Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Makropulos Case, Bavarian State Opera, 21 May 2016



Image: Bayerische Staatsoper, © Wilfried Hösl


Nationaltheater, Munich

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke
Dr Kolenatý – Gustáv Beláček
Vítek – Kevin Conners
Krista – Rachael Wilson
Albert Gregor – Pavel Černoch
Jaroslav Prus – John Lundgren
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Hauk-Šendorf – Reiner Goldberg
Chambermaid – Deniz Uzun

Stage Technician – Peter Lobert
Cleaning Lady – Heike Grötzinger

Arpád Schilling (director)
Márton Ágh (designs)
Tamás Bányai (lighting)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Tomáš Hanus (conductor)


Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions. The Makropulos Case perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…
 

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.
 

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa, more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.
 

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.
 

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.

 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court, 17 May 2016


 
 
Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, Royal Court

Cast: Iris Becher, Ulrich Hoppe, Jenny König, Glyn Pritchard, Renato Schuch

Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Alice Birch (text)
Fabiana Piccioli (lighting)
Max Pappenheim (sound design)
Nils Haarmann (dramaturgy)
Lily McLeisch (associate director)
 

I do not usually write here about visits to the spoken theatre, or the cinema – not necessarily because I have nothing to say, but more so as to have some occasions for a ‘night off’. However, in this case, not only did the Royal Court kindly give me a press ticket; the identity of the director, Katie Mitchell, had me think it might be interesting to write something from the standpoint of one who has seen quite a few of her operatic stagings too.
 

There has recently been quite a furore about Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden (as well as Cleansed at the National Theatre). Not having seen the production, I cannot comment, although the hysteria aroused before people had seen it led me to suspect that this was another instance of Against Modern Opera Productions-style philistinism. (The Royal Opera did not, admittedly, help, by essentially issuing an apology to those delicate souls who might be offended. Frankly, if they were not, art would not be doing its job.) Mitchell’s operatic work has, in my experience, been mixed. Idomeneo for ENO was not for me a success, to put it mildly. However, Le Vin herbé in Berlin worked very well, bringing an oratorio to life that maintained its distance from opera whilst also releasing some of its ‘operatic’ quality. There was much to be said in favour of her Salzburg Al gran sole carico d’amore (even though I preferred Peter Konwitschny’s staging, which I saw that same year, 2009). However, it was perhaps After Dido, for ENO, a theatre-piece taking Dido and Aeneas as its starting-point, which most struck me, and has continued to do so.
 

That experience is perhaps also most relevant for Ophelias Zimmer. Not that this is necessarily entirely Mitchell’s show. She is credited as director; the text is by Alice Birch. We need not worry ourselves about who did precisely what; collaboration is surely the point. And here, this collaboration between the Royal Court and the Schaubühne is very impressive indeed. It had me thinking about all manner of metatheatrical questions; indeed, it still has. It is a ‘new work exploring Ophelia, freed from Hamlet’. Is she, though? It is certainly a work in which her Zimmer, her room, features strongly: not just as setting, not just as constraint and restraint, but also as part-metaphor, part-instantiation, part-various-other-things, for Ophelia’s drowning. Split into five parts – the first four relatively lengthy and feeling so, the final, the moment of death, brief, each preceded by an explanation, written and spoken, of the stage of drowning – it is a work that places Ophelia centre-stage. Not that she wishes to be; not, still more, that we have wished her to be. We might earnestly applaud that she now is, but how many of her reactions are, at best, still conditioned by the novelty of the experience? Do we actually long for Hamlet, especially when presented with such mesmerising physicality as by Renato Schuch? He is outside most of the time, looking in, trying to break in; do we not actually feel relieved when, finally, he breaks in? That may or may not be a metaphor; it is certainly an event. He terrorises her, of course, just as he has been all along, sending her cassettes on which he has recorded his thoughts, his desires (not least with respect to her ‘little wet cunt’). Narcissistic as ever: we nod, of course, applaud ourselves on restoring some balance, on adopting a radical new standpoint. But the violence of the moment in which he possesses the stage, gyrates to his music, repeatedly pushes her into her place: have we not ourselves wanted that whilst congratulating ourselves on our insipid liberalism?
 

Such is one of the questions that occurred to me repeatedly, and has continued to do so. Likewise the usual metatheatrical questions. Max Pappenheim’s sound designs – are they Hamlet’s, or Ophelia’s father’s, from the glass box? Are they ‘in’ Ophelia’s head? – in some respects dominate, but as much in their manufacture, and their ownership, as in their substance, whatever that might be. Is drowning the actual deed? Eventually, water begins to fill the stage. However, Ophelia has been drowning before that? Is that a metaphor? Or is the theatre-piece a metaphor for drowning? If we decline the either/or, what are we left with, or what might we yet create? Ophelia retains, regains some agency; she decides what to play on Hamlet’s tapes, what to rewind, what to repeat. Or does she? Can she actually any more prevent herself from listening to repeated, angry cries of ‘Fick dich! Fick dich! (Fuck you! Fuck you!)’ any more than she can prevent herself from following the dictates of this ‘new work’? Might she actually have been better off as she was? What are we (what is the theatre-piece) doing to her? And why, even her, particularly here, does she speak so little? Has anything changed at all? She meets her end, after all, through dubious medical treatment semi-forcibly administered to her, eventually having to end her life, just as she always has done.
 

