Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (4) - Philippe Boesmans, Pinocchio, 14 July 2017



Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Patrick Berger / artcompress
Father: Vincent Le Texier

Grand Théâtre de Provence



Director of the Troupe, First Crook, Second Murderer, Circus Director – Stéphane Degout
Father, Third Murderer, Schoolmaster – Vincent Le Texier
Puppet – Chloé Briot
Second Crook, Cabaret Director, Judge, First Murderer, Donkey Salesman – Yann Beuron
Cabaret Singer, Bad Pupil – Julie Boulianne
Fairy – Marie-Eve Munger
Troupe Musicians – Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone, improvisation coordination), Philippe
Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (violin tzigane)
 

Joël Pommerat (director)
Éric Soyer (set designs, lighting)
Isabelle Deffin (costumes)
Renaud Rubiano (video)

Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomarico (conductor)

 

As the third of my four Aix operas this year, I saw the Festival’s new commission: Pinocchio, with music by Philippe Boesmans, to a libretto by Joël Pommerat, after his own play (itself, of course, in some sense ‘after’ Carlo Collodi). I wish I could be more enthusiastic about what I heard, but I was very much left with a feeling of something that had fallen between (at least) two stools. Is this a ‘children’s opera’, whatever that might be? There were certainly some children in the audience, although not that many: perhaps hardly surprisingly, for a performance that started at 8 p.m. and finished at 10.40. (There were, though, two performances out of the six that started earlier, at 5 p.m., on Sundays.) I could not help but think that if it were ‘for’ children, it might usefully have been about half the length. Indeed, pacing seems a bit odd more generally: lingering somewhat earlier on, perhaps with room for a cut or two.

 

Is it, then, a work about childhood, or some other form of work ‘for’ adults, using a children’s story as its basis? Again, I am not sure. For Boesman’s musical language and the use to which he put it seem determined to accommodate: somewhat at odds, I think, with what struck me as a rather more interesting libretto and indeed staging by Pommerat. Perhaps we should leave arguments concerning whether children need assistance into the world of opera by tonality until another day; for me, that is actually part of the problem, making post-tonal music – more than a hundred years on! – something to grow into, even to fear. So-called popular culture, more usually mass culture (quite a different, exploitative thing) has a great deal to answer for – in every respect, as any good, or even bad, Adornian would tell you. I was a little surprised, in any case, not only by the frankly tonal language employed throughout, but also by the almost childish – or should that be childlike? – simplicity of the score. A few motifs of reminiscence will certainly help anyone gain his or her bearings; a few references to other operas might appeal to people who like that sort of thing; a few more ‘with it’ moments may or may not grant a degree of ‘street’ relevance. (I suspect you can guess what I think.) However, whereas Pommerat’s libretto and the (literal) darkness of his production seem very keen lightly to explore the darker side of the fable, to open up philosophical questions concerning existence, a lack of justice in the world and so on, the score almost sounds as if it were intended for a children’s television programme. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, and perhaps not, but there seems neither to be genuine, productive conflict between different impulses and possibilities, nor the true collaboration of which the Festival’s outgoing director, Bernard Foccroulle, speaks in the programme: more a bit of a mismatch.


Director of the Troupe: Stéphane Degout


In performative terms, it all looked and sounded tremendous. No one could accuse the Festival of having done anything other than wholeheartedly supported the project. The Puppet, as he is always called, looked anything but cuddly, instead almost horror-movie fodder. Chloé Briot’s spirted performance stood much more in a line of offering fruitful dramatic conflict. Stéphane Degout proved a towering presence onstage, not least in the largely spoken narrative role of the Director of the Troupe. It seemed a bit of a waste of his talents, though, to have him devote so much of his time to speaking, and when singing, to lavish such vocal beauty and verbal acuity on so musically facile a part. Vincent Le Texier's seemingly wise, certainly compassionate Father impressed too. Marie-Eve Munger stood out in the high-lying part of the Fairy, whose lack of straightforwardness (on Pommerat’s part) certainly intrigued. Klangforum Wien under Emilio Pomarico offered truly luxurious orchestral support; I cannot imagine they have often, if ever, played anything quite like this. Again, though, it did seem to me somewhat to squander the talents of one of the finest new music ensembles in the world. Last month, Répons in Vienna; this month, well, this.


Fairy (Marie-Eve Munger)



It is certainly not that I am against ambiguity concerning audience, or broader appeal; far from it. This, however, gives the impression – or at least did so to me – that, perhaps like Pinocchio himself, it does not know quite what it wants to be. Or perhaps the problem lies with me, and I do not know what I want things to be. At any rate, whilst I was happy enough to have seen the opera, I cannot imagine wanting to do so again; for me, at least, the Festival’s offerings of The Rake’s Progress and Carmen proved infinitely more dramatically satisfying. Now, one Cavalli opera, Erismena, to go…


Saturday, 15 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (3) - Carmen, 13 July 2017


Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Patrick Berger / artcompress
Carmen (Stéphanie d'Oustrac), Don José (Michael Fabiano), Micaëla (Elsa Dreisig)


Grand Théâtre de Provence

Carmen – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Don José – Michael Fabiano
Micaëla – Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo – Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita – Gabrille Philiponet
Mercédès – Virginie Verrez
Zuniga – Christine Helmer
Moralès – Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre – Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendadao – Mathias Vidal
Administrator – Pierre Grammont

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)

Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône (chours master: Samuel Coquard)
Chœur Aedes (chorus master: Mathieu Romano)
Orchestre de Paris
Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor)

