Sunday, 17 February 2019

Berlioz, Haitink, Mahler and other livestreams

Listening links and livestreams (click on blue bold for link)

Berlioz : La Damnation de Faust - François-Xavier Roth nous propose sa vision de "La Damnation de Faust" avec les forces de son orchestre Les Siècles. From L'Opea de Versailles. Condensed but intense HIGHLY RECOMMENDED  Very good soloists - Mathias Vidal, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Nicolas Courjal. Though it's too early to tell, this might be one of the highlights of this Berlioz anniversary year.

Berlioz : L'Enfance du Christ, Andrew Davis, BBC NOW HERE. This coincides with the release of Davis's recording of the piece with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which I haven't yet heard, but the combination of BBC NOW, the National Chorus of Wales and these soloists (Sarah Connolly, Andrew Staples (divine), Roderick Williams) would be pretty hard to top.

Berlioz Requiem, Lutoslawski - Pablo Heras-Casado  from the Philharmoniue de Paris from 20th February

Mahler : Symphony no 8 - Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic, Philharmonie de Paris  Gergiev's  unpredictable, and his Mahler often disappoints tho' his recent Mahler 4 and Das Lied von der Erde were surprisingly good.  Any Mahler 8 is worth hearing. This one thankfully wasn't over the top and hysterical.  It was good enough, and better than quite a lot. Luckily I didn't get to hear him do it in St Paul's Cathedral ten years ago where my friends said the naves sucked the life out of it .

Bernard Haitink : Beethoven 9,  Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks live from 22nd February on BR Klassik. Red Letter Day

Bernard Haitink at 90, LSO, Barbican  : Bruckner 4 amd Mozart from 10th March.  I'll be at the Mahler 4 programme on 12th March, which isn't being broadcast. There are still a few tickets for the repeat on 14th March. Grab them - Anna Lucia Richter the soloist is worth hearing

Berlioz Bits - Lélio, Waverley. La Mort de Cléopatra Pascal Rophé, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, live from Glasgow

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde - Sakari Oramo BBC SO - Elizabeth Kullmann and Stuart Skelton, who should be good. From 22nd February

Friday, 15 February 2019

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla : Peer Gynt and other choral stars

Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt a choral blockbuster ?  Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted Grieg's full incidental music to Ibsen's play with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, showing how the choral sections make a difference to the way the drama is received.  Peer Gynt is so well-known through extracts that the original context is lost.  Not a fjord in sight, except in a metaphorical sense. Peer Gynt isn't a hero. Ibsen's original as a Leseopera, an opera to be read and meditated upon, not "just" entertainment. He satirized aspects of Norwegian mentality in the period when the country was a colony of Denmark.  Peer's adventures are fraught with danger, supernatural as well as physical, The innate tension between moments of beauty and wildness creates a dynamic which is fundamental to interpretation.

Gražinytė-Tyla's approach brought out the power that lies beneath the surface : a vivid reading, bristling with energy.  Not for nothing does Grieg's wedding procession end with ferocious chords. Peer disrupts proceedings and gets kicked out for fighting.  Thus the first chorus with its almost primitive savagery : the subconscious being released.  Congratulations to the CBSO chorus (chorus master Julian Wilkins) showing their metttle. Indeed, this whole programme focusssed on choral music though no doubt the media will think in more simplistic nationalist terms. Thius does matter, since Gražinytė-Tyla has a choral background and is in an ideal position to build on CBSO's reputation for choral music of all kinds.

Having established the drama, Gražinytė-Tyla could focus on the interplay between expansive lyricism and more unusual forms, from the "barbarism" of the Hall of the Troll King to the exoticism of the Arabian dances.  In the Abduction of the Bride, the chorus led into Ingrid's Lament with soloist Klara Ek, and the Death of Åse prepared the way for Solveig's Song : both expressions of love and loss.  In Peer's Homecoming, the CBSO played with strong definition so the obvious imagery (a ship on the sea) seemed enhanced by forces beyond Nature. The Whitsun hymn, sung right afterwards, indicates that this conflation of inner and outer worlds is no accident, but central to meaning. Peer lives in the world of the imagination, feckless until he comes to appreciate true values.  Thus the finale, when Klara Ek, the soloist, the chorus and orchestra come together in glorious balance.