This, then, is dialectical theatre, or at least can be understood, experienced as such. It is undoubtedly feminist theatre. In many respects, it is, I think, intensely psychoanalytical theatre; it certainly has us interrogate ourselves and our reactions. Was this what Mitchell intended, even accomplished, in that recent Lucia? I have no idea. However, I have no doubt that many opera-goers would have resisted such a theatrical impulse even more strongly than some of those seated behind me, who noisily walked out, disgusted at the ‘bad language’, did on this occasion. I could not help but think that part of this work might have had its roots in Nono’s flawed feminism as well as the ‘straight theatre’ of (The) Waves. Or that such might, at least, in Nono’s dramaturgical terms, have been a ‘provocation’, just as Hamlet undoubtedly had been. You, I am sure, would have different questions haunting you, were you to attend; it is highly recommended, if you can, that you do. That unusual turn - for me - to the second person is as self-conscious as it sounds. And that, of course, is as self-conscious a gloss as it sounds. Ophelia is still dead.
 

Madama Butterfly, English National Opera, 16 May 2016


Coliseum

(sung in English, as Madam Butterfly)

Cio-Cio San – Rena Harms
Suzuki – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Kate Pinkerton – Samantha Price
Pinkerton – David Butt Philip
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Matthew Durkan
The Bonze – Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother –Natalie Herman
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Aunt – Judith Douglas
Sorrow – Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva

Anthony Minghella (director)
Carolyn Choa (associate director, choreography, revived by Anita Griffin)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Han Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting, revived by Ian Jackson-French)
Blind Summit Theatre: Mark Down, Nick Barnes (puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Richard Armstrong (conductor)
 

This was my second viewing of the late Anthony Minghella’s much-revived production of Madam Butterfly. As on the first occasion, Sarah Tipple was the excellent (insofar as I could tell) revival director. I cannot claim knowledge of bunraku (Japanese puppet-theatre) beyond the little I have read, but the contribution of Blind Summit Theatre seemed to me as impressive as before, both in itself and with respect to the intriguing interaction between the realism of the work and the æsthetic artificiality of the puppetry. Arnold Toynbee, quoted in the programme, wrote of an Osaka puppet show in 1929: ‘I duly found, as I had been assured beforehand I should find, it possible to entertain the illusion that the puppets were animated by an autonomous life of their own, although the human artists manipulating them were in full view of the spectators.’ So did I, on this occasion. ‘An artistic effect which, in the West,’ Toynbee went on, ‘would have been produced by the artifice of keeping the manipulators out of sight, was produced in Japan by their artistry in keeping themselves out of mind notwithstanding their visibility.’ Again, such was my experience, likewise with Toynbee’s claim that the puppeteers succeeded ‘in subjectively effacing their objectively visible living human forms’.
 

The greatest problem of all with the work remains, though. Is its Orientalism more or less offensive than that of Turandot? Probably less, but more to the point, it is different.  Minghella’s production – and here, that is even more than usual, a shorthand, for the designs and choreography, as well as the puppetry, are surely just as important – offers, as I wrote last time, ‘a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers’. The brazen, colourful Orientalism of Hang Feng’s costumes might fool some, but surely not many; it accuses us, ensures that we acknowledge our complicity. Its relationship toward the relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s set designs is interesting; both aspects interrogate the other in a far more dialectical production than lazy glancing at production stills – or lazy slouching in the comfort of one’s seat – might suggest.
 

More problematical, I think, is the work’s objectification of its heroine. Clearly we are not supposed to sympathise with Turandot, or Turandot (even if we are cynically manipulated to sympathise with Liù, and then revolted by her treatment – both onstage and by Puccini). Equally clearly, we are supposed to sympathise with Cio-Cio San. Yet her objectification as a young, a very young, Japanese woman (or should we say girl?) is at best problematical. My inclination would be to bring the element of imperialistic sex tourism to the fore, but there are other routes, and that taken by Minghella is fruitful, not least in its apparent disinclination to take sides. Indeed, in that respect one might say he is acting more strongly against Puccini than a simple indictment would. Similarly, nightfall and moonlight – or rather, star light – at the end of the first act perform, or at least may be understood to perform, a similar role: drawing us in to Puccini’s manipulations but, at the same time, so clearly a construction of beauty – puppets an element, but only one such element, of that – that we are enabled, I should say encouraged, to interrogate those manipulations. More Straussian than Strauss? Perhaps; at any rate, the effect was not entirely dissimilar.
 

If one can progress beyond those problems, or at least prevent them from overwhelming everything else, the composer’s magic might work all too well. Here, it did not, but for rather the wrong reason. Rena Harms’s anonymous, small-voiced Cio-Cio San rarely convinced. Diction was a problem – so, of course, was the use of English in the first place, but let us leave that on one side – but there were difficulties too with stage presence and indeed with a convincing assumption on the terms of this particular staging. Too often, the voice sounded stretched, or worse. The orchestra and indeed other characters can supply some of what is missing, but they cannot – and could not – supply it all. Richard Armstrong’s conducting, moreover, whilst admirable in its lack of sentimentality, arguably went too far in the opposite direction. Too often, the orchestra sounded merely cold and brash; what we heard was neither ‘Romantic’ nor modernistic. That said, kinship with Götterdämmerung at the beginning of the third act registered more strongly than I recall. Orchestrally, this was a performance that improved significantly over the evening; maybe it will over the (lengthy) run too.
 

Elsewhere on stage there was much to enjoy. David Butt Philip’s Pinkerton was ambiguous. He seemed trapped by circumstance, by a degree of genuine enthusiasm for his tragic ‘project’. This was a rabbit trapped in the headlights, even if the headlights were of his own – as well as imperialism’s – making. Words and vocal line, moreover, were so clear that one could have taken dictation. George van Bergen’s Sharpless was also a fine musico-dramatic portrayal; again, the conflicts within the character were intelligently, even movingly, represented to us. Stephanie Windsor Lewis’s Suzuki was sympathetic throughout, especially during the third act. Most of the ‘smaller’ roles, not least the wheedling Goro of Alun Rhys-Jenkins, were cast from strength too, which makes it all the more surprising that such an error was made in the casting of so thin-voiced a Butterfly. Not for the first time – and I do not mean this in a nationalistic sense – one was left wondering why an American singer had been miscast by ENO, when there would surely have been many English, or other, singers well capable of taking on the role.

