Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Volle/Deutsch: Winterreise, 21 July 2014

Prinzregententheater, Munich

Michael Volle (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

One of the glories of the Munich Opera Festival is its series of Lieder recitals: not those curious concerts one hears of elsewhere, in which ‘star’ singers sing miscellaneous operatic arias, accompanied by pick-up-bands who occasionally throw in an overture or two, but serious song recitals. Londoners are, of course, spoiled when it comes to such matters, with the Wigmore Hall unquestionably supreme in the world as a song and chamber venue, but a festival in which Jonas Kaufmann and Michael Volle offer recitals, the latter a late replacement for an indisposed René Pape, has nothing to fear from comparisons. Pape’s promised programme had intrigued: whoever would have thought of his luxurious, ever-so-German bass in Roger Quilter? (Mussorgsky and Schumann were more like it.) Nevertheless, it was not remotely a disappointment to be faced with the prospect of a Winterreise from Volle and Helmut Deutsch; nor was it a disappointment in reality.

Having recently heard Kaufmann, with the same pianist, at the Royal Opera House, comparisons were always likely to suggest themselves, however much one strained to take the performance on its own terms. In the abstract, I tend to think that my preference is for a tenor in this cycle, but, as when one hears great recorded baritone performances from the past, the question never presented itself. Occasionally, my ear reminded me that it was not hearing the ‘right’ key, but even when it did so, I was not remotely troubled by the reminder. For, if there is no ‘ideal’ performance of this work in the singular, there are surely a good few ‘ideals’, and Volle comes as close to anyone in the plural. His is not a performance imbued with existential Angst from the outset; this is not the expressionism of, say, a Matthias Goerne. Indeed, ‘Gute Nacht’ sounded convincingly as a continuation if not from the end of Die schöne Müllerin – for the story there ends all too clearly – then from the world in which much of the earlier cycle takes place. There was plenty of scope then, for development, for a different turn to be taken, but what that turn might be was not yet inevitable. We might know that hopes would be frustrated, but we could sense, whether from Volle’s even-handed attention to words, to music, to their alchemy, or from Deutsch’s equal yet different dramatic precision in the piano part. Indeed, at times it seemed, intriguingly and convincingly, that Schubert’s musical forms and figurations, be they quasi-‘autonomous’ or clearly derived from the words, were as much a driving force as Wilhelm Müller’s poem itself, Schubert’s still under-explored closeness to Wagner made manifest.

Although I have not yet heard Volle as Wotan, there was something of the god’s Walküre monologues to our hero’s self-laceration, one in which, even at the extremity of, say, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, this remained song, and Romantic song at that. Part and parcel of that characterisation, and certainly in no way opposed to it, was Deutsch’s pinpointing of the stabbing piano part: never can it have sounded closer to that arch-late-Romantic, Anton Webern, than here. What the most crucial turning-point(s) will be in this most chilling of descents will always be a matter of debate, whether in terms of performance or one’s own reception. Here, I could not help but think that it was this moment of ‘last hope’, still more than the signpost of ‘Der Wegweiser’ in which the moment of no turning back came. That there were several candidates, not competing but furthering the claims of each other, spoke very well of a narrative experience that held one spellbound throughout. The final extremes of no room at the Wirtshaus, the hallucinatory shining of three winter suns, and that terrifying, inevitable numbness of a finely observed, quite un-hysterical ‘Der Leiermann’ took us where we had to go, and in a sense, like the ‘hero’, we welcomed it as necessary catharsis. This was a less operatic Winterreise than Kaufmann’s. (Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with operatic influence, for every great artist will bring something different from his strengths and experience.) If anything, I think it touched me even more deeply, with an Innigkeit that seemed to find its source in the very heart of German Romanticism. For this seemed to be less ‘Volle’s Winterreise’ than Winterreise, pure and simple, however illusory that idea(l) might be.

Munich Opera Festival (3) - L'Orfeo, 20 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Prinzregententheater, Munich

Orfeo – Christian Gerhaher
Euridice – Anna Virovlansky
Messenger, Proserpina – Anna Bonatibus
Caronte – Andrea Mastroni
Hope, La Musica – Angela Brower
Plutone – Andrew Harris
Apollo – Mauro Peter
Shepherd I, Spirit I – Mathias Vidal
Shepherd II, Spirit III, Echo – Jeroen de Vaal
Shepherd III – Gabriel Jublin
Shepherd IV, Spirit II Thomas Faulkner
Nymph – Lucy Knight

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Falko Herold (costumes, videos)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Daniel Menne, Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus master: Tim Brown)
Members of the Bavarian State Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)


Orfeo (Christian Gerhaher) and Euridice
(Anna Virovlavsky) returning to him
Monteverdi’s Orfeo may take after Jacopo Peri’s Euridice but there is a gulf in terms of quality between the two works. Renaissance opera though Orfeo may be – it really is very different from Ulisse or Poppea – it stands head and shoulders above any preceding essay in the genre, so much as to mark a ‘qualitative leap’ in the history of music. (Monteverdi’s dramatic madrigals are, without question, equally worthy of respect and connected in some respects of style, but they remain something of a different matter.) I knew all that, of course; ‘everyone’ does. However, I think it took this excellent Munich performance not only to make me realise quite how true it is, but truly to feel the greatness of Orfeo as dramma per musica. Perhaps that is not so surprising; it was, after all, my first Orfeo in the theatre – and what a wonderful theatre Munich’s Prinzregententheater is! But it could not have happened without such committed performances, and a largely convincing staging. Even Ivor Bolton, a conductor for whom I have rarely felt any enthusiasm, seemed at his best, certainly far more at ease than in later music, be that later Monteverdi or Handel, let alone Classical or Romantic music.


