Monday, 16 October 2017

Pelléas et Mélisande, Komische Oper, 15 October 2017

Komische Oper, Berlin

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Mélisande (Nadja Mchantaf)

Arkel – Jens Larsen
Golaud – Günter Papendell
Pelléas – Domink Köninger
Geneviève – Nadine Weissmann
Yniold – Gregor-Michael Hoffmann
Mélisande – Nadja Mchanthaf
Doctor, Shepherd – Samuli Taskinen

Barrie Kosky (director)
Klaus Grünberg (set designs, lighting)
Anne Kuhn (set designs)
Dinah Ehm (costumes)
Johanna Wall (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Jordan de Souza (conductor)


And still they come. I went a good few years, a good few too many years, without seeing Pelléas et Mélisande in the theatre. More recently, I have seen several productions, every one of which has had something different to tell me, some different way of moving me – whilst all remaining very much faithful to what, in idealist metaphysical mode, I might term the inviolate spirit of the work. I might not, of course, but perhaps the temptation to do so tells us something about Pelléas and not just about me. Like Tristan und Isolde – another of the relatively small number of works Barrie Kosky said he was determined to direct, and has also ticked off – there seems to be no point in trying to turn Pelléas into something that it is not; like Tristan, there seems relatively little to do; like Tristan, it seems quite resistant to many typical directorial interventions. None of those is necessarily a categorical statement; such would be bizarre. (Indeed, such might make me something akin to a fevered writer for the Revue wagnérienne. Whatever my failings and/or eccentricities, I am not sure that I am quite there yet.) If something works, it works; and, like many, I can hardly wait to see what Stefan Herheim, present in the audience last night, will do with Debussy’s sole completed opera next year at Glyndebourne.

I shall have to, though, as shall we all. Barrie Kosky’s new production for the Komische Oper certainly proved plenty to keep us going in the meantime. Not, of course, that we should view it in anything other than its estimable own right. At its heart stands Arkel’s Allemonde castle. It is evoked clearly, claustrophobically, chillingly, and perhaps above all, simply. At the centre of the stage, concentric circles turn to reveal something that is always the same, moving yet not moving, just like the characters it transports. There is no way out; nor does anyone, save of course for Mélisande, seek one. (Whether Pelléas does in the opera is a moot point; I do not think he does here. Indeed he remains in the gallery of frozen souls, not unlike a Bluebeard collection, at the close: dead, yes, but was he, were they, always so? What on earth, or beyond, might it mean to be alive here?) Characters move simply, repetitively, if not quite so repetitively, certainly not with such meaninglessness, as in Christiane Pohle’s Munich production (roundly dismissed, I am tempted to suggest misogynistically, by ignorant journalists and audiences alike, but an unforgettable piece of post-Beckettian theatre). Parallels are drawn, easily discerned, given the essential simplicity of the pared-down action; for instance, Mélisande’s arms, her form as yet unseen, encircle – irony here, ‘Ne me touchez pas!’, doubled when it becomes clear quite how fearful she is of being touched – Pelléas at the opening of their final scene together just as they had Golaud at the start. She touches both, though barely. What is she doing? Finding her way? Through fear? Through the forest? Through a miserable, impossible life?

Mélisande's arms encircling Golaud ((Günter Papendell)

And there is no doubting her abuse. The fear is palpable, great tribute to the extraordinary performance given by Nadja Mchantaf, a worthy successor to her Rusalka for the same company and director. In context, many similar themes emerged, for that too had proved a highly concentrated piece of musical drama on Kosky’s – and everyone else’s – part. The fear is well-founded too, for in this world of highly damaged, highly damaging people, Mélisande will suffer horrendous violence. She has done before: you can see it in her eyes. Indeed, Mchantaf’s acting alone would be worthy of any stage: not, of course, that it really makes sense here to speak of ‘acting alone’. When she and Pelléas finally have their moment of sexual congress, she shows her ‘enjoyment’; but is that just what she has learned? Is that, in a sense, what many women have learned? What does it mean to be penetrated by the male gaze, as well as otherwise, on stage? Golaud’s quite shocking violence towards this heavily pregnant woman, his wife, the mother of ‘his’ child, having discovered her with his brother, now dead, is all the more shocking for taking its leave within a general increase of violence – which here seems to mean much the same as ‘action’ – following the interval. The gears of ‘fate’ grind, following relative nothingness. Yet what does it mean for us to label them as ‘fate’? Are we not thereby abdicating responsibility? Blood tells its own story, not just, or even principally, of childbirth, although it certainly includes that. We remember that disturbing moment, earlier on, when Mélisande had laughed childishly with Pelléas, at throwing away – here swallowing – her ring. Again, we both fall upon ideas of fate, and know that we should not. The final turning of the set’s concentric circles, the final display of things just as they always were, yet worse, brings the curtain down. The curtain, having been there all along, reminds us that our aestheticisation of such deeds is at least part of the problem; or at least, it is in itself unlikely to prove to be a solution. Does a performance of Pelléas make us in the audience better people? Who knows? Probably not, however. Things carry on as they always did.

