Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Deutsche Oper, 13-17 April 2017

Images: Bettina Stöß
Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Wotan/The Wanderer – Derek Welton (Rheingold), Iain Paterson (Walküre), Samuel Youn (Siegfried)
Donner – Noel Bouley
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Burkhard Ulrich
Alberich – Werner Van Mechelen
Mime – Paul Kaufmann (Rheingold), Burkhard Ulrich (Siegfried)
Fasolt, Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Andrew Harris
Fricka, Second Norn (sung: played on stage by Anna Klöhs), Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) – Daniela Sindram
Freia – Martina Weischenbach
Erda, Grimgerde, First Norn – Ronnita Miller
Woglinde – Meechot Marrero (Rheingold), Martina Welschenbach (Götterdämmerung)
Wellgunde, Rossweiße – Christina Sidak
Floßhilde, Siegrune – Annika Schlicht
Siegmund – Stuart Skelton
Hunding – Tobias Kehrer
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius (Walküre, Götterdämmerung), Ricarda Merbeth (Siegfried)
Helmwige – Martina Welschenbach
Gerhilde, Third Norn – Seyoung Park
Ortlinde – Sunyoung Seo
Waltraute (Walküre) – Michaela Selinger
Schwetleite – Rebecca Raffell
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Woodbird – Elbenita Kajtazi
Gunther – Seth Carico
Gutrune – Ricarda Merbeth

Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (designs)
Jasmin Solfaghari (Rhiengold, Siegfried), Gerlinde Pelkowski (Walküre and Götterdämmerung) (revival directors)

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Raymond Hughes)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)


‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ Wagner’s words to Liszt, in a letter of 1853 have often been quoted. Less often quoted, yet equally important for these particular performances are the almost preposterously theatrical words with which he prefaced them. (Nietzsche’s charge that Wagner was above all an actor was not entirely without force, although not necessarily in the way he intended it.) ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames!’ Wagner also told his great friend and supporter, perhaps one of the very few who began to understand the scale of his achievement in the Ring. For here, Götz Friedrich’s production, first seen in 1984 and 1985, has reached its own Götterdammerung. One of the many lessons of the Ring is that nothing must be set in stone, or in the runes of Wotan’s spear; everything has its time. It seems to me that the Deutsche Oper has judged this about right, retiring it whilst there is some life in it, and giving it a proud immolation scene of its own, preparing the way for what must be the most eagerly awaited new production since – well, since 1876: that of arguably the greatest opera director at work today, unquestionably the greatest Wagner director, Stefan Herheim. All the Valkyries’ horses and all of Wotan’s host of heroes will not keep me from seeing that, but I am very glad to have had the opportunity to see, for the first and last time, its predecessor (however much what we now see may well differ from what Friedrich himself put on the stage). Many thanks indeed, then, to the Deutsche Oper for the tickets that enabled me to do so.


Different members of the audience would have experienced this in many different ways. Some many have been there for the first performances; some may even have been there for each cycle. Wagnerians are, after all, fanatical souls; it is safer to think oneself a Wagnerite. Some even came in coach parties, collected from the door each night. (Imagine that happening in Britain for something that was not a West End musical!) I mention that since many would have built up attachments that I did not have – just as I might for a favourite pianist whom I flattered myself I ‘understood’ and could therefore happily forget a few wrong notes. As stagecraft, what I saw was more mixed than was suggested by much of the reaction around me. It was mixed, though, and had enough going on conceptually and in detail to set me thinking more than in some new productions I have written about.


In that respect, for me, Das Rheingold fares best of all. If nothing can approach Patrice Chéreau’s evergreen Bayreuth staging for somehow surviving the ravages of time, this does not do badly at all. The story is told clearly, with a fine balance between ideas and characters. It is always difficult – indeed it should be difficult – to tell what is the work of the original director and what of the revival director, but it seemed to me that Jasmin Solfaghari had inspired her forces with considerable success. Perhaps she was also helped by the conceptual richness of the work, which does, as it were, so much of the work itself. If any one work of Wagner’s is a ‘drama of ideas’, it is surely this. At any rate, Peter Sykora’s fabled time tunnel, here and elsewhere, makes quite the visual – and conceptual – impression.  It was intended by Friedrich to convey something of Gurnemanz’s most celebrated line, ‘Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ (You see, my won, here space becomes time), thus reading back that strikingly Schopenhauerian and more generally post-Kantian idea back into the abidingly Hegelian, historical cosmogony of the Ring, or perhaps rather taking its shell and filling it with Hegelian content. Such, at least, is my predictably more Hegelian, historical reading, for a Ring without history is inconceivable to me – and, I should argue, to Wagner, the eager student (however much he might later have played this down) of Hegel’s Philosophy of History.


The setting for Nibelheim comes across as surprisingly undated. Its emphasis on the marriage between technology and barbarism marries well-nigh perfectly with Wagner’s own premonitions, or presentiments as he would have called them, of a darker age in German history. Adorno would surely have admired that more, had he been able to overcome his lack of sympathy earlier. Alberich’s appearance behind something akin to a shop window captures the avarice, the pretence, and the capital. His ability to control events is real, though. Mime’s pain is clearly no act, and the first ring transformation in particular is as convincingly handled as I have seen: sometimes lighting, or rather darkening, is all you need. In the second and final scenes, Loge’s availability to all – he is, after all, amongst other things, the incarnation of instrumental reason – is clearer than I can recall elsewhere. Fricka consults him and he proffers advice; he even wanders off with Fafner, following his murder of Fasolt, before returning to the scene of the crime. Valhalla is clearly another place, distinguished from wherever it is the assembled company is, and the rainbow lighting of the tunnel makes a lasting impression. Dr Who, eat your heart out, I thought. In a telling touch, what I have written of as the ‘limping aspirant waltz’ of the entry into Valhalla is splendidly choreographed: two steps forward, one back. Writing of Chéreau’s production, Günter Metken likened the entry of the gods into Valhalla to a tableau vivant of Bruegel’s Parable of the blind. There is something of that spirit here too.


