Musings and updates at

Sunday 19 August 2012

Candide at the Edinburgh Fringe

Church Hill Theatre

At the Edinburgh Fringe you have to take risks about what you see, and just occasionally you are so amply rewarded that you remember why the fringe exists. An ensemble entirely comprised of members from Trinity Prep School (Winter Park, Florida) had come over for four performances of Bernstein's wonderful operetta Candide, and I was just bowled over by the quality of what they achieved. I talked to them afterwards to offer my sincere congratulations and they graciously accepted them, but the musical director Patrick Nugent didn't give the impression that anything was out of the ordinary - apparently they do about five shows a year, and if they're all of this standard, we are doing something seriously wrong over here in the UK. That 16, 17 and 18 year olds could not just perform this famously challenging piece, but do such justice to it, is an absolutely extraordinary feat.

The acting was uniformly excellent, about as good as I ever expect to see from kids of this age, all very believable, funny, and characterful. But the singing too was superb - always immaculately in tune, expressing the text brilliantly and just so controlled. None of course have mature musical theatre or operatic voices, and all still have a lot to work on technically, but they are all so securely on their way and singing so well that none have anything to fear. I asked whether this was a selective school for music, but the answer was no; to be able to cast every role in this opera superbly from a pool of "normal" kids, is amazing. Those that shone the most were Tommy Prast's Candide (sincere and very likeable), Riley Suter's Pangloss/Voltaire (smirking, urbane, wry), Olivia van den Berg's Old lady (outrageously and hilariously drawn), and above all Kathryn Kilger's Cunégonde. Again one has to remind oneself that Kilger is still only in high school, and of course the blending of registers and coloratura will not be in place yet, but this could well be a voice of the highest quality, already sounding very secure and focussed, with a lovely lyric timbre, and a top that just floats and floats with the most effortless beauty imaginable. I know sopranos twice her age that would kill for high notes like that.

Candide has never been a repertory mainstay probably because it really is an operetta and not a musical, it's very difficult to perform, has too many scenes and a confused structure, and is just far too subversive for the American mainstream - there's an abundance of rape, death, syphilis and criticism of Christianity. But it's also witty, fantastically well written, contains much of Bernstein's very best music, and has one of the most moving endings in lyric theatre. What a pleasure to see it so well done.

Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne


What a treat. I'll have to have a think and a look back over my blog, but as a knee jerk reaction, this maybe the best thing I have seen this season. Certainly it is amongst the top five.

Ravel's operas are both perfect gems, refined, glimmering, bijou masterpieces, the comedic foil and light counterpoise to Debussy's glowering masterpiece in the genre. And so Ravelian! Even more than might be said of most of his music, there's a strong feeling that these pieces are self portraits of some sort, reflecting precisely the character, interests, humour, mores and quiddities of their creator. The gentle joy of creation emanates from every bar.

Laurent Pelly is probably the most visually stylish director in opera at the moment, and having seen five of his productions now I have never been anything less than awed at his visual sense. There's always the feeling while watching his productions that however imaginative and quirky his ideas, that he's just got it so right in every way, and it seems difficult to imagine things being done better, or even otherwise. He knows what he likes and what he's good at too, focusing on the French repertoire, usually comedies, often in the margins of the repertoire.

L'heure Espagnol is a farce set in a clock makers shop in Spain, with an unfaithful wife who has her fun while her husband is out on an errand. The set is wonderfully simple - a wall of clocks and clutter and gubbins, with a single staircase and a shop counter, providing a slightly manic backdrop for the silly antics of the plot. I did think that a lot of the comic acting was a bit broad and unsubtly done, and the end was a bit facile, but largely it delivered the laughs required, and it just looked so good.

L’enfant et les sortilèges was even stronger. The old Glyndebourne production was a little literal and mundane, but here Pelly presents us with a nightmarish phantasmagoria of freakish objects come to life, so beautifully and disturbingly characterised and presented that we become the child, and feel his fear as our own. The way each of the short scenes erupts into the visual field and then fades into the blackness of the stage only to be replaced by another gives it the feel of a Disney montage on acid. For those that still want to see it, I don't want to ruin anything, but it was superbly done.

Great singing is really not the point of these operas, and they provide scant opportunities for singers to show off their voices (they really don't need star singers). While none of the voices here were exceptional, all were excellent and did full justice to the score - an excellent ensemble achievement. The real magic was happening in the pit with Kazushi Ono and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who shimmered and hummed, dazzling us with Ravel's score, every effect well considered and lovingly executed. Unfortunately the nervous titters of the audience, laughing any time that anything happened on stage (as is so often the case with operatic comedies) obscured much of the finer detail of the orchestral tapestry, but it couldn't mar ones enjoyment too much of what was a magical evening. 

