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Friday 18 March 2011

Old news: an indulgence

If you'll not mind the indulgence, I want to post a year old review, referenced in the last post, which never made it into print. It's clumsily written, but my admiration comes across. I remain completely in awe of the achievement of these students:

Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is an operatic experience quite unlike any other, truly Sui generis, the antithesis of the clichées of fat ladies, histrionics and melodrama that forms the basis of so much standard operatic fare. It is one of the most beautiful of all operatic scores, possessing a uniquely rarefied air, a subtlety of scoring, pungency of harmony and delicacy of atmosphere of an order and type that is without real precedent (pace Parsifal) or true successor (pace Ravel) in the operatic repertoire.

The staging was a bold one - monocrome hues of blue and grey lit a set redolent of a decaying urban wasteland, with costumes hinting at a similarly grim setting - some kind of terrifyingly beautiful dystopian future, a civilisation at its nadir. The various set items were completely static and unchanging throughout the opera which served to superbly illustrate the many common threads, allusions and portents that riddle the plot - the bed of passion becomes the sick bed, the well becomes the stagnant pool. The characters drifted listlessly through the haze in almost agonising stillness in the first half, a fearful coolness and pall of sickness veiling their actions, with the deeply symbolic plot being revealed in the harshest and most unsettling way. At first the starkness of the cold dim lighting and industrial set seemed at complete odds with Debussy's sumptuous music but it actually served to highlight and strengthen the human interactions - the faces, hair and hands of the cast taking on an almost heightened softness and luminosity such that the tiniest actions took on the greatest expression and emotion.

The second half contains the emotional core of the opera and was a welcome respite after the first half, the subtle delicacy of the sung text and orchestral texture elevated to heights of immense emotion and drama. A particular highlight was the tower scene, perhaps the finest moment in the opera, here almost unbearably intimate and tender, so beautifully sensual and understated in its eroticism - truly superb singing, acting and directing on show here.

The cast was extremely strong, not just in their singing abilities but also in their acting. Gwilym Bowen's Pelléas, the ineffectual and effeminate non-hero of the opera was wonderfully characterised, Bowen singing with great sensitivity throughout. Choosing to cast Pelleas as a light lyric tenor was an inspired choice: this coupled with the bleakness of the production brilliantly accentuated the character's youthful ardour and hapless naivity.

Golaud's tortured outbursts were wonderfully handled by Christopher Dollins, whose relationship with Louise Kemeny's Melisande had real substance. Kemeny sang beautifully throughout, again characterising the youthful Melisande's flitting lyricism and ineffectualness with sophisticated style. Arkel's elliptical orations were delivered with powerful gravitas by Christopher Law and Josephine Stevenson's Yniold was puckish and charming.

Debussy's fragrant tissues of sound were conjured with great skill and exactitude by conductor Christopher Stark with the orchestra he had assembled allowing the intoxicating perfume of orchestral colours to bloom, hum and ripple. The orchestral playing was uniformly of a very high standard, with wonderful points of colour and a real efficacy on the later nights.

Stravinsky's Rake

A few of weeks ago I saw a great student production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Cambridge, but I am not going to review it in depth. Christopher Stark was conducting, and I'm always impressed by his sense of enterprise and ambitiousness - he conducted an exquisite Pelléas and Mélisande as a student opera production last year - neither work is standard fare for amateur productions and both times the standard was superb. The singing from all, including the chorus (thank you Cambridge choral training!), was excellent, and the staging and directing was simple but very good. Very enjoyable indeed. Not quite the time stopping wonder of last year's Pelléas, but then it's a very different opera.

So what do I actually want to write about? Stravinsky's extraordinary music. This opera may be the most touching thing Stravinsky ever wrote - just occasionally in this piece, he relaxes the steely self concealment and perfect control and lets a bit of sentiment slip out, as this most emotionally demonstrative of genres requires. The farewell scene, Tom's brothel Cavatina, Anne's monologue, and most touching of all the final delirious reconciliation between the two leads are all very moving, even if they are still perhaps the most restrained utterances of their kind in the operatic repertoire. And they are only moving in relief from, and contrasted to, the normal tone of the opera: charmingly and cleanly neo classical, fast-paced, clear-hued, seeming almost naive in it's directness, if it weren't all so masterfully constructed.

