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Monday 14 February 2011

Anna Nicole: the musical?

Anna Nicole is probably the most eagerly awaited opera event in London this year. Her story is well known, or if it wasn't already then it is now as all the UK papers have been clamouring to do pieces on her life in the build up to this event; this guardian article covers her life story the best. What this opera attempts to do is an almost complete traversal of that life, in order, event by event. This is the its first problem. As was revealed at the end during the bows, the cast is massive - a huge number of characters, most with little to do; on the whole characters only appear in one scene and then are forgotten (some are lazily shoehorned into later scenes), and as this opera attempts to be a complete retelling of her life (the only major episodes that don't get covered are the reality TV show, and the major diet she went on after it) the whole thing seems too fragmentary and is too fast paced to get properly involved with.

Not once does the opera explore why Anna Nicole had this self destructive nature, and only rarely are we given a window into her psychological state - and even then we are only party to her immediate emotions. This is its second problem. Instead, almost all of the focus is on how her friends and family (and society) react to her flamboyant personality and outrageous antics, and we get witty and bitchy asides rather than character interaction and development. Although this adds to the entertainment and humour of the piece (as well as the predictable "we are all to blame, isn't society horrid" moral at the end) it also renders the piece rather pointless and bizarrely slightly dull in parts. You could argue that this shallowness is a reflection of the shallowness of the opera's protagonists, but shallow people can still make for excellent and gripping drama as Berg shows us so well.

So is the fault the composer's or the librettist's? It's hard to say for sure. The libretto mainly uses rhyming couplets, and is basically in the vernacular. The rhyming couplets don't seem weird because the music sounds so much like that of a musical, but it's all quite shallow stuff - lots of cheap gags and contemporary references, but other than these things, fails to add any depth to any of the situations presented in the opera. It's also predictably and aptly smutty, but makes the mistake of trying to shock as well as get laughs from the naughty language and lewd references. Only children and adolescents are actually shocked by swear words, which is why they use them so gleefully - and though I much appreciated the use of the phrase "cum-bucket" (surely the first in opera), it quickly became tedious. As any keen swearer knows, you need to save them up so that they maintain their impact and shock value.

An oddity of the libretto is that the characters regularly talk to the audience as a plot device to explain things and move the story on, either as in a documentary (with a microphone held in front of them), or by just addressing us directly. This is not altogether successfully done and we lose one of the layers of illusion that is required of opera; the characters seem like they are re-enacting scenes from Anna Nicole's life, rather than us witnessing them for ourselves and as a result the characters actually become more distant and it becomes even harder to sympathise or even connect with any of them.

The music doesn't help. It's mainly the sub-Stravinsky/jazz/blues/rock mixture that we've come to expect from Turnage (sometimes it's successful, sometimes not). The thing seems more like a musical though, i.e. plot driven, not musically driven, but at the same time it can't make up its mind - certain scenes are much more operatic in feel, and the sudden switching between styles seems jarring in a way that draws attention to the artifice of the situation again - one is forced to ponder the question: why is this piece of theatre being done to music, and not just as a play? Is the only reason to get more laughs? There are actually a few touching passages of music which sound like schmaltzy american songbook numbers with fairly tuneless operatic declamation over the top, but these seem too few and far between.

The second act is better than the first because there is less going on musically and dramatically, and a little bit of depth is created; there's also less cheap laughs which begin to get a bit tiresome by the end of the first act. The final scene with Anna sitting in the body bag waiting to die, surrounded by cockroach like cameras is actually quite stirring and moving, and maybe the works best portion, but seems too brief a climax for the piece.