Golaud, Pelléas (Dominik Köninger), Mélisande

If Mchantaf were, perhaps necessarily, first among equals, then that should be taken in its fullest, dialectical sense. Yet again, the Komische Oper under Kosky’s Intendanz – this certainly includes the work of other directors – showed itself to be a true company. Günther Paperdell and Dominik Köninger showed a near ideal blend of similar physicality – deliriously so at one point, the one almost assuming the role, or rather the behaviour of the other – and of difference, Dinah Ehm’s splendid, simple costumes very much contributing to that dramatic end. Theirs was a dialectical relationship, more strongly so than I can otherwise recall. Jens Larsen’s Arkel proved frighteningly creepy: finely sung, and repellent in his assault of Mélisande, all the more so for his grandfatherly concern. We knew whose rules, doubtless inherited, prevailed in this hopeless patriarchy. Nadine Weissmann’s Geneviève proved deeply compassionate yet – quite rightly – powerless. What could she do? Samuli Taskinen, a member of the Opera Studio, impressed in his small roles. And Gregor-Michael Hoffmann offered a sensational performance as Yniold: crystal clear of tone and words, effortlessly at home, or so it seemed, in a fiendishly difficult role both in work and in performance. It was an extraordinary thing indeed to learn afterwards that this was that outstanding treble’s first role on stage; it will surely not be his last.

Golaud and Yniold (Gregor-Michael Hoffmann)

Of course, so much of the drama, just as in Tristan, in whose waves Pelléas is soaked almost as much as it is as those of Parsifal, lies in the orchestra. It was on splendid form throughout, textures admirably clear yet never too clear. I always find myself in performances of this opera asking myself whether it is a more or less Wagnerian performance; I seem unable not to. The strange thing, however, is that, however different the path taken, the balance between Wagner and not-Wagner seems to end up being about the same; or at least that is so, in a performance worth its salt. This performance certainly was, wisely led by Kapellmeister, Jordan de Souza. There was no doubting his knowledge and understanding of Debussy’s tantalising, treacherous score, nor of his ability to communicate to both orchestra and audience. Again, I look forward to hearing more from him. For ultimately, as always, it is the music of those interludes that lingers longest, most insidiously in my mind. There is something almost evil about it; for it is the music of fate, of Allemonde, perhaps even, at one remove, of the Revue wagnérienne.

Belcea Quartet - Haydn, Ligeti, and Dvořák, 14 October 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4, Hob. III:34
Ligeti: String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Dvořák: String Quartet no.12 in F major, op.96, ‘American’

Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)


The Pierre Boulez Saal’s new chamber music season opened with a concert from the Belcea Quartet. This was for me, I am afraid, something of a case of swings and roundabouts, although I had the distinct impression that my reservations were not shared by the audience at large. At any rate, if it was only really the performance of Ligeti’s First String Quartet that truly convinced me, to hear a fine Ligeti performance is always worth the effort. And more than that, it was lovely to be back in Berlin’s wonderful salle modulable.

I was really rather surprised by the Quartet’s performance of Haydn’s op.20 no.4. This was not a group I had thought of as having been involved in ‘authenticity’, but the performance proved to be very low on vibrato, often without any at all, and generally quite abrasive in style. The very opening of the first movement worked rather well in that sense, I thought: dark and exploratory, almost as if looking forward to late Haydn. However, much of the rest I found too overtly ‘rhetorical’, or better, rhetorical at the expense of a longer line. (Others will clearly have thought differently.) There was much to admire in that, not least the very different ‘characters’ of particular figures, especially as allied to different note values. But overall, I found the performance muted and somewhat restricted in expressive terms. Nevertheless, the second movement sounded beautifully sad, and there was something to be said of the boisterous rusticity of the ‘Menuet alla Zingarese’ and the strong contrast of its trio. Moreover, the finale came off best of all, at least for me: more properly integrative than any other. The complexity of its material certainly came across too. If only that could have been read back, to a certain extent, into the patchier first movement.

Ligeti’s First Quartet was played with a very different, undeniably ‘modern’, if not especially ‘modernist’, tone. It owes much, of course, to Bartók, as we would proceed to hear; but at the beginning, it was Berg and Schoenberg who came at least as strongly to mind in the tortured hyper-Romanticism of the string lines and their paths. This may or may not be ‘mature’ Ligeti; the composer said not. It nevertheless proved anything but predictable, and offered a recognisable anarchism and attendant humour. This was music and performance ‘on the cusp’ in various ways, almost as if it were on the verge of turning into ‘real’ or ‘more real’ Ligeti. It was highly wrought, spellbinding drama, whether overtly violent or sweetly sensuous. Weird remnants of tonality – yes, it is they that are weird here – duly disconcerted, as did that persistent, if not constant, sense of the cusp.

Dvořak’s ‘American’ Quartet opened in impressive, but perhaps somewhat fussy, fashion, the variety of articulation threatening to overwhelm, as in Haydn, a sense of longer line. I very much had the sense that this was a reading that had been rethought, but which had perhaps not quite ‘bedded down’: better that, though, than the merely routine. Formal propulsion was also sometimes missing – in that sense, it would be, without line – and perhaps especially in the first movement. The slow movement sounded more strongly founded, rhythmically and harmonically, and emerged much stronger for it. All solos and duets were beautifully taken; if it were, perhaps, Antoine Lederlin’s cello solos that lodged themselves most deeply in the memory, that is probably more a consequence of Dvořak’s writing than anything else. The third and fourth movements again proved somewhat fussy, although I do not wish to exaggerate. It would be interesting to hear the Belcea Quartet again in this music, perhaps in a year’s time, it only to see whether my suspicions were at all well founded.