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Makropulos Case at the Edinburgh Festival


I absolutely adore Janacek's operas, but even amongst these cherished works, the Makropulos Case occupies a particularly high position in my pantheon of favourites. The amazing thriller/sci-fi story and the themes it explores make it both exciting and thought provoking, and the score is one of Janacek's most urgent, gritty and terse, with moments of incomparable beauty and oddness. The beautiful little vignettes - the spanish madman, the "behind the scenes" at the theatre, the old diva harassed by obsessed fans, the young singer, the historical resonances - all add colour and life to the rather complex and otherwise quite dark and serious story, and although this isn't an opera about opera a la Capriccio, these winking details, and the fact that the heroine is an opera singer almost exactly as old as opera itself, give it a special charm and atmosphere all of its own. The final scene, where the heroine dissolves into death is breathtakingly captured in sound, and we feel her release in the almost Straussian apotheosis (Straussian in effect rather than in sound). It is one of my favourite things in all of music.

One difficulty with Janacek's opera is that it is only really the Emilia Marty that is a fully rounded, defined character, musically and dramatically. We see the world both from the perspective of her adoring fans where everyone is slightly dull and undifferentiated compared to her sharp brilliance, and also from her own perspective where the passing years have caused her to stop caring about other people, especially men. Living for three centuries has meant watching countless husbands, lovers and sons die before her; damaged by these experiences, she has become hardened to love and is now a tireless manipulator, able always to get exactly what she wants and she doesn't care at all about the consequences of her actions, acknowledging suicides in her honour with a dismissive joke and a sigh of irritation.* †

This choice of Janacek's has two consequences. The first is that the director needs to think very carefully about the myriad of ancillary characters and how to present them - should they be bland and similar, their passions and complaints irrelevant chatter, as Marty sees them, or should they be quirky and characterful but cruelly unfulfilled, each one a tale of personal tragedy, as they see themselves? Director Tom Kairns aims for the latter approach, aiming to delineate each as clearly as possible from the others, and if at times he doesn't quite go far enough in this direction, their fiery mood swings, impotent rages and bursts of desire contrast pleasingly with Emilia Marty's ennui and icy poise. There are incredibly telling moments too that register and resonate far more than usual, one notable example being the young Janek Prus, looking shattered and empty after being rejected by Marty at the end of Act II, being hoisted out by his father, the equally besotted Baron Jaroslav Prus, who then strikes up a deal with Marty for a night of passion in exchange for the document she so desperately wants. That Marty's power is so great that she can destroy a father's concern for his own child with a few words is here encapsulated with the greatest economy. In Act III we open with the post coital couple emerging from their bed, Marty now with dramatically greyed hair (wig removed), no longer desiring to keep up appearances now that she has what she needs.

The second consequence of Emilia being the only truly complex character, is that the singer playing the central heroine needs to have everything - not only a voice of immense resource and variety, but also a convincing and fascinating stage presence and significant acting abilities in order to be able to carry the show.    Ylva Kihlberg, a principal of the Royal Opera Copenhagen, is a much smaller voice than we are used to in this part - Janacek marks the part as for dramatic soprano, the only time he ever designated the fach of a part in any of his operas (Katya and Jenufa are usually cast as full lyric/spinto roles) - and indeed Kihlberg's other roles are all squarely in the lyric category. She also doesn't offer much timbral variety, and though the basic sound quite glamorous and attractive, it doesn't "open up" above the stave where it sounds a little constricted. Still, this is a respectable vocal effort for a role that is at least a size too large. Where she gets a lot of points is in her acting, her portrayal vampish, confident and laconically witty. She's steely still, but with more humour than what we usually see, and the sense that she's playing and having fun with these sadly enraptured men is brilliantly put across. In her rare moments of repose and reflection we see her for a second haunted by her memories, the things that have given her joy in the past, but which have become the cause of her spiritual death, before she regains control of herself and the situation. It's a gift of a part and Kihlberg rises to the challenge.

The opera is updated to the early 1950s from the early '20s of the original - Marty says she is 367 (or 369, she no longer knows for sure), rather than 337 as in the original libretto. The set is shadowy and moodily lit, with green walls and furniture demarcating various portions of the stage. Unfortunately, Hildegard Bechtler's sets are not quite stylish enough to frame the action in the film noire glamour that is being aimed at. It has been mentioned more than once that the mature Janacek's approach to opera is filmic, so it's a potentially interesting take that sadly doesn't quite come off here. The set for Act II is the same as Act I, but with furniture stacked and in disarray and wall panels shifted and rotated - maybe this was an attempt at some sort of meta-theatre (Act II occurs behind the scenes of an opera house), but if it was the idea wasn't developed. The clock is stopped in Acts I and II, just as it is for Marty, but in Act III, it races forward as she ages before our eyes. Overall, this production is a decent take on the opera, but isn't quite arresting enough to match Janacek's music.

