Friday, 8 March 2013
WRITTEN ON SKIN
Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence
Robin de Raaf
WAITING FOR MISS MONROE
George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's first collaboration was a short chamber opera based on the folk tale of the Pied Piper. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006 and a number of subsequent productions in Britain and elsewhere, Into the Little Hill quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most successful recent British operas, with an unlaboured but forceful political message and a notably ambiguous treatment of the idea of music - personified by the figure of the piper - as an agent both of compassion and illusion, powerfully human yet at the same time coldly indifferent. In the marriage between the painstaking craftsmanship of Benjamin's musical idiom and the taut, troubling simplicities of Crimp's text, it also suggested a creative partnership of significant promise.
It took some time before the pair saw eye to eye, Benjamin struggling to adapt to Crimp's insistence on inserting abrasively contemporary, secular terminology into what was supposed to be a time-neutral setting of the myth. The word "concrete" represented a particular sticking point for the famously fastidious composer, who complained he had no idea how one might go about setting such lifeless words. As it turned out, the apparent mismatch between Benjamin's elevated, shimmering musical world and these recurrent signifiers of an everyday marked by dull aesthetic indifference proved to be one of the opera's most fertile tensions. Crimp and Benjamin have much to thank each other for.
Perhaps provocatively, the pair's latest collaboration opens with a chain of references to modern building materials. A full-scale opera this time, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence festival together with a consortium of European opera houses, the work received its premiere at this year's Aix festival and will resurface in the coming season in London, Amsterdam, Florence and elsewhere. Like the previous work, the opera centres on an ambiguous and mysterious artist figure, although the wandering troubadour-like Stranger of the earlier opera is here transposed to an equally morally ambiguous illustrator and writer, commissioned by a medieval nobleman to make an allegorical manuscript - "a precious object, written on skin" - capable of reflecting and amplifying his worldly authority and heavenly ambition.
The story is adapted from a gruesome Provençal folk tale - a condensed version of which is related by Filostrato during the fourth day of Boccaccio's Decameron - in which a nobleman murders his wife's lover and serves her a supper prepared from the dead man's heart. She eats the dish, is informed of its principal ingredient, and jumps to her death from a high window. The nobleman's comeuppance stems from the two lovers eventually being buried side by side, with verses immortalizing their union.
In Crimp and Benjamin's version, the bloody fable is turned into a far-reaching philosophical parable. The wife's lover, in Boccaccio a nobleman from a neighbouring province, becomes the illustrator, employed by the husband so that his mastery of the arts of writing and drawing may amplify and extend his power. The husband - called "The Protector" - is aware of his environment only insofar as it consists of his property, including his young wife, and conforms to his sense of propriety, enforced with a violence in which he is known to take a particular delight. With the addition to his property of the precious vellum he intends to magnify this sense of propriety. "Do not fault the book", he insists with quiet menace to his visiting brother-in-law, "or you will not pass the black dog at my gate." His insistence contains the seeds of his eventual downfall, and the opera revolves around the Protector's inability to realize that what he seeks to control through writing and idealized representation is in fact governed by interests rooted not in his sense of propriety but in the laws of invention and its implicit thirst for sensual beauty. The precious book becomes the principal instrument of his young bride's awakening, as she sees her likeness take shape on the illustrator's pages and comes to know what it is to lust for another's body, and to love as a free woman. As the situation spirals beyond the Protector's control, destroying the previously unquestioned rule of his authority, his dominion crumbles.
Beyond the messy revenge tragedy, the underlying theme that emerges is the binding of being to its representation in text and narrative, an idea which perhaps owes more to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida than to Boccaccio's morality tale. Certainly the play of textual distance and presence, scrutinized by Derrida in his early study De la Grammatologie, and refracted through the oft-quoted remark to the effect that "il n'y a pas de horstexte" (translated somewhat over-zealously in the first English version of the book as "there is nothing beyond the text", but probably better construed along the more modest lines of "there is nothing without context"), is ubiquitous in the opera, almost to the point of discomfort, and the idea that the "technology of absence" - writing, drawing - is in fact an irrevocable part of our being, is dramatized with an easy clarity and keen drama that the French philosopher might well have envied.
The most conspicuous "distancing" device in the opera, familiar from Into the Little Hill but employed to significantly greater effect, is that the characters are also their own narrators, the roles moving seamlessly between indirect and direct speech as it suits them. The device is also mirrored at a structural level by the way the perspective of the contemporary audience is kept in focus throughout. "Strip out the wires . . . . Force chrome and aluminium back into the earth . . . . Cancel all flights from the international airport and people the sky with angels", commands the Prelude, in a passage whose emphatic violence is only really rediscovered at the end, asking us to peel back the present to examine a distant past characterized by fuller, emotionally richer modes of being. But the process of uncovering is illusory: even at its most visceral and absorbing, the story remains anchored in the conscious perspective of those trying to achieve the uncovering. The technology of representation is visible and audible at all times, principally in the figures of the three "angels" - indifferent visitors simply interested in running a kind of archaeological experiment: the third angel takes the role of the artist for this purpose - and in their tight and unflinching grip on dramatic time.
This "distancing" is particularly apparent in Benjamin's score, which eschews any overt archaisms (beyond the sparing use of a few "exotic" instruments, including glass harmonica and viola da gamba) and never seeks to overcome its compact, tightly ordered modernity in order to attain a fuller or more natural lyricism. Instead it seeks to drive and colour the dramatic action with a kind of relentless dynamism reminiscent of Richard Strauss's Elektra, but without sacrificing its wondrously limpid textures and idiomatic elegance. The modal transpositions between direct and narrated speech in the vocal roles are handled straightforwardly enough, usually turning to shorter, breathier notes for the narrated phrases. But the divisions are not clear-cut and the dry rhythms of phrases such as "— said the woman", work their way into the orchestra before pushing back to the voice with greater intensity.
A good example is the wife Agnès's first moment of aesthetic and sexual awakening on noticing the young stranger in their household and wondering at his purpose. The initially tentative arc traced by her voice gains an increasingly urgent sensuality, as she notices, as if for the first time, the grit beneath her feet, the meaning of her sleeplessness - and the latent potential of the artist's power of invention for her own sense of self. Elsewhere, the entwining of Benjamin's generously laid-out vocal lines map out the changing dynamics of the curious ménage-à-trois, while the orchestra contrives to trace the parallel arcs in which the growing menace shadows the burgeoning beauty. Purely as a musical achievement, the score is probably more impressive than anything Benjamin has composed in the past decade; as an operatic one, in which the energy and wonder of the music drive and inflect the emotional and dramatic landscape, it is an extraordinary work, confirming Benjamin's place among the very front rank of contemporary opera composers.
Katie Mitchell's production, designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Jon Clark, also succeeds in doing elegant justice to the work's curious mixture of rampant passion and energy and sharp, clinical sense of control. Mortimer's visually arresting two-storey set is divided between past and present, the angels passing freely between the house of the Protector and the rooms occupied by silent researchers who move, when the focus is away from them, in slow motion. The individual performances are also magnificently in control of the work's uniquely uncanny dramatic atmosphere and strikingly fluid yet taut vocal lines. Both Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan give the performances of their lives as the Protector and his wife while the three angels - Bejun Mehta (who plays the artist), Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton - are almost as impressive, reflecting perhaps Benjamin's careful preparation of the roles with each particular singer in mind (with the exception of Loeb, who replaces Victoria Simmonds). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who played superbly, were conducted by the composer. Though the opera is extraordinary in the degree of its self-consciousness with respect to the limits and freedoms of its medium, the dramatic and musical tension did not flag for a second.
At fifty-two, Benjamin has made a successful career out of doing nothing in a hurry. Even his early masterpiece, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which blazed a high-profile trail for the twenty-year-old undergraduate composer at its performance during the 1980 Proms season, conveyed a kind of artistry dependent on the patience and maturity necessary to allow a new musical style to fit easily in its own skin. His turn to opera has also been a patient one, and yet Written on Skin, composed pretty much in two years, marks a significant departure for the composer. The score is longer than all his works of the past decade put together; and it has an energetic, unleashed character which suggests that Benjamin, though in many ways a natural miniaturist, has perhaps found his métier in full-scale operatic composition, with the form's demands not simply for strict working deadlines but also for a slight relinquishing of compositional control. As Written on Skin confirms, the marriage of talents and interests with Crimp is a powerful one, perhaps uniquely so. At the same time, one might hope for a more direct libretto in future, in the interests of discovering just how far the composer's creative unbuttoning can go.
In its use of tightly ordered musical tableaux to express a powerful dramatic continuum, Written on Skin bears comparison with another new opera by the Dutch composer and pianist Robin de Raaf which received its premiere in Amsterdam earlier in the summer. Though ostensibly very different in terms of character and subject matter, Waiting for Miss Monroe, composed to an English-language libretto by Janine Brogt, shares an emphasis with Benjamin and Crimp's work on the relation between narrative time and the more immediate time-awareness peculiar to opera. The principal scenes all revolve around the idea of waiting for the actress while she gathers herself together from the fragments left over from former relationships, photographs and past successes and failures. In this respect, although its line on the actress is similar to several other recent attempts to portray Monroe, it also shares with the Benjamin opera its use of devices unique to opera in which to frame the tension between its heroine's sense of self and the construction of this self via external forces and factors beyond her control. Like Agnès, Marilyn is both made and unmade by the brilliance of her reflection, and both operas offer a powerful exploration of the latent tragedy of the self's passing into images beyond its control, and of a subjectivity which depends and thrives on the very thing that destroys it.
Waiting for Miss Monroe is De Raaf's second opera, and suggests a considerable talent for the idiom even if it falls short of real mastery. The music, while never uninteresting and stylistically coherent and varied, often lacks energy, and this filters through into the drama, where the action is also characterized by waiting for something to happen. Nonetheless, it is memorable in many parts, particularly for the final scene in which Monroe, clutching pills and bourbon bottle, tries to warn her younger self (sung by Hendrickje Van Kerckhove) before becoming lost in wonder at her own earlier freshness, in an affecting and troubling duet. In Lotte de Beer's fluid and stylish staging, which cleverly uses film-studio settings to make one ever conscious of the ephemeral nature of the visual environment, the American soprano Laura Aikin gives a tremendously animated, virtuosic performance. Together with Dale Duesing's amiable Fox, and the counter-tenor David DQ Lee's camp but affecting portrayal of Whitey, Monroe's make-up artist, Aikin carried much of the energy, which otherwise threatened to seep out from the Netherland Chamber Orchestra's slightly lacklustre performance in the pit under Steven Sloane.
