Friday, 24 October 2014

Schubert as Dramatist - Oxford Lieder Festival

"Schubert as Dramatist", a conference sponsored by the Oxford Lieder Festival at the faculty of Music in Oxford today, organized by Joe Davies, Sholto Kynoch and Susan Wollenberg. Details here.  Read the abstracts. Another event I've had to miss, alas, but as a long-term Friend of Oxford Lieder and contributor to the Schubert Circle behind this year's festival,  The thing about being a Friend, or indeed a friend, is making good things happen for everyone not just yourself. I'm there in spirit!

Wagner and Verdi may define opera in modern, populist terms but their values are misleading when applied to Schubert. To appreciate Schubert's operas, we need to understand the context from which they developed.  The keynote lecture in this conference is by Lorraine Byrne Bodley, whose article "Schubert, Goethe and the Singspeile: an Elective Affinity" can be read in full here. Singspeile springs from traditions that go right back into medieval popular theatre. Although Goethe tried to "improve" Singspeile, Mozart beat him to it, with Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail   

Oddly enough, there's hardly a mention in the conference papers of Carl Maria von Weber, whose Der Freischütz (1821) is one of the most influential opera of the period. Weber was only ten years older than Schubert, but so well known that it's unlikely that Schubert would not have been aware of him. Focusing on the relationship between Weber and Schubert would be an obvious, and possibly even more fruitful avenue of research. Weber, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann had ideas of music drama in a different way to, say Donizetti and Rossini. Imagine if Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann had lived to a ripe old age, like Janáček. Arguably, Wagner (who lived in Dresden) might not have developed his ideas of German opera without them. Singspiele depends on spoken dialogue, which alienates those who think of music drama mainly in terms of tunes, and leaves non-German speakers cold.  But it's a good tradition with extra potential for meaning. Indeed, Hartmann and Zimmermann (both of whom I've written a lot about) bring this tradition close to the present day.  So perhaps one day someone will be writing "Beyond Singspiele", a study of the way Singspeile traditions infuse German opera and its Alpine hybrids.

Lieder and opera are distinctly different. Hence the labels "lyric" and "dramatic" It's hard to draw demarcation lines as many "lyrical" songs work because they're dramatic and some dramatic songs are intensely inward.  Der Zwerg, for example,  has a wildly theatrical narrative - it's Der fliegende Holländer in miniature. The dwarf quotes the queen, but essentially, it's his own monologue, a one-sided take on a much bigger story. Classic Lieder, like Der Wanderer (D 493) predicate on inner psychological drama.  Nature functions to amplify inner states. This connection between Romanticism and the creation of Lieder is absolutely fundamental.  To bypass Romanticism and Schubert from the evolution of Lieder is simply nonsense. The world did not stop with Mozart. The Romantic Imagination helped define the whole ethos of the 19th and 20th century. Lieder values are more inward, predicating inward, rather than outward towards the stage and a vast audience. Some Lieder are so beautiful that the very act of hearing them in an arena kills their intimacy. Schubert writes great swashbuckler ballads like Der Gott und die Bajadere D254 but they can't be performed in the same way, as, say, Gretchen am Spinnrade D118,  where the girl can't express her feelings except through manic repetitions. A psychological case study, before the word "psychology" was in common use. 

I could write loads more about Schubert as Dramatist,  a fascinating subject that opens whole new vistas on concepts of music theatre, but for now, just a link to my "Knights in White Satin" an appreciation of Fierrabras at the Salzburg Festival, an uncommonly perceptive production that goes right to the heart of Schubert's inspiration - literary,  not literal, the soul of the romantic Imagination. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Very Strange Strauss - Wiener Staatsoper livestream tomorrow


Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos live streamed on the 23rd from Wiener Staatsoper. Be prepared for an adventure. Sven-Eric Bechtolf's realization brings together different versions of Strauss's score together with extra dialogue, some from von Hofmannsthal, some from Molière Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. As an experiment, it's certainly interesting since it develops ideas about the relationship between patrons and artists, between nouveau riche status-seekers and supposedly superior aesthetes, and  between the age of Molière, Mozart and Strauss. In theory, conceptually valid, andf a lot more challenging  than something lumpen, which misses the different levels on which Ariadne auf Naxos operates. This is not an opera that should be taken at face value!  So be prepared for a shock, but be patient. "Ordinary" Ariadnes auf Naxos one can hear anytime. This one probably won't appeal to those who like Strauss coated in sugar, though it's visually delicious and might appeal to those who go mainly for costumes. But it should stimulate those who value the intellect behind Strauss and von Hofmannsthal (who appears "in person").

