Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 27 April 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Edith Haller
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Telramund – Gerd Grochowski
King Henry the Fowler – Kwangchul Youn
Herald – Boaz Daniel
First Noble – Haoyin Xue
Second Noble – Ji-Min Park
Third Noble – Kostas Smoriginas
Fourth Noble – Vuyani Mlinde
Pages – Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Amanda Floyd, Kate McCarney

Elijah Moshinsky (director)
Andrew Sinclair (associate director)
John Napier (designs)
William Hobbs (fight director)
Oliver Fenwick (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The good news is that, musically, this proved a strong Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov, who has recently recorded the work – a rarity indeed in these straitened times – elicited some of the best playing I have heard from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Perhaps most remarkable were the sweet-toned strings, their presence immediately signalled in a luminescent first-act Prelude; so sweet, indeed, did they sound that one could have believed oneself in Vienna. Each section, however, provided aural delight, the woodwind delectable and the brass warm-toned, never brash. Bychkov’s shaping of the work’s three acts was very fine; there was certainly none of the stopping and starting that have so disfigured a number of recent Wagner performances at Covent Garden. My only real criticism was a very small number of occasions, most notably at the end of the first act, when the tone was lightened in conjunction with a greater metrical rigidity. Claudio Abbado showed a good number of years ago that one can present a somewhat Italianate Lohengrin without cheapening Wagner in a Verdian direction. These were minor blemishes, however, upon a generally excellent account.

Johan Botha was a successful Lohengrin, at least in vocal terms. Apart from a few instances when he seemed to be tiring, during the second act, his tone was well projected and his line well moulded. It is only really by comparison with Klaus Florian Vogt’s truly stellar performance in Berlin earlier this month that one might register any vocal disappointment. The other reservation one might entertain is his stage presence. Far be it from me to suggest that one should prefer singers on accounts of their looks, or even their figure, but in physical stature, Botha is something of a throwback – and a half? – to an earlier age, with acting skills to match. A charismatic hero he is not. Edith Haller displayed considerable virtues – as well as slightly but fatally flawed virtue – as Elsa. Her occasional veering towards a slightly more Italianate form of expression might conceivably have bothered some but her attention to melodic concerns was far from out of place here. Haller has a beautiful voice but is clearly also an intelligent singer. Petra Lang proved an estimable Ortrud. If she could not banish memories of Waltraud Meier in this production six years ago, that would have been to ask the impossible. Lang may not quite possess Meier’s extraordinary stage presence but she performed her role very well, with commendable attention both to detail and to the longer line. If Ortrud did not make as strong an impression as she might have done until later on, that was largely a matter of being hamstrung by so inert a production. Gerd Grochowski was due to assume the role of Telramund later on in the run but Falk Struckmann’s tracheitis ensured an earlier Royal Opera debut for Grochowski. It was a pity not to be able to hear Struckmann who, time and again, has shown himself to be a fine Wagnerian (although only once at Covent Garden, as Amfortas). Grochowski confirmed the impression I had in the Berlin performance previously mentioned: he sings musically but can sometimes be a little overpowered by the orchestra. A certain degree of weakness might be considered in character but Friedrich needs at some level also to be a credible alternative leader. Kwangchul Youn had also appeared in Berlin, as King Henry. His performance here was more mixed; indeed, his surprising insecurity in the later stages of the first act made me wonder whether he was ill, although no announcement was made. Choral singing was of a predictably high standard, if without quite the edge of Eberhard Friedrich’s State Opera Chorus for the Unter den Linden house.

So, mostly good news concerning the musical performance. There remains to be considered, I am afraid, Elijah Moshinsky’s production. It is not only in the light of Stefan Herheim’s magnificent achievement in Berlin that Moshinsky’s effort pales; I had sought in vain to discern any dramatic insight when the production was last mounted in 2003. ‘Traditionalists’ might, I suppose, like this lifeless pageant, in which absurd Christian and pagan totems are wheeled on and off, a risible combat scene makes one wonder about – but finally decide against – comedy having being intended, and the direction of the chorus is more or less limited to walking on and off and having each member cross himself. (With respect to the chorus, Herheim’s virtuosity had been almost incredible.) However, even the notoriously unadventurous Covent Garden audience was distinctly lukewarm in its appreciation of the director when he appeared on stage. Most productions, I admit, would look tired, were they revived after more than thirty years, but I cannot imagine that this had anything to offer even in 1977.

The ‘idea’ is clear enough, that of a clash between paganism and Christianity. This is undeniably present in the text but in itself does not get anywhere near to the heart of Wagner’s dramatic concerns. It is rather as if someone were to claim that Tosca is ‘about’ the French Revolutionary Wars. One might, of course, make something rather interesting out of a clash of belief systems, especially given the undeniably nationalistic aspects of Lohengrin – more prominent than in any other of Wagner’s dramas – but there does not seem to have been made even the slightest attempt to address any issues with contemporary resonance, or indeed to explore any issues at all. I do not mean to imply that the work must be updated, or even pulled unduly in our direction; however, remnants of paganism in tenth-century Germany are not in and of themselves, I suspect, of particular interest to many audiences today. Nor were they to Wagner. Lohengrin is not an historical drama; it is a myth with aspects of historical drama attached, somewhat uncomfortably so. This Lohengrin, by contrast, appeared almost as if it were a parody of Meyerbeer. If only it had been, it might just have been a little more interesting. Let us hope that, the next time Wagner’s Romantic opera returns to the Royal Opera House, it is in a new production. The wildest excesses of Regietheater, even Calixto Bieito at his most puerile, would be preferable to this. A somewhat odd hint of the latter – not really, I know – came at the end with the return of Gottfried and a prolonged, distinctly sexual embrace between him and Elsa. I really did not know what to make of that at all, despite the references in the programme to Freud and taboo; it seemed to come from nowhere, whereas one could have predicted it only too readily with Bieito and his ilk. The totems must also, I assume, have pointed to Freudian influence, but I did not feel this reflected or explored in the action; again, I can only wish that I had.

One final matter: many of the programme essays were of a very high standard. John Deathridge and James Treadwell are always very much worth reading on Wagner. Likewise Patrick Carnegy on production history, although I thought him perhaps a little too diplomatic in his reference to Moshinsky. But if Wagner himself is to be given space – and it seems to me an excellent idea that this should be so – can it please be in a new translation? To present him even in an adaptation from William Ashton Ellis will make the composer, especially to those less versed in his prose works, seem like a raving lunatic. Ellis is often surprisingly accurate but his style is so bizarre that it is best restricted to those who know the German already.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Jean-Guihen Queyras/Alexandre Tharaud, Wigmore Hall, 27 April 2009

Wigmore Hall

Webern – Three Little Pieces, op.11
Brahms – Sonata for cello and piano no.1 in E minor, op.38
Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5 (arr. for cello and piano)
Debussy – La plus que lente (arr. for cello and piano by Léon Roques)
Debussy – Sonata for cello and piano in D minor

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)

This enterprising programme opened with an outstanding performance of Webern’s Op.11 Pieces. Absolutely every note told, almost – perhaps not even ‘almost’ – a melody in itself, yet never merely pointillistic; connections told equally. The rarity of the air breathed in the opening movement not only contrasted with but prepared the way for the violent beauty of the ensuing Sehr bewegt, which in turn brought us to the threshold of that extraordinary yearning intensity which characterises the final piece, its marking, Äußerst ruhig, almost as beautiful as the music itself. The final cello note was of truly unearthly beauty, leading us straight into the first Brahms cello sonata. Webern’s work proved not only a gem in itself but a prologue to Brahms’s sonata, making us listen once again to every note and to the connections between them and equally compelling us to sense the precariousness of Brahmsian tonality.

The opening movement of the Brahms was often understated though never reticent; the emotional impact of certain key moments was thereby allowed to register more powerfully than might have been the case with hearts fully on sleeves. An impassioned, indeed violent section in the development was a particular example of this; Webern returned, if indeed he had ever been away. This Brahms was noble, not self-pitying, modernist not comfortable. The clarity of Alexandre Tharaud’s piano playing in no way precluded a sense of mystery; it simply took such mystery to a more sophisticated level. What had begun as rather ‘French’-sounding Brahms in its tone, took on a more Romantic murmuring as we were led towards the ambiguous consolation – is it even that? – of the lullaby theme. Throughout there was an underlying menace, unease, especially from Tharaud. Jean-Guihen Queyras proved a fine partner, constantly attentive to the shifts of emphasis in the collaboration between two instrumentalists, not least when his phrases imitated yet subtly altered in retrospect those of the piano. My only real reservation lay with his fundamental tone, which could sometimes veer a little towards thinness, even rawness. I was not entirely sure, but I suspected that he might be playing on gut strings; there was certainly a suggestion of this in his playing, which could sound a touch forced at climaxes. Tharaud and Queyras adopted a sensible tempo for the Allegretto quasi menuetto; take it too fast, as happens all too often, and the shifting harmonies and rhythmic subtleties will perforce be skated over. Here we were treated to a winning, almost Schubertian lilt and grace. The trio had just the right balance of flow and hesitation. Tharaud’s expertise in Baroque repertoire made itself apparent in the fugal opening to the final Allegro. Queyras’s entry was rightly voiced as part of the overall texture rather than as a ‘solo’ voice; such a privilege had to be earned and even then would only be granted provisionally. This was an extremely troubled reading; occasionally, I wondered whether it might have yielded a touch more but perhaps that would have been to alter its character. Despite the slight lack I felt of a richer cello tone, there was a strong sense of the tragic to what remained a fine performance.