After two somewhat depressingly routine evenings of Mozart, this new production premiere certainly reinvigorated the Munich Opera Festival. I wondered at first whether David Bösch’s production would prove irritating. However, the flower-power setting of the first act does not get in the way thereafter and a band of musicians is, after all, far from entirely inappropriate to a telling of the Orphic myth. (Who, in any case, has a decided ‘idea’ of archaic Thrace, and on what could it conceivably be founded, even if it were appropriate for a twenty-first-century performance of an early-seventeenth-century opera?) There is an excellent sense of nuptial delight before the trials to come, in which music – on which more below – and production seem very much to be at one. As the plot thickens and darkens, so in any case does the staging. The story is told well; it is perfectly clear who everyone is, and what the characters’ relationship to each other would be. The underworld is properly like the underworld, Charon’s (or Caronte’s) gruesome throng transforming the tone, whilst there is humour without undue exaggeration in the domestic yet divine relationship between Proserpina and Plutone. A post-catastrophic setting for the final act is just the ticket, though some may cavil at Apollo’s decidedly mortal appearance as something akin to a war veteran.


The Messenger (Anna Bonatibus) arrives
If Bolton occasionally let the dance music run away with itself, it was a failing of the right kind, both bowing to and leading a properly infectious account of festivities. Otherwise, I really have nothing to grumble about at all with respect to his direction. Monteverdi’s extraordinary scoring – nowhere is the difference between Orfeo and the ‘Baroque’ operas clearer than here – does a great deal of the work of course, but the delineation of place, character, and mood were instantiated with great dramatic flair. A large continuo group offered a ravishing variety of sound, and, just as important, guided not only the harmony but also everything that unfolded above. What a treat to hear the regal organ of Hades; what a delight to hear the celebratory percussion! The Zürcher Sing-Akademie sometimes sounded oddly churchy: was that a matter of having had an English choral conductor, Tim Brown, train them? The sound was beautiful, but seemed more akin to Choral Evensong than to court at Mantua – or Munich. At other times, however, a more properly madrigalian instinct kicked in, and their musicality was beyond reproach.


Christian Gerhaher made for a magnificent Orfeo. Without in any sense abandoning the beauty of tone and verbal attentiveness that characterise his Lieder performances, he managed yet to seem perfectly at home in this quite different repertoire. Stylistically, he was spot on: neither too heavy with vibrato nor parsimonious in a largely-discredited old ‘Early Musicke’ sense. Perhaps most telling, however, was the realisation that it was in many cases the very virtues of his performances in later repertoire that made this also an outstanding performance; after all, if ever musical performance required equal attention to words and music it is in Monteverdi and Wolf. (And if you ever harboured a desire to see Gerhaher in the somewhat unlikely guise of ageing pop-star, first a little reluctant, then throwing physical caution to the wind, this may well be your only chance!) Anna Bonitatibus made a huge impression as Proserpina, ‘operatic’ in the best sense: opening a new era for the fledgling form. Her Messenger also tugged at the heartstrings, sentiment never tipping over into mere sentimentality. Angela Brower’s Hope (Speranza) and Music were distinguished in a similar fashion. Andrea Mastroni and Andrew Harris  cultivated distinct roles as Caronte and Plutone, whilst Anna Virovlansky’s immensely likeable Euridice had one wishing to hear more. Mauro Peter's Apollo offered on a smaller scale the textual and musical virtues of Gerhaher's Orfeo. All of the smaller roles were well taken. Here was casting in depth and in style: a credit both to the singers listed above and to the Bavarian State Opera.

Monteverdi, then, lived in the present, as he always magnificently does, putting to shame many of his Baroque successors. It would, however, be a shame to forget some of the other versions of this extraordinary work. How about an outing somewhere not only for Orff’s Orfeo – the first Munich performance in 1929, in the Cuvilliés-Theater, was given in one of his versions too – but for Berio’s too…?

Munich Opera Festival (2) - La clemenza di Tito, 19 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Sesto (Tara Erraught) and
Vitellia (Kristine Opolais)
Nationaltheater, Munich

Tito – Toby Spence
Vitellia – Kristïne Opolais
Sesto – Tara Erraught
Servilia – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Annio – Anna Stéphany
Publio – Tareq Nazmi

Jan Bosse (director)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Ingo Bracke (lighting)
Bibi Abel (video)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ádám Fischer (conductor)



It had been a while since I had seen La clemenza di Tito in the theatre, though I spend a good deal of time on it when teaching. Alas, there was little to cheer about here, save for some of the singing. Ádám Fischer’s listless conducting only had me long for Sir Colin Davis, in the pit for the sole convincing musical performance I have heard ‘live’; Jan Bosse’s stage direction had me longing for just about anything else.

Fischer, first: his role was puzzling. If anything, I’d have expected someone from at least the quasi-authenticist wing to harry the score. And that is what the Overture sounded like: grand neo-Classicism reduced to something impatiently knocking on the door of small-scale Rossini (without the gloss or the bubbles). Thereafter, however, Fischer tended to maul the score, rarely letting it settle at one tempo or another. Not that there is anything with tempo variations; far from it. But Fischer seemed unable to find a general pulse for an aria, let alone for any greater structural unit. The great public scenes were scaled down: surely this calls for a reasonable-size chorus.  Perhaps worst of all was the lugubrious pacing of many of the secco recitatives: in this of all Mozart’s works, we really do not need to dwell on them, since they are many, they are not his work, and they are sometimes frankly unsatisfactory in terms of where they tonally lead us. For some reason I could never establish, they were mostly given with harpsichord, but a few with fortepiano. The Bavarian State Orchestra played well enough, considering, but as with Dan Ettinger’s dreadful Figaro two nights earlier, it was difficult to shy away from the conclusion that the orchestra would have been better off without a conductor. Certainly in this case, it would have been better off without the more interventionist aspects of Fischer’s decidedly peculiar interpretation.