This cast is different to the one captured on DVD.  Christian Thielemann should be fine, though I loved Daniel Harding's witty, elegant and drily subversive Mozartean touch.  Soile Isokoski sings/speaks the Diva/Ariadne: she should be good as she has a sense of humour. Some divas, I fear, aren't too comfortable with the subtle way Strauss sets up ageing divas while giving them moments of glory. Johan Botha instead of Jonas Kauffmann - definitely a completely different dynamic. Hearing this production first time live is a bit confusing, but DVD lets you listen more than once, so it grows on you.That said, this is an interesting curiosity, rather than something you'd watch for casual entertainment.

More livestreams coming up:
2nd  November: Wagner Tannhäuser (Schneider, Guth)
7th November: Puccini La Bohème (Ettinger,Zefferelli)
21st November: Mussorgsky Khovanschchina (Bychkov, Dodin)
25th November: Mozart Le nozze di Figaro Sascha Goetzel, Jean-Louis Martinoty)
14th December:  Rossini La Cenerentola

18th December: Strauss Arabella , which is also available on theWiener Staatsoper archive

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Rossini Mose in Egitto WNO


Rossini Mose in Egitto (Moses in Egypt)  from the WNO now on BBC Radio 3.  This broadcast was made during the run in Cardiff. Sounds pretty good. Please read Robert Hugill's review HERE in Opera Today.  I quite enjoyed it, though it sounded more like Handel to me than Rossini. That's no big deal and it's illuminating to listen from a different angle. Possibly I've been spending too much time listening to the Pesaro production (conducted by Roberto Abbado, nephew of Claudio) reviewed HERE by Michael Milenski in Opera Today. WNO isn't going to compete with Pesaro, so I don't at all have a problem enjoying some of the best British-based singers in WNO Mose in Egitto.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about Rossini's Guillaume Tell  is how "German" it sounds, as if Rossini's been imbibing Carl Maria von Weber.


Monday, 20 October 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

John Adams The Death of Klinghoffer  at the Met today. HERE is a link to Estelle Gilson's review in Opera Today. When it opened at the ENO in London in 2012, reports in the press led one to believe there'd be mass protests. In the event, there was only one protestor, a nice polite gentleman. Maybe he went in and saw the show. He wasn't there when  we left. The subject is emotive, and important, but Adams's treatment is not incendiary. It's the nature of his music. Repetitive, ruminative cadences, which suggest contemplation rather than imposed narrative. Perhaps it's the very anti-drama in this music that provokes response. The subject is even more important now than when the opera was written. The world is altogether a more dangerous place than when the events it depicts took place. It's important that we deal with the issues as objectively as possible because the world isn't suddenly going to get safer soon unless we think about things. HERE is a link to the review I wrote in 2012 for Opera Today


"Adams's abstracted cadences evoke blurred boundaries: endless waves on the sea, the whirr of a ship’s engine, the slow ticking away of time. Unfortunately, this music also evokes tedium. Facts about the hijack of the Achille Lauro are projected onto the stage to keep us alert, but the music is saying something else altogether. Furthermore, Adams sets text counter-intuitively, so syntax is distorted in favour of unsettling stresses in places that would not occur in speech. Because our brains don’t process language in this way, meaning is sacrificed. It’s not good when you have to concentrate on sub-titles to figure out what’s being sung. Alice Goodman’s libretto has been criticized for being opaque, but it closely reflects Adams’s musical technique. Images are blurred and shift shape. In the opening Chorus, it’s deliberately unclear who the protagonist is. Is she a young woman in love or an old woman awaiting death? Or both? It’s immaterial. She’s a composite of millions who have been exiled throughout history".........

"Things pick up in the Second Act, when Adams frees himself from earnest pseudo-documentary. Up to this point the action has mainly been in choruses. Now we have individuals with whom we can identify. Some of the words they sing come from transcripts made at the time, others are imaginative creations. It doesn’t matter. In these arias there’s dramatic reality. Leon Klinghoffer is presented as a likeable hero, and at last the opera has human focus. Alan Opie sings Klinghoffer so he comes over as a strong, reasonable man of authority, establishing a moral compass. The Aria of the Falling Body anchors Adams’s wavering oscillations with emotional truth."

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Rossini William Tell, WNO, Oxford


Rossini William Tell  (Guillaume Tell) from the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre Oxford, last night. Companies that tour, like WNO, have to strike a balance between excellence in-house and portability on the road. Even when a production is designed tto travel, it's not easy to make it fit every venue, every time, especially on one-night stops.  A lifetime ago, I used to sit up in the gods. Now I can afford posh tickets but I'm fussier. You can't win. Next time, I'm going to Cardiff.

