Friday 29 April 2016

New Artistic Director ENO - what lies ahead ?

Just announced, many long months after the departure of John Berry, the new Artistic Director of the ENO - Daniel Kramer.    The ENO press release emphasizes "The appointment was made by a panel of ENO Board Members chaired by Harry Brunjes, including Louise Jeffreys and Anthony Whitworth-Jones. The views of members of the Orchestra and Chorus and the senior artistic team were also taken into account. Daniel was unanimously chosen as the exceptional individual from a very strong field of candidates".They probably need a show of unanimity in these troubled times. 

The Chairman of the ENO Board,  Harry Brunjes, says "This marks a turning point in the Company’s history as we move towards a new approach to planning seasons and reaching out to new audiences in London and indeed throughout the country."  Kramer himself says "My intention is to ..... inspire audiences night after night with a thrilling programme of musical diversity, attracting audiences from opera to operetta through to popular music. We will work, too, with the wider community outside the Coliseum, to develop emerging talent and new audiences. We are here to play and sing for you."

Hmmmm.....what does that really mean? Popular music? Leaving the Coliseum? What about the ENO's tradition of cutting-edge innovation ? Or any commitment to new English-language opera ? Will the ENO become yet another small-scale company presenting safe and bland "family" entertainment in sub sub West End venues. As I've written so many times, it is short-sighted to sacrifice the unique nature of the ENO for short-term expediency.  Unfortunately, arts policy in this country bears no relation to the realities of the arts as part of the economy. This lack of basic business nous, with its petty-minded parochialism, spells death for creativity. Read my piece Solutions for the ENO: vision not pettiness

What will any Artistic Director be able to do against this background of small-minded philistinism ? Kramer's first essay with the ENO was Birtwistle's Punch and Judy at the Young Vic.  The  brashness of that production worked fine because the opera  depicts puppets obsessed with mindless destruction.  There are deeper undercurrents in the work, but usually lost beneath the shock value.  His other work in mainstream opera was Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle  in 2009, part of a double bill with an very dull Rite of Spring.  Kramer's Duke Bluebeard's Castle wasn't Bartók's, but Josef Fritzl's. I don't at all mind free adaptations but this oversimplified the fundamentals of the opera. Read my review here

There's nothing wrong with sensationalism per se,  as long as it has artistic and musical basis, but how will that square with the new constraints the ENO seems fated to adopt ?  Kramer directs the new Tristan und Isolde, which starts at the ENO in June.  But an Artistic Director does more than direct.   Will Kramer have the vision to create a genuinely interesting new profile for the ENO?  Operetta isn't the way to go. It may appeal to audiences determined to divest opera of intellect, but as Chabrier's L'Etoile at the ROH showed, operetta doesn't work in a big house.  Operetta does need wit and flair.  Remember the disastrous Die Fledermaus in 2013 ? So maybe the way ahead is musicals and showtime tat.  Will the Coliseum return to its music hall origins?  Many have much to gain from that. But not those who care about opera as art. 

Visions of Wonder Debussy, Abrahamsen, Mahler 4 CBSO Volkov

Child-like visions of wonder and excitement : a potentially brilliant concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov. Hans Abrahamsen's Left, Alone was the big draw, the premiere of a major work by an extremely significant composer, noted for his inventiveness and  individuality. Left, Alone is a return to Abrahamsen's creative roots, far more characteristic of his style than  Let me Tell You, which may be his Valse Triste, popular but not typical of his music. I hope he gets paid better than Sibelius did.  Abrahamsen isn't the sort of composer you associate with smash hits.  He's hardly ever written for voice. He doesn't need to. "Music is pictures of music", he once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."

Abrahamsen's music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder.  It's alert to the kind of quiet detail that gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition.  One of my friends hated Abrahamsen's Schnee (2007) because it "feels like watching snow fall", but for me that's precisely what I love about Abrahamsen.  Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control. Abrahamsen's music examines sounds from different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak 

In Abrahamnsen's Left, Alone the concept "the sound of one hand clapping" is uniquely realized.   Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was written for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war.    Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen's piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left, Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi-silence. In fact there are several, passages of semi-silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra  animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return to quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes: piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully.  Not having a right hand is not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheless. Alexandre Tharaud was the soloist.  Preceding Left, Alone was Abrahamsen's orchestration of Debussy Childrens Corner. The connections are clear: six vignettes unified by playful imagination.