The programme began with neither conductor nor orchestra but with the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Dona Nobis Pacem (2010) a five minute a capella miniature. Salonen plays with chords and textures, the three words of the text repeated in undulating cadence, the last notes held until they dissolve in silence.  Because it's so minimal, careful modulation like this is of the essence.  The freshness of these young voices connected well to Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, where recorded bird song replaces chorus.  The orchestra reacts and responds, gradually coming into its own : long, searching lines, suggesting distance, flutes singing together as if they were birds.  A cello sings, its melody enhanced by the cries of birds.  For a moment, the orchestra falls silent, "listening" to birdsong before embarking on long, surging lines that expand, flutes in full flight, low voiced winds adding depth, until the music disappears beyond audibility.  These two pieces combine extremely well.  In both cases the performers must be listeners, sensitive to the subtlest nuance.

Back to more conventionally choral chorus with Jean Sibelius's Rakastava (The Lover), op 14 (1912).  More thoughtful programming from Gražinytė-Tyla, the minimal accompaniment reflecting the delicacy in Salonen and Rautavaara. The men's voices dominate at first - the cycle was originally scored for unaccompanied male voice -  but the women's voices enter with brighter, brisker figures until both reach parity.  Yet again the value of sensitive singing, hushed but precise.  Sibelius En Saga op 9  (1892) was also played well, (great solo moments !), Gražinytė-Tyla conducting with the clarity that brings out structure and detail. 

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Nefoedd (Heaven) - Welsh Art Songs from Tŷ Cerdd

Nefoedd (Heaven) - a collection of Welsh songs with Sioned Terry and Brian Ellsbury from Tŷ Cerdd.  Twentieth century Welsh song is undergoing a surge of interest, which should come as no suprise, after Tŷ Cerdd's groundbreaking Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a  Lost Icon, (please read more here). Those new to the repertoire will also find much to delight in. 

The first songs in this collection form a miniature cycle.  Y Gog Lwdlas (The Grey Cuckoo) is a traditional Welsh text arranged by Mervyn Roberts (1906-1990), setting the context for My Welsh Home by W S Gwynn Williams (1896-1978), a ballad of a hill farm, the rustic mood extended by Williams's I Hear a Shepherd's Pibgorn, this time set as a lively jig. This set is held together by another traditional song Y Deryn Du (The Black Bird) in a particularly lovely arrangement by Dilys Elwyn-Edwards (1918-2012). Two songs in Welsh, evoking the purity of unspoiled Nature, glorying in the beauty of this unique language, framing two songs in English. Germans would use the term "Sensucht" : I don't know what the Welsh equivalent might be, but these songs capture that sense of of idealized longing, more elevated than mere nostalgia.

Three songs by Joseph Parry (1841-1903) show how Welsh song could be adapted to mainstream European tradition.  Parry started life as a coal miner, emigrated to America, and ended up Professor of Music at Aberystwyth and Cardiff.  He wrote Blodwen, the first opera in Welsh.  These songs,Gwraig Y Morwr (The Sailor’s Wife), Lady Maelor’s Aria - The Valiant Sir Howell, and My Wife, are ballads, similar to the parlour songs of Victorian times, and would have been enjoyed by Welsh speaking performers and audiences.  Ivor Novello (1893-1951)  studied at Oxford, but found fame and fortune in music theatre and popular song.  His The Land of Might-Have-Been (1924) may be included here because it bears a decided resemblance to Morfydd Owen's The Land of Hush-a-Bye (which can be heard on the
Tŷ Cerdd recording Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a  Lost Icon). Owen and Novello had several London connections in common, so it is possible that Novello had at some stage heard Owen's song, which, to my mind at least, is far stronger.  Thomas Osborne Roberts (1879-1948) represents yet another strand in Welsh tradition.  An organist, and participant at Eisteddfordau,  through his first wife, an opera singer, he moved in wide circles, and was respected by Vaughan Williams and Bantock.  He wrote hymns like Y Nefoedd (The Heavens) and songs like Min y Mor (By the Sea) where the piano part ripples and the voice part rolls like gentle waves.  