The New Theatre wasn't built for opera, so the orchestra is so close to the audience that it overwhelms. Had this been a sublime musical experience it might not have mattered so much, but this performance, conducted by Andrew Greenwood (instead of Carlo Rizzi) was pretty ropey. The singing wasn't much, either. The orchestra and much the same cast had been singing for four nights in a row. It would be asking far too much of them, as human beings, not to sound tired. In any case, Arnold is one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire, such a killer role that it's hard to cast at the best of times. All respect to Barry Banks for a good enough performance. By putting 'Asile héréditaire' two and a half hours into the performance, Rossini was expecting superhuman effort. No audience should expect a singer to jeopardize his voice for one night.  I discreetly removed myself after the Third Act, leaving with good memories of Banks and Gisella Stille's moving duet, where they sing alone together, surrounded only by atmospheric, beautiful lighting. A lovely image, which reinforces the idea that Guillaume Tell might indeed be an opera better suited to the imagination than to staging.

Since the Royal Opera House is doing a new production of Guillaume Tell next spring (with Pappano, who is brilliant) , and we've recently heard the Munich production (with divine, unequalable Bryan Hymel)  this is a good time to be thinking about how Rossini's music can be recreated visually on stage. The instructions for the First Act militate against easy depiction. Many small groups of happy peasants mill about doing what happy peasants are supposed to do.  Rossini's music is much too beautiful to spoil with fussy kitsch. Short episodes are great for dancing, though they don't sustain theatrical cohesion. David Pountney uses a backdrop of glaciers. One newspaper critic sniffily dismissed this as depicting Antarctica, not the forests of Switzerland. But aren't there glaciers in Switzerland?  In any case, a friend identified the backdrop as the painting by Caspar David Friedrich The Sea of Ice which also references the boat in which William Tell sails  across the lake.

The Alps kept Switzerland independent. They're much more than decoration.  Many operas set in the Alps, like Catalani's La Wally, are hard to stage because the Alps are just hard to beat in terms of spectacle. Much wiser, I think, to focus on what the music suggests - wide open skies, endless vistas and the fresh, pure air of freedom. In Rossini's music, we can hear local colour, even the suggestion of yodel, carrying across vast distances, wild mountain winds and craggy "hiking" rhythms.  The ideas in William Tell are so noble that the opera shouldn't be reduced to tourist kitsch. Pierre Audi's staging for Amsterdam let the music tell the story! But that's assuming opera audiences actually like music, which isn't always the case.


photos : Robert Hubert Smith, courtesy WNO

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Zelenka - Melodrama to St Wenceslaus

Collegium Vocale 1704 perform Zelenka's Melodrama to St Wenceslaus from the 2013 Herne Early Music Days Festival. It is available now on BBC Radio 3. Melodrama to St Wenceslaus, or, to use its original Latin title Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis conspicua orbi regia Bohemiae Corona: Melodrama de Sancto Wenceslao (Under the Olive Tree of Peace and the Palm Tree of Virtue the Crown of Bohemia Splendidly Shines Before the Whole World: Melodrama to Saint Wenceslaus), ZWV 175,V " Jan Dismus Zelenka (1679-1745) was a contemporary of Bach , Monteverdi and Rameau. By baroque standards, the orchestra is huge, and there's singing and spoken dialogue. No expenses spared: it was evidently a piece meant to impress and make a power statement. It was commisioned by the Jesuit order for the occasion of a visit, in 1723, from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI.  By praising the virtues of the medieval King Wenceslaus,  hero and saint of Bohemia, the Jesuits might have been making a political point: don't mess with us, don't mess with Bohemia.
The piece is fascinating because it's not religious music, nor is it an opera, but an early music drama. The performance is wonderful, full of brightness and energy - the spirit of a confident era. Highly recommended as this was recorded live at an early music festival and isn't available on CD.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Peter Sellars The Indian Queen (not Purcell)

Currently on BBC Radio 3, the broadcast of Peter Sellars' The Indian Queen, recorded in Madrid last year, where it received its world premiere. Don't mistake it for Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen.  What remains of Purcell's opera lasts less than an hour: Sellars' The Indian Queen runs four times as long. He's padded the music out with music from other Purcell works, and readings from a modern novel.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with that. Pasticcio was a perfectly normal practice in an age where audiences were happy to hear hot numbers they'd heard before revived and incorporated into new operas. The real secret lies in getting the mix right, so the ingredients blend in a coherent whole. Glyndebourne's The Fairy Queen (more here) is a brilliant example. It recreates the ebullient spirit of baroque imagination in glorious spectacle.  The Met's The Enchanted Island (more here) was another good example, though it would have been more appreciated if it had preniered in Europe, where the style is better understood.  But Sellars' The Indian Queen unfortunately doesn't come remotely close to that level of inventive sophistication. 