Tuesday, 15 May 2012
I have in my hands a masterpiece, apparently. The information comes courtesy of Frances Wilson, a snippet of whose Sunday Times review of Edmund de Waal's book The Hare with Amber Eyes is emblazoned on the cover of my paperback edition, which I have finally got round to reading. It's a fair endorsement in some ways, but in one respect it is manifestly false. Ihave in my hands one piece of a masterpiece. The other piece is floating southwards in a nonchalant manner. I am, you see, reading de Waal's book in the bath, and the glue holding it together can no longer cope with the steam.
The reader will of course realize that unless I am also just now brandishing some kind of writing device together with my loofer and the outer portions of de Waal's book, my use of the present tense constitutes a breach of its official licence. It is true, the bath in question occurred some days ago. My choice of tense is in stylistic homage to de Waal, whose memoir sticks so doggedly to the present tense that it often encompasses two or even three periods in time simultaneously. Many writers reach for the historical present when seeking to quicken the pulse of their readers. See, here, this geographically and historically remote event is happening here, now, right before your eyes. Is it not extraordinary? Do you not feel its force? On the whole, my answer to these questions tends to be no.
Still, I am grateful because the disintegration of de Waal's book over the course of five admittedly rather hot baths allowed me to strike the final item off my list of reasons for not acquiring an e-reader, which was that they couldn't be read in the bath. They can, you just don't want to drop them. Once upon a time, this was the merest objection on a long list. I saw little in favour of buying one. The names given them, whether generic or branded, provided a powerful additional disincentive.
But I hadn't accounted for the volume of opinion pieces in newspapers about the evils of e-books and their sneaking corruption of the autonomy of the activity of reading and its associated virtues. When otherwise quite sensible authors marshal cliché-sodden arguments against some new development, the suspicion naturally arises that what is harmful is less the development itself than the inflationary growth in fatuous newspaper comment.
I am also by nature something of a contrarian. Had I been around when Socrates was railing against the evils of a new-fangled technology called writing, I would have been first in the queue at the papyrus shop.
It's a nice irony that the book which pushed me over the edge is one which is at its most eloquent when discussing the tactile qualities of beloved objects. Its principal subject is the author's collection of Japanese netsuke and their unexpected intersection with flashpoints in cultural and political history. Netsuke are pocket-sized figurines, usually carved in ivory or boxwood, which were originally intended as toggles for hanging purses or pouches from a kimono. They were never intended to be "great art", but they exemplify magnificently the traditional Japanese virtue that if something is worth making, it's worth making beautifully. De Waal is at his best describing the kind of silent companionship such objects offer, anchored in the unassuming integrity of their craftsmanship and their silent, constant testimony to the lives lived around them.
People ascribe a similar quality to books. Not just any books, but the books we've lived with and loved, a relationship traced in an amassing of creases and assorted marginalia. The physical effect our reading has on them is a nice corollary to the effect it has on our sense of self. They change as we change. Naturally, this is only true of the volumes one actually reads. Unread books, although similar in constancy, shine with a much more discomfiting aura, like neglected friends encountered guiltily on the street.
For years I've been running into Don Quixote like this, in the form of a Penguin Classic which, despite its close print, runs to a thousand or so pages. Its yellow-capped, gleaming black spine would issue occasional taunts as I passed by, casting aspersions on my readerly chivalry. It's pathetic really, but I always found it too awkward to read in bed, or in the bath, and too heavy to take on journeys. Somehow I never gained enough momentum to get past the labyrinthine ironies of the preface. Nonetheless, I recently downloaded a free electronic copy of the book. Several baths and journeys later, at least according to the screensaver on my rather natty device, I am now 78 per cent of the way through it.
Socrates' suspicions of writing were twofold. He thought the permanence of written discourse would prevent people from committing the substance of an argument to memory. He has more than amply been proved right, not least by the fact that I hastily downloaded a free copy of the Phaedrus simply to check this point. His second suspicion interests me more, however. This was that the physical separation between speaker and listener, entailed by the art of writing, would relieve the former of the responsibility to answer the latter's questions. Writing presents itself as finished - as perfected - rather than as part of a dialogue with an outcome yet to be agreed. The simple fact of its permanence brings with it an illusion of truth.
A central feature of our appreciation of the literary as well as all other arts is our sense of everything's being in just the right place, of each word and phrase having been weighed and balanced and favoured over every possible alternative. When it comes to books, this is amplified by beautiful production, which feeds into the quality of being wholly and completely intended. But all this can also get in the way of the simple process of understanding and reflecting upon what someone else has written. The grand perfection of the book elevates its author to a position of unassailable power, often unwarranted, which in turn induces a sense of powerlessness and humility in the reader.
In the case of electronic books, while the texts are identical to their printed equivalents, this imbalance of power is perceptibly weakened. There is something about the informality of the e-book, with its arbitrary pagination and punctuation mishaps, and the way the "print" literally erases itself to make way for the next page, which allows the reader to consider alternatives, and to approach the text less as something set in stone than as a conversation in progress. Reading becomes less aesthetic, more utilitarian.
The first thing I bought for my e-reader was The Hare with Amber Eyes. If it really is a masterpiece, it must be worth paying for twice. In this edition, de Waal's near-continuous use of the historical present seemed less irritating. I also realized that the author's inherited collection of netsuke was probably least touched during the period when their artistic and monetary value was most apparent - at the height of the fashionable Japonism which brought them to Europe to be collected rather than used. Certainly, we tend to be at our most precious around the things we consider precious rather than simply dear. Evidently this is as true of reading as it is of anything else.
Friday, 13 April 2012
BRITTEN SINFONIA Barbican
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA Royal Festival Hall
Radiohead's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, has for some time been attracting attention for his work away from the band. Many who saw Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary film There Will Be Blood (2007) were struck by the music's hypnotic, almost misanthropic glare; and further struck when they noted that the music, which is often unusually exposed, was by Greenwood.
Though not his first music for film - Greenwood composed the score to an experimental documentary called Bodysong, initially released in 2003 - it was his first highprofile soundtrack, leading to a string of commissions, including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and a further forthcoming project with Anderson. Another striking aspect of the score of There Will Be Blood was that much of it seemed as if it might be by Krzysztof Penderecki.
Penderecki has never composed music for film, although his early, avantgarde music features prominently in David Lynch's Inland Empire (Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima, 1960) and, more famously, in Stanley Kubrick's great study of paranoia, The Shining (Polymorphia, 1961).
As it turned out, the Penderecki resemblance was intentional, the film score mostly being adapted from a concert piece written for the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2005, called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was an explicit tribute to Penderecki's Threnody. Just as Penderecki was interested in the early 1960s in adapting for traditional instruments the sound world and techniques made possible by developments in electro-acoustic technology, so Greenwood had been concerned to "translate" the hiss of analogue radio to string ensemble. More recently, Greenwood has composed 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which attempts to begin where Penderecki's Polymorphia leaves off, exploring the residue left by the build-up of sound and its strange, final crystallization in a sustained C major chord.
Both Greenwood pieces were performed together with their "originals" at a concert in Poland last September, repeated recently at the Barbican. Penderecki conducted the Katowice-based AUKSO chamber orchestra in Threnody and Polymorphia. Greenwood's works were conducted by Marek Mos, the orchestra's founder and music director.
The difference in conducting styles - between Penderecki's matter-of-fact technical direction, limited to giving cues and a beat where necessary, and the cartoonish antics of the flamboyantly attired Mos - expressed rather neatly the fact that the stylistic similarity between the two composers' works is less significant than the difference in artistic intention. Penderecki's works are both investigations of a particular set of musical possibilities opened up by a particular set of techniques.
They still sound fresh, if no longer shockingly so, because an excitement derives from the sense of compositional craft being developed in partnership with the aesthetic possibilities of what can be heard as music. Both are also relatively short, and their beauty derives partly from the concision and clarity of gestures which, once rolling, continue to unsettle the ear long after the final bar.
The two Greenwood works adopt Penderecki's tone-cluster techniques as one of a number of stylistic devices. The palette in the earlier work is more limited and has a correspondingly greater effect. In the 48 Responses, a tension is set up between a lush Bach-Stokowski sonority, based around a chorale-style harmonization, and the atonal clusters, while rhythmic gestures condense into sustained, dance-like passages which, thrummed out in unison with tapped bows and, later, shakers, seemed to push proceedings further and further in the direction of the nearest Latin nightclub. The idea is interesting enough, and there's no gainsaying the fact that Greenwood is clearly a musician of great talent, but it's a talent that needs schooling.
Both works significantly outstay their welcome and the transitions seem laboured and often arbitrary. More important, though, is an overriding sense that the techniques and sound worlds of Penderecki's early work are being mined because it has come somehow to sound cool. There is none of the white heat of genuine artistic exploration, and much more of a sense of trial-and-error experimentation, with one eye on fashion and another on the hobby shed.
Like it or not, the aesthetic of cool is definitely here to stay. Concert promoters have long been wondering why contemporary music lacks the cachet of its equivalents in the visual arts, and sounding (and looking) cool is likely to be the winning recipe. More and more interest, on both sides of the Atlantic, is being taken in a genre-crossing area of music-making which, for want of a better name, has become known as "indie-classical", characterized less by particular styles than by its refreshingly free-ranging audiences who are younger, hipper and - potentially - much more numerous than the one from which concert halls have traditionally sought sustenance.
This was borne out both by the full-to-bursting young crowds in attendance at the Greenwood concert and at one the week before in which the Barbican stage was given over to some of the biggest names on the New York indie scene, including Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Unlike Greenwood, both Muhly and Pallett come from classical backgrounds and have studied composition, but both have also worked extensively with rock artists, Pallett being best known as a solo singer-songwriter somewhat in the vein of Rufus Wainwright but with less famous parents.