I had no reservations whatsoever concerning the performance of an arrangement (I know not by whom, but it was most convincing) of Berg’s Op.5 Pieces. From the opening bars of the first movement, we were reminded how strange Berg’s harmonies can still sound, if anything still more so than the sparer Webern, given the jostling and merging of the myriad of voices in Berg’s labyrinthine world. We stood very close to the Op.6 Orchestral Pieces. The slow insistence of the piano chords at the opening to the second piece proved interestingly reminiscent of the second of Schoenberg’s equally unusually aphoristic Op.19 Piano Pieces. Lyricism from the cello stopped short, quite rightly, from false consolation. The following piece, marked Sehr rasch, brought a wealth of tonal colours from both performers, the utmost rhythmical flexibility serving to portray a floating, indeed gravity-less world in which form is constantly re-created. Tharaud’s voicing of the piano chords in the final piece was exquisite, with a similarly subtle insistence to his performance of the second movement; Queyras’s uncertain, quasi-vocal lyricism was reminiscent of what we had heard from him there, conjuring up formal connections before our ears. A truly terrifying outburst was followed by desolate subsiding – not, however, into nothing, but into the opening of Debussy’s La plus que lente. Performed in violinist Léon Roques’s arrangement, there was an intriguing alternation between insinuating irony and something apparently more ardent, putting me a little in mind of Poulenc. Queyras’s tone here seemed a better match with the music than in the Brahms.

The final item on the programme was the Debussy cello sonata. Tharaud’s opening piano chords immediately put me in mind of the music of ‘old France,’ inciting a true sense of fantasy in Queyras’s response. Unsettling rumblings in the piano bass sparked off cello agitation, to which the instrument’s ‘natural’ lyricism attempted, albeit ever so equivocally, to respond. Debussy’s concision in this work seems to me almost as remarkable as that of Webern; that is certainly how it sounded here. The strangeness of the second movement’s opening pizzicato dance fully registered; for all Debussy’s classicism, this was modernism with a vengeance. Queyras was superbly partnered by Tharaud, able to suggest string pizzicato on the piano as if it were the easiest thing in the world. There was a wonderful give and take between the two musicians, so impressive that one almost did not notice it. Tharaud in particular imparted a clear sense of harmonic direction to the finale, absolute rhythmical precision from both players allowing full measure to the composer’s virtuosic flights of fancy.

As an encore, we were treated to the Ballabile from Poulenc’s cello sonata. This struck just the right note of exact whimsy, the contradictions in the composer’s lovable personality productively to the fore. There was exemplary clarity yet a palpably beating heart; ravishing piano tone gave way like a flash to aristocratic insouciance. Something serious, yet not too serious, lay behind this clown’s face.

This concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, will be repeated next Saturday at 7 p.m.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, Wigmore Hall, 25 April 2009

Wigmore Hall

Bach – Sonata for violin and piano no.5 in F minor, BWV 1018
Brahms – Sonata for violin and piano no.2 in A major, op.100
Bartók – Sonata for violin and piano no.1, Sz.75

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Lars Vogt (piano)

This was very much a concert of two halves. In Bach and Brahms, Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt provided decent but less than thrilling performances, sometimes veering towards the apparently disengaged, whereas the Wigmore Hall audience was treated to a truly outstanding performance of Bartók’s first violin sonata.

Vogt’s style in Bach was somewhat Gouldian, if without the Canadian pianist’s level of desiccation. I did not notice use of the sustaining pedal even once. Nevertheless, Vogt provided a rock-steady keyboard part, above which Tetzlaff could weave his melodic charm. The violinist’s tone was rich without excessive Romanticism, almost viola-like at times in the first movement, but there was no non- or low-vibrato nonsense; Bach’s music was treated as music. Rhythmic security was absolute throughout. In the second movement, both violin and piano sang a little more freely than they had in the opening Largo, and proved willing to employ powerful dynamic contrasts. Greater light and shade permitted the musicians to maintain tension throughout without sounding unrelenting. Dyed-in-the-wool Handelians might ask of the third movement, ‘Where’s the tune?’ but anyone who knows the C major Prelude from Book One of the Forty-Eight would recognise the stupidity of such a question. Tetzlaff’s double-stopped ‘accompaniment’ was always spot on, whilst Vogt seemed more relaxed, apparently enjoying his instrument’s ringing of the harmonic changes, ‘melody’ arising from what might, on the page, seem ‘mere’ figuration. In the final Vivace, Tetzlaff unleashed the full tone of the violin. Care was taken over imitative entries but what I missed, both here and in the ensuing Brahms sonata, was a real sense of interaction between the players, or at least of the intensity such interaction can sometimes elicit.

The opening Allegro amabile of Brahms’s A major violin sonata was taken at a fastish tempo, the general approach seeming to be to challenge any idea of the ‘autumnal’. Yet after relatively ‘light’ opening bars, there was a variety of ardent Romanticism to be heard. Part-writing was commendably clear and there were many eminently musical virtues; nevertheless, I felt that the players might have dug deeper emotionally, to find that rather more was at stake than suggested here. Moreover, the reading was often somewhat four-square, especially in the piano part; definition of particular phrases was at the expense of a longer line, which need not be the case. Again, the Andante tranquillo sections of the second movement were far from slow but the scherzo-like Vivace passages were not unduly fast; indeed, they exhibited a rather winning lilt. Contrapuntal clarity was again very much to the fore. Teztlaff’s tone was beautiful, his vibrato marvellously expressive. The final movement was brisk, rather too much so, I thought, as if on excessive guard against perceived sentimentality. Nevertheless, there were moments of beauty from violinist and pianist, if more often individually than in combination.

With the opening bar of the Bartók sonata, we were plunged into a different world, not just in terms of the harmonic language but in terms of the palpable electricity in the performance. Vogt opened as if this were expressionist Debussy – which, in a way, it is – unleashing a violent beauty whose presence would not necessarily have harmed Bach or Brahms. Tetzlaff followed up with those all-important Bartókian rhythms. The Schoenbergian quality of Bartók’s piano writing was most apparent, especially in the chordal writing, which stands not so very far from the Austrian composer’s Opp. 11 and 19 Piano Pieces. The early 1920s perhaps mark the high watermark of Second Viennese School influence upon and challenge towards Bartók, for one was also made aware of a kinship in the violin part with Berg’s yet-to-be-written concerto, of which Tetzlaff has proved himself a fine exponent. Mystery, violence, seduction: all were present. Teztlaff’s tone could be silvery, abrasive, warm, but always ‘right’ for the particular demands of the music. It was interesting to note that, for all the radicalism ascribed to Bartók in this piece, the music here is far less percussive – and was performed far less percussively – than much of the writing in his first two piano concertos. Lyrical profusion and proliferation, after Bach but also with a hint or two of Boulez, are the keys to the piano part, and this is what we heard.

The Adagio was performed at an equally high level. Teztlaff’s opening solo reminded us of the gypsy element in Bartók’s violin writing – this despite his preference for supposedly ‘real’ Hungarian folksong over gypsy music. A sense of outdoor extemporisation was present within extremely controlled parameters, the conflict between the two providing the key to so much of Bartók’s music. Violin harmonics sounded duly haunting. Vogt recognised the ‘whiteness’ of his opening piano chords, which looked forward to the third piano concerto. Thereafter, the piano part continued as if we were listening to a somewhat disrupted – and disrupting – neo-Chopin chorale, pointing to the influence of Bach’s music upon both composers, whilst Teztlaff weaved his lyrical magic above, ever faultless in intonation. Piano night music intervened, but was overruled by the violin, revealing a true sense of dramatic conflict and instrumental characterisation. With the opening of the finale, we were reminded by the percussive piano writing – and performance – that this is indeed the composer of the first two piano concertos. Rhythmic exactitude from both players enabled a still further intensified sense of drama and excitement, metrical dislocations handled with an almost diabolical skill. The virtuosity, whether in Teztlaff’s jagged roulades or Vogt’s cascading glissandi, was staggering but was always deployed to musical ends. Controlled mania was the dialectical premise upon which this outstanding performance reached its conclusion.

As encores we were treated first to the final movement of Dvořák's sonatina for violin and piano, and then – ‘because we like it so much,’ as Vogt announced – the preceding slow movement. I wondered whether we should end up with the entire work in reverse movement order, but alas not. Suffice it to say that these were fluid, committed accounts, very much in the spirit of the Bartók performance, albeit more gentle. This made me curious as to whether the Bach and Brahms works, if performed again, would benefit from such ‘warming up’. In any case, the Bartók sonata was the thing. The concert was recorded for subsequent broadcast on Radio 3; this will be well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Festival d'Aix en Provence 2009 - preview

Since the days of the Florentine Camerata, many of the greatest operas have tied their sails closely to those of myth. The sixty-first Festival d’Aix en Provence explores that relationship in a number of staged performances. Mozart, ever the festival’s guiding light, offers the first and last of his fully mature operas. Oliver Py produces Mozart’s Cretan drama, Idomeneo, with Marc Minkowski conducting his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble; Richard Croft, Yann Beuron, and Mireille Delunsch head an impressive cast. Director William Kentridge makes his Aix debut, collaborating with René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik in Die Zauberflöte. Orpheus, almost the patron saint of opera, makes his inevitable appearance, though not in Monteverdi or Gluck, nor in Haydn or Birtwistle. In a European Academy of Music production of Offenbach’s Orphée aus enfers, Alain Altinoglu conducts the Camerata Salzburg, with stage direction from Yves Beaunesne. And where would mythological opera be without Wagner? The Aix Ring culminates in Götterdämmerung. Sir Simon Rattle again conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the final instalment of Stéphane Braunschweig’s production. (See Siegfried from last year and my DVD review of Die Walküre.) The cast includes Ben Heppner, Mikhail Petrenko, Katarina Dalayman, Dale Duesing, and, in a welcome surprise, Anne Sofie von Otter as Waltraute.

