Friday, 31 October 2014

Lieder for Halloween - Mendelssohn


Felix Mendelsson's Halloween Lieder, Hexenlied to a poem by Ludwig Hõlty.

Ein schwarzer Bock, Ein Besenstock, 
Die Ofengabel, der Wocken,
Reißt uns geschwind, Wie Blitz und Wind, 
Durch sausende Lüfte zum Brocken! 
Um Beelzebub Tanzt unser Trupp
Und küßt ihm die kralligen Hände! 
Ein Geisterschwarm Faßt uns beim Arm
 Und schwinget im Tanzen die Brände!

(Armed with pitchforks, broomsticks, and black goats the witches fly through a ragingb thunderstorm up high to the mountain heath of Brocken. They dance round Beelzebub and kiss his cloven hoofs. Witches and the ghosts dance together waving firebrands, )

Strictly speaking the song refers to Walpurgisnacht, the night before May 1st when the witches of the world converge on Brocken mountain to worship the devil in an orgy. Hence the original title of the poem "Anderes Maienlied", an alternative to the usual Mailieds which focus on the coming of spring, purity, innocence, maidens with flowers etc. Witches party, too.  Below, my favourite version of the song. The pianist is Karl Engel pounding the ivories with manic glee. A delicious mix of lusciousness and tension in Peter Schreier's singing. .The photo above is a 1930's card of Brocken Mountain showing the modern tourist hotel, encircled by witches. Note the naked maidens.

 :

Thursday, 30 October 2014

How to make a story out of relatively little

Two days ago, veteran director Franco Zeffirelli said he'd sue La Scala for letting his production of Aida go to Astana Opera Theatre in Kazakhstan. "Ho visto una sorta di vendetta da parte dei “cervelloni” della Scala che stanno pensando a me come un artista da dimenticare - (It's a vendetta by the brains at La Scala who think I'm an artist to forget). Read the articles in La Stampa here and in Corriere here.  Teatro alla Scala has countered with a fairly convincing refutation. Although  we don't know the exact terms of the deal, it's unlikely that Milan will have given up all rights. IIt might be able to do the production at a later date, and it hasn't sold off the rest of its Zefferelli catalogue. Inflammatory words make great headlines but reality is often more mundane.  For all we know, maybe Zeffirelli doesn't like Mrs Gelb conducting?  All over the world, the business is changing all round. The Royal Opera House relies on endless  La Bohèmes and La Traviatas because they sell well. Audiences new to opera adore them, but regulars get turned off. There isn't any such thing as a single audience. While some people want to see the exact same thing all the time, other's don't. And in any case, folks who like the same thing all the time can watch a DVD. How to strike a balance? That's the real question.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Frühlingsglaube the movie 立春


It's late winter, in a grim industrial town in North China.  Hundreds of workers cycle to their humdrum jobs. Broadcast on loudspeakers,  a soprano sings Schubert Frühlingsglaube D 686 with its beautiful message of Spring, hope and change.  Zhou Yu, a rough looking worker with unkempt hair, is transfixed by the beauty in the song and stops in the middle of the road to listen. He tracks down the singer Wang Tsai-ling (蔣雯麗 Jiang Wen-li, in real life a beauty and the wife of the director)) and begs her to reach him how to sing. She's impatient to be off to Beijing to train at the conservatory, but she sings Puccini for him. For roughneck Zhou, the music she makes is like a visitation from heaven.
  
And the Spring Comes ( 立春 )(2007), directed by Gu Chiang Wei, has won many art film awards and rightly so, for it's a beautiful movie, and one which should resonate with anyone who believes in the power of music, and dreams. Miss Wang wants to be an opera singer in Beijing. She's rejected in auditions and turned down for jobs but doesn't lose heart. Zhou the worker has a friend, Huang Sibao, who wants to be a painter. Even his mum thinks he's no good. Miss Wang, believing in the redeeming power of art, poses as his life model, and falls in love. He resents having been intimate with her and humiliates her in front of the whole school where she teaches girls to sing Frühlingsglaube. Dressed in one of her home-made opera gowns, she attempts suicide but survives. Good-hearted Zhou wants to take care of her, but she needs to find her own way. She goes to a bar and gets drunk, telling the waiter that she's the chief soprano at the National Opera. She sings, he's impressed, and for a moment she lives her dream.

