Saturday, 30 April 2011

Fantasy Opera: time to cast your vote...

This double 'Bank Holiday Weekend', with apologies to non-British readers whom it does not affect, has brought little musical cheer. The musical choices for yesterday's Royal Wedding ranged from Last Night of the Proms-style Walton and Elgar to the truly execrable, Westminster Abbey's gift to the happy couple being an anthem by John Rutter. (Whatever would the Royal Peculiar inflict upon those it dis-liked?!) Sadly, the hope that had promised to sustain some of us through a day of fatuous 'commentary' - 'We can exclusively reveal that so-and-so is a relatively approachable person and sometimes remembers servants' birthdays', etc. - had already been denied, influenza having caused Maurizio Pollini to postpone his evening recital at the Royal Festival Hall. No Boulez second piano sonata, then, until June...
To lift the Boulezian spirits, then, however vain the hopes, another coda to the Fantasy Opera season (which opened here): a non-partisan, first-past-the-post readers' poll. The following twenty operas present but a meagre selection, of course, and the choice is shamelessly a reflection of a few works that would interest me, but there is only one work per composer and I hope that there will be something for everyone. For what it is worth, I should be very happy with any of them. So far as I am aware, the Royal Opera has never staged any of these works. And if it has, so be it: our fantasy house can do so again. Which would you select to feature next season? (And feel free to substitute your own house, real or imaginary, for Covent Garden, should that make more sense.) Readers are kindly invited to cast their votes; otherwise my musical misery will only continue...

(P.S. Apologies for the misspelled 'Sonntag' on the results display; I cannot work out how that happened, since it reads correctly on the present page. At any rate, I have no idea how to alter it. Sirius may or may not prove forgiving...)

Which opera would you choose to stage?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Konstantin Lifschitz - Bach, Art of Fugue, 28 April 2011

Wigmore Hall

The only other time I can recall that I have heard the complete Art of Fugue in concert was also at the Wigmore Hall, in a performance given a little over two years ago by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (click here). Aimard’s performance had its strengths, but also had its weaknesses, not least that it sometimes seemed more of a lecture than a performance. At the time I mused, as a consequence of a curiously unsatisfying experience: ‘One might claim that any performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue is bound to fall short, especially given the uncertainties attendant to all issues regarding performance (even, for a few, its desirability). Yet one could with more or less equal justice claim the opposite, namely that Bach’s contrapuntal compendium should be able to satisfy like almost nothing else, at least if one leaves aside its lack of completion.’ If Aimard led me to lean towards the former option, Konstantin Lifschitz left me with no doubt whatsoever that Bach’s summa might satisfy like nothing else; his was a truly outstanding performance, with which I could find nothing whatsoever to quibble, an extraordinary outcome given the number of plausible, let alone possible, options for performance.

The only feeling that might have approximated to doubt arose with Lifschitz’s una corda rendition of Contrapunctus I. Yet use of the soft pedal, which might often have seemed mannered, soon came to seem beside the point in a performance that somehow sounded, and not only because Lifschitz began before the opening applause had subsided, as though it began in medias res. It was as if what was going on had always been going on, prompting – as the performance did throughout – philosophical speculation. Is this the pre-Socratic, monistic thought of Parmenides that what has always been must continue to be, and that change is therefore impossible? Not at all, once one thinks, or listens; rather it is the Christian: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.’

Contrapunctus II came as a surprising contrast, opening in almost unrelenting fortissimo, redolent if abstracted from the particular performance, of Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. But the point is that, abstract as the music may be, it is not abstracted. Everything had its place under Lifschitz’s hands, so much that I began to think about Bach as a musical equivalent to great scholastic schemes such as that of St Thomas Aquinas – only surpassing them in every respect. Not for nothing did Lifschitz’s rhythmic surety point towards the late Beethoven of the op.111 sonata and the Diabelli Variations, whilst remaining faithful to Bachian musical science ( the German Wissenschaft so much more broadly construed than modern English ‘science’). Everything was to be heard in what followed, or so it seemed. Extraordinary pianistic delicacy and fugues seemingly led by ‘modern’ harmonic concerns mixed shoulders with, or rather interacted with, stile antico deliberation that yet revealed the music’s inner workings upon the outside, not unlike the Centre Pompidou, home of IRCAM. (It is no coincidence that Boulez conducted this very work during his Domaine musical years, nor that a modernist pianist such as Aimard has shown himself so attracted to it.) In Contrapunctus V, one could hear Byrd and Chopin – yet at the same time only Bach. The stile francese of Contrapunctus VI immediately brought to mind yet immediately surpassed Couperin, whilst its pianistic conclusion summoned the ghost – or should that be a premonition – of Busoni, who needless to say, reappeared in the supreme consolation of the closing chorale, ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit!’

In between, however, there was much more to hear, as thoughts began to wander from Aquinas to the more dynamic form of Aristotelian ontology, relieved of scholastic encrustation, offered by Hegel – not that ideas of Platonic forms deserted one either. Augmentation and diminution were not only observed but fully experienced, not merely displayed but heard to be absolutely necessary, in a dialectic between freedom and organisation that pointed to and yet beyond Kant. Bergian chromaticism, even Birtwistle’s labyrinth, could be discerned, without the slightest doubt that Bach remained himself throughout. Lifschitz’s magnificent, unforced command of cumulative power, both within fugues and throughout the ‘work’ as a whole, was crucial to this and to much else. Fury could be expressed, but never inappropriately, and never at the cost – so readily paid by many – of sounding hard-driven. Likewise limpidity moved one beyond tears, without the slightest hint of sentimentality. This was music both for and beyond the piano, shimmering Romanticism and old-fashioned organ-reed registration dissolving or sublating themselves seamlessly into abstraction that yet reached beyond abstraction. No sooner had one heard elements of a gigue-like dance then one knew that this was no mere dance: modern ‘authenticist’ reductionism completely misses the point here, as in so much else. But such thoughts concerning other schools of performance only occurred later: at the time, one heard Bach, and only Bach, and believed that there could be nothing else.

I shall be astonished if this does not prove to be one of my performances of the year. Bach remains the Alpha and the Omega of music; a performance that proves worthy of him is distinguished indeed.

Berlin Staatsoper season, 2011-12

Just in: a press release, reproduced below, introducing the next season from Daniel Barenboim and Jürgen Flimm. The Chéreau/Rattle From the House of the Dead is an obvious attraction for those, like myself, yet to see the production, the one preserved on an Aix DVD, conducted by Boulez. So is the Breth/Barenboim Lulu, to which I referred in my earlier Wozzeck review. Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore looks as though it will be the excellent Salzburg production (reviewed here). Achim Freyer will doubtless bring his inimitable - at least I hope so - one-clown-size-fits-all approach to Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo. The visiting Scala Don Giovanni looks very attractive; when I heard Barenboim conduct the short-lived Peter Mussbach production (click here), it was far and away the best live account of the score I had experienced, and still is. Cage fans and doubtless even interested sceptics - I probably fall into the latter camp - will be intrigued by the promised Cage cycle. The list of solo performers looks mouth-watering too, from Pollini to Mutter.


Berlin, 28 April 2011

Jürgen Flimm and Daniel Barenboim present the Staatsoper programme for the second season at the Schiller Theater. This week artistic director Jürgen Flimm and general music director Daniel Barenboim presented the programme for the 2011/2012 season, the Staatsoper’s second at the Schiller Theater.

The 2011/2012 season will feature eight opera premieres on the main stage, as well as six additional premieres on the Werkstatt studio stage. Furthermore there will be one guest production, two operatic concerts, 19 operas from the repertoire, over 80 concerts, the annual FESTTAGE series at Easter, the second year of the INFEKTION! festival of contemporary music theater, one premiere and four repertoire productions by the Staatsballett Berlin, a continuation of the Schlaflos in Charlottenburg series in the foyer as well as numerous projects by the Junge Staatsoper. The Staatsoper’s programme comprises a total of 370 events.