This opera is Mozartian in a way that Strauss' "Mozart pastiches" never are (Der Rosenkavalier as Mozartian is one of the strangest and most disingenuous clichées that one hears repeated endlessly in musical criticism). Stravinsky famously had an aversion to Wagner (and Strauss) and this opera may well be the least Wagnerian opera of the 20th century; not just un-Wagnerian but anti-Wagnerian. References to his model, particularly to Don Giovanni, are everywhere: most obviously the division of music into numbers (arias, ensembles, cabalettas etc.) and recitatives (replete with harpsichord), but also the grave-yard scene, the dramatic descent of the sinful character into hell with accompanying fire and brimstone (though notably Mozart sends his Rake to hell, whereas Stravinsky does not), and most tellingly the moral drawn at the end with the characters addressing the audience directly.

Also Mozartian is the perfect sense of pacing and convincing comic tone (Auden's superb libretto, indeed Da Ponte-ian in quality, plays a large part here), the dramatic believability, the depth and range of emotion expressed with such felicity and such understatement (Mozart unquestionably more varied and natural in this however), warm invention of the orchestration (chamber in scale), rhythmic bouyancy, the elegantly pliant vocal lines (here wrought and sculpted with the text often oddly accented, contrasting with the completly "natural" expression in Mozart). Stravinsky the magpie is fully on display (Purcell, Gluck, Donizetti and early Verdi also part of the gumbo), albeit with (barely) more transformation of his source material than in the Pergolesi and Tchaikovsky reworkings. Stylistically in fact there is less transformation, and in some ways this is the greatest and most serious pastiche ever composed, though this pastiche is unusual in that it is never sentimental and only rarely affords us an ironic sidewards glance. A noticable discrepancy in approach with his echt-classical predecessor: Stravinsky can't help repeating musical material attatched to certain characters and moods as memory plays such an important role in the opera. This is nothing like Wagnerian Leitmotivic usage of course, but certainly not the Classical operatic practice of never repeating thematic material outside a "number". Stravinsky is too concerned with cyclicity, recollection and unity to completely shirk this useful innovation (though Mozart's late operas also each maintain remarkable unity... more on this at a later date).

The comparison with Strauss is again telling if we consider the orchestration. Both are masters of the orchestra but completely antagonistic in approach and effect. Stravinsky thrives on paucity of resource, and often does the most magical conjuring with the smallest and strangest instrumental combinations. To take an example: In Act 1, Scene 3, ("No word from Tom") the introduction scored for oboe, cor anglais and bassoon which in it's mournful caress nostalgically remembers the opening duet for the lovers (shades of Cosi), whilst simultaneously evoking the atmosphere and background of the scene too - has such a simple combination of instruments ever been more uniquely memorable or perfectly apt in every parameter? The timbre of the instruments, their registral characteristics combined with their voicings and spacing, and the rhythms employed are masterfully and artlessly united to perfectly set the scene here - the result in its way as atmospheric as anything in Strauss' orchestral paint-box. The effect is that one can always hear everything and keep track of all sounding elements in real time, whilst at the same time appreciating that the whole is somehow indescribably greater than its parts - as in Mozart, there's the feeling that there's nothing mysterious here, but like the magician who seems to show you his empty hands and demonstrates the plainness of the objects on the table, you still end up surprised and beguiled.

Strauss is of course the supreme master of orchestral opulence (better than Korngold, who tends towards aural blandness because everything is always piled on as thick as it will go), the large orchestra bending to his incredible fantasy and perfect control due to his consummate understanding of what it can do. The effect is always an integrated "whole orchestra" conception, the variously dizzyingly frothy, stridently heroic or warmly glowing wash of sound completely concealing its own means. Stravinsky's rate of ideas is much higher, which is part of what lends his music its compelling and uncapturable edge, but Strauss' rate of notes is by far the greater, and as they rush by, they completely overwhelm the senses.