Friday, 13 October 2017

The Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic, 12 October 2017


Forester – Gerald Finley
Forester’s Wife – Paulina Malefane
Schoolmaster, Mosquito, Rooster – Burkhard Ulrich
Priest, Badger – Willard White
Hárašta – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Vixen Sharp-Ears – Lucy Crowe
Fox, Crested Hen – Angela Denoke
Pásek – Friedemann Büttner
Mrs Pásková, Lapák the dog – Anna Lapkovskaja
Jay – Lotta Jultmark
Child soloists (in various of the smaller roles) – Anna Damiano, Ève Davillers, Victoria Florczak, Anton Hoppe, Artina Kapreljan, Raphael Küster, Johanna Mielisch, Luise Mielisch, Paul Mielisch, Johann von der Nahmer, Gabriel Pappalardo, Jonas Rattle

Peter Sellars (director)
Ben Zamorsa (lighting)
Nick Hillel (video)

‘Vocal Heroes’ Children’s Chorus from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme
Vocalconsort Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

The best news, and indeed the most important news, is that this performance of The Cunning Little Vixen had clearly proved an invaluable experience for the children on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme. It was not simply a matter of having participated in rehearsals and performance, but of a longer, deeper creative project, ‘MusikPLUS Fabelwesen' (‘Creatures from Fables,’ literally, which in this case probably works better than the more common ‘Mythological Creatures’), which had run from the middle of September until now. Under the artistic guidance of Berlin Philharmonic trombonist, Thomas Leyendecker, singer Judith Kamphues, and pianist Daniel Grote, children from St Paul’s School in Moabit had explored themes, musical and conceptual, from Janáček’s opera, in all manner of ways: music, movement, and so on. They had learned a good deal, it seems, about language too – given their multifarious backgrounds and the Czech of the performance. Splendid stuff then!

There was much to enjoy musically in the performance as performance as well, not least the excellent contribution of the children, whether chorally or as soloists. Mention should be made here of the work of Snezana Nena Brzakovic and Tobias Walenciak in rehearsing the child soloists and children’s chorus respectively. Otherwise, amongst the adults, I felt – not speaking Czech, I can say no more than ‘felt’ – a certain lack of idiom and intrinsic command at times and in certain cases, but nothing too grave. Willard White’s casting seemed odd; his voice is now, sadly, quite hollowed out. Angela Denoke, though, whose performances have proved vocally variable for quite a while, seemed at home in the role of the Fox; her dramatic commitment has never, of course, been in doubt. Lucy Crowe gave a spirited and vocally attentive account of Vixen Sharp-Ears herself. Gerald Finely proved typically thoughtful – if more than usually hamstrung by Peter Sellars’s bizarre collection of production clichés – performance as the Forester: more physical, indeed tortured, than Thomas Allen, say, but none the worse for that. As the Forester’s Wife, Paulina Malefane offered a well-judged balance between the strict and the likeable. Burkhard Ulrich, a justly esteemed Loge and Mime, emerged with great credit in each of his different roles: quite a test in itself.

The Berlin Philharmonic proved more than adept at communicating the changing demands both of the score and of Simon Rattle’s conception of it. The precision and almost Stravinskian (for Rattle) obsessiveness of the opening were balanced, or perhaps better opposed, by a well-nigh Straussian opulence later on, especially at climaxes and the approach to them. Perhaps there was room for something more in the way of mediation between such extremes, but that would be almost to find fault for the sake of it. It was a bold, dramatic orchestral performance, born of longstanding acquaintance with the score on Rattle’s part. There is so much in Janáček’s – frankly – miraculous score: perhaps more than can ever be conveyed, or at least appreciated, in a single performance. No one would have been disappointed by this, though, and I suspect that most would have heard things they had not heard before. Rattle’s role not just as conductor in the traditional sense but as enabler of the activities of children and adults alike showed him at his best: certainly something London has good reason to look forward to.

You felt a ‘but’ coming, dear reader? Of course you did, for it was ‘trailed’ in the second paragraph. This was not Peter Sellars at his very worst: may ENO’s Indian Queen – shudder – retain that title forever. However, it seemed bizarre both in its incoherence and in its often wild inappropriateness for children. ‘Distracting’ is a word so loved of operatic reactionaries that one hesitates to use it at all. However, it seems difficult to avoid doing so, and not worth the effort, with respect to the video screens dotted around the hall. The film had its justification, I suppose, when it showed pictures of ‘real-life’ versions of the animals singing at the time – although might not some small degree of costume or other stage indication have done the job better? Other scenes from nature did no particular harm either, although they showed a tendency, an irrelevant one at that, towards the generic wildlife documentary. The opening video sequence was, shall we say, very school biology class. But what on earth was Sellars thinking of when introducing a confusing – merely confusing, not ‘edgy’, not ‘transgressive’, not ‘daring’ – staged sequence in which the Forester appeared to have taken the Vixen home to have sex with her, sleeping together until discovered by his Wife. The poor Forester – ‘poor’ in terms of what was done to the character, not in terms of his deeds! – appeared then to be permanently traumatised by the whole affair, although the Vixen seemed fine.