 In theory, this sense of childlike wonder should have animated Mahler's Symphony no 4, but for me, it largely fell flat. Volkov and the CBSO were brilliant in the first part of the programme, playing with vivacious good spirits.  Maybe they'd enjoyed themselves too much.  Volkov's métier is new music, and the CBSO relish adventure. They've done Mahler 4 often enough  that they can probably coast through and usually (not always) still sound good.  There were problems with the brass, and the timpani felt unusually heavy handed, as if they were playing a military march, which is fine in Mahler but not in Mahler 4.  Volkov says "only when you play the whole piece through the last movement makes sense, dynamically and musically". We can't put much store in a soundbite like that, but it did have a bearing on this performance.

The final movement refers to the brightness of heaven, and happiness so dazzling that even St Ursula, the warrior, bursts out laughing while her murdered acolytes dance. It is by no means a "cheerful" symphony because the child singing is dead. The voice sounds vulnerable, but in Heaven, it cannot be hurt. Unlike the child in Das irdisches Leben it will not be suppressed.  The dead kid is full of wonder because it's experienced a miracle. The sleigh bells in the first movement are there for a purpose. Sleighs were a mode of transport in difficult conditions, pulled along by the physical strength of horses.  Hence the need for tightness of ensemble and vigorous energy.  Mahler's first movements aren't usually overtures summarizing what is to come, but the first stage in a journey.  Mahler's markings Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast don't in themselves mean slowness but more a kind of transition from the "life" of the first movement to the afterlife of the finale.  If the music lingers, it's to suggest a reluctance to leave a happy past. In some ways, Mahler is saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years and moving on.  There are many ways to interpret this symphony but it does need a structured point of view.     

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Sex and Art :Tannhäuser Revisited, 2016

Wagner Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House, London in its second revival.  Perhaps the shock of the original 2010 production by Tim Albery has worn off, as so often happens when audiences pay attention rather than come determined to find fault.  This isn't a production I particularly like, but it is a legitimate interpretation.  Those who insist on "the composer's intentions" would do well to actually read Wagner's own description of Venusberg, depicting waterfalls, grottos and "Schlafende Amoretten, wild über und neben einander gelagert, einen verworrenen Knäuel bildend, wie Kinder, die, von einer Balgerei ermattet, eingeschlafen sind. Der ganze Vordergrund ist von einem zauberhaften, von unten her dringenden, rötlichen Lichte beleuchtet, durch welches das Smaragdgrün des Wasserfalles, mit dem Weiß seiner schäumenden Wellen, stark durchbricht; der ferne Hintergrund mit den Seeufern ist von einem verklärt baluen Dufte mondscheinartig erhellt."   In other words, lurid sex and nudity.

Above, a sketch of the Venusberg scene from a very early staging. It doesn't take much imagination to equate the caves and waters with anatomy: Venus's charms are made fairly explicit. Try that these days with prissier audiences and the fallout would be heard in Hell.  Thirty years ago, there was a German production in which dancers were seen as half-human, half-animal elementals writhing in agony and ecstasy. A brilliant way to express what Venusberg means, and why it has such a hold over our hero Tannhäuser.  Horrible as it is, it's less repressed than self-conscious Wartburg.  Visual images offer clues as to meaning: mistake them for literal reality and miss the art. Please read my analysis here of the symbolism of Wartburg and its place in German culture.  Also, my piece Who is Elisabeth. 

Tannhäuser is Wagner and Wagner does ideas.  This is an opera about art and the role of art, every bit as much as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Both operas depict  societies where art is taken so seriously that the fate of a woman can be traded for talent.  Fortunately, in both cases, wise souls prevail.  Elisabeth is as selfless as Hans Sachs, and intuits that Tannhäuser must face his demons if he is to find himself.  Wolfram is the Perfect Knight, but Elisabeth wants other feelings. "Doch welch ein seltsam neues Leben, rief Euer Lied mir in die Brust! Bald wollt es mich wie Schmerz durchbeben, bald drang's in mich wie jähe Lust;Gefühle, die ich nie empfunden,Verlangen, das ich nie gekannt!"   If modern audiences want theatre sanitised, safe and bland , maybe they shouldn't be going to opera at all.