The Rake's Progress is one of the finest operas of the post war years and represents in some respects an apotheosis of the neoclassical style. Schoenberg had just died when it was composed, and Stravinsky subsequently moved on to his final and least known period, finally able to embrace serialism which he had always seemed made for, now that the shadow of the German giant no longer loomed so large.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Flawed Masterpiece?

La Clememza di Tito
Hackney Empire
English Touring Opera

Mozart's last opera is problematic because it's patently so much worse than the four towering masterpieces that preceed it. The clichées for once are true - The secco recitatives are for the most part dull (the work of another hand), the arias only intermittently inspired. It has a curious atmosphere of simplicity, and a certain reserve that seems at once befitting of it's old fashioned seria style, and not quite enough to make the drama really live. Although the situations presented in the opera are in principle quite interesting, the libretto itself is really very plain (occasionally ridiculous, usually with regard to Tito's much put upon goodness), all the characters except Vitellia fairly simple and the action badly paced. The second act particularly drags - one just wishes that each of the scenes had been cut in half, so emminently and easily achievable since all are so longwinded and repetitive. Many people nowadays proclaim it as an unfairly neglected masterpiece, and of course there are moments of brilliance, a few arias that delight (none thrill) but however hard I try to convince myself that this is a hidden gem, the feeling of etiolation and exhausted churning in Mozart's music is hard to stave off. Whether the fundamental plainness and classical reserve of the score can truly be chalked up to a stylistic decision on Mozart's part remains very questionable, especially when one returns to the endless vitality, depth and extraordinary beauty of the "big four".

The ETOs new production sets the action around war time (who is Tito meant to represent amongst European leaders of that era though?!) which has been done before with this opera, and at least rescues it from the distancing effect of togas and spears - we need all the help we can get if we are to identify with these characters. The staging is simple and fairly static, and seems apt for the music - bizarre then that the ETO would so completely mischaracterise the piece in their publicity for the show. They don't manage to ameliorate the langours, but moments in the score do emerge with an understated poignance, particularly Tito's monologue on the travails and pains of leadership, and Vitellia's final monologue which verges on the heartbreaking (again perhaps it's good that it doesn't go all the way, as there isn't any weepiness in the music). I'm struggling for things to say - basically as a whole it's fine, but hardly revelatory. It's sung in English which takes a long time to adjust to. I really don't see the need for this when there is not one, but two sets of surtitles bookending the stage.

The singing was mostly of a very high standard indeed and the intimate scale of the Hackney Empire means that every word and nuance can be heard with clarity and precision. The diminuative Mark Wilde made an ideal Tito, vocally as sweet and pliant as his character. Only a couple of times did he seem overstretched during the climaxes and the coloratura required in his act two aria just wasn't in place, but the timbre and demeanour seemed just right. Gillian Ramm as Vitellia also convinced - both her arch manipulativeness in the first act and touching contrition in the second were made convincing by her acting. The voice is really quite beautiful, but rarely blooms as fully as you want it to and feel that it probably could. Julia Riley, Rhona McKail, Charlotte Stevenson and Philip Spendley are all good vocally and do the best they can with their more one dimensional characters. If only the music they had to sing was a touch more inspired!

Photos copyright English Touring Opera.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Review: Aida

8th March 2011
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I didn't catch this David McVivar production last time round, and now I see why people complained about it when it was premiered last year. I very much liked McVicar's "brothel" Rigoletto that was revived earlier this season - the staging's darkness and decay provided a real sense of atmosphere and an unnerving immediacy. Here the McVicar taste for bewbs and blud has become a trope, expected and dull. The idea of a big rotating wall panel that features so powerfully in his Rigoletto makes a return here, but it looks tacky and cheap - above all pointless - it's become a cliché, included for it's own sake. The turntable in the centre is virtually never not moving, sometimes serving no purpose other than to inject a tiny bit of motion into an otherwise static scene.

What's really awful about this production though is the sort of sci-fi borrowing from all cultures in an attempt to make some sort of timeless ancient/futuristic empire, primitive, yet sophisticated etc. as we see endlessly on Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape and the like. The result of course, is anything but timeless and reminds one of Las Vegas style High Kitsch - the best quality tack that money can buy. The lighting is often garishly colourful, again adding to the TV Sci-fi feel of it. Hard to take seriously.