The production reflects the music - it has the energy and pizazz of a musical, and costumes are all great and add a lot to the show. Everywhere drips in disneyfied kitsch, glitter and a Las Vegas glamour. One thing I can't explain is the floor being covered in spaghetti (a strange spaghetti western reference?). Sets are rather basic and lack much character, though replacing the opera house curtain with a customised one in cheap looking pink fabric, featuring Anna's face and body builders in place of the customary crest and details, and lips instead of roses is a nice touch. This extention of the theme outside of the stage is continued into the building itself - Anna's face graces the cherubs within the auditorium and then outside all photos are covered with an image of Westbroek as Anna, and all statues have their heads covered and replaced by the same portrait. Lighting throughout is truly excellent, and adds to the visual drama much more than one might expect. The opening and last scenes are especially brilliantly done in this regard.

All singers are boosted by microphones throughout - which although adding to the audibility of the text again seems to draw away some of the intimacy. That it is required (not officially as the opera house is keen to point out - it's just in this case it was deemed desirable apparently) is another pointer that the thing is confused about whether it is a musical or an opera - why hire such large voices as Gerald Finley and Eva-Maria Westbroek if they're going to be miked up? One wonders how much Turnage actually understands how singers sound in opera houses and how they can be effectively balanced with an orchestra...

On to the singing then, which is generally of a very high standard throughout. Eva-Maria Westbroek is superb in the lead role (though the score gives her very few opportunities to shine) and plays the part extremely well. If only the libretto allowed more depth (even shallow depth!) to supply the character with. Gerald Finley, the other superstar name in the production, is very good as Stern, Anna's lawyer, but his character is even less well fleshed out - not enough to get his teeth into. Susan Bickley as Anna's mother Virgie is initially a villain but then becomes a moral commentator on the action as is the opera's most interesting subsidiary character - Bickley sings and acts it beautifully. Alan Oke as the 89 year old J.Howard Marshall II sung well, but seemed too powerful of voice and too sprightly to be convincingly geriatric. All the other singers' appearances are so brief that it is hard to comment on them. Wynne "the-go-compare-guy" Evans is one such part as the Mayor of Mexia and his all too familiar voice seemed apt here.

As I write the run is completely sold out which is fairly extraordinary. The opera house has dramatically reduced the prices of all tickets (stalls were £80 maximum) presumably to attract more younger people. Obviously this is good in theory, but actually, if this is the first opera that people see, which I imagine will be the case for a high proportion of audience members, I'm not sure the opera offers enough to make people want to come back to something else.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Finzi, the Minor Master

Mark Padmore is currently touring with the Britten Sinfonia (if you can possibly see this combo, do it! both are firm favourites here) with Finzi's Dies Natalis and Walton's Sonata for Strings. A great pairing! Padmore has also written this thoughtful piece in the Guardian on Finzi's virtues, but I'm not sure he goes far enough into elucidating what makes Finzi's music so special.

Gerald Finzi was the first composer whose entire oeuvre I loved. Some composers just speak to the core of your being, every note resonates, and seems to sing to your soul. Later I discovered other soul mates: Ives, Barber, Janacek, Goldschmidt, Crawford Seeger, Schoeck and others, but Finzi was the first. In fact he was the composer who is responsible for my unquenchable thirst and passion for classical music. And it all started with his cello concerto which I first heard aged 15 on a Naxos recording by Tim Hugh:

I was staggered at the beauty of this work - it was a feeling of finally finding the music that I had been yearning to hear (I had a similar experience a couple of years later when I first heard Strauss' Four Last Songs). This is the performance to get of this work - powerful, passionate, deeply poetic, completely outclassing the turgid and by comparison sentimentalised and bombastic Wallfisch account on Chandos, or even the youthful Yo-Yo Ma on Lyrita. For a while my line was that this was an English cello concerto greater than Elgar's (I don't think this anymore, but it certainly gives that warhorse a run for its money, and I'd prefer to hear the Finzi any day!) and I thought if music as wonderful as this was so woefully neglected, then what other beauties laid uncovered?