Carmen and Don José 

At last: a Carmen that takes a step back (from the work) and several steps forward (in every other dramaturgical respect). If one wants Carmen straight, as it were, Calixto Bieito’s Franco-era production will do very nicely indeed. As for borderline racists lusting after picture-postcard ‘Spain’ – it makes a change from lamenting the lack of blacking up in Othello – who cares? They certainly did, I am delighted to report. I do not know what the reaction was on the first night, but here various audience members, keen to show that the French wing of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ is pulling its weight, contributed greatly to the cabaret. Some booed during the performance; some shouted things out. Perhaps my favourite was one man who helpfully informed the cast that they were delivering ‘the wrong dialogue’. Bless him, or rather do not. An American family – the parents anyway: the children seemed fine – could be heard during the interval lamenting the ‘Eurotrash’ they had seen: surely a title la Carmencita herself would happily ‘reclaim’, although she might have to return with those visitors to the era of big-hair Dallas and Dynasty to do so. I should also not forget a woman seated not so far from me. At the end, she was visibly excited when Pablo Heras-Casado came onstage to take his bow. It was her moment, she knew, and she took it, starting to boo vigorously. Her husband then explained to her, a little too late, that Heras-Casado was the conductor, not the director. Who cares, though? When you want to make animal noises in a theatre and generally behave like an uneducated fascist, go for it. At least they all have a new hate figure to supplant Gerard Mortier; and what is petit bourgeois life without hate figures?


Dmitri Tcherniakov does far more, though, than épater les bourgeois – although I shall not deny the theatre in that itself. We all know the ‘monster opera Carmen’, as he calls it; and if we do not, we can do so at the click of a mouse. What is far too often lost – not, to be fair in Bieito, but in most productions, which are simply ghastly – is the drama. We do not actually know the opera at all, most of us; we know some tacky visualisations, often more fitted to a set of plates to be bought from a Sunday colour supplement. (Do they still exist? Do we care?) We play at knowing it, keeping our distance from anything that might challenge us. We, then, are the protagonists – albeit in a drama that is true to no one’s ‘intentions’, least of all to Bizet’s or Merimée’s. That is emphatically so here: we are confronted with what we – all of us – have done to Carmen and to ourselves, and by what we continue to do so.


And so, Tcherniakov presents us with a man of today, an Everyman even: Don José. Carmen is decentred; she will, like the rest of the cast, be brought in as and when required. The man, whoever, he is, clearly wealthy – a beautiful suit and shoes – is in a bad way. He needs therapy, and his wife is determined to have him undergo it. Should we not suspect her actions too, though? On what basis does she derive any authority in this treatment, or game, or drama, or whatever we want to call it, think of it? As this ‘thing’, let us call it an opera, progresses, we are certainly given reason, often quite subtle, to doubt her, to doubt everything and everyone: above all, we are given reason to doubt ourselves. (Will we be brave enough, even able, to do so, though? Tcherniakov helps; the performers help; but therapy requires preparation, consent, participation.) When the mysterious – or is he merely mundane? – Administrator explains what will happen to our (anti-)hero, he laughs, refuses to take it seriously. Michael Fabiano’s laugh is itself a thing of artistic horror, almost to put alongside that of Klytämnestra (in another twisted therapeutic context). But play the game of Carmen he must; or rather he decides to. Scepticism is palpable; we have surely all felt sceptical at some time towards dramas and productions that reveal things we should rather leave unrevealed. But once the game is afoot, wallet and telephone handed in for safe keeping, he must continue. Indeed, he refuses the advised option of calling it quits at half time. His progress has been such that he is about to be discharged. He wants to carry on to the end, and so he does.

Soldiers, Micaëla, and Don José 


Who are the expensive – opera is expensive – cast of characters and extras brought in for the game? His wife returns, in need of a role. She becomes Micaëla. But like him, we are sometimes a little unsure what is for real, and what is not. Are the troops who storm the stage at the end of the first act, to impose order, actually from ‘outside’? It is cleverly suggested – or I lazily assumed – that they might be; but no, we discover, in the Administrator’s next visitation and explanation (true, or not?) that they were part of the game. That is what opera is; is it not? Guns fire ‘smiley’ faces of approval; we are the customers, after all. No, of course we are not; we are the participants, but we, or at least some of us, like to think we are customers. No more in Carmen than in the Ring should that be the case. As Pierre Boulez once remarked, ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ His playful suggestion, or rather hinted suggestion, a few years earlier was that an elegant solution would be to blow them into the air. Indeed. There are more ways, more interesting ways, of accomplishing that, of course, than with actual explosives. We might as well just read out the stage directions if we want to play at opera – which is precisely what happens here.

Carmen – or the woman playing Carmen – becomes deeply concerned about where things are heading. She wants out, but the Administrator says no. What are her feelings for the man she is paid (presumably) to help? Interestingly, even ironically, relieved of simply being Carmen, the ‘icon’, she becomes a more interesting, more complex, or at least less readily stereotyped, character. Her interaction with Fate thus acquires new meaning – and new questioning. Tragedy, however, reinstates itself. At the end, the man is broken more than ever before. Don José has killed him; Carmen has killed him; his wife has killed him; therapy has killed him. Others – neither ‘Carmen’ nor his wife, though – have been busily celebrating the end of the game, the end of the opera. Life and art are not like that, not at all. Do you want ‘picturesque’ scenery and a ‘heart-warming’ justification of your own existence, followed, perhaps, by a ‘nice meal’: go elsewhere. You – we – actually need this.

Mercédès (Virgine Verrez), Carmen, Frasquita (Gabrielle Philiponet), Don José

Fabiano gave a tireless, often terrifying performance in the central role. If there were occasions when his style was a little on the Italianate side, then who cares, especially on this particularly occasion? So much of what we were seeing and hearing in any case concerned the playing of roles. (I keep telling myself I should include myself in all of that – and I should, but do not want to seem still more solipsistic here. But what gives any of us the right to expectations, and should we not at least question them vigorously?) In any case, identification with something that was both Don José and yet was not became clearer and deeper as he and we penetrated role and game deeper too. I do not think I have seen a more tormented, possessed man on stage, certainly not for a long time. This was his drama – and by his, I mean at least as much Fabiano’s as the anonymous man’s or as Don José’s. And he can certainly sing too, with dark, repressed menace, just as much as with splendidly ‘operatic’, climactic passion. Liberated as discussed above, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, gave a splendidly thoughtful portrayal – or whatever we wish in this context to call it. Expectations subverted, she could present a woman who did not always know what to do for the best, and yet tried to do so, a woman with agency of her own, agency that was yet hemmed in by powerful forces from without. Sung with an elegance to offset and yet also to complement Fabiano’s passion, this was a performance to make one think just as much as his – provided one permitted oneself to do so.