Open letter to students on EU membership from 171 Royal Holloway academics


 
 
Dear Students,

On 23 June, voters will decide in a referendum whether or not the UK continues to be a member of the European Union. The result will affect all our futures. We represent a number of academic disciplines, as well as a range of political persuasions. We strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to register and to vote, whatever their position in the debate. At the same time, it is our sincere view that Britain should remain in the EU. In this letter, we outline our reasons for supporting continued membership.

First, the economy. Britain is presently part of the world’s largest single market: nearly 50% of British trade is with the rest of the EU, and it is estimated that over three million jobs in this country are connected to membership. But the EU is far more than a free-trade area.  Membership gives UK citizens the right to live, study and work in 27 other European countries. It guarantees progress towards equal pay for men and women. It provides us with common environmental and food-safety standards, security of food supply, consumer protection and a floor of basic employment rights. The EU also provides significant resources for scientific research that benefit British universities.

Second, politics.  The EU is a force for progressive values. It champions our civil and political rights, and has outlawed discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality or disability. Although it has its shortcomings, the EU is subject to more democratic accountability than any other international organisation. Crucially, membership allows us to influence EU laws.  It also allows us to play a role in reforming the EU’s institutions and procedures. Were Britain to leave the EU, it might be allowed to stay in the single market, but it would no longer have a say on deciding its rules or shaping its future.

Third, people. The right of free movement for EU citizens hugely benefits the UK. It boosts our economy and enriches us culturally. Universities in particular benefit from the rights of students and world-class researchers and teachers to move freely. Moreover, many hundreds of thousands of British people live, study and work in other EU countries. We will all be poorer if we lose this right.

Fourth, regional peace and stability. The EU has helped to keep the peace in Western Europe since its foundation. Before 1945, Europe was regularly devastated by conflict and war. Economic interdependence now makes war unthinkable between member states. The EU has also promoted the consolidation and spread of liberal democracy, in post-war Germany and Italy, in post-authoritarian Spain, Portugal and Greece, and most recently in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. For these reasons, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

In short, the economic, political, cultural and strategic benefits of remaining in the EU are enormous. Membership underpins peace and prosperity in our part of the world and vastly improves our lives. To us the choice is clear, which is why we are supporting remaining in the EU.

Yours,

...

The list of signatories, yours truly included, may be found here

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Jerusalem Quartet - Beethoven and Bartók, 16 May 2016


Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – String Quartet no.2 1 in G major, op.18 no.2
Bartók – String Quartet no.6

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)
 

Bartók’s string quartets are surely as close to the equivalents for the twentieth century of Beethoven’s quartets to the nineteenth as any works for the medium not by Beethoven could be. I should be tempted to add ‘Discuss’; however, in the midst of exam season, the last thing I want is any more essays to mark. Let us take that, then, as read, and say that nothing could be more apt for the Jerusalem Quartet’s celebration of its twentieth anniversary than a series in which it combines works by Beethoven and Bartók.
 

In this BBC Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall, Beethoven’s G major Quartet, op.18 no.2, came first. The first movement opened with a typically cultivated sound and, just as important, a true sense of life in the music. This was recognisably post-Mozart, post-Haydn, but with some emphasis on the ‘post-’ too, not least in the accents and insistency of Kyril Zlotnikov’s  cello part, soon echoed elsewhere, for instance by Alexander Pavolovsky’s first violin, towards the end of the exposition. The exposition repeat was taken, the music heard for the second time fulfilling the twin functions of recollection and progression, the development section thus taking development further still. So did the recapitulation. My only real quibble was the (relative) withdrawal of vibrato for some of the fugal writing, which did not sound as though it were done entirely out of conviction. I loved, however, the (almost) throwaway ending.
 

The long lines and post-Mozartian luxuriance of the Adagio cantabile sections of the second movement were as striking as their decidedly ‘late’ or ‘late-ish’ Allegro counterparts: not so fragile or disjunct, perhaps, but played – and heard – in the knowledge that such would, in Beethoven’s œuvre, soon become a necessity, the generative quality of the composer’s rhythms notwithstanding. The return of the Adagio cantabile music sounded still more Elysian, yet there was sadness to the close too. Lilting joy and nagging insistence characterised the scherzo: here there were to be experienced both balance and dialectical interplay. The trio was finely poised, rightly, in similar yet contrasting fashion. Haydn’s spirit was present, indeed inescapable, in the opening statement of the finale – and why would anyone wish to escape it? Yet there was soon also a boisterousness to be heard that was not really his. Such were the terms of the human comedy that unfolded.
 

The first movement of Bartók’s final quartet opened with Ori Kam’s viola, not only mesto  as marked but splendidly misterioso, finding its way, asking (lamenting?): how did we (humanity?) come to this and yet, also, where must we go? I thought a little of the opening of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was barely suppressed fury in the ensuing Vivace material, like one of the insufficient instrumental answers prior to the entry of the word in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Except, of course there would be no words: tragedy or another path? Uncertainty, here and elsewhere, seemed very much to be the game (which is not to say that these were ‘uncertain’ performances, quite the contrary.) The intensity of this first movement, and not only this movement, seemed to be part of a despairing attempt to turn inwards in the face of the horrors surrounding. In context, it seems anything but a cheap point to remind us that Bartók wrote the work in 1939, his last prior to leaving Europe.
 