The concert in question, which featured an excellent, expanded Britten Sinfonia, was centred on the premieres of two new concertos, Pallett's for violin and Muhly's for cello. I'm sorry to report that neither piece was up to much. The colours of Pallett's decidedly monochrome work were enhanced by the retuning of certain string sections, giving a pleasingly diffused air to the otherwise rather shapeless progressions. Even Pekka Kuusisto, a violinist whose body language is often as expressive as his playing, was rather muted, perhaps dispirited by the meandering profile of his solo part. Muhly's soloist was Oliver Coates, a wonderful cellist and inspiring figure on the London new music scene, but almost inaudible beneath the repetitious sequences distributed by Muhly among the orchestra. The second movement was the most interesting - though the cellist is silent for much of it - in its departures from postminimalist orthodoxy, with some lovely effects from very high string notes combined with doubling between the harp and woodwind which mimicked the plucked sonority of the harp by issuing dry staccato bursts.
A new tone poem by Julian Anderson received its premiere meanwhile at the more traditionally conceived concert given by the London Philharmonic, pairing Anderson's The Discovery of Heaven with Delius and Elgar. Anderson took his inspiration from the mystical novel by Harry Mulisch, but there is no programme as such. Instead, in three movements, over an all-too-brief twenty-five minutes, we are treated to a masterclass in the combination of orchestral colour and timbre with formal gesture. Almost Debussyian in the organic elegance of its form - which grows from the hazy sketches of the first movement through the bustling vernaculars of the second to a wonderfully passed, brassrich "hymn" of the third - there was more than sufficient finesse and beauty in this piece to make up for the worrying absence of these qualities elsewhere.
We are lucky, in the world of music, that links between craftsmanship and artistic value are still more or less intact. The sense of something being beautifully done still has impact and credibility. Perhaps this is a luxury in an age which thinks it can ill afford to invest in the levels of education and expertise needed to keep this culture alive, and it could be that the current golden age of British music is also something of an Indian summer. But we should enjoy it while it lasts.
Monday, 2 April 2012
Royal Opera House
Judith Weir is one of few composers living today whose several operas have, by and large, been a success with critics and audiences. Her first full-scale opera, the witty A Night at the Chinese Opera, from 1987, remains a favourite for its quick-witted and assured musical style, and clever, dramatically taut storytelling. Blond Eckbert, based on the fable by Ludwig Tieck, was also well received at its premiere at the Coliseum in 1994 and later the same year in Santa Fe. Her latest, Miss Fortune, jointly commissioned by the Royal Opera and the Bregenz Festival, where it premiered (as Achterbahn) on the indoor stage last year, shares with her previous stage works the same lush musical idiom, soaring off in occasional flights of lyrical fancy, and a libretto written in the same matter-of-fact, disarmingly direct style. Its single distinguishing feature, in fact, in addition to its being her first opera for the Royal Opera's main stage, is that it doesn't work.
My first instinct was to blame the production, a visually striking concoction by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng and the designer Tom Pye which nonetheless does nothing to help the opera convey its subject matter. The stage is dominated by a strange trapezoid, massive and dark and suggestive in some ways of a ship but in others of a kind of malevolent asteroid. Lit in flashes of green and red, casting vast, layered shadows, it is beautiful in an abstract way, but otherwise it projects an entirely negative energy, dwarfing the singers who throng around and even on top of it. It seems odd that a mere prop could have such a strong gravity, but its strange, alien presence dehumanizes the characters on the stage. Even though the singers' diction is mostly clear, and the orchestral score far from overbearing, one still has no real idea what anyone is talking about and, more importantly, why.
But even when the mysterious trapezoid disappears, hauled off into the surrounding blackness, the absence of human proportion remains, and I realized the fault lay with the work's clumsy and often banal libretto as much as its crude staging. The story, based on a traditional Sicilian folk tale called "Sfortuna" ("misfortune"), follows Tina, the daughter of Lord and Lady Fortune who, when her parents lose their great wealth in a stockmarket crash, decides to make her own way in the world. At first everything she touches turns to ashes, quite literally - a clothing factory burns to the ground during her first night sweeping the floor there, as does the kebab van she is asked to look after - but later she settles down in a launderette, where she attracts a wealthy and handsome young suitor and turns the tables on her destiny.
Such an unlikely fate requires, of course, the presence of Fate itself, here cast as a streetsmart countertenor with a retinue of breakdancers. Fate stalks Tina with monotonous malevolence from the beginning until, in the last scene, for some unknown reason, he changes his tune, providing the one moment of surprise in the entire two hours. Is this a role-reversing slap in the face for Fate, or just the final one in a long series of token gestures? With the kebab van (which descends, impressively but unaccountably, from the flyloft) and the launderette settings, and in its call for a troupe of breakdancers to carry out the destructive whims of Fate, Weir has clearly aimed to bring out the continuing relevance of the story, but its most contemporary feature is in the impassive gaze it attracts from its audience.
The moral seems to be that life has its ups and downs. The only characters with a flash of depth are Hassan the kebab van owner - whose dawn love song to his van is the musical highlight of the opera, beautifully sung by Noah Stewart - and the launderette-owner Donna, admirably sung by Anne-Marie Owens. But even here, the dignity which accrues to these two by virtue of their ownership of their own labour, in contrast to the factory workers, is too frail to rub off on the drama itself.
It is the same with the spectacular and comic aspects of the work. The breakdancing, impressive in itself, seems awkwardly conceived and takes place, almost apologetically, in the shadows. Similarly the comic drama, which might have worked well in a more intimate setting and a neater, more reined-in score, never gains enough charge to coax anything but mild amusement from the audience. This is all the more disappointing given the evident commitment of the singers and players. In the title role, Emma Bell sings with clarity and beauty, while Andrew Watts, as Fate, does amazingly well to project with conviction.
Paul Daniel's musical direction is enthusiastic and competent, but he can do nothing to overcome the music's mostly lacklustre progress. If this were Weir's first opera for the big stage, one might put the work's failure down to inexperience; as it is, Miss Fortune gives the depressing impression that contemporary opera is once more rewarding the fears rather than the hopes of audiences. The present is, in fact, a rather exciting time for new opera both on small and big stages (with George Benjamin's new Written on Skin and a revival of Harrison Birtwistle's Minotaur both booked for the Royal Opera's forthcoming season), so this misfortunate memory may prove short-lived.
Monday, 26 March 2012
THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 23 March
It is well known that Wagner wrote the Ring backwards, first drafting the poem for an opera entitled "Siegfrieds Tod". Only later did he realize that if the death of the Nordic mythological hero were to have the full dramatic, moral and political significance he intended, a great deal of explanation would be necessary, resulting in one prequel after another. When the American opera director Peter Sellars, fresh from his triumph with Nixon in China, which he planned and staged with the composer-librettist dream team of John Adams and Alice Goodman, pitched to them a new idea for an opera, he called it "Klinghoffers Tod". The resonance will have been inescapable, especially given that neither the setting nor any of the characters was German.
Leon Klinghoffer, a retired Jewish-American businessman who, after two strokes, was confined to a wheelchair, was the sole casualty of what came to be known as the Achille Lauro incident. The Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise liner, was commandeered, on October 7, 1985, by Palestinian terrorists, led by Abu Abbas, a PLF leader and one of Yasser Arafat's right-hand men. Abbas disembarked before the remaining men took control of the vessel and 400 or so of its passengers, sailing into open water and using ship-to-shore radio to attempt to negotiate a release of fifty PLF prisoners. They succeeded only in negotiating their own release into Palestinian custody, thanks to the intervention of Arafat, before word got out either on board or in the wider world that one of the passengers had been shot in the head and chest and then thrown overboard. The manner of his death would have awoken fresh memories of the murder of US Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body had been rolled on to the tarmac of Beirut airport from the hijacked TWA Flight 847 some months before.
Why did Klinghoffer die? Because he spoke out against the hijackers, or because it was difficult to move him around the ship with the other passengers? Both are possibilities, but it was clear to the terrorists early on in the operation that their interests would be best served by keeping the passengers and crew alive. The act itself therefore remains shrouded in mystery, albeit a mystery which prevents memory of the event fading into the collage of numerous similar kidnappings and acts of terrorism and murder of the time, and makes it emblematic of the unresolved fears and loathings that keep the world glued to Middle Eastern politics no less now than in 1985.
While Wagner's idea for "Siegfrieds Tod" was predicated on the need to show why the opera's hero had to die, the idea central to what became The Death of Klinghoffer, premiered in Brussels in 1991, was predicated on the idea of preserving the event's mystery, its portentous meaninglessness.
When Adams read Goodman's full libretto, he recalls being struck by its "strange, almost biblical" quality. This impression was carried through the writing of the opera which, even if it will never escape the label of "docu-opera", rejoices in the techniques of sacred oratorio and the interspersing of narrated and direct action with more reflective episodes, usually given to the chorus.
We do not encounter Klinghoffer until the second act, and his death - though its conditions are prepared by the passing of a gun to Omar, the youngest of the terrorists - takes place outside the framework of directly represented or narrated action. In fact, it happens twice. The first time, accompanied by disturbing, descending swirls in the orchestra, there is no singing (Omar is a dancing role), and the episode is bracketed by an affecting but bland soliloquy by Marilyn Klinghoffer, who knows nothing of the event. The second time, Klinghoffer's body is doubled by another dancer while the singer stands aside in the socalled "Aria of the Falling Body", to some of the tenderest and most beautifully shaped music Adams has yet written.
For the work's London stage premiere, the director Tom Morris has chosen to represent the two deaths in mirror image, with Klinghoffer peacefully gazing over the deck railing out to sea, apparently unaware of the young Palestinian hesitating behind him. The first time he faces the audience; the second time the dancers enact the scene from the rear of the stage, with Klinghoffer's body and chair cast overboard and into the waves, to Arthur Pita's beautifully fluid slow-motion choreography, while the singing role is taken, magnificently, by Alan Opie, from just off centrestage. The dual representation of the act's mindless brutality also has an otherworldly beauty, and its mysterious negative energy radiates outward, disrupting any sense of closure around the drama or the events it relates. Klinghoffer's death, though a real enough event and still of course a painful memory to his surviving family and friends, merges with the religious rituals that bear testament to humanity's deep-rooted need to witness the shedding of its own blood.
Morris's production, to designs by Tom Pye, is every bit as good as it needs to be for mounting Adams's problematic but ultimately impressive second opera. The fluidity of the choral settings offsets their dramatic stasis without disturbing the quasi-liturgical atmosphere. The documentary-style projections interpolate a modern a sense of pacing without upsetting the powerful gravitational lurches, in both libretto and score, between folk-religious mysticism and bland vernacular.