The Berlin Philharmonic gives no fewer than three orchestral concerts. Pierre-Laurent Aimard joins Pierre Boulez for Ravel’s left-hand concerto alongside works by Bartók and Boulez himself. Lang Lang could hardly be a more different pianist from the fearsomely intellectual Aimard; Lang plays concertos by Haydn and Ravel, with orchestral works by those two composers completing the first of Rattle’s two programmes. Borodin’s second symphony and The Rite of Spring form the second. Various ensembles drawn from the BPO’s membership provide a wealth of chamber music: the Athenäum Quartet in Mendelssohn and Schumann; the Trio Sainte Victoire (including pianist Kyrill Gerstein) in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; and the marvellous Scharoun Ensemble in an all-French programme of Ravel, Debussy, André Caplet, and Marc André Dalbavie.

Two other concerts return us to the world of myth. Magdalena Kožená joins Louis Langrée and Camerata Salzburg in an all-Haydn programme, which includes his masterly cantata, Arianna a Naxos, whilst Joyce DiDonato continues her Handel explorations in excerpts from the operas, partnered by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques. Kožená also collaborates with Private Musicke in a programme of seventeenth-century Italian music. György and Marta Kurtág perform works for piano, four hands, by Bartók, Bach, and Kurtág, in a concert that also includes Kurtág’s Hipartita for violin solo from Hiromi Kikuchi. Heinrich Schiff plays Bach cello suites. Kentridge delivers a lecture (in English) on Shostakovich’s The Nose. Langrée and Camerata Salzburg give a second concert, of arias by Haydn and Mozart, with singers from the European Academy of Music. Another Academy concert presents works by Kurtág and the young Italian composer, Francesco Filidei.

In addition, three events at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume explore the music of the Mediterranean. Swirling dervishes from Turkey and Syria appear in Déplacé; Ensemble Constantinople looks at songs of women and love from Persian, Jewish-Hispanic, and troubadour traditions; the same ensemble turns to flamenco in El Grito, El Silencio.

The Festival d’Aix en Provence runs from 3 to 31 July. Further details may be found here.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Vogt/Philharmonia/Jordan, 19 April 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43: Overture
Beethoven – Piano concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Lars Vogt (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Throughout this concert, the Philharmonia was on splendid form. If I sometimes entertained doubts concerning aspects of the interpretation, especially during the inner movements of the Brahms symphony, then that detracts in no way from the orchestral performance. A fierce opening chord announced the beginning of the Prometheus overture, showing that fierceness need not equate to ugliness. The following introductory material granted Beethovenian grandeur its due, leading into a nicely pointed, notably balletic reading. At times, I wondered whether this edged a little close to Rossini, somewhat in the manner of Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, but I should not wish to make much of this. The Philharmonia’s strings under Philippe Jordan showed that incisiveness need not be at the expense of glowing warmth, whilst the timpani – thankfully without the hard sticks that have become so fashionable in some quarters – made its presence properly felt rhythmically and harmonically.

The opening of the Emperor concerto was a little disappointing, Lars Vogt’s opening flourishes proving far from flawless. By the time of his next entry, he appeared much more settled, as did his ensuing passagework. The basic tempo was fastish, but not absurdly so, and a full sound was obtained from an orchestra whose size was respectable but far from large (twelve first violins and so on). Woodwind again sounded marvellously keen. Martial rhythms were always well pointed, making me wonder whether the General might have been a better nickname for the work. The orchestral sound was throughout well balanced – which does not mean what some seem to think, namely emasculating the strings – and the piano impressively weighty where required. Vogt and Jordan were not afraid to vary the tempo and did so successfully. The only exception was the resumption of a swifter pulse for the recapitulation, which might have been better prepared, coming as something of a jolt, partly because the texture sounded somewhat thinned, neo-Mozartian even, at this point, an unfortunate conjunction. Nevertheless, the slowing for the second subject here was most convincingly achieved. A melting slow movement brought an almost Chopinesque cantilena to Vogt’s line, with warm orchestral response. Elfin, Mendelssohnian woodwind were on fine form. The transition to the finale was beautifully handled, save for a noisily disruptive audience contribution. Then rhythmical security once again proved key, underpinning the music’s forward propulsion, without sounding hard-driven. Bassoon (Robin O’Neill) and horn (Philip Eastop) were especially worthy of mention for their solo contributions. My only relative disappointment was that orchestral fire, especially in the tutti sections, was not always quite matched by that from the pianist – though one should remember how awkward Beethoven makes the soloist’s task here.

The Philharmonia’s ranks swelled a little for Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the first violin section becoming sixteen in number, with other strings in proportion. One could certainly hear a richer, deeper string sound from the very opening. The Philharmonia’s woodwind proved especially adept at bringing out that all-important interval of the third, which, Webern-like, provides the generative force for the entire first movement. Jordan’s tempo seemed close to ideal and he proved perfectly willing to yield where appropriate. The recapitulation proved considerably more impassioned than what had gone before; whether this was an apt climax or an undue contrast, pointing to a prior lack, was not entirely clear to me. In either case, the Philharmonia’s musicians played their hearts out for Jordan. The second movement is marked Andante moderato but here I simply felt that Jordan’s tempo was too fast. At least there was little harshness, save for a few sterner moments, and the basic pulse yielded at times; however, for me at least, there is a greater darkness to this music than this neo-Schubertian graceful processional would allow. The following Allegro giocoso seemed to me misconceived. Never have I heard it sound so triumphant; it appeared to be acting as a surrogate finale, rather than a gruff preparation for the real thing, which needs to sound truly earned. There was great energy to this reading but it did not quite seem properly applied. The great finale received a highly Romantic performance, not only in terms of its gorgeous orchestral tone – Kenneth Smith’s flute solo was truly exquisite, as were the Philharmonia strings – but also displaying a greater sense of what was at stake. It was implacable but never frenetic, flexible whilst maintaining a sense of line. Jordan’s tempo variations were sometimes very marked but usually well handled, if leading perhaps to a more episodic view than the very greatest accounts from the recorded past (which are not, of course, without such variation). Still, it was a highly dramatic finale both to the symphony and to the concert.

Friday, 17 April 2009

After Dido, English National Opera, 16 April 2009

Young Vic Theatre, London

Dido/Sorceress – Susan Bickley
Sailor/Stephen – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Bass – James Gower
Aeneas - Adam Green
Helen (in the bedsit) – Amanda Hale
Second Witch/Jenny – Helen Jarmany
Nell (in the study) – Helena Lymbery
Dido’s Woman/Prologue soloist – Lina Markeby
Anna (in the kitchen) – Sandy McDade
Tenor – Eamonn Mulhall
Henry (in the study) – Dominic Rowan
First Witch – Madeleine Shaw

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designer)
Leo Warner (director of photography)
Philip Gladwell (lighting designer)
Gareth Fry, Carolyn Downing (sound designers)
Pia Furtado (assistant director)
Helena Lymber (artistic associate)

Members of the Orchestra of English National Opera (Janice Graham, Matthew Ward (violins), Amelie Roussel (viola), David Newby (violoncello), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), David Miller (lute/baroque guitar))
Christian Curnyn (harpsichord/conductor)

It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of reviewing After Dido as if it were a production of Dido and Aeneas. Such would be a mistake, not least since any reservations one might voice could then be written off as a consequence of having failed to understand the nature of the beast: an opera critic at sea in the world of contemporary theatre. What, then, is After Dido? It is described as ‘a live music and film performance inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas’ and at its core, at least in one sense, stands a performance of Purcell’s masterpiece: ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot,’ as Raymond Leppard so memorably once described it. However, Dido and Aeneas is not produced on stage; After Dido is. This tells, in the words of the publicity material, ‘three contemporary urban stories of grief, lost love, departure, and death,’ which unfold in self-contained locations on different sections of the Young Vic stage. But After Dido is also to be found in ‘the making of’ these stories.

This ‘making of’ is not really a story in itself, after the manner of, say, Ariadne auf Naxos, yet it acquires a dramatic thrust of its own, not least since it is with these ‘workings’ that the piece opens, in the prologue – Dido’s own Prologue is, of course missing – to a radio broadcast, in which we hear recorded snatches of other items of Purcell’s theatre music. There were times when I wondered whether viewing of the technicians, moving cameras, actors other than the ‘principal’ actors performing the close up shots and sound effects, and so on, was all a little too much to follow. That, however, may partly have been the point, or at least one of the points, in that each viewer therefore had to decide at any point whether to watch part of ‘the making of,’ the actor(s) on stage, the actor chosen at that moment for display on the screen above the stage, or the musicians – or indeed, to flit between them, or to try to watch more than one aspect at once. To witness, for instance, one of the ensemble – I cannot now remember which it was – being filmed moving a light bulb over a window, whilst seeing this cleverly projected as the passing of car headlights in another ensemble member’s flashback, whilst also watching that second member reacting to the ‘live’ broadcast of Dido and Aeneas upon the three hundred and fiftieth year anniversary, without even considering the possibility that one might be at least partly watching one of the other stage events, presents multiple possibilities for the viewer, guided though he may be by the decision concerning which aspect is being shown on film at that time. I purposely use the word ensemble, since the boundaries between singers, actors, and ‘stagehands’ are fluid. Susan Bickley, having a little break from singing Dido and the Sorceress, is seen washing up at one point. This does not seem gratuitous, since a true sense of theatrical ensemble is thereby achieved. Sadly, this does not include the musical players; perhaps this would simply have been too difficult to integrate, but it is a thought. The work of the entire production team is throughout of an extremely high standard, Leo Warner of Fifty Nine Productions Ltd, working again with Mitchell, as he did for her National Theatre productions of Waves and Attempts on Her Life. Little is said, only‘BBC’ radio announcements and a few punctuating ‘readings’, but then it appears nothing need be said. Perhaps we ordinarily rely too much upon the spoken word, when music and visual stimulus can provide so much.