The season will open on 3 October 2011 with Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Simon Rattle as conductor. Following her Wozzeck production in 2011, Andrea Breth will direct Alban Berg´s Lulu for the 2012 FESTTAGE, once again with Daniel Barenboim conducting. Further premieres will be The Bartered Bride by Bedřich Smetana (Karl-Heinz Steffens / Balász Kovalik), Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach in a new production by Christoph Israel and Thomas Pigor (text) (Christoph Israel / Philipp Stölzl), Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno by Georg Friedrich Händel (Marc Minkowski / Jürgen Flimm), Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri (René Jacobs / Achim Freyer) and Dionysos by Wolfgang Rihm (Ingo Metzmacher / Pierre Audi). With the premiere of Luigi Nono’s Al gran sole carico d´amore (Ingo Metzmacher / Katie Mitchell), the Staatsoper will open a new venue, namely the “Kraftwerk Mitte”, a former power station. A guest production of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano will see Daniel Barenboim conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni – with Anna Netrebko and Christopher Maltman. In addition two operas in concert form will be presented: Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun with Vesselina Kasarova and Pavol Breslik, and Bellini’s Norma with Edita Gruberova, Sonia Ganassi and Johan Botha.

Additional outstanding guest artists in the Staatsoper’s coming season at the Schiller Theater include Plácido Domingo, Rolando Villazón, Mojca Erdmann, Waltraud Meier, Anja Harteros, Erwin Schrott, Giuseppe Filianoti, Deborah Polaski, Michael Volle, Magdalena Kožená, Georg Nigl, Kristine Opolais and Pavel Černoch.

Daniel Barenboim will conduct the Staatskapelle in four concert programmes as well as the traditional New Year’s concert, two charity events for the reconstruction of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, a gala concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Jewish MuseumBerlin, and three symphony concerts with both the Staatskapelle and the Filarmonica dellaScala as part of the FESTTAGE 2012. The concert soloists include Anna Netrebko, Elīna Garanča, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alisa Weilerstein, Jonas Kaufmann, Maurizio Pollini and Radu Lupu. The Barenboim Cycle will offer collaborations with Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann and Thomas Quasthoff. A song recital by René Pape with Daniel Barenboim as accompanying pianist is a set part of the 2012 FESTTAGE. The Staatsoper will also present a six-part piano cycle featuring Daniel Barenboim, the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang as well as András Schiff and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Two conductors who recently debuted with the Staatskapelle, Pietari Inkinen and Andris Nelsons, will return. Kirill Petrenko, another new-generation conductor, will lead the orchestra as a guest for the first time. Principal guest conductor Michael Gielen will conduct a symphony concert. Three song recitals with Anna Prohaska, Bejun Mehta and Ian Bostridge, in addition to a Baroque concert under the direction of Marc Minkowski, will further enrich the programme at the Schiller Theater. The chamber music series, successfully launched last season at the Rotes Rathaus (Berlin City Hall) and the Bode Museum, will be continued. The Werkstatt studio stage at the Schiller Theater, whose first season last year was enthusiastically received as a venue for innovative musical theater in Berlin, will present a John Cage cycle entitled Die Musik ist los – 100 Jahre Cage as part of the INFEKTION! festival, in addition to five premieres and one revival: Lucia Ronchetti’s Last Desire based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Manfred Stahnke’s Wahnsinn, das ist die Seele der Handlung based on texts by Edgar Allan Poe, Lehrstück by Paul Hindemith and Bertolt Brecht, and the Junge Staatsoper’s productions of Aschenputtel (Cinderella) by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Moskau Tscherjomuschki, a musical comedy by Dmitri Shostakovich. Following more than 40 soldout performances, the opera Der gestiefelte Kater by César Cui is once again on the programme. The highly successful “Satie” evening Wissen Sie, wie man Töne reinigt? Satiesfactionen – with actors Jan Josef Liefers, Stefan Kurt and Klaus Schreiber – will also be revived.

And finally, the Staatsoper will return both this year and next year to the Bebelplatz. Against the backdrop of the opera building Unter den Linden, as impressive as ever despite reconstruction work, we are looking forward to celebrating STAATSOPER FÜR ALLE with many thousands of visitors - made possible by our partner BMW Berlin. On Sunday 26 June 2011 at 1:00 pm, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will perform an open-air concert. On 30 June 2012 the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Anna Netrebko at the Schiller Theater will be shown live on wide screens on the Bebelplatz, followed on 1 July 2012 by a concert with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

The complete 2011/2012 programme and all information is now online at:

Advance sales for all performances of the 2011/2012 season will begin on 14 May 2011.

Subscription sales start on 30 April 2011. FESTTAGE 2012 cycle tickets are on sale now.

Members of the Staatsoper Association (Förderverein), subscribers and StaatsopernCard holders enjoy advance purchase rights for all performances starting on 7 May 2011.

Tickets are available online at, by phone at 0049 30 20 35 45 55 and at the Staatsoper box office at the Schiller Theater.

Parsifal, Oper Leipzig, 22 April 2011

Leipzig Opera House

Parsifal – Stefan Vinke
Gurnemanz – James Moellenhoff
Klingsor – Jürgen Kurth
Kundry – Lioba Braun
Amfortas – Tuomas Pursio
Titurel – Roman Astakhov
First Knight of the Grail – Tommasso Randazzo
Second Knight of the Grial – Roman Astakhov
Esquires – Soula Parassidis, Jean Broekhuizen, Timothy Fallon, Norman Reinhardt
Alto solo – Claudia Huckle
Flowermaidens – Elena Tokar, Diana Schnürpel, Kathrin Göring, Soula Parassidis, Ines Reintzsch, Claudia Huckle

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: Volkmar Ulbrich)
Children’s Choir of the Leipzig Opera (Sophie Bauer)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Images: Andreas Birkigt
Stefan Vinke (Parsifal) with the Flowermaidens
Parsifal on Good Friday, in the city of Wagner’s birth: how could one resist? I had enjoyed Roland Aeschlimann’s 2006 production, a Leipzig co-production with Geneva and Nice, when seeing it two years previously, and for the most part did so again, though there were perhaps some passages, especially during the third act, when its status as a repertory piece was now a little too evident. A little sharpening up of the stage direction would do no harm. This remains, however, an interesting and attractive production, which continues to remind me of Herbert Wernicke’s woefully underrated – at least by critics – Tristan for Covent Garden (not least when one recalls the reductionist Christof Loy staging that has succeeded it). Abstraction is not only the way to proceed in Wagner: the greatest current stage interpreter of his works, Stefan Herheim, is anything but abstract. Nevertheless, abstraction works well – especially when contrasted with the irrelevant pseudo-psychology that infects a good number of current Wagner productions.

Colour, as I wrote last time around, plays an important role, both in demarcating locations and in the dramatic transformations – an especially important concept in this of all Wagner’s dramas – that occur within particular scenes. That is the aspect which perhaps above all puts me in mind of the aforementioned Wernicke Tristan. I remain intrigued and equally uncertain about Aeschlimann’s Grail. Amfortas uncovers something mysterious – no problem there – and holds up a sheet which, by a trick of lighting presents what continues to remind me of a Turin Shroud-vision of Christ. I still wonder whether, even at this stage, we need something a little more substantial – in more than one sense – to offer sustenance for Monsalvat’s community Yet, by the same token, something else, again mysterious, is revealed, which clearly replenishes the community. The open-endedness of what is going on is very much in Wagner’s spirit of intellectual exploration and continual self-questioning. Visual centrality of the spear remains very much to the benefit of the second act, though I cannot help but regret the usual awkwardness at the end, when Parsifal refers to a sign (of the Cross) that he does not make. It need not be that particular Christian sign, of course, though it may be, but to have nothing at all simply does not seem to work very well.

End of Act II: Petra Lang is pictured here; on the present occasion, she was replaced by Lioba Braun
Musically there was much to admire. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded very much in its element, rich and dark of tone, especially in the strings. There were, especially during the first act, a few too many fluffs, not least during the Prelude, but once things had settled down, this ceased to be a problem. Much the same could be said of Ulf Schirmer’s direction. He may not come across as a great Wagnerian, but he is a dependably good one. Line is generally maintained, though parts of the third act dragged a little (not, I should stress, a matter of speed, but of dramatic momentum), though the Prelude to that act was world-weary indeed. Much of the cast was the same as I heard two years ago. Stefan Vinke’s Parsifal has gained a certain edge, or at least it had on the present occasion: there is still much to appreciate, but I hope the loss of freshness was temporary. James Moellenhoff’s Gurnemanz and Tuomas Pursio remain distinguished, though I sensed a certain lack of stage direction when contrasted with 2009. The major difference in the cast was Susan Maclean’s replacement by Lioba Braun, whom I had heard before as Kundry in Dresden, also in 2009. Then she was excellent, and so she was on this occasion, ever-attentive to the alchemic marriage of words and music, and notably more seductive – a matter of the production as much as anything else? – during the second act. Praise ought also to be offered to the excellent chorus, supplementary chorus, and children’s choir. Wagner’s interest in earlier music, not least as reflected in his early Das Liebesmahl der Apostel and his arrangement of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, was evoked and translated into modern terms. Clarity and weight worked in tandem, to sometimes overwhelming effect.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Thomanerchor/Gewandhaus/Schwarz - St John Passion (1749 version), 21 April 2011