One might have thought the ‘purely human’ – to use Wagner’s term – contrast in the world, at least partly, of Die Walküre would have fared better, but here I had the sense – it could only be a sense, given my lack of experience – that there was too much of the singers being left to their own devices, leading to somewhat generalised musico-dramatic performances. Whatever the reasons – and there may have been too little in the way of rehearsal time – strong Personenregie seemed lacking. Nevertheless, there are many points to commend, even if some of the designs here looked (to these perhaps jaded eyes) a little tired. Miniature ruins of old civilisations in the time tunnel are suggestive – rather than prescriptive. The Valkyries, true Hell’s Angels in appearance, intriguingly put up at least a gesture of a fight when Wotan advances, his spear having to command them to desist. Here, though, and in much of the remainder of the cycle, I felt that the lighting was often too dark, or more to the point, dingy. Whilst there is clearly a conceptual case for darkening of the light, one hears it in the music in any case, and more importantly, it often makes it a little too difficult to see what is going on onstage. On the other hand, it certainly made the real fire – praise Loge – at the close stand in great relief, in more than one sense.


Siegfried and Götterdämmerung fell somewhere in between, I think. I was rather charmed by the naïveté of the forest designs, and the contrast with the excellent functioning of Mime’s smithy, bellows and all, proved instructive. In Wagner’s dramatization between artist (Siegfried) and craftsman (Mime), there is more to glean than mere opposition, for the work is more complex than even this creator. I have seen far worse dragons too. The revival direction (Solfaghari again) seemed to me to possess a good sense of the epic, which is surely the key to what in many ways remains the most difficult of the Ring dramas to bring off. Many think it does not work, or even speak of the second act as tedious; they either do not understand, or have been let down by poor stagings. If the 2016 revision (essentially directed by Patric Seibert), although certainly not my first experience (how I recanted!) of Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring evinced a more extraordinary epic character than any other I have seen, and has probably changed my view of Siegfried forever, then a staging three decades old did not hold up too badly. It can hardly be held responsible for failing to match up to the spectacular set designs of Aleksandar Denić.


If Götterdammerung somehow fails to impress, there will have been ‘the wrong sort of catastrophe’, as Network Rail, or whatever it now calls itself, might put it. That was certainly not the case here, although again I felt the Personenregie was sometimes a little lacking. Intelligent singing actors can do a great deal, and did, but in a work such as this, more is ideally required. The settings vary between an intriguing, distorting Gibichung hall, revealed with cunning metaphor to be partly of mirrors, to almost school-play-like bathos in the Rhine at the close (although see the end of this paragraph). The drama survives, though, even if lighting might have helped it further. The time tunnel at the close, which I had expected, whether ‘historically’ or melodramatically, or both, to suffer devastation, pays testament to a cyclical view. And so, yes, the Schopenhauerian view suggested by Gurnemanz’s words prevails, if not entirely, at the close – just as he does, not entirely, at the close of the work. It was only afterwards that I read Friedrich’s words – and I am glad that I left it until then, so that they would not colour my anticipation – ‘When at the ending of Götterdämmerung everything has been burnt and destroyed, when the Rhine in the shape of a gigantic white cloth covers all of it, they [the gods] have gone back to sitting there, as in the beginning, ready to play their parts in the play once again, perhaps ever and again. Are we, while they are doing this, while they continue to do this, are we getting any wiser, any richer? The director leaves the reply to his question to you.’

Cast as these performances were over for just five days, there was some degree of sharing out recurring roles. I have no objection to that at all. Theatre is not ‘real life’, and there can be advantage not only to different standpoints at different stages of characters’ development, but to being reminded that this is theatre – especially, I might add, for Wagnerians as opposed to mere Wagnerites. (The problem is that the former are likely to be most resistant to such realisation.) All three Wotans had sterling qualities to their portrayals. Derek Welton’s Rheingold god matched youthfulness to power and strength, his turn to thoughtfulness in the final scene, ably picked up by Iain Paterson’s Walküre successor: very much an heir to the sagas, reminiscent in some respects of a young(er) John Tomlinson. Samuel Youn performed a valuable task in reminding us that there is life in the old god yet, brutality especially evident, but in context, I felt this was a little too much Dutchman, somewhat too less resigned Wanderer. Perhaps, though, I am falling into the Wagnerian trap I mention above.


Standing out for me amongst the other gods was Daniela Sindram’s Fricka: almost yet not quite sympathetic, at least in the day-to-day, straightforward sense. Wagner’s Hera should fascinate, yet to some degree repel. His description of her as embodying ‘custom’ was not in any sense intended as a compliment – as the drama makes abundantly clear. Attilio Glaser’s foppish way with Froh trod with ease the difficult line between portrayal of an almost cipher-like character and mere inconsequentiality. Burkhard Ulrich’s subtly calibrated Loge reinforced the production’s understanding of the demi-god as the Ring’s sole intellectual; Ulrich would prove just as impressive in the very different role of Mime (although they are often sung by the same artist), never, as Wagner insisted the singer must not, turning to caricature without falling into the common, understandable trap of making the dwarf unduly sympathetic. (Siegfried does enough of that as it is.) Ronnita Miller’s Erda showed great presence, in stage and vocal terms, although she veered somewhat out of tune for some of her Rheingold stint.


Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund was as well sung and humanly portrayed as we have now come to expect. (Why, o why, does Covent Garden continue to ignore him?) The relative weakness, so it seemed, of the Personenregie did little, though, to ignite a real sense of passion between him and Sieglinde. In that role, Eva-Maria Westbroek certainly wowed the audience, which awarded her the greatest cheers of the evening. I, however, found myself less involved. Her portrayal seemed to me at times as generalised as the direction, and I could not help but suspect that the clamour was as much a response to the volume as anything else; it can hardly have been a response to her way with the poem. Tobias Kehrer’s darkly dangerous – yet not simply relying on darkness of voice, as in some ‘great’ portrayals of the past – Hunding made me wish we had more to hear from him. As the Volsung twins’ heir, Stefan Vinke proved tireless (save for one forgivable moment in the final act of Siegfried). He had his moments with tuning, and it cannot be said to have been the most subtle of assumptions – but would a subtle Siegfried be missing the point? – yet he did much more than get through the cruel demands placed upon him by Wagner, much more than I have usually heard.


There was quite a contrast between our two Brünnhildes. Evelyn Herlitzius, as is her wont, gave utterly committed performances. One has to take the rough – sometimes, I have to admit, the very rough – with the smooth, but one can forgive almost everything when the commitment is such as here. Her turn as the woman scorned in the second act of Götterdämmerung was noteworthy for something that is all too often missed; that is very much part of her ‘elevation’ to humanity. I should not have minded hearing more of the words, though, especially in the grand denouement. Ricarda Merbeth had far less to do in terms of acting – or singing, for that matter. I suspect she might have been parted by the demands of the Walküre and Götterdammerung incarnation, but there were vocal thrills of a perhaps more conventionally ‘operatic’ kind, not unreasonably, to be had in her duet. Michaela Selinger contributed a moving Waltraute, attentive to the text throughout: the greater part of the trick, if we may call it that, here. The other Valkyries were a characterful bunch, more varied in tone than any ensemble I recall.


Werner Van Mechelen’s Alberich shifted, as if with the aid of a vocal Tarnhelm, between appearances – until his final, almost Beckettian appearance in that well-nigh incredible scene with Hagen (of which Boulez, no less, spoke with awe). Albert Pesendorfer showed great versatility in shifting in rather different fashion, from a truly sympathetic Fasolt (contrasting with Andrew Harris darker portrayal of the giant’s gangster turned rentier brother, Fafner) to a subtly manipulative Hagen: again offering far more than ‘mere’ darkness of tone. Seth Carico proved an accomplished Gunther. It is a difficult role, since playing ineffectuality should not become ineffectual in its sense. Carico’s acting skills helped greatly here, his fear palpable, without unduly informing smoothness of vocal line – or indeed enunciation of the text. His Gutrune, Merbeth again, with whom there was suggested an all-too-close relationship (perhaps more mother substitute than anything else), could sometimes be a little blowsy and again ‘operatic’; I am not sure that it was really her role.


Last but certainly not least, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Donald Runnicles did a sterling job. One almost always hears a few too many slips in Götterdämmerung, especially from the brass, and such was the case here, but to dwell on that would be to parody Beckmesser. Throughout, the string tone was dark yet commendably clear, not so transparent as that of some bands, but different orchestras have different characters, and long may that remain the case. No one, however often (s)he might have heard the Ring, could have come away from the performances having failed to learn a good deal from Wagner’s modern Greek Chorus. The actual chorus, a hangover but what a hangover from Wagner’s immersion in grand opéra, showed typical excellence in Götterdämmerung. Runnicles was an excellent guide, first amongst equals: supportive of singers without deferring to them. Structure was admirably clear, even if form lacked the last few inches of dynamism one would hear from, say, Daniel Barenboim. Art is not a competition, though, and if I felt a little shortchanged at the end of the first act of Die Walküre, I also recalled that the Staatsoper’s recent (Guy Cassiers) production made a considerably lesser impression than when I heard Barenboim’s concert performance at the Proms.  There is much to be said for such an unshowy way with Wagner, not least when one compares it with what London audiences have had to endure since the departure of Bernard Haitink. Runnicles’s wisdom was ultimately not so different from Brünnhilde’s. We ‘saw’ and heard ‘the world end’ – in words of hers Wagner never set, but never needed to; the orchestra sometimes says it all.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Ten Years of Blogging!

I have realised, just in time - briefly reverting to London time, since it is past midnight in Berlin - that it is ten years ago to the day that I began to write this blog. It began, also in Berlin, with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, conducted by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. Boulezian continues, of course, to bear the former’s name, and my most recent review is of a concert conducted by the latter; both artists remain éminence grises, and I suspect they always will. I had no idea what I was doing when I started; indeed, I did not even know what a blog was. Perhaps I still do not; that would actually be rather a lovely thought. But thank you for reading, even those of you who do not like what I have had to say. This insane enterprise really would be nothing without you - which is another way of shifting the blame...

Happy Easter!