Peter Seiffert has been singing Tannhäuser for so long that he has form. I don't think think this is a "young man's role" like Walter von Stolzing, for Tannhäuser has seen the world outside Wartburg and cannot go back.  Johan Botha, who sang the part in 2010 was ideal, because he looked as though he'd tasted the joys of the flesh. What mattered was that his voice was pure, clear and agile. That's what the opera means, the integrity of art as opposed to surface beauty.   In 2010, Christian Gerhaher sang Wolfram so luminously that some who should know better thought that Elisabeth chose the wrong guy.  But Wolfram sings about evening stars, and intangibles. Detachment is his thing, not gritty human emotion. Wolfram was Gerhaher's breakthrough, his career-defining moment. I had been listening to him as a Lieder singer from very early on indeed, so his Wolfram didn't surprise me.  He's a consummate Wolfram in so many ways. 

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Die Gedanken sind Frei

Die Gedanken sind Frei - a song at the soul of the German Romantic movement.The gentlemen above are intellectuals, aristocrats and artists, the gentlemen of the Lützowsches Freikorps who did their own thing, despite the repression around them.  Weber's  Der Freischütz can also be read as an extension of these ideas.  The song, first published in 1820, was almost certainly much older, the words quoted in medieval poetry.  The ideas were so well known that they worked their way into folk culture. In Clemens and von Brentano's  1805 collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the words appear in Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, which was set nearly a century later by Mahler.  A man is a prisoner in a dungeon from which he cannot escape. But "Gedanken sind Frei" and can never be suppressed.  If anything, the message is even more potent today, when forces of oppression have new channels in modern mass technology with which to spread wilful ignorance and domination. We live in a surveillance society : we aren't free. .  Lützow fought Napolean  The illustrations in the clip below show the uprisings of 1848, another watershed in German history. Now we have ISIS and other forms of terrorism to deal with. But as long as there are a few quiet voices who understand this simple song maybe there is hope. Pete Seeger sings a wonderful English translation, see below :

"Die Gedanken sind Frei, my thoughts freely flower
Die Gedanken sind Frei, my thoughts give me power,
No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them,  
No man can deny, Die Gedanken sind Frei
I think as I please and this gives me pleasure, 
My conscience decrees, this right I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater, to Duke or Dictator,
No man can deny : Die Gedanken sind Frei"

Monday 25 April 2016

Choral Shakespeare - unusual settings from Cologne

Choral songs from Shakespeare in a concert by the West Deutsche Rundfunk Radio Chorus, Cologne; conducted by Stefan Parkman, pictured above in front of the Cathedral on BBC Radio 3's "Shakespeare in Sound" series. Programmes like this are fascinating because they offer new perspectives on settings of Shakespeare. Much more fun than run-of-the-mill things we can hear anytime, anywhere, and lots better than some of the other stuff on offer so far.  Lively vocal ensembles do interesting things, because they're more individualist and independent than bigger,  less-flexible ensembles.

Like Jaako Mäntyjärvi (b 1963) Four Shakespeare Songs, from 1984. We hear only one here, Bubble Bubble Toil and Trouble.but we can hear why Mäntyjärvi has been a favorite in choral circles for a long time. The music "bubbles". The Three Witches are depicted in three blocks of voices. The low male voices keep the rhythmic line, while higher voices take off, rising like steam, then dissipating  in smokey sighs. Cackling good fun to sing.  Not included here is Mäntyjärvi's Full Fathom Five where the music flows across the different voices, blending them subtly, suggesting mysterious, submerged depths.  It's very different to Ralph Vaughan Williams's version in his Three Shakespeare songs for choir, where the "bells" toll  right from the start, as omnipresent as the "bells that ring on Bredon".  True artists find their own original voices.