After this major discovery, I quickly devoured the rest of his output, and to my delight it yielded similar delights. Ubiquitous is the hushed and understated beauty, an aching sense of nostalgia, and occasional visionary moments of ecstatic soaring before they subside into soft toned poetry again. The chief influences are his musical heroes - Parry and Vaughan Williams for the pastoral, with Walton for spice, and Bach, the honorary Englishman as a model of uncluttered, economical lyricism and true sentiment (not to mention counterpoint).

The limitations are obvious: lack of technique to sustain the ideas, little feel for conventional tonal relationships and form, a severe lack of range, inability to write extended periods of fast music. And a little later when I discovered the sophistications of the contemporaneous avant-guarde - early Messiaen, Berg, Schoenberg, Bartok - his music seems naive and poorly made in the minds ear... but then you listen again and all these doubts disappear, beautiful phrase following beautiful phrase, all sounding so natural and heart-felt, honest and that it couldn't have been done any other way. Finzi's music is similar in effect, if not technique, (and certainly not skill) to Fauré's: soft hued, lyrical, melancholic works of calm, unearthly beauty.

The basic speed of his music is Andante-Adagio, and this speed naturally arises from, and gives rise to his normal approach to word setting - syllabic, with plodding, ruminating accompaniments, the poetry being matched note for note with the most apt and true tones that Finzi can muster. In the purely instrumental works too, the Adagio predominates - the abandoned projects mostly stuttered to a halt after the writing of the slow movement - thus we have the violin Elegy (1940), rather than a violin sonata, the piano Eclogue rather than a concerto, a slow Introit as the only officially recognised movement of an early violin concerto (1925), a slow Prelude for strings (1920s) and a Romance (1928) from a projected chamber symphony, a slowish and not terribly successful Interlude for oboe and strings, rather than a multi movement oboe quintet. The early Severn Rhapsody (1923) and Nocturne (1926) are also both slow. There are characteristic "Finzi phrases" that keep reappearing in these pieces, and magical false relations and added notes abound, and everywhere baroque basslines falling step-wise.

But somehow this lack of range doesn't matter. The piano Eclogue (1929, revised two decades later) is one of the most touching, quietly ravishing works of the 20th century. The string miniatures, if limited in scope, are incredibly beautiful contributions to the string orchestra repertoire, with a real feel for the genre and for string writing in general. This again manifests itself in the Traherne setting, Dies Natalis (1939), one of his masterpieces, and one of the finest things written for tenor in English music. The tone painting here is subtle and always completely apt, the ecstatic, soaring phrases alternating with whispered revelations of the gentlest intimacy. And in his finest choral work, the anthem Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice (1946); has there ever been a more hushed and ravishing choral entrance, or a more quietly rapturous amen?

One of the greatest and most sensitive setters of the English word, he had a special affinity for Hardy with whom he felt a keen kinship with with regards to their many shared artistic and humanistic concerns - man's frailty the sense of the transience of life, the awesome beauty and power of nature. The four Hardy song cycles (1922 onwards) make up the back bone of his songs, and are the foundation and basis for everything else in his oeuvre. Not all are as great as the claims that have been made for them, but at their best, they are amongst the finest English songs of the English musical renaissance. Beautiful and deeply moving too are the Shakespeare settings (1942) and the lesser heard pieces for voice and orchestra - the two early Sonnets by Milton (1926) and the finer Farewell to Arms (1925-1944, half early, half late.). Finzi's style changed very little through out his life which meant that works maintained their unity despite often having extremely long gestation periods - often several years or even decades.

What does change is his skill in handling form and being able to construct larger canvases with greater confidence and skill. After the wartime Dies Natalis, the consistency of quality markedly improves, even if he doesn't always completely maintain it. For St.Cecilia (1947) is an impressive work, but ultimately feels a little forced in expression and fails to convince - but that Finzi could force expression at all was a major step for him. The incidental music for Love's Labours Lost (1947) shows this new found versatility to greater effect and is genuinely impressive to the sensitive listener of Finzi's music, even although in global compositional terms it might be dismissed as trivially simple in comparison to what was being conjured up by his contemporaries. The melifluously rhapsodic Clarinet Concerto (1949) has established itself as one of the major concertos for that instrument with its otherwise rather meagre repertoire; this piece points the way to the even finer Cello Concerto (1955). There's a spiffy and rather marvellous Grand Fantasia and Toccata for Piano and Orchestra too, another off cut of the piano concerto from the 1920s but revived and revised in 1953 - The fiercely powerful and improvisatory Fantasia is Finzi's clearest homage to Bach (most notably the chromatic fantasia and fugue) and is otherwise unprecedented in his output.

