Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Prom 60 - Gerhaher/GMYO/Jordan - Bach and Bruckner, 30 August 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Bach – Cantata: ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV 82
Bruckner – Symphony no.9 in D minor

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Bernhard Heinrichs (oboe)
Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Bruckner, Bruckner, wherever one goes; From Salzburg to London, he is with us, he is with us indeed, and will be next week too. (I shall even be given the Third Symphony another try, on my birthday: the things I do for Daniel Barenboim…) Still, at least it seems to mean that fewer unnecessary Mahler-as-showpiece performances are being foisted upon us. Moreover, in this case, it was good, indeed great Bruckner, rather than one of the interminable number of ‘versions’ of interminable earlier works.

Keen though I was to hear the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, for he principal attraction for me, and for a good part of the audience, was in any case the extremely rare opportunity to hear a Bach cantata played by mainstream performers – especially, so it seemed, when the soloist was Christian Gerhaher. According to the programme, there had only been two previous such opportunities to hear Ich habe genug at the Proms: in 1956 and in 1962, with Heinz Rehfuss and Hermann Prey as soloists, both enticing prospects indeed. Ian Bostridge performed the version for high voice (with flute obbligato, rather than oboe, and period instruments) in 2000.

As it was, Philippe Jordan, heedless of the size of the hall, opted for a very small orchestra (oboe, strings, chamber organ) and, perhaps more to the point, insisted throughout that the strings play in very subdued fashion. An advantage of smaller forces can often be a greater willingness to play out, but not here. It is a reflective work, of course, and does not need to sound like Mahler (or Bruckner), but the approach nevertheless seemed perverse; I can imagine it might have worked better on the radio. The opening aria was taken at a ‘flowing’ tempo, which is to say considerably faster than would ‘traditionally’ have been the case. On its own terms, it worked well enough, but memories of, say, John Shirley-Quirk with Neville Marriner, or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with various conductors) were anything but effaced. Gerhaher’s use of head-voice, moreover, left this listener at least longing for something deeper, darker. There was certainly greater resolution, though, upon the da capo. His diction, whether in arias or recitatives, was impeccable. Bernhard Heinrichs’s oboe playing was unfailingly musical, very much a second ‘voice’. ‘Schlummert ein’ was again relatively swift, although I felt Gerhaher might have done more with the words without coming anywhere near over-emphasis. And Jordan’s pauses seemed excessive: disruptive more than anything else. The following recitative offered much more in the way of verbal emphasis, as did, to a lesser extent, the final aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’. Here I was rather taken with the swift tempo, which engendered something of a spirit of defiance.

Jordan seemed very much to have rethought ‘traditional’ approaches to Bruckner, but to rather more successful effect. Once past a rocky opening – devoid of mystery, and of much else too, not helped by an onslaught of coughing – we heard some fine playing indeed from the young players of the GMYO: first strings, then the oboe soloist, and so on. The first movement was taken pretty fast, but not unrelievedly so. Intriguingly pointillistic woodwind matched well string pizzicato playing, and added to a sense of provisionality; this was no ‘cathedral in sound’ of cliché. There was, moreover, a strong sense of development: necessary here to avoid a sense of mere repetition. And there was a sense of intimacy too: not the constraint of the Bach performance, but something penetrating deeper, to the very essence of the musical lines. The moment of return was duly awe-inspiring: what a wonderful orchestra this is! Was the approach too fragmentary, though? Perhaps, perhaps not. It was certainly interesting. There was no wanting of power in the coda.

The scherzo opened with a lightness that was far from non-committal, more Mendelssohnian perhaps. Response thereto was anything but light, although one could certainly hear Bruckner as an heir to Schubert (his Ninth Symphony in particular). Perhaps it was a little too driven, but it was certainly not dull. There was occasional insecurity concerning pulse, though. The trio was full of incident, proving both urgent and, occasionally, a little languorous. I liked its range. The finale developed the sense of late Romantic hypertension. There was nothing comfortable to this view of Bruckner, which was all to the good. Both the virtues and the drawbacks of the previous movements endured. Jordan proved, however, especially able in highlighting the contrasting nature in the musical material. Moments of crisis registered; much, it seemed, was at stake. The close was blissful, Schubertian.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Prom 59 - Schiff/Gewandhaus/Blomstedt: Beethoven, 29 August 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Overture: Leonore, no.2, op.72a
Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73
Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

András Schiff (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)

Never having heard Herbert Blomstedt live, I rushed to buy a ticket for this Prom as soon as tickets went on sale. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was not an unattractive proposition either, of course. András Schiff: well, whatever has happened to him…?

Before coming to Schiff’s contribution, though, I should say something about the Leonore 2 Overture. Try as I might, I cannot hear it ‘in itself’; I hear it almost as a sketch for no.3, fascinated, but unable to hear what might be preferable in it. Insofar as direction can be afforded it, Blomstedt certainly did. The Gewandhaus Orchestra immediately announced itself with deliciously dark string tone – ‘old German’, if ever there were such a thing – and equally outstanding solo woodwind. Digressions were given time to speak, and sounded less digressive than they usually would. 

My reception of Schiff’s performance in the Fifth Piano Concerto was not unique, but it certainly did not seem to be shared by the greater part of the audience, which roared with approval. What I heard in Schiff’s first entry was what I heard more or less the whole way through: something that somehow married pedantry to mannerism, incapable of evenness in passagework (or at least unwilling to play evenly), either unphrased or with phrasing that was bizarrely unmusical, and peppered with equally unmotivated articulation. He did not seem to listen to the orchestra, with whom he fell out of sync more than once, leaving Blomstedt to put things right, and indeed seemed utterly (and undeservedly) self-regarding throughout. The orchestra sounded splendid on its own terms, and Blomstedt proved a sure enough guide, insofar as he could, although I found his handling of the first movement’s tutti passages a little foursquare at times. The slow movement started better; indeed, it almost sounded recognisable; it was not long, though, before Schiff’s perversities set in again. The finale offered more of the same, a terrible pity, given that the orchestra’s playing exhibited all the virtues it had in the overture. His piano, it seems, was a Bösendorfer; maybe so, but it did not sound like one. Is it perhaps the case that he is now more at home on period instruments? A recent Schubert disc sounded far more successful than his recent work with modern pianos. And, although strangely flashy, the Schubert encore (Impomptu, D 899/2) was considerably more convincing.