The thing is, what do we do with these spectacle operas these days? Hard to know. Ultra traditional seems to fit the frank bombast of the music but is alienating and seems anathema to the zeitgeist (thankfully Zeffirelli's cast of a thousand/chocolate box approach seems to be firmly on the wane). Modernisation often seems an appealing alternative but can leave the music feeling oddly ungrounded and inappropriately conventional for the setting (or more likely the otherway round). This McVicar production is a sort of unhappy amalgam of both approaches, Hollywoodish and completely without taste or style.

The singing was quite decent throughout. I've never been the greatest Alagna fan as he's not a great actor and the voice just doesn't thrill me (not to mention his annoying haircut), but he produced some nice sounds here and he really warmed up towards the end. Olga Borodina as Amneris was in glowing voice - probably the best of the performance. It's a very large dramatic voice but doesn't compensate in beauty of tone - I'd love to hear her in the Verdi Requiem or in Wagner. In her deportment, acting and physical stage presence she was however completely unconvincing as a young woman. Micaela Carosi as Aida is the cast's weak link - consistantly flat, a very wide slow vibrato, just two volumes (loud and inaudible). It sounds like it might have been a nice voice once, but it's not pleasant as it stands. The three bass roles were all strong but Vitalij Kowaljow as the High Priest Ramfis stood out - such tremendous power and force in the tone without it ever sounding strained or wobbling.

Call me a plebian, but for me Aida doesn't really sustain interest musically until Act 3, with Amneris' monologue and then the final duet/trio which here caught me off guard because it was genuinely moving in what had been a largely uninvolving performance in Acts 1 and 2. The orchestra was on fine form, Fabio Luisi's conducting solid but not inspired. A strange evening's entertainment...

Saturday 5 March 2011

Dialogues des Carmelites

Dialogues des Carmélites
5th March 2011
Guildhall School of Music

Poulenc's music is difficult to pin down. It's always at once completely recognisable as his own even whilst he simultaneously flagrantly steals from other composers that he holds dear. So Stravinsky, Satie, Chabrier, Fauré, Gounod, Ravel and Bartok as well as Vaudeville, Ragtime and Jazz crop up all the time in his music, completely untransfigured by his own touch: he follows Stravinsky's advice to the letter - "the great composer doesn't borrow, he steals"! The tone is irreverant, playful, gay (both joyous and camp), delighting in diversion; when religious subjects are tackled, melodrama and mawkish sentimentality also come into play. Somehow, despite the fundamental lack of technique, it all works extraordinarily well, and this frabjous and vulgar admixture can become genuinely moving at its frequent best. For me best of all are the extraordinary chamber works (above all the flute and cello sonatas), and songs continuing in the noble tradition of Duparc, Fauré and Ravel.

Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites is his attempt at grand opera, and unlike the flippant mastery of the earlier light opera Tiresias' Tits (Les mamelles de Tirésias), it doesn't at all convince. The unlikeable tacky religious kitsch (not even likeable in a camp "good because it's bad" way) of the situation and music as well as the poverty of the actual musical material makes for a long evening. Though the characters are strongly drawn, they are hard to relate to - what are we to make of the eliptical and abnormal reasoning of the minds of the devout, whose attitude to life and death is so different from our own? Only Soeur Constance is really likeable, but because she's so explicitly normal and seems to lack the strangeness of the order's religious sentiments (until the ending that is). The music in Carmelites makes one almost suspect a confectionary misspelling - sickly sweet and pleasurable in small quantities but actually of little nutritious value. There are a few scenes that stick out but the lack of real musical invention makes it a dull overall listening experience. The final scene, where the nuns walk one by one to the scaffold is very arresting and attains a sort of mastery, and is at the very least very beautiful: the nuns sing Salve Regina to an inappropriately erotically opulent setting typical of Poulenc's lovely religious music (the prayers in act two get the same treatment).

One of the joys of seeing student opera productions is one only rarely afforded by medium sized houses like the ENO and almost never by organisations like the Royal Opera House: that of spotting new talent. The cast was in general very strong, especially the four main female leads. Most notable for me were Natalya Romaniw as Blanche and Sophie Junker as Soeur Constance.