The highlights of this collection are the four songs by Meirion Williams (1901-1976) which prove  that Welsh song can reach the heights of sophisticated art song. In Pan Ddaw'r Nos (When the Night Comes), the voice and piano parts interact with great delicacy, creating a languidly sensual nocturne, despite the religious undertones of the poem. Y Blodau ger y Drws (The blossoms by my door) lilts sensuously and Yr Hwyr (The Evening) is restrained, the piano underlining the vocal line to great effect.  In Gwynfdd (Paradise) to a poem Crwys by William Williams (1875-1968) , the voice part is almost ecstatic, caressing the distinctive sounds of the Welsh language. The "blessed realm of Paradise", lies not in far off lands, but "within my heart for e'er to keep, like roses fair before mine eyes". 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Not Elvis :a puzzle in a photo

That's not a guitar, but a type of Chinese ukulele - itinerant street musician, 1950's.The other urious thingabout this photo is that the guy is wearing a silk gown and cap, like a gentleman, whereas travelling musicians wore simple working man clothing. mNo wonder the crowd freeaked out - usually they took street singers for granted. So we have a puzzle in a picture. In the 1920's, the US and Canada passed las to exclude Chinese settlement, and in Hispanic America  Chinese people weredepirted wholesale,even if they'd settled many generations and were part Hispanic.  Unless we learm from history, we repeat it. Whoever this man is and why he's dressed up effectively in a costume, we will never know, but we need to think why he was doing this.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Music to Smoke Opium by - Luís de Freitas-Branco Paraísos Artificiais

Luís de Freitas-Branco (1890-1955) Paraísos Artificiais 1910, a symphonic poem inspired by Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.  Swirling lines flow, lit by harps. shapes shifting in and out of focus as if shrouded by smoke. A woodwind theme arises, seductive and sweet like narcotic perfume. The strings surge, breathing expansively. The andante section sparkles with single note flurries (plucked strings, like lutes) with just a hint of exotic temple bells.  But danger intrudes. Darker themes swell up, angular chords, haunted by brooding, somnolent figures. Nonethelss the flute melody meanders on, poised and unpertured by the horn calls of alarm, and the piece dissolves in relative calm.  It's a sophisticated work, as witty as it is subtle, an imaginative work for a composer aged just 19, especially when you consider that Debussy La Mer had premiered barely five years before, and the innovations of the early 20th century were still to come. . 

Freitas-Branco canme from an aristocratic fasmily, wealthy enough that he and his brother Pedro, who became Portgal's most famous conductor, could study music in Paris and Berlin. But in 1908, the King of Portugal and his heir were assassinated, throwing the country into turmoil.  Freitas-Branco had to find his identity in new territory, like so many others in Europe during that period, often searching exotic forms for a way ahead.  Freitas-Branco had an advantage in that his country had five hundred years of non-European form to reference.  He would have known of the Portuguese Orientalists  such as Camillo Pessanha, who lived in Macau, wrote poems about Chinese music and smoked opium on a regular basis (when modernized Chinese disdained it).     

Many years ago, the specialist label Portugalsom Strauss carried a catalogue of several hundred titles, ranging from early music and baroque to mid 20th century works.  Much of this work is equal to much that was happening elsewhere in Euriope, so it’s a real shame it's hardly knoiwn outside Portugal.  Both Luís and Pedro de Freitas-Branco were represented by lots of different discs.  Naxos has relicensed a small fraction of the Portugalsom catalogiue, but it's high time that more of it were made available, and in better recordings and performance. Lucky for me, I was working then where I could accumulate a few, though I didn't have the money or time to get in as deeply as I wished.

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Wit of HIP : J E Gardiner, LSO Schumann series, Barbican

John Eliot Gardiner conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the third concert of their Schumann series at the Barbican Hall, London.  A coherent programme - Carl Maria von Weber Overture to Euryanthe, Mendelssohn Concerto for violin and piano (Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout) building up to Schumann Symphony no 3 (The "Rhenish"). This is what "historically informed performance " means: understanding music as music, in context and on its own terms.  Respecting the composer as far as possible, not smothering him with a fire blanket of audience expectations.  Nothing wrong with expectations formed in the 1950's and 60's for something to put on the brand new turntable. But there's so much more to music than that. Gardiner shows how fresh and vital Weber, Mendelsssohn and Schumann can sound, nearly 200 years after they were "new".