With just the orchestra and Blomstedt, the performance of the Seventh Symphony proved much more successful. The first movement introduction sounded full of tonal possibility, a worthy successor to Haydn. Orchestral clarity and tonal depth were revealed to be two sides of the same coin, the one enhancing the other. If I have heard more exciting transitions to the exposition proper, this was eminently musical, a proper continuation. Blomstedt’s way was not the knife-edge approach of Carlos Kleiber; indeed, it proved more Apollonian than Dionysian throughout the symphony. If it were not necessarily the way I think of the work, it was a perfectly valid alternative, from which much could be learned. The slow movement – yes, I know it is not a slow movement really, but it annoys the right people to call it that – was taken swiftly, and indeed almost without a break. That ‘following on’ intrigued, and proved highly successful; if only the bronchial brigade had been listening. A processional that might have fascinated Birtwistle ensued: played pretty ‘straight’, but certainly none the worse for that. The depth of string tone – depth, not necessarily volume – was truly a thing of wonder, but there was nothing narcissistic about this: all was at the service of the music, as the cliché goes.

Blomstedt took the scherzo very fast indeed; I am not sure I have heard it faster, although doubtless some ‘authenticist’ will have managed to cross the line in half the time, having ‘discovered’ that Beethoven’s dog had eaten his metronome. Or something. If I missed the darker urgency, the sense that the future of the world was at stake, one would hear from, say, Daniel Barenboim, there was no doubting the accomplishment of the playing; and, as I said, it is a good thing to hear alternatives, so long as they are not unutterably perverse. I found the lack of relaxation for the trio a pity – one does not have to go to the lengths of a Leonard Bernstein here to feel that some such response is helpful, even necessary – and felt puzzled by a subsequent ultra-slowing for the transition back to the scherzo the second time around, but it made me listen. The finale worked uncommonly well, I thought. Too often, it comes to sound harsh, inhumanly driven: what could be less Beethovenian? Here, though, it proved almost graceful. Lower strings and timpani proved ample harmonic grounding, whilst above, the dancing continued.

What seems to be a genuinely sunny disposition on Blomstedt’s part displayed itself also in the encore, the Egmont Overture. Not at the beginning, of course, in which the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded still darker than it had earlier; perhaps more to the point, each note in that extraordinary introduction was invested with meaning. Here we moved closer to a ‘traditional’ reading. The rejoicing that followed returned us, howeverm to that earlier Apollonian disposition. And what playing we heard from the orchestra: to match any in the world!

Prom 57 - Kulman/BBC SO/Bychkov - Larcher, Wagner, Strauss, 28 August 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Thomas Larcher – Symphony no.2, ‘Cenotaph’ (UK premiere)
Wagner (orch. Felix Mottl) – Wesendonck-Lieder
Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony (written 2015-16) here received its United Kingdom premiere, its first performance having been given by the Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov in June this year. A commission from the Austrian National Bank for its bicentenary, it is nevertheless not a celebratory work, instead commemorating those refugees who have met their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, ‘expressing grief over those who have died and outrage at the misanthropy at home in Austria and elsewhere’. Larcher does not consider it a piece of programme music, though, and there seems no reason to doubt him. Or, to put it another way, if we can consider Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, the third work on the night’s programme, as a symphony, there is no reason why we should not this.


It certainly felt like a symphony, not just on account of its four movements, but also their character and their relationship to one another. The first movement opened with a sense of pent-up energy being released, in very fast, highly rhythmic music, that material alternating with slower passages, in which tension is maintained, perhaps even increased, by various means including bass pedals. Without being ‘process music’, musical processes were very much to the fore, both, it seemed in the work, and in the excellent performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Bychkov. Distorted – and sometimes not distorted – tonalities mapped out its space; they were not, perhaps, without nostalgia, but a nostalgia that did not shade into pastiche. A huge orchestral cry of agony – it was difficult not to think of the opening Adagio to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, both with respect to similarity and difference – made its point, whether ‘programmatic’ or not. Henze, coincidentally or otherwise, sometimes came to mind too. A final descent left us wondering into what we were descending. The chorale-like opening to the succeeding Adagio inevitably brought Austro-German tradition once again to mind; for this really did feel like something akin to a ‘traditional’ slow movement, with a ‘traditional’ symphonic dialectic. Accordion and wind were often prominent, there seeming something to be fundamental about their timbres to the work. Vibraphone and piano duetting also caught the ear’s attention, likewise percussion more generally (as indeed in the first movement). Scalic movement in both directions was a particular concern too.


The third movement sounded not entirely unlike a post-Brahmsian scherzo, with a touch of Stravinskian rhythmic insistence (although not always). The strange repetition of a chord – heard 140 times, apparently! – paradoxically seemed to increase tension, as much as any increase in volume and/or tempo. Then, at the end, a strange little Austrian dance fragment (a Ländler?) suggested neo-Mahlerian affinity to and alienation from Nature. The slow introduction to the finale seemed both connected to and yet something that had moved on from the world of the slow movement. Chorale music again soon flowered. The fast ‘main’ section showed an analogous (perhaps) affinity with the first movement. Again, it proved highly rhythmical and especially concerned with musical process; perhaps even the material itself was similar. In essence, this was a ‘traditional’ moto perpetuo, which then dissolved into a slow coda, which clearly spoke of sadness, shading into desolation. Apparent resolution (disconcertingly close, to my ears, to the world of Arvo Pärt, bells and all) was, mercifully, questioned at the last.


Having spent the previous week or so in Bayreuth, I had the opportunity with the Wesendonck-Lieder, here in Felix Mottl’s familiar orchestration, to begin to ween myself off Wagner for a little while. There is nothing wrong with Mottl’s version, but I could not help wishing that Henze’s had instead been chosen; on the other hand, Mottl’s intimations of Strauss had their own logic in this particular context. Making her Proms debut, Elisabeth Kulman, always an admirable artist, proved a fine choice as soloist: the ‘instrumental’ quality to her voice adding, in a typically Wagnerian dialectic, to the blend of words and music.