The ‘stories’ themselves relate to loss of one sort or another, just as Dido itself does, although there is none of the anticipation that characterises the opera’s opening scene. The time scale could hardly have accommodated that, given that the stories operate in ‘real time’. We witness a lonely girl, Helen (Amanda Hale), in her bedsit, play with her derisory ‘meal’, wind blowing in and traffic passing outside her window, as she moves towards her overdose. Henry (Dominic Rowan) contemplates the breakdown of his relationship, made utterly apparent when joined later on by Nell (Helena Lymbery). Clearly, the sooner a decisive break is made the better. Most moving for me was Sandy McDade’s superlatively well acted Anna, dealing in her kitchen – and outside in the garden, thanks to typically virtuosic camera work – with a bereavement. At one time, we actually see her dancing, both on stage and on screen, with whomever it is she has lost, but her facial expressions, her trembling hands, her tears, are perhaps more telling still.

What of Dido itself? It would be remiss not to comment upon the musical performance at all. A string quartet and continuo group, directed from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, provide the ‘orchestra’. If there were times when I should have preferred a fuller, warmer sound, what we heard was by the same token rarely unduly abrasive, although it veered somewhat between different styles of Purcell interpretation, the violins sometimes sounding more like old ‘fiddles’, sometimes more like members of a Classical quartet. I could not always discern why this should be so, but it did not worry me unduly. Tempi were generally on the brisk side but were not unyielding, which is more important. Purcell’s dissonances have been more searing; there was plenty of dissonance on stage, however.

Susan Bickley was excellent in her dual role. Everyone who knows Dido will have a favourite artist or favoured artists in the title role; it is that kind of piece. I for one can never forget Dame Janet Baker and also retain a great fondness for Victoria de los Angeles. Bickley has her own ideas, proves ever musical and ever attentive to the text, and certainly penetrates to the nub of the drama, though I sometimes found her voice a little lacking in refulgence. By the same token, however, one might wonder whether her Lament was unduly undercut by the amplified ticking of an alarm clock; I know this is not a production of the opera as such, but it seemed a pity. As the Sorceress, she did not opt for the overt pantomime vocalisation of the unforgettable Monica Sinclair (on the Baker/Antony Lewis recording), but there was a differentiation of voice, a certain ‘old Englishness’ to the differentiated portrayal. Adam Green’s Aeneas was sometimes less than ideally focussed, but the rest of the musical ensemble was of a consistently high quality.

Part of the reason for ENO’s collaboration with the Young Vic is to reach a different audience from that which typically visits the Coliseum. This is definitely to be applauded and I can imagine that the name of Katie Mitchell will do no harm in attracting curious theatre goers, as opposed to opera fans. After Dido is an intriguing piece, which is certainly to be preferred to a stale and vain attempt at reconstruction. It is a pity that no one seems especially interested in a more radical take upon Handel’s operas, in this shared anniversary year. Musical virtues notwithstanding, their theatrical weaknesses are rather more glaring than any in Purcell’s miniature, if incomplete, tragedy, so a rescue bid would doubtless be appreciated by those of us without the coterie of the at least slightly fanatical. Still, that problem is no fault of this production, which may well prove one of the more notable contributions to the anniversary celebrations.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Parsifal, Semperoper Dresden, 13 April 2009

Images: © Matthias Creutziger

Amfortas – Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Titurel – Jacques-Grel Belobo
Gurnemanz – Matti Salminen
Parsifal – Stig Andersen
Klinsgor – Thomas Jesatko
Kundry – Lioba Braun
Flowemaidens – Christiane Hossfeld, Birgit Fandrey, Annette Jahns, Roxana Incontrera, Sabine Brohm, Elisabeth Wilke
Knights of the Grail – Gerald Hupach, Jürgen Commichau
Squires – Angela Liebold, Sofi Lorentzen, Tom Martinsen, Matthias Henneberg
Voice from Above – Sofi Lorentzen

Theo Adam (original director)
Heide Stock (revival director)
Rolf Langenfass (designs and costumes)

Chor der Sächsichen Staatsoper Dresden
Gentlemen’s voices from the Sinfoniechor Dresden
Kinderchor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden
Matthias Brauer and Ulrich Paetzholdt (chorus masters)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Lothar Zagrosek (conductor)

This was much better than the previous night’s Flying Dutchman. The performance made me realise that I should probably have been harsher concerning Christof Prick’s hapless conducting. Lothar Zagrosek’s direction was certainly the real thing, clearly born of a sophisticated understanding of the score and an ability to communicate that to his players. In general, this was a swift reading, which is not necessarily to say unprobing, but quite different from the broader conceptions of, say, Knappertsbusch or Goodall. To a certain extent Boulez sprang to mind, although the latter’s modernistic concerns were less to the fore than what sometimes sounded like an attempt to point to connections with Romantic symphonism. In any case, the focus was upon dramatic drive rather than the quasi-liturgical understanding that often informs the outer acts. Zagrosek’s conducting was certainly not inflexible; fluctuations in tempo were handled soundly. However, this was Wagner often sounding closer to Mendelssohn, Schumann, perhaps even Brahms, than to Bruckner, Mahler, or Schoenberg.

Greater weight was placed upon the Transformation Music and upon the choral sections, here superbly rendered by the assorted choruses, of whom the excellent children’s choir merits special mention. The work of Matthias Brauer and Ulrich Paetzholdt had clearly paid off. Likewise, the Staatskapelle Dresden was once again on splendid form. There may be no one ‘right’ sound for Wagner, but this orchestra is certainly one of the best equipped tonally for his music. The strings truly glowed, whilst the woodwind added piquant colour. At climactic moments, the brass made its presence felt without the slightest sense of Solti-like crudeness. The excellent timpanist’s role in dramatic punctuation was of the highest importance. There were a few instances of insecurity, such as a wrong entry from the woodwind immediately prior to Parsifal’s baptism of Kundry. For a worrying moment, it sounded as though the orchestra might have lost its way, but Zagrosek pulled his forces together.

1988 must have been a good year for Wagner in Dresden, since the Staatsoper premiered not only Wolfgang Wagner’s Dutchman but also Theo Adam’s Parsifal. In truth, neither production has a great deal to say to a contemporary audience, if indeed either did at the time. The prospect of an East German Parsifal was intriguing but there are no political statements here. What we have is a straightforward, uncontroversial telling of the story. Scenery and costumes are more or less as one would expect, with the partial exception of a peculiarly unattractive magic garden for Klingsor, likewise the strange, butterfly-like costumes for the Flowermaidens. As with Wolfgang Wagner’s Dutchman, we see pretty much everything we should. In this case, the Grail looks like the Grail and is elevated by Parsifal in the final scene. The spear looks like a spear and does what it should. The most fanatical adherent to Wagner’s stage directions might lament the lack of a dove at the end, but otherwise would have little with which to find fault. Parsifal does not himself make the sign of the Cross at the end of the second act but a Cross is revealed in the sky, thereby avoiding the nonsense that many productions suffer when he speaks of something that is merely disregarded. However, it was not at all clear what its presence meant, given the lack of any overt Christian or indeed anti-Christian reading of the work: probably better than disregard, but not preferable to dramatically underlined absence, as in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Waste Land ‘heap of broken images’ production for the English National Opera. Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal remains utterly in a class of its own. One thing, however, that distinguished this production from the previous night’s Dutchman was the role of Heidi Stock as acknowledged revival director. Her material might not have been the most inspiring but she ensured that the cast, including the chorus, knew what it should be doing rather than being left to fend for itself. A nice touch, whether hers or Adam’s, was to have the brothers all turn away from Amfortas upon his first act pleas for mercy.

This brings me to the singers. Parsifal is a less fiendish role than Tristan or Siegfried, for which one might read that it is not simply impossible. Nevertheless, it is hardly an easy ride. Stig Andersen did a highly creditable job, even managing to seem vaguely plausible as the foolish boy of the first act, if without the success in this respect of Stefan Vinke in Leipzig a week earlier. Lioba Braun was an excellent Kundry. She was perhaps less impressive as the seductress of the earlier part of the second act but gave a memorable portrayal of unhinged reaction to Parsifal’s rejection of her kiss. Like her character, she hurled everything into her efforts to change him. Matti Salminen was slightly disappointing earlier on, most uncharacteristically subdued; however, his tone garnered richness and authority a little way in to his third act scenes. Thomas Jesatko was thrillingly malevolent as Klingsor, perhaps more so than he had been at Bayreuth, although there the production had more than made up for it. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a more than acceptable Amfortas; I had probably been spoiled by the astounding portrayal offered by Tumoas Pursio for Oper Leipzig. The Flowermaidens were a mixed bunch, as it were. Sadly, those who looked unusually ‘mature’ sounded somewhat past their best too, although there were clearly some good voices amongst the group. Mention should also go to a splendid Voice from Above in the guise of Sori Lorentzen. All in all, then, this was a rather successful Parsifal, at least in musical terms.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Der fliegende Holländer, Semperoper Dresden, 12 April 2009

Image: © Matthias Creutziger

Daland – Michael Eder
Senta – Eva Johansson
Erik – Timothy Simpson
Mary – Sofi Lorentzen
Steersman – Timothy Oliver
The Dutchman – Alan Titus

Wolfgang Wagner (director, designs)
Johannes Taubenschuß (assistance with designs)
Reinhard Heinrich (costumes)
Fabio Antoci (lighting)
Eckart Kröplin (dramaturge)

Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden
Sinfoniechor Dresden
Matthias Brauer (chorus master)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Christof Prick (conductor)

It has always, in my experience, been a joy to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden, and my experience received no jolt upon this occasion. Ranking of orchestras, though it seems recently to have become strangely fashionable, is as absurd and objectionable as any other form of ‘league table’. Nevertheless, if the proverbial gun were held to my head, I should doubtless maintain the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to be well nigh sui generis and suspect that I should opt for Dresden at the head of the rest. Why? Both have maintained not only their greatness but their individuality in the face of increasing homogenisation of the world’s leading orchestras. Vienna has always been a law unto itself but the Dresden orchestra, rather like its counterpart in Berlin, and unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, was shielded to some extent by the Iron Curtain. The maintenance of an ‘old German’ sound, not inflexibly so but with due regard to the tradition of the repertoire which will most likely always stand at its core, is something of which to be deeply proud and with which the listener can hardly fail to fall in love. Perhaps midway between the Vienna Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Dresden orchestra may be said to marry the golden tone of the former with the latter’s darker hints of mahogany. Here, the strings sounded ineffably golden, the woodwind overflowing with almost Viennese character; the horns might readily have come freshly minted from the Böhmer Wald of Der Freischütz. It was this orchestra that played for the first performance of The Flying Dutchman; it has this music, like that of Weber and Strauss, in its blood. That does not guarantee a good performance but it is worth more than any present day misconceptions of ‘authentic performance practice’.