Intimations of Immortality (1930s -1950), is his largest and most ambitious work - a 45 minute setting for tenor soloist, choir and orchestra of Wordsworth's Ode, a text which had always been considered by common consent and good taste to be "unsettable", an attitude which Finzi dismissed as "bilge and bunkum". And though again it could hardly be said to be an unqualified masterpiece (it has structural problems imposed by the structure of the verse, and Finzi still can't write a proper scherzando passage which sustains its energy, at least not without shamelessly stealing from Walton's Belshazzar's Feast), the work still almost inescapably wills one to attach that word to it. It needs a good performance to bring it off, but certain melting phrases ("A rainbow comes and goes"), and whole portions (such as the epilogue) keep one returning and allow initial scepticisms to fall away and relax into admiration and amazement at the ambition of it and what has been achieved.

The Magnificat (1952) is a decent if ultimately uninspired piece, but finest among the choral works that post date Intimations is the Christmas piece, In Terra Pax (1954), a setting of Bridges. This piece is a perfect gem, and with the cello concerto provide a complete vindication of Finzi's lifelong compositional struggles, his halting successes and failures. The discovery of a universal message in the intensely personal setting, the text and pastoral writing a simultaneous painting of the Shepherd's flocks by night of the bible and a homage to his beloved Cotswalds, the rapt atmosphere the piece evokes, the exquisite details in the vocal and orchestral writing large and small, the agnostic solace found in the religious story, the yearning nostalgia and the visionary glory of the angels' message all make this a beautifully apt summation of his career.

The Cello Concerto (1951-55) in A minor is completely different in mood and tone and suggests things that may have been to come. In 1951 Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a type of lymphoma, but he continued on as if nothing had happened, and he told few people that his days had been numbered. From the opening orchestral sweep, the first movement is stormily dramatic, fateful, though defiant in tone - a man railing with nature and the cruelty of his predicament; at least, this reading is a tempting one to posit. But it is also celebratory and gloriously beautiful. And here also a confidence and mastery is sustained that has only rarely been achieved before. The slow movement is the crowning glory in a career of ravishing slow movements - so gentle and beautiful that one can't help but be swept away. If one was being really fair, it's a touch too long, and the scherzo that starts within it (a la Rachmaninov piano concerto no.2, as Stephen Banfield points out) as usual climaxes and dies away too soon, but a lovelier movement it would be difficult to imagine. The rondo finale that emerges from the mists is a tuneful romp in the same mode as the finale of the clarinet concerto, and again one is impressed at the assurance in the handling of a fast movement, especially as so much of it was written in a few days, where Finzi might have taken months or years before. The whole thing ends with a darting and mercurial flicker, perhaps a final attempt to flee from death, and then, echoing the three fleeting ascents and hammer blows at the end of the first movement, a final ascent into the ether and maybe a brief glimpse of the beyond, before the final hammer blow. It was the last music Finzi heard, lying in the hospital in late September 1956, and the next morning he was dead.

In all this, his wife Joy has not been mentioned. Theirs was a marriage that was truly happy and loving right to the end. Early on in their relationship, he tried to set any poems he could find with the word joy in them; his final piece of music, composed a month before he died, is a song to a poem by Robert Bridges entitled Since we loved and is a beautifully poignant and fitting tribute to Joy, his life and his art. (Stephen Banfield in his superb biography points out that the penultimate line "All my songs have happy been" is however "glaringly untrue"!)

