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Tuesday 8 April 2014

Jonas Kaufmann Recital at ROH (and Christiane Karg at Wigmore Hall)


I didn't quite know what to expect coming to Jonas Kaufmann's and Helmut Deutsch's ROH Winterreise. Would the venue be suitable for such an intimate work? Would Kaufmann, magnificent artist though he is, be the right interpreter for this piece? Kaufmann and Deutsch both took a while to warm up I thought, the first few songs perfectly well performed, but not terribly personal. Kaufmann's voice was fairly muted throughout the evening, though there was a baritonal harshness in these early songs which gave way to ever more sensitive and delicate use of head voice as the recital continued. No.12, Einsamkeit, was painfully intimate and still, and signalled to me the beginnings of a special intensity which both artists dipped into regularly until the end of the recital. Plenty of brightness was offered by Deutsch's light touch at the piano, like Kaufmann rarely rising above a mezzo forte, making the most of the more hopeful songs. The opening of No.21, Das Wirtshaus, had a glowing, harmonium like sonority that charmed and moved. The final few songs had the audience rapt, and showed the strength of the cumulative effect that this performance achieved. Overall I can't describe this as a completely wonderful traversal of this masterpiece - I was sitting in the amphitheatre, and not quite enough line, colour and contrast was reaching us, with the result that things often verged on the bland. Certainly a large part of this was to do with the inappropriateness of the venue for the piece (I've often wondered why the superstar artists don't just do several dates at the Wigmore? Wishful thinking: maybe they prefer the enormous financial reward of the larger venues!) but I think there's a slight discomfort (stylistic as much as technical) with Kaufmann in all this quiet, head voice singing - when he engaged the baritonal heft for the loud parts, it seemed to come out of nowhere a bit and created a choppy effect, and lovely, cultivated and masterful though the vocal control is for lieder singing, it never seemed to flow with the same smoothness as does his operatic singing.

In some ways, heresy though it might be to say it, I have enjoyed Kaufmann's recorded work more so far than when I have seen him live - the dark power of the voice is far more impressive up close, and the microphone captures every nuance and sculpted phrase that this exceptionally intelligent artist lavishes his interpretations with. In the theatre I have sometimes found the vocal cover a little too safe sounding, and I think the voice is not actually quite big enough to be fully satisfying in the most heroic Verdi and Wagner roles that he sings - the dark colour and his superb technique mean that he gets away with it, the more so on record, where even his Siegfried sounds wonderful, but I always feel slightly underwhelmed live.

The coughing from the audience was absolutely ridiculous, even by London audience standards, frequent during the songs, but erupting in a cataclysmic barrage as soon as the last chords were struck in each song, often obscuring Deutsch's introduction in the next song. I can't imagine how distracting and disconcerting this must have been to the performers. I don't think people know what a stifled cough is. I don't know what the solution is. Do people need a demonstration like you get at the beginning of an aeroplane flight? I'm really not joking.

Earlier that day I attended a wonderful little recital by Christiane Karg with Malcolm Martineau. "Little" only in duration, this was an immense programme in terms of breadth, vocal resources and demands on both artists. We started with Schoeck, a single song called Nachruf, wonderful to hear this most underrated of all composers played with such style, and the Wolf selection from the Spanisches Liederbuch followed in the same vernal, fresh mode. Debussy's Cinq Poemes De Baudelaire were performed by Karg with an almost cabaret style daring and sexyness, real levity and sensuousness, the feeling of jazz not a million miles off. Schoenberg's 4 Lieder op.2 were another welcome addition in such a beautiful performance, wonderfully indulgent and wiltingly overwrought as this early set of songs are. The final Strauss numbers - Lieses Lied, Allerseelen, Befreit - were glistening jewels that crowned the recital - Karg seems destined to sing this music with her wonderful textual acuity and silvery sound allied to soaring vocal warmth and bloom when required. Very often there was a truly uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the timbre, that smiling headvoice shimmer that is so particular to Schwarzkopf. At 33, Karg is still right at the beginning of her career, and I think she could be one of the great lieder singers. Why is there always a but?! My only concern, and it's a big one because it marred my enjoyment of virtually every number before the Strauss songs, is that during quiet singing the voice does not sound fully supported (lovely though the delivery remains) and the switch to fully supported "whole body" singing is just so obvious - way more overtones are activated and it sounds like a superstar soubrette voice rather than simply an extremely talented soubrette voice. You can sort of hear it even on CD (an excellent Strauss recital is about to be released). This is exactly what Brigitte Fassbaender was very focussed on during her wonderful recent Wigmore Hall masterclasses, and in idle fantasy on the way to the Kaufmann recital I was thinking how great it would be for her to fix this final small thing with Karg, one great lieder singer to another. I hope Karg gets help with this from someone as if she does she will easily be one of my absolute favourite singers (though she hardly needs my approval!) Malcolm Martineau was quite brilliant at the piano throughout the recital - he seems to get this ultra late romantic music to a tee - articulating every note with exceptional clarity and beauty, but also giving it the space and sonority it needs to breathe. He was on very good form indeed and clearly enjoys performing with Karg very much.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Prince Igor at the Coliseum with Kolobov Novaya Opera