Sadly, whilst Christof Prick’s conducting could not rob the orchestra of its sound, his direction had little else to recommend it, remaining Kapellmeister-ish in the extreme. Almost unremittingly foursquare – one could hear the beats all too clearly – Prick was either unable or unwilling to admit of any transitions, let alone tempo variations. The Dutchman was reduced to a succession of numbers: not, it seemed, as it had under Marc Albrecht at Covent Garden, owing to a questionable interpretative decision, but simply by default. And how it dragged! I thought the second act was never going to end. In a superior performance, it would not have done, but on account of a very different reason. For another unfortunate aspect of this production was the decision to perform the three-act version of the work. I had forgotten quite how regrettable this sounds once one has become accustomed to the single-act version. Whilst I am well aware that, largely for practical reasons, Wagner gave the Dresden premiere in three acts, this was not how he had conceived it and, more importantly, it helps neither the narrative nor the musical flow, assuming there to be one in the first place. Moreover, Wagner’s 1852 and 1860 revisions, whilst interesting musically, need a strong production to make them sound anything more than tacked on dramatically. This is, I think, a very different case from the Paris Tannhäuser.

Wolfgang Wagner’s venerable production did not prove to be up to that particular task. It must have seemed old-fashioned in 1988, when it was first given, not least in the light of work by directors such as Harry Kupfer; now it seemed in definite need of replacement. Some of its more old-fashioned aspects were not unwelcome, especially when one considers what can go awry when baby, bathwater, and all are modishly cast into the North Sea. To see two credible ships, costumes that did not distract, a chest of gold to attract Daland, and a portrait of the Dutchman to attract Daland’s daughter: this was all very welcome after Tim Albery’s dreadful production for the Royal Opera, which had rejected such representative inconveniences without deigning to put anything in their place. The lighting was well handled without being unduly flashy. Wolfgang wrote intelligently in the programme about the notion of ‘hope’ being central to the work and about the ‘Romantic’ polarities of the real and unreal, the theatrically possible and impossible, even the Aufhebung of time and space. Yet there was precious little sign of these ideas being explored on stage, even if there once had been. I do not know how long it has been since Wagner’s grandson actually took a hand in this production but I should wager that it has been quite a while. Heike Maria Jenor and Bernd Gierke were credited with Abendspielleitung and Regieassistenz respectively; it is difficult to know what this meant in practice. For the most part, members of the cast looked largely as if they had been left to their own devices and the chorus was left floundering.

Alan Titus was the best of the soloists as the Dutchman. ‘Die Frist ist um,’ began rather uncertainly, particularly in term of intonation, but once Titus had settled down, he exhibited a commendably rich tone, which complemented the orchestra. Moreover, one could hear every word he sang. He was certainly preferable to Bryn Terfel at Covent Garden, who had far too often whispered or shouted – not that one would have known from many newspaper reports. Eva Johansson had her moments as Senta but her intonation could be alarmingly awry, a failing exacerbated by her habit of scooping up towards notes. She had the same permanent look of derangement that I noted on her DVD performance of the Walküre Brünnhilde from Aix. Senta might well be mad – much depends upon guidance from the production – but she needs something a little more individualised and a lot more in tune than this. Timothy Simpson substituted for an ailing Martin Homrich as Erik. Simpson started rather well, though he was not helped by Prick’s lifeless – which is not the same as slow – tempi. However, in the third act, Simpson began to sound tired, leading to an unfortunate near-collapse at the end of his part. Perhaps it was a matter of nerves. Sofi Lorentzen and Michael Eder made decent jobs of their roles as Daland and Mary, whilst Timothy Oliver was worthy of note as an accurate, attractively-voiced Steersman. The choral singing, as opposed to its movement, was generally of a high standard. Matthias Brauer clearly runs a tight ship in this respect. However, the glowing sound of the orchestra notwithstanding, there was too much that at best qualified as routine in this performance.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

St John Passion - Thomanerchor/Biller, 10 April 2009

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

Sibylla Rubens (soprano)
Matthias Rexroth (counter-tenor)
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor: arias)
Marcus Ullmann (tenor: Evangelist)
Friedemann Röhlig (bass: Christus)
Gotthold Schwarz (bass: arias)

Choir of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Georg Christoph Biller (conductor)

From the outset, it was clear that this would be a far more satisfying performance than that of the St Matthew Passion a week earlier, also in Leipzig. There was an urgency to the great opening chorus, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher,’ with plangent oboes and driving strings preparing the way for choral imploring, but urgency is far more appropriate here than in the parallel number in the St Matthew, and in any case Georg Christoph Biller’s direction lacked Riccardo Chailly’s rigidity. It was also immediately apparent how the acoustic of the Thomaskirche was far more forgiving than the Gewandhaus to what remained in various respects an ‘authentically’ minded performance. Whereas Riccardo Chailly’s elimination of vibrato had merely made the strings, especially the violins, sound thin and ugly, here the same Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, partly as a result of a more flexible approach, was possessed of a considerably greater tonal bloom. When, in ‘Ach, mein Sinn,’ the strings did minimise vibrato, they sounded far less abrasive. However, in ‘Eilt, ihr angefochneten Seelen,’ they provided a consoling warmth that was just the ticket.

Those who claim to be reproducing the realities of Bach’s performances, or even his wishes, would do well to consider the importance of acoustics, quite apart from the matter of a liturgical setting. Wilhelm Furtwängler, excoriated by born again authenticists, was keenly aware of such issues, as well he might have been, given his period at the helm of this very orchestra. In 1929, the year after leaving Leipzig, Furtwängler wrote in his notebook, concerning performance practice (as he would never have called it):

It appears not yet to be clear that the question of whether one should employ sixteen or four first violins, a choir of thirty or three hundred people, is a question of the space in which the performance takes place (the question of whether this be chamber music or no). That the acoustic of the Thomaskirche – as in any church – is different from that of the [Berlin] Philharmonie, and that therefore not only the forces must be different, but also that the dynamics must be handled differently, seems to be unknown. That the church, with its particular acoustic designed much more for linear effects, copes much less well with dynamic variation, and thus with variation within the individual performance, than the concert hall, which exposes the sound with ruthless clarity, seems to be unknown, although it must be known that Bach wrote his Passions, etc., for immediate, practical performance in the Thomaskirche.

The ‘ruthless clarity’ of the Gewandhaus had equally required a softening of sound, which sadly remained absent, and which the church setting provided of its own accord. Then, of course, there was the undeniable special nature of hearing Bach’s passion in the Thomaskirche on Good Friday, not admittedly in the context of a service, but as a concert that proceeded almost as if this were a liturgical performance. The performers were all positioned on the balcony immediately beneath the organ loft, at the back of the church, which also contributed to the ‘non-concert’ impression. And, joy of joys, there was – without the need for any announcement, disregarded or even heeded – no applause at the end. It would have been difficult to think of a more inappropriate response for the faith and dignity expressed in the final chorale.

The setting but also Biller’s direction made for a more natural progression from recitative to aria to chorale, and so forth, thereby granting a readier sense of a coherent whole. Drama was drawn from within rather than imposed from without. I for one wished to continue to ‘turn the pages’ as the story unfolded. Perhaps this is easier to attain in the Johannine Passion setting, with its preponderance of narrative thrust, but even so, it is hardly to be taken for granted.

The role of the Thomanerchor was once again worthy of the highest of praise. Sing Bach’s music almost every week as it might, such immersion does not always translate so readily into committed performance; here it most certainly did. Whether in the chorales or the extraordinary turba choruses, every word and every note sounded as if it were meant. Once again, an inconvenient fact that our ‘authentically’ minded performers choose blithely to disregard is that Bach’s music was unquestionably written for boys’ voices. The principle of jobs for the not so young boys, or rather girls, trumps ‘authenticity’ even on its own terms, a few honourable exceptions notwithstanding. My only care in such matters is how convincing the performance proves to be; this passed with flying colours. The turba choruses were terrifying in their portrayal of the savage mob. Direction was married to contrapuntal clarity to an extent I do not recall having heard previously; this also allowed Bach’s detailed orchestration to shine through. The viciousness of the Jews’ insistence that Pilate write should not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather that Christ had so styled Himself, was chilling indeed. Whilst the chorales were certainly not unshaded, there was none of the fussiness that had so often accompanied Chailly’s approach. When one heard the words, ‘Ich, ich und meine Sünden,’ for instance, the immediacy was palpable; the sins referred to me, not just to some impersonal subject. I had my part to play in Our Lord’s Crucifixion. Likewise, subtle stress could be placed on a particular word, such as ‘Dieb’ (thief) in ‘Christus, der uns selig macht,’ without distortion. That chorale, which opens the second part, set up starkly the overwhelming sense of predestination that so distinguishes this telling of the Passion from that of St Matthew.