Tito (Toby Spence) and chorus members
Bosse’s staging? Ultimately, as a friend wearily remarked to me during the interval, it reflects the seeming inability of a large number of opera directors to take opera seria seriously, as it were, let alone to take this extraordinary late example of the form for what it is. Caterina Mazzolà’s often drastic revision of Metastasio was acknowledged neither for what it had become, nor for what it had been, and certainly not for what Mozart transformed it into. It is difficult to discern any understanding of the classical conception of opera seria as spoken theatre with additional music having come into conflict, whether in work and reception, with later-eighteenth-century æsthetics, which had ascribed greater importance to music – unless, that is, it be nodded to by having the excellent solo clarinettist sit on the edge of the pit to be looked at by Sesto and then later by Vitellia. It is equally difficult to discern any sense of the political, of this coronation opera as, in words I have used for an article elsewhere, ‘a compulsory class in a school for ruler and ruled’.  It is just all a bit silly, with various people wandering around in ludicrously exaggerated visions of eighteenth-century dress, the size of Vitellia’s dress especially ridiculous. Wigs look as though I have been taken from an LSD-user’s vision of Amadeus. The trouser roles offer a bit of gender confusion, in that the characters’ dress seems as much female as male. And that is it: none of those ‘ideas’ is really developed, let alone related to the work. The only other feature I can recall worthy of comment is the general change from black to white between acts and the banal apparent conclusion that the characters find themselves through the burning of the Capitol. Of revolution, of counter-revolution, of Enlightened absolutism, of aristocratic revanchism: there is nothing. What on earth the dramaturge was offering for his fee I cannot imagine. And of Mozart: well, there is, if anything, still less.

Toby Spence had his good moments, more in the second act than the first, but had some strikingly unsteady moments too. He certainly was not helped by the direction, which seemed limited to having him wander around uncertainly in a sheet. I felt rather conflicted about Kristïne Opolais. There was no doubting the committed nature of her performance as Vitellia, but the nature of the application was not always necessarily appropriate. In the first act, she sometimes sounded as though she would have been happier singing Puccini, forsaking Mozart’s line for generalised ‘operatic’ sounds and gestures that have little or no place in his world. The second act was much better, though, ‘Non più di fiori’ an undoubted highlight, in which even Fischer got his act together to lead a strikingly successful transition into the finale. (It was a rare, much appreciated example of an ill-behaved audience not being permitted indiscriminately to applaud.) Tara Erraught and Anna Stéphany were more or less beyond reproach as Sesto and Annio, clean of line and clear of dramatic purpose – at least insofar as the production permitted. Both would grace the Mozart ensembles of any house. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, the Susanna in that earlier Figaro, impressed once again as Servilia; if anything, the role – and form – seemed to suit her better still. Tareq Nazmi’s Publio, again not helped by a production which seemed to have the character down as simply a bit of a weirdo, could have been more cleanly sung. And there we have it: an opera seria performance as if from the bad old days, when the drama was seen as secondary to the singers, when the music was barely understood for what it is. Not for the first time, I longed for Gérard Mortier and the Herrmanns.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Salzburg Festival (1) - BRSO/Haitink - Haydn, The Creation, 18 July 2014

Grosses Festspielhaus

Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Bavarian Radio Chorus (chorus master: Peter Dijkstra)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Bernard Haitink has waited until late his career to perform some of the greatest masterpieces of the choral repertoire. The Creation, the B minor Mass, and the St Matthew Passion are all works he has conducted for the first time in or approaching his eighties. ‘Authenticity’ has doubtless played a part here, as has Haitink’s typical modesty. Has the wait been worth it? Very much so, at least on the basis of this, the opening concert of this year’s Salzburg Festival.

Since Alexander Pereira added an extra week to the festival, having it open with an ‘Ouverture spirituelle’ programme of sacred music, The Creation, or Die Schöpfung, has featured first each time: a lovely invention of tradition. It would, I am sure, be fascinating to compare Haitink’s performance with those of previous years, not least the ‘period’ performance of Nikolaus Harnoncourt; alas, I am not in a position to do so. We all come with our own personal ‘traditions’, our own terms of reference, however. Passing swiftly over an unfortunate performance earlier this year from Richard Egarr, replacing the late Sir Colin Davis, my most recent performance had been with Sir Colin and the LSO in 2007; beyond that, the recording I tend most often hear in my head – and indeed to listen to – is Karajan’s classic first version (second, if you count his live Salzburg performance, issued much more recently). It seems inconceivable that anyone will ever match, let alone surpass, Karajan’s soloists, but it is a measure of the stature of this performance that Mark Padmore was anything but shamed by inevitable if odious mental comparison with the hardest act to follow, Fritz Wunderlich; indeed, Padmore’s was for me the finest vocal performance of all. And if my memories of the LSO/Davis performance – it has been issued on LSO Live, though I have yet to hear it – in general pip this Salzburg account, perhaps above all in terms of Davis’s inimitable way with orchestral Haydn, encompassing not only great musical wisdom but a sense of fun that is perhaps not Haitink’s strongest suit, then the distinctions will only be of degree. This was a fine performance, with no weak link, which crucially had one marvel anew not only at Haydn’s invention but also at one of the greatest monuments to the late Austrian Enlightenment.  

