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Monday 17 March 2014

Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the ROH


17/03/14 - some corrections and comments have been made for the second night performance, altogether a better experience.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of those cultish operas that is a bit of an event when it is staged, because it's not quite standard repertoire, has the moniker of "Strauss's most ambitious opera", and is difficult to work out musically and philosophically, though many make great claims for it. Few would yield to me in my love of Strauss, but that shadowy cadre of Straussians for whom bigger is better, who claim that Die Frau Ohne Schatten is "Strauss's greatest opera", are in my opinion very mistaken. Robin Holloway has written brilliantly about this fascinating opera and calls this attitude "taking the will for the deed" i.e. accepting the lofty intentions of the creators as the measure of the worth of a work, rather than evaluating the actual artwork that lies in front of our senses and critical faculties. If Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Figaro, a bittersweet comedy that inhabits a bustling, full, social world, Die Frau Ohne Schatten was intended as their Magic Flute - a fairy tale parable with a transcendent message. It is set in a mystical world with two couples - one "high", one "low", there are mysterious gods, trials, and an improving moral. But the purity and charm of Die Zauberflote has been inflated by Wagner (without capturing his breadth and depth), and Hofmannsthal has inadvertently imitated all the worst parts of Die Zauberflote without also mirroring its felicities - the illogical plot that falls to pieces in the second half, the blandly unfinished characters (apart from Papageno), the removal of personal agency by the much put upon "higher powers" that undermine the characters' choices. On the other hand, Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a sort of travesty (in the literary sense) of a Wagner opera. Superficially there are lots of similar elements - slow psychological action, leitmotifs, enormous voices, bigger orchestra, overtly philosophical in feel. But unlike Wagner there's no tension, no drama - the symbolism is empty and (ironically) unpregnant, the libretto fails to make a drama of Hofmannsthal's subject matter, the scenario self consciously epic but lacking in specificity and therefore bland and only psuedo profound.

Many an opera has survived a questionable libretto, but Strauss struggled to respond to the text, and the result, as always with Strauss when he isn't fully engaged, resorts to note spinning, professional grade glitter and splurge, music written by the yard with ceaseless energy, expertise, mastery even, but lacking true inspiration. During its composition he wrote as much to Hofmannsthal: "I'm toiling really hard, sifting and sifting - my heart's only half in it, and once the head has to do the major part of the work you get the breath of academic chill which no bellows can ever kindle into a real fire." At the same time Strauss, having just produced four operatic masterpieces (flawed or otherwise), was at the height of his stupendous technical powers and so there are of course passages of wondrous beauty and brilliance. The opening half hour contains the opera's best music by some distance and is consistently inspired. The end of Act I is also extremely beautiful and almost convinces that it is of commensurate quality. The opening imprisonment scene of Act III is also quite extraordinary and then moments in the remainder of that act make one marvel. But the end is banal, inflated and leaden, sugar cream and glitter masquerading as fulfilment and sublimity. Again Holloway hits the nail on the head when he says "The use of extreme intervals, in Act III especially, can epitomise the discrepancy between will and deed. They are literally attempts to soar out of the habitual, but they don't sear and hurt like comparable places in Bruckner 9 , Kundry's music or Mahler 10 (to say nothing of early Schoenberg) because the harmony is basically bland." This encapsulates the problem for me - the blandness of the harmony means the work lacks form, shape, momentum and contrast and no extremities of colour, pitch, volume, however vehement, can rescue it.

Claus Guth struggles to make any sort of statement with the piece, obfuscating the already limping dramatic frame with a jejune hospital sequence opening, and, incredibly, a final scene where the Empress wakes up and "it was all a dream". The Empress writhes with night terrors in the opening scene and seems to be in extreme psychological anguish, though we're not sure why. Then her nurse cooks up this fantastical story for her (in the dream? as a bed time story? as a therapist?), and continues to pull all the strings throughout the opera in the guise of a cartoonily gothic, rocky horror demon. There's lots of playing with doubles and mirror images as the Empress empathises with the Dyer's Wife (or rather the Dyer's wife is a projection of her own insecurities), after the bed ridden descent to the earth, which confirms that the opera in this production is in fact all a delusion of the Empress. Guth runs out of interpretive ideas and the concept becomes more tenuous and ever less probing as the story churns on into Act II, several decisive plot points lacking any obvious motivation or on stage stimulus (e.g. the Emperor deciding he has to kill his wife, the total changes of character in the Dyer's wife, the reason for the nurse's punishment). This can be chalked up to "dream logic" but it feels lazy and doesn't make for satisfying viewing since we don't know what The Empress is so cut up about in Act I and what all these Freudian images are a reflection of in the waking world. Add to this copious sexual imagery (pleasure/pain at being penetration by a husband's spear, sperm like "fishes" as the voices of the unborn children) and an embarrassingly literal physical rendering of the wounded gazelles that we are told about in Act I who return wherever there is an orchestral interlude, and we get a hodge-podge of sophomoric story telling that fails to congeal into a convincing whole for even a moment. The set designs by Christian Schmidt are unsuggestive and characterless - a curving wooden wall with a rotating panel at the back - which neither conjure the hospital "real world" or the dreamy fantasy world with any force or specificity.