Marcus Ullmann was an excellent Evangelist. His delivery was driven by the words but was careful not to disregard musical considerations. Even the occasional weaker passage, such as intonational insecurity on that extraordinary downward chromatic passage upon ‘weinete’ (Peter’s crying), was largely compensated for by dramatic conviction. The onamatopeia of Christ’s scourging was chilling and another, proclamatory register was revealed by the citation of Pilate’s writing of the title on the Cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Friedemann Röhlig was a noble Christus, whom I really could not fault, exhibiting dignified fullness of tone and accuracy of pitch and diction. His fellow bass, Gotthold Schwarz had a considerable amount to do, both in his arias and in his assumption of the role of Pilate. He impressed in his various guises, exhibiting considerable versatility. Having a counter-tenor rather than a contralto – or, for that matter, a boy – lends a somewhat more operatic flavour to proceedings, or so it did here. Matthias Rexroth, bar a single slip, handled his treacherous part with great aplomb. Maximilian Schmitt delivered his tenor part with conviction and feeling. Sibylla Rubens was perhaps a little too light of tone but was at least accurate throughout. And an agreeable surprise was presented by an anonymous member of the choir popping up to sing the Maid’s single line. All of these ‘characters’, whether explicitly designated or no, contributed to the unfolding of the narrative. This was a moving experience indeed.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Barenboim/Quasthoff - Winterreise, 9 April 2009

Philharmonie, Berlin

Schubert – Winterreise, D 911

The last thing I wanted to do was to review the audience for this Liederabend at the Philharmonie. Unfortunately, rather like a meddlesome stage director, it was the audience, or rather a significant section thereof, which dominated much of this performance. I realise that this might seem churlish or worse but know from subsequent conversation with several other members of the audience that their appreciation was as marred as mine by the thoughtless, indeed downright selfish, antics of a philistine minority. The only saving grace was the lack of a mobile telephone contribution; otherwise, almost every other conceivable variety of audience intrusion was present – and unrelievedly. Take the woman seated directly in front of me. (I have a good few ideas concerning where I should like to have had her taken...) Not only did she fidget and cough both during and between every song; during many, she adjusted the fur coat hanging over the balcony, jangled her bracelets, took things out of her handbag and put them back in, and so on and so forth. Try as one might, having such a person near to one makes it well nigh impossible to concentrate, especially when the music is something so intimate as Lieder. My neighbour angrily remonstrated with her at the end of the recital, showing greater courage than I could muster, but of course it was too late by then and she shamelessly shrugged it all off, preferring to continue stroking her fur coat. The coughing between songs from the audience in general was worse, I think, than I have ever heard. Still, however bad this was for the rest of the audience, it must have been worse still for the performers. Thomas Quasthoff was so annoyed and unsettled that he broke off after the seventh song, Auf dem Flusse, to request that people refrain from coughing at the end of every song. His plea was made, notably, in English, which gives a clue to the possible root cause: an influx of foreign guests able to pay the increased prices for the Holy Week Festtage, guests who were more interested in being seen than in listening. There was a slight reduction at the end of the following song but thereafter we reverted to normal practice. That Quasthoff’s announcement reflected a difficulty in his ability to concentrate and not just annoyance is attested to by the fact that, in Wasserflut, he had confusedly substituted the final stanza for the second. Even before that, he, Daniel Barenboim, and the rest of us had had to endure applause at the end of the first and fourth (!) songs, the latter halted by a furious gesture from the singer.

I regret, then, that any remarks concerning the performance must remain sketchy and provisional. It was impossible to garner much sense of the work as a whole, given the indignities it and the performers suffered. Barenboim often, though by no means always, sounded somewhat restrained, unleashing something like the full tone of the piano comparatively rarely, for instance in Der stürmische Morgen. Was the musicians’ palpable anger here not entirely unrelated to the antics in the hall? Elsewhere, Barenboim’s reading was one of great textural clarity, sometimes putting me in mind of Bach or old-school Chopin, in its voice-leading. And Schubert, after all, stands somewhere between the two. One could hear the tears in Gefrorne Tränen, to chilling effect. I almost jumped out of my skin as the cold wind of Der Lindenbaum hit my face. The pianist’s pearly-toned introduction to Frühlingstraum was only semi-audible, owing to a bronchial barrage, and I could give a host of similar examples. But Barenboim remained attentive to his musical partner, beautifully echoing in inversion Quasthoff’s line ‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen,’ in Der Wegweiser. Moreover, the grandeur of the introduction to Das Wirtshaus truly registered, rendering the deathly, all-pervading stillness that followed all the more terrifying.

Quasthoff likewise offered an almost unbelievably subtle performance, given the trying circumstances. An attentive listener – I think there were a few... – could have written a small essay devoted to the differences between his rendition of the final stanza of Gefrorne Tränen first time around and his ‘repetition’, which was anything but. Bitterness was all the more poignant for its lack of exaggeration, upon the word ‘küssen’ in Erstarrung. Judiciously applied vibrato upon the word ‘glühten’ in Rückblick truly made those two maiden eyes glow. And the darkness of tone in Die Krähe, set against Barenboim’s quietly insistent piano part, was chilling indeed. I liked the way in which, in Im Dorfe, the madness of the deserted village at that eeriest time of night was conveyed by both musicians: no melodrama, but a subtle sense of uncertainty, instability. The controlled delirium of Mut! was similar, only different. Likewise the final desolation of Der Leiermann, at which one would have felt numb, had not applause immediately intruded.

What we needed was a second performance, after a short break, in which we could all have cooled down. Ideally, it would have taken place in the more intimate setting of the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal – the main hall, though acoustically wonderful, is really too large – and with an audience shorn of the miscreants.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Lohengrin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 8 April 2009

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

King Henry the Fowler – Kwangchul Youn
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa von Brabant – Dorothea Röschmann
Friedrich von Telramund – Gerd Grochowski
Ortrud – Michaela Schuster
The King’s Herald – Arttu Kataja

Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (designs)
Gesine Völlm (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
fettFilm (video)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Stefan Herheim has triumphed again in Wagner, this production of Lohengrin proving a worthy successor to his Bayreuth Parsifal. Like the Parsifal, this is a multi-layered production, which would doubtless reveal further secrets upon further acquaintance. However, even upon a first viewing, an array of intricately interconnected ideas revealed themselves, whilst still – and this is perhaps the greater achievement – providing theatrical excitement, coherence, and engagement with the work, not least in its musical form. Unlike many of his directorial colleagues, Herheim is a musician – and it shows.

The Prelude to Act One, performed with magnificent luminosity by the Staatskapelle Berlin, depicts Richard Wagner both as puppet and puppeteer, an ambiguity to be revisited upon many of the characters. Apparently assumed into heaven, a similar fate – albeit with an all-important distinction – will be visited upon Lohengrin at the work’s conclusion. Wagner’s presence is seen on stage throughout the work, sometimes in multiple guises, whether as puppets or as chorus members – frockcoat, altdeutsch cap and all – and sometimes melding with other members of the depicted Volk, both changing them and being changed by them. Herheim’s treatment of the chorus is thought-provoking throughout, taking advantage of what can in lesser hands seem like rather stock responses to present a Volk dangerously swayed by the ministrations of a charismatic leader and dangerous through its responses thereto. Losing their individuality, as illustrated by their loss of individual modern dress, and subsumed into a bland yet fearsome force of social repression, rejoicing in an impossible, Magritte-styled Eden, followed by a make-believe world of horned helmets and other neo-mediævalisms. The German catastrophe is unmistakeably present. Heike Scheele’s Brabantian sets and Gesine Völlm’s costumes are here a splendid riposte to those who actually claim to wish to see the vacuously ‘traditional’, which is of course nothing of the sort. For Lohengrin, when he arrives, apparently straight from Neuschwanstein, is the menacingly kitsch instrument of transformation from an opera house in modern Berlin to a world of fantasy. Gleichschaltung is the name of the game, as it was once before under a seductive leader with nothing but emptiness for a core. We can read what we want into him and that is part of the problem. Like his creator, he will be assumed upwards but then, to seal the tragedy, will come crashing back down to earth.

Throughout, the exterior manifestations of theatrical craft remind us of the instrumentalisation at work. And at the end, we see Wagner’s own words, always disregarded by his would-be protectors – remember, Protector is also the title awarded by the king to Lohengrin in Brabant – ‘Kinder, macht neues!’ After the first production of the Ring, the composer urges his followers to do it quite differently the next time. But then, what did he know? He is used and abused at least as much by the community here as the other way round. Is it the visible theatrical apparatus that lets the hero and us down, or is it letting us in on a secret? There are no easy answers, which is just as it should be.

At the heart, yet curiously and rightly decentred, was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin. This was a straightforwardly outstanding performance, following in the footsteps – at least in my listening experience – of his Erik and his Walther. Strength and beauty of tone are brought together in a marriage of heroic and lyric tenor. Has Vogt made a pact with the Devil? Might we at last have found a Siegfried? Moreover, there was something quite terrifying about the emptiness of his stage delivery, which, when married to such seductive means, brought us closer than many would doubtless have liked, to a profoundly serious confrontation both with ourselves and with our historical demons. Elsa was powerfully portrayed by Dorothea Röschmann, occasionally a little strained, but more usually with a tender, word-attentive lyricism. Her nobility was all the more moving – and credible – for being tarnished by her brush with charismatic power. Telramund and Ortrud, whilst far from being vindicated, are transformed by the production into rather more complex figures than often they will appear. In terms of performance, Gerd Grochowski was a Gunther-like figure, believable in his weakness but perhaps a little lacking in strength as a real alternative to Lohengrin. Michaela Schuster, on the other hand, was superb as an Ortrud driven mad or madder by the unfolding events, events which chillingly excluded her as an outsider. Her unhinged malevolence made no excuses but, as she spat her contempt, we at least began to question why. As a force of ‘traditional’ normality, Kwangchoul Youn provided a firm, noble foundation as King Henry, though we all know how swiftly charisma can sweep away traditional legitimacy; the uncertainty of his rule of law was terrifyingly apparent. And the Herald’s transformation from Berlin bear – the city’s symbol – to camp exhibitionist, tomorrow belonging to him, was perfectly captured by Arttu Kataja.