The conducting of Baldur Brönnimann is equally assured, negotiating the challenging terrain of Adams's subtly shaded orchestral score while keeping the soloists and chorus absolutely in line across the massive and, at times, extremely busy stage. The vocal performances are mostly excellent too, Michaela Martens capturing perfectly the blank, searing tragedy of Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria and Richard Burkhard conveying the poetic beauty of Mamoud's vision of his people's suffering and his desire for vengeance, not mere settlement. The captain is also well portrayed by Christopher Magiera, a singular achievement for both the tenor and Morris because, as well as being the longest role, it is also the hardest to pull off. The dramatic framework is underpinned by his ability to lie, admittedly for the sake of his passengers, and in his failure - confessed uneasily to Mrs Klinghoffer - adequately to discharge his duties of hospitality, a failure which resonates all the more loudly in the quasi-biblical setting.
The opera has been staged several times since its Brussels premiere, though only twice fully in the US, where it remains controversial. Even in London, where it has only been heard in a concert performance at the Barbican in 2002, there were rumours and promises of disruption by a pro-Israeli faction, but besides a lone and rather dutiful-looking protester, these never materialized. The opera's most controversial moment was perhaps a planned performance of some of the choruses in September 2011 which was cancelled, partly because a relation of one of the chorus members had been killed in the World Trade Center. Adams discovered this detail only after he had noisily objected to the cancellation, and the controversy reached its peak with the publication of an extended essay in the New York Times by Richard Taruskin, arguing that the work should be boycotted (or subject to "self-control") because of the anti-Semitism of the "beautiful" music given to the terrorists and also to Klinghoffer, but only after his death - a detail which, Taruskin argued, embodied a message to the effect that "the only good Jew is a dead Jew". Goodman's response, in an interview with Rupert Christiansen in Opera magazine, didn't help matters ("a case, I believe, of pathological Jewish self-hatred on Taruskin's part"), but the Taruskin essay remains one of the great musicologist's more remarkable outbursts. If the theatre does not exist as a space in which man- kind can contemplate its dreams and fears, its unbound hopes and unhealed wounds, then I don't know what it is for. Censoring the manner and direction in which it may appeal to our sympathies is not an answer.
Opera houses, of course, survive to a certain extent on scandal, especially in Europe where controversy is often mistaken for confirmation that subsidies have been well spent. So when a sizeable and vocal minority in the audience at Covent Garden greeted the director and designers of the Royal Opera's new production of Rusalka with ferocious booing, many took this as evidence of the production's success. The real controversy here, of course, is that the Royal Opera have somehow neglected to stage this beautiful opera until now.
The production in question, conceived by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito to designs by Barbara Ehnes, was first seen in Salzburg in 2008. The directors' decision to set Dvorák and Jaroslav Kvapil's captivating fairy tale in a brothel - apparently one specializing in catering to those with liturgical and Piscean fetishes - upset audiences there, just as it upset them in London. Many objected to Rusalka's famous address to the moon in Act One being directed toward a fluffy toy cat, but those in search of verisimilitude might want to check their own memories for the last time they saw a mermaid addressing an orbiting rock.
The basic idea, though, is a strong one. The disenchanted water-spirit's desire for the capacity for human love, and her subsequent disappointment, transpose naturally to the longing of a prostitute for the freedom to love as others do. As all productions of any opera should, it asks questions of its audience and connects the drama, and thus the music, with actions, motivations and emotions to which we can relate. The problems have more to do with the confusion that ensues from attempting to preserve too many of the supernatural trappings of the fairy tale. The brothel location only really becomes clear in the third act, as does the fact that her ownership of the institution is the secret of the witch Jezibah's power. The staging, despite some clever details, is garish and ugly, but insufficiently so for these qualities to become beautiful through their excess. The vocal performances, on the other hand, are mostly good, especially Camilla Nylund's touching Rusalka, Bryan Hymel's bright, passionate Prince and Alan Held's powerful and darktoned Vodnik. In the pit, things are even better, the orchestra clearly enjoying their liberty to face away from the stage. Indeed, such is the inspirational dynamism, edge-of-theseat excitement and sheer beauty of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's musical direction that the lacklustre ironies of the set stand little chance of exerting any negative force on the drama.
Thursday, 1 March 2012
LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
COSÌ FAN TUTTE
Royal Opera House, London
Vicente Martín y Soler
IL BURBERO DI BUON CUORE
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 2
Tales of servants and their masters continue to hold a degree of fascination which is all the more remarkable considering we live in an age when neither is supposed to exist any longer. They are a greater presence than ever on big and small screens no less than on spoken and sung stages, testimony to an obsession, perhaps, which our society seems unable to move beyond. But while the great upsurge of interest in this relationship that preoccupied eighteenth-century dramatists maintained a more or less exclusively comic aspect – indeed, it was comedy’s additional licence which permitted extended scrutiny of the subject in the first place – today’s appetite for the fact and fiction of upstairs and downstairs seems to be entirely in earnest, marked even by elements of nostalgia and an odd kind of mundanely literal curiosity.
In the world of opera, we’re stuck with the subject. Not because today’s composers are still obsessed with the theme, but because the servant–master relationship plays a crucial role in two, and an important supporting role in another, of the masterpieces of the genre, the three operas Mozart wrote with the Venetian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte are, nearly 230 years after their composition, still probably the most frequently staged, widely enjoyed and loved of all operas. This is despite the fact that few nowadays are likely either to be swayed or particularly threatened by the pop-philosophical misogyny of Don Alfonso, just as few are likely even to raise an eyebrow at the spectacle of a Countess disguising herself as her maid. As for Don Giovanni, if today’s audiences are shocked at anything, it’s at the run of bad luck which prevents the poor man getting what he wants.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the simple fact that these canonical operas should take such light-hearted spectacles for their subject. When one considers that the usual effect of music on text is to slow and intensify it, the very notion of an opera’s being genuinely funny is in itself counter-intuitive. As a rule of thumb, music monumentalizes rather than quickens dramatic action – which is why one can count on the fingers of one hand the operas really capable of making their audiences laugh. And given that three of these are by Mozart and Da Ponte, that doesn’t leave many others.
This year is a somewhat unadventurous one for the Royal Opera; even the season’s opener – Puccini’s Trittico (reviewed in the TLS on September 30, 2011) – was only twothirds new. November to January was mostly taken up with an extended run of La traviata (in Richard Eyre’s familiar production, now eighteen years old and ready, one hopes, to fly the nest), while the last month or so has seen Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas dovetailing each other merrily, none of them in new productions. This is, of course, a belt-tightening period and also, in terms of the company’s direction, a transitional one – the young Danish director Kasper Holten took over the company’s artistic direction at the beginning of the season, although it will of course be some time before his influence is properly felt. Still one cannot help wondering whether the house’s generous subsidies are really being earned this year.
That said, part of the brief of any subsidized arts organization is to make itself “accessible”, and attending the three Mozart operas, I was certainly aware of the large number of less experienced opera-goers in the audience. The laughter was convulsive, gasped in comical disbelief rather than issued in knowing delight at, for example, the mass pile-up of delusion and confusion that occurs in Figaro’s Act Two finale. Applause was also scattered willy-nilly. In Don Giovanni, the general consensus was that the opera ended – as it is thought to have done in the revised Vienna version – with the hero’s descent into the flames. The young Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis had to summon all his reserves in order to dampen down the whooping and continue into the opera’s two final and often rather flat-seeming numbers.
Much of the audience’s enjoyment derived from the supreme confidence with which the Uruguayan singer Erwin Schrott inhabits the role of Don Giovanni. In a piece where so much of the drama depends on the character’s powers of persuasion being immediately and palpably credible, Schrott has precisely what it takes. Oozing charisma, with his broad-shouldered sex appeal and rounded, honeyed, and masterfully wielded bass baritone, it is not only (for once) easy to understand why the other characters cannot resist his charms, but also incredible that they hold out for as long as they do. In this respect he is abetted by Francesca Zambello’s production which, despite its several clumsinesses, at least plays the opera to its comic strengths. Zerlina (Kate Lindsey) appears to make up her mind about the Don’s assets long before he has begun officially to seduce her. As a result, the famous duet “La ci darem”, though beautifully sung, has little sense of the psychological play so scrupulously portrayed by composer and librettist. The mood here is more of an impatient, mutual smash-and-grab affair. As for Donna Anna (Carmela Remigio), her “no” in the opening “rape” scene clearly, for once, means “yes” – which is an interpretation whose implications need to be carried through in Anna’s dealings with Don Ottavio (Pavol Breslik); they aren’t, and both characters came off awkwardly as a result. Ruxandra Donose made an impressive house debut as Elvira, but the only stage chemistry of any real subtlety is that between the master and his servant Leporello, sung by the excellent Italian bass Alex Esposito.
Like Zambello’s Don Giovanni, the revival of David McVicar’s staging of Figaro suffers slightly from the urge to put on airs. The idea of setting the drama in Paris in 1830 is a good one, the intention being to suggest a connection with a rather more leisurely and bloodless revolution than that of 1789. But the architectural styling, while appropriate to the period, rather dwarfs the action, which thrives on the bustle and confusion of the cramped stage. Only in the Act One finale, which takes place in Susanna and Figaro’s intended quarters, does the stage action appear to keep pace with Mozart’s ferociously dynamic music. That said, the taut, beautifully balanced musical direction of Antonio Pappano brought out everything one expects to hear from the score, and the soloists were outstanding. This was expected of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Aleksandra Kurzak, both of whom have appeared as Figaro and Susanna in this production previously (though at different times), less so from the two Americans making their house debuts as Count and Countess, Lucas Meachem and Rachel Willis-Sørensen, both previously unknown. Other highlights were Anna Bonitatibus’s Cherubino and Ann Murray’s Marcellina. Susana Gaspar, a Jette Parker Young Artist, also made an impressive debut as Barbarina. Her “l’ho perduta” was, appropriately, heartbreaking.
That one of Figaro’s most emotionally shattering moments concerns the losing of a pin by a young girl in a minor role is a good reminder of the way the three operas often undermine their directors by being at their most serious at apparently trivial points in the drama. That such an imbalance is at the heart of the third opera – Fiordiligi’s great plea for forgiveness “Per pietà” – has long been recognized, and most directors give the moment space to drive a broken-heart-shaped hole through the otherwise farcical framework of the drama. The trick is not to try to patch it up, but follow Mozart’s musical clues to the idea that Fiordiligi and Ferrando (in his Albanian alter ego) do in fact fall powerfully in love, and in a way in which the proprieties of the official conclusion are hardly likely to repair. Here, what is often mistaken for Mozart’s most flippant and cynical opera in fact shows itself as his most serious. By this I don’t mean that we should take sides with Don Alfonso – and indeed Figaro, for that matter – in suggesting that they are all like that – or, as Junius expresses the matter in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, that “virtue in women is simply lack of opportunity”. On the contrary, the opera’s seriousness relates to its romantic but astonishingly profound and forward-looking analysis of the relation between emotion and behaviour, and Mozart’s way of allowing the musical momentum, rather than the plot, to shape the work’s emotional trajectory.