Weber's Overture to Euryanthe began with vivid attack. The early Romantics were fearless, exploring audacious new ideas.  There's nothing timid about the opera Euryanthe. Indeed its bizarre plot makes it almost impossible to stage (fire-breathing dragons, long before Wagner). All the more reason we must appreciate the technical limitations with which Weber created the drama. Natural horns : reminding us of a time when people hunted in order to eat, where Nature represented danger. That the strings have to try harder is the whole point !  The solo violin melody reminds us how vulnerable mortals are against the unknown, yet bravely they persist. That also justifies the practice of getting the musicians to stand while playing. It's not novelty. The sound is subtler and more human.  Modern audiences need to get over being conditioned to very late performance practice and much larger forces and respect what went into the music in the first place. Conductors stand throughout a performance, and if Gardiner, who is 75, can do it, most players can. The greater freedom of movement comes through in greater freedom of expression, and greater engagement between members of the ensemble, who seem to listen to each other more than they might do otherwise.

That aesthetic of chamber communality also informs Mendelssohn 's Double Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Strings in D minor, MWV O4 (1823), where the LSO were joined by Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout.  Mendelssohn was just fourteen when he wrote this, but its restraint connects to his background and to the influence of his grand-aunt Sarah Levy, a musician whose recitals championed the music of Bach.  Bezuidenhout played a pianoforte from 1837 by Sébastien Érard, with leather hammers covered in felt. "There is a textural topography to these instruments" said Bezuidenhout in an interview before the concert, which is well worth listening to on the replay of the livestream here, because he demostrates with examples. "Every register has a characteristic voice....moving from bass to tenor, and above, where the piano sounds similar to the harp".  Mendelssohn worked so closely with the instrument that Bezuidenhout believes that it shaped his compositional processes, allowing him to experiment with what the instrument could offer.  Hearing the Érard did make a diffrence. Textures were lighter and livelier, colours brighter and more nuanced.  Faust's playing (a 1724 Stradivarius) picked up on the greater freedom and vivacity,  which in turn extended to the orchestra.  Altogether a unique experience, further proof that well-informed performance practice can be revelation.

A vigorous Schumann Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97,(1850). Given the central position of song in Schumann's ouevre, his sensitivity to poetry and visual images and his very personal identification with the Rhine, it is wise not to underestimate the programmatic aspects of this symphony, even though this might not appeal to modern assumptions about what a symphony should be.  Indeed, one could suggest that Schumann's Third inhabits a place from which we can consider his search for new forms of music theatre, evolving from oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri  (Op 59, 1843) (please read more here) to Genoveva (1848)  (read more here)  an opera that is more Weber than Wagner.  Is Schumann 3 music theatre in symphonic form ?  Hearing it in the context of Weber and Mendelsson, who didn't write opera but wrote incidental music of genius,  we can hear how the drama in this symphony affects interpretation.

Gardiner's period approach reflects German Romantic music theatre before the revolution that was Richard Wagner.  Here the colours glowed, evoking the magic of the worlds of Weber, Mendelssohn and Singspiel tradition.  Not all magic is malevolent,. This last of Schumann's symphonies was inspired by an interlude of great happiness, when Robert and Clara took a holiday along the Rhine, both of them acutely aware of its symbolism and place in  Schumann's songs, such as "Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter" from Liederkreis op 24, and the verse, from Heine :

"Freundlich grüssend und verheißend
Lockt hinab des Stromes Pracht;
Doch ich kenn’ ihn, oben gleißend,
Birgt sein Innres Tod und Nacht.!"

Gardiner and the LSO articulated the sparkling figures in the opening movement so they flowed , like a river, sunny but with darker undercurrents hinted at in the strong chords in the second theme, and the quieter passages in its wake. This coloured the second movement, suggesting the scherzo qualities behind the surface. There are echoes of folk dance, evoking the vigour of peasant life, but Schumann doesn't tarry. Bassoons, horns and trumpets called forth, the movement ending on an elusive note.  The movement marked "Nicht schnell" was gracefully poised: as an intermezzo it connects the happiness of the Lebhaft movement with what is to come. The solemn pace of the fourth movement marked "Feierlich" may describe a ceremony the Schumanns witnessed in Cologne Cathedral, but its musical antecednts can be traced to other sources, such as the song "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" from Dichterliebe.  The size of the cathedral, and the reverberations within it are suggested by the figures (trombones, trumpets, bassoons) which stretch out as if filling vast spaces. With Gardiner's clear textures the motif suggesting a cathedral organ was very distinct.  Whateverv the movement may or may not mean, the muffled horns and brass fanfares evoke a power that is very far from the insouciant quasi-folk tunes that have gone before.  Yet Schumann concludes not with gloom but with a reprise of the sunny Lebhaft, the emphatic chords even stronger than before, this time lit up by a glorious fanfare, the brass shining above the strings below. The very image of the Rhine surging past towering mountains.