The return to the mesto material at the beginning of the second movement was more clearly a cry, and yet the terms of that cry remained enigmatic. Cries became stronger still, more passionate, in the Marcia, without ever shaking off the shadow of sadness. Likewise in the third movement, although in both the mesto and the Burletta music, there was perhaps a greater note of bitterness, or was it resignation? The ambiguity was fruitful. What to make of the Stravinskian echoes? That question, not answering it, was surely the point. A Soldier seemed to wish to tell a new Tale; that did not mean that we could, or should, understand it. There was a sense of arrival, of inevitability, and yet also of uncertainty to the final Mesto movement: as finely balanced as the demands of Beethoven. In an atmosphere of serenity that disquieted, here was a destination that seemed at best to be a land of exile. And so it went on, until it did not. Almost the only thing not in doubt was the sincerity of work and performance alike. The rest would be silence.

 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Mark Simpson, Pleasure, Royal Opera, 12 May 2016


(London premiere)
 
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Nathan – Timothy Nelson
Val – Lesley Garrett
Anna Fewmore – Steven Page
Matthew – Nick Pritchard

Tim Albery (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)

Psappha
Nicholas Kok (conductor)


New work from composers new to opera – sometimes, as here, in the guise of co-commissions from the Royal Opera, Aldeburgh Music, and Opera North – has been prominent amongst the highlights from the Royal Opera House’s recent seasons. The London premiere of Mark Simpson’s first opera, Pleasure, would doubtless have taken place in the ROH’s own Linbury Studio Theatre, had it not been closed for refurbishment; instead, we travelled across town to the Hammersmith Lyric as part of a welcome trend for collaboration between London’s opera houses and alternative theatres and spaces. It may have been a bit of a trek for those of us living in the East – not, I promise, the only reason for my enthusiasm for the Hackney Empire – but the results, compositional and performative, justified the journey, and it is always interesting in itself to discover how opera will flourish, or otherwise, at a different venue.
 

Pleasure, we learned from the composer’s own note, was inspired by his ‘own experience of Liverpool’s nightlife’ during his late teens and early twenties. ‘One evening, as I stood pouring my heart out to a toilet attendant in one of the clubs, I suddenly started to see the world around me with a new sense of objectivity. I asked myself whether she might know much more about the clientele than she appeared to.’ At about the same time, in 2008, Simpson had begun to read Melanie Challenger’s poetry collection, Galatea: ‘Up until this point I had never experienced the written word as viscerally as I had experienced musical sound.’ His Royal Liverpool Philharmonic commission, A mirror-fragment… was inspired by one of her poems, and he asked Challenger, ‘in the pub after the premiere’ whether she would be willing to write a libretto for the opera whose idea had been taking root. ‘She immediately agreed, and so began our fruitful collaborative partnership.’
 

Not having read the programme beforehand, I admit that I had not noticed the background presence of the Hephaestus myth until reading Challenger’s note. One can certainly experience the story, ‘about a woman working in a gay bar who helps the young, lost men but is also inexplicable to them,’ purely on its own terms. However, on reflection – and a good, non-disposable opera will surely, whatever the philistines claim, always lend itself to reflection – the act of revenge of the unwanted son has provided me not only with an analogy but with a foundation for further consideration of the events and their presentation. In that respect, this may be considered in the best sense a highly traditional opera.
 

Simpson’s score treads a successful line between two understandings of setting: that of environment and that of the words and action. ‘Sound world’ might be an overused term, but here, I think, it really deserves mention. There is no mere imitation or importation of the sounds of clubland; the magic Mozart works with eighteenth-century dance music is, after all, alchemical, not mimetical. There is nevertheless much that is evocative: not just the synthesiser sound – often present, but never overused, and rarely albeit tellingly employed as the principal sonic ingredient – and not just the rhythms (for instance, of drag queen Anna Fewmore’s most public commentary), but also, and perhaps for me most intriguingly, in the darkness of the typical band sonority. Redolent in some respects of Weill before he (more or less) sold out, albeit a Weill of now rather than ‘then’, the music presents and furthers not only such alienation but also invitation. Indeed, the one feeds off the other, the drama anything but Brechtian: again, if I may, rather traditionally operatic. Henze came to my mind as, if not an inspiration, at least a forerunner.
 

Likewise its structuring and the consequent crystallisation of moments of realisation, of emotional climaxes. Val’s final lament belongs to, or at least may be placed in, a tradition one might trace back through Janáček to Purcell, and further back still. Having lost her son, Nathan, once, through the distant yet present tragedy of her rape, she has now lost him again, finally, from an overdose, brought on by her denial that she was the woman he thought – and presumably still knew – her to be. ‘A son she never wanted to have/A son she never wanted to know’. She cannot quite rise to the occasion as a Puccini heroine would; that, surely, is the point. Yet, ‘I’ll embrace you as I should have done. I’ll tell you that I know you.’ Meanwhile, in time-honoured tradition, the sounds of a callous external world intrude; Anna Fewmore calls. ‘Come, all you exquisite creatures. Come!’ That final cry echoes and subverts, yet also offers catharsis of a sort. The loneliness of all concerned – to whom we must add Matthew, intoxicated by Nathan’s beauty, cruelly disabused by the cynical wisdom of the drag queen who has seen it all – is perhaps the strongest echo of all, brought to dramatic life in both of those understandings of ‘setting’: environmental and verbal.
 