St Thomas's Church, Leipzig

Sibylla Rubens (soprano)
Marie-Claude Chappuis (contralto)
Johannes Chum (Evangelist and tenor arias)
Stephan Loges (Christ)
Hans-Christoph Begemann (bass arias)

Choir of St Thomas’s, Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Gotthold Schwarz (conductor)

The Thomanerchor’s Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Passion performances alternate annually between the St John and the St Matthew. This year, for a little variety, Bach’s 1749 (fourth) version of the former was presented. I do not recall hearing it before; there is little, however, about which to become excited, the most noteworthy changes being a matter of alterations to three aria texts. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ has some changes, arguably reflecting a less Baroque or Pietistic pictorial sensibility, likewise ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’. The text for ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ is entirely replaced, the following words providing the new text:

Mein Jesu, ach! Dein schmerzhaft bitter Leiden
bringt tausend Freuden,
es tilgt der Sünden Not.
Ich sehe zwar mit vielen Schrecken
den heiligen Leib mit Blute decken;
doch muss mir dies auch Lust erwecken,
es macht mich frei von Höll und Tod.
Georg Christoph Biller, the Thomaskantor, had been due to conduct; illness led to his replacement by Gotthold Schwarz. Schwarz’s approach was clearly ‘period’-informed, but not oppressively so, and was capable of variation. For instance, the great opening chorus was taking at a fast-ish though not absurd tempo; more importantly, the choir’s cries of ‘Herr’ pierced to the core against a properly turbulent backdrop as furnished by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. I feared the worst when the ‘B’ section was terminated quite abruptly – always, to be fair, a difficult return to bring off convincingly – but other phrase- and section-endings were rounded off more naturally, for instance Christ’s recitative at the end of no.2. Likewise, chorales sounded unhurried – at least by today’s preposterous standards – and pauses were usually employed at ends of phrases. I was certainly impressed at the way Bach’s myriad of harmonic subtleties shone through – though one might well ask, how could it not? – in a chorale such as ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen…?’ I did wonder, however, at the precedence of words over line in the penultimate line of ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’. Certainly the meaning of ‘verlacht, verhöhnt, und verspielt’ came across vividly, but the effect was arguably disruptive. The climactic chorus, ‘Ruht wohl,’ maintained its noble dignity, even if Schwarz’s imagination was somewhat less all-encompassing than that of a conductor such as Eugen Jochum (still my first choice for a recording).

An undeniable ‘rightness’ to the sound of boys’ voices was illustrated throughout. I do not mean to imply that mixed voices should not sing the work; I am happy to leave such fundamentalism to the ‘authenticke’ brigade, though commercial self-interest tends to render its practitioners oddly reluctant to employ what should surely be the ‘historically informed’ voices. Nevertheless, it is something very special to hear Bach’s own choir and – more or less – orchestra in his own church on Maundy Thursday, not least whilst beholding, as I did, Bach’s own countenance immediately opposite in one of St Thomas’s beautiful stained-glass windows – and that of Mendelssohn a little closer to the organ loft, in which the performances take place. It would, moreover, be ludicrous to claim that women’s voices sound the same as boys’, or indeed that a more mature chorus sounds as fresh as a youthful choir. Different choirs are possessed of different qualities. There was, moreover, no wanting of vigour in the turba choruses, Bach’s searing chromaticism proving as terrifying as anything in Tristan or Parsifal, the bloodlust if anything all the more chilling when expressed by young voices. ‘Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!’ was, I am happy to report, taken at a relatively sedate tempo, allowing the words their full force. Bach’s writing, the Gospel itself, and the choral singing combined to impart an almost overwhelming sense of predestination as the performance progressed.

The question of soloists might be thought vexed, though only really if one adopts a fundamentalist approach: better to have professional soloists drawn from outside the choir than to have boys struggle, though it would be interesting on occasion to hear the soprano and alto arias taken by trebles. (Members of the choir did take smaller parts, such as the Maid and Peter.) Johannes Chum was an excellent Evangelist. Neither words nor music were unduly privileged; instead, one not only noted but experienced the miracle of Bach’s alchemic combination. Occasional strain with respect to the higher notes in his range was put to expressive use rather than jarring. Rainer Trost was listed in the programme booklet as the soloist for the tenor arias, but they were also sung by Chum. Though I should have been interested to hear the former, Chum proved an able replacement. It was not his fault, for instance, that a warmer, more Romantic string sound was not forthcoming in ‘Ach, mein Sinn’; nor, I am sure, was it the fault of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The same could be said of the somewhat underpowered violin sound in ‘Mein Jesu, ach!’ Some ‘period’ practices die hard, alas. The entire continuo group proved distinguished throughout, however, not least David Petersen’s fruity bassoon.

Stephan Loges was a richly toned, expressive yet dignified Christ. Bach’s writing here lacks the celebrated string halo of Christ’s words in the St Matthew Passion, yet Loges ensured that one never felt the loss. Sibylla Rubens did not have a great deal to do as the soprano soloist. (What a contrast with the St Matthew!) Nevertheless, she proved radiantly beautiful in the pain of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’. Marie-Claude Chappuis was warmly expressive as contralto soloist. ‘Von deinen Stricken’ was more urgent than reflective, but that was doubtless Schwarz’s decision. Chappuis employed considerable ornamentation upon her da capo. Excellent cello and woodwind playing should also be noted. She navigated well the terrible contrasts of ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, aided by splendid solo gamba playing from Thomas Fritzsch. It seemed heartbreakingly apt that, by this hour, darkness had fallen in Leipzig too, Bach’s window image no longer visible. Hans-Christoph Begemann generally sounded more comfortable as Pilate than in the bass arias, where his tone tended towards the cloudy, in unfortunate contrast with Loges.

This was, however, not only an impressive but a moving performance. I can conceive of no better Holy Week observance.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Die Walküre, Staatsoper Berlin, 17 April 2011

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Siegmund (Simon O'Neill) and Sieglinde (Anja Kampe)

Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko
Wotan – René Pape
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Danielle Halbwachs
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Erika Wueschner
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Nicole Piccolomini
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder
Dancers – Guro Nagelhus Shia, Vebjorn Sundby

Wotan (René Pape)

Wotan and Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin)

Guy Cassiers (director, set design)
Enrico Bagnoli (set design, lighting)
Tim van Steenbergen (costumes)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)
Csilla Lakatos (choreography)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Guy Cassiers’s production of the Ring continues, in its second instalment, to baffle, but the nature of my bafflement is different from any other Ring I can recall. If ever there were a work overflowing with ideas – the overflowing and the conflict being part and parcel of the experience – it is surely the Ring. Yet the Belgian director, making his first foray into the opera house, seems to have none at all, let alone any sympathy with the strenuous intellectual and emotional demands presented by Wagner’s score. I was highly critical of the Weimar Ring, released on DVD, but at least it tried to present some conceptual framework, however confused. The concern of the present production, already staged at La Scala, seems to be to present a pleasant backdrop for what otherwise might as well be a concert performance. (Of course a staged performance never quite feels like that, since one tends to be more frustrated than one would in the concert hall, which possesses its own, symphonic virtues.) Lack is keenly felt here. The production is not ‘traditional’ in the sense of Otto Schenk’s mindless, ‘restorationist’ production for the Metropolitan Opera; it merely seems empty, devoid of meaning, whether political or otherwise. Quite what two dramaturges, Michael P Steinberg and Detlef Giese, did to earn their crust I cannot imagine. Taking the politics out is one thing, and the urge to be something other than a second-generation epigone of Joachim Herz or Patrice Chéreau is comprehensible, yet surely something then needs to be put in place of Wagner’s revolutionary socialism.