copyright Tristram Kenton

Borodin's Prince Igor is an absolute mishmash of a score, and even if you didn't know that it was completed by many others (as I didn't before listening to the first act), you can hear its stylistic incoherence in every bar. In this and many other ways, it presages many aspects of 20th century Modernism and is strongly representative of the gradual replacement of the Teutonic line with the Franco-Russian line as the centre of artform from the late 19th onwards. The piece is built in splashy blocks of contrasting colour, alternating folksy, rowdy, pentatonics with blurry, chromatically sliding orientalisms all sitting above a fundamentally very static harmonic base. Both feel "primitive" and wholly without the large scale tensions of Teutonic diatonic paragraphs which give German music from Bach to Bruckner such gigantic formal strength. It is left to rhythm to provide forward momentum, and in fact rhythm is given an importance and vitality that often makes it the most interesting aspect of the music. Stravinsky's Russian ballets are really not very far away, immeasurably greater though they are, and then at a greater distance Messiaen, Bartok, Les Six, Prokofiev, Schnittke.

I already know before reading other reviews that Yuri Alexandrov's production will be labelled as "traditional" and the like, although, as per usual, it is nothing of the sort. The word "traditional" is now loaded with ideology in the operatic community, so I guess it will suffice as an indication of what to expect. It strikes me that this production is probably self consciously ultra kitsch and "traditional" to appeal to a foreign idea of Russia as some sort of cultural backwater which the corrupting practises of Regie Theatre have not yet reached. The Novaya opera guys are not naive in this regard - just look at their roster of other shows and the directors who have worked there.*

Actually, what I liked most about this production was how the "traditional" approach highlighted the pre-modernist aspects of the piece. Vyacheslav Okunev's sets are fussy, cramped, sort of realistic, but are wonderfully garishly lit, and there are even nods to old style painted backdrops - wrinkled sheets, lit from the side, which can only have been done to exaggerate the oldy-worldy self conscious kitsch. Costumes are in a similar sort of style - what you'd imagine from a Zeffirelli production. The opera's subject matter almost couldn't be worse in the current political climate surrounding Russia and the Ukraine, but there's no political subtext explored in this direction, though it's impossible not to think about it whilst watching. Women are constantly being mistreated and carried off against their will - strong shades of David McVicar then, which on its own tells you it's not an old school production. The first half fails to stir as there is a weak attempt at some story telling: the music and libretto simply prevents this from happening, along with the meagre acting talents of all those on stage. The second half is much better, as the production lapses into pageantry and strangeness - every character simply standing centre stage and singing while some sort of choreographed motion goes on behind them. We get a series of contrasted numbers with very little forward dramatic thrust, but each stage picture is so pleasingly done, with its kitsch lighting, unsophisticated dancing, sequins, glitter, touching spectacle, and it follows the ultra static, anti-Teutonic musico-dramatic design so faithfully that I found it impossible to resist. The Polovskian dances, by far the most famous music in the piece, get a particularly wonderful treatment which almost defies description; I really liked the human horses and the girl dancing in a huge metal bowl. It all ends abruptly with a reconciliatory duet that comes from nowhere and then a final beautiful unaccompanied chorus which my neighbour said she had never heard in the score before. There's an amateurish air to all this lavishness, but then the music feels exactly the same aesthetically, so the production to me seems to alchemically capture something very important about the piece.

Singing is universally very solid and decent, without ever being very personal. Elena Popovskaya is very rocky as Yaroslavna in the first half, but then spins some absolutely gorgeous lines in the second half - almost didn't seem like the same singer (perhaps she wasn't?? see below**). Sergey Artamonov's Igor is orotund and impressive, as is Vladimir Kudashev as Konchak the Khan, both in a generically slavic sounding way. Agunda Kulaeva also stood out as a very deep sounding mezzo, seductively contraltoish in the low range, and her lover, Vladimir, was sung with a very firm and quite lovely lyric tenor by Aleksey Tatarintsev. The orchestra are quite average in Jan Latham-Koenig's hands, though the sheer noise and frenetic bluster of the score in various moments is enough to raise a smile, even if ridiculously loud timpani and parping brass decimate any sense of orchestral blend in the loud parts.