Carmen, Escamillo (Michael Todd Simpson), assembled company, and Don José

Elsa Dreisig’s Micäela became more manipulative, less predictable: something to be heard as well as merely observed. Treating opera as drama creates opportunities for all, both on and off stage. (Both Joseph Kerman and Tcherniakov could have told us that; so could both Bizet and Boulez.) Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo – playing Micaëla’s extra-marital lover, or was he actually so? – was vocally disappointing, somewhat dry of tone; yet, as with so much else here, there were other ways of approaching what we saw and heard. Amongst the ‘smaller’ roles, everything was well taken; special mention, I think, should go to the voices of Gabrielle Philiponet and Virginie Perez. Choral singing was excellent throughout, as was the incisive, often colourful – yet not unduly touristic – playing of the Orchestre de Paris. Heras-Casado seemed to me to make a great effort as collaborator, not simply as ‘conductor’. (We all play roles, but that does not mean we should not reconsider them.) There was, throughout, a keen sense of engagement with Tcherniakov: not necessarily simply mirroring, for that is certainly not what orchestra or conductor should be doing. Taken as a whole, the musical performances engaged with, enabled, and criticised the production; as it did them; as all did the work. Ladies, gentlemen, however we wish to define and perform ourselves: welcome, whether you like it or not, to musical drama. It comes alive when you least expect it. It may sometimes not even work. Life is like that, but it is not life; it is both less and more, better and worse, than that.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2) – Orchestre de Paris/Ward - Stravinsky, Schubert, and Beethoven, 12 July 2017


Grand Théâtre de Provence

Stravinsky: Suite no.1 for small orchestra
Schubert: Symphony no.3 in D major, D 200
Stravinsky: Suite no.2 for small orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60

Orchestre de Paris
Duncan Ward (conductor)


This year’s Aix Festival has a ‘Stravinsky cycle’ of concerts to accompany its excellent Rake’s Progress. I am delighted to report that the two small Suites for small orchestra received splendid performances. Alas, the problem lay with the remaining ninety per cent of the programme; would that we had had more – much more – Stravinsky instead.


Perhaps not entirely unlike some of Schoenberg’s later tonal works, these little Stravinsky Suites offer an excellent introduction to Stravinsky’s processes without the ‘difficulties’ some may find in some of his music. Such was emphatically the case here; bite-sized the pieces may be, but they emerged as echt Stravinsky. The Orchestre de Paris imparted a pleasingly ‘French’ sound, suggesting kinship with Ravel, that was anything but inappropriate, although the particular colours were entirely Stravinsky’s own. In the ‘Española’ of the First Suite – and certainly not only there – rhythms proved tight and generative, even menacing. The Soldier’s Tale came to mind, but so, inevitably, did Petrushka, especially in the Second Suite. Stravinsky here sounded truly in puppeteer mode – although is he not always, in one sense or another? My only real cavil was Duncan Ward’s extreme holding back in the ‘Valse’. Parody is fine, up to a point, but that seemed too much for the material and its context. Otherwise, these were sparkling, colourful, delightful performances.


Schubert’s Third Symphony started promisingly. The introduction to the first movement sounded properly generative, very much in the line of Haydn, albeit with an intriguing, almost Mendelssohnian lightness to the sound. (It is not how I immediately think of Schubert, but it is surely a good thing to be challenged.) Alas, the rest of the first movement was hard-driven: more Rossini than Beethoven (or Schubert!) It was beautifully played by the Orchestre de Paris: actually one of the best performances I have heard from them, in purely orchestral terms. Moreover, there was nothing unduly distracting. Nevertheless, the formal dynamism that makes sonata form a form rather than a mould or even a mere structure was absent, save, perplexingly, for a darkly serious development section. It is a common problem in much of today’s symphonic conducting, yet no less grievous for that. (Memories of Daniel Barenboim’s outstanding recent Berlin performance will die hard.) Structure and form are not the same things; at least, they should not be.  There was winning intimacy to be heard from the Paris players in the Allegretto, but it emerged as an unduly sectional movement, whatever its very real incidental charms. The Minuet gained from being taken straightforwardly, but the Trio never settled; likewise a charming enough finale. What was truly missing, here and throughout, was a sense of harmonic rhythm, of much of the music being founded upon the bass line, curiously underplayed. Schubert’s music is not merely a string of melodies; nor is any music that is worth performing from the Austro-German tradition in which it stands.


Beethoven’s is certainly not, but yet again that was how it sounded. Ward’s direction of the Fourth Symphony was, for the most part, mercifully free of the perversities that characterise, say, the Beethoven of his mentor, Simon Rattle – so much so as to make it frankly unlistenable. That excellent omission, however, was alas pretty much the only positive aspect to the performance here: again, very well played, on its own terms, but quite uncomprehending of how Beethoven’s music works, let alone of what it might mean. The first movement, from the Introduction onwards, was taken very fast: nothing in principle wrong with that, but it never yielded, never breathed, and never actually spoke of, let alone in, sonata form and its processes. Ironically, there was more than a hint, both here and in the Schubert, of sub-Stravinskian parody. The slow – not at all slow – movement flowed by pleasantly enough; yet again, however, it seemed at best observed rather than lived, its existence entirely on the surface. Prolonged, extreme pianissimi were presumably intended to create tension; they ended up merely sounding weird. As the movement progressed, or regressed, it sounded more and more disconnected. This, at least, seemed very much in the line of Rattle’s Beethoven; the scherzo and finale behaved similarly, albeit in less pulled-around fashion. Ultimately, it was just all rather dull; I was never moved, never even interested. There were incidental orchestral ‘beauties’, but surely that is not what Beethoven is about? If it is, then God help us all. A pity we could not have heard, say, Petrushka instead.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (1) - The Rake's Progress, 11 July 2017

