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Friday, 28 June 2013

Simon Boccanegra at ROH


Now on its nth revival, Elijah Moshinsky is back to direct his production of Simon Boccanegra, and his presence keeps things fresh enough that we don't feel that this is just a dutiful discharge of a repertory piece. The staging is remarkably similar to his Otello (last seen at the ROH last season) in terms of sets, costumes, lighting (all ultra grand, ultra traditional, but meticulously avoiding the gaudy or kitsch - big pillars, marble floors, wooden tables, clear skies) and even  draws comparison in the physical direction in a few scenes, but he nevertheless manages to capture the grandeur and scope of this peculiar and troublesome opera and can draw a line through its dramatic convolutions where many others have faltered. As ever with Verdi, it's the human drama, those moments of intense release, that justify (and are a result of) the contrived windings of the plot; Moshinsky knows this, paring things down to their essentials at these moments and letting the music and text do its thing. Thus, the final tender reconciliation between the two old men, redemption and forgiveness after a lifetime of rivalry, simply staged with them leaning into one another in tender embrace, is far more moving than one usually encounters, because the dramatic groundwork has been meticulously laid, even if we didn't quite follow it fully as it was happening. Moshinsky takes Verdi at his word, trying to uncover the nuances in the text, never reinterpreting or re-imagining. Traditionalists will love it, others will find it frustratingly square. It does heavily rely on having a cast that act with conviction and subtlety which can't always be guaranteed.

Ferruccio Furlanetto
Thomas Hampson

The cast was decent I thought, though everyone involved took a while to warm up both vocally and dramatically. Most troublesome for me was Thomas Hampson as Simon Boccanegra. Technically he can more than sing the role and he's loud enough to make an impact in the role; dramatically speaking he also does a very reasonable job. To complain about singing of this standard would seem to be cavilling, but his portrayal ends up being less than the sum of its parts. There's something so careful and mannered about his singing, the delivery of the text very artificial and cerebral without penetrating the heart of the matter. His dynamic range is very wide, his control admirable, but the timbre is no longer very attractive, and the legato is studied rather than limpid. Somehow the technical mastery is being substituted for heartfelt interpretation or genuine response to the music  - we never glimpse the "soul of the character" as Gerald Finley so beautifully puts it in this article. Gerald Finley makes an interesting point of comparison actually because he is superficially quite similar (age, approach, repertoire, level of achievement), but is by far the more interesting artist because he can live the part. There are recordings of Hampson's from the 1990's which I truly love - mostly in song repertoire it has to be said - but this was a disappointing showing.

Hibla Gerzmava
Hibla Gerzmava will be a very appealing Amelia for all those who like Joyce Didonato - the hallmarks of both voices can be eerily similar - the silvery sound, technical security, the very fast, brittle vibrato in the fluttery high register, the breathy pointing of the line - though Gerzmava has a gentler, more rounded middle register, and a less developed lower voice. Like DiDonato too, the intonation occasionally lapses in high phrases. An acquired taste, though I liked her considerably more as Donna Anna in last season's Don Giovanni. Her acting is never more than acceptable. More interesting was the young tenor Russell Thomas as Adorno, a new voice for me, who managed to distinguish himself amongst his far more famous colleagues. Initially I thought he was overparted, but he soon warmed up and produced some truly golden phrases. He's not quite the finished article, but the legato is exceptionally good, really wonderful to hear, he is able to colour the voice, and nothing even hints at strain. What I thought was particularly impressive is that he is able to make the musical line actually clearly express an emotion, his high notes particularly notable in this regard, always bursting with feeling, rather than mere opportunities for display. I'm not sure this can be taught - it's both an attitudinal thing and inherent to the timbre of the voice, though of course is unthinkable separated from his excellent technique (c.f. the dazzling Juan Diego Florez, who can sing anything, but expresses nothing). Acting wise, Thomas is passionate, but very inwardly focused, the contracted posture and narrowed eyes, indicative of the whole approach. In his last scene he does connect more with the others on stage at least which is promising because it means that this aspect of his stage personality already shows signs of the possibility of improvement. Overall though this is a very promising talent indeed, and a great début.

Russell Thomas

Fiesco is not quite the dream matching of role and singer for Ferruccio Furlanetto that King Philip II was in Don Carlos, but he was wonderful in the second act, managing the transition into old age superbly, as Hampson also did. A class act. I've found Dimitri Platanias dramatically null in previous Verdi productions, so it was pleasant to see him on more engaging dramatic form here as Paolo. Vocally he was surprisingly variable throughout the evening ranging from totally on top of the music, to struggling to project it with enough force, luckily tending more towards the former.

Pappano lead a lushly solid performance in the pit, clearly relishing the dark sonorities of Verdi's score. Occasionally I wished the textures had been more finely differentiated, but this was a satisfying reading, and the orchestra were on good form. Overall Moshinsky and Pappano hold this evening together and make it worth seeing for Verdi admirers.

Photos Copyright Clive Barda/ROH

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Roméo et Juliette at the Wiener Staatsoper


Not being the greatest Gounod fan, I mainly attended this performance of Roméo et Juliette to hear Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette), Piotr Beczala (Romeo) and Placido Domingo in the pit. This isn't a proper review, more a note on the performance.

First a note on the staging. It was pretty dire. Director Jürgen Flimm updates it to approximately the present day, but it's sort of difficult to tell because the set has very few components, and the costumes are very plain. Patrick Woodroffe's set/lighting design comprises five large pillars which continually move forward and backwards across the stage along radiating tracks to alter the size of the usable stage space. A lot of the lights are mounted to these pillars, so the light comes from behind the singers leaving them consistently under-lit, but with the black set there's also there's no clear idea of what is meant to be evoked here, beyond a slightly depressing and barren night club. Certainly Juliette's entrance bizarrely establishes her as a vampish "it-girl" singer, though the idea is hardly carried through and she quickly reverts to the more traditional view of the character as a naive, chaste teenage girl. Romeo is just an anonymous youth with a nice voice. The action blandly crawls on, no aria seeming motivated by anything that's happened on stage, there's no balcony (instead there's a little semicircular flap that raises up a little bit), and R&J are constantly being interrupted by people, running off stage, only to return for a final smooch. Once again, it was very clear that there had been little rehearsal as there was very little that was specific in any of the acting.