That would have come to very little, of course, without strong performances and staging. Nicholas Kok led the Manchester-based ensemble, Psappha in an incisive performance. It should perhaps come as no surprise that some of the most arresting instrumental writing should have been for clarinets (Dov Goldberg and Scott Lygate), given Simpson’s prowess as a clarinettist. The whole ensemble shone, though: positioned on stage as upstairs ‘band’: a Chorus of and for this world. The excellent set and costume designs of Leslie Travers and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting contributed greatly to so much of what I have outlined above. This was a setting in which one could believe, in which Tim Albery’s direction of the singers made sense and came to life – and death.
 

Leslie Garrett’s portrayal of Val duly tugged at the heart strings. In the opening scene, I was a little unsure. Would occasional imperfections of intonation prove too much of a difficulty? Not at all: vocal and verbal sincerity, coupled with palpable dramatic identification entirely won me over. Steven Page’s Anna was worldly-wise, yes, but just as emotionally truthful’. Not for nothing had Simpson’s original ambition been to write an opera set amongst the drag queens of Liverpool. Brought to life just as powerfully, just as intelligently, were the romantic yearning – this was certainly not all youthful lust – of Nick Pritchard’s Matthew and the tragic bewilderment and predicament of Timothy Nelson’s Nathan. All four singers, it seemed, not only believed in their characters; they created and gave form to them before our eyes and ears. Such is the godlike business of art, as Hephaestus’s father – or at least his poetic creators – might have told us. So also might Anna in her ‘art of decay’, born, Challenger revealed, of the ‘brilliant spit-and-sawdust humour of Mancunian drag queen, Divine David’. PLEASURE. then, was spelled out to us, sometimes completely, sometimes in forlorn or aspirant fragments: not just scenically, but musico-dramatically too.


‘Do you think,’ Nathan asked Matthew, ‘it’s possible to separate yourself and become something different?’ Performance and work alike asked more questions than they could answer; such, after all, is the role of drama. However, the part of that question that relates to opera in general as well as to this specific opera was, in a sense, answered, as well as further questioned, by so fruitful a development of tradition.

 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Paul Lewis - Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt, 11 May 2016


Royal Festival Hall
 
Schubert – Piano Sonata no.9 in B major, D 575
Brahms – Four Ballades, op.10
Brahms – Three Intermezzi, op.117
Liszt – Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata

Paul Lewis (piano)
 

I was not the only one to wonder whether Paul Lewis’s recital might have been better off at St John’s Smith Square (the South Bank’s ‘smaller’ hall, whilst the Queen Elizabeth Hall is being renovated) than in the Royal Festival Hall, somewhat cavernous for solo piano music at the best of times. As it was, a small army of dedicated coughers, especially active during quieter passages of Brahms, helped fill the hall.


Lewis’s approach to Schubert, especially in the outer movements of the B major Sonata, probably fared least well here, but it was not only a matter of the hall. The first movement received an unhurried yet broadly ‘Classical’ reading. Rhythmic insistence was welcome, especially given its generative capacity at the opening of the development, carried through into the recapitulation. However, the movement ultimately seemed a little disjointed. Surely Schubert should sing a little more. The second movement did sing more, benefiting from a stronger sense of line in a performance that was on the sober side, yet nevertheless compelling. On its own terms, moreover, it showed more ‘Romantic’ subjectivity. Likewise the scherzo, which had a winning lilt to it. By contrast, the finale, not unlike the first movement, remained somewhat earthbound; it was beautifully played yet rather circumspect, save for a few moments of apparent quirkiness that might have seemed more at home in Haydn or Beethoven.


The Brahms Ballades, op.10, I found more to my taste. The first struck a fine balance between severity and something a little more yielding. That contrast was not entirely to be identified with ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ poles, but not entirely to be dissociated from it either. Contrast and continuity were likely apparent in a resolutely unsentimental reading of the second. Rhythms were keen and harmonically both generative and generated. The third Ballade sounded splendidly enigmatic; even at this early stage in Brahms’s career, there was a hint of Webern, perhaps, in the trio, of late Beethoven too, and also, I think, intriguingly, of Chopin’s scherzos. The Schumannesque inheritance of the fourth piece shone through, with some telling voicing and stronger hints of ‘late’ Brahmsian half-lights. There was Innigkeit, yes, but also some sonorities that would call into question crude opposition between the piano-writing of Brahms and Liszt.


The Three Intermezzi, op.117, opened the second half, the first sounding unusually bright of tone at its opening, its central section darkly contrasted. The proliferation – surely a more helpful term here than mere ‘ornamentation’ – surrounding the opening material upon its return sounded properly developmental. There was admirable clarity to the second piece, although I missed a stronger sense of those half-lights. The third opened in more mysterious fashion, drawing one in to listen. Its melancholic complexity was subtly yet climactically apparent.


Liszt’s Dante Sonata was given a welcome Classicism. It is not the only way to perform the work, but stress on motivic integrity and a lack of grandstanding ought to have won over a few sceptics (of whom there are still far too many). More than once, I thought of the approach to Liszt of Lewis’s teacher, Alfred Brendel. Sprung rhythms as familiar from the Schubert sonata and, to a lesser extent, from Brahms, fascinated in their new context, although there were times when I wished Lewis might yield, ‘Romantically’, a little more. That, however, is more a matter of taste (or lack thereof!) than anything else. No one could have doubted the integrity of the performance – nor of the work. The lovely little F-sharp major Klavierstück, S 192/4, recorded by Brendel, made for a rapt encore, Lewis’s greater tactility and his striking ability to hear this perfect miniature as if in a single phrase once again pointing towards Webern.