Théâtre de l’Archevêché

Actors, Chorus, Mother Goose (Hilary Summers), Tom Rakewell (Paul Appleby), Nick Shadow (Kyle Ketelsen)
Images: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

Ann Trulove – Julia Bullock
Tom Rakewell – Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Nick Shadow 2, The Keeper of the Asylum – Evan Hughes
Trulove – David Pittsinger
Mother Goose – Hilary Summers
Baba the Turk – Andrew Watts
Sellem – Alan Oke
Actors – Antony Antunes, Kirsty Arnold, Nichole Bird, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Andrew Gardiner, Chihiro Kawasaki, Maxime Nourissat, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Gabriella Schmidt, Clemmie Sveaas

Simon McBurney (director)
Gerard McBurney (dramaturgy)
Michael Levine (designs)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Paul Anderson (lighting)
Will Duke (video)
Leah Hausman (choreography, design assistance)

English Voices (chorus master: Tim Brown)
Orchestre de Paris
Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor)

Auction guests, Baba the Turk (Andrew Watts) and Tom 

I thought it was longer than it had been since my most recent Rake’s Progress. When I checked, I discovered that had only been a couple of years or so ago, at the Royal Academy: and very good it was too. Nevertheless, this new Aix production from Simon McBurney proves mightily refreshing. It has something in common with the RAM staging (John Ramster) in that it concentrated on the opera as an opera, rather than the debates surrounding it – although those can surely never be far away from most of our experience, whatever Stravinsky, with typical disingenuousness, might have suggested. But the emphasis and the illumination are different, which is surely just as it should be.


London stands at the heart of this Rake. Not, thank God, in a particularist sort of way: that would be especially absurd for a staging in Provence. This is not only the city of Hogarth, but also the city that was, for all its flaws, indeed in many ways on account of them, until recently the greatest in the world. It destroyed itself in part, of course; ‘its’ greed, both in the eighteenth century and under neoliberalism, rightly provokes revulsion, none greater than that of those who live or have lived there and are not members of the ‘banking community’ and other such delightful trades. But for those of us estranged from our country at the moment, Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, we know who really did it. We are also able to recognise our city with all the delicious agony of an exile, internal or external, in what we see before us, without collapse into the merely didactic. For the great, indeed diabolical con trick that is capitalism, whether neoliberal or in an early mutation, is in large part the parable here; it always was, whatever Stravinsky or even Auden might have told us. (Repeat after me. Intention is not everything; sometimes it is very little at all.) When Tom goes to London, he goes to the City; he goes to one of those plush, joyless, ‘pleasurable’ towers, from which one may see other towers. He has well-dressed, superficially attractive – very attractive – people fawn over him, change his clothes, transform him into one of them. He is – and this would hit home as strongly as I have ever known it do – ‘weak’, as Ann tells us. Christina Cunningham’s costumes are a profoundly important – and knowingly shallow – contributor to the drama; they make us envious, even complicit, wishing or at least in danger of wishing we were part of the tragedy we know this pleasure garden to be.

Nick, Tom, and images of Baba

When Mother Goose’s establishment comes into view, the emphasis shifts to eroticism that is both blatant and subtle. Again, most of us probably want it, although we know we should not. A subtle orgy might seem a contradiction in terms, at least to those of us on the outside of this world, but Leah Hausman’s choreography really does its work here. Far more is suggested than actually depicted; our minds, our imaginations are made to do the dirty work. Pornography, the pornography of late capitalism, is thus dramatised and accused. I could not help but think of Vittorio Negri’s Constitution of Time. In all the pleasure, the beauty of the young bodies, there is of course neutralisation too. Everything becomes the same; it does not matter whom one chooses, whom one adds to one’s iPhone collection. And so, after Tom has taken his pictures – displayed to the world, as they would be, although in this case on the walls of the set – of his final nubile companion of the evening, Nick Shadow, the capitalist Devil himself, shows him pictures of Baba the Turk. The rest you know – save for the twist here that Baba is now played by a counter-tenor. Her whole life is performance, an act, of course, and this takes its place in her line of publicity strategies. There is no especial jolt to our – or at least to my – understanding; that, I suspect, is part of the point. The auction is full of typical metropolitan ‘style’, that of the empty, expensive sort in which the drama has been mired all along: Mayfair, not Whitechapel.


On the other side, however, Ann seems, and I think probably is, more present than ever. She sometimes, earlier on, walks past. Tom appears to see her, but does he? And would what that even mean if he did? She is good, a symbol of goodness, but she is not just that; I felt her more as a character than I can remember doing so before. That is partly a matter of Julia Bullock’s tremendous performance, touchingly pure, and with every word readily audible (far from always the case in this role). But it is partly McBurney’s conception too. She is, perhaps, a social critic too, no mere inegénue. There is indeed, as McBurney suggests in a brief programme interview, ‘dans une certaine mesure une figure révolutionnaire’ to be perceived there too. Baba knows that, it seems. She has her own roles to play, but she is convinced by Ann, and actually sends her on her way to attempt, however vainly, redemption.

Ann Trulove (Julia Bullock) with auction guests behind

Before that, moreover, Ann walks through a typical Tube subway, cleverly conjured up with design technology: a bit of that South Kensington pedestrian tunnel to it, actually, although more ‘desolate’, ‘poorer’, to the non-London, or con-comprehending, eye. That actually means more alive, of course; the homeless people and the busker – playing solo trumpet, in a nice touch – are, for us Londoners, for us human beings, the real story, the real tragedy. And in a final, potentially Foucouldian twist, the man running the show in Bedlam is Nick Shadow’s shadow. Madness has of course always been a way to deal with criticism. Had Tom perhaps an inkling of what was going on; or might, at the very least, Ann have helped him enlighten him had he not fallen ‘mad’? The voices in his head are the voices we hear all around us: ‘unelectable’, ‘sensible’, ‘moderate’, and so forth? They are the voices that will do all they can to prevent us make London, not what it was, but what it should have been, could have been, all along – and in many ways still is.