Romaniw is a lyric voice but one feels that she might mature into dramatic repertoire very well - particularly the upper register is very beautiful and radiantly powerful: one is reminded a bit of Gundula Janowitz in this regard. She'd surely do well in one of the high lying Strauss roles like Arabella, or even maybe Daphne when the voice is ready.

Junker was completely charming as a stage personality and in voice - exactly what you want in a soubrette - I immediately wanted to see her as Susanna, and the voice's purity and shimmering beauty again made me think of Strauss roles - Sophie and Zdenka and maybe Zerbinetta if the coloratura is there (the part of Soeur Constance didn't require any to be on show). Perhaps these two could do Arabella together someday.

Ok, this wasn't much of a review, so shoot me. Please don't actually.

Thursday 3 March 2011

LSO Review: Mahler and Shostakovich

2nd March 2011
Barbican Hall
Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO with Mario Brunello, cello.

This interesting program of heavyweight material - Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, followed by Mahler's 9th Symphony left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. Something about the entire evening was quite unsatisfactory. Not the LSO, who were as ever on very fine form indeed, and firmly remain for me the best orchestra that these shores have to offer. The concert with Previn a few weeks ago with Tim Hugh as the eponymous hero of Strauss' Don Quixote followed by Vaughan Williams' most personal symphony, the 5th, was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.

Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto is for me the finest piece of his later years, and remains my favourite work of a composer whose oeuvre contains many favourites for me (and so much that I'd gladly never hear again!). Relatively little known, and completely eclipsed in the concert hall by the histrionics of the more traditional, showier first concerto (also a masterpiece of course), the second cello concerto of 1966 is a brooding, mysterious work, but one in which Shostakovich manages to integrate his conflicting musical characters as successfully as he ever did - the agony and the ecstacy, the sublime beauty and violent coarseness, reckless irony (oh, that overused word!) and real emotional depth. Crucially there's no posing like we find with the manipulative emotional fakery of the war symphonies, and here we seem to see Shostakovich for who he is: nervous, damaged, suffering, numbed but also deeply sensitive and loving - the glimmers of hope offered by the ecstatic beauty of a few passages offering some respite from the greyness that threatens to consume all. Most importantly the music: all of the highest order and nothing feels by rote as it can sometimes feel with Shostakovich ("suffering by numbers") or just plain shoddy as is equally often the case.

This line that Shostakovich treads so well between pained grimness and aching beauty is for me his principle achievement in a century which has so many lesser examples of composers attempting a similar thing (his musical children Schnittke and Pettersson being the most famous, and most irritating examples). Though Mahler is of course the most apt comparison here the seed goes back to the 19th century with Schubert's "laughing through tears" and Wolf's depressive glimmering with Schutz and Bach distant figures in the background if only because they convincingly expressed deep pain with such beautiful music.

The soloist was Mario Brunello (who he?) apparently a Tchaikovsky competition winner when it still mattered (that is pre 1989). The basic approach was extremely mannered - long stretches of no vibrato with nothing else of note to make such an effect expressive, full glissandos between all intervals greater than a third (not tasteful portamenti - slow glissandos), all over the playing rather colourless and expressionless. It's true that at times the work inhabits a curious limbo, impassive and unfeeling - but it's the music that expresses this - nothing extra needs to be added (or taken away) - Shostakovich works best when played as a romantic rather than as a modern (because really that's what he is). Overall it was just rather subpar cello playing - the LSO cellists displaying much finer gifts both in this concert and in previous ones I've attended (notably the recent Don Quixote). The note from Brunello in the programme should have raised an eye-brow (beware the artist too eager to offer explanations of their art!) - he relates a story of how he met Rostropovich when studying the score, who offered an illustrative example in a parallel art form to discuss the work - in this case Nikolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat". Brunello then goes on a huge flight of fancy about how each aspect of the plot is illustrated in the score, an undertaking both utterly tedious and completely unnecessary. Rostropovich's suggestion would have been a spur of the moment inspiration, a sudden connection which seemed to illustrate his point at the time - another beautiful example of this being the time he compared the first note of Bloch's Schelomo to a pantomime act by Marcel Marceau which depicted an entire life in a single movement. The uninspired artist takes this at face value and tries to literally link the two, rather than see the image for it's didactic purpose. Gergiev seemed to have little grip on the score, with neither the huge arch of the first movement or the granitic episodes of the last making any long range impact - the whole thing felt bitty and unsatisfying.