‘Der Engel’, opening, sounded very much as a Lied, as it should, even if one with undeniable ‘operatic’ connections. Tristan und Isolde was inescapably close at times, but not repressively so. Kulman’s word-led approach here and elsewhere reminded us of Wagner’s priorities here (not so in Tristan, of course). The angelic, almost Straussian quality to the orchestra was judged to perfection by Bychkov and his players. ‘Stehe still!’ had a different character: more dramatic, with vocal delivery taking us closer to the world of Die Walküre, never more so than in the first half of the final stanza, eye drinking blissfully from eye, and so forth. (Think of Wotan and Brünnhilde, if you will.) Bychkov took his time, quite rightly, and the conclusion proved properly radiant. ‘Im Treibhaus’ took us to Tristan-land proper, yet still with an element of distance; this is a song with its own concerns, not an excerpt. Kulman’s vocal colouring proved just the thing, very much with its own instrumental quality, as mentioned above. There was some especially wonderful viola playing – both solo and as a section – to enjoy too, likewise woodwind playing of Tristan-esque malevolence. ‘Schmerzen’ had a not un-Straussian autumnal glow to it, albeit on a smaller scale. Finally, ‘Träume’ returned us from autumn to a summer evening, its opening pregnant with Tristan-esque possibility, disciplined by the words and their implied structuring capability. Balm and eroticism proved two sides of the same Wagnerian coin.


Strauss’s giant symphonic poem had the second half to itself. Bychkov’s reading flowed beautifully, sometimes quickly indeed; at the same time, he was not remotely afraid to hold back where necessary. If the opening sections were perhaps a little too closely defined in themselves, that should not be exaggerated. The Night in which the work opens was clear, directed: no lazy murkiness here. The BBC SO’s strings sounded voluptuous indeed as our journey gathered pace. Off-stage, Tannhäuser-plus horns thrilled: not just ‘materially’, but with a Nietzschean sense that that materiality might also too be spiritual. This is a symphony, after all, for the Anti-Christ. The forest proved darkly inviting, Bychkov alert to the detail of its beauties, without ever lapsing into pedantry. A post-Mozartian grace to the meadows was especially welcome, offering both contrast to and context for the Zarathustra-like grandeur and ambiguity to the greatest climax of all. As darkness began to fall, before the storm itself, tension could be felt, just as, or almost as, in ‘real life’. So too could the force of the storm, albeit with the detachment of an audience member rather than an actual participant. It was, inevitably, though the Epilogue (Karajan once claimed to conduct the work for this alone) that brought tears to the eyes, exquisite woodwind playing an especial joy. It lingered, as it must: never quite enough, for Strauss is just as sure a dramatist here as in his operas. After which, the darkness into which his world was falling, as is ours.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (6) - Götterdämmerung, 25 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Markus Eiche
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Hagen – Stephen Milling
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Gutrune – Allison Oakes
Waltraute – Marina Prudenskaya
First Norn, Flosshilde – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Second Norn, Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Third Norn – Christiane Kohl
Woglinde – Alexandra Steiner

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)


It would be a poor excuse for a Ring that did not change those taking part in it, whatever their roles – and that includes, or should include, members of the audience. Frank Castorf’s Ring of 2016 vintage will, I suspect, most likely prove to have changed me more than most. There remains an abiding irony that the two greatest live Ring performances I have heard have been concert stagings: both, believe it or not, at the highly unpromising venue of the Royal Albert Hall, under Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim. I shall not even claim that I felt something was missing on either of those occasions, since I did not. It was, though; one does not have to be a crazed ‘authenticist’ to believe that, ideally, opera should be staged. An excellent staging, moreover, is all the more likely, at least in many cases, radically to transform one’s understanding of a work and its possibilities. For all its flaws, which I should neither wish to exaggerate nor to ignore, Castorf’s Ring has accomplished that in spades for me. Many of the intriguing ideas hovering, sometimes more than that, in 2014 have more fully come of age. Some, perhaps especially in Götterdämmerung, have yet properly to do so. This has clearly become, though, a striking achievement for Bayreuth.


There is, however, another signal irony to mention: Castorf, it seems, has washed his hands of the production, dissatisfied with certain of the conditions in which he had to work. Quite when the changes took place, I cannot say, since I did not see the production in 2015. I think it is only fair, however, to credit Patric Seibert, not only the production’s Everyman, but Castorf’s assistant, who has remained with the staging, as well as the rest of the production team. This thought must remain speculative, but it seems quite possible that it took some distancing from Castorf to achieve a more satisfactory dialectic between engagement with and alienation from, even criticism of, Wagner’s work. Perhaps that may even be owed to Seibert’s engagement onstage with Wagner’s characters, whom Castorf himself may, at least initially, have underestimated. Whatever the precise truths concerning responsibility may be, however, we should celebrate both the achievement in itself and the reminder that opera is of its very essence a collaborative effort. Wagner, his near-superhuman efforts as provider of words and music notwithstanding, knew that very well. He did not, after all, conduct the Ring at Bayreuth, knowing that he had more than enough on his plate supervising the production. Perhaps more importantly still, he was deeply dissatisfied with the results, offering those concerned and us his celebrated exhortation, well heeded by Castorf et al.: ‘Kinder, macht neues!’


There is apocalyptic atmosphere aplenty in this grand denouement. The Norns’ cosmic tittle-tattle gains both in portentousness and in gossip-quality as they and their strange costumes – somehow both redolent of extravagance and of bag-lady existence – make their way across the stage and into a little shrine, whose function remains mysterious in its apparent meaningless. The end of the world is truly nigh, it seems. Writing on Patrice Chéreau’s legendary Bayreuth production, Günter Metken spoke of Valhalla as ‘no longer the undamaged place it once was,’ with ‘something of the unhealthy air of Venice … It is one of those choice apparitions of death conjured up by the previous [nineteenth] century, in order to repress the rapacity of daily life.’ He went on to liken the entry of the gods into Valhalla to a tableau vivant of Bruegel’s Parable of the blind — astute commentary upon both Chéreau and Wagner. It also seems rather well to fit both this Götterdämmerung, and perhaps even its relationship to Chéreau as well as to Wagner.