I almost – almost – believed, then, in the ‘love story’ that comes almost sentimentally to the foreground of work and production alike. Bullock played her part in that, of course. So did Paul Appleby’s lovable, lovably weak Tom: the sort of character one knows one should distrust, and yet desperately wishes to do otherwise. He never seemed quite the author of his own actions; which amongst us is, whilst Nick is at play? More than that, though, his sappy tenor proved just as sympathetic and manipulative as Bullock’s crystal-clear soprano. Kyle Ketelsen’s Nick was every bit as persuasive as he should be – and more so. He was reassuringly ‘normal’, ‘as things are’, until one really looked and listened: just like capital itself, and with all the dangerous, often surprisingly understated, attraction it exerts. Evan Hughes proved an excellent shadow to the shadow: the same, and yet different. A more real ‘normality’ was offered by David Pittsinger’s splendidly sane Trulove; or is Trulove just a better actor, the voice of old-school conservatism? Hilary Summers made for a fantastic Mother Goose: ruler of her own world, not least vocally, and with a splendidly naughty sense of genuine fun. Is she not a ‘revolutionary’ in her way, too? Or are we just meant to think so? Andrew Watts made much of Baba’s staginess; how could he not? But there was definitely a human heart beating strongly there; the appeal to her fans is far from entirely to be dismissed. Alan Oke’s Sellem imparted a fine sense of slightly camp insidiousness: all the better to sell Tom’s goods with. 

The graveyard scene

There was a ruthless dryness to much, not all, of Eivind Gullberg Jensen’s conducting which was not only echt neo-classical Stravinsky, but very much of the dramatic idea. The orchestra, both unlike and not unlike Wagner, was telling us something. A delight in contrivance, moreover, fused perfectly with the score’s well-nigh miraculous forging of continuity out of what ‘should’ merely stop and start. Stravinsky’s cellular method here is, in many ways, not so very different either from his late serial masterpieces or, dare I suggest it, The Rite of Spring. The miracle is his – and, in a way, that of capital too. If the Orchestre de Paris had its soloistic moments and was for the most part commendably sharp of rhythm. If there was certainly nothing wrong with its performance, though, there was perhaps a slight lack of presence, even of commitment, that slightly detracted from the musico-dramatic whole. Maybe it was as much an acoustical matter as anything else: outdoor performances, notoriously, take a good deal of getting used to. There was certainly no such fault to be found with the singers of English Voices, all of whom played their individually directed performances to a tee. They, like the rest of us, were both enthralled and ultimately destroyed by the game afoot.



Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Tannhäuser, 9 July 2017


Nationaltheater

Wolfram von Eschenbach (Christian Gerhaher)
Images: Wilfried Hösl
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Georg Zeppenfeld
Tannhäuser – Klaus Florian Vogt
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Walther von der Vogelweide – Dean Power
Biterolf – Peter Lobert
Heinrich der Schreiber – Ulrich Reß
Reinmar von Zweter – Ralf Lukas
Elisabeth – Anja Harteros
Venus – Elena Pankratova
Shepherd Boy – Elsa Benoit
Four Pages – Members of the Tölz Boys’ Choir

Romeo Castellucci (director, designs)
Cindy van Acker (choreography)
Silvia Costa (assistant director)
Piersandra di Matteo, Malte Krasting (dramaturgy)
Marco Giusti (video, lighting assistance)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Soren Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)


Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic – if one may speak in the singular – is very different from almost anything else one on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ – as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves. We thereby run the risk of becoming ultimately almost as conventional as those we think we have left behind. I shall happily admit that I have been wrong, should I see this staging again, crack the code – if code there be – and find greater enlightenment than I did on this occasion. As it stands, however, I found myself somewhat disappointed by a staging that seemed to pale beside Castellucci’s fascinating Paris Moses und Aron – to which there were perhaps a few too many visual resemblances for comfort, let alone provocation – or indeed to what I know of his other theatrical work. That Castellucci has thought intelligently about Tannhäuser is clear from an interview in the programme; I wish, though, that there were more of a sign, at least to me, that such thoughts had made their way into the staging. There were times, I am afraid, when this production, for all its stylised, internationalised ‘beauty’, veered close to the merely boring.


The setting is almost brazenly non-specific. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, especially when Wagner himself treads the line between myth and ‘historical’ drama. An air of mystery, even of mystification, concerning where we are, who these people may be, is in many respects welcome; not everything need be set in a present-day or time-of-composition warzone. The sinister quality of strange rituals is palpable. Is there perhaps a hint of ISIS or some such in the cult-like environment of the world beyond the Venusberg? Perhaps, but it all begins to look a little too much like the world we had seen in Moses and, more to the point, so what (without anything more on which to go)? Is there not a hint of Wieland Wagner without the content – he himself has often been accused of having, for ideological reasons, divested his grandfather’s dramas of much of their content – and in the achingly fashionable, yet vacuous, scenic language of the modern corporate art installation? Unlike many operagoers I am not, I hope, one to roll my eyes at the mere mention of interpretative – or non-interpretative – dance, but does the beautifully choreographed movement do anything more than, well, be beautiful? Is that the point? It may well be, but at some point, might it not be argued, or at least demonstrated? Or am I again missing the point, hidebound by my own, doubtless Teutonic or even Socratic preconceptions? Designers – Castellucci is to an extent his own – have their tics, of course, their house styles; but what is the idea, even the Idea, shrouded, often literally, by the undeniable style?