Frank Martin's Five Ariel Songs  (1950) connect to Martin's opera Der Sturm, based on The Tempest, completed soon after. The tonal colour in Come unto these yellow sands blends and reshapes – synaesthetes, who process music visually, will be in raptures. Out of this the watchdog's bark "bow wow" rises almost like descant.  Martin's Full fathom five is graphic. The undulations of the female voices evoke an image of seaweed swaying in the depths, while the men's voices follow a more direct rhythm, lovely backed by the women singing in half tones. On the words "sea change" the music itself undergoes a change "into something rich and strange". The "ding dong" refrain is understated, for the beauty of this song lies in its polychromatic undulations. In contrast, "You are three men of sin" brings all the voices together. The part singing here is very tight, even the silences precise. The choir intones "Remember, remember" before the alto takes up the melody.  Inherently dramatic. More contrast, too, in Where the bee sucks, where the quick changes of tempo suggest fleet-footed lightness.

The WDR Chorus and Parkman continue with five sets of unusual settings of Shakespeare; Four Fancies from Sven-Eric Johanssen (1919-1997) : Wake me up from my bed of Dreams, Under the Greenwood Tree,  Blow, blow Thou Winter Wind and O Mistress Mine.  The acompaniment reveals their origins in piano song. Nils Lindberg (b 1933) Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day, Coloured Snakes, Lullaby, and The Whole World is a Stage,   Conductor Stefan Parkman's younger brother Håkan, who died aged only 33, was a composer. His Clown Song from Twelth Night shows great promise.  Why is my soul so barren of new Pride? , Alfred Janson (b 1937) Sonnet 46.  is interesting. The male soloist asks the question over and over, while the chorus at first hums (in German) and then sings in English. The answer seems to come when the female voice appears, "Telling what is told". The setting is call and response, as if the sonnet were part of a religious ceremony.  The concert ends with Carl Michael Bergerheim's settings of Sonnets 8 and 60, with beautiful piano accompaniment.  

The songs are introduced with readings from Shakespeare translated into German, delivered intelligently: a treat for English speakers who don't hear the translations too often, though some of these translations inspired some very great works.  There's another programme in this series, from Barcelona last year, where the readings are in Catalan.  This also features choral settings, some unknown in this country.  Jonathan Swain's late night programmes often provide hidden treasures.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Shakespeare in Chinese movies 1931

Shakepeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona became 一剪梅 (One Spray of Plum Blossom) in Shanghai in 1931. The Chinese film industry was very well established, serving a huge internal market. Movies were big in China because they reached an audience fascinated by modern ideas.  One Spray of Plum Blossom had instant resonance with educated urban viewers, many of whom did know their Shakespeare, who is in fact cited in the opening credits. Incidentally, the fact that this shows modern Chinese people means simply that that's how some people lived at the time. Even when Proteus flies a bi-plane, he's only doing what rich young men liked doing then.  But this Chinese version tightens up the plot and embeds the drama so well in a Chinese context that it would appeal even to those who didn't know its origins.

Valentine and Proteus become Hu Luting and Bai Lede, good transliterations of their names, though the English subtitles made with the film retain the names Shakespeare gave them.  The two gentlemen have just graduated from the Whampoa Military Academy, the Chinese Sandhurst and West Point, which produced a leadership elite who were to shape modern China.  This gives the film  a much deeper subtext than the original play, particularly as its release coincided with the Japanese invasion and nearly 20 years of war.  The scenes shot on location with rows of soldiers on parade have poignant meaning for Chinese audiences.  Valentine (played by Jin Yan) is class valedictorian. Proteus (Wang Cilong) gets called "Perfume General" because he's not quite so morally upright.  Proteus spies Valentine's sister Julia, who falls for him. She's played by Ruan Lingyu, the biggest star of the Chinese screen. Proteus recommends Valentine to his uncle, the military governor of Canton (Guangzhou), and gets appointed chief of the Guards. The  Commander's daughter, Lady Sylvia, loves horses, wears riding gear and waves riding crops.  She's  the "masculine" side of Sylvia without actual cross-dressing.  She has a retinue of guards, some of whom are clearly female though they wear military uniforms.  This "Sylvia" type appears in other Chinese films and echoes historic heroines like Hua Mulan.  She taunts Valentine, but they fall for each other.