Take the Ride of the Valkyries. I recall Deryck Cooke’s wise retort to Eric Blom’s jibe about ‘the most tasteless piece of music ever written’: namely, ‘what could have been the use of a tasteful Ride of the Valkyries?’ This seems to be it, or at least to approach it: a scenic backdrop of elegant black horses, not entirely dissimilar from what one might find emblazoned on a Baroque fountain. That is it. At a push, one might speculate whether a point were being made concerning representational culture, a feudal order on the verge of being overthrow; however, there is no real suggestion of that being the case. A little later, we see ‘tasteful’ video projections of a male nude, credited as a dancer, almost Old Master-ish; I have no idea why. It seemed as though it were intended to do anything but épater les bourgeois. The Staatsoper has, after all, moved for the period of the Unter den Linden house’s closure, to the bürgerlich security of Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater, but a few hundred yards from the Deutsche Oper. Whereas Das Rheingold had at least provided novelty, if questionable, in the form of dancers on stage, their brief filmed sublimation here suggested running out of already limited steam. Video projections of René Pape’s (Wotan’s) face occasionally surfaced during the first act, when Wälse was mentioned; otherwise, it was difficult to note any other feature to the production. Red poles descend from the ceiling during the third act: they are not unpleasant to look at, yet do not seem to signify anything. Tim van Steenbergen’s costumes tend to be expensive-looking but unflattering, Brünnhilde’s taffeta-style bustle a case in point. Make of that, perhaps in West Berlin terms, what you will.

The performance proved considerably superior. Daniel Barenboim led a warmly Romantic account, starkly contrasting with the startling Neue Sachlichkeit objectivism he had imparted to Das Rheingold. I assume contrast between the frigid world of the gods and the purely human love of the Volsungs to have intended; that, at any rate, is how it came across, to the benefit of the present drama if not to that of the cycle’s Vorabend. It may be of interest to note that Barenboim has insisted upon a semi-covered pit for the Schillertheater, in partial imitation of Bayreuth. I am not sure what good this does; it is difficult to tell whether the somewhat restrained – or constrained – result is a product of the less than sensational acoustic of the Staatsoper’s temporary home or a matter of deliberate intent. What I can say is that Barenboim’s reading proved full of momentary incident whilst maintaining the necessary longer line, an especially difficult task in the second and third acts. This seemed to me the best conducted Walküre I had heard since Bernard Haitink’s account with the Royal Opera at the Royal Albert Hall; no one I have heard live has managed the melos of the second act of this drama quite so flawlessly as Haitink, but Barenboim was far from disgraced by the comparison. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s performance was not faultless – as it had arguably proved for the previous night’s Wozzeck, also conducted by Barenboim – but a number of errors were more than compensated for by the rich and variegated tone that emanated from the pit.

The cast was generally strong. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund slightly disappointed, though O’Neill certainly did not lack power. His metallic timbre is not to my taste and his stage presence might best be described as old-fashioned gestural. (On the other hand, it was not clear that any of the singers received any assistance from the director.) Anja Kampe proved an increasingly spirited Sieglinde, improving in each act, her performance culminating in a radiant ‘O höchstes Wunder!’ Mikhail Petrenko maintained the high standards I noted from him as Hunding in Aix – and Hagen there in Götterdämmerung too. Most Hundings have been blacker of tone, yet Petrenko’s malevolent stage presence and delivery of text are ample substitute for the accustomed sound. Ekaterina Gubanova presented an imperious, wounded Fricka: the woman within and the stern moralising presence without were placed in finely judged counterpoint. The excellence of her Lyubasha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, which had opened in London just three nights earlier (!), was admirably maintained. Iréne Theorin, Bayreuth’s current Isolde, overcame the handicap of her strange costume to portray a Brünnhilde gaining in humanity throughout her two acts, Wagner’s Feuerbachian conception of the ‘purely human’ being finely served. I have heard Valkyries more beautiful of tone, but Theorin presented no particular reason for complaint and displayed considerably more dramatic commitment than the production might have led one to expect.

René Pape’s Wotan, however, proved somewhat frustrating. He had sung Wotan in the Scala Rheingold but, already booked to sing Boris in New York, had ceded to the excellent Hanno Müller-Brachmann for Berlin. Müller-Brachmann’s Papageno-baritone was unlikely, however, to prove suitable for the Walküre Wotan, though perhaps the voice of a fabled Sarastro erred in the opposite direction, the tessitura sometimes sounding awkward. There is a tendency to sound wan in higher notes, though there is ample – too ample? – richness in the true bass register. I heard Pape a few years ago as Don Giovanni, again in Berlin under Barenboim. Then he merely seemed miscast; that was less apparent on this occasion, though doubts remained. That said, Pape’s beauty of tone certainly came very much to the fore at times; there was painful bitterness to be heard too. A more serious concern was apparent straying of his attention, most persistently during his ‘Farewell’ scene, in which a good number of words were the victims of substitution. I am told that there had been a greater number of errors during the final rehearsal. A great hope for the role, surely the summit for any pretender’s career, has yet, it seems, to fulfil the promise in which many of Pape’s admirers have long believed.

Under the terms of the co-production with La Scala, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung will be seen first in Berlin and subsequently in Milan. Those final two evenings will be staged during the Staatsoper’s 2012-13 season, culminating in complete cycles scheduled for Holy Week and Eastertide of the composer’s bicentenary.

Birtwistle and Dowland - 'Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben,' Montalvo/Klangforum Wien/Rundel, 18 April 2011

Werner-Otto-Saal, Konzerthaus Berlin

Birtwistle – Nine settings of Celan, for soprano and chamber ensemble
interspersed with:
Dowland – Lachrimae, arranged by Andreas Lindenbaum for violin, two violas, cello, and double bass

Marisol Montalvo (soprano)
Klangforum Wien
Peter Rundel (conductor)

Yes, you did read that correctly: ‘Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben,’ as in the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Berlin Konzerthaus is organising something rather more interesting, indeed original, than many halls for the Mahler anniversary, a cycle of concerts in three parts of ‘Musik mit Mahler’. If the anniversary must be marked, then to use Mahler’s symphonies as a way of exploring other repertoire seems just the ticket.

Here resurrection took on a decidedly darker hue, with Birtwistle’s settings of Paul Celan, as translated by Michael Hamburger, scored for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello, and double bass. Klangforum Wien gave the first performance of the complete work in 1996 and clearly has the music in its collective bones. The present performance was inspired and inspiring, not least on account of Peter Rundel’s intelligent direction. Marisol Montalvo made a generally good impression as soprano, though sometimes her American accent sounded a little out of place – at least to an Englishman. At the heart of Birtwistle’s music is a melancholy that Montalvo’s more showy delivery did not always quite capture, though the final sound of her unaccompanied voice, deserted by instruments, was chilling, likewise the iridescence of her voice in combination with instruments during ‘Mit Brief und Uhr’ . Clarinets are a typical vessel of Birtwistle’s expression, here (Reinhold Brunner and Bernhard Zachhuber) harking back on occasion to the hieratic timelessness of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as well as to the violence of Birtwistle’s own Punch and Judy, later arabesques ably echoed by soprano, and vice versa. ‘Tenebrae’ seemed to acquire further meaning when heard at the beginning of Holy Week – even when, perhaps particularly when, performed in one of the most atheistic cities in the world.

Every bit as inspired was the decision to perform the Celan settings interspersed with John Dowland’s Lachrymae, here arranged for strings by cellist Andreas Lindenbaum, on hand to perform, alongside Gunde Jäck-Micko on violin, violists Andrew Jezek and Dimitrios Polisoidis, and double bassist Uli Fussenegger. Vibrato was avoided, though I thought I heard a little more as time went on. Perhaps it was; perhaps my ears had adjusted. The motivation in recreating the world of the viol consort was clear, though I could not help but wish for a little more variation in tone quality on occasion. That said, the excellent players afforded ample opportunity to luxuriate in the plangent melancholy of Dowland’s harmonies. This was not quite Haydn’s Seven Last Words: for one thing, there is greater variety of tempo. However, the effect was not entirely dissimilar, suggesting another possible companion piece for Birtwistle’s settings. Dowland, however, remains closer in spirit to his great English successor than Haydn will ever be, with Purcell’s Fantazias another ghost at the feast.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Wozzeck, Staatsoper Berlin, 16 April 2011


Captain (Graham Clark) and Wozzeck (Roman Trekel)
Images: Bernd Uhlig

Wozzeck – Roman Trekel
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Florian Hoffmann
Captain – Graham Clark
Doctor – Pavlo Hunka
Marie – Nadja Michael
Margret – Katharina Kammerloher
First Apprentice – Jürgen Linn
Second Apprentice – James Homann
Idiot – Heinz Zednik
Marie’s Child – Fabian Sturm