‘The people’, or whatever we want to call them, have not, hitherto, been entirely absent from this Ring. Indeed, their intriguing inclusion, not only in the person of Seibert’s character, but also on video (think, for instance, of the community in Die Walküre’s Azerbaijan), and its collision with a world of cruel gods, dwarves, heroes, and so on, has proved an important device not only of alienation, not only of ‘relevance’, of Aktualität, but also of dramatic interaction between those ‘kinds’ of being Wotan would rather keep apart. They are nevertheless far more present here; such, after all, is the nature of the work, in which the grand opéra chorus, as well as certain other Meyerbeerian phenomena, is triumphantly reinstated, aufgehoben. Part of the question posed seems, at least insofar as I understand, to be a classic Marxist, and indeed more generally socialist, one. In a world of abundance, the genuine achievement of the bourgeois mode of production, how can we achieve redistribution? The world can feed itself, can provide for the needs of its inhabitants, many times over, and yet does not. Hence, I think, the importance here of food. As my friend and former pupil, Sam Goodyear has pointed out to me, Wotan has previously proved conspicuous in his wastefulness. What does he care if he orders several times over at the Alexanderplatz café in Siegfried? Money is no object.


Yet there are many, labouring under the yoke of Wagner’s multiple post-Feuerbachian divinites – the state, capital, religion, power, etc., even ‘love’ – for whom the denial of food, and indeed the denial of other necessities and freedoms, most certainly does. So long as the Gibichung regime provides for the people, it seems that Gunther and Hagen will have their loyalty; and the frantic nature of provision as the crowd is worked up by Hagen in the Vassals’ Scene seems suggestive both of the relationship, increasingly stretched, between supply and demand, and of dangerously fascistic frenzy, such as we see increasingly on our streets in a Trumpist, Faragist, burkini-prohibiting world. The petty flags of different ‘nations’ underpin the violence as members of the crowd set upon each other and, perhaps most crucially, the poor Everyman who must serve them, perhaps echoing, even if unknowingly, the brutal treatment of the Migrant from Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960. Video both relays the action and invite others, us included, to take pornographic pleasure in watching the goings-on, just as we do with ‘the news’. When the Rhinemaidens find the body of the murdered Everyman, and put him in the boot of their car, the end seems closer still, which, of course, it is. Their mermaid seduction of all three men, Siegfried, Gunther, and even Hagen, pleasuring them in that same car, makes a chilling point of decadence.


There are still certain parts of the drama, as I implied, which seem to me to work less well, with Aleksander Denić’s magnificent set designs being relied on to do a little too much of the work for themselves. The temperature drops, or at least seemed to me on this occasion to do so, for the Waltraute scene, Castorf’s impatience with Wagner’s Romantic heritage a little too prominent in the mix. And even the final scene has something of a provisional air to it at times, although it was now strongly assisted by a commanding performance from Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde. For the most part, however, a greater willingness for characters to perform their role in a greater dramatic whole, as well, perhaps, as a greater ability from a number of them to perform that role, has led to a significantly more impressive achievement.


Foster’s Brünnhilde now seemed to own the stage, equally at ease with the demands of character and production. Stefan Vinke, moreover, offered a huge improvement over Lance Ryan. The latter could act but, to put it bluntly, could not sing the part. Vinke accomplished both, even though there were understandable signs of strain at times (especially, though, early on, so it was perhaps as much a hangover from Siegfried as anything else).  Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, an excellent Gunther indeed, found a worthy successor in Markus Eiche: darkly dangerous, no mere pushover, with violent tendencies of his own, intriguingly internalised more than externalised, nowhere more so than at the end of the second act. Stephen Milling’s Hagen initially sounded slightly on the gentle side, but quickly grew into the role – or my assumptions died away. One sensed both sadism but underlying fear too: this was anything but a one-dimensional reading. Allison Oakes’s Gutrune was very well sung, also treading well the thin line between manipulator and manipulated. As I said, I missed a degree of dramatic engagement in the scene with Marina Prudenskaya’s Waltraute, but think that may have been as much a matter of the production as anything else; it was certainly not something I could put my finger on, in what was an accomplished performance.


If Siegfried were the highlight of Marek Janowski’s reading of the score, then there was nothing to complain about in Götterdämmerung. The strange balances heard in both Das Rheingold and, to a lesser extent, in Die Walküre, were gone. There was, moreover, in general a fine sense of ebb and flow, Janowski unafraid to relax as well as to push forward. There were times when I longed for a stronger sense of the orchestral ‘voice’ as Greek Chorus reimagined, but that was a matter of degree. Towards the end of the first act and at the beginning of the second, there was a sense of coasting, of the orchestral temperature dropping somewhat, but again I should not wish to exaggerate. There was much to admire in Janowski’s navigation – and it was, after all, only his first year at Bayreuth, a theatre and acoustic with very specific difficulties. Both orchestra and chorus should be highly praised for their achievements; they, as much as anyone else, were crucial contributors to a truly challenging Ring. The final, distinctly unsettling feeling, mixed with the exhilaration of the conclusion of such an experience, was much as Boulez, at work on in this work in this theatre, said it should be: ‘Wagner refuses any conclusion as such, simply leaving us with the premisses for a conclusion that remains shifting and indeterminate in meaning.’


Bayreuth Festival (5) - Parsifal, 24 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Amfortas – Ryan McKinny
Titurel – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Gurnemanz – Georg Zeppenfeld
Parsifal – Klaus Florian Vogt
Klingsor – Gerd Grochowski
Kundry – Elena Pankratova
First Knight of the Grail – Tansel Akzeybek
Second Knight of the Grail – Timo Riihonen
Squires – Alexandra Steiner, Mareike Morr, Charles Kim, Stefan Heibach
Flowermaidens – Anna Siminska, Katharina Persicke, Mareike Morr, Alexandra Steiner, Bele Kumberger, Ingeborg Gillebo
Contralto solo – Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Gisbert Jäkel (set designs)
Jessica Karge (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Gérard Naziri (video)
Richard Lorber (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)


Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal – perhaps the greatest staging of any opera I have ever seen (reviewed here, here, and here) – was always going to be a difficult act to follow. Katharina Wagner showed considerable boldness, to put it mildly, in planning to have Herheim’s production succeeded by one from the performance artist and painter, Jonathan Meese, entirely untested as an opera director, although he had designed the sets for Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysus in Salzburg, in 2010. The plug was pulled on that plan for financial reasons; or so it was said. Goodness knows what Meese’s Parsifal might have been; I tend to agree with Tom Service that it was ‘a shame … whatever else, it sure wouldn’t have been stultifying or conventional’. All is not entirely lost on that front, though, for a ‘new Parsifal opera’, seemingly deconstructionist yet nevertheless mythological, by Bernhard Lang will be directed by Meese next year in Vienna (at the Festwochen, I hasten to add, not at the State Opera!)