In a sense it seems like the two central soprano roles have been cast the wrong way round. Elena Pankratova's smooth, silvery sound seems much more apt for the supernatural, insubstantial Empress, whose vocal writing also requires more flexibility. Emily Magee's earthy, heavy, solid voice seems more apt for the earthbound Dyer's wife, though the lack of a working chest register is less of a handicap in the Empress, the role she was hired for. Both Pankratova and Magee seemed a little out of sorts in Act I, though they both warmed up considerably for the more strenuous later acts. Pankratova's voice is very pleasing: strong in all registers, and with good German diction, famously difficult for Russians. [On the second night she was even better, dispatching some truly magnificent singing in the ridiculously demanding second act - soaring lines of extraordinary power without losing the fundamental silkyness. A very different singer from Goerke, but in her own way just as good, and she is surely one of the very best singing today in her vocal category. Special to witness and I'd love to see her in another Strauss or Wagner role.] Magee was less convincing I thought as the vocal production sounds very effortful with the line constantly broken to change register, or reach a high note, which happens constantly in this high lying role, though she got a very large ovation, so many obviously disagree with my assessment. Acting wise she was hammy and there was very rarely a feeling of true connection with the character. The one exception was the moment in Act I when she wasn't singing and was sitting next to the Dyer's wife. The production can't have helped any of them to create a sense of connection with their characters though as all performances felt rather on the surface acting wise.

Michaela Schuster has a very exciting, juicy mezzo, very resonant and powerful through her whole range, and does a good job of the Amme's extremely angular vocal lines. The voice slipped off the breath quite regularly though during quiet singing which lead to some lumpy phrases, and though she is a German native I understood only four words she sang in the entire evening. Quite strange, as this was vocally the total opposite of her recent ROH Klytemnestra. A compelling singer though. Johann Botha does his normal thing: mullet, goatee, park and bark come fitted as standard, but he is one of the very few heldentenors who can sustain the very high "Lohengrin" tessitura of the big Strauss roles. I don't think it's a particularly beautiful voice, and there's not much variation in timbre or care for text, but the stainless steel edge seems to expand to unlimited volume and with endless stamina - hard to complain too much in this role. Johan Reuter did very well as Barak, the voice large and the delivery committed, and on the second night he dispatched his lines with naturalness and ease. David Butt Philip deserves a special mention for his very good singing in the small role of the Apparition of Youth - he's a Jette Parker Young Artists that seems to be well above the normal standard.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the ROH orchestra with assurance through this gargantuan maze of a score. He still can't sell the pages and pages of gilded slag, but he stirs up a tremendous din when required and it flows along well enough. I'm not quite as sold on his Strauss conducting as many seem to be - I find that the line is often lost in the stolid harmonic firmness, and though the sound is very ripe, it rarely has that inner warmth and luminescence that the very greatest Strauss conducting achieves. He's obviously still very good! On the first night the ROH orchestra were not quite on best form in this tremendously demanding music, with quite a few moments of coarse musicianship in the solo playing - this is still Vienniese music and it needs that seamless elegance and refined beauty in the quieter moments. [On the second night the finale was given a much better shape and all five central singers seemed much more secure. A better all round performance]

All in all, despite many enjoyable moments of music making and some very exciting singing, this was a bit of a disappointing evening that failed to make light of this tricky work.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Review Catch up

ROH Carmen
ROH Don Giovanni
ROH Manon
ETO Paul Bunyan
ETO King Priam

I have been terrifyingly busy this past month, and this, combined with problems with my Google accounts in actually being able to post anything on the blog, has meant this blog has received a certain neglect of late. It's too late to post full reviews here, but here are a few reflections:

The new ROH Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten was certainly a better effort than his Eugene Onegin last season. The most superficially striking thing about it was the full stage projection, continually updating to project onto the moving, folding 3D set. I'm not sure how many will have realised quite what a technical feat this was. On the other hand, I got tired of the gimmick pretty quickly, and was irritated by the flickering edges caused by the combination of steep angles and pixels as the house turned. The non-descript, classless rotating house brings to mind the current Glyndebourne production and says as little. A common comment on Don Giovanni is that he is already on the decline and beset by problems at the beginning of the opera - we never actually see him wholly successfully seduce a woman as is boasted in Leporello's catalogue aria. Holten goes some way to changing this picture by making the women much more responsible for their liaisons with the Don. Just after "Orsai chi l'onore" for instance, during Ottavio's aria, Anna actually goes off to have sex with the Don, just hours after he has killed her father. A bit hard to credit, but we get the message - it takes two to tango. Holten also sees the Don's downfall as a descent into madness rather than a descent into hell. What causes this is guilt and the realisation that he lacks true love and intimacy: first he hovers around, dejected and forlorn during the three women's Act II arias, then then he is haunted by the ghost of the man he has accidentally killed. The finale is a bleak mad scene where everything drifts into nothingness, including the reactions of the other characters (which are cut). Overall it's not bad, and even after the gimmickry, it will do as a staple repertoire show. Holten never goes against the libretto, but his directorial choices always feel reasonable and "interesting", rather than engaging, moving or convincing. The cast were all very decent though for me lacked character.

The ETO's potentially exciting Spring season turned out to be disappointing for me. Paul Bunyan was a piece I'd never seen in the theatre, and Britten admirer though I am, I found it very hard going. What on earth were Britten and Auden thinking when they cooked it up? The heartless phoneyness of the cod-folk style reeks in every bar of text and music. The lack of dramatic line through what feels like an interminable duration makes it even harder to like. Not a piece I'd rush to hear or see again, aside from perhaps two pretty numbers. This production tried its best, but I was bored.

Also with the ETO, Tippett's King Priam. I thought I had heard this piece before and liked it but I must have had it confused with another of Tippett's operas - the music is uningratiating and oddly lacking in character and substance - quite unlike the ripeness of the early works, or mysterious twinkling oddness of the late ones. Anna Fleischle unhappily sci-fi inspired designs lack style and the stage space is extremely cramped. Acting also is as wooden as a bad sci-fi series, and none of the singing is quite beautiful enough to bring warmth to the stony hardness of the vocal writing. The orchestral pallette seems cramped and crude, but maybe these harsh timbres just need a larger space to resonate in? The libretto is full of platitudes and leaden, sullen characters, and by the time the chorus started running on stage for the battle singing "War! War! War!" whilst lamely swaying backwards and forwards with deer antlers, I was ready to give up.

Longer ago I saw the Zambello Carmen twice - once with Anita Rachvelishvili and Roberto Alagna (16/12/13) and once with Christine Rice and Yonghoon Lee (04/01/14). Zambello's production is surely due a renewal, and my guess is that Kasper Holten will have a shot at it, just as he has replaced her perennially unpopular Don Giovanni. Zambello is a director whose continued hiring at major opera houses is a mystery to me, and though her Carmen is nowhere near as bad as her Don Giovanni, it still doesn't offer many insights and is quite limited in how it treats the central characters. At least there's nothing in the characterisation that doesn't make sense: Carmen acts sexy and dominates the stage, Jose is suitably tortured and angry, Michaela is her usual wet self. But she never poses enough of a challenge to Carmen's carnality and sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the drama seems token and by rote. The two casts proved interesting to compare. Rachvelishvili was a vocally very great Carmen I thought - power, accuracy, colour, sensuality, with a dark rawness in the sound, powerful chest notes, and a thrusting top. Alagna was vocally decent as Don Jose, but totally self involved acting wise, not connecting once with his stage partners. Vito Priante was vocally diminutive as the Torreador and simply miscast. Rice has a more polished sounding instrument that Rachvelishvili, and it's good to hear her again after a worrying and extended bought of illness. Another vocally very satisfying portrayal, though perhaps a little refined for my tastes - I'm a Callas admirer rather than a Price admirer in this role, to give two polar opposites. Tastes will differ. Lee can deliver terrifying decibels as Jose, and is not the most subtle singer, though he sang all the notes and was more interesting to watch dramatically than Alagna.

I saw the ROH Manon again with Ailyn Perez this time (click here for original review with Jaho). Perez proved to have a more pliant voice than Jaho, and she is more natural on stage, but the middle voice is lacking in resonance, and the lower voice a sliver, confirming what my thoughts after her Glyndebourne Falstaff last season (she is however much more suited to Manon than Alice Ford). Her cutesy smileyness, and dazzling good looks remind me of Danielle De Niese, but she is less magnetic on stage and the voice doesn't project as well in the theatre. Matthew Polenzani was even better than he was on opening night - a very beautiful performance of Des Grieux.