Perhaps one of the greatest surprises concerning Haitink’s performance was the size of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: the strings ranged from ten first violins to four double basses. (Not that this need determine how we perform the work today, but it is of course a far smaller orchestra than Haydn, influenced by the monumental Handel performances he heard in London, either had in mind or received at the premiere.) There were a few occasions when I really felt that at least another couple of desks of violins would have benefited the performance – for instance, during Raphael’s Second Day accompagnato – but, even in a large house such as this, not very many. In any case, regret at the loss of Karajan’s deep pile was, if not entirely banished, largely compensated for by the alert, variegated playing of the scaled-down BRSO. Purpose and direction may be accomplished and communicated – or not – with any size of orchestra, and they were certainly present from the very opening of the ‘Representation of Chaos’. That first chord – well, not actually a chord, just a unison C, tonality itself still to emerge, like Heaven and Earth themselves – was magnificently ominous; the movement as a whole offered a properly Beethovenian essay in the symphonically generative. Indeed, it almost seemed to go beyond Beethoven. Whether at the fundamental level of harmonic rhythm, or at that of the detail of the menace imparted by clarinet figuration, everything was made to count – and was heard to be connected. (The contrast with the hapless exhibitionism of Egarr could hardly have been greater.)

The recitative which follows was taken beautifully slowly: a sense of the desolate, perhaps, or at least the empty, but pregnant with hope. The excellent Bavarian Radio Chorus intoned with sotto voce precision the Spirit of God’s moving upon the waters, before the celebrated outburst of ‘Light!’ It was perhaps not so overpowering as in some performances, yet made its point without exaggeration: typical Haitink. Uriel’s following aria was crisply played, anything but sentimental; Padmore offered – or seemed to do so – a slight stress – upon ‘Ordnung’, that crucial eighteenth-century preoccupation, again without exaggeration, certainly without the musical disruption some seem to think betokens attention to the verbal text. And in the chorus that followed, orchestral chromaticism was both sinuous and strongly symphonically generative, choral diction and pitching beyond reproach. A new created world indeed seemed to spring up at God’s command.

Hanno Müller’ Brachmann and Camilla Tilling, the other soloists, both had strong virtues. If Müller-Brachmann had, especially earlier on, a slight tendency to hector and indeed to bluff tone, that soon worked itself out. Tilling announced herself with ‘Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk’, where I cannot help but hear Karajan’s Gundula Janowitz. Tilling was very different indeed: almost hoch-dramatisch, certainly forthright and unquestionably attentive to the libretto. It was intriguing, and perhaps a little surprising, that Haitink seemed keen to highlight Haydn’s Handelian legacy im ‘Rollend im schäumenden Wellen’, not just the dotted rhythms, but their rhythmic and harmonic implications. The Munich flautist worked especial wonders here with the ‘limpid brook’, as did the woodwind section as a whole in the following ‘Nun beut die Flur…,’ Tilling’s line here and elsewhere ornamented. ‘Stimmt an die Saiten’ sounded revealingly close to Mozart’s Handel – Gottfried van Swieten’s performances of alte Musik were of great importance to Mozart and Haydn – and the clarity with which it proceeded enabled both a panoply of orchestral colour as well as choral vigour. The fourth day’s sunrise again made its point without exaggeration, prefigured by the pretty recitative tinkling on an early piano by James Johnstone. Padmore brought echoes of Bach – perhaps inevitably – to bear, delicate yet purposeful. As the first part drew to a choral close, the heavens telling the glory of God, the only thing I missed was Haydn’s smile, or indeed his leaping for sheer, unadulterated joy; however, Beethovenian goodness and greatness of spirit were not entirely inadequate substitutes.

Orchestral playing was just as beautiful, just as variegated following the interval. Gabriel’s first aria brought a wonderful cooing synergy between Tilling and the Munich woodwind – though was her ornamentation of ‘Liebe’ just a little overdone? Müller-Brachmann’s gravity matched that of Haitink in the following recitative injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Haitink’s tempi were not entirely without surprise; for instance, ‘Der Herr ist groß’ was taken at quite a lick. Crucially, however, it was not harried; it came as release. If ‘Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan’ delighted rather than ravished, Wunderlich’s – and Karajan’s – shadow falls especially long there. In any case, the opening of the third part, three flutes and strings alike, was truly beautiful by any standards: this was a beauty that did not need to ask whether we had noticed it. The opening of the ‘Hymn’ was again taken at a fleet tempo, but if it did not offer the same kind of rapture as Karajan, its own variety was undeniably present. Müller-Brachmann as Adam again occasionally proved hectoring: perhaps the less agreeable side of Fischer-Dieskau’s influence? However, as this extraordinary number progressed, any minor doubts were dispelled. It was a delight, and a moving one. Haitink’s relatively small scale seemed especially apt here in Eden. And Tilling sounded very much a different ‘character’ as Eve. Moreover, Müller-Brachmann naughtily relished the quickening dew, celebratedly echoed in Haydn’s own Schöpfungsmesse. I am not sure that the final chorus has ever in my experience so clearly echoed the end of Die Zauberflöte, not the least associative achievement in a thoroughly admirable performance.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Le nozze di Figaro, Bavarian State Opera, 17 July 2014

Nationaltheater, Munich

Count Almaviva – Gerald Finley
The Countess – Véronique Gens
Cherubino – Kate Lindsey
Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Bartolo – Umberto Chiummo
Marcellina – Heike Grötzinger
Basilio – Ulrich Reß
Don Curzio – Kevin Conners
Antonio – Peter Lobert
Barbarina – Elsa Benoit
Two Girls – Josephine Renelt, Rachael Wilson