By contrast, I am afraid to say that all has been lost on the Bayreuth front with this new production by Uwe Erich Laufenberg. (And lest excuses be made about shortness of preparation time, it is actually a production originally intended for Cologne, which never materialised there.) Whilst I cannot say that earlier productions of Laufenberg’s I have seen, a Dresden Rosenkavalier and a Vienna Elektra, had proved earth-shattering, they were both intelligently put together, coherent, and with plenty of theatrical interest. None of that could be claimed of a production which is, to return to what Service said Meese would not have been, above all stultifying. Indeed, this may well be the most boring staging of the work I have seen in the theatre; take away its attempt at contemporary ‘relevance’, it might as well have been by Wolfgang Wagner or Otto Schenk. Its premise – seemingly contrived by a nightmare team of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, ‘introducing’ George W. Bush as dramaturge – would have been more offensive still, had it been presented with some degree of coherence; one should, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies.


As it is, I can do no better than quote the opening Terry Eagleton’s magisterial LRB review of a book by the preposterous Dawkins (the review is more than well worth reading in its entirety):

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.


It would be tempting to leave matters there, but alas, I should say something about the production myself, not least to attempt to justify the strong words above. Laufenberg takes us, with as much insensitivity as it would generally be possible, to Iraq. When the curtain opens, part way through the first Prelude, we see what appear to be refugees taking shelter in Monsalvat, which turns out to be a Christian community in war-torn territory. Running across the stage from time to time are some oldiers, presumably American, although I suppose they could be Blairite. Lest we feel unduly sympathetic, however, to people whose country has been invaded and their temple trashed, we learn that they are ‘fanatics’. If only they did not have such silly beliefs – no musician would ever consider the transcendent, would (s)he? – no one would ever have thought of destroying their lives; after all, Iraq was not about oil, was it? And so, in the sole powerful theatrical moment – however dubious – of the whole production, Amfortas is put on to the Cross himself, actually crucified for a while, and made to contribute blood himself to feed the community. Because that is what Iraqi Christians do, is it not? How good of a rational European to point that out to them and to us. The pornographic treatment of Ryan McKinny’s wounded, muscled body, naked, save, bizarrely, for what seems to be a nappy (!), suggests an object of devotion in itself. That might, in other circumstances, have led somewhere; Monsalvat is, after all, a dying community (cf. Dmitri Tcherniakov). Here, one can only presume, we are merely meant to appreciate that these simple folk are not only hopelessly deluded; they are sick perverts too. The rest is vapid nothingness – never more so than in what seems to be a bizarre misunderstanding of ‘Zum Raum wird hier Zeit’, the Transformation Music set to an expensive-looking video that takes us out into space, for an aerial view of the world, prior to homing in on our ‘conflict zone’. Religion, eh: what a terrible thing it is; how stupid it must seem to Martians and to enlightened earth-dwellers.


What to do for the second act? Let us be really brave, speak truth to power, spurn Western imperialism and racism, and have a go at Islam. Klingsor’s Magic Garden seems to be in ISIS-lite-land. Muslims, you see: they are both savages and hypocrites. Klingsor keeps a stash of crucifixes, perhaps stolen from the foolish Christian knights: perhaps he is ‘really’ a Christian himself, or perhaps it is just loot. Who cares? Later on, he flagellates himself (with his clothes on), excited by Kundry’s attempts at seducing Parsifal. There is worse, though, much worse. Soldiers again run across the stage from time to time; Parsifal, it turns out, is one of them. Being an American soldier of course means that he must be in the right. The Flowermaidens come onstage, hijab- or niqab-clad. (I do not think there was anyone with a full burka, but could not bring myself to look too closely.) Parsifal is not interested. They come back, having shed their modesty; interested he most certainly now is, and the Arab world is what it should be, an ‘exotic’ fantasy playground for white heterosexual men. So, having essentialised women’s bodies, reminded us  what they are really for, and having shown us what Islam is really about (probably even worse than Christianity, and equally lacking in subtlety, depth, or difference), we can sit back and endure a theatrically inert seduction. Amfortas – has the poor soul not suffered enough? – joins as a spectator, because otherwise we should not understand that he has some connection with what is unfolding. For anyone who might care, Parsifal makes no sign of the Cross at the end; I genuinely have no opinion whether that were a good or bad thing in context.


If there were at least some ‘offence interest’, however trivial, in the first two acts, the third commits, pretty much without exception, the ultimate sin of inducing boredom. Members of three faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, get together, realise that they are all the same really, sing Kum ba yah (well not actually, but they may as well have done), and all is well; perhaps they will no longer even be refugees. En route to that revelation and revolution, we see some liberated (that is, naked) erstwhile Islamic Flowermaidens; relieved of their Islam, they are now able to show kindness to an elderly Kundry. Charity, of course, begins outside ‘religion’. Kundry and Gurnemanz take turns in a wheelchair, although the former seems quite sprightly the rest of the time: what a fraud! The final scene continues the eradication of theology: would it not be a grand thing indeed if we were to follow suit?


Musically, things were much better, although not good enough to offer ample compensation; that may, in any case, have been too much to ask. Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting was efficient; he clearly knew the score, but offered little beyond that. His briskness was, perhaps, in these particular circumstances, no bad thing; would we really have wished to linger? In the lead up to the Good Friday Music, however, the tempo was so absurdly fast that even that potential virtue was lost. Speeds in themselves are of little interest here; both Pierre Boulez and Daniele Gatti have had much to tell us about the work. But being fast is not a good in itself, any more than being slow might be. Far too often, the score seemed merely to be skated over. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra played, as one might have expected, very well indeed, but was too often subdued and harried by its conductor. Although much better in the third act, and impressive in heft throughout, the chorus, to my surprise, proved somewhat erratic of intonation during the first act.


