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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Rosenkavalier with Schwanewilms, Connolly, Crowe, LSO, Elder

With Glyndebourne's new Der Rosenkavalier not yet opened, and the Birmingham performance just around the corner, this concert acted as a wonderful taster menu of this opera, taking all the most delicious cuts of that score, immaculately prepared with the finest ingredients. The good music of Der Rosenkavalier is so great that the opera always comes to mind if I'm asked to list my favourite ten operas (or whatever the latest twitter game might be.) In a great performance with three great female voices, there is little to match it for sheer sonic beauty. The whole thing is made even more moving by Hofmannsthal's wonderful libretto, and again in the hands of an artist who can respond to its nuance and gentle colours, there is little like it in the repertoire. But the appalling languors of the opera, the huge stretches of routine, always stick in my throat, and make the piece exceptionally difficult to stage effectively in my experience, that is, to make it a fully convincing, engaging evening.

These concerns don't arise in a concert performance of highlights, and this generous selection, lasting well over an hour, was pure pleasure from start to finish. We first got the opening sequence - the sex/orgasm overture, afterglow, morning light, Mohammed's interruption, and coffee. The chemistry between Anne Schwanewilms' Marschallin and Sarah Connolly's Octavian was so believable and tender, that I'm not sure I've seen anything more erotic on an operatic stage this year. Funny how the acting can be so much more natural, intimate and engaging without all the other trappings of grand oper: sets, wigs, 'realistic' period costumes, and perhaps most crucially without a long rehearsal process which can kill spontaneity. A 50 year old woman trying to look like a 17 year old boy isn't sexy. A 50 year old woman playing male teenage passion and frustration is. I often find opera singers' acting to be more moving in concert performances, perhaps also because one is often so much nearer (other people on twitter were quick to blame nefarious directional interference (read: regie theatre directors) for this discrepancy when I mentioned it there.I think it can be a straw man - how many of those sorts of productions are there really? In my experience, singers are just as often disengaged and just "walking a part" in traditional productions).

Then with the same two singers, we got the Marschallin's monologue, the final half hour of the first act. Where in the first act Schwanewilms had been all smiles and hand caresses, here she was preternaturally still, and barely even looked at Connolly, who looked not just upset, but destroyed, her eyes red lakes of fear and sadness. Text book being an obstacle to your fellow actor from Schwanewilms! She has one of the most interesting and strangely beautiful soprano voices on the stage today, and chooses to access an enormous palette of vocal colours so that each phrase, each word, is delicately but precisely shaded. Though she can spin a shimmering legato line with the best of them (Her "Da drin ist die silbernc Ros'n" and "Hab' mir's gelobt" were both exquisite), in Strauss she more often chooses to utilise an intimate parlando, and the gentle strength and resonance in the middle and lower register means that this approach works. Her great forebear in the infinitely nuanced vocal line is of course Schwarzkopf, and though the approach is similar, the effect is very different - with Schwarzkopf you get the feeling that every single detail was sculpted and polished in advance, immaculately prepared, but animated in the moment by her smiling spirit. With Schwanewilms it all feels much more spontaneous, that she "lets" the voice do what it will in that moment, whilst playing the intention that she has. This has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand she is able to truly react physically and vocally to anything her stage partners might throw at her, which means she is always engaging and always "on"; on the other hand, the voice can occasionally do something quite unexpected and unbelcanto - one of her mannerisms is a single bell like note that is totally disconnected from the line, especially for a sudden leap above the stave. I often get the feeling with her voice that she is masterfully, but constantly, navigating a fundamentally 'bumpy' vocal topography that is intrinsic to the voice. Again there is a similarity here to Schwarzkopf (though with Schwarzkopf the feeling is much less acute as the basic vocal technique was so exceptionally well controlled), who one also feels sometimes has found a creative technical or expressive solution to a fundamental, intrinsic unevenness in the vocal mechanism, however beautiful the timbre is. The opposite would be say Tebaldi, whose vocal registration has an absolutely smooth topography as she moves up and down the scale. I personally enjoy the colours and quiddities of Schwanewilms's voice because the expressive intent is always so clear, the connection with text is immediate and nuanced, and the voice has just combination of shimmer and depth. She will often do something quite unexpected with a familiar phrase which means one can hear this much loved music afresh.

This is all to say that she is an exceptionally accomplished and moving Marschallin, and now that Fleming, the greatest Marschallin since Schwarzkopf, is declining and only inconsistently at her best, Schwanewilms may well be the finest exponent of this role on the stage today. Refined, noble, wistful, thoughtful, beautiful: I certainly don't know of anyone I would prefer to hear in this role currently.