Jonathan Miller’s slick, witty and often hilarious modern staging skewers this aspect of the opera perfectly, especially here where it had the benefit of Colin Davis’s glorious understanding of the score’s ebb and flow. The staging was severely compromised the night I attended because the great English baritone Thomas Allen, celebrating his fortieth year with the Royal Opera with what all the reviews inform me was a masterful turn as Don Alfonso, was indisposed at short notice. He was replaced on stage by an ill-at-ease assistant director, and in the wings the by the Italian bass Carlo Lepore, in town to sing Bartolo in the next evening’s Figaro. Alfonso is, of course, the moral vacuum which binds the action together, so the character’s de facto absence made its presence felt, so to speak. But spirited performances from the other soloists – especially Malin Byström’s Fiordiligi and Rosemary Joshua’s Despina – rallied to replenish some of the performance’s lost sheen.
Da Ponte was something of an unknown entity when Joseph II announced him as his choice for the role of poet to his newly revived Italian theatre company in 1783. He had never written a libretto before and his first efforts in his official role – a reworking of Giovanni Bertati’s Il ricco d’un giorno for Salieri – was not a success. So when Joseph commissioned him to collaborate on a new opera with the celebrated Spanish composer, Vicente Martín y Soler, the offer was made in the spirit of a last-chance reprieve. In the event, and despite the best efforts of a growing number of detractors, Salieri among them, the resulting comedy turned out to be the biggest success of the 1785/86 season. Da Ponte chose to adapt a French farce by his compatriot Carlo Goldoni called Le Bourru bienfaisant, a clever choice, partly because it was originally written for the marriage of Joseph’s sister Marie Antoinette (a happy if perhaps not auspicious occasion), and partly because the range of characters, significantly greater than that of a stock buffa cast, would allow him to flex his dramaturgical muscles. To make his point, Il burbero di buon cuore (“the good-hearted curmudgeon”) was subtitled a “dramma giocoso”, a label which he later applied to Don Giovanni. This co-production between the Teatro Real in Madrid (where it appeared in 2009) and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu is the first staging of the opera in the modern era. It does however contain some familiar music. When the opera was revived in Vienna in 1789, Martín had long since left Vienna to take up service in the court of Catherine the Great. In his place, Mozart was asked to compose two new arias for the work, as a sweetener to the soprano Louise Villeneuve who was to sing the initially rather minor role of Madama Lucilla. The two arias – “Chi se, chi se, qual sia” and “Vado, ma dove, o dei?” – are occasionally heard in recital. Figaro was also revived that year, but the two new arias Mozart composed for that are only very rarely heard. When Cecilia Bartoli let them loose on an unsuspecting New York public in 1998, neither audience nor director (a certain Dr Miller) was particularly amused.
The opera is in many ways a typical Goldoni farce, using amply fleshed-out stock characters to develop a scenario in which a grumpy, chess-obsessed curmudgeon is moved to restore romantic order to his lovesick niece and cash-strapped nephew (whose rather high-maintenance wife is the aforementioned Madama Lucilla). The staging, by Irina Brook, updates the setting to a rather ramshackle Venice hotel, with more than a hint of Fawlty Towers. This is a successful move for the comedy of marriage and money, but less so for the familiar theme of class (subtle servant–master relations drive several of the subplots). In terms of singing, while there were no weak points, the show was definitively stolen by Véronique Gens’s Lucilla, who looked and sounded like an unlikely catch for David Alegret’s Giocondo. Part of this, of course, is due to the way in which Mozart’s rather full-blooded insertions interact with Martín’s fleet-footed and delightfully melodious score, which like much of the Spaniard’s music, would certainly repay greater acquaintance – particularly when, as here, the guide is the great Jordi Savall, a conductor with whom open-mouthed amazement so often comes as standard.
Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Grand Theatre, Leeds
Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, February 24th
It often strikes people as odd – normal people at least – that the term “bel canto” should mark out a particular and rather limited operatic tradition rather than a quality of the genre as a whole. Surely singing beautifully is a central part of what opera is all about? Yet the term, primarily used to refer to early nineteenth-century Italian opera (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini), is still marked by a pejorative sense, as if the idea is somehow at odds with what opera is really for. The notion that in showing off the voice composers are somehow betraying the dramatic function of their art form is one of the most persistent, and most persistently mistaken, in operatic history.
What is less often pointed out is that beautiful singing – whether in the manner of smooth, florid lines in sharp relief against the orchestras suggested by the bel canto tradition, or otherwise – has its own particular dramatic gravity. Most of the best operas trade knowingly on this, and composers have long recognized that a vocal set piece can shift the dramatic momentum, control the flow of action or direction of the audience’s sympathies, or even simply break through one plane of a drama in order to inaugurate another. The real influence of the argument, though it has resurfaced continuously during the past 500 years, is in any case usually exaggerated. Wagner, though strongly scornful of the more artificial aspects of the Italian tradition, reserved for Bellini some of the strongest praise he ever permitted himself to express on the subject of another composer. Norma remains Bellini’s best-known opera, though this is largely on the back of the famously undulating cavatina, “Casta Diva”, in which the heroine seeks the blessing of the chaste goddess of the moon. It has been over twenty years since the opera was performed by any of Britain’s major companies (there is a rumour that Anna Netrebko will sing the role in Covent Garden in 2016), but with the recent resurgence of interest in Donizetti, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Bellini shared in the spoils, too.
This is certainly the case at Opera North, whose new staging of the opera follows recent productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Bellini’s I Capuletti e I Montecchi. I was slightly perturbed when I first learned the director was to be Christopher Alden, a great talent but one whose fascination with physical theatre and improvisation could prove an awkward partner with Bellini’s stop-start music. True to form, instead of following the score’s direction that “Casta Diva” should be sung under a central oak tree, with the heroine’s arms raised in prayer, Alden has asked her to climb the tree instead, and still raise her arms. Luckily, Alden’s tree – a bare, suspended trunk, on which the Gauls inscribe their runes – allows for a chair to be fixed to it at the relevant point. More generally, though, and despite the nearincessant movement and tangling of bodies on stage, Alden succeeds admirably in generating the right kind of atmosphere and energy for the singers so that Bellini’s wonderfully worked vocal lines can still be heard to hold the drama together.
And some very fine singers there are. The title role is taken by Annemarie Kremer, a Dutch soprano with exactly the right combination of stamina, flexibility and beauty of tone. Her voice is wonderfully rich in the middle register and powerful and even in the high registers, so the famously challenging role appears to present few serious challenges – although, if anything, she is at her best in the duets with her protégée and rival Adalgisa, and with her former lover Pollione. If her vocal characterization lacks one thing, perhaps, it is a sense of the character’s vulnerability. “Norma non mente” (“Norma doesn’t lie”), the priestess booms after indicting herself just before the opera’s conclusion, but she has, in fact, been living a lie for years. Still, this is an exhilarating and auspicious British debut for Kremer.
Similarly impressive on her British debut is the American soprano Keri Alkemi, whose assured and darkly coloured portrayal of Adalgisa captures perfectly the conflict between a newly awakened sexual appetite and loyalty to her vows. The production, which transports the action to a Victorian Britain of peasants and plutocrats, presenting a set of oppressions and inequalities perhaps more relevant to us than those of Gaul and Rome, has the admirable conceit of making the Gaulish community seem even more menacing than their invaders. A nice touch is the continual presence on stage of Oroveso, Norma’s father – powerfully portrayed by James Creswell – who when he’s not trying to convince his daughter to hold his axe, sits glowering in the shadows, overhearing everything. The Opera North chorus are in fine fettle, though they are outshone by their colleagues in the pit, who currently seem to be at their very best. This is, in part, thanks to the exemplary musical direction of Oliver von Dohnanyi, who keeps the orchestral accompaniments light and fleet where necessary and gives the singers the necessary space to shine. The only weak link is the Mexican tenor Luis Chapa, who captures Pollione’s pomposity but little else – certainly, one has little inkling of why two beautiful, powerful women are willing to lose everything just to be with him. His failing, in this supreme example of bel canto opera, is not that he sings too beautifully, but that he doesn’t sing beautifully enough.
Beauty in all its operatic guises is at the heart of Nicola Lefanu’s new opera Dream Hunter, which shares with Norma its heady mixture of florid vocal lines, Mediterranean fervour, incantations to the moon and sexual awakening. Composed to a libretto by John Fuller, and scored for a light chamber ensemble and four soloists, the opera dramatizes one evening in the life of two Corsican sisters, their father, a widowed and indebted smallholder, and the village mayor’s brutish son, betrothed to the older sister Angela but more interested in seducing the younger one, Catarina. Like Norma, Catarina’s magnetic appeal is partly manifest in the beauty of her melismatic vocal part and a style of diction which lifts her above the other characters. Wonderfully created by the soprano Charmian Bedford, the character is also, like Norma, a visionary, although in the poverty-stricken setting her status as a “mazzera” or “dreamhunter” is more curse than blessing. “Are you a mazzera?”, asks Angela, “Is someone going to suffer?”. “God forbid”, replies Catarina.
The metaphor of hunting rips through the drama. The father hunts boar (illegally), the mayor’s son Sampiero hunts women; Angela wants to ensnare a husband and even Catarina, a born dreamer who refuses to help her sister prepare the evening meal, eventually hunts down Sampiero in her sleep. Lefanu’s beautifully coloured score – wonderfully played by the new music ensemble Lontano, under Odaline de la Martinez – eschews any such dynamism, and is more concerned with spinning a glittering web around the action. It sets the action rather than drives it, which suits Fuller’s verse libretto, itself rather more poetic than dramatic. The opera also lasts scarcely fifty minutes, sufficiently short for the requisite stillness of gaze to encompass the whole, and a perfect length for an work almost uncanny in its focus on that outmoded operatic virtue, beautiful singing.