For one thing, Sellars wants to create a mega drama about the Conquistadors and the indigenous empires of Central America. It's a wonderful subject, which would lend itself well to dramatic interpretation.  But Purcell's Indian Queen was pure fantasy, describing a much earlier period about which Purcell and his contemporaries had little real knowledge.  These "Indians"  were English people in fancy dress. Purcell's Indian Queen is no more about Latin America than is Indian Queens, the village in Cornwall.  Why conflate the two?  English baroque sounds very different to Spanish baroque. Spanish baroque is hardly unknown - there's even a hybrid genre of works written in Latin America. Why use English Protestant church music when there's so much Spanish and Central/South American church music to be had?  It just sounds wrong. If Sellars wants to explore ideas of cultural collision what could be more appropriate?  The Spanish colonized the Americas by imposing their religion on empires with quite complex cultures of their own because they didn't know any better. By imposing Purcell onto a subject Purcell had nothing to do with, Sellars is using the same kind of unthinking colonialist values the Conquistadors imposed on the natives. In the 21st century, when millions of people are multiracial and multicultural, it's a regressive concept.

For his narrative, Sellars uses the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar, published in 1992. which describes the period from the perspective of the women of the time. Most history is written from a west-centric world view following the assumed superiority of male values, and white male in particular. Modern historians are much more aware of "the Crowd in History" and of non-western cultures. The New York Times article (read here) suggests that Sellars' knowledge of the period and of the issues is fairly limited, but using the novel is, in principle, a good idea. Unfortunately, the texts are delivered with a kind of hysterical agit prop.  The actress shouting the lines uses the same cadential sequences all the time, like a machine gone mad, spitting out sounds instead of meaning. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest shamanic incantation, but it's counterproductive to real emotion. Within a very short time her voice becomes strained and metallic, so grating that it's almost too painful to listen to, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

The other performances are perfunctory. The conductor doesn't have much feel for Purcell, and the music feels tediously drawn-out and ponderous. The choruses, hampered by the disjuncture between English music and the savagery of the story they're singing about, sound lost. The soloists are adequate rather than impressive, with two exceptions: a strong Hunahpu, Mayan hero/Trickster twin deity in Vince Yi, but a Don Pedro de Alvarado with such wide vibrato that it's annoying (Noah Stewart). When Sellars' The Indian Queen comes to the ENO in London next year, things should improve, especially with the conducting. The production was so commissioneed withPerm, so ikts conductor conducts.To put it kindly, he's not a Purcell conductor. At the ENO, Lawrence Cummings is conducting, and he's good, though that might emphasize the Englishness of Purcell, further divorcing music from subject. We'll have the same Indian Queen (Julia Bullock), a new Don Pedro, but worryingly, the same rabid narrator. Live, at the ENO, we'll be spared the horrors of the close-ups evident in the film of the Madrid performance. Nearly every performer has the exact same expression of awed surprise. It's almost as if they were all wearing masks. Is this a remake of Sellar's Guilio Cesare ? They move like automatons. It's been a long time since I've seen acting this bad. Perhaps the problem is that Sellars takes himself far too seriously. But I guess the ENO needs something to bring the punters in.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

How to market Mozart to the masses

Sarah X Mills shows how Mozart can be pitched to reach millions ! She's wonderful, I think. Trouble is, some politicians and bureaucrats might take this to heart.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Plácido Domingo Verdi I due Foscari Royal Opera House

"Why should I go to hear Plácido Domingo" someone said when the Royal Opera House Verdi I due Foscari was announced.  There are very good reasons for doing so. First, Plácido Domingo is an icon. Even past his prime, he has such presence that he can present a role with style. When he does retire, we can look back and say we were there.  Secondly, Francesco Foscari is a role that doesn't present extreme vocal demands. Domingo didn't go much out of range. Foscari is an old man, worn out by tragedy and the intrigues of state. Sounding pinched and dry is part of the character. Domingo knows how to marshall his reserves. At the end, the old man rages against the city and the fates that have destroyed him. Mellifluous sounds would be inappropriate. Domingo sings with such intensity that it feels like a statement. We shouldn't shaft old Doges because they aren't what they were, any more than we should shaft Father Figures like Plácido Domingo. The Council of Ten might be ungrateful, but I, for one, treasured his performance.