Sarah Connolly is still surely the most handsome performer of travesti roles around, and one hopes that she will continue to sing them into her sixth decade, when traditionally mezzos start giving them up. The voice and approach is very different from Schwanewilms' which makes her an excellent partner in this opera. Connolly has a much more traditional, consistent vocal production, capable of delivering Octavian's glorious, powerfully soaring outbursts without strain or compromise. One hears in the timbre that the voice is beginning to age, but the line remains firm and the voice in control. Though her German pronunciation is very good, one senses that the words are not being lived one by one in the moment - the whole phrase has the right emotional colour, but it doesn't sound like she has fluent German. The same was true of Lucy Crowe, whose pronunciation was also very good, but lacked that hard to define sense of true fluency and nuance. Perhaps this is expecting too much, but in Strauss of all composers, I miss that last degree of textual acuity because Strauss often composes word by word rather than by phrase, so any loss of specificity in the response to the text notices far more than many other operatic composers. I'm being insanely fussy perhaps and that this was even in question is partly an indication of the high standard of the whole performance.

Lucy Crowe was very nice as Sophie: a lovely shimmery vibrato, just right for her fach, and a very slight hoarseness in the sound that adds colour and bite. Her musicianship and vocal solidity in the lower registers means she can more than tackle an oft underestimated role. What is slightly uncomfortable is a pronounced wobble above the stave, the vibrato widening and relaxing at just the point when it should be most gleaming and vibrant. I don't know if this was a one off problem or a recurrent issue, but one hope it will be addressed soon, lest the voice decline before its time. The collection of tenors and baritones that made up the Marschallin's coachmen and then Faninal's single phrase in the last scene were true luxury. I have never heard these parts better sung, ever. Unfortunately I can't find my programme, and they're not on the Barbican website, so do comment below if you know who they were!

The LSO under Mark Elder played with great vigour, utilising a big boned, lustrous tone - appropriate for the Barbican's acoustics, but I can imagine that it might have covered the singers a little too often had I not been sitting so close to the stage. What was missing was that refined Viennese glow in the sound and lissome flexibility in the rhythm, but with playing as accurate, juicy and confident as this it's hard to complain. The final trio, which is somehow more special in live performance even than on record, was superbly delivered from all. From my seat, seeing and hearing every nuance from these singers, in the most glorious sections of maybe the most sumptuously beautiful opera ever composed, this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I've been to this season.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Thebans World Premiere at ENO


How nice it is to have expectations confounded. I admit to having had mild reservations about Julian Anderson's Thebans before I even entered the theatre. Oedipus or Orpheus or Elektra are all very well as opera subjects in the neoclassicism of the 18th century or the intellectual milieu of early 20th century Central Europe, with Freudian thought ascendant and musical neoclassicism just around the corner. But an essentially straight, grand opera treatment of one of the central Greek myths, in 2014 seems, on the face of it, like a precious, out of touch undertaking, self consciously 'operatic' and purposefully distant from the zeitgeist, perhaps even reactionary. The actual myths remain fascinating to us, so it's not the content that is in question; what is difficult is the style. A big part of this problem stems from producing a libretto - what language and what dramatic devices will allow the ancient myth to live and resonate in our time and not feel like a museum piece before it's had its first lease of life.

While in this particular production perhaps not every one of these concerns is answered, for the most part I found this to be a very enjoyable evening: the music making is excellent, the production simple, tasteful and effective, and the score has many moments of extraordinary splendour and beauty. Julian Anderson is not one of the big 'names' in contemporary music, at least not in the way that say Adès, Benjamin or Turnage are, but on the evidence of this showing, his skill in operatic writing puts him above many of his more famous peers. The libretto by Frank McGuinness is lucid and perhaps stolid, which naturally affects the drama. McGuinness's characters constantly narrate their own histories, the action often having occurred off stage at an earlier date. Very Wagnerian then. The drama is primarily psychological in nature, though McGuinness's language is far less lyrical-poetic than Wagner's, avoiding direct allusions to emotion or too much sensual description, and one doesn't sense Wagner's attachment to massive metaphysical ideologies. It certainly has a character - it feels objective and slightly unadventurous, despite the essentially modern syntax and occasional contemporary phrases.

Anderson's music is hard to pigeonhole or describe. The harmonic language is fundamentally atonal and certainly not easy listening, but modal implications are constantly being felt, and he is capable of producing very evocative, highly differentiated, and strongly characterised textures that keep one rooted in a time, place and character. This is in no small part down to his orchestration, which is always expert, and sometimes breathtaking. In scene after scene Anderson gives us something extraordinary - sometimes easy to discern as in Tiresias' amazing basso profundo arioso accompanied by piccolo and staccato woodwinds, or the tremolo woodblocks, accompanied by whispered sighs from orchestral instruments and the chorus, underpinned by double bass groans, which creates the forest atmosphere of the opening of Act III. But at other times the aural mass is impossible to analyse in terms of instrumentation, and in fact the instruments seem to melt away - a humid nimbus of sound is what one experiences.