At least the singing was good, in two cases outstanding, those two cases being McKinny’s Amfortas and Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz. Both showed something very close to the ideal musico-dramatic alchemy between words and music, heightening the meaning and impact of both. Zeppenfeld’s heroic stint at Bayreuth – I have seen him in the Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal! – must be regarded as one of this year’s great successes at the Festival. Reactions to Klaus Florian Vogt tend to focus on whether people like or dislike his highly controversial voice. It seems to me considerably better suited to Lohengrin than to Parsifal, but, on its own terms, Vogt’s performance was highly commendable. If the results were sometimes bland, at least to my ears, it is always a relief simple to hear a tenor capable of singing a Wagner role. Like McKinny and Zeppenfeld, Vogt can act too; so can Elena Pankratova, as one really noticed in the third act, when she has next to nothing to sing. If only the acting skills of all could have been put to better use. Whilst Pankratova’s vocal performance was sometimes a little wayward, it was nevertheless capable of thrilling beyond the more obviously histrionic passages, and often drew one with considerable subtlety to listen. Karl-Heinz Lehner and Gerd Grochowski offered laudable performances as Titurel and Klingsor respectively; so did a fine bunch, as it were, of Flowermaidens, likewise our Knights and Squires.


Who on earth (or beyond it?) the man seated above the stage, his back turned to us, may have been we never did find out. God? Wagner? Jonathan Meese? One had long since ceased to care. Perhaps we should let Meese have the next-to-last words: ‘Richard Wagner ist, wie Meese, ein Kunstfanatiker mit dem Tunnelblick K.U.N.S.T. Richard Wagner ist keine Ersatzreligion, Richard Wagner ersetzt alle Religionen. Richard Wagner ist die Machterzergreifung KUNST, Meese's Parsifal ist Kunstherrschaft. Meese dient dem Richard Wagner ohne Falsch.’ One does not have to agree, or even to understand, to sense that Meese might have offered something more engaging, perhaps even something more sympathetic towards Wagner’s complex relationships with theology and religion. Nach Wien, then…

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (4) - Siegfried, 23 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Mime – Andreas Conrad
Wanderer – John Lundgren
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Fafner – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Woodbird – Ana Durlovski

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)

Mea culpa. I am by now convinced that this Ring has been far more strongly presented than it was when I saw it in 2014. (I have kept to my resolution not yet to re-read my earlier reviews, but shall do so once my visit to the festival is over.) Everything is tighter; revisions to the productions have been entirely to their benefit; the cast is much stronger, vocally and otherwise; the director seems less hostile to, although not necessarily less critical of, Wagner; and so on. And yet, the difference in my response cannot, I think, be explained away entirely in such terms; even if it can, I should rather err on the side of generosity. I am happy, then, to say that I owe Frank Castorf an apology.

Viewed overall, it was this Siegfried’s epic scope, quite in keeping not only with Wagner’s vision but with so many other dramatic works too, that struck me most of all. The word ‘journey’ has so been so debased by the lucrative language of ‘self-help’ – in some cases, in more than one literal sense – that it is perhaps too late to use it non-ironically; indeed, after Castorf, it is perhaps too late to view the Ring without some degree, at least, of irony. But the tale of the boy who learns what fear receives as probing and, in many respects, as sympathetic a treatment as I have seen for quite some time. There is no doubt of the distance both he and we have travelled by the close – and there is genuine (neo-Feuerbachian?) hope to be experienced, especially at the ends of the second and third acts. It is not hope that is unalloyed; nor should it be. (Listen to the words in the nihilistic ecstasy of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s duet, if you doubt me; listen also to the disturbing contrapuntal virtuosity of Wagner’s music there, both attempting, so it seems, to conceal and yet to celebrate the terrifying, pyromaniacal marriage of Bakunin and Schopenhauer.) But it celebrates, as did Marek Janowski, in what proved unquestionably his strongest performance so far, the very particular character of what, for once, truly emerged as, according to the cliché, the ‘scherzo’ of the Ring: less of a cliché, if one considers, post-Beethoven, what that might actually mean, both for Wagner and for us. If the Wagnerian hero would be a Hegelian, world-historical figure, responding to contemporary necessity; so must our (anti)hero be. For, as Feuerbach pointed out, ‘God did not become man for his own sake’; nor do we produce the Ring solely for Wagner’s.


Aleksandar Denić’s sets remain a thing of wonder – and wonder is surely an epic quality in itself. The sublimity – gone right, or gone wrong? both and neither? – of the alternative Mount Rushmore backdrop reminds us that much is at stake. Irony need not be ornamental: ask Heine. As Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao look down on us, as we look up to (or down on?) them, as occasionally their faces metamorphose into those of others, unreliable narration kicks in once again: do we know the newcomers, both here and on video, or not? Is this actually, then, an alternative historical path? Can we, as Wotan still wishes, at least some of the time, avert Götterdämmerung – or, perhaps worse still, a return to the non-golden-age of the Golden Motel. What is intervention? Is it desirable, or even possible? As with the shocking golden concealment of Freia – and it was, for me, impossible not to hark back to that moment – the machine-gun brutality of Siegfried’s murder of Mime truly terrifies, truly casts its shadow. As the riddles, the narrations, play themselves out, Wagner plays along; or rather leads us – and the production. Does it mean anything, then, when Wotan rejects Fate (Erda)? Or has that idea been (rightly or wrongly) jettisoned? There are no easy answers, or indeed perhaps any answers at all, just as in the Ring.


But Wotan rejects Erda not in that location, of course; he rejects her on the other side of the revolving set, the extraordinary recreation – well, knowingly unfaithful creation – of Alexanderplatz, first seen, if I remember correctly, which is not necessarily the case, as a playground for Fafner and his floozies. It is at least as much a thing of beauty as the other side of the dialectical wall (or even Wall). And, crucially, like that other side, yet also unlike it, it is, as stations and their surroundings tend to be, a place of liminality. Whether or no we may salvage the idea and the experience of a ‘journey’, we seem fated, Wanderer-like, to remain in transit. We find meaning and meaninglessness in Everyman Patric Seibert’s activities, whether as house-animal-cum-servant chez Mime, the Nibelheim van pressed back into service, or as waitor-cum-post-office-manager in the mysteriously empty – in more than one sense – proceedings in East (is there even a West?) Berlin.