Domingo's presence in Los Angeles honours the city, just as a great Doge would have honoured Venice. That's perhaps why the Royal Opera House brought this production to London, so we could enjoy Domingo once again in a role he can still achieve well. The narrative is bleak and sombre. There aren't all that many flashy "big moments" for Antonio Pappano to whip the orchestra into full Verdian glory. The set (designs by Kevin Knight, with costumes by Mattie Ulrich) thus serve to distract from the opera itself. We delight in the gorgeous jewel colours that show Venice at its gaudy best.  But the gem is flawed. The city is rent by vicious intrigue. The Doge is destrotyed in a way that would hurt the most: his last son is accused, exiled and dies. It's not a pretty story. Still, we can fantasize, like the crowds in the piazza watching the circus acrobats and fire-eaters doing their tricks. What a brilliant metaphor! Even at this early age, was Verdi making oblique statements?

Wonderful atmospheric lighting by Bruno Poet, whose lighting suggests mists descending on the city, enveloping it in gloom. Most of the effects are created by video projections. so the set travels well. Just as the invention of electric light changed opera, video allows infinitely greater possibilities than, say, painted flats.  The art comes in using technique well. Here, though,  we see a backdrop of waves, which might have been exciting in Los Angeles, but London audiences would recognize as the backdrop to Birtwistle's The Minotaur. Numerous other projections onto cloth, which seem to be done by fairly basic oil and water washes projected onto cloth. The giant face of the Lion of Venice doesn't do as it's told. Maybe there's a very subtle truth in that but the production isn't quite that deep. The projections dissolve as the cloth is lowered, clumsily, into a hole in the floor. Apart from the nice costumes, the production feels minor house. Thaddeus Strassberger, an American, is director, but there's not much direction as such. The singers strike am-dram theatrical poses, but since the production revolves entirely around Plácido Domingo, there's probably little need to develop the other roles as drama.

Vocally, Maria Agresta's Lucrezia Contarini.was the high point of the evening.What a pure, clean voice, capable of passionate conviction. Agresta and Francesco Meli, who sings Jacopo Foscari, provided the vocal colour otherwise in short supply, in an opera that depicts a harsh, repressive regime.  When Agresta and Meli sang their final duet, the opera came to life. That said, though, Maurizio Muraro, singing Jacopo Loredano, member of the Council of Ten, impressed with the authoritative richness in his voice. The other members of the Council,and the rows of women in white, priests, servants and so on, operate anonymously, which is perhaps right, but Muraro's Loredano has power and individuality. So, yes, go to this I due Foscari, for Plácido Domingo, around whom it's all been created.

Photos :Catherine Ashmore, courtesy Royal Opera House, details embedded. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Idomeneo, Wiener Staatsoper live stream


Later today, Mozart Idomeneo , re di Creta, from Wiener Staatsoper, lived streamed HERE. cast list here and an interview with Kaspar Holten, director. Thre Royal Opera House is doing the same opera in a few weeks, (directed by Martin Kusej), so it will be fun to compare and contrast. Lots of photos on the Wiener Staatsoper site, though you can never go entirely on photos. Why, one might ask, a Holten production in Vienna and Kusej in London?  Actually, that's nothing unusual,  given the way that the business works.  Holten is a much deeper director than he gets credit for.He thinks about what he does (much more than some)  so even when he does something you don't expect, he's done so for well-considered reasons.  Kusej is more simplistic. The notion that audiences don't like Regie is nonsense. Claus Guth's kitschy  Die Frau ohne Schatten was a huge success, though it completely recast the meaning of the opera (Please read my review here). What matters most in any production  is not how decorative it looks, but how it expresses the spirit of the work.The casts are pretty much on the same level (Michael Schade vs Matthew Polenzani) and both conductors are very good indeed - Christoph Eschenbach (Vienna) and Marc Minkowski (London) both of whom I love. I'll be going for Minkowski period-informed energy.

This year the Wiener Staatsoper has increased the number of productions it's streaming. They're learning from Munich! Although HD broadcasts in cinemas bring in huge audiences,  it's not an ideal system. Opera houses are at the mercy of cinema distribution chains, who have their own networks and rivalries. The arts aren't top priority for these chains, so the situation isn't going to change soon. HD broadcasts are also subject to weather conditions, and even jammed signals. Time after time shows are interrupted by technical glitches. So switching from cinemas to digital online broadcasts might be a no-brainer. The potential audience is even greater: no-one needs a convenient local cinema. The crucial issue, then, is economics.  Filming is expensive, and online broadcasts don't make much money. The notion that broadcasts eat into live/DVD sales is pretty much a fallacy, Opera houses operate in different ways, so some benefit more than others.