The singing from all of the additional cast is good. Most impressive is Robert Hayward as Jaroslav Prus who's voice is rich and solid and suggests his character very well. Janacek tends to write a lot of tenor parts and Paul Nilon portrays the pathetically passionate Albert Gregor with impressive vigour. Everyone though is committed and accurate and the general level of acting is quite high. The English translation of the libretto is a good rendering of the original text, sounding always natural and conversational, and benefits from the lack of florid language in the original. In translation the piece is much funnier than usual, but Janacek's vocal lines are so indelibly, inexorably welded to the rhythms and meter of the original Czech, that one can't shake the slightly disconcerting feeling that something isn't quite right in the aural picture.

Unfortunately, the orchestra did not seem that comfortable with the piece, and though the general surge of the score was well put across, countless details of Janacek's quirky and wildly imaginative orchestration were swept over, or worse, just inaccurately played. Whether these things will improve as the run continues remains to be seen, but the orchestra seemed under rehearsed and often there were very significant balance issues, with brass and percussion completely overpowering in the climaxes. In the curtain calls, people cheered wildly enthusiastically for conductor Richard Farnes, but I'm assuming that most wont have been well acquainted with the score and were simply bowled over by its gritty sweep - that it might be even more wonderful than what was to be heard here means that there is surely still a treat in store for any who decide to investigate further.

*Her attitude to women is more ambivalent, and might be the subject of a whole other post.

† Of course we know that behind this, as with all Janacek's heroines from the 20's operas, is his beloved Kamila, captured here in the facet of cool indifference. In Vixen she is embodied wild, untameable folk creature, in Katya Kabanova, the passionate but crushed rural girl. That Janacek was able to transform his unrequited love for Kamila into the torrent of peerless masterpieces that he produced in his final decade, without ever becoming egoistic or narcissistic artistically is in its own way a small miracle.

Saturday 11 August 2012

A Mass of Life at the Edinburgh Festival


Delius' A Mass of Life is squarely in that category of grandiose gargantuanism that was clearly a big fascination for British composers at the beginning of the English musical renaissance around the turn of the century. The twin predecessors of this category of titanic works are clear: first the German line - Bach's Masses and Passions, Beethoven's Choral Symphony, Brahms' Requiem, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler 8, Gurrelieder - proving that, talent permitting, works of this ambition and scale were a real possibility, and then early English examples emulating this line (Parry, Stanford) with Elgar at the peak with his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius (1900), which cements the idea of the Big Choral Work as something achievable by English composers, followed by the comparatively disappointing and only intermittently inspired The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906), which were to have been two parts of an enormous trilogy.

The proliferance of works of this sort in England also derived from the will and means to perform them - the grand old tradition of the choral society as the cornerstone of British musical life even before it had major composers. A Mass of Life came early (1905) and is therefore particularly significant historically, but other works in this line include Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony (1909), Foulds' A World Requiem (1921), Brian's Gothic Symphony (1927) (though his Symphonies No. 2, 3 and 4 are all in this category too), in this company the relatively modest Belshazzar's Feast (1931), with later offerings from Howells (Hymnus Paradisi (1938), his masterpiece, then the larger but lesser Stabat Mater (1965) and thrusting Missa Sabrinensis (1954)), Finzi (Intimations of Immortality (1950)) and Britten (War Requiem (1962)).

Like most of these works, Delius' A Mass of Life isn't quite able to fully support its massive bulk as he lacks the technical musculature or the instinctive drive for the task. Its date puts it near the beginning of his maturity where he's still discovering what he can do and as such the work has stronger and weaker portions. At this stage his orchestration lacks the clear water colour luminosity of his prime, and things tend to get muddy, turgid, undifferentiated, (especially in live performance) until the quieter portions which occasionally hint at the dreamy atmosphere of his later works. Not just the orchestration though is responsible for this aural confusion- the slithering chromatic harmony lacks direction and pulse and is choked by its own complexity, though distinctive Delian drooping phrases do occasionally rear their head, as lines wilt and billow ever downwards and outwards.