Though shy and retiring, he was in his small way a modern renaissance man, cultured, immensely well read and extraordinarily inquisitive about almost everything and everyone he came into contact with. He was very interested in up to the minute contemporary music, encouraged many young composers and resurrected the works of many minor English baroque masters (with whom he no doubt felt an affinity with). He set up and conducted the Newbury String Players and was in the best sense an amateur, and proud of it. Suspicious of the young Britten's empty professionalism (a charge perhaps well founded in this composer's lesser early pieces), he saw Vaughan Williams as the greatest British musical figure of the day, and they remained close friends until the end of Finzi's life.

Monday 7 February 2011

Olivier Awards

Three for the Royal Opera House, three for the ENO. Well who else is seriously going to get nominated in the opera categories?!

I'm most pleased about Christian Gerhaher getting nominated in the singer category - I've long been a fan of his singing of the German lieder repertoire - rare to get such intelligent sensitivity to the text, intensity and beauty of tone from the same singer. His approach in opera seems to be the same - very thoughtful, beautifully nuanced performances, the effect a combination of understated acting, lieder-like delivery, and a well projected, but never less than beautiful sound. You'll notice I'm using the word beautiful a lot, but that's what comes to mind: his was a truly beautiful performance in the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach which made you really believe that this was a great epic poet in front of you, and raised the tone of the production from quite good, to almost magical. He's a very serious singer and I imagine will keep a very narrow repertoire of mainly German roles - certainly nothing frothy and Italian.

Jonas Kaufmann was born in the same year as Gerhaher and is a much more visible star in the constellation of opera singers. I enjoyed him in Adriana Lecouvreur and he was certainly better than the rather subdued and tiny voiced Gheorghiu, but again I feel he is best in German repertoire - his Verismo CD is excellent, but it's his Strauss lieder CD and German Arias CD which are really special. Though I'm an unashamed Strauss fanatic, the lieder with piano accompaniment had always seemed unfinished, a half way house on the way to the miraculous orchestral versions that were bestowed on some of them, that is, until I listened to his Strauss recital. It really has to be heard to be believed: the soaring, burnished tone convinces one that Strauss could write for the male voice after all! As I say though, magnificent though it is, his Italian singing isn't quite in the line of the greats, at least not yet, whereas I think his German repertoire is truly stellar.

Onto the productions. Adriana Lecouvreur was actually stunning to look at, quite traditional, but just so inventive and well done. It just felt right. If only the opera was more deserving: it's got a couple of good arias, but in general, it's just generic verismo schlock with one of the most confused and annoying plots in opera. I never understand when people complain about opera plots being "ridiculous" - the whole conceit of opera is ridiculous - obvious examples include: singing your innermost thoughts; singing duets would be people talking at the same time if translated into real life; Salome, the prurient nubile teen being played by 50 year olds etc. etc. Whether the scenario is realistic is not what ruins opera plots; what really ruins them is if they are difficult to follow, lack internal logic, and require characters to contradict themselves to move the plot forward. Adriana Lecouvreur seems to get done quite a lot though, and I've noticed that a lot of opera singers are oddly sentimental about it.

A Dog's Heart was classic ENO at what they do best - modern and contemporary opera, in a modern staging, unbeholden to operatic convention or audience expectation. The best bits were the projections and the dog itself (the puppetry, the voices), and though the music was decent enough, I'm not sure it was good enough to warrant a recording say. A long but enjoyable evening though, and I'm sure it'll get revived. Purely as a production though, Adriana deserves to win.

How much do these things actually matter in the Opera World? Surely not all that much, but it's nice to see your favourites recognised by others, and it's a good excuse to write about them! Other people that need to win something, somewhere: Elizabeth DeShong for her recent stunning Orsini in the ENO's Lucrezia, and also Amanda Roocroft for her Makropulos also at the ENO (the wonderful production was a revivial and therefore not eligable for Olivier nomination).