On Sunday 10th February, Gardiner and the LSO will do their last concert in this Barbican Schumann series, with Schumann's Symphony no 1 and the Manfred Overture (tickets here)  To read about their first concert, with Schumann Symphony no 2 in C major op 61 (1847) and the Overture to Genoveva with Berlioz Les nuits d'été, please read HERE.

Stéphanie D'Oustrac Sirènes - Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt

Stéphanie D'Oustrac Sirènes, with Pascal Jourdan, songs by Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, from Harmonia Mundi. After D'Oustrac's striking success as Cassandre in Berlioz Les Troyens (Please read more here), this will reach audiences less familiar with her core repertoire in the baroque and grand opéra.  Berlioz's Les nuits d'été and La mort d’Ophélie,  Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and the Lieder of Franz Liszt are very well known, but the finesse of D'Oustrac's timbre lends a lucid gloss which makes them feel fresh and pure.

D'Oustrac's Sirènes is also valuable because it demonstrates different approaches to the art of song for voice and piano. Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été op 7, to poems by Théophile Gautier, initially completed in 1841, was exactly contemporary with the works of Schumann's Liederjahre  Later, Berlioz would expand the accompaniment for orchestra, effectively creating a new genre, orchestral art song, which would be developed later in the century by composers like Mahler and Hugo Wolf.  Nonetheless, even in the original form for voice and piano, these songs are highly individual, quite distinct from the songs of Schumann and Mendelssohn.  "I only wish people to know that [these works] exist", wrote Berlioz, "that they are not shoddy music . . . and that one must be a consummate musician and singer and pianist to give a faithful rendering of these little compositions, that they have nothing to do with the form and style of Schubert’s songs"

These mélodies of Berlioz are characterized by elegance and restraint. In "Villanelle", for example, the repeating patterns in the piano part might evoke Schubert, but there's an effervescent gaiety in them that is matched by graceful flow of the vocal line.  In "Le spectre de la rose", the more languid pace allows the voice to curve sensuously.  Berlioz clearly understood the carnal undertones in Gautier's poetry.  The piano part is gentle, but persistent, like an embrace. When D'Oustrac's tone deepens with the phrase "Ô toi qui de ma mort fus cause", one can almost sense the  perfume rising from the petals of the doomed rose. Although Les Nuits d'été is not a song cycle in the strictest sense of the term, recurring themes of love, and death and perpetual change give it a coherence which is particularly clear when it is performed with the intimate focus that a single singer and pianist can achieve.  The three songs, "Sur les lagunes : Lamento", "Absence" and"Au cimetière: Clair de lune", form a unit, sombre with the stillness of the tomb, which is then broken by "L'île inconnue" where the ebullient high spirits of "Villanelle" return. Les Nuits d'été begins with promise of Spring and new  life, and ends with adventure. "La voile enfle son aile, La brise va souffler.", D'Oustrac breathing buoyancy into the word "souffler". Though Heine inspired Mendelssohn and Schumann with dreams of the East, Gautier and Berlioz are tapping into an even deeper vein in the French aesthetic : ideas of freedom, change and new frontiers in exotic settings.  D'Oustrac and Jourdan extend Les Nuits d'été by following it with Berlioz's La mort d’Ophélie, from Tristia op 18, a setting of a ballade by Ernest Legouvé, who, like Berlioz himself, adapted Shakespeare for French theatre.  Ophélie, who dies for love, floats upon a torrent, depicted in the rippling piano part.  "Mais cette étrange mélodie passa rapide comme un son". Though the voice imitates a lament, this is not so much a song of mourning but a transformation through music.  The stream carries "la pauvre insensée, Laissant à peine commencée Sa mélodieuse chanson.