Miss Wang meets Mr Hu, a ballet dancer, on an open-air arts event. She sings Mendelssohn On the Wings of Song. When he dances, the locals giggle with embarrassment because he's wearing tight pants.   "I am the source of many people's confusions about themselves", he says, "the source of many scandals". People attack him in the streets because they think he's a freak. "You have courage" says Miss Wang. Eventually, even Mr Hu breaks down. In a desperate attempt to prove something, he attempts to rape one of his female students and ends up in prison. When Miss Wang visits him, his spirit is broken. He grins with an insane smile "I'm happy here, really I am" he says. She leaves in tears.

Two strange women come to ask Miss Wang for lessons. The tall girl is bald. She says she's an amateur who is dying of cancer and wants to sing on a TV talent show. Miss Wang is suspicious as the girl is good and clearly has professional training. The girl goes on TV and has her moment of glory, but confesses that she doesn't have cancer, and that  she did the whole thing to impress an older, manipulative male teacher. Talent, evidently, is not enough.

"O frischer Duft, o neuer Klang! Nun, armes Herze, sei nicht bang! Nun muß sich alles, alles wenden" Gradually the hope of Spring germinates in Miss Wang's heart. She visits her parents at the New Year. Dad is crippled from a stroke, but mum cares for him. Miss Wang decides to get back the money she gave an intermediary to bribe her way into getting the precious Residence Permit for Beijing. By chance she spots Painter Huang, who now  runs a dodgy marriage bureau, still scamming everyone he can.. She feels pity, not love. Miss Wang's beautiful neighbour gets abandoned by her husband. The girl seemed to have everything Miss Wang doesn't have, yet suddenly, all is gone in a flash.

Time after time, Miss Wang has being kind to others, without reward. Now she seems to realize that being kind is a reward in  itself. She adopts a little girl. Like  Miss Wang herself, the girl has been rejected because she was born with a cleft palate. She gets a humble job,, chopping and selling meat. Gradually she has enough money to pay for surgery. At the clinic, she meets Worker Zhou, who is now happily married and has a daughter.  In their own ways, Zhou and Miss Wang have achieved things not given to others. Miss Wang brings her daughter up well. They go on an outing to Tien An Men Square. The kid laughs happily. For a moment, Miss Wang  dreams of singing at the Beijing Symphony Hall : "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva! Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai........."
  But perhaps Miss Wang has been rewarded, after all.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Donizetti Les Martyrs - Opera Rara next week

Opera Rara presents Donizetti's Les Martyrs  at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 4/11. Mark Elder conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Any Opera Rara production is an occasion : serious bel canto fans would have booked for this as soon as tickets went on sale (especially since Bryan Hymel was originally scheduled to sing the the heroic Polyeucte. Michael Spyres stepped in a while ago : he's very good, too. Joyce El-Khoury sings his wife Pauline. Event of the year, for many

Opera Rara's Les Martyrs  would also be a wise choice for anyone planning to go to Glyndebourne's 2015 Donizetti Poliuto. Poliuto was written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1838 but promptly banned by the King of Sicily, who objected to the depiction in popular theatres of a subject from Christian history.  Poliuto (aka Polyeucte, or Polyeuctus) was a third century Roman who converted to Christianity and was beheaded as a martyr in Armenia. Relatively little is known about the saint, so the opera treats the story as drama. The libretto in both operas was based on a play by Corneille, written two hundred years previously. French audiences could cope with religious subjects being treated as drama

The part of Poliuto was written for Adolphe Nourrit, Rossini's favourite, but his voice had deteroirated.  In despair, he jumped out of a hotel window and died, aged only 37. Donizetti, however, decided to rewrite the opera for Paris, the then pinnacle of operatic sophistication.  Poliuto then became Les Martyrs, incorporating most of the original with an elaborate new ballet score, extending the overture and choruses, and adding flamboyant new solos for the lead tenor.  A neat way to learn the difference between Italian and French grand opera.  Although Les Martyrs is not unknown (there are several recordings), Opera Rara will be using a new critical edition by Dr. Flora Willson of King’s College, Cambridge, which restores the opera’s original French text (Eugene Scribe)  and reinstates numerous musical passages that have not been heard since its first performance.in 1840. 