Hmm, a lot of negativity here. The main beauty of the last few weeks was the ENO Rigoletto that I just managed to post the review of. I feel like I've seen other things that I've simply forgotten to mention. Hmm. Not opera, but don't bother with the Sam Mendes' moribund King Lear at the NT with a very disappointing Simon Russell Beale in the title part, and the Duchess of Malfi at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is also worth missing (if it's still on), though I am excited to see how the space takes to an opera as it's a charmingly tiny theatre - Kasper Holten's production of L'Ormindo will be starting there very soon. Oh, and go and see the Lego Movie.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Rigoletto at ENO


Rigoletto is an opera I have seen many times before and have never previously loved, but after having seen this, I now fully understand the great appeal the music has in a great performance, and why it is such a staple repertoire piece.

Christopher Alden's production is pretty abstract, all taking place in a 19th century gentleman's club, the different locations overlapping, with characters in the same stage space not always in the same plane of the story. So the court becomes the same as Rigoletto's house and Gilda's imprisonment is spiritual. Like his production of Die Fledermaus from earlier this season, Alden's production is a mixed bag, but it has enough character and things to think about to make it more than worthwhile. The plot of Rigoletto is probably the paradigmatic 'silly opera plot', that stick that is used by the unsympathetic and insecure to beat the genre into a state of ridicule. Although this production probably assumes a reasonable familiarity with the story as normally presented, Alden tries to present it as an abstracted canvas in which we are encouraged to focus on the character relationships, rather than the the absurd plot elements which frame them. This approach when combined with the single set leads to a certain feeling of staticism, but when the music making is as fabulous as it is here, it works very well because we're allowed to focus on the ('right brain') emotional veracity of each moment rather than its logical absurdity (which the 'left brain' objects to. Drama is made of logical and emotional elements, and, for me at least, weakness in either leads to a difficulty in engaging with a piece of theatre). What I found most moving and insightful about Alden's presentation of the opera was in Rigoletto's relationship with Gilda - although it is obvious that he loves her beyond anything else, when actually faced with her in person he is too physically rough, too controlling, and finds it hard to communicate properly with her. In the end of course he ends up destroying her, which is his tragedy.

Quinn Kelsey's Rigoletto is simply stupendous. The endless wail of opera mavens that there are no great Verdi baritones any more has finally been answered. The two most famous baritones currently singing these roles on an international level are Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Simon Keenleyside, and though both have the control and command of the high tessitura that is required they also possess instruments that are essentially lyric in quality and so are in my experience rarely fully satisfying in this heavy repertoire. Kelsey similarly finds a superlative ease in the upper register and a wide palette of vocal colours, but his voice has a blade in it so he never resorts to bellowing, and the core of his sound is large, warm and burnished. On top of this, and perhaps most crucially, his singing is never just a exercise in bel canto - he actually manages to create a character in the sound. I can't praise him highly enough - let's hope we get him back soon for another Verdi baritone role.

Anna Christy's Gilda is very fine. She has an excellent technique and musicianship and in the ensembles she is wonderful. The fundamental timbre is not the most beautiful, and a certain hardness in the vibrato affects the middle voice, but the chest notes are there, and she sings the role as well as any I have heard live in the theatre. Barry Banks' duke is excellent in terms of his legato, and again his technique means that one is never nervous that he will come to any grief at any point. Acting wise he is a little weaker than his colleagues and occasionally a bit hard to credit as the lusty duke - he seems a bit cuddly and nice for that.

Under Graeme Jenkins the ENO orchestra play better than I have ever heard them. This was one of those performances that reminds you quite how transformative great conducting can be to an orchestra, and on the flip side, how few conductors there are at any moment that are capable of this. I don't think I've even heard better Verdi live in performance. Jenkins has a wonderful instinct for texture and colour, and drew out an atmosphere that I just didn't imagine existed inside this score. The sudden extreme shifts of mood in the piece told emotionally and dramatically, totally avoiding empty hysterics or shock tactics. The orchestra played as one organism, though on this first night there were a few moments in faster passages where pit and stage came slightly adrift, the only criticism I could make of this conducting. Most wonderful though was Jenkins' immaculate sense of line, the thing that really unifies an orchestra and allows melody driven music to attain real structure and momentum. Each number drifted along with dreamy ease, each phrase building on the arc of the previous one. So rare to hear, and such an immense pleasure when it is as spectacularly achieved as here.

Photos (c) ENO/Alastair Muir