Dieter Dorn (director)
Jürgen Rose (designs)
Max Keller (lighting)
Hans-Joachim Rückhäberle (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Dan Ettinger (conductor)
Image: Wilfried Hösl

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal. Gerald Finley offered a handsomely-sung, dramatically alert portrayal of the Count, beautifully complemented by Véronique Gens, whose apparent indisposition was only occasionally evident. Erwin Schrott’s Figaro suffered from surprising occlusion of tone during the first act, but thereafter was very much on form, Schrott’s theatricality and musicality working very much in tandem. His Susanna, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was perky and vivacious in both respects too. Kate Lindsey had a slightly uneasy start as Cherubino, but more than made up for it with a perfectly-sung ‘Voi che sapete’. One could believe in her/him throughout too, not least when she adopted the guise of awkward cross-dressing. Amongst the rest of the cast, Ulrich Reß’s Basilio stood out, although he alas – following directorial orders? – adopted the current tendency towards caricature in the role, if less so than sometimes one endures. Elsa Benoit’s Barbarina showed great promise, indeed great achievement; I suspect that we shall soon be hearing more from her.

If only the cast had been better supported, let alone led, by Dan Ettinger. The orchestra sounded as though it would have been happier playing without a conductor; indeed, though sometimes a little on the heavy side, the orchestral playing as such was distinguished throughout. Alas, Ettinger seemed never able to settle on the ‘right’ tempo: not that there is only one, but at the time, it should feel as though that were the case. After an Overture and good part of the first act that were driven as if they were Rossini, with little or no space to breathe, other numbers relaxed too much and felt unduly drawn out. Worse still were the occasions when tempi changed arbitrarily – this was no Furtwängler! – during a number, ‘Dove sono’ an especially unfortunate example, Gens seemingly very much at odds, and rightly so, with the conductor. It was far from the only occasion upon which coordination between stage and pit went quite awry. My habitual lament at the loss of Marcellina’s and Basilio’s fourth-act arias was exchanged for relative relief: a sad state of affairs.

Dieter Dorn’s production is an odd affair, of which I struggled to make much sense. I had the impression – which may of course be wide of the mark – that we saw a director of a fundamentally conservative disposition who nevertheless felt obliged to try something ‘new’, resulting in a compromise that lacked coherence. I assume that the contrast between period costume and scenic abstraction was deliberate, perhaps attempting to make some point about stylisation, about contemporary reception of an over-familiar eighteenth-century work, etc., but am not entirely sure quite what that point was. The fourth act’s ‘business’ with white sheets in place of ‘proper’ scenery has unfortunate echoes of a school play, or perhaps better, a school ‘movement’ session. The cast seemed to flounder on stage, and I could not really blame them. There was an equally unfortunate, if typical, tendency, if less extreme than can sometimes be the case, to confuse this most sophisticated of comedies with mere farce. (Does not Mozart’s score tell us everything we need to know in that respect – and indeed in every other?) For the most part, the cast rose above such limitations, but limitations they certainly were.

Esfahani - Couperin, J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, G.A. Benda, Takemitsu, 15 July 2014

Wigmore Hall

Couperin – Quatrième livre de pièces de clavecin: 26th ordre
Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Preludes and Fugues in D minor, BWV 851; C-sharp minor, BWV 849; B major, BWV 868
Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in B-flat major, Wq. 48 no.2
Georg Anton Benda – Sonata no.4 in F major
Takemitsu – Rain Dreaming
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in F-sharp minor, Wq. 52 no.4

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

This was a splendid recital, my only (minor) reservations reserved for a couple of the pieces, certainly not for Mahan Esfahani’s performances of them. No such reservations were felt, naturally, for a first half of works by Couperin, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach. The 26th ordre from Couperin’s Fourth Book was no warm-up, Esfahani showing himself immediately at ease, with a lilting rubato that emerged from within the music – and, to a certain extent, the instrument too – rather than being applied to it. This first piece, ‘La Convalescente’, and the subsequent movements were all well characterised, without the slightest danger of falling into the all-too-precious caricatures which bedevil so much present-day Baroque performance. The expressivity of spread chords was a case in point; so was the sense of dramatic, even declamatory, unfolding, reminding us that we were not necessarily worlds away from the Classical drama of Corneille and Racine. The Gavotte and ‘La Sophie’ were guided by a propulsive, yet never restrictive, sense of rhythm; whatever the tempo, there was space to breath. ‘L’Epineuse’ seemed to afford a glimpse of the vocal Couperin, perhaps even of what an opera from his pen might have been, not that that precluded harmonic, developmental ‘involvement’ which was very much of the keyboard world. The final piece, ‘La Pantomime’, benefited from a harmonic grounding that took one back to a time when musicians just happened to be harpsichordists, rather than having invented an aggressive, ‘Early Music’, alleged revanchism; more than once, I thought of George Malcolm.

Three Preludes and Fugues from Book One of the 48 followed. The D minor Prelude was very much a ‘prelude’ to what was to come, a fugue that danced without didacticism. A deeper, darker hue characterised the C-sharp minor Prelude, though it was yet recognisably of the same ilk. The stile antico opening to its fugue looked bark to a golden age of polyphony, not in a dreary quasi-archaeological sense, but as sustenance and, crucially, as inspiration. It was expressive and developmental, in keeping with, but not restricted by, the ‘Baroque’ period to which Bach stands in a far more complicated relationship than many care to realise. This was the Bach who inspired Mozart. A bright contrast of tonality and general mood came with the B major Prelude and Fugue, played with good humour, even a sense of fun. The F-sharp minor Toccata was rightly more exuberant, less innig, drawing upon earlier keyboard masters and their sense of Affekt and rhetoric. In a flexible account, the proximity to Bach’s early organ works was announced, the whole unfolding with great dramatic flair.