In true Opera Rara tradition, the company will record the opera in the studio in the week prior to the performance, marking its 23rd complete opera release by Donizetti to date.,Joyce El-Khoury (Pauline), who made her recording debut with Opera Rara with Donizetti’s Belisario in 2012, was recently nominated in the Young Singer category of the 2014 International Opera Awards. She is joined by Michael Spyres (Polyeucte), David Kempster (Sévère) and Wynne Evans (Néarque) who make their Opera Rara debuts with the recording and performance of Les Martyrs. Also featured in the cast are Brindley Sherratt (Félix) and Clive Bayley (Callisthènes), who have both previously worked with the company. (photo credit Russell Duncan).

The brain-child of Patric Schmid and Don White, Opera Rara has been in the business of bringing back forgotten operatic repertoire since its conception in the early 1970’s. The operas of Donizetti in particular continue to remain a core focus, with the company celebrating its 50th complete opera recording recently with the release of his opéra-comique Rita. Watch out for the forthcoming recording, but prepare by experiencing Les Martyrs live next week !

Harrison Birtwistle Punch and Judy - new production

A new production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy now available online on arte tv. Although Punch and Judy was Birtwistle's big public breakthrough, it's rarely done, so any chance to see it is worthwhile. This new production comes from the small but enterprising Armel Opera Festival  based in Budapest, though this performance comes from Vienna.  Neither cast nor production are world-class but  finesse is perhaps the last thing you'd want in Punch and Judy, Indeed, the raw enthusiasm of the cast and the rough edges in the production are rather effective in an opera where fairground puppets go berserk and beat each other up. The orchestra, Amadeus Ensemble Wien, conducted by Walter Kobéra,  definitely has a feel for Birtwistle's idiom  The theatre is very small, which emphasizes the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. All in all, a good, idiomatic realization.

"Punch and Judy" is a delightful "tragical comedy or comic tragedy", which rather sums up its anarchic spirit. When it was premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968, Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out. There's doubt about the story since it's unlikely that Britten would have intoroduced it to Aldeburgh in the first place without having seen the score.. Time, however, has vindicated Birtwistle, who has now become almost part of the establishment. without sacrificing his idiosyncratic soul. 

Punch is a vicious psychotic, and the policeman almost equally evil. Violence is staple fare in popular culture – think of Sylvester the Cat and Tweetie Pie. On the other hand, Tweetie Pie always escapes, and is clearly a character to identify with. Punch, however, is an unredeemed psychotic, an evil force straight out of the Id, controlling and himself uncontrollable. Traditionally, Punch and Judy are puppets safely contained within the confines of a booth. On stage, however, they are unrestrained and wander dangerously free. Birtwistle creates a tight musical structure to hold in the drama, a kind of musical puppet booth, perhaps even a prison without walls. The action starts and ends with the Choregos (Greek chorus), who comment on the action with an element of detachment: when he himself is drawn into the action part way through, it’s quite unsettling, as Birtwistle no doubt knew. The music is also organised in distinct sections, modelled explicitly on the Bach Passions. This adds yet another disturbing element to the whole, but has a certain logic, given that Birtwistle has said he considered the St Matthew Passion "an ideal in that the very layout and structure of the work constitute a kind of theatre which does not depend on theatrical realisation to make its point".

Fifty years on, the music doesn’t sound nearly as bizarre as it must have sounded at first hearing. Indeed, now we've heard fifty more years of Birtwistle's strikingly original idiom, we can appreciate Punch and Judy all the more.  Oddly enough I can now hear the Brittenesque aspects of Birtwistle's music, and imagine what might have drawn Britten to Birtwistle in the first place, even if Punch and Judy might have seemed a bit much, once.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Rameau ballets Barbican William Christie


Maître à danser -The Master of the Dance.William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican on 18th November featuring Rameau works for dance: Daphnis et Églé (Pastorale héroïque) and La Naissance d’Osiris (Acte de ballet)  This promises to be quite spectacular - orchestra, choir, singers and dancers (choreographed by Françoise Denieau). The performance will be danced in full costume Imagine the first courtly audiences delighting in the simplicity of innocent peasants playing Arcadian fantasy. Enjoy the video below of the performance in Caen. Picture credits © Philippe Deival  Please seen also my posts on other danced Rameau performances Anacréon and Pigmalion. and Zais here. And of course my numerous posts on Rameau operas which come with lots of dance.



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."