Venus (Elena Pankratova)


Great play – great scenic play, at least – is made of the kinship between the harp of the Minnesänger and the crossbow of the warrior. It is an interesting idea, not least in this most dualistic – at times, catastrophically if fascinatingly so, in dramaturgical terms – of Wagner’s operas. (In Tristan, even, there is more mediation than here, and it is of course infinitely more accomplished not only than Tannhäuser but than most other human drama in giving the appearance of reconciliation even when ‘reality’, whatever that may be, belies that appearance.) Alas, it never really progresses beyond a few striking visual signs, whereas an explanation, not necessarily didactic, of the relationship between art and war, love and death, is surely invited here. Even the ugliness of the fatty mound that is the Venusberg and its outgrowing creatures – the decay of boredom, satiation, and so forth, I presume – is so ‘beautifully’ stylised as to lose its dualistic edge. Or did it never have that edge in the perfect place? Lacan is clearly going round and round here, but is anything more than that happening? Again, is that the point? The second act has a great deal of slow business with people almost losing themselves in curtains; well, not a great deal, just much repetition of a little business, really. There is something intriguing about whether that mysterious thing is, flailing, writhing, maybe writing, in the central box, on which the singers’ principal concepts are inscribed; at the same time, there is a little, however inadvertent, of a Dr Who monster to it too.


I have no idea why the tombs in the third act are inscribed ‘Anja’ and ‘Klaus’ rather than ‘Elisabeth’ and ‘Heinrich’; whatever metatheatrical point may have been made quite eluded me. Likewise the passing of increasingly absurd increments of time, signalled in an o-so-‘beautiful’ typeface: from one second, to endless milliards of milliards of years. Meanwhile corpses rot – beautifully, tastefully, needless to say. The actual singers look on and occasionally move around. Eternity, perhaps, although it never actually reaches that state? Is that, again, the point? Is there a role for history after all? I certainly hope so, in this most Hegelian of composers, but I am afraid I had simply ceased to care. Having opened by saying how different Castellucci’s aesthetic was from what we tend to see in opera, I have to admit that the results, if not the intent behind them, were in some respects not so very different from Sasha Waltz’s explicitly balletic production (verging on non-production) for the Berlin State Opera. As I said above, I should be delighted to be proved, even to prove myself, wrong; none of us is infallible. I did so over Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring. Perhaps I simply need to immerse myself more in Castellucci’s way of thinking; or perhaps this was not his finest hour. Time will tell.

Tannhäuser (Klaus Florian Vogt)

We need await no passing of time to reach some sort of critical judgement on the musical side of things: never less than good, in some cases quite outstanding. I do not think Tannhäuser is really the role for Klaus Florian Vogt; Lohengrin is. And yet, the unearthly, almost pre-pubescent (on steroids) beauty of the voice can bring fruitful contradictions of its own, intentional or no. What if Tannhäuser is just an overgrown choirboy after all? Vogt certainly has the stamina for the role, and can sings its notes – even if he relied a little too much, especially during the first act, on the prompter, whose sibillants were almost as audible as Vogt’s own. Anja Harteros gave an excellent performance, although I could not help but think that this was perhaps not quite the role for her. She seemed almost as if she would have been happier singing Verdi; at any rate, she gave the impression of trying to play a ‘character’, which Elisabeth is perhaps not, at least in a straightforward sense. Whatever Tannhäuser may involve, it is not straightforwardly a world of psychological realism. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram was at least as beautifully sung as any I have heard from him (which is saying quite something indeed). It was not just beautiful though; there was an edge, an anger even, suppressed or otherwise, which had the character, such as he is, become more rounded, more interesting than I can recall. Elena Pankratova’s Venus was finely, even movingly, sung, her reappearance in the third act from on high (unseen) quite magical. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Margrave and Dean Power’s Walther von der Wogelweide also stood out, making the most of their roles without exaggeration. Choral singing, once again, was quite outstanding, a tribute both to members of the chorus and to Soren Eckhoff, their chorus master.

Elisabeth (Anja Harteros)

Last but certainly not least: Kirill Petrenko’s direction of the outstanding (once again!) Bavarian State Orchestra, whose depth and variety of tone are truly second to none. Petrenko’s way with the score is anything but conventional, without ever so much of a hint of being ‘different’ for the sake of it. If my preference, lazy or otherwise, is for the more overtly symphonic line a conductor such as Daniel Barenboim brings to this music, Petrenko’s insistence upon the individuality of ‘numbers’ – which to all intents and purposes they are, or at least can be – within the score reaps its own, explicitly musico-historical rewards. He has clearly thought about each section, however defined, and how it might characterise it – and, moreover, is able to do so. The Overture, for instance, began in surprisingly Mendelssohnian fashion, blossoming, expanding into something more, as if to suggest Wagner finding his way from roots he may or may not have wished to acknowledge. In the second act, Wagner’s antecendents in French opera, not least Meyerbeer, came very much to the fore, without loss to a greater sense of the whole. The third act was more truly ‘symphonic’; here, one felt, the Wagner of the music dramas proper had arrived. Fascinating, instructive, provocative in the best sense: more so, alas, than what I was able to glean from Castellucci.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Munich Opera Festival (3) - Munich Piano Trio: Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Brahms, 7 July 2017


Cuvilliés-Theater

Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1, ‘Ghost’
Shostakovich: Piano Trio in E minor, op.67
Brahms: Piano Trio in B major, op.8 (revised version, 1889)

Michael Arlt (violin)
Gerhard Zank (cello)
Donald Sulzen (piano) 


Each year, the Munich Opera Festival offers a number of chamber concerts, as well as symphonic concerts and song recitals, in addition to its staple fare of at least one opera, sometimes more than that, per evening. Since I was in town, I thought I should go to hear the Munich Piano Trio, not least since it would be my first opportunity to attend a concert in the extraordinary, ultra-Rococo Cuvilliés-Theater. I once happened on a string quartet rehearsal there many years and resolved to return. One day, I hope, Idomeneo, which received its first performance there, will return when I am somewhere in the vicinity. (It did in 2008, so there is hope.) In the meantime, it was a pleasure to hear three contrasted piano trio works, performed with a welcome lack of affectation.