I did not regret the loss of the more excessive spaghetti-founded activities in the first scene of the third act. I most certainly did appreciate Erda’s varied reprise of her Rheingold actions. Having worried, with her assistant on film, about which wig to wear during the Prelude, she disappears and changes it for her final exorcism and/or intensification of Wotan’s Rheingold possession, consensual or otherwise, of her – which, amongst other things, may well, through the creation of Brünnhilde, have enabled the rest of the action to unfold. What had previously seemed to me – rightly or wrongly, in the context of the 2014 production – arbitrary, even plain silly, now seemed charged with meaning. Returning to the scene, unquestionably ‘up for it’, Erda asks us difficult questions about what we should do, faced with a god, or a God. Just as our politicians will fellate the nearest banker without a moment’s thought, so does she get to work – and so does Wotan contemptuously slip his banknotes where one might expect. Her final finger-gesture to our hapless waiter as he returns for his payment is a splendid gesture: again rich in both potential meaning and meaninglessness. Ditto the now ‘traditional’ addition to the now five-strong crocodile community. What, two years ago, to me seemed a mere scenic backdrop – or, at least some of the time, did so – is now crucial to the drama.


Janowski’s conducting, as I mentioned above, came much more into its own. Perhaps that personal impression of mine is owed, at least in part, to a long-term strategy on the conductor’s part. Many conductors, after all, present Das Rheingold in buttoned-up, almost frigid fashion. Nevertheless, there is, I think, more to it than that. The greater sense of ebb and flow, of harmonic ‘depth’ – yes, I know it is a nineteenth-century, Germanic, ideological construction, but is no less useful for that – was palpable and, more to the point, dramatically productive. Balances were much less problematical too. If wind instruments often, although not always, came to the fore, there is nothing wrong with that. There is arguable Beethovenian warrant for it; and we want to hear, of course, as much as is possible. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra now, for the first time, seemed very much to be the same orchestra – if not necessarily quite so consistently – as that I had heard for Thielemann’s Tristan. Pacing, whether longer- or shorter-term could not really be faulted; it may not always have been how I imagine it in my head, but that is neither here nor there.


The cast was excellent too – and here, I think, we may come to the core of why I found this Siegfried so much more convincing than I had before. Lance Ryan’s Siegfried, however adept on stage, had been excruciating vocally; Stefan Vinke gave the most convincing vocal performance I have heard from him in quite some time, clearly benefiting from not having to force his voice to fill an absurdly large theatre. He entered into the stage proceedings with equal commitment too. As with the previous night’s Tristan, ‘untiring’ should not be understood here as a euphemism; pent-up energy spilled carelessly onto the ground, as it must in the case of this rebel without a consciousness. Catherine Foster gave a splendid performance – much more at home in the production, and in the role, than I found her last time – as Brünnhilde. Her problem is not to be untiring but, so late in the evening, to be immediately fresh, dramatically immediate; the problem proved not to be such, simply an opportunity very well taken. One truly felt her transition from immortal to human, its joy as well as its fears.


John Lundgren’s Wotan/Wanderer exceeded even its Walküre promise. His performance, born very much of the detail of Wagner’s poem, equally alert to the implications of its musico-dramatic flowering, was one for the sagas – mediæval and contemporary. Albert Dohmen’s highly intelligent portrayal of Alberich was spot on: as quicksilver in momentary response as it was determined by what had gone before. His verbal acuity was shared, responded to, by Andreas Conrad’s Mime: a brother-in-arms indeed. Karl-Heinz Lehner’s Fafner was just as sinister and, intriguingly, just as darkly, dangerously attractive as what we had seen and heard his Rheingold incarnation. What we lost in rentier sloth, we gained in other respects. Nadine Weissmann retained and developed that wonderful sense of musico-dramatic ‘presence’ from the earlier drama. And Ana Durlovski’s carnivalesque Woodbird came across – rightly, in the spirit of the production – as more woman than voice of Nature. I may be nearing the moment of a mea maxima culpa.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Tristan und Isolde, 22 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Petra Lang
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke - Georg Zeppenfeld
Melot – Raimund Nolte
Brangäne – Christa Mayer
Shepherd – Tansel Akzeybek
Steersman – Kay Stiefermann

Katharina Wagner (director)
Frank Philipp Schlößmann, Matthias Lippert (set designs)
Thomas Kaiser (costumes)
Daniel Weber (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)


Let me summarise the case for Katharina Wagner’s defence; in this production, that is, rather than more generally. It is certainly better than her Meistersinger, although its problems are not dissimilar in quality. Nothing is downright embarrassing: remember those shoes being thrown all over the place for several minutes, because, well, because Hans Sachs is a cobbler (who nevertheless does not wear shoes himself), or a child-from-the-Stolzing-future requiring a lavatory break during the Quintet? This time, at least, it seems that the characters are doing what they are supposed (by the director) to be doing; there has clearly been progress made in terms of the director’s craft.


There are, moreover, several visually striking aspects to the mise-en-scène, for which designers Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert certainly deserve credit. In some cases, although not all, they point to engagement with and a welcome critical standpoint with respect to the drama. The first act’s setting in a labyrinth, full of dead ends and other pitfalls, persistently – yet not entirely successfully – preventing the lovers from meeting presents a striking metaphor. That for the second act, in which Tristan and Isolde are constantly under King Marke’s surveillance, cruel, harsh spotlighting directed from above, initially makes its point well, taking on board Wagner’s Day/Night antithesis, and extending it, even questioning it. This is clearly a cruel world indeed; it may be understood politically, psychologically, or in both ways. The darkness of the third act is again visually attractive, and the images in which Isolde appears – I wondered to begin with whether something was being done with the white hands of legend, but then thought not – are again striking, even if their framing stands perhaps a little too close for comfort to Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden triangles. Tristan’s interaction with these empty ragdolls of his imagination is sensitively accomplished, although somewhat repetitive after a while. And the revisionist view of King Marke – yes, of course it is at odds with the surface of the text, but is it so very wrong to question, from time to time, its ideological basis and assumptions – is in itself welcome. His dragging Isolde off at the close, transfiguration clearly an idle, Romantic delusion, duly chills.