 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Trinity Laban SO/Jackson - Elgar, 6 May 2016


Great Hall, Blackheath Halls

Elgar - Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra with members of Welsh National Opera Orchestra
George Jackson (conductor)


Members of the WNO Orchestra have been joining young players at the Royal Welsh College of Drama, Birmingham Conservatoire, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, for ‘side-by-side’ mentoring, rehearsals, and performances. In a welcome note to the programme, Trinity Laban’s Head of Orchestral Studies explained: ‘Not only then, are the students encouraged and trained to play to the highest professional level, but they also experience the focus and discipline required to prepare a performance in limited rehearsal time – again a crucial discipline for the aspiring professional orchestral musician.’ The results, under Trinity Laban’s Sir Charles Mackerras Fellow in Conducting, George Jackson, were impressive indeed. Impressive and moving.
 

The excellent Blackheath acoustic helped to bring out both the warmth and immediacy in the orchestral playing. If the lamps were going out all over Europe at the opening of the first movement, there was strength too. The transition to the second group and the character of its material were smoothly, dramatically handled. Disintegrative tendencies – particularly in the brass earlier on, but later also in some beautifully dissolving string lines – were present but not exaggerated. Jackson imparted a strong sense of line throughout; there was no doubt that he knew where the music was heading, nor of his ability to communicate that to his players and to the audience. The timpanist’s underpinning of the dramatic trajectory often proved especially telling.
 

The scherzo was just as alert dramatically – drama, an idea to which I kept returning – as it was rhythmically. (There is no real distinction, of course.) Darkness was of a kind familiar from Elgar’s own no-nonsense approach to the score. The trio, tonally distant, sounded outwardly different, at least to begin with, but underlying unease remained, indeed mounted. The slow movement was in that respect not dissimilar, albeit with the ordering, as it were, reversed. There was a songful quality to this Adagio: certainly not on the slow side, but nor was it ever harried. Occasional passages of thinner string sound were to be heard, but such a cavil – almost my only one – should not be taken too seriously, for there were many more passages of noble passion.


The Lento opening to the finale was unmistakeable in its sense of darkness, even malevolence, such as at least to match what had gone before. ‘What had gone before’ was of course to be heard in thematic reminiscence, arguably more than mere ‘reminiscence’. Elgar’s practice here inevitably brought to mind some of his greatest symphonic predecessors, not least Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony, albeit with the crucial caveat of there being no vocal entry, with all that that entails (or does not). There is much more to the movement than that, of course, but there was a heavy load to be borne. Elgar offers no fixed boundary here between past and present; nor did the performance, whose flexibility, even protean quality, greatly enhanced its capacity to move. The final peroration, if one can call it that, was as equivocal as many of its Mahlerian counterparts.

 

 
 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Il tabarro, Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman, 1 May 2016


LSO St Luke’s

Michele – Simon Thorpe
Giorgetta – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Luigi – Charne Rochford
La Frugola – Fiona Mackay
Tinca – Robin Jeffcoat
Talpa – Arshak Kuzikyan
Song-seller – Luis Gomes

Ella Marchment (director)

Chorus (chorus master: William Cole)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)
 

This was a May Day performance of Puccini’s opera to match what one might hear in the most exalted of houses, with all the advantages of observing the action at close hand. In this concert staging. there were no sets, but there was keen, telling direction (Ella Marchment). Imaginative use was made of the space too, the chorus and certain other solos being heard from above and around, reinforcing the sense of being trapped, fatally so, upon a river barge.
 

The Melos Sinfonia under Oliver Zeffman offered a duly hypnotic, post-Debussyan opening, the Seine immediately announced as a major, arguably the major, character. Zeffman’s care for orchestral balance was a richly rewarded as his dramatic pacing throughout; try as I might – and of course, I was not really trying – I could not find anything to fault. Dramatic tension and the needs of the moment were as well balanced as the orchestral lines (both with each other and with the voices). Just when one began to think that Puccini might be veering a little too close to Debussy for comfort, orchestral swells proclaimed his identity all the louder. The twists and turns in the score, for instance when Luigi offers his men a drink, were navigated with a sharp ear for rhythm and colour – and splendidly executed by the orchestra. Rhythm, perhaps in this of all Puccini’s score, proved properly generative, progenitor of as well as aqueous participant in the drama.
 

There was no doubt, moreover, of the existential tragedy when Luigi took to the stage to respond to Tinca; one could have cut the atmosphere with a knife; Paris, another existence, certainly called to the lovers in their duet. A duly symphonic conception that yet did not forget this was an opera underlined, indeed in every sense underscored, the inexorable human tragedy. The icy chill of the strings’ knife-twisting thus took its place not as a mere ‘effect’ but as a necessary outcome of what had gone before. Stravinskian ostinato – surely at least as much to the point as the organ-grinder’s colourful reminiscence of Petrushka – looked forward to Œdipus Rex.
 

I had no more reservations concerning the singing than I did the rest of the performance. Simon Thorpe’s darkly tortured – and torturing – Michele was at least as powerful a portrayal of the role as I have heard. The same could be said of the rich-toned Giorgetta of Sarah-Jane Lewis, whose plight and character could not have done more to engage our sympathy. Charne Rochford’s powerful yet subtly attentive Italianate reading of Luigi’s part was to be heard at just as impressive a level. Fiona Mackay and Arshak Kuzikyan developed their characters, La Frugola and Tinca, with excellent eyes and ears for detail: there was nothing incidental about their roles. Nor was there in the case of Robin Jeffcoat’s lugubrious yet, in more than one sense, ‘realistic’ Tinca or the finely-observed Song-seller of Luis Gomes. The small chorus, well trained by William Cole, was on equally excellent form, whether corporately or in the case of other solos. At no point did it occur to me to miss this panoply of full staging.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Elektra, Met Opera Live, 30 April 2016