Sylvia is a spoilt heiress, who, despite her amazon exterior, lives in a girly fantasy. She loves plum blossoms, so her rooms are covered in plum-blossom motifs.  even the arches to her inner rooms are shaped like plum blossom. Julia's home is tasteful and Chinese; Sylvia's is vulgar, but treated with humour. When her father holds a dinner party, there is a wonderful shot, where she and the guests have their chopsticks pointed at the food in the middle of the table. Shot from above, the diners' bodies form "petals" around the round table and the chopsticks the stamens of the plum blossom.  Valentine and Sylvia declare their love by writing poems about plum blossom in a grotto surrounded by flowers.  Plum blossom, of course, is the symbol of Spring and of the New Year.

When Tiburio comes along, Proteus concocts a plot to eliminate Valentine, who gets banished and falls in with a band of bandits, becoming their leader. Being posh and morally upright he makes them follow new rules: to right wrongs, to help the poor and to respect women.  When the soldiers beat up peasants, masked bandits save them, firing arrows with identifying marks carrying the plum blossom symbol.   This Robin Hood meme also had precedent in Chinese culture.   Julia comes to Guanzhou and thinks Sylvia is marrying Proteus. As in the original play, the two women sort things out and plot for justice.  Interestingly, the two actresses were Cantonese, local to the area where the action takes place, unlike most of the crew and cast.

When Sylvia gets kidnapped, her father and his troops come out and are in battle with the bandits. Valentine appears, and Proteus acknowledges his guilt.  Valentine is reinstated and his followers absorbed into the Commander's guard because they've proved their virtue. Along the way, cameo parts which appear in the original play but in this film are extremely well acted and realized. The rape scene also makes more sense.  Sylvia fights back rather well.  In the last scene Valentine and Sylvia, Proteus and Julia all wear uniforms and presumably live happily ever after.  The fundamentals in Shakespeare's original are observed, and the story is retold coherently, making extra points relevant to a Chinese audience.  Opera audiences, who panic about "updating" don't understand the power of art. 

Shakespeare lives ! The Garrick Ode, the Beamish Masque

Shakespeare Lives! The BBC Shakespeare 400 celebrations are called "Shakespeare Lives!" for a good reason, demonstrated by this concert broadcast from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was baptised and where he is buried.  There'll be plenty of plays, operas and discussions this year, but this concert captures  the spirit of creativity the Bard symbolizes,  Shakespeare lives, as long as  we care enough to keep his ideas fresh.

First, something few will ever have heard before: The Garrick Ode. This was David Garrick's tribute to the playwright. He'd built his career doing the plays in London, so the Ode was a tribute to the playwright himself.  The Ode helped establish the cult of Shakespeare as icon. Garrick's words are flamboyant  : "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory".  Watching Samuel West, dressed as Garrick, declaim his lines reminds you how 18th century text highlighted phrases in upper case with melodramatic flourish. Garrick, a man of the theatre, the ultimate salesman. This isn't naturalistic acting, but showmanship.  Watch the video of the concert here, but be warned, you have to fast forward to 15.01min)  The singers and musicians wear black Tudor gowns, but the spirit of theatre reigns paramount   If violinist Emilia Benjamin's white ruff looks cheerfully aware, it's a reminder that once, nice women wouldn't have been able to perform in public.  Jeffrey Skidmore conducts the singers of Ex Cathedra and a trio of harpsichord, viol and violin.  Thomas Arne wrote the original music, some of which is lost. Sally Beamish filled the gaps so the piece can come to performance.  Reconstructed from fragments by Adrian Howard, The Ode lives again!

Just as Garrick created his own, original Ode for his times, Sally Beamish creates A Shakespeare Masque that adapts Shakespearean form to modern times.  She uses a "broken consort", an ensemble often used in early English music, combining different families of instruments. In this case, a duo of viols and recorder/flute with a trio of lutes (lute, cittern and bandora) with extra percussion instruments.  Some of Shakespeare's texts are used, but so are poems by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. The result is a  lively blend of ancient and modern.  Jeffrey Skidmore conducts the City Musick. The adult singers of Ex Cathedra are joined by their own  children's choir and by local schoolchildren whose  voices evoke freshness and youth. And humour too. The children sing "Etcetera, etcetara" then "William ! William !" as if he were one of their own  Very muchn the purity of "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows". Some of these children are so young that their eyes shine in wonder.