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (5) - Lupu/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Brahms, Schoenberg, and Beethoven, 12 April 2017


Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op.56a
Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73

Radu Lupu (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Brahms and Schoenberg always complement each other well; they certainly did so here, Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin past masters in the music of both composers. Barenboim seemed to choose just the ‘right’ tempo – not to say that there are not others – for the Theme in Brahms’s Haydn Variations, and indeed for each of the variations that followed, the work very much conceived of and communicated as a whole. Pauses (or not) between movements were very much part of the overall conception in a deeply considered reading that lacked nothing in (apparent) spontaneity. Lightness of touch and depth were revealed as two sides of the same coin, with wonderfully ‘true’ – never more so than in the opening statement of the Theme – Harmoniemusik. Moreover, the string tone we heard in the first variation and beyond simply, or not so simply, sounded just right for Brahms, its darkness undeniable yet never overshadowing. Classicism and modernism, Gemütlichkeit and violence: all manner of dialectics were in play, just as they would be in Schoenberg, albeit with at least a greater pretence at reconciliation. The pathos of the minor mode seemed to look back to Mozart’s Pamina, whilst swifter, more impetuous (yet still controlled) movements, pulsating with life, however mediated, evoked Mendelssohn, Elgar, even, in the eight variation, will-o’-the-wisp Webern. The nobility of the cumulative sweep found true fulfilment in the closing passacaglia. Its victory was not easily won, yet it was undeniable. Magnificent, then, and deeply moving – and yes, the triangle made me smile.

Barenboim also conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces without a score (as he would, unsurprisingly, the Beethoven concerto in the second half). The first movement opened in medias res, Brahms’s developing variation further developed, as it were, albeit with an almost Straussian transformative technique also in play (or so it sounded). What writing this is, and what playing this was from, a huge orchestra! It thrilled, seemingly concentrating the action from an entire operatic scene into its brief duration. The second piece brought seemingly necessary contrast: not exactly relaxation, but a change of pace, at least until its own developing variation gathered its own pace. Schoenberg’s sonorities, whether soloistic or, more often, in combination, beguiled as if they were Mozart’s; moreover, they continued, more than a century on, to surprise. A Mahlerian sense of purpose in performance, married to Brahmsian involvement – in more than one sense – brought a mesmerising experience indeed. The Klangfarbenemelodie of the third movement had one realise quite how far we had come from Brahms, not least in the opening wind chords, which one could hardly fail to compare and contrast with the opening of the Haydn Variations. The occasional slightly awkward ‘join’ is almost inevitable; others were, it seemed, effected by sorcery. Tendencies from earlier movements united and reacted in the fourth and fifth. Violence and its aftershock were very much the order of the day in the close of the former, whilst languor and urgency somehow seemed to coexist with, even incited, each other in the latter. Here there is a phantasmagoria at least as impressive as anything in Strauss, but with a thoroughly Brahmsian grounding. Draining yet exhilarating. Judging by his personal applause for the orchestra, Barenboim was rightly appreciative of his players’ work.

Radu Lupu joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. This was not an easy ride, but even when it edged towards – and arguably, on one occasion in the finale, beyond – catastrophe, Beethovenian spirit was ever-present. Beethoven, after all, should never be easy. Lupu’s opening flourish sounded almost extemporised: not arbitrary, but free. Its little smudges did not matter, at least not to me. And what touch! What orchestral weight and clarity, moreover, Barenboim marrying once again tendencies with roots in Klemperer (with whom he recorded this work) and Furtwängler, now so internalised that they seem entirely his own. For he and Lupu undoubtedly understood that the work’s foundation, almost by definition, lies in its harmony. There was something almost Cortot-like, errors and all, in Lupu’s playing: magic in the right hand, of course, but it was the left hand that perhaps intrigued more, the very locus of Beethoven’s struggles. Neither Lupu nor Barenboim was afraid of rhetoric; if you are, this is certainly not your piece. Such rhetoric, however, grew out of the music rather than being imposed upon it.

A bardic quality to Lupu’s declamation – Wagner would surely have approved – was also apparent in the slow movement: a reverie more directed, and yet seemingly also more spontaneous, than its counterpart in the previous night’s Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Lupu touched and charmed, seemingly creating the music before our ears; the Staatskapelle Berlin offered a solemn, dignified ‘backdrop’ that nevertheless wanted nothing in life. The beauty of the transition to the finale might almost have been effected by Liszt himself, the sense of release somehow postponed until the coming of the orchestral tutti, liminality extended. Here one had to overlook a good deal technically, and I can understand why some might not have been able to do so – not that there seemed to be any such reaction in the audience – but even in catastrophe, there was the truest of authenticity. Moreover, whatever shortcomings there may have been in the despatch of the piano part, the electricity of the orchestral performance – how, for instance, motivic development worked itself through the different string registers – was, even by these players’ standards, quite something indeed.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (4) – Mutter/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Takemitsu, Beethoven, Debussy, and Berg, 11 April 2017


Takemitsu: Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, for violin and string orchestra
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, op,61
Debussy: La Mer
Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

Anne Sophie-Mutter (violin)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

A concert very much of two halves, but which half would be which? Sad to say, it was the longer ‘half’, with Anne-Sophie Mutter, which proved frustrating (although not, it would seem, to an often poorly behaved audience: telephones, quadrophonic coughing, chattering, dropping things, etc., etc.) As it was, a truly outstanding performance of La Mer – was it perhaps the best I have heard? – and an excellent account of Berg’s Op.6 Pieces had me wishing that perhaps the Beethoven Violin Concerto had been omitted from a strangely programmed concert.