Once again then, whatever his intentions, Sellars managed to turn something into a therapy session for that most vulnerable, threatened of groups: white men. Weirdly, the Forester and his wife appeared to live in a modern apartment block, several floors up; at least that seemed to be the indication of repeated footage (from the outside) of said apartment block. Quite what that was supposed to add, save for confusion about where much of the rest of the action was taking place, was, to say the least, unclear. If Sellars were trying to say that everything was in the Forester’s imagination, and that it was all an anthropomorphic projection, that certainly did not come across – either to me or to anyone else I asked. I eventually gave up on what I was seeing, insofar as that were possible. A concert performance, or concert staging in which the children at least could still have run around and enjoyed themselves, would surely have been a much better idea.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Reimann, L'Invisible (world premiere), Deutsche Oper, 8 October 2017

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Images: Bernd Uhlig

Ursula, Marie, Ygraine – Rachel Harnisch
Marthe, Bellangère – Annika Schlicht
Handmaiden – Ronnita Miller
Father – Seth Carico
Grandfather, Old Man, Agiovale – Stephen Bronk
Uncle, Stranger – Thomas Blondellle
Child, Tintagiles – Salvador Macedo
Queen’s Servants – Tim Severloh, Matthew Shaw, Martin Wölfel

Vasily Barkhatov (director)
Zinovy Margolin (set designs)
Olga Shaishmelasvili (costumes)
Robert Pflanz (video)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting)
Sebastian Haunsa, Jörg Königsdorf (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

Aribert Reimann has recently seemed fated to be remembered, if not quite only, then principally for his Lear. Its fortunes certainly seem to have picked up recently: I saw it in Paris last year; Salzburg staged it this summer too. (Alas, it simply did not fit into my schedule.) I can hardly talk of the need to look beyond a single work, for it is the only of his operas I can really lay claim to knowing – until now, perhaps. It was no one else’s fault, moreover, that I missed the Berlin premiere at the Komische Oper of his Medea earlier this year on account of illness. Reimann’s work as a pianist will surely survive too, the recordings of Second Viennese School repertoire with Fischer-Dieskau (the creator of Lear) invaluable; I have found myself choosing them several times for the discography to my forthcoming Schoenberg biography. So perhaps I am over-dramatising. At any rate, there was a keen sense of anticipation at the Deutsche Oper, a sense of the some time répétiteur returning home. And what we saw and heard seemed to me not only a convincing ninth opera, but a highly accomplished piece of musical theatre from all concerned: a model of advocacy for a new work.

For those who know a little more – if only, as for yours truly, through reading, rather than through real acquaintance with the works – Reimann has been especially associated with what the Germans call Literaturoper: that is, an opera based upon an already existing literary text. Indeed, he contributed a piece, ‘Wie arbeite ich an einer Oper?’ (‘How do I work on an opera?’) to a 1982 collection on works derived from literature, Für und wider die Literaturoper, ed. Sigrid Wiesmann (Laaber). It seems especially fitting with respect to the history of the genre, then, that here Reimann should have turned to Maurice Maeterlinck, whose play Pelléas et Mélisande offered Debussy the opportunity to compose one of the defining, as well as foundational, works in the genre. (Another instance, which ought to be far better known, is Maeterlinck’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, set by Paul Dukas.) Here Reimann, drawing on a lifetime’s experience, has put together with commendable economy a short – under ninety minutes? – work founded on three of Maeterlinck’s relatively – surrounding Pelléas – early one-act plays, skilfully combined so as to prove considerably more, as the cliché has it, than the sum of their parts.

The three plays, L’Intruse, Intérieur, and La Mort de Tintagiles all concern themselves with death, children, and reactions to the deaths either of children or of those closely connected with them. A great strength of what we saw at the Deutsche Oper in Vasily Barkhatov’s excellent staging was that one could never quite be sure what was ‘work’ and what was ‘interpretation’. One had one’s suspicions, of course, but even when it was clear that a stance was being taken to the drama, it may have been by the librettist-composer, by the director, or even by the performers – or indeed by a combination thereof. In this Kindertotenoper, the first section presents a family anxiously awaiting the deliverance of a mother from childbirth, news of her deliverance eventually more negative than they had hoped; we then move to the tale of an old man and stranger having to tell a family the news of the death of one of its daughters; and finally, to the story of an unseen queen who strives, and succeeds, the efforts of a child’s sisters notwithstanding, to have her servants kill him. Fate looms large, of course, which may have been heightened by the practice – not followed here – of performing the second and third of the plays by marionettes.

What may have heightened the symbolism, and indeed the Symbolism, however, here is responded to by a typical directorial – or is it creator’s – edge. As time progresses through the three works, we first find ourselves in a stifling (high) bourgeois household from what would seem to be roughly the time of (Maeterlinck’s) writing. Intérieur takes a step forward in time, somewhere between a generation or two, prompting us to ask about the identities of characters, both sung (all in French) and acted (the Staatisterie on excellent form too), or at least what connections we might draw between sections of the work. L’Intruse is written for strings only – as well, of course, as voices! Intérieur, by contrast, is set in the world of orchestral woodwind. When we come closer to the present day – although with certain disturbing questioning from the three countertenors who have helped punctuate our way between sections: who are they now as servants, and why are their ‘dresses’ made of rubbish bags? – we hear the full orchestra, brass and percussion included. But there are still many sections solely for strings or for woodwind; when those orchestral choirs come together, and when they are supplemented, we are prompted to ask what that might mean, musically, dramatically, and of course musico-dramatically.

Shadows – implicit puppet-play – play an important role too, almost as if a second orchestra. They seem to offer additional standpoints on the action, to comment on it, and perhaps to offer alternatives. A dream world is never far away; and like the best – or worst – dreams, we are never quite sure what is what. Not that there is anything vague about Reimann’s writing, its precision clear, even as its clusters provoke immediate, dramatic effect. Its roots in serial processes may be felt, fatalistically, just as the hopelessness and fascination of the situations on stage works itself out, whether in a kinship, in parallel, and sometimes perhaps even in opposition. One never feels that the music is merely ‘reflecting’ the words or the characters; sensing its ever-changing dramatic role, like that of the staging, is the business of the drama – and indeed of the listener-spectator. And yet, those alternatives: were they alternatives at all? There was never any way out really, was there? Such seems to be the message of Barkhatov’s multiple visual realisations of the potential demise of Tintagiles: car crash, noose, and so on. We persuade ourselves things might be, might have been, otherwise; often we have to. Sometimes, at least, we should not. (Not entirely incidentally, words of thanks should be offered to the production team for coming on stage to receive applause, wearing T-shirts with images of the imprisoned director, Kirill Serebrennikov. We must not forget, and here at least must not be fatalistic.)