My experience with these two performances at the Wiener Staatsoper makes me realise how lucky we are in the UK - first that we always get well rehearsed casts from all of our major and minor companies, and second that the directors we attract/employ may actually not be too bad on average compared to what's available abroad! (However much we enjoy complaining!) There are things I've seen in Europe that I just can't imagine ever seeing from a UK company. I'm not talking about the notorious rape/blood/violence Regie productions that people love to rail on about, I'm talking about anodyne, mindless, unstylish, easily rehearsable stagings such as this one which have nothing to say about the piece, and risk absolutely nothing artistically. The Munich Traviata I reviewed is similar, and the Baden Baden Ariadne was also the same.

Sonya Yoncheva recently-ish won Placido Domingo's Operalia competition and is clearly a full lyric soprano voice of very considerable beauty. More than once I was reminded of the younger Gheorghiu in the voice's colour and texture. Juliette is usually seen as a lightish role because of the coloratura so it was unusual to hear it with such a voluptuous voice. Top notes are secure, and the legato is good, but on the other hand, the coloratura was quite variable, ranging from totally serviceable, to fairly approximate. I would have thought Countess/Donna Elvira/Donna Anna would be ideal at the moment, and perhaps Marguerite (though that sits quite low) might be a better fit. She certainly won't be held back by her looks either.

Tenor Piotr Beczala is a much more established singer of course and just as impressive. The voice is firm, bright and even through the range, though there are weird sobs that appear now and then, that I'm not sure are intentional. The very highest notes seemed a bit weird on this occasion - not bad by any means, but suddenly very covered and of a different quality to the rest of the voice. Both leads were interpretively a little bland, but working with this staging I'm willing to forgive a lot. (Incidentally I realised recently that Beczala can look uncannily like Liberace.)

Placido Domingo is famed for being a terrible conductor. He wasn't truly awful here, but there were quite a few moments where the orchestra were really not together with each other or the stage. This is the Vienna Philharmonic we're talking about (or some version of it) so there's a limit to how bad they can be; they were good in general, creating a lush body of sound that nevertheless never fought the singers.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Capriccio at Wiener Staatsoper with Renée Fleming

Vienna State Opera

[NOTE: if you're looking for the 2013 ROH Capriccio with Fleming, look here.]

Strauss' final opera Capriccio, the piece for which my blog is named, almost means too much for me to give an overview of why I value it so highly. The temptation would be to list every detail, every felicity, so when I have more time I will write up my thoughts into a coherent structure - since there are a couple of ROH performances coming up, that will provide a good deadline. For the time being, suffice it to say that this piece represents an exquisite final flowering of Strauss' operatic career, an unexpected return to the brilliance of the Salome - Elektra - Rosenkavalier - Ariadne period after approximately two decades of relative mediocrity (the best bits of Arabella and Daphne being the principle highlights that soar beyond the meticulous humdrum of most of his work from the 1920s and 30s). It ushers Strauss' late harvest of works of which the Four Last Songs are the most famous and celebrated and is every bit as recherché and exquisitely crafted as the songs.

This was a frustrating show because it was almost so good in every way. First, let's consider the design. From the photos above you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was one of the most visually alluring productions you're ever likely to see, and it certainly has its moments. Visually this show is best when the lighting is very focussed on the singers bringing them into heightened, luminous focus (as in the photos above, and a few others here), and I love the idea of a Capriccio in slightly surreal, glimmering half lights, as its so different from what I hold in my minds eye when I listen to the work. However this only happens occasionally, and all too often the singers and set are covered in a haze of blues, lilacs, oranges, yellows and pinks, and there are just too many colours and textures for the aesthetic to properly congeal, let alone be stylish. The last scene for instance, contrary to the neon beauty of the photo above, has much of its stark luminescence vitiated by very diffuse gels on the lights that nullify the intense colour, and do no favours to the set. We'll see how it looks on camera* as shows can look very different on the little/big screen to how they look in the theatre.

this sort of thing is closer to the production's norm.

these three as well. Lots of lovely things individually,
but a mishmash overall, and often not well lit.

Second, the direction. The main set components of Marco Arturo Marelli's production (he designed, directed and lit it) are a series of large triangular columns that each have three different faces representing three different levels of reality in the show. The visual effect is sometimes similar to Herbert Wernicke's Der Rosenkavalier. The stage opens on 1940's attired Flamand and Olivier (composer and poet) at their respective writing desks either side of the stage behind a gauze which blends smoothly from a chaos of notes to a chaos of words. Throughout the show this layer occasionally pops up but is not much developed. The principle action appears in a very stylised late 18th century setting and is presumably the opera that these two artists are constructing. But by teasing apart these layers that are implicit in the piece without providing obvious insights that this rending apart has opened us up to, it spoils something of this work's enigmatic unity, that special smiling glow and wistful humour that informs every bar of the score and text. Capriccio exists as a conversation piece on the nature of opera, a charming "period" romance set in an aristocratic salon, and simultaneously serves as its own explanation and deconstruction. The characters are both metaphors for the debate being enacted, archtypes, and detailed, living, believable people, whose complex desires and relationships drive the plot. It's all so artfully and effortlessly achieved that no further clarification is required: the piece itself is literally and metaphorically its own best explanation and it does it with a simple smiling elegance that it would be virtually impossible to improve upon. Marco Arturo Marelli writes with obvious love and understanding in his programme note, but he hasn't been brave enough with his vision.