Beethoven’s Ghost Trio – like all the performances, I think – received a performance somewhat on the Apollonian side. This was not a Beethoven to storm the heavens, but perhaps not every performance need be. In the first movement, taken at a tempo that seemed spot on for Allegro vivace e con brio – perhaps faster than my inclination, but who cares? – scalic passages proved properly generative. Derivations therefrom and breaking up into small motifs was the business of the development: no need for Romantic metaphor, which might have seemed somewhat out of place. And yet, this was not ‘easy’ listening; one simply needed to listen to hear the difficulty, at times not so far from late Beethoven, in the music. The lyricism of the second group, especially during the recapitulation, was especially welcome. Not that the movement was over then; the coda offered surprises aplenty, again, so long as the listener kept to his or her side of the bargain – and listened. Concision was, rightly, striking. There was an air of mystery, its roots in Mozart, to the slow movement, which unfolded simply, inevitably. Again, the twin features of simplicity of basic material and developmental inspiration shone through. There was radiance, to be sure, but it was hard won and never permanent. The finale proved playful in its disjunctures, disjoint even in its play: often, at least. String intonation was occasionally somewhat awry, but not so as to trouble unduly. In a sense, such fallibility reminded one that this was a performance, with all that entails.


In a very different way, simplicity and extremity characterised the Shostakovich E minor Trio. The poor cellist at the opening! There was, again, a different sort of inevitability to the first movement, but it was undeniably present in the main, Moderato section. Its simple harmonies might have been made to feel connected to Beethoven’s tonic-dominant oscillations, but did not; context was all. The enigmatic quality to the transformations of the second movement was well handled; there were no answers, but questions were certainly asked. If the Largo is possessed of a bleakness that for me comes perilously close to mere emptiness, the players had the measure of its contours in a well shaped reading, preparing the way for an equally accomplished performance of the insistently straightforward finale. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would have liked.


Brahms is much more my sort of thing. The second half therefore brought the pleasure of a return to home territory, albeit with a twist: the revised version of the B major Trio. Recently, the original seems to have been more popular. There are arguments for both, but I think I should opt for this, if I had to choose. The Trio has played both and thus made the decision in full knowledge and understanding. It was a splendid work for cellist, Gerhard Zank to have to start saying his farewells to the Bavarian State Orchestra, with which he has played for thirty-nine years. An interesting programme interview offered reminiscences of work with conductors such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Carlos Kleiber, and yes, Kirill Petrenko. Motivic integrity and development came to the fore from the outset. The players drew upon a varied palette that yet never quite partook of expressive extremities. Such matters are largely a matter of taste; this was, again, relatively Apollonian Brahms. Occasionally, I found Donald Sulzen’s piano a little recessed in tone, but perhaps that was the acoustic. There was certainly no doubting his collegiality; he was not a pianist, as many are, to overwhelm his string colleagues. Rhythms were nicely sprung in the scherzo, Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance clear. The trio spoke more of Schubert. Such, after all, one might say, is Brahms’s tendency more generally. The stark simplicity of Michael Arlt’s violin and Zank’s cello at the opening of the slow movement seemed to recall late Beethoven, although the lyricism that ensued proved quite different, and rightly so, in quality. The movement never lost its apparent roots in (imagined) song, whilst never pretending simply to ‘be’ its roots. I have heard bigger boned performances of the finale, in particular, but the refusal to exaggerate, to play to the gallery, however dazzling in this theatre, offered its own rewards. So too did the Piazzolla encore.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Munich Opera Festival (2) - Die Frau ohne Schatten, 5 July 2017

Images: Wilfried Hösl
Dyer's Wife (Elena Pankratova)
and the Apparition of Youth


Nationaltheater, Munich

Emperor – Burkhard Fritz
Empress – Ricarda Merbeth
Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Spirit-Messenger – Sebastian Heleck
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Dyer’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Apparition of Youth, The Hunchback – Dean Power
Voice of the Falcon, Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Elsa Benoit
Voice from Above – Okka von der Damerau
The One-Eyed – Tim Kuypers
The One-Armed – Christian Rieger
The Hunchback – Dean Power
Keikobad – Renate Jett
Servants, Children’s Voices – Elsa Benoit, Paula Iancic, Rachael Wilson
Children’s Voices – Elsa Benoit, Paula Iancic, Alla El-Khashem, Rachael Wilson, Okka von der Damerau
Voices of Nightwatchmen – Johannes Kammler, Sean Michael Plumb, Milan Siljanov

Krzysztof Warlikowsi (director)
Georgine Balk (Abendspielleitung)
Malgorzata Szczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Kamil Polak (video animation
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Stellario Fagone) and Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff) of the Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Empress (Ricarda Merbeth) and Nurse (Michaela Schuster)

It was fascinating to see – and of course, to hear – Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival. First, and perhaps most important: both received outstanding performances, fully worthy of any festival in the world, let alone one such as this which offers both new productions and stagings from the repertory. This FroSch may have been the latter, but who would have known? There are clearly advantages to being conducted by the Music Director – not least the identity of this particular music director – but even so…


Both works offered the director considerable challenges. In the Schreker opera, Warlikowski rose admirably to the challenge of drawing out what was of greatest interest in a flawed work and, indeed, even to criticising certain of its more problematical aspects. Die Frau ohne Schatten is not without its problematical aspects either, of course, not least Hofmannsthal’s bizarre pronatalism – perhaps a staging that made more of its wartime context (or near-context) might help, but I have yet to see one – and, more broadly, the mismatch between Strauss and Hofmannsthal here. If Strauss misunderstands Hofmannsthal, though – and we should be wary of awarding priority simply on a chronological basis, especially with so complex a composer-librettist relationship as this – it is, to borrow a term from Webern and the post-war avant garde, a productive misreading.