I mentioned Herheim’s virtuoso direction of the Volk-chorus. This would have amounted to little, had it not been for a superb performance from its members, very much back on form, as they had been in the previous night’s Ein deutsches Requiem. The Staatskapelle Berlin was on equally excellent form, this music playing to its ‘old German’ strengths, although Herheim’s production of course rightly problematises the very concept and reminds us of the orchestra’s modernity, including its fine record under Daniel Barenboim and others in contemporary music. Barenboim was perhaps not on quite the form to which Wagner can often bring him. There were a few shortcomings to his conducting, for instance, a conclusion to the first act in which he ran away with the orchestra, apparently leaving the chorus to fend for itself. But on the whole, the score was in sure hands, with a conductor who brought out not only the golden (Lohengrin-like?) string tone but equally a frightening vision of madness in the brass fanfares of the third act, in which orchestra, conductor, and director worked together to convey the terrors of totalitarian militarism, especially that with a benign face. Such is a powerful, if all too rare, example of how musical drama can and should work.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, 7 April 2009

Philharmonie, Berlin

Chen Reiss (soprano)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This was an excellent performance and not merely a ‘performance’, for it partook in the backward- and forward-looking spirit of Brahms’s work. There are few if any conductors alive so steeped in German tradition – again in both a backward- and forward-looking way – as Daniel Barenboim; likewise for the Staatskapelle Berlin when it comes to orchestras. Equally important was the outstanding contribution of the chorus, superbly trained by Eberhard Friedrich; even if I wished to do so, I could not find a single fault with its performance.

The opening of the first chorus was wonderfully slow, instantly banishing memories of a precipitate opening from Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia last summer. A slow tempo is worse than useless if the musical line cannot be maintained but there was no question of that here, Barenboim evoking his hero Furtwängler both in that respect and in his flexibility. For this was to be a more Romantic vision than that of the awe-inspiring objectivity of a Klemperer. Rich, variegated lower strings prepared the way for an impeccably honed choral response, equally clear in words and line. The consolation of flute and oboe was heard for the first time, but far from the last, leading to a magnificent swell in the choral sound. After the unforgettable words from the Beatitudes (‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, den sie sollen getröstet werden’ – ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted’) the tears from the psalmist, here depicted on the harp with a pictorialism unusual for Brahms, were promised a joyful reaping, Barenboim employing acutely judged accelerando and crescendo to underline that joy on the word ‘Freuden’.

An important relationship between consolation and joy had therefore been set up, but it required the following movement to remind us of the third point in the theological triangle: death. A soft-grained orchestral introduction proved both dark and transparent, just as Brahms’s orchestral writing should sound, though less often does. The solemn onward tread was underpinned by implacable kettledrums. Barenboim took great care – as one could both see and hear – to bring out the ominous yet Romantically beautiful call of the horns, prior to the fearsome reprise of the material reminding us that all flesh is as grass. When consolation followed, the harps were once again unusually and fruitfully – ‘auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde’ – prominent. The return to the opening material proved terrifying in its cumulative power but death, even here, was not to triumph. For ‘The ransomed of the Lord shall return,’ and it came to pass, a triumph that grew very much out of the preceding material, with a well-nigh Beethovenian understanding of joy (the ‘Freude’ underlined on both occasions by a well-judged ritardando). This, one might say, was an agnostic’s ode to joy, ending in warm serenity.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann made his first appearance in the third movement, ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’. As attentive to the words as to the musical line, he proved an ideal soloist, imparting real meance to the words ‘sie sammeln und wissen nicht, wer es kriegen wird’ (‘he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them’). A rare blemish occurred with a moment of orchestral unsteadiness immediately following but the hope of the psalmist (‘Ich hoffe auf Dich’) swiftly won out. The ensuing victory was appropriately hard won, almost a kind of musical purgatory, though Brahms would doubtless have recoiled from such an idea. And so, the way was prepared for the celebrated consolation of ‘Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen’. This was lovely (lieblich) indeed, especially in the sweetness of the violins and the choral singing, though Barenboim wisely withstood any temptation to wallow. Chen Reiss did not seem to me as strong a soloist as Müller-Brachmann. Placed behind but above the orchestra, at the front of the chorus, she exhibited a silvery, often touching tone, but the quality of her diction paled beside his. The orchestral solos – flute, violin, and ‘’cello – exhibited rather more consoling warmth, although perhaps that was the point, if she were an angelic intermediary. Except, in Brahms’s humanistic universe, with whom could she mediate? At any rate, she was impressive in making her voice carry above orchestra and chorus, even when singing piano.

It is in the penultimate movement that all the conflicts are resolved. Müller-Brachmann once again showed himself an exemplary soloist, akin to a baritonal Bachian Evangelist. ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery,’ and he truly did. The moment of ‘change’, that twinkling of an eye, was truly felt as he sang the word ‘verwandelt’. All hell – or heaven? – broke loose from the chorus and orchestra as the trumpet was sounded (here, of course, on account of Luther’s translation, on trombone). Choral accusations against death and the grace were furiously hurled prior to the sounding of an extremely hard-won victory. Once again, this was all the more powerful for growing out of what had come before, cumulative power in tandem with contrapuntal clarity, each choral entry clearly marked. Beethovenian struggle was fused with Handelian grandeur and an apotheosis of Schützian trombones. Thereafter, it was left to Brahms once again to console, in the final movement. The presence of sweet violins and a fuller choral sound reminded us that his design is not quite cyclical; we stand a little further on than we did before. Those trombones intoned something as if from another world: ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ (‘Yea, saith the Spirit’), followed by ineffably beautiful Benedictus-like contributions from oboe and flute. A final, magical orchestral wash of sound prepared us for the final ‘selig’ (‘blessed’). The nature of our consolation may be profoundly uncertain here but it is no less real for that.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Armide, Komische Oper Berlin, 5 April 2009

(sung in German, as Armida)

Komische Oper, Berlin

Armide – Maria Bengtsson
Hidraot – Peteris Eglitis
Renaud – Peter Lodahl
Artémidore – Christoph Schröter
Ubaldo – Günter Papendell
Danish Knight – Thomas Ebenstein
Phénice – Olivia Vermeulen
Sidonie – Karolina Andersson
Aronte – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Hatred – Maria Gortsevskaya
A Naiad – Karolina Andersson
First Genius – Anna Borchers
Second Genius – Nicola Proksch
A Demon in the form of Mélisse – Anna Borchers
A Pleasure – Olivia Vermeulen

Calixto Bieito (director)
Rebecca Ringst (designs)
Ingo Krügler (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Bettina Auer (dramaturge)

Members of the Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Robert Heimann)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Konrad Junghänel (conductor)

Gluck regarded Armide as ‘perhaps the best of my works’. Posterity seems less to have disagreed than disregarded, for revivals have been sporadic at best. For some reason, or perhaps none, the mid-1840s might have been its most favoured era. Meyerbeer conducted the work in Berlin (at the Staatsoper) in 1843, the same year that Wagner conducted it in Dresden, with Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in the title role. Berlioz would conduct the third act the following year, in a typically extravagant performance involving nine hundred performers. (Whatever must that have sounded like?!) Toscanini clearly believed in Armide too, leading performances in Milan and New York. Riccardo Muti, often – rather misleadingly in my view – seen as Toscanini’s heir, included the work in his Gluck cycle at La Scala. I am not sure that Covent Garden, which has rarely if ever expressed much enthusiasm for the great operatic reformer, has staged Armide since 1928, when Frida Leider sang the title role, although there was a production, directed – ‘controversially’ according to the New Grove dictionary – by Wolf-Siegfried Wagner (son of Wieland), at Spitalfields in 1983. Suffice it to say that the Komische Oper’s enterprise and advocacy are much to be applauded in mounting Armide. Anticipation was further heightened by the example of last year’s triumphant Iphigénie en Tauride and by the choice of Calixto Bieito as director.

However, I should probably have known better. Whilst I admired Bieito’s Don Giovanni for the English National Opera, he really does seem to have become a one-trick pony. In a conversation amongst members of the production team reported in the programme, Bieito said that Armide appealed to him ‘because it is a piece about love. And above all a piece about a woman.’ The only possible response, given what we saw on stage, would be: ‘you could have fooled me’. Everything seems to be about sex, or perhaps there is nothing in the world other than sex. Sometimes, looking at our world, one might think that Bieito has a point. But it seems that, in order to make it, he simply has to become more and more sensationalist. I do not think that I could do more than begin to list the various forms and combinations of what was depicted on stage; nor can I summon up any inclination. It is not prudishness but simply weariness that prevents me. Should gerontophiliac sado-masochism be your thing, you will find it here. Ditto asphyxiation by telephone cord. Straight, gay, transvestite, solitary, couples, groups, master-slave dog relationships, even fun with a snake: roll up, roll up. Poor Renaud’s mild leather fetish seems to render him so very conventional. Perhaps that is the point; if so, it would not have been difficult to come up with a clearer way to make it. The production is blessed with a ready and willing band of nude actors – ‘Die Nackten’ – to carry out whatever the director required of them. And they certainly do, most impressively. Apparently this is all Armide’s fantasy. Or perhaps it is really someone else’s. In any case, it so dominates everything else that it is often difficult to listen to the music, let alone to discern a plot. A great deal of unmusical stage noise shows equally scant regard for Gluck’s score.