This revival was very obviously very under-rehearsed. Although many of the singers from the début 2008 cast remain, they can't be expected to remember every detail in an opera as conversationally fleet footed and detailed as this without extensively re-engaging with the text, motivations and actions of the characters in this production again. It wasn't entirely clear from the booklet whether Marelli was back for this revival, but either way verbal queues were constantly missed and actions were often vague and indecisive. When Madeleine says "Fasst mich nicht an!", Olivier hadn't yet touched her, but then he awkwardly remembered he should have, and quickly grabbed her and then immediately lets go. Madeleine is meant to demonstrate the Rameau excerpt at the keyboard, but Fleming didn't get there in time, and just joined in with the offstage harpsichord way after the music has started. These are small things, but over an evening amount to a larger feeling of malaise that the singers are merely "walking through" the parts - often it seems unclear what characters actually mean by their words because their actions are ambiguous and approximate. The wonderful scenes where Olivier and Flamand declare their love were not convincing for this reason, and references to offstage action were also strangely glossed over or ignored in the acting. It's really not all bad though, characters do what they're meant to, it's not static, and there are nice touches also - the house lights going up a little when the characters all start talking about how strange opera is, adressing the audience all the while, and Olivier's cry of "Gondola, gondola!" when discussing Italian singing in the first scene, is picked up on later when the Italian Singers' duet is presented with them being carried about in gondolas. Olivier and Flamand, two sides of the same coin, wear mirror image costumes.

As I've said before, Renée Fleming is in my opinion the greatest soprano of the age, and when the prime was so effortlessly, ravishingly flawless, the autumn of the career comes all the more painfully. However, having seen her perform (a ridiculous) eight times last year, I can confidently say that this was by some distance the best I have seen her since I started blogging, a gratefully heard return to form. Although the timbre doesn't have the same glistening radiance that it used to, here the legato and exceptional support of the line recalled the glory days of "The Beautiful Voice", and in the all important final scene, the voice soared just as one might have hoped. Amazingly, from my seat Fleming's voice sounded larger than most of her colleagues (equalled only by Kurt Rydl), giving far more tone than I have heard her give for a long time. The textual acuity is remarkable as ever. Madeleine's tessitura sits higher than the Marschallin, but lower than Arabella, and may be her best role at this stage. Despite occasional lapses in specificity in her acting, she was the only singer to overall give a rounded and dynamic acting performance in her role perhaps because she has sung her role more often than her peers (?) but her elegance and humour and occasionally bratty playfulness all made for an engaging assumption of the part.

The rest of the cast were servicable, but noticeably not of world class standard, and for Capriccio to succeed it manifestly can not just be a star vehicle. Diction wise, I could only consistently understand Fleming, ironic since she is the only non native speaker apart from Skovhus, but it seems that the old singer's cliché that native speakers are usually more lazy with diction when singing in their own language is true. The role of Clairon is vocally a breeze for Angelika Kirchschlager but above all this is an actress's part and she made a curiously frumpy and charmless personality on stage. Part of it was her unflattering costuming, but she kept doing this thing where she'd reveal her trousered legs under her dress and it wasn't obvious whether this was meant to be a dramatic flourish or a sign of nervousness. This production makes her haughty and derisive, but there's got to be the inbuilt charisma to get away with the ill humour. Michael Schade and and Markus Eiche were vocally acceptable as Flamand and Olivier respectively, though were both a bit too much boyish swagger without offering the characters' sensitive vulnerability and charm. Bo Skovhus is hardly the most opulent voice, but was quite likeable as the playful count. Kurt Rydl's rather quizzical, sad La Roche laments the death of Bel Canto, sadly quite ironically here since the voice lacks anything resembling line these days, every phrase broken into individual words.

In the pit, Christoph Eschenbach astonishingly makes his Vienna State Opera début. It was not quite the perfect Capriccio I was expecting based on previous experiences of his conducting of the final scene, which must be ranked as the most gloriously beautiful and understanding of our time (thankfully enshrined on CD with the Vienna philharmonic on Fleming's Strauss Heroines disc.) The singers were never covered, and were followed and supported with great accuracy, and the orchestra was dazzlingly precise in its fragments of melody, but the sense of the longer line wasn't achieved until quite a while in. Since I was near the front, perhaps the sound wasn't ideal - I'd be fascinated to hear how it sounded higher up in the house where the sound it better. The final scene was as wonderful as ever though.

Overall I enjoyed this, and found it worthwhile despite its flaws.
*This production is being filmed for DVD (EDIT: though there were doubts about whether this was going to be released, it is, very soon!) which means, extraordinarily enough, that we will have three Fleming Capriccios on DVD. The Carsen 2004 production with Fleming in her peak voice is still the one to have as overall as it is the best directed, has the best supporting cast, and is the most visually beautiful. The Met DVD of the abominably drab Cox production which is the one wheeled out in most English speaking nations (in 20s/30s or "period" dress) finds Fleming at her most affected dramatically, a none too exciting cast, and of course the Met's horrible video direction (review here). The Marelli production is decent, but Oh how I wish we could have had the 2008 première when the cast were all newly rehearsed, and Fleming was in her prime. However, we can't have everything, and must be thankful that we are having it at all. Hopefully, over the next two evenings, the cast will hit their marks more often and they'll be able to patch together a convincing realisation of the staging. Also perhaps close-ups will help make the thing feel less "bitty". It will broadcast live on the internet on 27th June 2013.

Curtain calls:

this is the leg thing she kept doing

looked throughout like John Malkovitch in Dangerous Liaisons

The 1940's dress

Production photos (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Gloriana at ROH


What an amazing show. Having seen it twice now, I think this may turn out to be the revelation of Britten's centenary year - not just this great production, but that Gloriana is a viable, and actually exceptionally beautiful opera. One hopes on the strength of this showing it will get more outings in the other productions on offer in the other companies and at the very least a revival of this one. (It seems to get revived approximately every decade in the UK: ENO 1984, WNO 1992, ON 2002, ROH 2013)