Perhaps even more so than usually, this was very much a company effort. It seems invidious to single out members of an excellent cast, changing roles as they did, no one seeking the limelight. Let us just say that Rachel Harnisch offered a fine performance as first amongst equals – indicated also by the warmth of applause she received. One often came close to losing track of who was a ‘singer’ and who was an ‘actor’; it did not matter. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper sounded fully prepared: not only prepared, but committed. Donald Runnicles led what sounded to me an equally prepared and committed account not only of the orchestral score but of the work as a whole. Its changing moods and colours, its ‘internal’ and ‘external’ musico-dramatic process, its moments of eery calm and explosion: all those and much more registered powerfully, if mysteriously, even on a single hearing. I hope very much to have a second chance, to explore this work further, and have little doubt that it deserves such an opportunity, from and for many of us.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Uchida/Grosz/BPO/Rattle - Mozart, Walton, and Kodály, 6 October 2017


Mozart: Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595
Walton: Viola Concerto
Kodály: Suite: Háry János

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Try as I might, I could not work out the idea behind the programming of this concert. In practice, it brought us the Berlin Philharmonic – and Simon Rattle – at their best after the interval, in works by Walton and Kodály, whereas far and away the best music came before that interval. Not that there was anything wrong with the orchestra’s playing, or indeed with Rattle’s conducting, in Mozart’s final piano concerto, but there was something of a sense of compromise, as if orchestra and conductor – arguably soloist too – were pulling slightly in different directions. There was none, or very little, of the mannerism that has often so disfigured Rattle’s conducting of Classical music; that, after all, is hardly Mitsuko Uchida’s style. But a very small orchestra – only eight first violins – sounded a little plain of string tone, with the true orchestral delights coming from a fabulous woodwind section. The first movement lacked the autumnal quality puritans tell us we – and it – should eschew, but nor was it especially vernal; indeed, even Uchida’s playing, although excellent, had a degree of neutrality to it. That worked rather well in the development section, when her passagework sounded entwined around ravishing oboe and bassoon solos. Indeed, the orchestra had sounded enlivened as soon as she entered. And Uchida’s was a distinguished performance overall, as one would have expected. The slow movement was beautifully shaped, never unduly moulded. It spoke and sang with simplicity, however secondary. Here, Uchida continued to ornament her lines, but far more so than earlier on: ever tasteful, indeed ever delightful. The finale was finely articulated from all concerned, Uchida’s command of line especially noteworthy. There was much to commend, much to enjoy; comparisons can wait until another day, or indefinitely.

The Berlin Philharmonic sounded like a different orchestra after the interval; of course one would not expect Mozart to sound like Walton, or vice versa, but it was more than that. Richly Romantic, there was no denying this sound’s ‘fit’ to the repertoire. (Interestingly, and to my mind highly surprisingly, Karl Böhm had conducted its Berlin Philharmonic premiere in 1958, with William Primrose, whilst the 1961-2 revision, heard here, received its first – and until now, only – performance from the orchestra in 1969 from Giusto Cappone and John Barbirolli). Just two weeks earlier, we had heard Máté Szűcs in the Bartók Viola Concerto; now it was the turn of the orchestra’s other principal viola, Amihai Grosz. If the Bartók is far from my favourite piece by that composer, comparison with Walton’s concerto, in whichever version, does the latter no favours. If, once again, I found myself far from convinced by a work that has a tendency to sound like bits of film music stuck together, then it was not for want of trying from Grosz, the orchestra, or Rattle. The vaguely jazzy sections and those that sound somewhat like Prokofiev are perhaps the most convincing parts of the first movement; they certainly sounded splendid in themselves here. Grosz’s double-stopping, moreover, was to die for. Stravinskian rhythmic precision made its mark in the second movement. All concerned made a great effort to unify the work in its finale. Grosz’s lyricism here – and not just his – made a gorgeous sound indeed. His Reger encore, however – I am not sure offhand from which of the Suites it came – was very much more to my taste. It was lovely to see Rattle sneak in at the back of the stage and sit at the piano to hear it too.

I tried too with Kodály’s Háry Janos Suite. Perhaps trying was the problem, for it is fun enough in its way, if perhaps a little laboured in the fifth movement. The Prelude is in many ways impressive – and certainly proved so in performance, lower strings offering more than a hint of Bluebeard Bartók (in which I had heard them earlier this year). There are worse models, far worse models! The festive quality to the Vienna Musical Clock movement was relished. And violist Naoko Shimizu played her opening to the third movement, the ‘Song’, with a beauty of tone that, in context, hinted at a link, however, strained, with Walton. It is always fun – well, nearly always – to hear the cimbalom too, and we most certainly did on this occasion, if rather less imaginatively (writing, not performance) than I had earlier this week in Jörg Widmann’s Zweites Labyrinth. The Berlin brass’s performance was truly outstanding in ‘The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’, and so on. It was an enjoyable performance in itself; quite what its connection with Walton or Mozart might have been remained obscure.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Pollini/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Widmann, Schumann, and Debussy, 4 October 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Widmann: Zweites Labyrinth
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Debussy: Images