Takemitsu’s Nostalghia opened the concert, and fared considerably better than the Beethoven. The composer’s move ever closer towards (more or less) conventional tonality was to be heard here, yet not entirely unalloyed: post-Messiaen the harmonies might have been, but there were hints of Berg too. Moreover, Mutter’s playing, consciously or otherwise, seemed designed to pick up the intervallic aspects of Takemitsu’s construction, even constructivism, and their implications. The contrast between her tone – for once, ‘glamorous’ does seem the mot juste – and that of the small band of orchestral strings was telling rather than distracting. She and Daniel Barenboim shaped the work’s contours well; attention to detail was equally impressive. The ‘tender and elegiac mood’ of which Takemitsu spoke was evoked, but not at the expense of a ‘merely’ atmospheric account, no more welcome here than in Debussy.

That distinction of string tone was also present in the Beethoven Concerto, but it began to take on the characteristic of mannerism, especially when Mutter’s playing with intonation – I say ‘playing with’, since it seemed deliberate – began to grate. Perhaps more disturbing were her sometimes extreme rubato and tempo variation. Barenboim is renowned as a master in post-Furtwänglerian Beethoven, which we might have had chance to hear in another performance; here, too much sounded like a bad parody of Mengelberg. The first movement in particular was listless, at times seeming interminable, even when the tempo was far from ‘objectively’ slow. The magnificence of the moment of orchestral return showed us what we were missing. Interestingly, somewhat perplexingly, Mutter’s account of the cadenza (Kreisler’s, I think) was far stronger in direction, and indeed in expressive range too. Applause at the close of the movement was as unwelcome as it was predictable, although it was probably preferable to another extended bout of bronchial display. The slow movement was better: broad, with undeniable intimacy for much of its course. Characterful solo voices from the Staatskapelle Berlin – the bassoon in particular caught my ear – were a delight. A reverie, with sterner moments, then, whose spell was broken by a vigorous, even dashing account of the finale. If only the first movement had borrowed a little of that vigour! Now the orchestra really played out and Barenboim seemed far more in control.

Once past the bizarrely bronchial sunrise, impressively handled so far as one could tell, Barenboim’s La Mer achieved perhaps the most truly symphonic stature I have heard. It is certainly not the only way to perform this work, but it was mightly impressive. The great sweep of the first movement, and indeed beyond, was enhanced by equally fine attention to detail. The climax rightly grew out of and yet also transformed what had gone before. There was no lingering, rendering its impact all the greater. ‘Jeux de vagues’ emerged as a glittering orchestral scherzo, with all the dynamism of (if a different dynamism from) a scherzo by Mahler or Brahms. Cellos drove, or so it seemed, the harmony as well as the rhythm. The ‘Dialague du vent et de la mer’ opened as ominously as any symphonic finale (that to Berg’s Pieces included, if we may include them). Its dark malevolence looked back to Parsifal but forward too. During the course of a struggle that was avowedly musical rather than pictorial, quintessentially Debussyan magic and mystery sounded reborn.

Sonic mystery of a different kind enabled the very components of Western music to emerge in the opening of Berg’s ‘Präludium’: an exaggeration, perhaps, but there was a real sense, even, in theological terms, a real presence, of the instantiation of harmony, melody, rhythm in that creation. (I often think of this opening as a counterpart to Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’. Here it stood, or so it seemed, midway between Haydn and Varèse.) The strangeness of this music remained undimmed; it was no orchestral showpiece that we heard. ‘Reigen’ danced as it must, but it was the evolution of that dance and its subsequent development that registered especially strongly. Fragments of old Vienna were remembered, misremembered, invented; they filed past us in a ballroom that disintegrated before our ears. Line here proved as crucial as in La Mer, or indeed as in Barenboim’s Wagner. A similar thing might be said of the ‘Marsch’, save for its necessary dissimilarity and contrast. The insanity and downright barbarism of the huge orchestra and its music was celebrated, then distilled and dissolved, reinstating the unspoken presence of Mahler, even prior to the hammer blows. Berg claimed that Mahler’s modernity over Wagner was in part a matter of saying, with Nietzsche, yes rather than no. Here, Berg seemed to say yes, no, maybe, all manner of things. If there was not quite the clarity that Pierre Boulez, with no sacrifice to its emotional range, used to bring to performances of this music, Barenboim and his orchestra offered interesting new perspectives of their own. This is music we hear far too infrequently; there really is no excuse.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (3) - Die Frau ohne Schatten, Staatsoper Berlin, 9 April 2017

Dyer's Wife (Iréne Theorin), Empress (Camilla Nylund), Barak (Wolfgang Koch)
Images: Hans Jörg Michel

Schiller Theater

Emperor – Burkhard Fritz
Empress – Camilla Nylund
Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Spirit-Messenger – Roman Trekel
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Dyer’s Wife – Iréne Theorin
Apparition of Youth – Jun-Sang Han
Voice of the Falcon – Narine YeghiyanVoice from Above – Jane Henschel
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Evelin Novak
Voice from Above – Anja Schlosser
The One-Eyed – Alfredo Daza
The One-Armed – Grigory Shkarupa
The Hunchback – Karl-Michael Ebner
Servants, Children’s Voices – Sónia Grané, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka
Children’s Voices – Anna Charim, Verena Allertz, Konstanze Löwe
Voices of Nightwatchmen – David Oštrek, Gyula Orendt, Dominc Barberi

Claus Guth (director)
Julia Burbach (assistant director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Andi A. Müller (video)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus (chorus master; Vinzenz Weissenburger)
Staatsopern Chor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Empress and Nurse (Michaela Schuster)