Gloriana's rarity in the opera house makes one suspicious that it is going to be distinctly second rate, but an actual encounter with the work constantly confounds expectations; in fact there are delights and surprises at every turn. It was not successful during its première in 1953 and famously Queen Elizabeth II was not very taken with it (it was written for her coronation), but now with the benefit of 60 years distance in time the reasons for its original failure seems uninteresting and unimportant. Instead, in the context of his entire career, we see that it comes at the centre of Britten's most fertile period, and also that he does so many things here that he chose not to do again in his operas. It emerges not as a homage to Elizabeth, but as a homage and love letter to England and it's people, via the music of this country. A bewilderingly wide array of English music is touched upon - we get references to mediaeval music, Tudor/Elizabethan music including Tallis and Byrd, Dowland, Purcell, and there are even Holstian and Vaughan Williamsesque resonances, although perhaps only because of their debts to the aforementioned early masters. It's not just "Brittenised" pastiches either - this music seems to be infused in every bar of the score, such that the whole edifice seems to grow out of and is saturated with this old music. Orchestral colours are bright, light, tinkling, layered, open, sonorous. The music has a genuine grandeur without irony or bombast, humour without bitterness, lyrical sweetness without darkness. It's as exuberant and generous as Britten ever got, and it's surprising that it's so convincing given what fruits self denial and Apollonian restraint also brought him and suggests a path not travelled. After this opera, only A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) touches on similar ground, though is already much more restrained.

Richard Jones sets the production in the 1950's but as a stage within a stage which is in Elizabethan era dress, presumably intended as some fictional early performance of the work at Aldeburgh or somewhere slightly provincial like that. I can hear the groans already - that's two opera clichés in one go: 1950's, and a stage within a stage. BUT(!) it never interferes with the dramatic content of the music, and simultaneously makes us reflect on what Britten was trying to do here. At first you wonder what it's actually adding, but soon we realise that Jones is not taking the piss out of the piece, and actually is rendering Britten's stylisation more understandable - we're not seeing echt Elizabethan drama, we're seeing Elizabethan drama filtered  through the eyes of 1950's England. This is of course true of any opera not set contemporaneously to the period in which it was written (e.g. Donizetti is "Elizabethan" through the eyes of the 1830s) but it's particularly meaningful to draw attention to this in this opera, because Britten is actively doing this in the music (in a way that say Donizetti just isn't attempting at all) - we're seeing Elizabethan music through the eyes of a 1950's composer, and the libretto too is "1950's Elizabethan". What I like about this staging is that it constantly leads us back to Britten's music, highlighting its beauty, its place in history, its purpose in being written, and intended effect, while giving it air to breathe in its originally intended context. It's done with a lot of love, and for once Jones' obsession with the 1950's is a poignant and entirely apt addition to the opera at hand.

Additionally, we're given beautiful vignettes of England in 1953 - the sets and costumes for once actually capture the era's drabness without caricature or cartoonishness. The Elizabethan costumes really look like the ones from films and stage of that time, the harpist plays a harp that looks like its from the era. (Incidentally it's a lovely touch having the harp on stage for the harp/lute song - the instrument is so often central to Britten's sonority and even compositional method - no one in the 20th century understood or wrote for it better.) Britten's obsession with pre-pubescent boys manifests itself in this opera by Britten's inclusion of boy-pages with spoken lines (well you knew he was going to include them somewhere, and there's only the tiniest bit for treble choir this time!). Happily Jones doesn't dwell on the perversity of this aspect of Britten's life - we know about that already, it's been done to death, and it's not relevant to this opera. Jones has the boys (all of identical height as a reflection of Britten's ultra stringent requirements) prominently holding up the name of the place where every scene takes place. It's enough, and actually genuinely helpful on a dramatic level.

The portrait of Elizabeth I as a real woman, powerful, loving, yet flawed, is fascinating. She has fun at the dance, flirts with Essex, and cruelly humiliates Essex's wife Frances, but you also see that she cares deeply for her subjects and is a woman of great standing who is very aware of her duty and largely sacrifices herself to it. She has a heart shaped headpiece during the masque when she says that she is a sovereign of love, and you believe her, so don't judge her later actions.

This is Susan Bullock's show, and she is magnetic. The identification with and commitment to the character is palpable in every phrase and motion- you see her living through Elizabeth's conflicts, joys, pains, with nothing half baked or overdone. Vocally she's in control, and extremely expressive within the range that her sometimes harsh vocalising allows - there's the occasional wonderful piano, but mainly what's impressive is that the intention is always so clear. Her spoken declamation and singing in the final scene is electrifying, poignant, sad, dignified, and very moving.

Toby Spence takes on the "Pears" role of Essex very well, singing his lovely harp/lute aria with great beauty - very pleasing to hear him on such good form after his recent throat surgeries. Other than the central role, this really is an ensemble opera and there are no weak links - Benjamin Bevan, Mark Stone, Clive Bayley, Jeremy Carpenter, Kate Royal, Patricia Bardon, Brindley Sherratt all are obviously committed dramatically and in very good voice.

Conductor Paul Daniel and the ROH orchestra conspire together to give a revelatory and very loving reading of this score that brings to light the extraordinary wealth of Britten's aural imagination at this stage in his career. Textures are precise and sensitive, the humour is rib-tickling, the score's understated lyricism and grandeur beautifully rendered. The ROH chorus play a huge role in this opera and are in their element here - you can't imagine any other opera chorus being able to do it better.

Well worth going to see, one of the best things the ROH have done this season.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Importance of Being Ernest at ROH

Linbury Theatre

This is being billed as the first "staged" production of Gerald Barry's opera in the UK, but the orchestra is visible on stage, there is no set beyond the props and no off stage area so surely semi-staged is the more apt term if we are using conventional terminology. It's not as if the libretto strongly suggests that there is an orchestra in the background at all times.

Gerald Barry has described his extensive excisions of the original text (it's cut down to a third of the play's length) as an X-ray of the original, noting how strong the play is to have survived such treatment. It hardly needs to be said that Wilde is the patron saint of camp, its highest and most delicious exponent. The music is deliberately unbearable and totally at odds with the libretto - nothing less camp or intentionally charmless than Barry's music could be imagined in its unrelenting brashness, furious yet sparely rendered violence, and motoric rhythmic insistence. The music is itself like an X-ray in its stripping away of anything that might be suggestive of softness, sensuality or beauty of surface. When the body being X-rayed is something like the child of Stravinsky/Xenakis meets a brassband, you're left with a very hard aural picture. This is odd since a large part of Wilde's campness is derived from his status as the most ardent aesthete in the popular imagination; indeed he has become for us the embodiment of that sensibility. (It's also why Strauss' Salome [which also uses a play by Wilde] is such a good fit of librettist and composer.) In the context of Barry's music, Wilde's words emerge not as camp satire, but as manic, almost demented dadaism. The shift in focus is total, and the humour that arises is based on the surreal rather than on wry observation of social convention.