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

View from my seat

Following the mixed fortunes of the opening night’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, the second night at the reopened Staatsoper Unter den Linden showed, in addition to unalloyed musical excellence, that the theatre can work once again, indeed better than ever, as a fine concert venue too. Daniel Barenboim has been conducting quite a bit of Jörg Widmann’s music recently, not least at the newly opened Pierre Boulez Saal, at which Widmann himself has appeared regularly too. This concert opened with his 2006 Zweites Labyrinth, premiered by the SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg (since, unforgivably, merged) under Hans Zender. It followed his Labyrinth for forty-eight strings from the previous year, albeit with very different forces: five instrumental groups, namely (1) two pianos, two harps, Hungarian and Ukrainian cimbaloms, zither, and guitárron; (2) bass clarinet, two contrabass clarinets, two bassoons, and two contrabassons; (3) eight horns; (4) four piccolos; (5) fourteen first violins and twelve second violins. It would be a spatial challenge for the most modern of halls – say, the Boulezian salle modulable around the corner. What struck me most clearly, as well as the excellence of the performance, was, in a tribute to the Staatsoper’s acoustic, how clearly and meaningfully the work sounded, without any unusual spatial arrangement. All instruments were simply on the stage, as one would have expected expect.

The performance – and work – opened forbiddingly. Forbidding, that is, in dramatic terms, rather than denoting anything especially ‘difficult’. The harsh strength – walls of the labyrinth? – of the opening gave way to aural ricocheting across the various instrumental groups, as if the orchestra were a giant keyboard, across which giant, timbrally transforming glissandi were played. (In programming retrospect, Debussy seemed to have been echoed.) The skill with which such quicksilver threads were sewn in performance proved mesmerising in itself. What a joy it was to hear the Staatskapelle Berlin in such music, not least as different instruments seemed almost to transform before our ears into each other, Widmann and the players displaying equal mastery of extended techniques. Barenboim and his musicians brought a keen sense of drama, almost of wordless opera to proceedings: not at all inappropriate for Widmann in general, nor for a concert in the Lindenoper.

Maurizio Pollini joined the orchestra for Schumann’s Piano Concerto, picking up the thread, as it were, from the previous evening. Seated where I was, in the third row of the stalls, just slightly to the left of the centre, I could hardly have had a better view of the pianist. The combination of acoustic – clear and warm – and visual proximity meant, if this makes any sense, that I could hear precisely what I saw, and vice versa. Music so well known to many in the audience, still more so to Pollini, seemed to be recomposed on the spot, before my eyes and ears, an equal or at least appropriate weight accorded to the horizontal and vertical, as if leading to Brahms or indeed to Schoenberg. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pollini recorded the Schumann and Schoenberg concertos together with Claudio Abbado. The richness of string tone was truly a wonder in itself, especially when experienced with such physicality. Moreover, both Barenboim and Pollini brought a command of line to all three movements such as to hold absolute attention throughout. There was chamber music intimacy too, married to an undeniable sense of playing upon oscillation between tonic minor and major, which put me in mind of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op.73, only writ large(r). Schumann’s Beethovenian inheritance seemed especially apparent in the first movement: not just its scale, but its character too. The integrity, humanistic as much as ‘merely’ musical, of the cadenza spoke volumes: once again, Schoenberg beckoned.

The sense of derivation from a single phrase, even a single note, was perhaps still stronger still in the slow movement. I thought of something Webern writes, in The Path to the New Music: ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity … But in what form? That is where art comes in!’ The music seemed once again to achieve an ideal balance between chamber and orchestral tendencies: not quite Mozartian, for this is not Mozart, but recognisably in his line. I was particularly struck by the way particular string sections sounded as one. The transition to the finale was emotionally as well as technically spot on, the swing from the tragic to the exultant effected within a single breath, without the slightest sense of abruptness. That was surely a brevity that would have impressed, perhaps put to shame, even Webern! And indeed, it was a quality of constant transformation, not entirely unlike the music of Liszt, that characterised the performance of the finale. Line was not sacrificed, far from it, but as in the very different work by Widmann, it proved to be a dramatic line.

The second half was devoted to Debussy’s Images, a work – and of course, composer – closely associated with one of Barenboim’s greatest musical collaborators, Pierre Boulez, Honorary Conductor of this orchestra. The opening of ‘Gigues’ sounded duly mysterious, combining haze and precision; it was as if we hearing the solo lines through an aural gauze of varying intensity. Not that the performance lacked rhythmic definition, nor indeed a strength, when required, that seemed almost to echo La Mer. There was mystery too, albeit a different mystery, to the opening of ‘Rondes de printemps’: germinative and generative, spiritual and material. The idea of ‘smudged dialectics’ may be a little too ‘Impressionist’ for some, but it is what came to me listening anyway. I loved the way in which instrumental colours and harmonies – are they actually two sides of the same coin or different ‘parameters’? – shifted into each other at times, suggesting a different variety of Klangfarbenmelodie from that generally associated with the term. Barenboim’s command of line, so different from that in Widmann and Schumann, and yet equally important, again proved crucial to the dramatic progress of the piece.