Thursday, 9 February 2012
Saturday, 28 January 2012
Alexander Goehr, who turns eighty this year, has written a new piece for orchestra. It is entitled When Adam Fell, after the Lutheran chorale in which the party line on original sin is rather grimly set down (“Through Adam’s fall human nature and character is completely corrupted, the same poison has been inherited by us . . .”). As is often the case with Goehr’s work, the listener would probably be wrong to look for too literal a connection between music and title, and the composer’s focus is not so much on the legend or even the chorale itself but on the meandering chromatic bass line through which Bach, in his Chorale Prelude on the melody (BWV 637), depicted the irreversible, un-retraceable fall of Adam from the state of grace.
This bass line is evidently a favourite with Goehr, who was alerted to its intriguing contours by Messiaen, with whom he studied; he adapted it in another work indirectly inspired by the Book of Genesis, his dramatic cantata The Deluge. In the new work, the bass line is set more consistently, yet used in different ways throughout the piece, which stretches over an unhurried single movement. Beginning high up in the woodwind, with the silences between angular splashes of melody punctuated by a shrinking violin gesture suggestive of a kind of short aftershock, the material is deployed with characteristic delicacy, and beautifully scored to highlight thematic opposition between the traditional, strings-centred forces and the rather exotic soundworld of the harp and percussion – which includes bowed antique cymbals, tambourines, triangles, a Latin American guiro and an adapted drum called, for reasons obvious only when you hear it, a “Lion’s roar”.
The piece is characterized by alternations between these two contrasting spheres, the whole arranged and painted with exquisite colouring and detached neatness – the orchestral equivalent, perhaps, of the work of nineteenth-century Japanese landscape painters. There is also an oriental flavour in its rather meandering form, in which everything sounds perfectly placed but without any real sense of drive or urgency. There are moments of climax but these, too, have the flavour of neat, controlled explosions, and there is no discernible denouement but rather a kind of fading-out mid-gesture – perhaps as an optimistic take on the subject matter. Adam’s fall, after all, can be viewed as more of a beginning than an ending. The development of Goehr’s predilection for what one might call orderly inconsequentialism is rather charmingly traced in the postlude contributed by the composer to a new illustrated study of his work, Alexander Goehr: “Fings ain’t wot they used t’be”, edited by Werner Grünzweig (160pp. Berlin: Akademie der Künste. 978 3 93600 028 3. ¤24). The main part of the book is taken up with an extended essay by Paul Griffiths written in the form, rather appropriately, of a baroque suite, in sections entitled “Prelude”, “Chaconne”, etc. Griffiths shifts effortlessly from detailed musical analysis to elegant and concise characterization of the man and his work.
An important theme in the book is Goehr’s compositional relationship with Schoenberg; in addition to his laudably unevangelical and natural use of the Austrian composer’s teaching and methods, this comes through Goehr’s father, the conductor and composer Walter Goehr, who was one of Schoenberg’s students. The Schoenberg connection was also prominent in the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at which When Adam Fell was premiered last week, in the form of the exuberant orchestral arrangement of the second Chamber Symphony. Both works were well handled by Oliver Knussen, whose conducting relationship with the orchestra is currently one of its greatest assets. Knussen spends more time putting his programmes together than most – perhaps because his conducting activities are limited – and his concerts are seldom other than revelatory. Thus the relationship between Goehr and Schoenberg was amplified “sideways”in the programme by the inclusion of two further twentieth-century single-movement orchestral works, neither of which I had heard before. The first, the Symphony No 10 by Nikolai Myaskovsky, dating from 1927, turned out to be a wonderfully exuberant piece of big-boned expressionism with an emphatic thematic argument – with striking if perhaps unintended or unwitting thematic similarities to the Schoenberg piece – and an energetic, almost orgiastic rushing form reminiscent of Scriabin.
The other piece was Niccolò Castiglioni’s fast, short Concerto for Orchestra which, despite having being composed in 1963, was receiving its UK premiere (Castiglioni died in 1996). Knussen has been championing the Italian composer’s music lately, and we can be grateful to him for doing so. A reworking of an earlier chamber piece, Tropi of 1959, the concerto starts with crisply scored Webern-like gestures, but very soon whirls them together into a chaotic frenzy, brimming with delightful energy and wit. Though entirely at odds with Goehr’s new work in its crazed dynamism, it shares with it the same palpable and – for the listener – thrilling sense of a craftsman fully in control of his materials while taking a quiet – and in Goehr’s case somewhat detached – delight in exploiting them.
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Konzerthaus and various venues, Vienna
Reviewed in the TLS, 9 December
Although he was a real person, the name of Baron Münchhausen occupies a place in German-speaking culture somewhat similar to that occupied by Swift’s Gulliver in English. Münchhausen’s reputation for far-fetched stories about his exploits during the Russo–Turkish war in the service of the Russian army’s German “generalissimus” Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick, was evidently widespread during his lifetime, but it was his second career as a satirical fictional hero which proved the more lasting. The surprising adventures of Baron Munchausen were published anonymously in English in 1785 by Rudolph Raspe, a professor of the University of Cassel, who apparently fled to London after attempting to rip off one of his patrons. Raspe’s text provides the main source for the further embellished and more explicitly satirical version by the Romantic poet Gottfried Bürger, published in German the following year, and which remains the best-known version in German-speaking cultures. The stories draw on pan-European satirical traditions from Ariosto to Swift and Sterne (all three are referred to in the text, as is Don Quixote, who appears to confront and challenge the Baron and his retinue, which includes Gog and Magog). It has existed in countless different literary versions, as well as in the form of plays, a film (by Terry Gilliam) and even a board game, but not, until now, as an opera.
On the face of it, the Münchhausen tales make an odd choice for an opera. The action is all narrated, and would lose a great deal of its force if the narrator’s persona were to recede from the foreground. But the opera’s composer, Wolfgang Mitterer, is also something of an eccentric. His sound-worlds, techniques and frames of reference – not to mention physical appearance: he is rarely seen without his trademark black woollen cap – all seem worlds apart from the image and music of most Austrian composers. An organist by training, he is unusual if not unique in his use of techniques and materials from across the stylistic spectrum of rock and pop electronica, jazz, and pre- and post-war art music. But the term “eclectic”, still a somewhat dirty word among the compositional and artistic milieux of Vienna, doesn’t really do justice to Mitterer. “Voracious” is probably better. His music has a boundless energy and is both quirky and uncompromising, using processed effects, irregular structures and odd quotations and distortions in order to create music which in some sense reflects and digests the aural chaos of modern life.
Read the full article as a pdf.
Thursday, 10 November 2011
Wednesday, 2 November 2011
La Monnaie, Brussels
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 4
What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night? As riddles go, the one posed by the Sphinx to Oedipus is not a particularly hard one. Most of us learn it at primary school. Some children guess it straight off, apparently. A harder riddle is how the story of the Sphinx came into the legend in the first place, or more specifically how it kept its place there in Sophocles’ starkly humancentred treatment of the legend.
In the version of the story by the French- Jewish author and librettist Edmond Fleg, the riddle is different but the answer is the same. Fleg’s treatment of the drama is perhaps the most expansive in existence, covering the entire span of Oedipus’ life to his final transfiguration. The sphinx appears towards the end of Act Two, woken by Oedipus, who senses, after his misadventures at the crossroads, an opportunity to get his destiny back on track. “Je veux sauver la Ville”, he sings, in a brash, cocky manner not unreminiscent of Wagner’s hero Siegfried. “Réveille-toi! C’est le fils de Polybos, c’est Oedipe qui t’appelle!”
The crucial fact that Oedipus is not, in fact, Polybos’ son is left unremarked by the Sphinx, who asks whether there is anything or anyone greater than “le Destin” itself. George Enescu’s music at this point is extraordinary. His lines for the Sphinx veer between Sprechstimme and unanchored glissandi whose unpredictable contours echo her inscrutable malevolence, underlined by a non-committal polyphony in the woodwind and articulations from the céleste. A brief pause follows her question, and then an explosion in the percussion and strings brings the answer crashing down from the protagonist. “L’homme”, he cries, repeatedly. “L’homme est plus fort que le Destin!”
But is he? That, indeed, is the question posed by Sophocles, and Fleg and Enescu refocus our minds on it with striking dramatic clarity in their opera. For while the answer given by Oedipus appears to defeat the Sphinx, she concedes no such thing. Instead she recedes in half-surprised, half-knowing laughter, eventually disappearing in an upward glissando which is continued in the orchestra (by a saw), suggesting a continuity from the human realm of the voice to an inhuman one of purer sound. The uncanny musical textures linger in the noisy jubilations of the following scene, in which Oedipus is given Thebes and its widowed Queen in short order. The events that follow, as is well known, give the protagonist more than sufficient occasion to ponder the reality of his apparent victory.
“When I put down the pen after that scene”, noted Fleg some time later, “I thought I was going mad.” Enescu, too, took lengthy pause after scoring the scene, though this was not due to encroaching insanity but to the practicalities of the composer’s busy parallel career as a virtuoso violinist and conductor. A two-month concert tour separates work on the Sphinx scene from the following coronation scene. Musically, though, the two seem worlds apart, the coronation scene suffused in a blazing daylight of Walton-esque pan-diatonicism, while the preceding scene seems to presage György Ligeti, even Tristan Murail. The entire score, in fact, is criss-crossed by an extraordinary stylistic palette which seems unconstrained by the narrow orthodoxies of musical history. It is closest in spirit perhaps to Berlioz, but the sound worlds evoked in this and other scores stretch far both into future and past.
Oedipe is Enescu’s only opera, and it took him some twenty years to write. It premiered successfully in the composer’s adopted city of Paris in 1937, but never entered the repertoire there, or anywhere else. A staging in Brussels in 1956 followed, at the command of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, but since then its presence on the operatic stage has been sporadic at best. Certainly, it is an ambitious piece to mount. Casting the title role, in particular, is nigh-on impossible (“anyone except Bryn Terfel is a compromise”, the current production’s conductor told me before it opened), and the complexities of the string writing and the frequent use of quarter-tones require more rehearsal time than most opera houses can manage these days. Still, the case for mounting one of the most intriguing operatic essays of the last century remains convincing, and the management of La Monnaie are to be congratulated. The staging is by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, most recently seen here, and in London, in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. His conception takes its cue from the timelessness of the legend. Alfons Flores’s set opens as a fourtiered frieze, supported by a rough wooden scaffold, populated by life-size clay models and their animated counterparts. The absence of perspective captures brilliantly the primitivism of the Thebes into which Laius and Jocasta’s ill-starred offspring is born. But after the first act, the scaffold moves further back, progressively, opening up to scenes located squarely in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. Mérope is a psychoanalyst, the Sphinx resides in a crash-landed Messerschmitt, and the pestilential, mud-caked chaos of the third and fourth acts is inspired, apparently, by the images of the red, toxic sludge which swept across the Hungarian plain last year after an explosion in an aluminium factory. It sounds odd on paper. On stage, it has a tremendous effect.