Claus Guth’s staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten, already seen in Milan and in London, now reaches Berlin, the Staatsoper the third of its co-producing partners. Here, I think, its psychoanalytical and, more broadly, dramatic focus is sharper, doubtless the consequence of certain reworking in the light of experience, whether by Guth or his assistants. Narrative clarity is anything but reductionist or lacking in conceptual framework, yet the danger of obscuring Hofmannsthal’s tendency towards the obscure is avoided throughout. We open with a sanatorium dumb show, a woman receiving treatment. In her dreaming, she becomes – or perhaps always has been: it does not really matter – the Empress. Dreaming is not, it should be added, a banal matter of waking up and discovering ‘it was all a dream’, almost as a way of rounding off something that could not otherwise have been rounded off; that was rather the impression gained, at least by me, in London. Here, with some sharpening up of the medical apparatus – a little more presence, perhaps, earlier in the third act would not go amiss – it comes across far more clearly as a mode of treatment. What our heroine – hysterical in more than one way, or perhaps not – undergoes is perhaps what she needs; at any rate, it is what she gets.

Emperor (Burkhard Fritz)

Navigation of the boundaries between reality and dream, accepting that sometimes they will remain unclear and that that is no bad thing, gains dynamic impetus through its interaction with Hofmannsthal’s idea of transformation; Ariadne auf Naxos seems to beckon, or perhaps it already has beckoned. The mythological world it continues to receive a relatively full due, echoes, however strained of The Magic Flute, heard (more to the point, seen), without overwhelming. Schmidt’s designs and Olaf Winter’s lighting come into their own here, although I could do without the strangely banal video explication. The shadows cast across the stage say far more than a projection of a pregnant stomach being rubbed. What last time I called ‘the sheer weirdness but also menacing sense of judgement emanating from a courtroom of strange creatures’, close to the end, seems perhaps more menacing in its imagined flights of fantasy than ever. Dreams and their interpretation remain indivisible. ‘Treatment’ is, moreover, not without its perils. Coming hard on the heels of the Freudian themes in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal, the staging offers much to ponder.


Zubin Mehta’s conducting of the score was less probing. He knew ‘how it went’, although perhaps lingered a little too much at times when the singers – and the drama – might have preferred otherwise. Compared, however, with Semyon Bychkov’s truly outstanding account at Covent Garden, as fine as anything I know on record, let alone have known in the theatre, Mehta’s reading sounded generalised. Where Strauss’s score offers a myriad of opportunities for harmonic and, still more, colouristic fragmentation and reunion, ever transforming before our ears, this was often a little dogged and, if not monochrome, less kaleidoscopic and, more generally, multivalent, than one might have hoped for. The Staatkapelle Berlin nevertheless sounded excellent, solos well taken without exception, although there were times when I wished Mehta might have allowed it more of its head – and sheer heft. I could not help but recall Daniele Gatti’s shattering 2010 Elektra in Salzburg, as well as Bychkov’s FroSch, and finding something missing.

The Nurse

The cast, though, was first-rate, just as had been the case in London. I am not sure I have heard Burkhard Fritz on better form. The physical demands of the Emperor’s part are fearsome, cruel even by Strauss’s usual tenor standards. One can readily forgive a single wayward passage for the otherwise splendid performance heard here. Camilla Nylund’s Empress could hardly have been bettered. As well acted as it was well sung, as variegated in colour and dynamic contrast as it was clean of line, this was above all a performance that had one sympathise, believe in the ‘case’ before us. I likewise do not think I have heard a better Barak than that of Wolfgang Koch. His way with words and music certainly had me sympathise with the character like never before. The dyer’s predicament was ‘real’, not merely symbolic or dreamed. Iréne Theorin’s imperious yet also deeply felt Dyer’s Wife impressed similarly, its vocal roots in the figure of Isolde but also, one felt, once we knew she had not made the diabolical agreement, in the humanity of Mozart. If Roman Trekel’s Spirit-Messenger were somewhat dry of tone, the instrument of his message, Michaela Schuster, fully lived up to the high expectations elicited by her London performance, its ambiguous malevolence heightened by the Freudian setting. With choruses, adult and children’s alike, on splendid form too, blocked as well as they sang, there was much to celebrate here indeed – even if we cannot include that disturbing pro-natalism from which we shall never quite be able to rescue the work.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (2) - Parsifal, Staatsoper Berlin, 8 April 2017

Klingsor (Tómas Tómasson) and the Flowermaidens
Images: Ruth Walz

Schiller Theater

Amfortas – Lauri Vasar
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Kundry – Anna Larsson
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Squires – Sónia Grané, Natalia Skrycka, Florian Hoffmann, Michael Porter
First Knight of the Grail – Michael Smallwood
Second Knight of the Grail – Dominic Barberi
Flowermaidens – Katerina Tretyakova, Adriane Queiroz, Anja Schlosser, Sónia Gráne, Narine Yeghiyan, Natalia Skrycka
Voice from Above – Natalia Skrycka
Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

With this, my third visit to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal, I have now seen the production as many times as I did that of Stefan Herheim at Bayreuth. I shall spare you the ritual Herheim encomium on this occasion; anyone interested may seek out either my earlier reviews (here, here, and here), or the chapter I have devoted to the staging in my book, After Wagner. Suffice it to say that, developing as it has each year, again like Herheim’s staging, Tcherniakov’s production is now thoroughly established as one of the most thought-provoking, deeply troubling stagings since Herheim’s breathed its last in 2012. (Again, should anyone be interested, I shall have an article in the July issue of The Wagner Journal, looking at both stagings and their relationship to psychoanalysis.) It is just what musical drama should be, and just what clueless reactionaries loathe – because, like all great drama, it points the finger at them. If you want somehow to feel better about yourself, then Parsifal and Wagner are certainly not for you, any more than Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Mozart are. If, however, you want to begin to understand why you should not feel so good about yourself, here you are.