A sardonic quality marked the first panel of ‘Ibéria’, ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’: not unlike Stravinsky, yet not quite like him either. The players were clearly enjoying themselves; that one could see as well as hear. Once again, a Tarnhelm-like dissolution of boundaries between different varieties of colour was splendidly apparent. A sultry penumbra of timbre seemed to surround the pitches of ‘Les parfums de la nuit’. Harmonies shifted between ambiguity and more definite progression, preparing the way for a performance of ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ that was surely warmer, more southern, than Boulez’s, perhaps more sardonic too, not least in Soldier’s Tale-like fiddling (whether from the excellent solo playing of Jiyoon Lee or from the entire section). It made for a fine conclusion to a fine concert indeed.

Reopening of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden - Szenen aus Goethes Faust, 3 October 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden


Faust, Doctor Marianus – Roman Trekel
Gretchen, Una Poentitentium – Elsa Dreisig
Mephistopheles, Böser Geist, Pater Profundus – René Pape
Marthe, Sorge, Mater Gloriosa – Katharina Kammerloher
Not, Magna Peccatrix – Evelin Novak
Mangel, Mulier Samaritana – Adriane Queiroz
Schuld, Maria Aegyptiaca – Natalia Skrycka
Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus – Stephan Rügamer
Pater Seraphicus – Gyula Orendt
Soloists – Narine Yeghiyan, Florian Hoffmann, Jan Martiník

Faust, Herold – André Jung
Mephistopheles, Lieschen – Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Gretchen, Astrolog, Engel, Türmer – Meike Droste
Zueignung – Anna Tomowa-Sintow

Jürgen Flimm (director)
Markus Lüpertz (set designs)
Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Gail Skrela (choreography)
Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

Chorus (chorus master: Martin Wright) and Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Vinzens Weissenburger) of the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

And so, at long last, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has reopened its doors to the public, its resident company’s long exile – seven years – in Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater over. It will close again at the end of the week, to re-reopen, as it were, in December, some final work to do, but let us not worry too much about that right now; as Daniel Barenboim said, in a speech at the reception following the performance, the Opera has avoided the fate of Berlin’s new airport. Fasolt and Fafner have more or less completed their work, and the gods have more or less entered Valhalla without, it would seem, sealing their fate. We can but hope.


There was no rainbow bridge, but there was certainly a red carpet – and considerable security too. A host of dignitaries was present: gods, for better or worse, of this world. And hearing some of them speak beforehand, it was difficult, at least for this all-too-temporary exile from the United (sic) Kingdom, that Germany does not have it so bad after all. It made me proud, indeed, to have found sanctuary, if only for a Augenblick (‘moment’), in a country that prides itself upon its status as a Kulturnation. There may be many problems associated with that; there are problems, after all, with anything and everything – this side of Heaven, death, communism, or whatever flavour of realised eschatology one may favour. (Please, please do not say ‘Brexit’.) Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus stands as one of many warnings to us on that; so too does the Bebelplatz, site of perhaps the most notorious, even infamous, book burnings in history, immediately behind the Lindenoper. Germany, however, is the country of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘coming to terms with the past’) par excellence; it is never a completed work – Wotan, kindly take note – and yet, compared to anywhere else on earth, or at least in Europe, I can think of, there remains a sense, to quote Angela Merkel, of ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘we can do it’).


Merkel was one of those in attendance, although she did not speak. The President, Franz-Walter Steinmeier did, however. And in this country, this city, he could speak meaningfully of the crucial, life-giving importance of art. It is not just a hope, not just a slogan, not just an idea, but a reality – and a ‘reality’ in something approaching the complex notion offered thereof by Hegel, whose Humboldt University bust lies only a few hundred yards away. It is not even a personal matter; it would, of course, be impossible for the British Head of State, let alone her Prime Minister, plausibly to utter such words, and it is impossible to imagine either trying. However, even if one were to find a more personally and politically sympathetic figure to the arts, such as the current Leader of the Opposition, they would sadly, tragically, remain almost absurdly remote from reality, however conceived. I wished then, to return to that idea – I almost wish to capitalise it, but shall refrain – of the Augenblick; or, in the subtitle of this opening performance of Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust, ‘Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch!’ (‘Say to the moment: tarry a while!’)

Alas, it was, with the best will in the world – and I should like to think mine was well intended – difficult to say the same about much of what took place on stage. And whilst I do not wish to rain on anyone’s parade, critical honesty entails here a considerable degree of throwing one’s hands up in the air and asking ‘why?’ Rarely if ever have I seen so many people leave the theatre and not return after the interval; that was doubtless partly a matter of ‘celebrity’ guests, and so on, but perhaps a few more would have stayed had this staging of Schumann and Goethe not proved so utterly misconceived and often, sad to say, tedious. Barenboim rightly paid tribute to Jürgen Flimm’s Intendancy, prolonged so as to continue to care for the company during its prolonged exile, for Flimm unquestionably helped enable its return to Unter den Linden. As an opera director, however, Flimm’s record has proved at best mixed here in Berlin. To take but a couple of examples, his Orfeo ed Euridice had a good few things to recommend it, his Nozze di Figaro, shall we say, rather fewer. There is, I think, little point moaning about what might have been, had the company returned to its home earlier; yes, of course it would have opened with another production, but so what? Still less would there be any justification in complaining about the lack of another anticipated premiere, thwarted by its composer’s serious illness. Nor need one rule out in principle staging a work that was never intended to be staged, although it is perhaps a little quixotic in reality, however construed, to reopen an opera house with a work that is not only not an opera but which seems in its very essence to resist most, even all, operatic tendencies.