With the exception of the chorus, the evening is less of a success musically speaking. There is no lack of commitment in Leo Hussain’s musical direction, and he co-ordinates what has evidently been a Herculean effort from the orchestra and cast. But this score needs tighter control if its extravagant gestures are to avoid both incoherence and, perhaps more importantly, drowning out the singers. Dietrich Henschel’s Oedipe, in particular, was barely audible at a number of key moments, and only Marie-Nicole Lemieux, as the Sphinx, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s Tirésias succeed in stamping authority on their roles. Still, there is much to marvel at, and Hussain and Henschel save their best for the final act. Following what is Fleg’s oddest intervention in the myth, in which Oedipe exclaims that nothing that has passed is his fault (“Ai-je une part aux crimes ourdis par le Destin quand je n’étais pas né?”), the score changes gear, initiating a passage of marked transparency and balance. Strikingly modern, Oedipe’s attempt at self-exculpation is perhaps not altogether convincing, but Enescu’s luminous score easily overwhelms such cynicism.
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
The music of Pierre Boulez Southbank Centre, London
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, October 14
How does Pierre Boulez's music sound through his ears? Of all the difficult and daunting questions his music seems to ask us, this seems to be the most difficult and daunting. If we could hear it as he does, would we be able to trace our passage through - as the organizers of this three-day celebration have it - the exquisite labyrinths of his music? Certainly, there are few composers who make us question the adequacy of our own listening, and this is one of his music's greatest merits, as well as one of its gravest faults.
Much of Boulez's music has a revolutionary quality, in that the composer's main concern seems often to have been to dismantle the way we hear music in general. Even now, pieces such as the second piano sonata are difficult to make sense of other than as gestures which prepare, in a variety of ways, for a music of the future.
It was in fact as the guardian of music's future that Boulez was heralded, initially by his teacher Olivier Messiaen, and later and rather more effectively by himself and the coterie of like-minded colleagues and acolytes swarming around the post-war musical nerve centre of the Darmstadt summer schools. And to be sure, few experimental artistic movements have had as profound an effect as Boulez's on the way their art has been understood more widely, not least by valorizing certain musical
traditions at the expense of others, thereby generating a kind of for-us-or-against-us progressivism which for years marginalized the work of many composers who deserved better.
It is likely that Boulez's activities as a polemicist and, later, as a conductor have had the longest-lasting effects on what audiences listen to, and how. Internationally, Boulez is perhaps better known as a conductor than a composer. His conducting activities, initially conceived as a way of ensuring his own compositions received decent performances, have also eclipsed his composing in terms of time commitments. Boulez has frequently expressed his regrets about having composed less than he would have liked, but, looking back, it is hard to decide whether the relative paucity of his output is really due to conducting or to artistic limitations implied, paradoxically, by the scale of his historical and aesthetic ambitions. A three-day "mini-festival" at London's Southbank Centre offered a rare opportunity to rehearse such questions. As often at such "immersive" events, the omissions from the programme were interesting. Sunday afternoon was given over to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's traversal, with Tamara Stefanovich, of the "complete" works for piano.
Given that description, Structures I, composed in 1951, was a notable omission, particularly so when one considers that this is the work on which principally rests Boulez's reputation as one of the chief exponents of "total" or "integrated" serialism, according to which every strand of the material is derived from a set of pre-compositional decisions. Aimard and Stefanovich did perform its successor, Structures II, however. Composed in 1962, its basic material derives from the earlier piece, but is subjected to different processes, with different implications for
interpretation and performance. Being aware of the theory only takes you so far, though, and I must confess that my primary response to three hours of Boulez's piano music was one of rising resentment. None of the music - which took in the early Notations and all three sonatas - is new to me, and some of it I have studied in detail. And yet I felt my struggle to listen with something resembling adequacy - to anticipate and respond to aspects of form and gesture - was pointless. Far from opening up my ears, I found my hearing closing up, retreating from the monochrome timbre of the instruments and the relentless disjointedness of the music.
If the afternoon's concerts reinforced some of my worst fears about the value of Boulez's music, the same evening's event restored my faith. The final concert consisted of a single work, Pli selon Pli, which Boulez had been touring in Europe for the previous month, taking with him the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble Intercontemporain and members of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Revised over a period of thirty years, the piece reached its final five-movement form in 1989. The title is taken from a line in Mallarme's sonnet "Rememoration d'amis belges" about the lifting of the mist, "fold by fold", in Bruges, revealing the buildings behind. The metaphor penetrates the entire work. Although it is a setting of three complete Mallarm9 sonnets, this is less a song cycle than a kind of exotically scored symphony during which the poetry comes in and out of focus, eventually finding itself submerged by, or perhaps sacrificed to, a music which comes to draw its supremely sensual textures from the contemplation of death.
Of all Boulez's later works, Pli selon Pli is the one which most obviously lives up to its composer's early promise to create a lasting new music. Its highly specialized instrumentation and technical demands mean that performances are bound to remain infrequent, but the chance to hear it peformed live, and with the kind of total commitment and nervous beauty brought to the vocal part by Hannigan, entails far more than the simple excitement of witnessing a rarity. What it offers, in fact, is an
experience which, in both teasing the mind and saturating the senses, gives ample room to the listener to find his own place in one of the most dazzling encounters between a musician and a poet to have emerged in the past half-century.
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
English National Opera
Review in the Times Literary Supplement, September 30
In a review published in these pages on April 1 this year, I wrote that the disappointments of Alexander Medvedev and Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Portrait should not deter readers from attending the pair’s “earlier masterpiece, The Passenger, which David Pountney will bring to English National Opera in 2012”. There are two errors here, which the article’s otherwise convenient date does not excuse. The Passenger was scheduled not for 2012 but for ENO’s 2011/12 season, which opened this month with a revival of Jonathan Miller’s Elixir of Love (already branded a “classic” after a year), closely followed by its co-production of Weinberg’s opera, first seen at the Bregenz festival in 2010. The other error is that The Passenger is not, as it turns out, a “masterpiece”.
Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg’s friend and occasional champion, termed it thus. In the preface to the vocal score, published in 1974, Shostakovich stated that he should “never tire of the opera”, having “heard it three times already”. It is a formidable endorsement, notwithstanding that the three “performances” in question were simply occasions when Weinberg played through the score at the piano, singing the vocal parts himself for the benefit of Shostakovich and other assembled members of the Composers’ Union. The first full performance had to wait until 2006, where it was performed unstaged in Moscow. Pountney’s production is the opera’s first stage incarnation.
The story concerns a chance encounter between a former SS Aufseherin (female camp guard) Lisa (Michelle Breedt), and one of her charges at Auschwitz, Marta (Giselle Allen). The meeting takes place on a cruise ship – Lisa is sailing to Brasil as the wife of the new West German ambassador – and prompts a series of self-justificatory and ultimately self-revelatory flashbacks to her time at Auschwitz. Composed in 1968, the opera thus anticipates a recent trend in approaching the representation of the Holocaust from the perspective of the lowlier ranks among its perpetrators – uneasy but extremely important psychological ground explored elsewhere in Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) and, to a lesser extent, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. But unlike these later narratives, Weinberg’s opera is based on a source – a radio play, later a novel – itself written by a former inmate of Auschwitz. Zofia Posmysz, a Catholic Pole arrested in 1942 for involvement with underground schools, survived largely thanks to being employed as book-keeper to SS Aufseherin Anneliese Franz. At the same time, Weinberg, a Jewish-Polish pianist, fled his native country in 1939 for the Soviet Union. His family were all murdered by the Nazis while his own fate hung in Stalin’s capricious balance on several occasions. Placed under state surveillance in 1948, he wasn’t arrested until 1953, one month before Stalin’s death. This, and his friendship with Shostakovich, saved his life.
David Pountney’s production certainly displays the work to its greatest possible advantage. The set, designed by Johan Engels, is a particular triumph. The blazing white deck of a cruise ship forms the raised centrepiece, encircled by a sea of grey dust, darkness, and grim railway lines along which travels the prison camp apparatus, pushed by the prisoners themselves. The staging thus skewers the story’s central conceit, which is that continuity penetrates the contrast between the gay 1960s pleasure-seekers and the radical inhumanity of the camps. Individual performances were also committed and authoritative, especially that of Giselle Allen and of Michelle Breedt, whose rich mezzo-sporano was impressively capable of expressing conviction and doubt in the same breath; the orchestra, under Richard Armstrong, played wonderfully.
All of which makes the shortcomings of the opera itself all the more evident. The music, after an opening flourish drawn crooked from Peter Grimes, reprised in the second act, proceeds in a dull, percussionrich and mostly tonal vernacular, punctuated every so often by an ironic burst on the saxophone and snare-drum. The vocal lines, though they might well have worked better in Russian, sap energy from the libretto with their clichéd and predictable contours, demanding a great deal from the singers while offering little emotional return. Medvedev’s libretto, meanwhile, turns an extraordinarily powerful story, with a large number of inbuilt psychological pressurepoints, and angles bursting for expressive outlet, into a sequence of trite, painfully unaffecting tableaux. No significant light is shed on the relationship between the guard and her favoured charge, or on the guard’s relationship with her employers, or even with herself – this, after all, is the premiss of Posmysz’s original. The concentration on female perspective does add something, but not as much as it might (and the musical implications are problematic), but everything is laid out in a fixed-focus blur whose indifference has the unfortunate effect of colouring with kitsch those moments which, by virtue of what is represented, should be witnessed with a profound sense of tragedy.