So then from Shostakovich to Mahler, that other suffering genius. Mahler's problematic oeuvre suffers from the same inconsistancy as Shostakovich's although by no means to the same degree; those Mahler "fanboys" who swallow it all up with such uncritical fervency (a depressingly commonly experienced attitude - the ones who will give any and all performances of a Mahler Symphony a standing ovation) are doing the music a disservice by devaluing the true greatness of that portion of his output which really is of the first rank. For me Mahler's principal value and appeal lies in his Symphonies no.4 and no.10, almost all his lieder (above all Das Lied) and then isolated movements from the rest of the symphonies (most have considerable high points).

The supreme example of the latter is surely the first movement of the 9th symphony - maybe the most perfect single movement he ever wrote, so perfect in fact as to make the rest of the symphony seem redundant because so unnecessary (as Robin Holloway points out). The second movement and to a certain extent the third are just bad music, especially when contrasted with the first movement, a comparison which Mahler himself compels us to make. And the last movement paradigmatic of all that is good and bad in Mahler - on the one hand, the opening is about as beautiful a thing as Mahler ever wrote, superbly scored, wistful and powerful, but at the same time so overwrought and OTT! The music make all the right gestures at hyper-expressively, a reflection of his hyper-sensitive character but we are always manipulatively held at a distance and we truly never see the real man - Mahler is just as much a virtuoso of the emotions as he is a master of the orchestra. But then he can't properly consummate it, the weepily sighing death of the ending just not coming off at all; it whiffs of tackyness, already hinting at a century of composition that was to take sincere, heartfelt tackyness to heights and depths never before witnessed in music.

Although his cycle of symphonies is undoubtedly very great qua music, Mahler is not a great symphonist per se and his achievement in this very particular discipline (as distinguished from writing music for orchestra) pales when held up to the previous generation of masters (Brahms, Bruckner, even Tchaikovsky) or his successors (Sibelius, Nielsen). That perfect jewel, the "little" 4th, is the only one amongst the completed symphonies that fully convinces in the longer range (and also completely throughout), and no.10 or what we have of it, would clearly have been the best thing he ever wrote had he had time to fully complete it - again the large scale architecture always clear and completely compelling, as well as the actual fabric of the music of blazing quality and inspiration almost throughout - everything that the 9th should have been in other words.

Gergiev's account of the 9th seemed quite strange - the unholy fire that seems to drive him through the music, uncomfortably energetic, rebarbative and just too aggressive - he plays it as if it's Shostakovich! This approach is well documented in his series of recordings which might thrill minute to minute but soon become exhausting in the wrong way. The impact of the first movement was lost to some extent - everything too loud, the climaxes truly vulgar in their blaring muscularity. My attention was drawn to Mahler's scoring - always sublime and completely faultless in the chamber like quieter passages where the extraordinary contrapuntal strength of his music can be seen to best effect. But in louder passages, Mahler can often miss fatally and added volume just becomes noise, strangely lacking in true power and impact; Strauss, his contemporary and only equal from this period for sheer skill and suavity in handling of the orchestra (Debussy and others are also very great, but in a narrower range), is a world apart in approach, and when he whips the orchestra up into a stentorian frenzy (as is his wont!), he virtually never disappoints.

The problem in approach was even more acute in the second and third movements, here so aggressive as to be barbarous and hysterical rather than sentimental and parodistic. The last movement was truly gorgeous, the LSO strings sounding voluptuous and glowingly intense, with so many beautiful points of solo colour that I felt like I was drowning in silky luxuriance. But after this aural feast I left the hall feeling rather empty, that this had been some kind of show piece, a display of extremes, which, if the piece is to make any kind of effect from it's already dubious material, is truly fatal.