Metropolitan Opera House, New York
(viewed at Curzon Cinema, Mayfair)

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Eric Owens
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
First Maid – Bonita Hyman
Second Maid – Maya Lahyani
Third Maid – Andrea Hill
Fourth Maid – Claudia Waite
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander
Overseer – Susan Neves
Young Servant – Mark Schowalter
Old Servant – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Orest’s tutor – James Courtney 

Patrice Chéreau (director)
Vincent Huguet (stage director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Dominique Bruguière (lighting)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)


Poor productions – performances are another matter – of Elektra are few and far between. The work itself does so much of the work, quite apart from the striking similarity of so many set designs. This production, Patrice Chéreau’s last, was, however, quite different, not so much in terms of set designs, nor even costumes, although difference – genuinely meaningful difference there certainly was there – as in the directorial Konzept, and the harrowing, once-in-a-lifetime brilliance with which it is brought to dramatic life.


I might be tempted to call it feminist, and in a way it is, but it is above all profoundly human, profoundly Elektra’s story. Her experience has trauamatised her, destroyed her, made her ill, above all mentally, to an extent I have never previously witnessed; it threatens to do likewise to us. Whilst Chéreau is far too subtle a director to suggest, let alone to state, that the drama is all in Elektra’s head, it clearly is in part. How could it not be? Such is the nature of trauma. This is a woman so damaged, a daughter so damaged, a sister so damaged that there is no catharsis. She participates more clearly, more directly, in Orest’s revenge than she normally would, and yet remains at a certain remove from it. She dances, or attempts to, yet cannot, at least she cannot in the way that we, uneasy, terrified voyeurs might like; we violate her by watching her tentative, clumsy steps. At the end, she is not dead, nor is she triumphant; she is even more damaged, looking outward, at or into nothing in particular.


Nina Stemme’s performance in the role was – and this is certainly not a claim to be made lightly – perhaps the single greatest performance I have seen from her, most likely heard from her too. In the case of her and Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra, these were performances that would have been astonishing had they been actresses in a spoken drama, a spoken filmed dramas. The unsparing nature of HD cinema for once enhanced rather than detracted. Stemme’s performance had everything: precision, line, total command and portrayal of her role. Her facial expressions were just as much part of that as her unerring ability to pitch, to shade, to connect the many, many notes of her part. And, of course, she had to be on stage for all but the very first few minutes. Never did she tire; never was she anything other than outstanding.


Meier’s Klytämnestra – Chéreau’s too, I presume, and Vincent Huguet‘s – was so much more rounded than the norm, indeed so much more rounded than I have ever heard. She was no mere grotesque; no figure of high camp. (Herodes will always win hands down in those stakes.) This was a mother we saw and heard: a flawed mother, but one with a human relationship between her and her daughter. We were led to recall, even though it is never stated her, what loss and agony she too had endured. Agamemnon had been no victim. The tenderness and nobility of this queen were an important part of a far more complex character than reductionism would have us believe. Strauss’s score was both agent and beneficiary in that respect. And yet, we seemed, if anything, to go beyond Strauss and Hofmannsthal – both forward to the concerns of our own time and back to Sophocles, indeed to Æscyhlus. Perhaps more to the point, we were invited to sympathise, to empathise, above all to bring our own experiences, and to find meaning in them and in the work.
 

Adrianne Pieczonka showed herself fully in command of Chrysothemis’s treacherous vocal line. More than that, she drew upon a full array of vocal-dramatic colours. The darkness of Eric Owens’s Orest chilled to the bone: there was humanity there, to be uncovered at the end of the recognition scene, but there was psychopathy too. What a luxury it was to have so fine an Alberich sing the role and perhaps even to bring something of that role to his performance. Burkhard Ulrich’s Aegisth did what it should in the short time allotted. All five maids – this is surely tribute both to Chéreau and to their performances – presented plausible individuals, not mere numbered appendages. If the Fifth Maid touched me most, that is surely in part a reflection of the role, but also of the extraordinary capabilities, apparently undimmed, of Roberta Alexander.
 

The Met Orchestra sounded magnificent. It is probably here that a cinema relay suffers most; even with excellent sound, the experience will always seem lesser than in the house. And so, if I missed a little of what orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Vienna Philharmonic at their greatest might bring, that most likely reflected the lack of ‘liveness’ rather than a shortcoming in performance. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s coldly modernist starting-point brought something quite different to the score from anything I can recall previously having heard. There was no doubting Salonen’s knowledge of, immersion in, ability to communicate the extreme complexity of Strauss’s orchestral writing. By the same token, there was no doubting his command of musico-dramatic pacing. The waltz-writing suffered not a jot, but there was as much steel, or perhaps platinum, as gold here. The question of this score’s relationship, or otherwise, to Schoenbergian expressionism is complex. One can argue the toss either way – except of course that there are multiple ways. It was a great strength of Salonen’s reading that one might have experienced it with equal justice in Schoenbergian or Schenkerian aural-analytical terms; indeed, more so even than in his Philharmonia Tristan, the either/or was refuted.
 