The music throughout is imbued with a pliant lyricism, and though we don't get traditional arias or melodies as such, it recognisably draws on a thorough knowledge of the vocal tradition. In fact one gets the feeling that Anderson's knowledge is close to encyclopaedic and the list of influences one feels is enormous and highly eclectic - Dutilleux, Carter, Ligeti, Takemitsu, Feldman, Benjamin, all surface, and the bewildering density, yet lack of murkiness of the orchestral palette shows he has learned much from all of these. It always appears transfigured seamlessly into his own peculiar brand of unshowy orchestral splendour. Perhaps a weakness is the lack of memorability of the motivic material, and focus on local shapes and effects rather than large range, but the result is satisfying and never bores.

Pierre Audi's production is not set in a specific time period, instead merging elements of ancient dress with modern dress. The main set items are large mesh cages which contain stones, which are cleverly used to represent a crumbling empire in Act I, brutal solidity in Act II and the natural world in Act III. In the first act, entitled "Past: The Fall of Oedipus", we see the state of Oedipus' kingdom, his people swathed in white robes that look almost like bandages. This act contains the main meat of the Oedipus story that we are most familiar with. The stark, blue tinged cross lights give a chilly, alienated feel to proceedings, but Audi doesn't quite manage to build a convincing shape in the drama, and there are lots of places where characters seem to be stumbling around aimlessly just to use all the space. It feels a little cluttered. Act II, entitled "Future: Antigone", depicts Oedipus' daughter Antigone's obsession with her brothers burial, and the final tragedy of her demise at the hands of Creon, who has seized power after Oedipus' downfall. Under this new regime, everyone wears neat black garb, and the architecture of the old regime is very effectively reused and reinterpreted under the new one: decaying pillars have become glittering walls of a fortress, lit from within, with a warm golden light bathing the stage, giving a noble, imperial feel to Creon's empire. The music is neat, clean and propulsive, revealing the brutal regularity of Creon's rule, though his vocal lines betray a much more emotionally fickle character. The appearance of Antigone brings a stark remembrance of the past, instantly recalled by the cold cross light of Act I. Act III, entitled "Present: The Death of Oedipus", fits chronologically in between the other two acts and provides context and elaboration for the events that precede and follow it. Again, the direction had many characters merely stumbling about the stage, though the the music in the latter half of the act sweeps all before it - first Polynices' arresting monologue, then the undefinable sense of 'endings', a magnificently beautiful passage in which Oedipus is reunited with Antigone, then upward gliding orchestral scales, swirling tendrils of sound, as Oedipus heads to the light of his final rest, and then a dramatic outburst from Antigone who cannot accept that she can't follow him. The opera ends with a startling single unaccompanied note from Antigone.

Edward Gardner's direction is deft, leading the orchestra through this formidable music, allowing the superb orchestrations to resonate and impact with full force. Of course one cannot comment on accuracy without anything to compare it to, but the playing is committed and beautiful, and the effect can be mesmerising.

The cast is mostly very good. Roland Wood was announced as having a severe throat infection, and apparently had not sung at all for two weeks, but he performed admirably, and cut a compelling character on stage. Susan Bickley was as dependably good as she always is, her steely mezzo well suited to Jocasta's music, with its luscious string clusters and then more angular declamatory portions. Peter Hoare's tense, wiry Creon is the best defined character on stage and his journey from smiling politician to authoritarian ruler is pleasing to watch. Matthew Best relies a little too much on his fabulous fortune teller diva costume as Tiresias, but the effect is so strong, and his music so well characterised that the character is still compelling. Julia Sporsén revealed an attractive voice in the role of Antigone, but sounds overparted until act III, though she was perhaps saving herself. Still, I have a feeling that the role requires a bigger voice as it stands. Christopher Ainslee's Theseus, Messenger and Haemon show up the only real point of weakness in Anderson's scoring - these counter tenor roles all have too much instrumentation underpinning them and Ainslee struggled to be heard - the case is different from the one with Antigone, because counter tenor voices are never really very large decibels wise. Smaller roles are well taken by young singers - Jonathan McGovern as Polynices makes the most of the beautiful solo passage mentioned above.

All in all a very exciting new opera, that I can't wait to see again. It feels like it could withstand very wide ranging interpretation. I would love to listen to a recording of it also, and hope against hope that some sort of memento might be preserved of this world premiere performance.