Andrea Breth (director)
Martin Zehetgruber (stage designs)
Silke Willrett, Marc Weeger (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Marie (Nadja Michael) with her child
(Fabian Sturm)
Though it was the first opera I saw in the theatre – bar a reduced Don Giovanni – it had been quite a while since I had seen a staged performance of Wozzeck, most likely the greatest of all twentieth-century operas. Certainly its stature seems somehow to grow with every hearing. Keith Warner’s Covent Garden production had its detractors, but I thought it in many respects impressive. Andrea Breth, in her first production for the Berlin State Opera, presented a more ‘faithful’ reading, but fidelity should not be confused in this instance with lack of commitment. It was indeed in the cases where she presented a different interpretation from that suggested in libretto and score that the production seemed weaker. In what came across – even if it were not intended this way – as a strangely misogynistic reading, Marie’s inner conflict was minimised: she did not appear to struggle at all with her conscience in the context of the Drum-Major’s advances, and indeed submitted a few inches away from her son, in full view of him. (I did wonder, without being prudish, whether this was really something appropriate for a child to witness, though I have no reason to think that Fabian Sturm’s fear was not acted.) Moreover, not having Marie read from the Bible, but simply recall it from memory, eliminated an important point that she has struggled to attain literacy. Margret, meanwhile, seemed merely a tart, and a paralytic one at that. The other odd decision was to have Wozzeck, presumably dead, tell his son that his mother was dead; no other children were on stage, their rhyme being delivered from the pit. Presumably a point about the cyclical nature of the tragedy was being made, but the chilling nature of children’s callous insouciance was lost.

Wozzeck and the Doctor (Pavlo Hunka)

Andres (Florian Hoffmann) and Wozzeck

Otherwise, the oppressive nature of an inhuman society was portrayed starkly. There could be no doubt that the singers had been properly directed, a welcome contrast with the previous night’s Salome at the Komische Oper. Actions and scene changes were well choreographed throughout in a thoroughly professional display. Martin Zehetgruber’s dark stage designs were simple, unfussy, and always apt. Militarism was present, as it should be, but never overplayed. The form it takes is, after all, a product of capitalist society, not its cause. The same could and should be said of the Doctor’s nasty experiments and his lust for bourgeois renown. As for the miserable depravity of proletarian life, whether in the barracks or for Marie, ‘wir arme Leut’ indeed… But never were such broader themes, undoubtedly present in the work itself, trumpeted over and above it: this was Berg’s Wozzeck, not, with the exceptions outlined above, Andrea Breth’s.

In the barracks

Daniel Barenboim was on excellent form in the pit, likewise the Staatskapelle Berlin. I might have expected a more overtly ‘Wagnerian’ reading, but then Barenboim’s Wagner has always been more variegated than many seem to think, and his Berg followed suit. There were power and punch when required, which of course includes the wrenching D minor climax of the final Interlude: tonality aufgehoben in a way Schoenberg may sometimes have attempted but never quite accomplished. (Webern never tried.) Not once was there any doubt as to Barenboim’s command of line, but equally impressive were an ear for colour surely born of his experience in French music, not least Debussy, and his characterisation of the closed forms and genres of which the greater structure is composed.

Tavern scene

Roman Trekel’s was one of the best performances I have heard him give, a great improvement upon his disappointing Eugene Onegin, on a par with his fine Doktor Faust. The dryness that has sometimes affected his voice was not at all in evidence on the present occasion. His was not an overtly emotional Wozzeck, not perhaps as searching nor as terrifying as Matthias Goerne’s, but Trekel’s Lieder-singer attention to detail paid dividends nevertheless. Nadja Michael gave her all as Marie. At her best, she is a fine singing actress; here, her vocal power proved generally as impressive as her stage presence. It would have been good to have had more of the right notes, but she is far from the only singer in this role to stand guilty in that respect. The Captain is a role made for a Mime such as Graham Clark; he did not disappoint, nor did Pavlo Hunka in the dangerous, deranged role of the Doctor. John Daszak, replete with plastic muscles, made a virile thug indeed of the Drum-Major, though never at the expense of musical values. Florian Hoffmann proved fair of voice indeed as Andres, as well as convincing on stage: this is clearly a young singer to watch. And finally, it was a genuinely moving pleasure to welcome back Heinz Zednik to the stage in a typically finely observed performance as the Idiot. But the whole was so much more than the sum of the parts: a description of performance as well as work.

Final scene

Lulu will follow during next year’s Festtage, again conducted by Barenboim and directed by Breth. Barenboim said at a press conference a couple of days later that he hopes to conduct both works over a number of weekends, to allow visitors to experience a Berlin ‘Berg Weekend’, a mouth-watering prospect indeed.

Salome, Komische Oper, 15 April 2011

Komische Oper, Berlin

Salome – Morenike Fadayomi
Herodias – Christiane Oertel
Page to Herodias – Karolina Gumos
Herod – Andreas Conrad
Narraboth – Thomas Ebenstein
Jokanaan – Egils Silins
First Nazarene – Jan Martinik
Second Nazarene – Raphael Bütow
First Soldier – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Second Soldier – Adam Cioffari
First Jew – Christoph Schröter
Second Jew – Peter Renz
Third Jew – Matthias Siddhartha Otto
Fourth Jew – Thomas Ebenstein
Fifth Jew – Marko Spehar
A Cappadocian – Ipca Ramanovic
A Slave – Sven Goiny

Thilo Reinhardt (director)
Paul Zoller (set designs)
Katharina Gault (costumes)
Ingo Gerlach (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Alexander Vedernikov (conductor)

Confusion reigned in the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, the idea apparently being to substitute Herod’s weird and wonderful fantasies, though can anyone actually think of quite so many things during that time? John the Baptist and, I think, Jesus competed for attention, perhaps leaders of rival cults. Was one a false prophet or both? Who was who? And with whom would Salome throw in her lot? The cars and phalluses were too silly to be offensive, though one could imagine some finding it all blasphemous. A veiled woman suggested something more daring, but she did nothing more than stand there; clearly Christian sensibilities are fairer game than certain others. So far, so fantastical; perhaps it was revealing to some. However, confusion reigned throughout Thilo Reinhardt’s production, suggesting that the former chaos might have been more by default than a product of intention. Salome was reduced to cartoon status, replete with captions, and not only in terms of Paul Zoller’s garish designs. There seemed on one level to be plenty of ideas, or at least thoughts, but they never cohered into any particular idea, let alone Konzept; nor even did there appear to be any effort made to make them cohere.

Reading the beginning of the synopsis, one senses a definite idea: ‘An emergency meeting in Herod’s palace. The future of the fundamentalist prisoner Jochanaan (John), “The Baptist”, doesn’t just involve the circle at Herod’s palace, consisting of Romans, Jews and the followers of the new Nazarene religion, but also the populace of the multiracial state.’ Whatever one thinks of that, and one-sided though it might be, it is not inherently absurd. However, it was difficult to detect much of such a view in the production, not least on account of a great deal of irrelevant flailing around. There appeared to be a point being made – fragility of political and/or religious conviction? – by Jews and Nazarenes changing allegiance, but the upshot was greater confusion. It seemed, whether this were actually the case or no, as though the singers had mostly been left to their own devices. Salome at times seemed to have become some sort of freedom fighter, sporting a revolutionary beret and rifle, yet that aspect came and went. Strauss’s – or Wilde’s – æstheticism did not seem to register – and that is surely what lies at the heart of this work. Camp it up by all means, if you must, but it all seems a bit pointless without a heightened, most likely suffocatingly excessive, sense of the æsthetic. Salome is no more interested in politics than Strauss is, perhaps even less so: she certainly has no interest in the offer of half of Herod’s kingdom. That is not necessarily a bar to a political Salome, but one needs more of a sense of what is at stake.