Grumbles about presentation: the Met’s website and the sheet available at the cinema on the way out only give cast details for the major’ five; some Internet scouring found me most of the rest, although neither the Confidante nor the Trainbearer. Artists deserve to be credited. And might we kindly be spared the gushing banalities of Renée Fleming’s ’wonderful’ introductions? They do not improve with age. But the drama, Strauss at his very greatest,a was the thing. Nothing could detract from it; nothing came close.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, 26 April 2016



Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) and dancers in the Venusberg ballet
Images: Clive Barda/ROH
 
 
Royal Opera House

Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth – Emma Bell
Venus – Sophie Koch
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Stephen Milling
Biterolf – Michael Kraus
Walther von der Vogelweide – Ed Lyon
Heinrich der Schreiber – Samuel Sakker
Reimar von Zweter – Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy – Raphael Janssens
Elisabeth’s Attendants – Kiera Lyness, Deborah Peake-Jones, Louise Armit, Kate McCarney

Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jasmin Vardimon (choreography, Venusberg Scene)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Dancers
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)

 
Wolfram (Christian Gerhaher)
 

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO. True, Opera North will bring its concert Ring to the South Bank, but that is a somewhat different matter. Comparisons with serious houses, let alone serious cities, are not encouraging, especially if one widens the comparison to nineteenth-century Italian composers. Quite why is anyone’s guess; the composer is anything but unpopular. More to the point, Wagner and Mozart should stand at the heart of any opera house’s repertory. They can hardly do so if they are so rarely performed.
 

I mention that not only because it is very important in itself, but because it has serious implications for orchestras. What used to be Bernard Haitink’s orchestra has had a rougher time of things since his departure. Whilst a great conductor – Semyon Bychkov, for instance, in the first run of this production, or more recently, in Die Frau ohne Schatten – can still summon truly great things from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, its day-to-day experience of core German repertory is fading. Here, under Hartmut Haenchen, there were no particular upsets, but there were only hints at what the orchestra has been capable of, and still might be. Haenchen’s conducting had its moments, but it was the heavenly lengths, and how they might fit together, that were lacking. A penny-plain opening to the Overture suggested ‘authenticist’ tendencies, as if Haenchen would rather be conducting the Dresden Tannhäuser, albeit conducting it a little like ‘period’ Mendelssohn. When it came to the music written for Paris, he seemed to linger and to rush, somewhat arbitrarily. There is stylistic ‘incongruity’, yes, if we want to call it that, but should we not be making something of that, even making it into a virtue?


I suspect that Haenchen’s tempi were, on balance, considerably quicker than Bychkov’s; that was certainly not how it felt, especially in the Venusberg, whose pleasures seemed at times interminable (in the wrong sense). Indeed, the exchanges between Tannhäuser and Venus often sounded alarmingly perfunctory, robbed not only of orchestral ‘cushioning’, but of the direction that Wagner’s orchestra-as-Greek Chorus, even at this stage in his career, offers. Of Beethoven, at least as Wagner would have understood him, there was little: perhaps there was, however, of fashionable, ‘period’ Beethoven-cut-down-to-size. Compared to the most recent other Tannhäuser I had heard, superlatively conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, this was disappointing.
 
Venus (Sophie Koch)
 

Disappointing in that very important respect, anyway. There was much more to savour vocally. Peter Seiffert gave a strange performance in the title role: it came and went, seemingly without reason, sometimes, especially in the first act, alarmingly out of tune, at other times spot on, always tireless, even when, understandably, his voice acquired something of an edge in parts of the Rome Narration (movingly despatched). Emma Bell was a wonderful Elisabeth; I do not think I have heard anything finer from her. Sincere but certainly not bland, this Elisabeth’s vocal qualities were subtle yet, where necessary (and it often is!), powerful. Sophie Koch’s Venus was ravishingly sung, words and music in excellent, dramatically productive, balance. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram is a known quantity to many of us, of course, but no less welcome was it for that. The startling, almost indecent, yet utterly sincere, beauty of Gerhaher’s delivery was once again something for all to remember. There was no need to force the performance; he could draw us in so as to hear a pin drop. Phrasing was just as exemplary. Ed Lyon’s sweetly-sung, dramatically-committed Walther was another pleasure; if only he had had more to sing. Thank goodness, at least, Walther’s solo, only cut from Paris because the tenor could not sing it, was restored. Stephen Milling's sonorous Landgrave was, quite rightly, especially acclaimed by the audience. Young Raphael Janssens acquitted himself well as the Shepherd Boy. So did the chorus (and extra chorus) of Renato Balsadonna, although I think there was greater precision, and perhaps greater weight, under Bychkov in 2010.
 
The ballet
 


Tim Albery’s production does not seem to have changed very much. The Venusberg scene is strongest, the ballet well (if more efficiently than probingly) choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. It might have been raunchier – Wagner’s music here is, after all, the supreme musical manifestation of desperately trying and failing to achieve sexual climax – but it works well enough. Is a point being made about the unsatisfying nature of pornographic voyeurism? That was an assumption, given that our 'hero' only ever watches, but I am not entirely sure. In any case, the sense of the Royal Opera House being on stage is interesting in this opera. In a work whose central event is a song contest, who is performing, and why? Alas, nothing is really followed through, so that one cannot even really tell whether such metatheatrical possibilities are intended. We end up with little more than a mild compendium of clichés. One bizarre exception is the appearance of cowbells – there is, frankly, little to see – when Tannhäuser first returns to ‘normality’. Their lack of coordination would have been irritating in Mahler, but here, in Tannhäuser? If I had been Haenchen, or the house, I should have put a stop to it. This was not some interesting musical recomposition; it was just a bit of a mess.

The war-torn (Balkan?) setting of the second act I presume to have taken its cue from the Landgrave’s ‘Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernstern Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät’. It would be a stretch, however, to say that post-war deprivation was what Tannhäuser might really be ‘about’, at least without some further work on the director’s part. Albery seems content to let Michael Levine’s set designs do the work for him, which of course they cannot. The third act carries on in much the same way. Very much worth hearing for most of the singing, then, but a restricted view would not penalise you unduly.