All in all a good evening, which improved as it went on and stopped trying to be a piece of serious theatre. There is a place for this sort of thing, and this is the opera for it.

*In my experience of talking to many, many opera goers, most people who insist on "traditional productions" which "match the composer's intentions" actually have very, very little historical knowledge of how the works were originally staged or what the composer actually wrote was their intention in writing a piece or the composer's attitudes to stagings, and also are not at all sensitive to genuine stylistic/historical accuracy - any combination of sequins, crinolines, embroidery, corsets, waistcoats, silks, gauze, stockings and robes seems to be fine so long as it's in a realistic looking set with candles.

**There was an odd moment in the second half when the curtain was brought down and then separated as if someone was going to make an announcement, but then nothing happened and the opera continued. It finished 20 minutes before the published time, and the ending seemed very sudden, so I wonder if something was simply cut out of the original plan due to one of the leads being unable to continue. Who knows when every performance of Prince Igor uses a new version! It didn't hugely matter.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Rodelinda at ENO


I am so pleased to have caught the last night performance of this production - it was a truly wondrous experience on all levels, one of those cherished operatic evenings which make all the bad and merely decent evenings worthwhile.

My admiration of Handel has been hard fought for and it has required keeping an open mind over a number years to become attuned to the particular pleasures that his oeuvre affords. In my teens his music seemed pale and shallow next to Bach's, then when opera became the big focus for me, I found the slow dramatic pacing to be a huge impediment to enjoyment. After my narrow adolescent tastes for complexity and lushness were transcended, I discovered that simplicity is the key for this composer and though he can't surprise like Bach, he charms and moves in different ways. He is one of the supreme melodists, always finding a freshness within his superficially predictable means; the action tends to be very narrowly focused on extraordinarily intense psychology and human emotion; his ear for sonority is immaculate - I now understand why Elgar said he was the greatest orchestrator, even if it seems like hyperbole to make a point. Along with Alcina and Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda represents for me the high water mark of Handel's middle period. The principle reason for this is the high quality of the music, but the stories in these three operas seem to offer more to explore than much standard baroque operatic fare.

Richard Jones' production is one of the best I have ever seen of a baroque opera. He and designer Jeremy Herbert update it to be a late 20th century mafia story, but far from being the normal yawnful excuse for some acme grimyness and mafia cliches, here Jones uses it to carefully delineate each character, and add specificity and clarity to all the character relationships. Jones' trademark sense of humour is present but what is so refreshing is that the humour is internal to the story and never at the expense of the piece. Far too often in my opinion are baroque operas presented with a knowing irony i.e. where the silliness of the plot is acknowledged in some way by the characters on stage. I find that approach lazy and boring, cheap laughs though it raises, so Jones' production comes as a wondrously refreshing model of how this pitfall can be avoided without resorting to humourless, stolid literalism, which often strays dangerously close to (and is on occasion even used as an excuse for) the realm of the park and bark where laziness reaches it's exultant, perfected form. Jones' humour is dark, incisive, but also adds colour and allows the opera's moments of searing poignance to soar even higher.

Rodelinda (when given in full) is a series of 30ish solo arias, a duet, a trio and a final short chorus for the principles. This musico-dramatic design, when combined with the ABA form of the da capo aria and it's repetitious use of text, make forward dramatic momentum a real challenge for the singer and director to achieve, not just within each number, but on the longer range too. It's not that Handel's operas are inherently undramatic, merely that they need a directorial approach which suits them and we are still at an early period of their modern rehabilitation to the stage: a new tradition needs to be forged and built upon. One of the greatest felicities of the design in this production is the tripartite set which allows us to to track the stories of more than one character at a time by letting us see what is going on in adjacent rooms. The rooms are brilliantly linked together not just physically by doors, but visually also by surveillance cameras and screens allowing characters to react in private to the goings on of another room, and for the watched to send messages to their observers. This allows for greater psychological complexity to evolve, and also ensures that nothing remains too static.