The Passenger was Weinberg’s first opera. Moreover the personal proximity of the subject matter, which drove him to such an ambitious undertaking, might have clouded his judgement. This is understandable, as is Shostakovich’s endorsement – albeit to a lesser extent – when one considers how less well understood and represented this area of history was in the 1960s, and in Russia in particular. But when one considers, for example, the earlier film (1963) adapted from the same source by the Polish director Andrzej Munk, and its extraordinary ability to capture the significant elements of the story while preserving their crucial ambiguity, one’s faith in the relevance of opera to the defining events of the previous century is shaken, to say the least. Certainly, those still hoping for an opera which brings the genre’s peculiar gifts for psychological portraiture and ambiguity to the artistic representation of the Holocaust will have to wait a while longer. Many will, of course, be moved by the spectacle of Weinberg’s and Medvedev’s opera, and by the tremendous but misguided efforts of those responsible for staging it. But in truth it does its singular subject matter a grave disservice.
Weinberg might better have learnt from Puccini than from Shostakovich how to manipulate and focus the operatic lens. The mostly new production of Puccini’s Trittico, or “triptych” of short operas – Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi – with which the Royal Opera opened its new season, showed how effective the genre’s grasp of poetic realism can be in the right hands. The three operas have not been seen together at Covent Garden since 1965. All are now directed by Richard Jones, the last of them (which first appeared in 2007) with an undertone of simmering hilarity, while the first two (both new) proceed with a simpler and profoundly affecting dramaturgical focus on the interlocking social and private tragedies they embody. Each uses a different designer, in three Fellini-esque stagings which proceed from the grimy 1940s, sharply disciplined 50s, and garish 60s. Suor Angelica, set here in a children’s hospital (North European orthodoxy evidently feels nuns come across better when given something useful to do), was extremely moving, not least for the performances of Ermonela Jaho in the title role and Anna Larsson as her aunt, brittle and nervous to breaking point, and for the thoughtful detail of the novice nuns fussing idiotically over the unsightly mess left by the heroine’s private assumption into heaven.
Antonio Pappano, a natural in this repertoire, brought out both the economy and the quickly scaled emotional heights of these scores, which, though still relatively popular, remain under-appreciated as masterpieces of operatic precision. Puccini could be a cynical artist, but his ability to dominate his libretti and captivate an audience knows few equals, and too few imitators.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, September 16
“The danger with orchestras is that they will always try to play beautifully. It’s hard, because they are creatures of civilization, and so they naturally want to play beautifully. But you musn’t let them”: musical “civilization” is very much in the Viennese composer Heinz Karl Gruber’s blood, but he is clear about why, for him, the term has become if not quite one of abuse, then at least one signifying a serious default. Art that is “civilized”, for Gruber, is lacking: it isn’t doing its job.
His remarks on the unfortunate civilizing tendencies of orchestras were addressed to the members of a composer-conductor workshop he ran at the 2011 Grafenegg Festival. It is the first workshop of its kind at the five-year-old festival, held each August in the grounds of Schloss Grafenegg in Lower Austria, an expansive neo-gothic folly built in the 1850s by an ancestor of its current owner. Constructed around the remains of a medieval stronghold with a central courtyard, the castle expands through a Renaissance staircase, climbing up to a network of interconnecting rococo chambers abutting halls in baronial gothic style. A small secret doorway in the panelling of the grand baroque library leads into a chapel in perpendicular gothic style, with a fan-vaulted ceiling painted a deep midnight blue, from which golden stars twinkle garishly. Both the paint and gilding – like most of the restoration which, at length, followed the castle’s occupation, ransacking, and subsequent abandonment, in 1955, by Soviet troops – were carried out with the help of government money. The condition of the financial aid was that the castle and its surrounding parkland must be put to some worthy public use. The current Lord of Grafenegg, Prince Tassilo Metternich-Sándor, found the solution to the castle’s survival to lie in opening the house and gardens to visitors, drawing them in with concerts featuring local artists. Alfred Brendel was a regular guest performer.
The tradition flourished, and the grounds now feature a remarkable outdoor stage called the Wolkenturm – a kind of multi- angled sculpture which bursts out exuberantly from the surrounding tree-clad parkland – and an alarmingly severe indoor auditorium, built in record time after the first fullfledged festival (during which it rained). The indoor hall seats 1,400 and the Wolkenturm – a creation of Marie-Therese Harnoncourt (the niece of the conductor) and Ernst Fuchs – seats 1,700, with a further few hundred spilling out in pleasingly un-Viennese fashion on to the grass embankment.
The Grafenegg Festival has grown in just a few years to become a regular fixture for international touring orchestras and artists. This year they welcomed the Concertgebouw, Philadelphia Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic, among others. As composer-in-residence at the 2011 Festival, Heinz Karl Gruber presented the symphonic poem Northwind Pictures for its world premiere by the Tonnkünstler, with Ian Bostridge and Angelika Kirchschlager among the soloists. But one senses he feels his most important task to be the workshop, which he entitled “Ink Still Wet”, and which he sees as injecting an important dose of musical reality into the festival. He specifically requested his workshop be for composer-conductors. It is by learning to communicate directly the substance of their scores that Gruber thinks composers can best come to terms with the realities of writing music. His method – which consists of abrupt practical advice and tangential anecdote, both boomed out with equal intensity – clearly achieves results. Within the space of a few days, I witnessed an accelerated blossoming of talent among the six chosen composers – four of whom were students, the remaining two established composers already in their fifties. Consisting of six short works for a percussion- rich chamber orchestra drawn from members of the Tonnkünstler, the concluding concert was a genuine triumph for the composers concerned; it was also a forceful vindication of Gruber’s modus operandi of bringing each composer into physical contact with the forces under his direction, and encouraging them through energetic gesture and (in rehearsal) raucous vocalization to demonstrate the authentic source of the musical flow.
Although the items in the programme were works in progress, several stood out. Two of them were by young British composers (In Recognition by Adam Clifford and Exo 2 by Christopher Petrie) and another – perhaps the best, all told – by the Viennese Bernd Richard Deutsch. The Ink Still Wet concert possessed an energy and vitality which the previous evening’s guests from Seoul could not match, however sparkling and brilliantly coloured their rendition, under Myung-Whun Chung, of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As with the rest of the programme – Messiaen’s Offrandes oubliées and, with Nikolaj Znaider, Brahms’s Violin Concerto – it was a focused, vigorous performance. But unless one feels some substantial interpretative problem has been solved, or progress been made, standard concert programming of this kind rarely has the visceral sense of music being made on the spot that comes naturally to programmes of works, however unfinished, whose ink has yet to dry.
And this is precisely Gruber’s idealistic motivation. He explains that even when a composer eventually succeeds in convincing a conductor to perform one of his scores, after many meek overtures, their role in the musicmaking process remains an advisory and frequently apologetic one. “But it is the conductor who should be apologising”, bellows Gruber, “for always conducting Brahms and neglecting the music of today. It is this music which should and must be the lifeblood of culture. By positioning himself on the podium, the composer can once again place himself at the centre of things.”
Gruber’s vision owes much in outline, if not in content, to that of Pierre Boulez, who is surely the composer most responsible for energizing the field of post-war music by placing himself centre stage. One of the more recent flowerings of Boulez’s career as a composer-conductor is the annual Lucerne Festival Academy, which he established under the auspices of the wider festival in 2004. For three weeks each year, some 130 young (aged under twenty-five) orchestral musicians, as well as a handful of conductors and composers, descend on the lakeside resort. Given Boulez’s standing, and schedule, one might expect the weeks in Lucerne to be taken as a working rest-cure, the grand maître dispensing gobbets of generalized wisdom while others see to the nuts and bolts. The instrumental tuition is undertaken by others – by members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which Boulez founded in 1976 in order to raise standards in the performance of contemporary music – but until this year Boulez himself handled the packed rehearsal schedule himself. Add to this an intensive three-day conductor workshop, and his constant availability to Academy composers, and Boulez, now aged eighty-six, often works twelve to fourteenhour days. Although his direction and advice remain as exacting and acute as ever, one looks in vain for the heartless firebrand of legend. Indeed, I can think of no single figure in a comparable position who exhibits the same levels of patience and open-minded generosity as Boulez displays during these three weeks.
Boulez’s schedule was reduced this year following a cataract operation, though he was still present to rehearse and conduct the Academy Orchestra in a performance of his own Pli Selon Pli, and to take the conducting and composing masterclasses. The remainder of the orchestral programmes was taken by Boulez’s former protégé David Robertson, while the other major project for the orchestra was directed by the 2011 festival’s artiste étoile, the Swiss violist, composer and performance artist Charlotte Hug. I attended one of Hug’s rehearsals for her Nachtplasmen project. There were some perplexed faces among the students, to be sure, and on the podium Hug has neither the natural authority of Boulez nor the focused enthusiasm of Robertson. But then the score from which Hug was conducting, using a codified gestural language previously worked out with the orchestra, was a long rectangular lightbox, suspended obliquely above the heads of the players and showing a constantly changing display of tangled lines and shadowed shapes. The work is effectively an improvisation for a large orchestra. Things weren’t working when I arrived, but they were working beautifully before I left.
The Lucerne Festival was initially established in 1938 by Toscanini as an alternative to Salzburg, then under Goebbels’s control. Both events are of course entirely different today, but there is a sense in which the cosiness of Salzburg contrasts strikingly with the cool and collected modernity which characterizes Lucerne’s festival and which emanates, above all, from the edifice designed by Jean Nouvel to house it. The building, whose sharp lines seem to cut right into the mountain- ringed lake it borders, also houses an art gallery as well as the main concert hall, one of the world’s best when it was completed in the year 2000 and still seen by architects and acousticians, as well as their employers, as the venue to beat.
As at Grafenegg, I attended a number of superb concerts, including Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, both on blistering form, and a memorably intense performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet by the Hagen Quartet. Yet what has stuck with me was the work of another quartet, Charlotte Hug’s Stellari Quartet. Their performance of Hug’s Slipway to Galaxies took place in the art gallery, among an installation of the elegantly traced designs in which Hug records her sound imaginings. Like the orchestral work, the piece is improvisatory, much of it revolving around the use of a detached bow to play softly across all fours strings at once. One attunes to the mood as it grows in intensity, and as the light fades, eventually to pitch black. One’s listening eventually maps on to that of the performers, whose minuscule interactions and inter-responses bring with them an inter-personal sensibility of great sensitivity and fineness. After what seems like an eternity (the performance lasts an hour or so), dawn breaks, bringing extraordinary peace and what seemed to me like a new, more open pair of ears. Indeed, though it all seemed as far from “civilized” music as it is possible to get, I would be hard put to think of a work whose effect was at the same time more – how to put it? – civilizing.