Production images: Hermann und Clärchen Baus

It might have worked; alas, it did not. What we saw – and heard – was an awkward padding of Schumann’s ‘scenes’ with small pieces of Goethe; except it was not really padding, more two different things going on, with little relationship to one another, not even in any sense approaching the dialectical, let alone in a more conventionally ‘smooth’ sense of drama. I suspect that anyone unfamiliar with Goethe would have wondered – and not in an especially productive way – what was going on. Anyone unfamiliar with Schumann would, I fear, have wondered what the point of this exquisite, heartrending, yet exquisitely and heartrendingly fragile tribute to Goethe’s work was, so diminished did it seem in this context, however well performed (and in many, if not all, respects it certainly was).

Goethe follows his fond imperative, ‘Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch’, with the exclamation, ‘du bist so schön!’ (You are so beautiful!) Apart from the music – and I am afraid it really felt as if it were quite ‘apart from’ – what then was schön? The work of set designer (and celebrated painter, sculptor, poet, etc.) Markus Lüpertz could certainly lay claim to have been so; I should happily have seen it in its own right. Alas, Flimm seemed not to know what to do with them. Instead, we had an unclear relationship between actors and singers, drama and music, any number of potential dialectical opposites, without either reconciliation (let us say Hegel) or radical negative failure to reconcile (let us say Adorno). Spoken and sung characters sometimes looked the same, sometimes did not, sometimes appeared in stylised ‘period’ (for Goethe) costume, sometimes not, or less so. Words were help up on placards. Indicators of metatheatricality were to be seen: seats from the theatre moved onstage, so that members of the chorus could watch and ‘interact’; music stands appeared, from which presumably some effort was being made to suggest characters learning music from the spirit of drama; the chorus suddenly appeared to sing from within the audience; and so on, and so on. There was an irritating prevalence of silly dancing, quite unconcerned with whatever music was being heard or not. Was there something of autobiography, or at least a summation of a (semi-Faustian) career in the theatre? Perhaps, but frankly, I am on the verge of making it up as I go along. That would seem very much to be in the spirit of what I saw: essentially an expensive version of a university student’s staging, enthused with some big ideas from other plays or productions.

Enough of that! The orchestra often sounded wonderful, recognisably the same band as we hear on Barenboim’s (outstanding) recordings of the Schumann symphonies with them. There were occasional fluffs here and there, and it would be idle to say that Barenboim’s direction was always quite so commanding as on those performances in which he had clearly ‘lived’ with the music for longer. He nevertheless conveyed a strong sense of the music, with ideas very much of his own about how it should go, not least a furiously driven Overture. (I am not sure that I necessarily liked it that way, but it had conviction and, I think, its own justification.) Passages that have much in common with the symphonies seemed – or perhaps this was my imagination – subtly underlined, as if to suggest a commonality of purpose that yet did not disrupt Schumann’s musical forms. (We had Flimm for that.) Choral singing was likewise excellent – what a wonderful Children’s Chorus the company can boast too! – although, towards the close, there were a few passages in which chorus and pit were not entirely in sync. The acoustical work to the theatre certainly seems to have paid off, the sound warmer than ever. (I was up in the Second Circle, so probably in a good position to speak of a lack of ‘distance’ acoustically.)

If Roman Trekel’s performance, thoughtful and intelligent though it may have been, remained rather dry of tone, then René Pape’s rich bass, more sonorous than ever, pretty much stole the vocal show. Anyone would have been persuaded by this Mephistopheles, although Sven-Erik Bechtolf’s spoken version seemed quite at odds: not interestingly opposed, just inconsistent. It was splendidly acted, I think, but belonging somewhere else entirely, whereas André Jung’s shouty Faust (again, perhaps this was Flimm’s intention) slightly baffled in itself too. Quite what Anna Tomowa-Sintow was doing delivering a reading at the beginning is anyone’s guess; I was very happy, for the first and presumably last time, to see her on stage, but was that enough? Perhaps it worked as a metaphor for the project as a whole. To return to the singers, Elsa Dreisig offered a clear, often radiant soprano, with intriguing hints perhaps of a bell-like Tales of Hoffmann Olympia. I think Flimm may have been presenting Gretchen as an all too evident construction by Faust and Mephistopheles, a commentary worth pursuing on ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche’ (the eternal feminine), but that sense at the close was fleeting and seemingly unprepared. That was certainly not Dreisig’s fault, though. Katharina Kammerloher also stood out amongst a cast that was, rightly, drawn entirely from the Staatsoper’s own company.


This, then, was a surprising Prelude to what we might think of as the ‘real’ reopening. Or rather, to return to more complex conceptions of ‘reality’, the house and company will continue to reopen, to develop; the task will never be completed, for it never can be, even when the builders leave. Much will have been learned, and once the present co-intendant Matthias Schulz has taken over the full reins of the company in the spring, we should begin to gain a stronger impression of the drama ahead. His first fully programmed season will be 2018-19. Wolfgang Rihm’s Saul, the work to which I alluded above, will, it is hoped, still be heard in a later season. The house will re-reopen with a new Hänsel und Gretel and a new Coronation of Poppea. A tour of the splendid new rehearsal facilities augurs well. There is, then, everything to play – and everything to hope – for. We can aim for Wagner’s ‘artwork of the future’, or aim to ‘fail better’, as Beckett would have had it; the two are far from mutually exclusive. One of the very oldest orchestras in the world, arguably the very oldest, founded as it was in 1570, was sounding at least as good as ever. Opera is not solely a musical art, but it remains a musical art nevertheless. The house should and doubtless will build on that – in as many senses as possible, and then some. For crucially important though buildings may be, the real business of building, the real business of Bildung too, is not principally about them at all.

(An edited version of this review appeared first in VAN magazine.)