Masques were theatre, combining movement with music. Each tableaux is defined by movement : choristers marching in procession, accompanied by percussion instruments, the clapping of hands and rhythmic gesture.  The children bounce up and down to the music: a wonderfully primeval response, which connects music to its roots.  The whole performance space is used, art integrated into normal life.  The references to Stratford-upon-Avon integrate Shakespeare's semi-rural  origins with the destiny he found in London, and Shakespeare's journey from England into world culture.  Beamish's Masque ends with a glorious coda on recorder.  An early music instrument reborn in modern music. Shakespeare lives!

Ex Cathedra is taking this programme on tour : Birmingham on Sunday, then Hereford Cathedral, Wolverhampton, Southwell Minster and Milton Court at the Barbican in London on May 12.

Friday 22 April 2016

James Cagney in Shakespeare : Midsummer Night's Dream Hollywood

James Cagney in Shakespeare? And Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell too, in  A Midsummer Night's Dream, the movie (1935). Shakespeare's text was cut and adapted. Mendelssohn's music revised by Erich Korngold, and extra dance sequences added, by Nijinsky's sister Bronislava.  Huge money was thrown behind the production, and all the state of the art technical resources Warner Brothers could muster.  This  was Midsummer Night's Dream as Hollywood musical extravaganza. It's compelling and repelling at the same time. Shakespeare kitsch, but kitsch on such a grand, audacious scale that you have to keep watching.  What a pity this was made in black and white and not in gaudy Technicolor !

On the other hand the special effects are so clearly "home made" that their very crudity is part of the charm.   Surfaces are splashed all over with reflecting fragments which sparkle "fairy dust". everywhere to distract the eye. The cameras lenses are heavily greased to soften focus  and many close-ups are lit from behind to soften detail.  This magic forest was clearly made in the studio workshops. The fairies are chorus girls, heavier on the hoof than ballerinas might be. But in its own gauche way this movie captures some of the wide-eyed naivety which Shakespeare found in the rude mechanicals. No one seriously believes the Wall is a Wall!

Once someone told me that he couldn't watch Shakespeare unless the costumes were "authentic" . Shakespeare and his audience would have thought he was a fool. They walked around in costumes as part of their normal lives. When they went to the theatre, they used their minds and imaginations.  The spartan simplicity of theatre practice in Shakespeare's own time is more "authentic" than glammed-up excess. In the past, audiences were accustomed to conceptual thinking, because they studied the classics and had an idea of Greek drama. They also went to church and understood the role of symbolism. Audiences now expect the literalism of TV costume drama. More than ever, we need Shakespeare's Midsummers Night's Dream to remind us of the interplay between art and reality, between outward appearances and inner meaning. Which is why it's worth watching the Hollywood Midsummers Night's Dream.  Bottom and his friends are workmen who don't know much about art, but they're funny because they improvise. Warner Brothers set out to make a 1930's extravaganza that would cost money, make money and establish their high-art credentials.  So this movie achieves Shakespeare's aims, despite itself.

So back to the actors. Victor Jory's Batman cape acts a more convincing Oberon than he does and Anita Louise is more tat than Tatiana, and her singing cuts like a rusty razor blade. Shakespeare's poetry gets so mangled that you're glad the text gets cut to breaks where armies of extras run in long lines, pretending to be fairies. Hordes of kids and dwarves (that Hollywood speciality).  Dick Powell was a matinee idol, and Olivia de Havilland box office hot, so the directors (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle) make more of Lysander and Hermia than they might have otherwise. Mickey Rooney was 15 when he played Puck, so something of his child star impishness enlivens his acting.  When he stumbles on words, and over-exaggerates, he creates a suitably Puckish waywardness. James Cagney, though, is a wonderfully earthy Bottom. The other actors ham their way through the poetry and make it sound arch. Cagney's delivery feels like Bottom's natural growl. Bottom as con man and gangster who fools the toffs - yes, indeed! And gets fooled himself in the process. Did he realize how well he played this part?