Ramin Gray has updated the piece to the present day, and reinforces many aspects of Barry's setting of the text by mixing naturalistic acting with obvious "set pieces" (quartets, duets etc. delivered facing forwards). Lighting is the biggest indicator of changes of mood and scene, though isn't evocative of time or place, but instead simply indicates a change in circumstances. Maybe the funniest and most shocking sequence is the portion where 40 or so plates are smashed rhythmically in the course of a minute between Gwendolen's angrily articulated syllables, but the rest feels like a dislocated, alienated run through of Wilde's play. I really wonder what it would look like with ultra fussy late 19th century sets and costumes - maybe the score/libretto would be funnier and more revealing that way?

The cast is mostly quite good. One of the best aspects of the score is that Barry has chosen to make Lady Bracknell a bass voice part, making it one of the very few "skirt" roles in opera (that is a man playing a woman). In this production, Lady Bracknell is just a suited man who is incongruously called "mama", "lady", "she" etc. throughout, to absurd effect. On the one hand the lack of drag matches the lack of campness in the staging (and music), but on the other seems like a sadly missed opportunity. As Lady Bracknell, Alan Ewing has a pleasantly rich voice, though his frequent excursions into falsetto were really choked. Ida Falk Winland is impressive in the high coloratura role of Cecily (and it would be good to hear her in something more appetising). The rest are more than serviceable, but it's difficult to really comment much on their voices or interpretation. The Britten Sinfonia play this rhythmically difficult music with confidence, though are underutilised in the sense that the music doesn't call for anything other than accuracy. Conductor Tim Murray has the thankless job of simply beating time.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Lohengrin at Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

Wagner's steady journey from talent to genius is a very satisfying development to follow. The marked improvement from each opera to the next, both in the level of the greatest music, and also in the ratio of good to mediocre is so consistent that you have to marvel at the ability and willingness to learn from mistakes, the commitment to his native talent which was hardly precocious or even particularly promising at first, and his following through of a singular vision to conclusion in each work even when he might have moved on artistically by the journey's end. Lohengrin comes right at the cusp of his full maturity - it's his last opera that feels fully at the heart of the Romantic tradition rather than a highly singular development of it* (however radically he has moved the genre on), the last that he wrote before fully setting down on paper his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and the last opera he composed before the fateful meeting with King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

The level of inspiration is very high and the music that attains genuine greatness far outweighs the merely bombastic; certainly there is a higher percentage of good to bad than in Tannhauser, which in turn had a higher percentage of good to bad than Der fliegende Holländer. The range too is greater than ever before - the diaphanous radiance of the opening "Ferne Land" music in the overture (which reappears throughout the opera) is a wonderfully successful experiment which he learned from but never repeated with such purity in the rest of his work. The way it very gradually, almost imperceptibly, builds from intimacy and tenderness towards it's climax is also a sign of things to come. On the other side, the "public" grandeur of the choral writing is overwhelming at times, though this is a direction that Wagner found it hard to incorporate into his later operas, Meistersinger aside, which is the most obvious fruit of this music's promise.

This is all to say that in this WNO production of Lohengrin, we feel the work resonating at the heart of his output as it looks forward to the mature music dramas in theme, scope, and more than occasionally in the music, and backwards to German Romantic opera in form, plot and structure, and once again, just as often in the music. The production's setting of the 1840's attempts to put it politically in the context of Wagner's time of composition: soon after writing the opera, Wagner was involved in politically dangerous activities that had as a goal a Germany united under new leadership. In Lohengrin there is a crisis in society caused by an ambiguity in leadership, so the parallel that is trying to be drawn is obvious. It's an interesting idea, but not fully realised in the staging, and the resulting design can be quite ugly and inelegantly achieved - Antony McDonald's sets feel constrictive and confining in terms of the range of movement they offer and the grimy "realistic" finish can't cover a fundamental lack of believability (why are these people, experiencing these significant events, meeting here rather than anywhere else?) or beauty. Dilapidation derives its effect, meaning, and charm (or horror) from its context - the original edifice has to be grand and magnificent enough for the fall to have its piquancy.

Where this production really succeeds is in the detailed and believable character relationships, subtly suggestive, touchingly acted, and never melodromatic even when the plot is at its most contrived (McDonald, known primarily as a designer, paradoxically succeeding much better in his other role here as director). The first act falters a little as Matthew Best's Heinrich der Vogler seems disconnected from everyone else despite convincing vocal contributions, and unfortunately Simon Thorpe's Friedrich von Telramund is a weak link throughout in his lack of specificity vocally and dramatically. He is a cover though, brought in to replace an ailing John Lundgren, who has not yet sung a show. Things improve with the entrance of Peter Wedd's ethereal Lohengrin who instantly has an intense chemistry with Emma Bell's otherwordly Elsa - the two seem to float in another plane above the central action. This is in part due to the superb lighting of Lucy Carter who metaphorically and literally illuminates the action with sensitivity and masterful simplicity. Susan Bickley's Ortrud remains a silent presence throughout Act I, though is fascinating already due to her obvious keen emotional involvement in the events unfolding despite having no direct part in them. Haughty calmness that contains a furnace of ill will is the hallmark of her characterisation and feels just right in this production.

Act II, more interesting musically, finds the production at its best - the scene between Ortrud and Elsa shows both in exceptional voice, and great dramatic form - so much is said with so little. Then the wonder of the chorus as Elsa prepares to enter the church (thankfully interrupted so that we get to hear it again), then Ortrud's violent outbursts and dispatch by Lohengrin. The Act III "bedroom scene" becomes the emotional heart of the work, here very intimate. Elsa's all too understandable desire to know Lohengrin's background and past actions, even when it's not the reason why she loves him, comes painfully but inexorably. When she's brought to earth from her dream land at the instigation of Ortrud's questioning, it is her undoing, both in plot and as a study in psychology.

