotional self-betrayal. In Pagliacci, the "clowns" put on a show. But who are the clowns, the actors, their parts or the audience who come to be amused  and expect life to match their expectations?

Damiano Michieletto's production recreates an Italy of the recent past  but that's perfectly valid. Leoncavallo specified a period only some 20 years before the opera was written, and Mascagni merely refers to the century - his own.  Michieletto's approach thus underlines the humble, human side of the drama.  We see ordinary people in simple surroundings  going abou ttheir ordinary lives. It's also very loving, as if the "memories" the Prologo refers to are being recreated in the imagination. It's  more touching and intimate than, say, the recent Salzburg Cav &  Pag with its busy, self-conscious theatricality. Real lives are drama, too.

Hence the absence of fancy costumes.  Although Leoncavallo employs Commedia dell'arte figures, he knew that they are stereotypes, a kind of shorthand for universal personality traits.  Pierrot, the clown, is pale and wan, like his signifier the moon.  Yet what he represents is much deeper. He's a clown who weeps, an eternal outsider, never treated with respect. Anyone who really understand the symbolism will understand the reality behind the makeup and clown suit. Dimitri Platanias (who also sang the role in Salzburg)  is a stocky fellow but embodies the character so accurately that the real Fool is anyone who demands a fancy costume in order to understand. There were some in the audience who didn't get the basic premise in the opera and assumed it was the director's "fault" though it's clearly central to the composer's own conception of the opera.  Commedia dell'arte costumes would only confuse the issue further. The dignity and pathos of Platanias's singing was so effective that it communicated through the heart.

In Cavalleria Rusticana, Platanias sang Alfio, while Aleksandrs Antonenko sang Turiddu.  In Pagliacci, the roles are reversed, and Antonenko sings Canio, Alfio's mirror image. These intricate ironies further amplify the interplay between reality and illusion so central to this double bill. Antonenko  is a tenor but sang Turiddu with forceful but purposeful volume, expressing the character's macho swagger extremely well. At Salzburg, Jonas Kaufmann sang the role but I'm glad we had Antonenko instead, although he doesn't have JK's starry glamour, because Antonenko  is very good because he keeps the focus on the ensemble.

Eva-Maria Westbroek sang Santuzza in Cav while Carmen Giannattasio sang Nedda in Pag. A good pairing,  since careful balance is integral to this double bill, and very much part of its impact.  Westbroek's star arias were delivered with superb style. One wonders more than ever why Turiddu would cheat on her with Lola (Martina Belli)  a part so undefined in the score that we don't know all that much about her charms other than that she has a nice nightgown. Again, appearances don't count for much! Santuzza loses her man but gains a mum (Elena Zilio) in Mamma Lucia.  Thanks to Leoncavallo's greater sophistication as a composer, Nedda  gives Carmen Giannattasio plenty to work with, which she does well. She portrays the multiple facets of the role with skill, switching from the tortured soul that is the "real" Nedda to the coy, posturing Columbine and back, even expressing the twee asides so much part of travelling performance. Benjamin Hulett impressed greatly as Beppe. Again, he acted with his voice. He needed no harlequin suit to mask the portrayal.

Paolo Fantin's set contributed greatly to pace, balance and meaning. Swift transformations, "outer" and "inner" perspectives switching like the reversals in the plots. The staging within a staging in Pagliacci was particularly effective. The "theatre" took place in a converted school gym  as semi-amateur performances often do.  For a short time, the villagers become more than themselves, but particiapants in the fantasy that is theatre. For a moment, we see the chorus wearing masks  - another reminder that, in opera, what you put in is as important as what you expect to get.  In this case, however, the "audience" get more than they expected, as the play becomes "reality" and Canio stabs Nedda. Suddenly the play ends, but the spirit of the Prologue still hovers, like a ghost.

"E voi, piuttosto
che le nostre povere gabbane d'istrioni,
le nostr'anime considerate,
poiché siam uomini
di carne e d'ossa......",

Costumes are costumes. they are not souls.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Cav & Pag, ROH - what a thieving magpie can tell us

Why did I spend big money to see tonight's Royal Opera House Cavalleria Rusticana and I PagliacciI'm glad I went.   READ MY REVIEW HERE.

 Antonio Pappano has said of this Cav and Pag that it's "full of clichés but true to Italian life" (Read more HERE)  And he should know.  Neither Mascagni nor Leoncavallo wrote on the level of Verdi or Puccini (though read about Leoncavallo's Zazà HERE in Opera Today). But Cav & Pag work when they're done with style and panache. That's why Cav & Pag is Christmas fare. At Christmas we can swallow kitsch when it's festive and fun. Tis the season of goodwill, after all. But will the booing mob be out as usual getting their pleasures from incandescent hate ?

{My first thoughts on returning from Cav & Pag.  Anyone who does noy "get" the prologo  won't "get" the opera at all. Needless to say, some will blame this on the director when in fact, as the Prologue says, it's rthe author ! That should have the W"respect the composers wishes" crowd in a rage. Most of the time they don't understand the composers wishes)

Damiano Michieletto's Rossini Guillaume Tell had the mob spluttering.even though they didn't know the opera well enough to realize that violence (including an explicit reference to rape) is in the libretto and in the music. And how can they have missed that the whole opera predicates on sadistic violence and abuse of power? A man is forced to shoot his own child!  But two seconds of tit upset more people than sadistic torture and child cruelty.  What other groups  think killing is entertainment but the sight f female flesh a crime ?  Read my review Audience back Gesler, not Tell HERE)   

Mascagni and Leoncavallo present no such demands. Indeed, Cav & Pag thrive on gleeful cliché, so why not milk the fun for what it's worth.  Besides, director Michieletto knows his Italian repertoire pretty well. His Rossini La gazza ladra, first heard in 2007, was chosen to start this year's Pesaro festival, a place where people might just know a wee bit more about Rossini than most. At Pesaro, he has also directed La  Cenerentola, La scala di seta,  and Sigismondo. He has also directed productions at La Scala, Theater an der Wien and Salzburg, mostly Italian repertoire. Since he is Italian, chances are that he knows a bit about Italy and Italian society

I've written about Michieletto's La gazza ladra HERE It's a very fine production indeed, which captures the theiving magpie's fascination with bright, shiny things. the bird has a child's sense of wonder. The magpie loves silver because it's beautiful to look at. People love silver because it affirms their status over the poor. They're quite happy to see the innocent destroyed. In comparison, the magpie's crime is nothing at all. In La gazza Ladra, we can see the basic elements of Michieletto's style - child-like wonder, strong visual lines and so on.  His Guillaume Tell falls into place.

Michieletto's Rossini La scala di seta, is more robust and comical, reflecting the very different nature of the opera.  It's a farce that predicates on a woman meeting her secret husband who climbs up a rope of silk. Hence the set, like the opera, functions on quirky levels and  angles.  Visual gags and cheerful clichés. The opera is relatively slight but it sends up a society held together by pretensions and illusion. So that's why I hope the ROH Cav & Pag should be fun.