Emperor (Burkhard Fritz), Nurse, and Empress

How does Warlikowski deal with that, in a production first seen in 2013? I am not entirely sure that he does, but it may well be that I am missing something. What he certainly does accomplish is to present a number of standpoints, which may, to an extent, like those presented in the work ‘itself’, be reconciled, or even set against each other. The world of medicalised hysteria, of the sanatorium is present, just as in Claus Guth’s production (seen at La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Berlin State Opera. Perhaps counter-intuitively, for a work in which, laboriously at times, Hofmannsthal at least seems to offer layer upon layer of symbolism, often highly referential or at least allusive, Warlikowski penetrates to a very human drama at the work’s heart. It might sound banal; perhaps in some ways it is; but why not actually present this as a drama concerning a woman, the Dyer’s Wife rather than the Empress, who wishes to have children, is pressured to renounce her desire, and then achieves what would seem to be genuine fulfilment by doing so? There are various answers to that, of course, or at least to why such a drama might be problematical; but they are not unanswerable answers.


Freud hangs less heavily over the production than he does over Guth’s, but he is there, glimpsed indeed in video projections at the end alongside a motley crew that includes (I think) Gandhi, Christ, the Buddha, King Kong, and Marilyn Monroe. (I have no idea, I am afraid; I suspect I am missing something terribly obvious, but never mind…) More overtly present is Last Year in Marienbad. Pictures from the film lead us in to the opening of the opera and accompany its course, far from obtrusively, yet offering connections should we wish to follow them. A sadness born of lack of fulfilment, perceived or otherwise, hangs over what we see – and interacts, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes less so, with what we hear. Even the Nurse seems a far more human figure than usual. There is, perhaps, loss there too, but to see her a broken woman, trying to deal with an impossible situation that is not of her choosing is fascinating: it certainly made me reconsider the role. 

Empress, Falcon(s), and Emperor

Where Ingo Metzmacher had given a commanding account of Schreker’s score the previous night, Kirill Petrenko went further still in Strauss’s score. It does no harm, of course, that Strauss is by far the greater composer and musical dramatist. But that can come to naught, or at least be severely diminished in the wrong hands. Musical performance is certainly not a matter of league tables, but I can certainly say, hand on heart, that I have never heard the opera better conducted or played. This was at the very least a musical performance to set alongside those by Christoph von Dohnányi and Semyon Bychkov at Covent Garden, and superior to any of the others I have heard. Petrenko’s ear for Strauss’s complex orchestral polyphony is second to none, not only amongst any conductor alive but any I know from recorded performances.


The similarities and differences between Strauss and Schoenberg – you will have to forgive me for having the latter very much on my mind at the moment – are as complex as their music ‘in itself’. There is, though, something here which, ironically, given Strauss’s reported remarks on Schoenberg’s score, brings Strauss closer than one might expect to the Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16. Alma Mahler just could not help herself in telling Schoenberg that Strauss had said Schoenberg would be ‘better off shovelling snow’ than ‘scribbling on manuscript paper’. (What is less often reported is that he recommended the younger composer for the Mahler Foundation grant in any case. Schoenberg, unsurprisingly, never forgave him; when asked the following year for a fiftieth-birthday tribute, he responded angrily: ‘He is no longer of the slightest artistic interest to me, and whatever I may once have learned from him, may God be thanked, [I had] misunderstood.’) Petrenko is a very fine Schoenberg conductor; indeed, it was in Erwartung at Covent Garden that I first heard him. The interplay between colour, line, harmony, every changing parameter was such that I could not help but think I was hearing Strauss with somewhat Schoenbergian ears – and that was not entirely to be attributed to my own present preoccupations. The Bavarian State Orchestra was at least equally responsible: in every respect worthy of the most exalted comparisons, past or present. I do not think I have ever heard the solo cello part played with greater tenderness and yet with such a sense of where, motivically and harmonically, it is heading. Nor have I heard the full orchestra sound more thrillingly present and yet more transparent. It was not only seeing the glass harmonica in one of the boxes overlooking the pit that meant I could hear it so well.

Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and the Dyer's Wife

Vocal performances were almost equally magnificent. Burkhard Fritz greatly impressed in Berlin earlier this year, and did so again here: quite tireless and perfectly capable of riding Strauss’s orchestral wave. The Emperor is, perhaps, the best role in which I have heard of him. Ricarda Merbeth was more than his equal as his consort: as tenderly moving as, when required, imperious. She truly drew one into her particular drama, as did the Dyer and his Wife, even, as mentioned above, the Nurse. Elena Pankratova and Wolfgang Koch were also in previous casts I had seen, London and Berlin respectively. Fine though their performances had been then, Petrenko’s conducting seemed to incite them to still greater things in Munich. (The more I consider Zubin Mehta in Berlin, the more uncomprehending his conducting seems by comparison.) Theirs was at root a human, commonplace relationship, exalted by particular musico-dramatic circumstance and by musical performance into something transformative, in a sense that both Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have acknowledged. The sadness both felt could be perceived in their faces, their body language, but still more in the alchemy of stage, words, and music that is opera at its greatest – and which, with the best will in the world, a lesser composer such as Schreker could never have summoned. To her trademark malevolence in the role, Michael Schuster was here fully enabled to offer a poignancy one rarely sees and hears in the Nurse. Sebastian Heleck’s Spirit Messenger was perhaps first among equals – intelligent, deeply musical singing – amongst the ‘smaller’ roles, but there was no weak link here. Choral singing and acting were equally outstanding. Likewise those roles played by non-singing actors: the Apparition of a Youth here our first among equals, sporting an excellent line in gigolo contempt when collecting his earnings for unachieved attempted seduction from the Nurse. As had been the case in the previous night’s performance, the dramatic whole was greater than the sum of its parts – just not quite in the same way. Now how about a Moses und Aron?