It turns out that the work's finest portion by some margin, was actually composed first: the two final numbers Gottes Weh ist tiefer and Kommt Lasst uns jetzt wandeln were actually premiered separately in a slightly different form in 1899 - only here does Delius achieve the Wagnerian gravitas and Mahlerian intensity that the whole work so obviously aims at, in music of very special beauty. The rest of the piece reaches for the ecstatic and visionary tenor of the text, but feels overwrought and unremitting, impressive though the massed forces and huge choral outbursts can be. The selection of texts, all excerpted from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, sensibly eschew the more overtly philosophical tracts in favour of the more poetic portions of that book, though word setting rarely seems specific enough beyond communicating the general febrile fervour of the text.

No one could accuse the performance of lacking commitment or betraying a lack of belief in the work however - Andrew Davis lead a performance that was ceaselessly energetic and driven, though he ultimately failed to clarify the work's opacity or imbue it with more personality. The bolstered Edinbrugh Festival Chorus did extremely well in a very demanding sing, sounding magnificently full and fiery in the opening chorus, though the relentlessly high writing for the sopranos took its toll on the tuning in the final half hour of the piece.

The work also employs four soloists, of which the baritone has by far the lion's share of the material. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was truly magnificent in this part, singing with a flawless diction, a beautifully lightly coloured lyric line, and rising to Wagnerian climaxes which never sounded laboured or pressured. He's a singer very clearly in the line of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and his sound and approach invite instant comparison without Müller-Brachmann coming off badly in any way. The aforementioned final section was exquisitely sung and one can only hope that he will be engaged by the ROH for some Wagner or Mozart in the very near future.

The other soloists all sang well even if they lacked the special timbre and clarity of Müller-Brachmann. Anna Christy has a light, rather tweety voice, with an intense vibrato that makes her soprano a little edgy rather than silvery. Still, she sung her small parts with a nice legato and excellent intonation. Tenor Robert Murray sounded fresh and well matched to the baritone, but Pamela Helen Stephen, whose acting I so admired in the recent ROH Troyens, seemed a little out of sorts, with a lack of connection between notes and sounding slightly stressed and pushed in higher lying passages. Diction and tuning were very good however and there wasn't a question of not being able to sing it.

It's always interesting to see these behemoths in the concert hall because they are so rarely done - inevitably there will be disappointments, but Müller-Brachmann's singing and wonderful music of the last quarter hour of the work made it all worth while.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Rosenkavalier take 2 with Renée Fleming in Munich


Just as in her Baden Baden Ariadnes earlier this year, Renée seemed freer vocally on her second outing and was much better in her Act I monologue, with her trademark superb legato and sense of line returning in a much more natural and verbally unexaggerated portrait. In Act III she was back to the very parlando style of the previous night.

At the beginning of Act III, it was announced that Sophie Koch was quite unwell and would continue but couldn't sing anymore. She had given very fine performances of Acts I and II and I couldn't have told that anything was wrong. For the Mariandel scenes she spoke the lines, and then the production's Annina, Heike Grotzinger heroically filled in for the Octavian parts as Koch continued to act it. Given that it was such short notice Grotzinger did very well, but obviously it was sad not to be able to hear Koch's voice in the trio. I hope Koch makes a speedy recovery. It was quite informative to see Octavian's Act III dialogue spoken as it was usually still audible- you realised how lightly orchestrated his music is, and that this really is a lyric part despite it never sounding unimpressive. Strauss is the master. Sometimes Koch would just leave out a line, especially with the Marschallin, just bowing her head, and the emotion was still conveyed. Very interesting.

In the shop afterwards I saw the first copies of a new CD release of the 2009 Fleming/Koch/Damrau/Hawlata/Kaufmann/Thielemann Baden Baden Rosenkavalier that is being released elsewhere at the beginning of September. This'll be the same as the beautiful DVD version, which has fabulous orchestral playing, Fleming in strong form, and Kaufmann as the tenor!

I realised soon after posting the last review that I had entirely forgotten to write about the production's Faninal - Martin Gantner. Inexcusable, but isn't this always Faninal's lot? One of the most difficult, if not the most difficult of all Strauss' baritone roles, and the most thankless. Gantner was vocally incredibly solid, singing the role as if it presented no challenge whatsoever. I was quite impressed! Acting wise he didn't feel like a fully developed character, but I think this is partly the fault of the production which doesn't give him a very strong profile.

In the end I felt rather unmoved at the end of this evening. Whether it was because I was so far from the stage, or because of the problems in Act III I couldn't tell, but I think at least part of it is I find all the grandiose stage krammerei and crinolines slightly alienating and distracting from the essentially extremely intimate and small scale story. For many people precisely these stage features are a huge draw. Your mileage may vary. For me opera should never be about escapism though - it should be about learning to connect more deeply with yourself, other people and the world around you.