For the fundamental problem, however, is not so dissimilar to that of the hapless Meistersinger. Whilst there are striking images and ideas – in some instances at least, one presumes, dramaturge, Daniel Weber should at least share the credit for the latter – very little, at least until that striking conclusion, is really done with them; or, in some cases, too much of little import is done with them. I am all for an audience having to do some thinking for itself; a production that fails to accomplish that is unworthy of the name. Nevertheless, it seems to me, that there is a world of difference between, say, Frank Castorf’s Ring (at least so far, in revised fashion, as seen in 2016) and a staging (which may well, of course, undergo significant revision of its own in the future) in which the first act is made up more or less entirely of people running around, platforms being raised and lowered, and, on a couple of occasions, Tristan and Isolde are all over each other. Similarly for the stylised torture-medical (?) paraphernalia of the second act. Melot’s murder of Tristan, entirely without agency on the part of the latter, might have been suggestive; as it was, however, it came across as merely ‘different’ for the sake of it. If it were not for the striking designs – less happily striking in the hideous yellow costumes of Marke and his men – it would not be so very different from the most conventional, ‘traditional’ production. Although the screams of one audience member as I left the theatre – ‘They’ve changed the ending! You can’t change the ending! You can’t change the ending!’ – left me feeling more sympathetic with Katharina Wagner’s production than I might otherwise have done, having upset a person seemingly possessed of no critical abilities whatsoever is not in itself enough.


There is not really very much being said, then, whilst, at the same time, Wagner’s insistence – and I have yet to see it properly contradicted, on stage, in practice – that this is a metaphysical drama, majestically unconcerned with the ephemera of external representation, goes sadly unacknowledged. For, when condensing the action of Tristan und Isolde into a few words for Mathilde Wesendonck, the composer, in full Schopenhauerian flow, did not even mention Marke’s forgiveness (which is perhaps not so very important, then, to undercut). The action, he suggested, as much by omission as by commission, was not really of this phenomenal world at all; even Tristan’s agonies went unmentioned upon the way to ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ (Erlösung: Tod, Sterben, Untergehen, Nichtmehrerwachen!) Now that need not be taken on trust, although this drama seems curiously, almost uniquely, resistant to attempts to question it on stage; the dots, however, need to be joined up a good deal more convincingly than they are here. Ultimately, what we see becomes tedious – and not in a self-critical, ‘let us consider tedium’ manner.


Fortunately, we were on much, much surer ground musically, permitting metaphysics a not insignificant re-entry to the proceedings. Hearing Christian Thielemann, in the finest Wagner I have heard from him for quite some time, made me realise that I had, in fact, been bending over backwards to excuse the shortcomings of Marek Janowski’s handling of the Ring scores (so far). De facto music director Thielemann has, of course, a huge advantage over Janowski: he has been dealing with the peculiarities of the Bayreuth acoustic – and pit! – for many years; indeed, he conducted Die Meistersinger here on my first visit, in 2000. And so, that fabled Bayreuth sound, more or less entirely absent, whether by design or otherwise, from Janowski’s performances, was once again a real presence amongst us. Perhaps I should say a variety of that fabled sound, for Thielemann tends perhaps to a slightly glossier, even more Straussian, sound than, say, that other fabled Bayreuth Straussian Tristan-master, Karl Böhm.


Beneath the surface, though – and what a glorious surface it was, all the more so for Thielemann’s not un-Barenboim-like willingness to let Debussy-tilting woodwind have their say too – there was undoubted rigour. Not only did the orchestra twist and turn, growl and gloat, speak and dissent as his fabled Oper und Drama successor to the chorus of Attic tragedy; it constituted, at least as much as merely representing, the Handlung of Wagner’s designation for the work. It was, I think, a reading of avowedly tonal understanding, such as would have pleased Wagnerian colleagues as distant ideologically from one another as JPE Harper-Scott and Roger Scruton. Schenker would have been proud. In the agonies of the third act, I might prefer something more Schoenbergian, more prepared at least to consider the air of another planet and the way it might criticise the (admittedly) iron-clad tonal structure of the work as a whole. (I think, for instance, of a performance Esa-Pekka Salonen gave with the Philharmonia in 2010.) Not every performance, not even one by Furtwängler, can present all of the potentialities of a Wagner score, though; no one would have been disappointed, or indeed anything other than thrilled, by the work of Thielemann and his orchestra, now back on superlative form.


It is unusual indeed not to find oneself making excuses for a Tristan cast, but there was no need to do so on this occasion. Bayreuth should be in the business of engaging casts to challenge, at the very least, those to be found anywhere else in the world; here it succeeded in doing so. ‘Untiring’ is often, in the Heldentenor world, a part-euphemism for ‘unpleasant, wildly out of tune, but he kept going’; not so in Stephen Gould’s case. Gould was able to put that ability to pace himself to thoroughly musical use, shaping his phrases with care, with dramatic meaning, in most cases equally careful with his words. The clarity of Petra Lang’s diction came and went, but hers was a powerfully dramatic reading, in which the somewhat unusual – for the role – colouring of her voice was relished. Her first-act sarcasm towards Brangäne, flouncingly acted as much as sung, was very different from that of, say, Birgit Nilsson, but made its point. I was less keen on the broken phrasing of the opening of her (non-)Verklärung, but it seemed to be part of a genuine effort to point to words as well as music.


Christa Mayer was as fine a Brangäne as I can recall hearing, wide of dynamic range and colour, unfailing sympathetic (perhaps especially when Isolde did not wish to hear). Iain Paterson seemed more at home with Kurwenal than the Rheingold Wotan, not that there was anything to complain about in his portrayal of the latter. This was a trustworthy, kind, unfailingly human servant and (failed) friend. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Marke proved as distinguished, at least, as his Hunding the previous night, exhibiting many similar musico-dramatic virtues. Zeppenfeld’s delivery of the second-act monologue was in no sense hampered by the director’s unsympathetic view of his character. Quite the contrary; potential difficulty was transformed into meaningful dramatic counterpoint. Tansel Akzeybek, whose Froh I had previously found uncommonly sweetly sung, offered similar pleasures in the twin roles of the Young Sailor and the Shepherd; I hope to hear more from him. Music, then, redeemed the work, or rather the production. Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum was, more or less, reinstated as such.