There are certain things which I heard Wagner fanatics chirping away delightedly at in the interval. First, that during the Act I ensemble for the principles it is only Ortrud and Lohengrin, the opera's extremes of character that do not kneel. So too, the humble kneeling of King Heinrich in support of Elsa, an unprecedented act for a King and therefore deeply significant of the strength of emotion he must be feeling (if only it had showed in the rest of characterisation!). Perhaps more significant on a practical level is the problematic matter of the swan. Here we see Gottfried, Elsa's brother, half swan, half boy, stuck in adolescent form, unrecognised by the others. It neatly solves the physical issue of having a swan on stage, makes the transformation more understandable and also makes more explicit and credible the curiously tender (not to say homoerotic) relationship between Lohengrin and the swan.

I don't think a finer Elsa could be currently found on these shores than Emma Bell. The voice is quite dark and often sounds a little "heavy" with a slightly slow vibrato and a rounded solidity that means it's not the most naturally girlish sound. But, what she does with it is just wonderful - the floated pianissimos are beautifully supported and consistent, and she can move smoothly to a full bodied fortissimo in every register with no loss of beauty in the sound. This endless flexibility and superb technical security gives her enormous freedom to be expressive: she manages Wagner's vocal writing with appealing fluidity and ease, to a degree that is rare to hear live in the theatre. Acting wise too, she creates a very touching character on stage, elegant and floating, very much in line with the vocal portrait. She took a while to warm up, having intonation issues during her first entrance, and it took me a while to get used to her full timbre, but once settled, this was a great assumption of this role. One looks forward to next seasons Fidelio Leonora at ENO with relish.

Ortrud may be the ideal role for Susan Bickley. The basic timbre is steely, incisive and forthright but like Bell, the intonation and placement is faultless, as is the control and commitment to expression. In her acting she is the fearful opposite of Elsa's dreamy girlishness - the embodiment of steely womanly strength and power, harsh, but not emotionless, and certainly never a caricatured witch figure. Peter Wedd's Lohengrin is also a fine achievement. In the Kaufmann/youtube epoch, expectations for this role are extremely high, but Wedd really doesn't suffer in this company. His "In Fernem Land" was exceptionally beautiful in the piano phrases, and though it's quite a covered sound, the voice expands to heroic proportions when it needs to. Occasionally his intonation suffered in quiet passages, especially after a bout of extended dramatic singing, but this is always an extremely testing challenge, and he will no doubt learn to manage this better as he grows into the role. Overall it's a sensitive assumption, finely acted, and he makes an ideal couple with Bell.

As ever with the WNO, the chorus sound magnificent, and Lohengrin is an opera that really shows them off. Conductor Lothar Koenigs manages the contrasts of the piece with élan, the WNO orchestra sounding exceptionally sweet in the opening (after the intonation settled down) and then reverberating with impressive grandeur in the climaxes. Once again, an extremely impressive showing from this opera house, which demonstrates that it is easily as good as the ENO or ROH when at its best as here.

Incidentally the Birmingham Hippodrome is a great place to see opera. The acoustics are excellent, you feel very close to the stage, it's situated very near to the central train station, which is easy, fast, and cheap (if you prebook) to get to from London.

photos copyright Bill Cooper.

*Though Götterdämmerung contains echoes of Grand Opera in the libretto, written as it was immediately after Lohengrin.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Yo-Yo Ma and Michael Tilson Thomas with the LSO (Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.2)


Shostakovich's cello concerto No.2 (1966), with the viola sonata perhaps the greatest work of his final decade, is still much misunderstood and only rarely performed. While Mario Brunello butchered it two seasons ago with Gergiev (see that review for more comments on the work), Ma and Tilson Thomas offered an ascetic, bleached out rendition that stressed the work's modernity and bleakness at the expense of line, warmth and humanity.

The three works that Ma presented in this series represent three of the greatest works that were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, the ubiquitous cellist of the latter half of the 20th century. Comparing performers can be futile and unfair, but when the performer actively courts the comparison, ones mind cannot help but drift. Though in later years, Rostropovich's lack of practising lead to a diminishing of expressive range and the cementation of the niggling criticism that he just played everything loud, in his prime, (early 50s to mid 70s), he was of course one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, an unparalleled communicator and a sublime cellist and who musically totally transcended the instrument, unerringly managing to get directly to the heart of every piece he played, whilst always being recognisably himself. His studio recording of the Shostakovich's cello concerto No.2 with Ozawa is one of the highlights of his discography and offers a diametrically opposed view of the work as presented in this concert - the first movement emerges as a single arch of agonising beauty, the cello an orator in an unsettlingly beautiful wasteland. With Ma, everything was secco, portato, dry, thin, a severe lack of legato and warmth leaving the movement feeling undernourished and dessicated. This is not a totally unreasonable view of the work, and the playing wasn't exactly bad, but my strong suspicion is that Ma has stopped practising regularly and this is merely the safest way of playing this ferociously difficult piece - throughout I felt that expression was far too often sacrificed to technical security, where technical security means just about managing the notes. He's recognisably still the same player as he was in his prime (mid 80s to early 2000s), with his particular palette of vibratos and distinctive placement of semitones still in evidence, but the sensitive sound, with its warm core and minutely nuanced legato, only intermittently appears as it was back then. The second movement's insouciant bagel/prostitute song fared much better, and finally we got some tone, though the finale again failed to catch light, lacking in intensity and energy. Ensemble throughout was quite ropey, and the whole piece felt underrehearsed, both orchestra and soloist frequently totally at sea rhythmically.

Before this we had heard a quite wonderful account of Copland's Quiet City (1940), a minor, but in its way perfectly realised miniature from his populist phase. Whether quietly lonely and wistful, or energetic "all American" exuberance, Copland's music has a cleanliness and clarity without coldness, a sobriety and concision without asceticism; it's made of hard lines and angles, all ribs and elbows, but strangely the result is embracing and warm. Michael Tilson Thomas achieved all this perfectly with the LSO players, the open chord spacings resonating with a nostalgic glow and atmospheric breadth.