C.P.E. Bach offered a very different voice, already hinting at some of the keyboard music of Haydn and even Mozart, though the rhetoric is undeniably personal. In the B-flat Sonata, composer and performer offered a kaleidoscope of expression utterly distinct from Haydn’s thematic single-mindedness. Registration was perhaps especially telling during the slow movement, in which we heard an almost operatic dialogue at times. The finale was refreshingly bright and high-spirited. We returned to Emanuel Bach at the end. The opening flourish of the F-sharp minor Sonata was extrovert yet controlled: very German! Wrenching of mood was almost violent; ‘strangeness’ was neither smoothed out nor unduly exaggerated. The slow movement exhibited great metrical freedom, following an almost stream-of-consciousness approach: as, after all, does the score. Twists and turns, both melodic and harmonic, were savoured. The finale offered a nice contrast, emerging almost as an extended fantasia: part-way on the road to Mozart? Its conclusion came properly as a surprise.

Between the two C.P.E. Bach sonatas came a sonata by Georg Anton Benda and Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming. I am not sure that I can quite share Esfahani’s enthusiasm for Benda, at least on the basis of this piece, but there could be little doubt that he proved an able advocate. Benda offered a more overtly ‘Classical’ voice, though not without audible connection to the world of Emanuel Bach. The first movement of the sonata benefited from an excellent performative balance between stateliness and exuberance, but I missed a real sense of development. Perhaps, as Esfahani suggested in his note, that is an æsthetic choice on the composer’s part; perhaps, but is it a good choice? The slow movement was, however, nicely contrasted, and more consistent as a compositional whole, whilst the finale’s byways charmed rather than perplexed.

As in the case of other works I have heard by Takemitsu, I was not entirely convinced of the substance of Rain Dreaming. Nevertheless, in this context, and whilst it may be a stretch to call the piece toccata-like, or imbued with a Neue Empfindsamkeit, there did seem to be a post-C.P.E. Bach or even post-Benda quality to the writing: testimony to canny programming. It was attractive enough as contrast, if hardly Ligeti, let alone Bach. Messiaenesque figuration was for me the most intriguing feature. A first encore of the Rameau Gavotte which Klemperer orchestrated whetted the appetite for Esfahani’s forthcoming release later this year of the composer’s complete keyboard works.


Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera, 13 July 2014

Royal Opera House

Music Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Major-Domo - Christoph Guest
Lackey – Jihoon Kim
Officer – David Butt Philip
Composer – Ruxandra Donose
Tenor, Bacchus – Roberto Saccà
Wig-Maker – Ashley Riches
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Karita Mattila
Dancing Master – Ed Lyon
Naiad – Sofia Fomina
Dryad – Karen Cargill
Echo – Kiandra Howarth
Harlequin – Markus Werba
Truffaldino – Jeremy White
Scaramuccio – Wynne Evans
Brighella – Paul Schweinester

Christof Loy (director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Jennifer Lipton (lighting)
Beate Vollack (choreography)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

I hope I shall be forgiven for keeping this relatively brief. Having been distinctly under the weather this week, I have fallen a little behind, and in any case have written about Christof Loy’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos before. This time, hearteningly, I recaptured some of my earlier enthusiasm, having found the staging looking somewhat tired last time around. Perhaps it was a matter of the revival direction, or perhaps it was a matter of sitting closer to the stage (the back of the Stalls Circle, the restricted view seemingly not much of an issue). At any rate, the virtues that I had originally hymned – a very real sense of the audience and the audience member being told that this was a tale told about them, a nice balance between the present and a re-imagined and then re-imagined again eighteenth century – were married to a well-acted company performance.

For the most part the singing was very good too. Thomas Allen’s Music Master continues to inspire; this time, he found a fine foil in Ed Lyon’s Dancing Master, his German as impressive as the French of the repertory in which I have previously tended to hear him. Both can act too – and did. Ruxandra Donose’s Composer was beautifully sung – and a character in whom one could truly believe, whom one could take to one’s heart. I am not sure that I have heard so distinguished a trio of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, as Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill, and Kiandra Howarth, whether corporately or individually. Markus Werba offered a predictably excellent Harlequin, well supported by the rest of his troupe. Jane Archibald reached for the heights and attained them with her lovely Zerbinetta: an object-lesson in the role. Disappointments? Roberto Saccà’s dry-toned Bacchus, fare more so than I had heard in Salzburg in 2012. And, I am afraid that, try as I might, I could not find Karita Mattila ‘right’ for the role of Ariadne. She is a wonderfully engaging artist, and there was much to enjoy, but I missed the floating of line that seems essential to the part, likewise the neo-Mozartian grace. Others have clearly felt differently, and I have tried not to be hidebound by recollections of great historic assumptions; ultimately, however, and with considerable regret, I thought Mattila miscast.

The other disappointment, perhaps more predictably, was Antonio Pappano’s conducting. Quite why he insists on inflicting himself upon a German repertoire for which he clearly has little sensitivity, let alone understanding, remains a mystery. Granted, this was not nearly so bad as his Wagner, and there was considerable life to the Prologue. However, the Opera soon became listless, with little sense of harmonic or indeed any other direction. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played very well, but how one longed for the wisdom, refinement, wit, and humanity the late Colin Davis brought to this work in this production.