Hugely aided by Herbert's excellent set design, Jones' approach to staging each aria is consistently inventive and engaging because the antics of the characters come clearly out of plot and situation, and because each character is obviously trying to do something in each aria, rather than just telling you about their emotions, a sense of forward momentum is maintained. What I admired particularly is Jones' sensitivity to the score, and how the staging is obviously informed by the music. One part that sticks in my mind is the staging of the Act II duet, one of the most beautiful Handel ever wrote but difficult to handle dramatically because of the unlikeliness of the villain allowing the two lovers a final union with no questions asked. Jones solves this conundrum in an ingenious way - whenever Rodelinda and Bertarido sing their twisting vocal lines the rest of the characters freeze, and then as soon as we get to a purely instrumental section, the other characters spring into action, divorcing the two lovers into two separate rooms. The effect is that we have our cake and eat it a) the searing beauty of the duet gets the stillness it needs to bloom, taking on an almost spiritual intensity as the characters are pulled apart; b) the libretto is followed as the lovers are united, but the drama is allowed to continue as are then "immediately" torn apart - the slow motion allows us both. Right at the end we get a coup de theatre - the actual rooms of the building are pulled apart, leaving Grimoaldo, the orchestrator of this event, unexpectedly alone and alienated in the cavernous depths of the rest of the set, punished by his own punishment. It doesn't come across as fussy or gimmicky directing because it's not extraneous to the music, and in fact enhances our experience of the piece as drama.

At other times, a wholly static staging is used to let the music speak - During Bertarido's Act II aria, yearning, pastoral and dreamy as it is, he sits slumped at a bar for the entire duration, the only change being the slowly shifting lights of the bar which cycle through a beautiful spectrum of colours. The feeling of alienation in the metropolitan, social setting, the yearning for nature in all this beautiful artifice, the feeling of dream like suspension that the shifting lambency of the lighting provide, all support the music beautifully. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting design throughout is in fact superb, really adding to the story telling in a noticeable way without being intrusive - lighting is such a pleasure when it is done this well.

Video is used sparingly, but intelligently - Jeremy Herbert and Steven Williams connect it directly with the stage action, props and set, and so doesn't seem "grafted on" as it often does in other productions. In the opening scene, the Grimoaldo is approving designs for a trophy like object that we don't yet know the purpose of yet. Then, during a film transition we see that it is actually a model for the enormous memorial monument that he has erected for his predecessor - a lovely twist that speaks volumes of the character and situation. Then later, another video sequence depicts the statue's destruction, again something that couldn't be satisfactorily shown on stage (cf. the recent Met Götterdämmerung) and then we see the enormous pieces of wreckage immediately afterwards. It's fun, dramatically effective, and non invasive or distracting from the story telling.

The score is judiciously cut, and though the high quality of this score means that beautiful music is certainly being lost, the piece is such a feast that one doesn't feel short changed, and indeed one is somewhat thankful that one is not being forced into gluttony, which can lead to monotony. I must also just mention the wonderful idea of having Flavio not as a helpless, innocent child, but instead as a brooding teenager, a gangster already in training. Matt Casey does a great job in this silent role, supporting Rodelinda in her threats, half dancing, half clowning - excellent directing and acting choices here.

Rebecca Evans revealed a truly gorgeous full lyric instrument as Rodelinda, almost ideal for the role in terms of timbre, weight and flexibility. Her acting became more committed and precise as the evening progressed, and her commitment to colour and expression in her arias was very admirable when so many singers aim for a bland, "white" sound in Handel. The main drawback was the lack of a sustained legato line - a maximum of three notes at a time were connected which lead to a mosaic like style of phrasing, where a more expansive line would have been welcome. However, in light of the other aspects of her performance and the beauty of the voice, much could be forgiven. Iestyn Davies was equally committed and beautiful of tone as Evans, and his slow arias were particular highlights. I'm not a fan of the way that every few notes will arbitrarily be a totally straight tone between five other beautifully vibratoed (new word?!) syllables, but nevertheless he continues to be one of the finest counter tenors around. I haven't ever written on this blog about my reservations regarding the inherent limitations of the counter tenor voice, and their extremely anachronistic use in baroque opera, but that's another blog post.

The last time I saw Susan Bickley it was as a superlative Ortrud in WNO's wonderful recent Lohengrin. That she is capable within the same year of singing Handel to such a high level speaks to her musicianship and great technique. As Eduige her coloratura is excellent, the vibrato controlled, so if it isn't the most plush sound, she makes up for it in other ways. John Mark Ainsley presents a similar case - the voice is not always the most beautiful any more, but he is a stylish, sensitive interpreter in a huge range of repertoire, who easily makes the villain Grimoaldo into a fully rounded, sympathetic figure. Baritone Richard Burkhard and counter tenor Christopher Ainslie round a truly excellent cast.

Christian Curnyn manages to transform the ENO orchestra into an extremely effective baroque band, and seems to have become the ENO's in house conductor for this repertoire. Tempos are often slightly on the fast side, though they remain unhurried, and his ear for timbre and balance is expert. Some of the playing was quite spectacular such as the blurred, careening chromatics in the accompaniment of Bertarido's furious Act 3 aria. Let us hope that this production is revived as swiftly as possible. It's a co-production with the Bolshoi, but I sincerely hope that other European companies will take it on as well.

Photos (c) Clive Barda/ENO