Finally we heard a suite from Britten's only ballet, The Prince of Pagodas (1957). The piece is heavily influenced by the Gamelan music that he had heard during a visit to Bali in 1956, and as it turned out this sound world was to have a profound and lasting influence on the music of his last two decades, in which his style became ever grittier, more rarefied and pared down. In the Prince of Pagodas the influence is hardly digested, and while not just "local colour" pasted onto his existing style, the rendering of the Gamelan sound in the orchestra is a bit literal and impersonal, though doubtless achieved with great skill. Britten was not the musical stylist that say Stravinsky was and had greater difficulty integrating this fertile resource convincingly into his highly personal style - it simply took longer and found its finest flowerings in Curlew River (1964, though Japan is the bigger influence there) and the final opera Death in Venice (1973). In 1957 however, this was a compositional mind at the peak of its powers and there can be no doubt of the mastery of this score, immaculately imagined and realised. Other influences are very close to the surface also: Tchaikovsky of Swan Lake and Nutcracker, filtered through Petrushka, filtered through Gamelan, might be a reasonable order of importance. This was an explosive reading of this fantastical score, and presumably this is where the rehearsal time went - here the ensemble was much better, and textures more precisely achieved. I'm not sure it works fully as a concert piece - it feels not quite varied enough for its considerable length. Still fascinating to hear, especially in such a committed and energetic reading.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Janáček's The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away at the Lewes Chamber Music Festival

St John's sub Castro, Lewes

Märchenlzählungen (Schumann)
Alasdair Beatson, Matt Hunt, James Boyd

On an Overgrown Path (Janáček)
Beatrice Philips, Timothy Crawford, James Boyd, Hannah Sloane, Matt Hunt, Tom Poster, Samuel West

The church had been decorated with branches, foliage and flowers to look like the Overgrown Path. After a fascinating and wonderful traversal of Schumann's late Märchenlzählungen which drew maximum attention to the oddness and uncomfortable extremity of the music (which I had never expected or imagined based on other performances I had heard of the piece), the stage was set for Janáček's On an Overgrown Path, arranged by violist James Boyd for Clarinet Quintet. I enjoyed it immensely; in this setting the piece quite different from its original piano incarnation, more obviously lyrical and less obviously intimate - the vocal quality of the clarinet and violin certainly a great boon in several movements, wonderfully played and supported by all five musicians - overall an entirely viable and beautiful alternative that doesn't quite displace the original's perfection. In between we heard poems and extracts from Dickens, Berryman, e e cummings, Shakespeare, Byron and others read by the actor Samuel West in beautiful voice; some violent, some funny, some poignant.

But then we arrived at the last number, The barn owl has not flown away, and this new arrangement totally transcended Janáček's original context. It is well documented that the last three numbers of Book I of  On an Overgrown Path were written in the immediate aftermath of his daughter Olga's death. This final piece depicts with incredible economy and vividness a whole community and event in microcosm - the people are gathered festively in the church, singing "the intimate hymn of life", a quietly joyous celebration of togetherness and joint purpose. Meanwhile, in the windy darkness outside, the little barn owl looks on, shifts its weight, flaps its wings, and intones its haunted call; quiet, patient, impassive. She doesn't know it, but she is an ill omen. The rejoicing people can barely hear her, and sing louder, ever more fervently of their happiness. In this, the unbelievably full sonority offered by the four strings in double stops was uncanny in its reminiscence of a real choir and was immeasurably more expressive than the piano original, the clarinet offering a further timbral warmth, a filling out of the overtones resonating in the church (actual and imagined). The barn owl interrupts once more, efficacious and intense on the viola, with low cello harmonics, the clarinet in chalumeau, and a murmur of upper strings. The choir cheerfully explode into another verse, jubilant, and here I was floored, the church's organ unexpectedly entering in the bass, like the rumble of some far off thunder, an affirmation of the works of man, the beauty of everything we have wrought. The sonorous open strings of the cello were by this stage slightly out of tune with the organ: the choir going awry in their ardour, and the effect was truly Ivesian in its fervency, piquancy and expressive depth. But all this wealth of beauty, this wonderful feeling of community and unity is not enough, and the little owl cries out again: inescapable, the patient, eternal call of nature. "All things end" it says. The organ, clarinet and strings are thunderous now, glowingly majestic, overwhelming, a sublime affirmation of life. At last the hymning ends, the echo fades, the church falls silent, and the little owl sits watching, adding again her own song, and finally the people can't help but hear her.

Saying the maximum with the minimum of means, Janacek's music always cuts to the quick with me, and is (with Schubert) perhaps the highest instance in music of the infinite suggestion and shattering power of the minute gesture. It's difficult to describe how moving I found this performance of this work in this church. Maybe the effect was cumulative, as the concert had been exceptional up to this point, but something shook me to my core in this tiny piece, the simultaneous affirmation of the beauty of life and reminder of mortality totally unexpected in this apparently parochial miniature. This is only my account of what happened, my version of events - for each listener it will have had a different meaning, and perhaps for me too this is only a subsequent rationalisation of something that remains too mysterious and too precise for words.

photo Kate Macrae

Friday, 7 June 2013

Owen Wingrave at Guildhall


It has become a tradition in reviews of Owen Wingrave to begin by renouncing the "commonly" propounded view (by whom?) that Owen Wingrave's relative rarity in the opera house can be explained by the fact that it was written for TV; it is then traditional for the reviewer to proffer some other explanation for the opera's lack of "commercial" and artistic success. Fearful as I am of bucking convention, here is my stab.