This recording is titled Sirènes, tying Berlioz's songs together with Richard Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, both inspired, in part, by women who awoke strong emotions.  Sirens, who attract but aren't necessarily positive, though they generated great art.  With full orchestration, the Wesendonck Lieder showcase Wagnerian flamboyance. But, as with Les Nuits d'été , voice and piano versions  concentrate focus on a more intimate scale.  Even more pertinently, this highlights Wagner's place in the context of the Lieder of his time, and in relation to Schumann and Franz Liszt.  "Der Engel" is gentle,  and  the dramatic declamation of "Stehe Still !" more human scale.  D'Oustrac and Jourdan are particularly impressive in "Im Treibhaus", the sensitivity of their expression reflecting the intense inwardness that makes Lieder as powerful a genre as opera.  

One of the most iconic siren figures of 19th century Romanticism was the Loreley. This recording begins with one of the most beautiful Loreley songs of all,  Liszts's Die Loreley S273/2, a setting of Heine's poem.  D'Oustrac's silvery timbre illuminates the song, accentuating its mystery.  She and Jourdan include another other Liszt setting of Heine, Im Rhein im schönen Strome, S272/3 and four settings of Goethe, of which Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh S306/2 works particularly well with D'Oustrac's lucid style. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Janáček Kát’a Kabanová Royal Opera House

Janáček Kát’a Kabanová in a new production by Richard Jones, conducted by Edward Gardner at the Royal Opera House reviewed by Claire Seymour in Opera Today :

"How important is ‘context’, in opera? Or, ‘symbol’? How does one balance the realism of a broad social milieu with the expressionistic intensity of an individual’s psychological torment and fracture?

I’m not sure that Richard Jones’s new production of Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová addresses, or solves, these questions, but it certainly made me reflect upon them."......"Having stirred up so many questions, how fortunate Jones is to have American soprano Amanda Majeski to push them from our mind. In her house and role debut, Majeski gives such heartfelt commitment to the role of Kát’a that one worries how she can come back down from the emotional peaks and precipices that she scales in her performance".

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Klaus Mäkelä at Bergen Philharmonic - why you need to know

Klaus Mäkelä, photo : Harrison Parrott

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Klaus Mäkelä, livestreamed from Norway, with   Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" with Javier Perianes, and Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.  The Bergeners are always worth listening to and you really can't get enough of Beethoven, but the surprise here was Klaus Mäkelä. Who? you might ask.  I hadn't heard of him til this Bergen concert and was surprised to find out how good he is.  But even more shocked to learn his age. 

Born in 1996, he's still only 22 yet he's Principal Guest Conductor at the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and has just been appointed Chief and Artistic Advisor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.  So have a listen to the link here. Weather conditions seem to have messed up the video, but the audio is clear.  He conducted Shostakovich 10 at Gothenberg a few months ago, and has the measure of it.  A very stylish, refined reading, which is OK. Shostakovich does not need to be craggy and violent. It's the music that counts, not the persona.  From what I've been reading Mäkelä himself is pretty stylish, too - likes sharp suits asnd is clearly fashion-aware.  That alone should enrage the kind of listeners who on principle are determined to hate anyone young, successful and non-butch macho, which says more about their own insecurities than about those whom they hate. This guy has potential.  It's hard to tell from one concert but he seems to have the gloss of Nézet-Séguin, but greater depth and a willingess to take informed risks.  Management is Harrison Parrott, who have a lot lined up for him in the near future.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Berlioz Les Troyens, Paris - How to kill an opera

Hector Berlioz Les Troyens with Philippe Jordan conducting the Opéra National de Paris.  Since Les Troyens headlined the inauguration of Opéra Bastille 30 years ago, we mightb have expected something special of this new production. It should have been a triumph, with such a good conductor and some of the best singers in the business. But it wasn't.  Anyone can trot out superficial clichés  about so-called modern productions, but it's far more important to understand why a production works, or doesn't.