For at the heart of Tcherniakov’s staging, it seems to me, perhaps increasingly so, is the Freudian, indeed Nietzschean insight (not just theirs, by any means) that human existence is founded upon a lie. The first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil opens with the challenge: ‘The will to truth, which misdirects us toward many adventures, that fabled truthfulness, before which all philosophers hitherto have paid obeisance … why not rather untruth? … Who is Oedipus here? Who the Sphinx?’ From such perspectivism (back) to (the birth or death of) tragedy is, in a way, a splendidly anti-Nietzschean journey, especially when it involves the Wagner drama Nietzsche affected above all to hate. Here, nevertheless, it is – and it is perhaps not idle to note here the Russian –Mussorgskian (Khovanschina) and Dostoevskian – ‘look’ to Tcherniakov’s designs and direction for a Monsalvat community of what we might well call Old Believers. (But do they, fundamentally, believe? Why should we take them at their word?) Nihilism needs to be fought against, but how, and how could such battle succeed? Is the only conclusion itself nihilistic? No wonder the world of Dostoevsky seems hinted at – although it is rightly left to us to do much of that thinking; Nietzsche’s perspectivism is incorporated rather than denied (aufgehoben, if you will).

Titurel increasingly seems to me one of the most important keys to the work; he certainly is to the staging. Sung here by Matthias Hölle, there is little doubt that he is continuing to run the show. Indeed, as part of the ritual, whatever that ritual may be, he puts himself in his coffin, to emerge again once ‘it’ is over. Amfortas, whilst he can hardly be ignored in any production, seems perhaps still more central to the first and third acts than often he is. The identification with and perversion of traditional images of Christ – tradition is a dangerous, if necessary thing – comes across more strongly than ever on this occasion. He is presented as an object for us to behold, to admire, whether we like it or no; draining of blood for the ritual from his own side harrows, yet we cannot look away. There is, indeed, perhaps greater emphasis on the history of this strange community than in previous years. The slide show in which Gurnemanz educates his charges with images past – recollections, actual or false, of Wagner’s own Siena Cathedral taking pride of place – makes its point especially clearly. Whatever it is that is going on, whatever it is that is taking its inspiration and its justification from this alleged history, is losing its power to convince. Lies do that, although that does not stop us telling them, believing them.

The shock of the second act naturally registered most strongly of all when new in 2015. What we see when the curtain rises seems entirely new, although we come to realise that its actual framework remains from the first act; it has, however, almost literally been whitewashed. Presentation of Klingsor as an almost stereotypical tabloid image of a paedophile – one can almost see the chasing headline ‘MONSTER!’ – replete with repellent comb-over, surrounding himself with Flowermaidens as little girls in flowery dresses (some of them with dolls, performing the same role in miniature) continues to provide a discomfiting way in to the exploration of Parsifal’s sexuality that lies at the very heart of this act. Klingsor’s overt wandering of hands when he sits himself next to Kundry and her revulsion remind us there is nothing voluntary about this alliance, and, more generally, that abuse breeds abuse. So when Kundry makes Parsifal remember (or invent?) his past, the abusive lineage is extended further. (‘Who is Oedipus here? Who the Sphinx?’) The dumb show of recollection in which his mother walks in on his first tentative steps with a girl instils greater trauma than previously: upon Parsifal, visibly shaking for much of what follows (brilliantly acted by Andreas Schager), but also seemingly upon Kundry, whose production from her sinister bag of tricks of a white shirt, bloodied from a wound like that of Amfortas (perhaps it actually is from his wound?) provides a more overt connection with the business of the outer acts than we have previously seen. Parsifal was not the only one to be shaken by what he experienced; I was too. No wonder he drives the spear through Kingsor at the close of that act. The trauma of male adolescent sexuality is perhaps less often treated with in opera than one might expect. Tcherniakov makes a huge step in redressing that imbalance.

Parsifal (Andreas Schager) and the Flowermaidens
Memory plays tricks – as we see on stage. It is therefore perhaps unwise to attempt extended comparisons between different incarnations of staging and performance. Certainly Daniel Barenboim’s conducting and the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin would have little to fear from such comparisons. Suffice it to say that this great orchestra’s immersion in Wagner’s music continues to reward. Here, it was the darkness of sound at the darkest of Wagner’s moments that perhaps made the greatest impression upon me, the prelude to the third act a case in point, still more so the continued development of its material throughout the act. Lower strings told one so much of what one needed to know, even if one were somehow managing to ignore, or to misunderstand, what was going on onstage. Barenboim’s ideal combination of structural command and dynamic impetus underlay everything we heard. Revealing encounters between stage action and pit action (Wagner’s fabled orchestral Greek Chorus) were many; that between the rotational cycles (see Warren Darcy’s chapter, ‘“Die Zeit ist da”: Rotational Form and Hexatonic Magic in Act 2, Scene 1, in William Kinderman and Katherine Syer (ed.), A Companion to Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’) and Klingsor’s creepy, childish self-rotation centre-stage is but one instance. The stage listens to the pit, and vice versa.