To a greater or lesser extent most artist's oeuvres can be interpreted autobiographically, but it is of course also a truism that the output of the greatest artists transcends mere psychobiography or therapeutic working out of psychopathology, even (or perhaps especially) when the work is at its most personal and self revealing. Britten is more obsessive and extremely focussed on a narrow range of topics than most perhaps, and time and again in his oeuvre the same repressed subjects are broached, probed, explored, and revisited with agonising compulsion. And so in Owen Wingrave we get pacifism (as seen in the War Requiem, Voices for Today), society against the individual (Peter Grimes), corrupted innocence and child abuse (Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, and everywhere in fact), supernatural elements (The Turn of the Screw, the 3 Church Parables) and the suspicion of "otherness" - in Wingrave that Owen's sensitivity, lack of aggressive feelings and thwarting of family norms are treated with suspicion of effeminacy, weakness (and the unspoken corollary of course in the repressed Victorian moral framework of his family is the suggestion of homosexuality). I list here only the most obvious parallels in other works, but the whole oeuvre is riddled with allusions to the same themes (they receive a final, wonderfully nuanced working out in his Death in Venice which opens at the ENO soon.)

But these things in themselves do not produce great art, however passionately the artist cares for them. The central message of Owen Wingrave, "war is bad", is laughably jejune in the post war era and the way it is embodied in the drama of the opera is far too straightforward for the central conflict to be intellectually engaging - there's no darkness in the good, no truth in the bad. (As an aside, few thinking adults would not countenance that war is a necessary evil, which would in itself be a brave subject for an opera, though is not once broached as a possibility in the present opera). Britten's best operas derive much of their dramatic and emotional power from the enormous moral ambiguities he presents us with - totally remarkable in the case of Peter Grimes or Eschenbach (in Death in Venice) where we feel drawn to and moved by the plights and actions of potential or actual child abusers. It's not just that the idea is powerful, Britten needs this ambiguity to fuel his work - the subject matter of lost innocence or pacifism is not enough, there needs to be a darkness at the base of the worthy moral cause that he is banging the drum of so that he can get to work (cf. Puccini who is not at all repressed, and repeatedly and with terrible glee actively courts the comparison between his two main passions in life and art, cruelty and eroticism.) When we recognise these common "Britten-esque" elements in Owen Wingrave, but with no equivocal muddying of waters to be seen, they feel naively adolescent, by rote, expected clichés, however true or meaningful the intent.

Musically then, Owen Wingrave is amongst Britten's least inspired operas, though it isn't badly made, nor is it merely a rehash of things he did better elsewhere (the ubiquitous treble voice does appear, and is the only musical lapse into self-cliché.) The score is unremittingly dark, abstruse, unlyrical, and generally avoids the extraordinary diamantine brilliance and beauty of surface that is Britten's norm (at least up until the Curlew River of 1964). Percussion plays a big role in the orchestra, framing and reflecting the general hardness and lack of colour. The only extended "lyrical" passage in the opera, Owen's exhortation for peace, feels hard fought for, and the beauty is not in the vocal line which anyhow soon turns into pure vocal declamation. The shimmering orchestral chords that underpin this section aren't exactly lyrical either, rather lapidary, glittering, darkly majestic. A lack of inspiration in the basic musical invention is the main problem throughout, and Britten's usual emotional restraint is only very intermittently marshalled into genuine sentiment and complex feeling.

The central thrust of the story is very simple - Owen decides that he can't be a soldier, and then we witness the fallout with his very traditional war-abiding family. Strangely there's a supernatural room in the family home where a previous abuse has occurred, which (apparently genuinely) has cursed the room, and becomes the eventual demise of the eponymous non-hero of the opera. All the arguing and crushing disappointment is in fact almost fun to watch in Kelly Robinson's production, who does the very best he can with his materials, convincingly updating it to the present day with Owen becoming disenfranchised with the English/American abuse of power in Iraq and Afghanistan. The house becomes a symbol of the oppressive family with its generations of virile war lover toffs, and is evoked with the most minimal means in this "in the traverse" setting. Video elements work well because they add atmosphere and context without having to do any dramatic heavy lifting, and the rest of the stage is left bleak and empty, which feels in line with the score and allows us to focus fully on the characters at close range, every one of which feels believable and detailed in the slightly unreal and reductive context of the libretto. Anyone who has spent time with the British upper middle classes will recognise plenty of truth in here.

The production uses a reduced orchestration by David Matthews which serves the present purposes well, orchestra, singers and conductor all proceeding with impressive assurance into these relatively uncharted and uninviting waters. The cast all acquit themselves admirably, singing and acting with clarity and force. The trio of ladies closest to Owen are all harridans and variously all display unappealing sides of the same privileged, nationalistic attitude. Roisin Walsh is magnificent as Miss Wingrave in her strident pomposity and convincing school-marmy disapproval, presenting a complete character in voice and actions. Raphaela Papadakis as Mrs Julian, embodies the tottering glamour of a Stepford Sloane, sweet of voice, all guilt trips, simpering looks, and sententious appeals to good honest Daily Mail morality. Her daughter Kate, given a very strong vocal performance by Catherine Backhouse is almost scariest of all - the sincere yuppie Torygirl - her final words to Owen "Oh, your beliefs! Why was I not a man?" (superbly rendered in rich chest voice from Backhouse) say it all, and a decade before Thatcherism!

Only Mrs Coyle (sensitively sung by Samantha Crawford) offers some motherly warmth and understanding, and she is the only one who is prepared to entertain a view dissimilar to her own. Her husband Spencer, partially comes round too, but is revealed to be powerless for all his military might; Joseph Padfield is impressively stentorian and brusque in the part. Lechmere's public school boy "nice but dim" ebullience is nicely captured by Adam Smith, and Gérard Schneider presents an extremely convincing portrait of a bellicose and irascible patriarch in General Sir Philip Wingrave - I was particularly impressed by the ease with which he rendered the music as heightened speech in his impetuous tirades against Owen. Benjamin Appl acts the part of Owen nicely, playing him with softness, gangly teenage slouchiness and also a curious mix of stubborness, steadfastness, and slight lack of confidence. Vocally he does quite well too in a challenging role, making up for a slight lack of vocal colour with appealing ardency and commitment.

All in all then, this is a very serviceable account of a very problematic opera, and for the Britten lover in this centenary year, it offers a rare opportunity to see staged one of the more shadowy and difficult corners of the master's output.

Photos: Clive Barda