Morenike Fadayomi’s performance in the title role was spirited. It sometimes veered more towards the acted than the perfectly sung, but she had stage presence and used it. Egils Silins was an impressive Jokanaan, not merely blustering, a more credible object of Salome’s lust than often one finds. Andreas Conrad’s relished the inevitable high – or is it low? – camp of the role, whilst Christiane Oertel made a suitably nasty (and horribly dressed) Herodias. Quite why she acted as Jokanaan’s executioner, though, was unclear. Thomas Ebenstein, whom I have admired in previous performances at the Komische Oper, was a sweet toned, imploring Narraboth, though his musicianship was undermined by the initial boorish stage acts Reinhardt’s direction imposed upon him. For sadly, if the director had taken relatively little notice of the words, the music seemed to have passed him by entirely. Alexander Vedernikov’s conducting had its moments, especially when dance rhythms came to the fore, though it lacked as yet a longer sense of line. (This is, it must be said, a difficult score indeed, and not everyone, alas, possesses Karajan’s surety of command.) Nevertheless, the contrast between Strauss’s astonishing craftsmanship and the stage direction was glaring.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Tsar's Bride, Royal Opera, 14 April 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Marfa Sobakina – Marina Poplavskaya
Grigory Grigor’yevich Gryazony – Johan Reuter
Lyubasha – Ekaterina Gubanova
Ivan Sergeyevich Lïkov – Dmytro Popov
Yelisey Bomelius – Vasily Gorshkov
Vasily Sobakin – Paata Burchuladze
Dunyasha Saburova – Jurgita Adamonytė
Domna Ivanovna Saburova – Elizabeth Woollett
Grigory Luk’yanovich Malyuta-Skuratov – Alexander Vinogradov
Petrovna – Anne-Marie Owens
A Young Lad – Andrew O’Connor
A Girl – Louise Armit
The Tsar’s Stoker – Jonathan Coad

Paul Curran (director)
Kevin Knight (designs)
David Jacques (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

One should try not to be churlish concerning The Tsar’s Bride. In a season not generally noted for its adventurousness, the Royal Opera was adding a new, hardly fashionable, work to its repertoire, in a performance and production that were for the most part impressive. If only, however, I could find myself more enthusiastic, or indeed even slightly enthusiastic, about the work itself… Particularly, when considered vis-à-vis the precedent of the Royal Opera’s first, triumphant performances last year of another, this time monstrously unjustly, neglected Russian opera, The Gambler, this is a minor, frankly dull opera. One does not expect profundity from Rimsky-Korsakov: Stravinsky, often very fond of his teacher, admitted as much. However, one often at least receives in return, colour, exoticism, and sparkle. This music, though, comes across more as a faint copy of certain passages in Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, vaguely spiced up with occasional sub-Wagnerian harmonies taken out of context, and lumbered with an increasing, wearying Italianate sentimentalism to cement – I use the inelegant verb on purpose, since a clanging, mixed metaphor seems appropriate – the potion. (Potions, incidentally, are the clumsy hallmark of a plot that is silly, as the saying goes, ‘even by operatic standards’.) Rimsky’s repetitive use of a folk melody, apparently to signify the Tsar, the same melody that features unforgettably in the coronation scene to Boris Godunov, serves mostly to highlight the gulf between the composer and Mussorgsky, though at least it enables one from time to time to hear a good melody. It is worse, however, when Rimsky tries to exercise a melodic gift that is simply lacking, for instance in the interminable second-act aria in which Marfa, the girl who becomes the Tsar’s Bride – perhaps, given the feeble inspiration, it should come as a relief that we never meet Ivan the Terrible himself – sings about how she used to like to play in the garden with Lïkov, her childhood sweetheart, whom she almost marries before the Tsar chooses her as his bride. (It really is as banal as the description suggests.) The extended death scene, in which Marfa hallucinates, thinking Gryazony, who tried to win her with a love potion, substituted for a withering-away-and-dying potion by his jealous mistress, Lyubasha, is perhaps a little better, if one does not mind the women’s magazine plot-level of La traviata, but the lack of musical characterisation throughout makes it difficult to care either way about the fate of the characters.

It is said that the Royal Opera had initially intended a large-scale ‘traditional’ production: the thought immediately evokes Francesca Zambello, though that is mere speculation. Instead, however, we had an updating to contemporary Moscow from Paul Curran. Some aspects work better than others. The crowd’s aggressive Orthodoxy sounds a little odd on the drab streets outside the halls of the super-rich. Straightforward xenophobia might have made more sense. That said, the license taken by a newly moneyed class to do as it will has many parallels with the less absurd aspects of the story. The extra-legal behaviour of the Tsar’s thuggish secret police, the oprichniki, and the tasteless extravagance of the nouveaux riches are powerfully portrayed in Curran’s production and the designs of Kevin Knight. To open in a plush restaurant with Grayznoy, a member of the oprichniki, and a hooded victim of interrogation, later unhooded and revealed to be dead, carried away by the waiting staff before the party begins, works surprisingly well. The lapdancers who follow are well choreographed and heighten the sense of transformation to something we know only too well. The ghastliness of an apartment poolside in the third act and would-be tasteful – yet anything but – colour coordination from the guests against a Rococo backdrop for the fourth and final act are again judicious. There is perhaps a hint of drugs overtaking the idea of potions, but it does not seem to be followed through. Personenregie is keen throughout.

After an oddly hard-driven account of the overture, Sir Mark Elder settled into what seemed a good account of the score, though I could not help but wish that he had rushed us through or cut that second-act aria. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on good form, a few slips notwithstanding; the clarinet solo of the fourth act’s protracted death scene was beautifully taken. Johan Reuter made what he could, in a characteristically thoughtful performance, of Gryaznov. Indeed, all the male singers were very good: a new star for me was Alexander Vinogradov, as the ruthless yet undoubtedly charismatic and alluring leader of the oprichniki, Malyuta-Skuratov. I hope to hear more of him before long. Marina Poplavskaya seems to have a large body of adherents; it has never been clear why, whenever I have heard her. Here again, her intonation was all over the place, though she recovered somewhat for the fourth act – and perhaps not just because inaccurate tuning seems more excusable when a character is dying. She was certainly outsung by the wonderful Jurgita Adamonytė, in the relatively small part of her friend, Dunyasha, not to mention the magnificent Ekaterina Gubanova, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, as the jealous mistress, Lyubasha. Hers was a proud portrayal indeed: one dreads to think what Poplavskaya would have made of her unaccompanied song in the first act, here delivered beautifully and as movingly as the score permitted.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Four lbs of sausages or a new piece of music?

The Britten Sinfonia poses that question, asking for contributions towards its 'Tenner for a Tenor' project, enabling direct patronage of a new work to be performed with Mark Padmore. Click here for further details.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Royal Opera new season announced (2011-12)

Much of this information has been circulating unofficially in any case, but the Royal Opera has just announced its plans for next season. The rings of the Olympic flag - this, alas, will be the year in which the accursed Games render London unbearable - are to be paralleled in three cycles: Mozart's Da Ponte operas, Berlioz's Les Troyens (in the sense of its spanning the Trojan War: and let us give thanks that once again, this masterpiece will be performed in London), and Puccini's Il trittico. In addition, Wagner's Ring will re-appear at the beginning of the following season (September 2012) and the fortieth anniversary of Plácido Domingo's Royal Opera debut will be marked by an evening bringing together acts from three operas significant to his career.

New productions are, in chronological order, as follows:

Il trittico (Richard Jones and Antonio Pappano complete the trilogy begun with their Gianni Schicchi)
Rusalka (Salzburg Festival production from Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Camilla Nylund)
Missfortune (Judith Weir, British premiere, co-commissioned with Bregenz Festival, directed by Shi-Zheng Chen and conducted by Paul Daniel)
Falstaff (Robert Carsen and Daniele Gatti)
Les troyens (David McVicar and Antonio Pappano; Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Eva-Maria Westbroek)

(ROH2 will also offer premieres, including Tarik O'Regan's Heart of Darkness.)


Don Giovanni (Constantinos Carydis: two casts, led by Gerald Finley and Erwin Schrott)
Così fan tutte (Sir Colin Davis)
Le nozze di Figaro (Antonio Pappano; Simon Keenlyside, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo)
Der fliegende Holländer (Jeffrey Tate; Anja Kampe, Falk Struckmann, Endrik Wottrich, Stephen Milling)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Antonio Pappano; Wolfgang Koch, Simon O'Neill, Peter Coleman-Wright, Emma Bell, Toby Spence, Sir John Tomlinson as Pogner)
Otello (Antonio Pappano)
La traviata (for three (!) runs)
La somnambula
Rigoletto (Sir John Eliot Gardiner)
La fille du régiment
La bohème (Semyon Bychkov)
Salome (Andris Nelsons)
Otello (Antonio Pappano)

Upcoming opera and concerts

A feast of Holy Week - and nearly-Holy Week - opera awaits, along with some equally mouthwatering concerts:

First, in London, the Royal Opera's first ever production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride opens on Thursday, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. Paul Curran directs. I caught a glimpse of a rehearsal the other day; in terms of stage design, at least, it is not 'traditional'. (The rumour is that it was to have been, but finances would not permit. Why do I have a feeling that we might have been spared Francesca Zambello...? Pure speculation, I hasten to add...) Further details may be found here on the Royal Opera's website; there are still plenty of tickets available.