So too, of course, is that the case when it comes to our cast of singers and outstanding chorus (and extras too). Schager’s portrayal of the title role once again offered a near-ideal sound; he is unquestionably the Heldentenor of our age. His acting skills, as previously mentioned, are almost as crucial, especially his ability to evoke all manner of visual adolescent awkwardness. Anna Larsson’s Kundry offered something intriguingly new when we saw her too caught in the headlights of her own (well, ultimately Klingsor’s) trap in the final quarter of an hour or so of the second act. Otherwise, she sometimes seemed a little less settled, less compelling in the role than her predecessors, although her vocal tone often proved a considerable pleasure in itself. Lauri Vasar’s Amfortas was another new assumption. I found it quite spellbinding: as rich and/or as agonised of tone as need be, in perfect, often complex, relation to what we saw onstage. His way with words was equally impressive. When speaking of richness of tone, one can hardly fail to think of René Pape, whose reprisal of Gurnemanz continued to offer the excellence this production demands (and almost always receives). His almost slow-motion stabbing of Kundry gives the lie to claims that his musico-dramatic gifts are only, or even mostly, vocal. Tómas Tómasson has made this Klingsor his own – and continues to do so: of the outstanding performances to be seen and heard here, his is far from the least. Smaller parts were all well taken, often outstandingly so. This is a Parsifal that will not let go.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (1) – VPO/Barenboim: Mozart and Schoenberg


Mozart: Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9
Mozart: Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Berlin State Opera’s Holy Week Festtage seem by now firmly to have established an invented tradition of opening with a concert from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim. This year we heard three symphonies, one by Mozart and Schoenberg, both Barenboim specialities, with fine results. One might say the same, of course, for Mozart and the VPO, and ought to be able to for Schoenberg too; perhaps we should say that, when the orchestra can be persuaded (after all this time…) to play the music of one of Vienna’s greatest sons, it can bring something very special to it.

The Haffner Symphony received an excellent performance indeed. A pleasingly large (by today’s standards) orchestra, strings 12:10:8:6:5, presented something that was no mere showpiece, the first movement’s swagger emerging from the score, above all founded upon its harmony – just as if it were Beethoven. The unanimity of ensemble was just as impressive as its warmth. This was pretty much perfect. And so, it was impossible not to note a slight lapse of ensemble at the beginning of the slow movement. (Yes, I am saying ‘slow movement’ in order to wind the right people up…) At any rate, recovery was swift; thereafter, a wealth of variegation proved crucial to such cultivated playing. The Vienna woodwind might almost have been Karl Böhm’s. Above all, the music ‘spoke’, as if it were an aria without words. Barenboim’s tempo modifications were subtle yet telling. The minuet stood on the cusp of one- and three-to-a-bar (although Barenboim, as, perhaps more surprisingly, in the Jupiter, generally conducted it in one). Once again, melody, harmony, and rhythm were in near-perfect equipoise. A lovely, teasing trio, especially in the lead-ins, was over, alas, before we knew it. Like its predecessors, the finale benefited from a tempo that sounded just ‘right’. Crucially, it had the character of a finale. The timpanist’s playing is surely deserving of special mention here; so of course is that of the Vienna strings. This is far more complex music than many take it for; here it sounded so, without losing its apparent, beguiling simplicity. A thrilling narrative had me smile – and hold my breath.

Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony followed. I was immediately struck by the chamber music sound, or Klang: not so much a matter of scale, which is obvious, but of an ensemble of chamber musicians, somewhat like that for an outgrown Schubert Octet or indeed Mozart Divertimento – which is certainly one way in which we might consider what Schoenberg is doing here. The cultivation of the strings’ playing was again quite remarkable. There were no balance issues, either. Barenboim proved especially skilled at eliciting and communicating the Lisztian, transformative element to Schoenberg’s writing, sounding more Wagnerian as time went on: not just in melodic terms but, more intriguingly still, with respect to rhythm and metre too. Schoenberg proved, quite rightly, just as fecund as Mozart; developing variation has many more fathers than Brahms. Viennese sweetness underlay the performance, but it never became cloying; indeed, kinship with Schoenberg’s string quartet writing, apparent throughout, seemed to help ensure a counterbalance.

After the interval came the Jupiter Symphony. If it did not receive quite so committed a performance, at least to my ears, the VPO occasionally sounding somewhat on (high class) autopilot, there was still much to enjoy. Certainly the contrast and connectedness between the two thematic groups in the first movement registered clearly and meaningfully. So too did the dynamic functions of development and recapitulation. The slow movement was played beautifully, not entirely untroubled, but perhaps earlier on a little more untroubled than it might have been. When greater, well-nigh Beethovenian tension was heard, the transformation was noteworthy. I loved the darkness of some of the Minuet’s Trio, and the way the reprise of the Minuet seemed to take that in, its chromaticism absorbing lessons learned. The finale again very much had a finale’s character, although in its own particular way. There was no doubting the weight of the performance, not that that precluded chiaroscuro, nor the sense of theatre, almost as if this were the final number to an act of a fourth Da Ponte opera. The symphonic argument nevertheless remained paramount – at least until a curious moment. Quite why Barenboim adopted so rhetorical a ritardando before the coda I am not sure; it did not seem at all in keeping with what we had heard previously. A little girl sitting on stage took this as a cue to applaud loudly (if the harmony did not suggest a close, then she was creditably aware that something had happened!) and all tension was lost.