The starting point as always is the opera, and the ideas behind it.  Berlioz captured the expansive, extravagant spirit of his time. France was resurgent, colonizing Africa and Asia, obliterating the  defeat of Napoleon with new confidence. Paris was being rebuilt on a grand scale.  Yet Berlioz, never a shrinking violet, intuited the hubris that comes with imperial glory.  Les Troyens is flamboyant, but its backdrop is catastrophe.  Empires are annihilated, nations forced into exile. Berlioz's orchestration reflects this turbulence, with blazing highs and apocalyptic darkness. Though Didon and Enée enjoy an interlude of heady bliss, that happiness is doomed.  That idea of glory cursed by hubris remians powerfully potent today - perhaps even more so now, given what's happening in the world.   Perhaps audiences don't want to be reminded about war in Syria (and Lebanon, where Tyre was) and of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean, many escaping from the area that was Carthage. Fair enough.  There's no more reason that a production should be set in period costume. In any case, Berlioz wasn't doing history enactment, and the audiences of his time were conditioned to the past as allegory, Classical Antiquity rather than Antiquity Realism. Berlioz's music was audacious, possibly the most advanced and adventurous of its time.  Shock and awe were part of his aesthetic. Les Troyens doesn't have to be pretty - cosiness is decidedly not its message - but at least it should engage the mind.

Dmitri Tcherniakov productions don't generally appeal to me because he tends to decorate rather than engage with what ideas might be in an opera. His Glinka Ruslan and Lyudmila  for the Bolshoi was as inert as a Fabergé egg, (read more here), his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for ENO put Shostakovich on mute (more here), his La Traviata for La Scala died in the womb (here) and his Rimsky-Korsakov's Invisible City of Kitezh missed the magic so fundamental to the opera (please read Amsterdam's invisible, risible Kitezh here).   But I loved his Bizet Carmen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2017.   The drama in Carmen isn't the kitsch surface so much as the way the characters act out their motivations to extremes.  Thus Carmen as transaction analysis is not only feasible, but full of insight. Perhaps Tcherniakov was trying to recap that Carmen with Les Troyens, but frankly, he needs to work with a good dramaturge. 

Tcherniakov sets the Troy part of Les Troyens as a fairly typical tin-pot dictatorship, which is not wrong in principle, but there is a lot more to Berlioz's Troy than this. Cassandre is the central character, not Priam and his court, and she is cursed because she can prophesy the future. Stéphanie d'Oustrac was stunning, stealing the show by her vocal presence and instinctive feel for creating character.  I was riveted : she's a force of nature.  But all Tcherniakov had to offer her was a yellow suit , standing out from the blue shades around her, and when the Greeks burst in they hardly seem to figure.  Anyone who didn't get the Horse in David McVicar's Les Troyens for the Royal Opera House should be forced to watch Tcherniakov til they squirm. There is no reason to assume, like the Trojans and Tcherniakov do, that the impending disaster is all in Cassandre's mind. 

D'Oustrac's Cassandre was matched by Stéphane Degout's equally impressive Chorèbe, sung with such depth and conviction that he made the role come alive, so vivid and human :  what a pity that Chorèbe has to die in the First Act !  Luxury casting : D'Oustrac and Dégout interacted so  well, and with such verve that their performance would be memorable on its own terms. 

Carthage here is an anonymous office space, which worked fine in Tcherniakov's Carmen, because it evoked the displaced ennui behind the desperation of Carmen and her companions.  But as the libretto makes clear,  Didon's Carthage is a happy place, where people have built constructive lives.  Didon is a much loved success : she's given others asylum, she's not "in" an asylum, needing help.  Unless you think that being kind to refugees is madness. Had the performances of Brandon Jovanovich and Ekaterina Sementchuk  been on the same level as D'Oustrac and Dégout, one might forgive the banal staging,. Jovanovich and Sementchuk weren't bad, but didn't quite rise to the heights, either.  A rather depressing Royal Hunt and Storm, saved by Jordan's incisive conducting, splendidly luminous in the love scene, and demonic in the storm.  So rewarding, in fact, you could enjoy this Les Troyens as an orchestral exercise.  

Very well cast minor roles -  Véronique Gens as Hécube and Paata Burchulzade as Priam, who can still create character, Thomas Dear as The Ghost of Hector, Aude Extrémo as Anna, Cyrille Dubois as Iopas,Michèle Losier as a very fetching Ascagne, Christian van Horn as Narbal.   At the end D'Oustrac, Dégout, Gens, Burchulzade and Dear return as ghosts, raising the staging from the grave.   With this conductor, this orchestra and most of this cast, this Les Troyens could have been brilliant, but  let's hope we won't have to wait another 30 years for a better production. This staging might be fine in some provincial house,  but Paris is not the place for it.