I am very sorry not to be seeing Bayreuth poll-winner Stefan Herheim's new Salome (with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, and a starry cast) at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Entartete Musik will be there though, so do check for a report. However, there will also be a new Salome opening in Berlin, at the Komische Oper, whose second night I shall be seeing on Friday. Here are a couple of production pictures to whet the appetite:

Then it is across town to the Schiller-Theater, where the Staatsoper has found its temporary home. Daniel Barenboim will conduct two premieres: Wozzeck (director, Andrea Breth) Die Walküre (director Guy Cassiers, already seen at La Scala; here is a review of the Rheingold). For more details on the Staatsoper's Holy Week Festtage, click here. Finally in Berlin, a concert from Klangforum Wien and Marisol Montalvo at the Konzerthaus: Dowland's Lacrimae and Birtwistle's extraordinary Pulse Shadows.

A little later in the week, I shall be in Leipzig, where I shall hear the St John Passion at the Thomaskirche (Maundy Thursday; click here for a review of the performance two years ago) and a Good Friday Parsifal from Oper Leipzig (which production I also saw, click here, two years ago).

Back in London, the end of the month will bring Konstantin Lifschitz's Art of Fugue at the Wigmore Hall and, the perfect south-of-the-river antidote to nuptial sentimentality on The Day itself, Maurizio Pollini at the Royal Festival Hall, playing Boulez's Second Piano Sonata, along with Chopin and Debussy. (Click here for a review of the same programme performed in Berlin last year, one of my performances of 2010.)

Bayreuth poll results

Readers may have noticed that the poll has now closed for favoured director of the 2013 Bayreuth Ring. (Most votes came in immediately; I think I left it open for a little too long..) Stefan Herheim was the run-away winner, with 38% of the vote from ten candidates. (Any regular readers will perhaps be less than surprised that I cast my vote for him.) Calixto Bieito also polled strongly, with half of Herheim's tally. In third place was Keith Warner, director of the Royal Opera's most recent Ring. In the comment section, there was also enthusiasm voiced for Werner Herzog. Click here for the full results. Doubtless the Festival already has...

Parterre Box's parallel poll presented Bieito in first place and Herheim in second. However, a major difference was Katharina Wagner (who here received but a single vote) almost beating Herheim to that second place.

We shall probably hear before too long who actually will be directing the production. In the meantime, here is an extract from my preferred DVD version, with one of the most exciting - and dramatically credible - denouements ever presented for Act I of Die Walküre. Patrice Chéreau's Volsung twins (Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer) truly are on fire, and for anyone who has ever described Pierre Boulez as 'cold', please listen to this as well as watch:

... and here is the entire Boulez/Chéreau Bayreuth 'Centenary' Ring on DVD, a production that is rightly the stuff of legend:

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Maltman/Martineau recital, Wigmore Hall, 11 April 2011

Wigmore Hall

Fauré – Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’, op.58
Schumann – Zwei Venetianische Lieder, op.25/17 and 18
Schubert – Gondelfahrer, D 808
Mendelssohn – Venetianisches Gondellied, op.57 no.5
Hahn – Venezia: Chansons en dialecte vénetien
Schubert – L’incanto degli occhi, D 902/1
Il traditor deluso, D 902/2
Il modo di prender moglie, S 902/3
Du bist die Ruh, D 776
Lachen und Weinen, D 777
Sei mir gegrüßt, D 741
Mahler – Rückert Lieder

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

This recital, I am afraid, turned out to be rather less than the sum of its parts, lesser parts somewhat dragging down the rest. Malcolm Martineau proved a dependable pianist, often more than that. Christopher Maltman was generally an engaging soloist, though there were a few too many intonational problems to be able to disregard them as occasional slips. Nevertheless, the programme was the greater problem, not least in that we appeared to have two smaller recitals joined together; one pertained to impressions of Venice, the other to songs with texts by Friedrich Rückert, with Schubert’s Italian Metastasio settings offering a not entirely convincing bridge. Luca Pisaroni had recently employed those very same Schubert songs in a Wigmore Hall recital that was far more coherent as a programme – and often better sung too.

Fauré opened the recital with his five Verlaine settings, ‘de Venise’. Much of this composer’s output I stubbornly fail to ‘get’; others talk of his subtlety where I tend to find blandness. Popular favourites such as the Requiem and the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande continue to offer greater interest; perhaps I am destined forever, or at least for a while longer, to remain uninitiated. To be fair, not everything sounded bland here: the fourth song, ‘A Clymène’ certainly offered stranger harmonies, though I could not really understand them or where they were going, and they sounded a good deal stranger when Maltman’s tuning slipped. Moreover, Martineau’s evocation of the mandolin in the opening song that bears the instruments name was quite magical in its way; he also captured very well the (slightly) fragrant nonchalance of 'C’est l’éxtase', though Fauré seems to have a different understanding of ecstasy from mine. Maltman’s French was better than that of many, though word endings were not always perfectly sounded: what a difficult language this is for singers! The baritone also brought a fine sustained line to these mélodies, especially to 'En sourdine', whose closing nightingale song benefited from a touching use of head voice (an effect that was perhaps employed a little too readily in many of the songs to come).

Four gondoliers’ songs followed: two from Schumann, one from Schubert, and one from Mendelssohn. The Schumann songs proved a highlight to the recital, Maltman immediately sounding more at home with the Lieder-style, and not just in terms of language. From the first setting (both texts are by Thomas Moore, translated by Ferdinand Freiligrath), the beautifully shaded repetitions of ‘Leis’’ in the first stanza and ‘sacht!’ in the second could hardly have been better accomplished. Martineau’s command of rhythm securely underpinned the first, whilst the charming, almost Schubertian – in Taubenpost mode – manner of the second delighted. Mendelssohn’s Venetianisches Gondellied (again Moore-Freiligrath) bewitched with its barcarolle rhythm and evocative minor-mode harmonies whose implications extend further beyond the merely pictorial than one might expect. The better of Mendelssohn’s songs are better than many realise.

Reynaldo Hahn’s six songs in Venetian dialect were frankly tedious. Again, the subtleties of which some speak quite passed me by – and whilst I suspect that with Fauré, a lack of receptiveness on my part is a factor, I simply cannot imagine what might be of interest here to anyone. Gerald Larner’s programme note comparison with Poulenc seemed to me wide of the mark, to say the least. The opening ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ brought from Maltman a more operatic delivery, akin to a gondolier regaling his tourists. At least ‘La Biondina in gondoleta’ and ‘Che pecà!’ are less emoting, though the former seems merely bland – and prolonged. The latter has a jaunty rhythm in the piano interludes, of which Martineau made the most, and benefited from Maltman’s forthright, highly masculine tone, though he missed his first entry and had to re-start the song. A ringing final ‘ciel’ in the final song, ‘La primavera’, might have delighted devotees, but I was ready for the interval bar.

Schubert’s Metastasio settings opened the second half. ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ benefited from lightness of touch on the part of both artists, though the contrasting section was perhaps taken a little too operatically by Maltman. Certainly Pisaroni in the aforementioned recital had offered something more suggestive, less blatant. Richly-coloured accompagnato was evoked in the recitative section of ‘Il traditor deluso’; Martineau even managed to make the piano part to the aria sound as if it were a piano reduction from an orchestral original. High (melo-)drama marked Maltman’s once again operatic delivery. If not Mozart, then at least Rossini was pleasingly evoked in the buffo tone of ‘Il modo di prender moglie’.

Du bist die Ruh, the first of the three Schubert Rückert settings selected, received a rapt performance, along with the Schumann songs, perhaps the finest of the evening, Martineau’s piano part heart-rendingly limpid, Maltman using words as well as notes to touch. That magical final-stanza modulation truly opened up new vistas, setting an apt precedent for Mahler. The account of Sei mir gegrüßt was to be commended for not playing to the gallery, but I wondered if it was just a little too low-key.