As for the music, the sound quality on the recording is so bad that it kills a lot. Since I like Korngold,  I like the blend of corn and gold in this soundtrack, with its twittering decorations  and glamorous flourishes.  Korngold writes authentic Hollywood, and very much created the style, even before he left Vienna.  He was interested in movies even before sound.  I need a fix of echt Mendelssohn to clear my ears after watching this movie, but a fix of sugar is a guilty treat.  Below, the trailer, which  says loads about the philosophy behind this film. It is embarrassingly close to the values of present-day opera audiences.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Exceptionally prescient : Janáček Jenůfa - Belohlávek. Mattila

Highlight of the whole opera season so far this year: Leos Janáček Jenůfa with Jirí Belohlávek, his team from the Czech Philharmonic, and Karita Mattila making her debut as Kostelnicka Buryjovka. British audiences embraced Janáček even during his lifetime and Rafael Kubelik introduced him to Covent Garden. Belohlávek has transformed the whole way in which Czech repertoire is received in this country. This Jenůfa continues Belohlávek's mission to present Czech music affirming its idiomatic individuality, fuelled by intuitive feel for language and culture. From Belohlávek we've had outstanding Smetana, Janáček, Dvorak, Suk  and  Martinů, so expectations were high, and totally fulfiilled.

Exceptional playing from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. When they come to London with Belohlávek, they seem to put their souls into performance. The dynamism and verve they offered brought this Jenůfa to vivid life. This performance was intense, yet clear-sighted, giving context to the extreme emotions in the narrative. In the glowing strings and richness of the winds, we could visualize the cornfields around the village, a symbolic metaphor for fertility, and by extension, the continuity of communal life. In her own way, like a good farmer, Kostelnicka protects the resources  around her. She wants the best for Jenůfa, and until Števa shows he can run the mill responsibly, the couple can't marry. Unfortunately, fertility plays tricks. When Laca stabs Jenůfa, sharp, violent chords suggest Laca's frustration. He, who cannot inherit or get the girl, can only destroy. Yet the abundance and energy in the music remind us that Nature is infinitely greater than mortal men. Eventually it will triumph.  

Significantly, the Second Act takes place in winter, when people are trapped indoors, physically and psychically. Hence the ominous drumbeats and the pale, fragile figures on winds, sharp chords and a dragging undertow, all suggesting the interplay between environment and human drama. Can we hear the river flowing beneath the frozen surface?  In this Act the vocal parts take prominence. Jenůfa's music is tender, contrasting with the harshness of her dilemma, and with the whining arrogance in Števa's music. Jaroslav Brezina sang Števa, and Adriana Kohútková sang Jenůfa, the lightness in her voice suggesting how innocent Jenůfa is, despite her past.  Aleš Briscein, a Czech Opera regular, whom we've heard many times, gave Laca firm definition, which matters, since the character will prove, in the end, to have the depth to overcome his flaws.  When Karita Mattila sang Jenůfa she was good, but Kostelnicka would seem to suit the complexity in her voice even better.  The intensity in Mattila's voice shows that, as a sacristan's wife,  Kostelnicka understands mortal sin, but the underlying warmth suggests that her love for Jenůfa makes the sacrifice worthwhile. 

In Spring, the ice in the river melts: we hear again in the orchestra lively motifs that suggest movement, and the energy of peasant life. Now the choruses really come into full focus: the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno show how integral natural fluency in language connects to Janáček's idiom  The spikiness in the orchestration springs from a language invigorated by consonants and stresses very different to, say, Italian or German.  The interplay of individual voices in the final act was masterful: Belohlávek is an excellent conductor for voice.  Mattila's voice commands the action, at once tragic and resigned. Perhaps that's the fate which awaits Jenůfa and Laca. The music around them feels heroic, though pointedly not overblown. At the end, we hear the suggestion of bells ringing in the distance. Balance returns, wisdom is gained and the rhythm of Nature restored. People die, life goes on.

Jirí Belohlávek is looking older and more frail, but in many ways that might have enhanced the performance. This was a Jenůfa of very great emotional depth, executed with the kind of authority which comes from genuine sensitivity. We have been truly blessed to experience an interpretation as perceptive as this.

The photo above was taken in Prague last week.  Please click on the labels at right to read what else I've written about Belohlávek and the music  he serves so well.