Saturday, 12 July 2014

La bohème, Royal Opera, 9 July 2014

Royal Opera House

Marcello – Markus Werba
Rodolfo – Charles Castronovo
Colline – Jongmin Park
Schaunard – Daniel Grice
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Ermonela Jaho
Parpignol – Luke Price
Musetta – Simona Mihai
Alcindoro – Donald Maxwell
Customs Officer – Christopher Lackner
Sergeant – Bryan Secombe

John Copley (director)
Julia Trevelyan Oman (designs)
John Charlton (lighting)

Extra Chorus
Members of Tiffin Children’s Chorus
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

Perhaps I have made life too difficult for myself; it would not necessarily be the first time. At any rate, since the last time I saw John Copley’s production of La bohème – it had actually been my first, something that certainly was not the case for much of the Royal Opera House’s audience – I have seen on DVD Stefan Herheim’s brilliant staging of the work for the Norwegian National Opera. A typically musical production which transforms one’s understanding of the work, or at least of the possibilities it offers, resolutely avoiding the slightest hint of sentimentality and instead tackling head on difficult realities of life, death, and memory, Herheim’s Bohème is perhaps bound to have many others suffer by comparison. That is not, of course, to say that every production should be like it, or indeed that any production should attempt to imitate it, but that it marks a turning-point in the reception of La bohème, and that as venerable a staging as this, even when revived in lively fashion by the original director, is perhaps more likely than before to have one feel that something is missing. Or at least that it is going to require especially outstanding performances to make it live as once it might have done.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House offered a predictable trump card, rarely if ever putting a foot – or bow – wrong, playing Puccini’s score with an assuredness that never toppled over into over-familiarity. Cornelius Meister’s conducting of the orchestra receives more of a mixed report. In its favour, there was a great deal of care taken to characterise individual scenes, moods, even lines. This was certainly not a routine reading. However, a longer line often proved elusive, partly because it was not clear how individual sections fitted together. Contrast is good but still more important is underlying unity. An opening scene took almost anti-Romantic jauntiness to excess, whilst declarations of affection – or their approach – often became a spur to indulgence.  Perhaps Meister’s is a conception that will tighten as the run proceeds; there was an undoubted intelligence to be heard. A few shaky moments of ensemble aside, he seemed eminently capable of drawing from the orchestra and his cast what he wanted.

Ermonela Jaho’s Mimì was beautifully, often passionately sung, drawing upon a splendid array of vocal colours, generally – if perhaps not always – with a dramatic point in mind. Alas, her acting abilities lagged behind; there was far too much of the stock gesture, which might have worked better in certain other Puccini operas, but which seemed both over the top and non-specific in this would-be Bohemian milieu. Bar an uncertain top – at one point in the first act, quite alarmingly so – Charles Castronovo showed himself to be an adept Puccini singer and actor. When I have heard him in Mozart, I have thought his style perilously close to Puccini; here, he seemed very much at home. Markus Werba offered a typically intelligent reading of Marcello, attentive to the words in a way that not all of his colleagues were. Simona Mihai’s Musetta was somewhat generalised in scope, not assisted by Copley’s insistence upon comedy in the second act. Jongmin Park’s deep bass Colline was beautifully sung, though it sounded at times a little close to the world of Boris Godunov. Luke Price’s Parpignol struggled a little too much in vocal terms. However, the choral singing was excellent.

Back, then, to staging, in conclusion. Copley’s production, perhaps above all Julia Trevelyan Oman evocative period designs, has done sterling service. However, I could not help but wonder whether the endless ‘activity’, especially during the second act, spoke a little too much of trying to breathe new life into something that has already had a very good innings. It has endured and delighted far longer than any production could possibly expect to do so. But now, as the Royal Opera has apparently realised, its era is drawing to a close. It will be back next year, but then, at last, there will be a new staging. What a pity, though, that, if only for a season in between, we could not have had Herheim’s probing, transformative drama brought to London. Maybe a thought for ENO…?


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Aleko (concert performance), Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman, 7 July 2014

St John’s Smith Square

Aleko – James Platt
Zemfira – Sara-Lian Owen
Young Gypsy – Luperci de Souza
Old Gypsy – Arshak Kuzikyan
Old Gypsy Woman – Nelli Orlova

Chorus (chorus master: William Cole)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

Aleko, the libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, after Pushkin, was assigned in 1892 to three members of Anton Arensky’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatoire. Rachmaninov’s setting, made at the tender age of nineteen, was the only one to be published (though not in full score until 1953) or performed, winning the young composer the ultimate prize of a gold medal. In truth, it needs all the dramatic help it can get, more a reflection upon the libretto, which amounts to little more than a succession of numbers rather than a real dramatic development, than upon the score itself. Nevertheless, even a concert performance is of interest. One hears the influences, as one always does in immature works. Tchaikovsky looms largest; he was so impressed that he suggested Aleko form a double bill with his own Iolanta. The choral writing echoes Eugene Onegin; the orchestral writing often echoes the symphonic as well as operatic Tchaikovsky. There are hints of the Mighty Handful too, certainly of the Liszt of the symphonic poems, and perhaps also of Wagner.