If Maltman had arguably used the head voice to touch a little too much, it sounded apt indeed in Mahler’s ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,’ the first of his Rückert-Lieder. It finely matched the weaving of harmonic magic in the piano, though later on insecurities of tuning slightly marred the performance: I wondered whether the tessitura was less than ideal for Maltman’s voice. There was nevertheless just the right sense of wonder to be heard: I was put in mind of the ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried. Intonation again proved variable in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ but there was a proper sense of something darker than a mere time of day being at stake in ‘Um Mitternacht’: a true midnight desolation of the soul. Here, though, whilst I had tried my best not to do so, I could not help but miss Mahler’s orchestra. Maltman showed a creditable willingness to harshen his tone where necessary, for instance when speaking of man’s afflictions, forsaking mere beauty. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ again made one realise what one was missing in orchestral terms: not Martineau’s fault, but in what might seem the quintessence in miniature of Mahler’s variegated orchestral writing, the piano inevitably seems second choice. However, the stillness of the final stanza was judged finely indeed. To offer arias from Verdi’s I due Foscari and Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda might have fitted the ‘Venetian’ theme but seemed jarring at best after Mahler.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Daniel Barenboim - Chopin at Tate Modern

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

This is not intended in any real sense as a review but just as a brief note concerning Daniel Barenboim's impromptu concert - at least that is very much how it has been spun, and there is no obvious reason to believe otherwise - at Tate Modern. Announced yesterday, we were encouraged to register online for tickets; I was notified yesterday evening that I should have a seat on the Turbine Hall Bridge. I have no idea how many were in the audience, but it was certainly a goodly number, with many below watching on a screen. Barenboim was gracious - and astute - enough to greet them first, before coming up to the bridge, and acknowledged their presence throughout, for which he was rewarded with ecstatic applause. Whatever else one might say about him, he has star quality, the same quality I first noticed as an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge, when Jessye Norman came to my college chapel to give a private recital to mark the college's quincentenary. She almost only had to enter the nave to have a very special effect upon one; Barenboim's charm ensured that he held the audience in the palm of his hand, and would have done so even had he only spoken, without playing a single note. And thank goodness he made a plea for music education from the kindergarten onwards, which, as he so rightly pointed out, would solve all further music funding problems as a matter of course. Our so-called Secretary of State for Culture should have been made to listen to him and to copy out his words a hundred times.

In between his words - and Barenboim acknowledged that he would much rather be talked about for what he played than what he said - we heard a number of items by Chopin. I felt a little sorry for the string quintet made up of fine musicians from the Staatskapelle Berlin. Their role was solely to play in the chamber reduction of the slow movement from Chopin's First Piano Concerto. That is not exactly music that shows string players to their greatest advantage, and the acoustic proved an enemy too. Indeed, the acoustic played such tricks that one might have thought the piano amplified. So far as I could tell, it was a good performance; Barenboim certainly shaped the music well and maintained the composer's quasi-vocal lines. To be sure, I suggest that we wait for the forthcoming recording with the full orchestra. The D-flat Nocturne, op.27 no.2 received a spellbinding reading, twists and turns navigated and relished, yet with no loss to the overall line. A brace of waltzes provided contrast: the 'Minute' Waltz, which was enjoyable enough but is far from my favourite Chopin, and a truly searching, ruminative account of the A minor Waltz. I could have heard that again and again... Finally, Barenboim presented an equally compelling reading of the Barcarolle, possessed of great cumulative power but equally fine attention to its detail and, above all, to its bewitching charm.

Below is a relatively recent (2009, Copenhagen) Barenboim performance of the Nocturne:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Poll: Whom would you prefer to direct the 2013 Bayreuth 'Ring'?

In the light of Wim Wenders's withdrawal, the Bayreuth Festival has a tight timetable to find a new director for the forthcoming bicentenary Ring. Whom would you like to see step into the breach? I realise that the answer may very well be 'none of the above', but the gadget I discovered only permitted ten possibilities, and I thought it only fair, whatever my own inclinations, to permit an array of styles:

Picture: Bayreuther Festspiele

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Wim Wenders will not be directing the 2013 Bayreuth 'Ring'

Contrary to rumours that have been circulating for a while, Wim Wenders will not after all be directing the Bayreuth Ring for the bicentenary of Wagner's birth in 2013. Wenders had hoped to use the production as the basis for a 3-D film. Sadly, Die Welt reports that it is not to be (click here). Bayreuth had better hurry up and find someone, unless it wants a repeat of the last Ring production fiasco, Lars von Trier's pulling out being followed by Tankred Dorst's unimaginative staging. Perhaps Otto Schenk might still be available, New York at long last having been put out of his misery... Why in the name of Wotan was Stefan Herheim not asked?

Britten Sinfonia/Hewitt - Bach, Stravinsky, and Mozart, 4 April 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Bach – Piano Concerto no.5 in F minor, BWV 1056
Stravinsky – Concerto in D
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Bach-Sitkovetsky – Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt (piano)
Britten Sinfonia
Thomas Gould (leader/director)

The Britten Sinfonia is on a high at the moment, almost the only musical winner from the latest savage Arts Council funding settlement. (I still shudder with horror at my naïveté in having taken at face value Nick Clegg’s relatively encouraging words concerning the arts: ‘useful idiot’ was Lenin’s phrase, I believe.) Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note one good cause rewarded against a desolate backdrop indeed. It is richly deserved, even though the misfortunes suffered by others are not. For this programme, the orchestra was joined by Angela Hewitt for two concertos, whilst left in the capable hands of Thomas Gould for Stravinsky’s Concerto in D and Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string orchestra transcription of the Goldberg Variations.

Bach’s F minor piano concerto opened the programme, more a showcase for Hewitt than the orchestra, though it provided dependable accompaniment. Hewitt imparted strong rhythmical and harmonic understanding to the external movements and pearly tone that might almost have been taken for Murray Perahia’s. The slow movement was graceful, if somewhat cool; I did not care for her staccato bass notes, though orchestral pizzicati hit the spot.

Stravinsky’s concerto for string orchestra was firmly announced at the very outset as being ‘in D’, echoing his piano Serenade in A. Pitch is crucial here rather than tonality, which remains a ghostly presence: D, rather than D major, is the thing. Motor rhythms, recalling sewing-machine neo-classical Bach, were imprinted upon the consciousness in an absolutely secure performance from the Britten Sinfonia. Articulation was first-rate, likewise interplay between the string sections. The slow movement sounded, as it should, as if it wanted to sing like Tchaikovsky, yet could not, or could not quite bring itself to do so. There was some beautiful string playing here, tonally alluring and alert to every harmonic shift. It sounded closer to Prokofiev than I can recall hearing before: more than fine with me, though I suspect that Stravinsky might at least have claimed to think otherwise. The finale was quirky yet never grotesquely so. Strong leadership from the front desk of first violins (Gould and Beatrix Lovejoy) recalled The Soldier’s Tale.

Hewitt returned for what Alfred Brendel rightly called ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world,’ Mozart’s first truly great piano concerto, no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271. The first movement received a perky reading, with nicely shaded piano contributions, unerringly tasteful. In this work, and this work alone, however, I missed a greater body of strings, and more generous string vibrato. The orchestra sounded properly dark in the slow movement, yet low-calorie vibrato led to some whining moments: a pity. Oboe solos, however, were especially fine. Hewitt contributed a true sense of drama, her playing far from merely pretty; that said, I did not care at all for the abrupt conclusion. This is an aria from start to finish. The finale was full of life, and again nicely shaded, both orchestrally and pianistically. I almost forgot my desire for greater tonal refulgence: the English Chamber Orchestra at least, though the Vienna Philharmonic would be preferable. Yet the extraordinary slow minuet interruption sounded skated over, wanting profundity; it failed to tug the heart strings as it should. The final bars, however, were enchanting.

Sitkovetsky’s Goldberg transcription is a wonderful discovery (for me, that is: it has been around for a while). I cannot imagine a string transcription more inventive without being unduly fussy. Here solo, tutti, and somewhere-in-between passages alternate with such natural ease that one might almost imagine one were listening to a Baroque concerto grosso. The shift from the opening Aria to the fully scored first variation sounded just that way, and what a relief it was that the players employed considerably more vibrato than they had in the Mozart. Gould’s solo in the Aria sounded almost Romantic, at least in contemporary terms, and was all the better for it. Tempi were always well chosen, with a keen sense of variety but also of overall progression. Counterpoint was not only clear but harmonically meaningful. Where necessary, there was a creditable, almost Handelian sturdiness, so pitifully absent from most Bach performances nowadays, yet by the same token, the players showed fleetness of foot when required. Minor-mode variations, and not just the ‘Black Pearl,’ revelled in Bach’s chromaticism, leading us towards Berg whilst also suggesting the dignity of the ancient viol consort. The celebrated ‘Black Pearl’ itself had an entirely apt French – dare I suggest Purcellian? – lilt to its stately progression, its beauty gravely frozen. Rich tone indeed was applied to the delightful Quodlibet, a just reward for a fine performance, before solo instruments returned for the closing Aria. Everything was the same, yet everything was entirely different. Bach-lovers must take comfort where they can in a reductive age, actively hostile to the challenges the composer sets: here was not only comfort but inspiration.