What a pity this was, for the musical performance was a fine one. Performance in German rather than the original French changes the nature of what one hears, of course, but this did not trouble me unduly. The orchestra was on excellent form, directed with verve – and only the occasional irritating ‘authenticism’ – by Konrad Junghänel. The ballet music fairly danced – unlike the stage business – whilst the harmonic direction and the myriad of Gluck’s post-Rameau or pre-Berlioz orchestral colours registered with great dramatic force. None of the singers was weak and many were very good indeed. Thomas Ebenstein sang the apparently minor role of the Danish Knight with a noble sureness of purpose that belied anything he was called on to do by his director. Maria Gortsevskaya personified Hatred, as she must, without the slightest hint of vocal grotesquerie. Peter Lodahl presented an impressively subtle Renaud, insofar as he was permitted, reminding me of his fine performance in Iphigénie last season. Had he not been more or less submerged in the ongoing ‘activities’, I suspect that his winning stage presence would have registered more strongly.

And when she was allowed to take centre stage, Maria Bengtsson truly shone as Gluck’s almost psychodramatic heroine. This is her story, even if it is not her fantasy. For when the madness finally subsided at the very end, one could more or less concentrate upon Gluck’s astonishing music. Bengtsson and Junghänel almost made one think of an eighteenth-century Erwartung. If only we had been able to do so earlier on. This ending recognised Armide, if only by default, as perhaps Gluck’s truest tragedy, the work having no deus ex machina as resolution. However, Armide also looks back perhaps more than any of his later works to the tragédies lyriques of Rameau and even Lully, written as it is in five acts, with an intended – loaded word, I know – cornucopia of effects and divertissements, reflecting the provenance of the libretto (seventeenth-century, Philippe Quinault, as set by Lully ninety years previously) rather than of any conscious reversion on the composer’s part. Now there are effects and then there are effects. I have never entertained any great desire to witness exhumation of eighteenth-century stagecraft; yet, my resistance relentlessly ground down by Bieito’s adolescent ‘provocations’, rarely have I come so close. If, however, this production, with its excellent musical performances, brings to greater attention a work that still languishes almost unknown, a greater benefit will nevertheless have been accrued.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Parsifal, Oper Leipzig, 4 April 2009

Images copyright Andreas Birkigt (N.B. there were no images available for the current cast, so Petra Lang will be seen in place of Susan Maclean as Kundry)

Leipzig Opera House

Parsifal – Stefan Vinke
Gurnemanz – James Moellenhoff
Klingsor – Jürgen Kurth
Kundry – Susan Maclean
Amfortas – Tuomas Pursio
Titurel – Roman Astakhov
First Knight of the Grail – Tommasso Randazzo
Second Knight of the Grial – Roman Astakhov
Esquires – Viktorija Kaminskaite, Jean Broekhuizen, Timothy Fallon, and Tiberius Simu
Alto solo – Geneviève King
Flowermaidens – Ainhoa Garmendia, Jennifer Porto, Kathrin Göring, Viktorija Kaminskaite, Ines Reintzsch and Geneviève King

Roland Aeschlimann (director, designs)
Susanne Raschig (costumes)
Lucinda Childs (movement)
Ilka Weiss (assistance with designs and movement)
Lukas Kaltenbäck (lighting)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Leipzig Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Children’s Choir of the Leipzig Opera (chorus mistress: Sophie Bauer)
Ladies of the Leipzig Opera Youth Choir
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

All told, this was an impressive Parsifal, a revival of Roland Aeschlimann’s 2006 production for Leipzig, shared with Geneva and Nice. Aeschlimann’s designs tread a careful and often revealing line between abstraction and representation. Colour plays an important role, both in demarcating locations – perhaps not in themselves always of the greatest importance, though distinction between them is – and in the dramatic transformations that occur within particular scenes. Gurnemanz’s forest is evoked without being fetishised; after the risible telegraph pole approach of Klaus Michael Grüber’s lamentable production for Covent Garden, one has to be grateful for the smallest of mercies. Thankfully, this production’s virtues extend beyond that.

I was initially a little nonplussed by what seemed to be the Grail. Amfortas uncovers whatever it is, to hold up a sheet which, by a trick of lighting – and ‘trick’ seems to be the operative word – presents a Turin Shroud-like vision of Christ. So far, so Feuerbachian, I thought, but do we not need something a little more substantial – in more than one sense – to explain the sustenance afforded to Monsalvat’s community, in decline but not yet dead? However, as the Eucharistic – if that is what it be – mystery progresses, something else is revealed, to which all turn and which clearly replenishes the community, though the precise or even imprecise nature of this far-away object, which we spy through what appears to be a tunnel to another dimension, remains unclear. What is very clear, however, is that it too is revivified by the workings of grace via Parsifal, gaining lustre and perhaps confidence, certainly becoming – visually – more multi-faceted. Aeschlimann may or may not subscribe to the Christian terms in which Wagner couches his drama but that does not appear to matter. This is a far more fruitful, open-ended approach than many, which fits moreover both with Wagner’s own intellectual approach and with the mysterious, oracle-like nature of his musical drama. For it was clear from listening and watching that Aeschlimann knows the score and not just the words; events on stage coincided with musical events. This ought to be a matter of course, yet so often is anything but.

There is also a highly visible spear on stage throughout the second act, reminding us of what is at stake, as if we could have forgotten the highly visible – and highly disturbing – wound of Amfortas and the scar of Klingsor’s hideous self-mutilation, both born of impure lust, sexual and power-related, if the two can indeed be separated. Moreover, the characters actually appear to be directed, another of those things which ought to go without saying yet is a rarer occurrence upon the contemporary opera stage than one might even reasonably hope. I liked Kundry’s uncovering of the snow to reveal the moribund community as Good Friday worked its spell – perhaps a homage to Ruth Berghaus’s celebrated Frankfurt production, in which Parsifal and Kundry rolled back grey canvases to reveal green meadows, yet more ambiguous, less strident in its desacralisation. It was far from clear that this was really an act without grace; it might well just have been a symbolisation of something far more mysterious. It is not always necessary to spell everything out.

There is no dove at the conclusion, which is no great loss for all but the most Old Bayreuthian of Parsifalians, although Stefan Herheim in his magnificent, all-encompassing 2008 production for Bayreuth managed to include it without bathos – or rather with a non-mocking mediated irony. More worrying for me was the absence of the sign of the Cross at the end of the second act. It is not that I think this must take place. However, if it does not, then it seems to me that there ought to be something, even if a polemical absence, in its stead. Otherwise, as here, Parsifal sings of something that simply is not there and it all just seems a little embarrassing – and meaningless. Such insensitivity to the text is the order of the day for many productions but is a rare exception in this production.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was on excellent form, save for a few too many fluffs from the horns. It was not a virtuoso performance, such as we might hear from the Berlin Philharmonic in this repertoire. Rather, it illuminated the score from within, with evocative woodwind, baleful liturgical brass, and marvellously yet understatedly rich in string tone. (If only one could have said the same about the preceding night’s St Matthew Passion.) Ulf Schirmer impressed as conductor. Again, his was not a reading that drew attention to itself, yet line was maintained throughout. If without quite the staggering inevitability of Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden, Schirmer did not compare unfavourably with Daniel Barenboim last month in Berlin. There was a highly dramatic conclusion to the second act, contrasting strongly and appositely with the ‘liturgical’ first and third acts, not that the distinction was – or should be – absolute. Moreover, he subtly drew attention to the links – whether outright quotation or something more allusive – with Wagner’s preceding dramas. Anyone can hear the Lohengrin quotation upon Parsifal’s shooting of the swan – and, one would hope, the Nietzschean ‘voluptuousness of Hell’ evoked by use of the Tristan-chord. Yet connections with the Ring-dramas, Die Meistersinger, and earlier works too are there to be made – and they were.

In this, Schirmer appeared to be in accord with his director and with his Parsifal. This was the first time I had heard Stefan Vinke, but I hope that it will not be the last. His is a true Heldentenor. We all have our favourite voices from the past and it can be unduly tempting to dwell upon them; but Vinke put me in mind of Jess Thomas. Thomas was perhaps no one’s favourite Siegfried or Parsifal, yet when one thinks of what we have heard since, he has evidently been underrated. Certainly one could hear Siegfried in Vinke’s voice and, moreover, one could understand through his interpretation how much of Wagner’s previous hero remained in the first act of Parsifal. The dramatic point is that Wagner’s erstwhile rebel without a consciousness has failed and therefore the problems he has raised must be revisited; something else must be attempted. For the relative obnoxiousness of Vinke’s Parsifal – and one assumes Aeschlimann’s too – would be transformed by the workings of grace into something quite different. Not that the journey was easy: I liked his near-succumbing to Kundry’s temptations for a second time.

Susan Maclean seemed to grow into her role as the temptress. Succeeding Petra Lang cannot have been easy but, as time went on, Maclean, throughout a fine actress, also became increasingly impressive vocally. The successful contrast between her character(s) in the outer acts and the second act showed that ideas, occasionally adopted, of having two singers as Kundry should probably remain filed under the heading ‘interesting’. Tuomas Pursio was an outstanding Amfortas, my still-fresh memories of Hanno Müller-Brachmann last month notwithstanding. Not only was every word of the text clearly audible; not only was every note rendered meaningful; one could readily sense the charisma of this flawed leader, who too often can seem a merely Nietzschean sick-bed caricature of décadence. Charisma and intelligence of response also represented the twin hallmarks of James Moellenhoff’s Gurnemanz. Gurnemanz should never seem like an old bore – and never does in a decent performance. Here, however, we sensed a charismatic leadership quality that helps explain why so many, whether squires or Kundry, will heed him. Jürgen Kurth was a less impressive Klingsor, seeming somewhat underpowered by contrast.

This production was not perfect; surely none has ever been. Yet it accomplished the most important thing any performance could, namely to fill me once again with wonder at the towering greatness of Wagner’s miraculous work. I did not necessarily feel that any of its difficulties had been resolved, but I felt challenged by their being posed anew.