If there is little that suggests Rachmaninov’s mature voice, the writing is remarkably assured, and so it sounded in this generally excellent performance from the Melos Sinfonia and its artistic director, Oliver Zeffman. If there were a few rougher moments, the string sheen and the sheer power of the orchestra as a whole, brass and all, proved mightily impressive, with a splendid sense of idiom. Zeffman guided the score’s progress wisely: flexible, without a hint of stiffness. The chorus, trained by William Cole, sang very well too, as did most of the soloists. If James Platt as Aleko and Sara-Lian Owen as Zemfira took a little time properly to settle, it was only a little time. Their diction, dramatic commitment, and musical line were excellent, Owen had one believe more in the gypsy girl who transfers her affections – shades of Carmen, though it was Pushkin’s narrative poem that would have influenced Merimée – more than one might have thought possible, in a performance which increasingly yearned for the stage. Arshak Kuzikyan revealed a passionate, dark-hued bass voice as the Old Gypsy, his lines shaped intelligently throughout: his was a compelling performance indeed, having one wish that there was more to hear from him. Nelli Orlova’s brief appearance as the Old Gypsy Woman had one wish for more too. Only Luperci de Souza’s performance as the Young Gypsy for whom Zemfira falls fell flat, audibly strained, at times seriously struggling. Perhaps it was just an off-night; everyone has them.

At any rate, this marked a wonderful opportunity to hear a fascinating early work. The Melos Sinfonia will next be heard in September at the Grimeborn Opera Festival and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, in a coupling of Walton’s Façade and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, whose Russian premiere they well give in St Petersburg in November.


Monday, 7 July 2014

Demidenko - Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Medtner, 5 July 2014

Wigmore Hall

Chopin – Waltz in A-flat major, op.42; Mazurka in G-sharp minor, op.33 no.1; Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 n.1; Mazurka in D-flat major, op.30 no.3; Waltz in E-flat major, p.18 no.1; Mazurka in E-flat minor, op.6 no.4; Waltz in A-flat major, p.64 no.3; Mazurka in A minor, op.17 no.4; Waltz in C-sharp minor, op.64 no.2; Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.30 no.4; Waltz in D-flat major, op.64 no.1; Mazurka in A minor, op.67 no.4; Waltz in A minor, op.34 no.2; Mazurka in A minor, op.posth.; Waltz in E minor, op.posth.
Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme of Corelli, p.42
Medtner – Tema con variazoni, op.55; Dithyramb in E-flat major, op.10 no.2

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

This was a puzzling recital, or rather its first half – actually rather more than a half – was. It sounded very much as though Nikolai Demidenko had done something unusual with the regulation of his Fazioli piano (an instrument for which I have never shared the enthusiasm expressed by some, but that is another matter). Tone often sounded oddly dampened, albeit with clarity. Whether that were actually the case, I cannot say for sure, but I cannot otherwise account for what I heard. And ‘why?’ remains another question again: a quasi-‘period’ approach, perhaps?

At any rate, the sequence of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas which made up the first ‘half’ generally had a good deal of sense to it in terms of tonal progression. This was rarely performance of a grand, public nature. Indeed, at times I wondered whether it had too much of salon charm, or at least not enough beneath the surface, especially in the case of the waltzes, though it might reasonably be objected that they do have quite a bit of the salon about them. The first A-flat major Waltz, op.42, opened the programme with insouciant facility and a seemingly effortless, ‘natural’ rubato. The G-sharp minor Mazurka, op.33 no.1, which followed, very slowly, offered contrast in its far greater metrical freedom, akin to a prose poem. And such tended to be the pattern of the waltz-mazurka progression, far from unreasonably. Light brilliance was certainly the hallmark of op.64 no.1, the so-called ‘Minute’ Waltz and the E-flat major Waltz, op.18 no.1. However, the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2, suffered a surprising number of slips and hesitations.

The D-flat major Mazurka, op.30 no.3 was more forthright than many; it was certainly not a case of one-size-fits-all, at least within the generally muted approach. It managed, moreover, to retain its mystery. Its E-flat minor cousin, op.6 no.4, emerged splendidly persistent over its short time-frame, seeming almost to presage Bartók’s music. One of my favourite Mazurkas, op.17 no.4 in A minor smiled through its sadness; tears were conveyed both above and through its ambiguous harmonies. The C-sharp minor Mazurka, op.30 no.4, is on a grander scale than many, and sounded as such, Demidenko offering a rare instance of a more ‘public’ face. I found the ending to op.67 no.4 in A minor, too abrupt, but its sadness had earlier shone through, likewise the visionary, almost Lisztian quality it seemed to share with the following waltz in the same key. The final Mazurka to be heard, again in A minor, a posthumous work, registered both sameness of tonality and difference in the nature of its dance, even at the sublimated level Chopin’s inspiration had reached.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli may well be his finest work for solo piano. Demidenko offered a committed performance, perhaps slightly detached, but not excessively so, and one which benefited from a fuller, richer piano sound. (Alas, not having been present in the hall during the interval, I cannot report whether anything had been done to the instrument.) Even from the theme to the first and second variations, there was a rightful sense of growing ‘involvement’. There was no doubt that this was characteristic Rachmaninov – indeed, the third variation frankly looked back to some of the Preludes – but there was also a hint of Neue Sachlichkeit. Echoes of Mendelssohn were to be heard in the ‘Allegro scherzando’, whilst neo-Lisztian vigour, perhaps also echoes of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, were to be heard in the eighteenth variation,. Dissolving chromaticism characterised its successor, a proper sense of final flowering, of opening out marking the coda to the twentieth and final variation.

It was fascinating to hear Rachmaninov’s variations followed by a set by Medtner, his op.55 Tema con variazoni. Demidenko’s performance was perhaps the highlight of the recital, revealing a strong musical mind beyond or rather behind what might superficially seem to be yet another piece of too-late-Romanticism. Structure and character worked together rather than standing awkwardly side by side, or even opposed. The E-flat major Dithyramb, op.10 no.2, sounded somewhat splashy by comparison. Demidenko certainly lavished full ‘Romantic’ piano tone and colour upon a piece which, in this context, assumed something of the character of an encore. It was interesting to hear it, but I should not rush to do so again.