Friday, 31 October 2014

Lieder for Halloween - Mendelssohn

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 30 October 2014

How to make a story out of relatively little

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

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Frühlingsglaube the movie 立春

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 October 2014

Donizetti Les Martyrs - Opera Rara next week

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

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

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

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

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

Harrison Birtwistle Punch and Judy - new production

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Rameau ballets Barbican William Christie

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

Friday, 24 October 2014

Schubert as Dramatist - Oxford Lieder Festival

"Schubert as Dramatist", a conference sponsored by the Oxford Lieder Festival at the faculty of Music in Oxford today, organized by Joe Davies, Sholto Kynoch and Susan Wollenberg. Details here.  Read the abstracts. Another event I've had to miss, alas, but as a long-term Friend of Oxford Lieder and contributor to the Schubert Circle behind this year's festival,  The thing about being a Friend, or indeed a friend, is making good things happen for everyone not just yourself. I'm there in spirit!

Wagner and Verdi may define opera in modern, populist terms but their values are misleading when applied to Schubert. To appreciate Schubert's operas, we need to understand the context from which they developed.  The keynote lecture in this conference is by Lorraine Byrne Bodley, whose article "Schubert, Goethe and the Singspeile: an Elective Affinity" can be read in full here. Singspeile springs from traditions that go right back into medieval popular theatre. Although Goethe tried to "improve" Singspeile, Mozart beat him to it, with Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail   

Oddly enough, there's hardly a mention in the conference papers of Carl Maria von Weber, whose Der Freischütz (1821) is one of the most influential opera of the period. Weber was only ten years older than Schubert, but so well known that it's unlikely that Schubert would not have been aware of him. Focusing on the relationship between Weber and Schubert would be an obvious, and possibly even more fruitful avenue of research. Weber, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann had ideas of music drama in a different way to, say Donizetti and Rossini. Imagine if Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann had lived to a ripe old age, like Janáček. Arguably, Wagner (who lived in Dresden) might not have developed his ideas of German opera without them. Singspiele depends on spoken dialogue, which alienates those who think of music drama mainly in terms of tunes, and leaves non-German speakers cold.  But it's a good tradition with extra potential for meaning. Indeed, Hartmann and Zimmermann (both of whom I've written a lot about) bring this tradition close to the present day.  So perhaps one day someone will be writing "Beyond Singspiele", a study of the way Singspeile traditions infuse German opera and its Alpine hybrids.

Lieder and opera are distinctly different. Hence the labels "lyric" and "dramatic" It's hard to draw demarcation lines as many "lyrical" songs work because they're dramatic and some dramatic songs are intensely inward.  Der Zwerg, for example,  has a wildly theatrical narrative - it's Der fliegende Holländer in miniature. The dwarf quotes the queen, but essentially, it's his own monologue, a one-sided take on a much bigger story. Classic Lieder, like Der Wanderer (D 493) predicate on inner psychological drama.  Nature functions to amplify inner states. This connection between Romanticism and the creation of Lieder is absolutely fundamental.  To bypass Romanticism and Schubert from the evolution of Lieder is simply nonsense. The world did not stop with Mozart. The Romantic Imagination helped define the whole ethos of the 19th and 20th century. Lieder values are more inward, predicating inward, rather than outward towards the stage and a vast audience. Some Lieder are so beautiful that the very act of hearing them in an arena kills their intimacy. Schubert writes great swashbuckler ballads like Der Gott und die Bajadere D254 but they can't be performed in the same way, as, say, Gretchen am Spinnrade D118,  where the girl can't express her feelings except through manic repetitions. A psychological case study, before the word "psychology" was in common use. 

I could write loads more about Schubert as Dramatist,  a fascinating subject that opens whole new vistas on concepts of music theatre, but for now, just a link to my "Knights in White Satin" an appreciation of Fierrabras at the Salzburg Festival, an uncommonly perceptive production that goes right to the heart of Schubert's inspiration - literary,  not literal, the soul of the romantic Imagination. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Very Strange Strauss - Wiener Staatsoper livestream tomorrow

Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos live streamed on the 23rd from Wiener Staatsoper. Be prepared for an adventure. Sven-Eric Bechtolf's realization brings together different versions of Strauss's score together with extra dialogue, some from von Hofmannsthal, some from Molière Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. As an experiment, it's certainly interesting since it develops ideas about the relationship between patrons and artists, between nouveau riche status-seekers and supposedly superior aesthetes, and  between the age of Molière, Mozart and Strauss. In theory, conceptually valid, andf a lot more challenging  than something lumpen, which misses the different levels on which Ariadne auf Naxos operates. This is not an opera that should be taken at face value!  So be prepared for a shock, but be patient. "Ordinary" Ariadnes auf Naxos one can hear anytime. This one probably won't appeal to those who like Strauss coated in sugar, though it's visually delicious and might appeal to those who go mainly for costumes. But it should stimulate those who value the intellect behind Strauss and von Hofmannsthal (who appears "in person").

This cast is different to the one captured on DVD.  Christian Thielemann should be fine, though I loved Daniel Harding's witty, elegant and drily subversive Mozartean touch.  Soile Isokoski sings/speaks the Diva/Ariadne: she should be good as she has a sense of humour. Some divas, I fear, aren't too comfortable with the subtle way Strauss sets up ageing divas while giving them moments of glory. Johan Botha instead of Jonas Kauffmann - definitely a completely different dynamic. Hearing this production first time live is a bit confusing, but DVD lets you listen more than once, so it grows on you.That said, this is an interesting curiosity, rather than something you'd watch for casual entertainment.

More livestreams coming up:
2nd  November: Wagner Tannhäuser (Schneider, Guth)
7th November: Puccini La Bohème (Ettinger,Zefferelli)
21st November: Mussorgsky Khovanschchina (Bychkov, Dodin)
25th November: Mozart Le nozze di Figaro Sascha Goetzel, Jean-Louis Martinoty)
14th December:  Rossini La Cenerentola

18th December: Strauss Arabella , which is also available on theWiener Staatsoper archive

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Rossini Mose in Egitto WNO

Rossini Mose in Egitto (Moses in Egypt)  from the WNO now on BBC Radio 3.  This broadcast was made during the run in Cardiff. Sounds pretty good. Please read Robert Hugill's review HERE in Opera Today.  I quite enjoyed it, though it sounded more like Handel to me than Rossini. That's no big deal and it's illuminating to listen from a different angle. Possibly I've been spending too much time listening to the Pesaro production (conducted by Roberto Abbado, nephew of Claudio) reviewed HERE by Michael Milenski in Opera Today. WNO isn't going to compete with Pesaro, so I don't at all have a problem enjoying some of the best British-based singers in WNO Mose in Egitto.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about Rossini's Guillaume Tell  is how "German" it sounds, as if Rossini's been imbibing Carl Maria von Weber.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

John Adams The Death of Klinghoffer  at the Met today. HERE is a link to Estelle Gilson's review in Opera Today. When it opened at the ENO in London in 2012, reports in the press led one to believe there'd be mass protests. In the event, there was only one protestor, a nice polite gentleman. Maybe he went in and saw the show. He wasn't there when  we left. The subject is emotive, and important, but Adams's treatment is not incendiary. It's the nature of his music. Repetitive, ruminative cadences, which suggest contemplation rather than imposed narrative. Perhaps it's the very anti-drama in this music that provokes response. The subject is even more important now than when the opera was written. The world is altogether a more dangerous place than when the events it depicts took place. It's important that we deal with the issues as objectively as possible because the world isn't suddenly going to get safer soon unless we think about things. HERE is a link to the review I wrote in 2012 for Opera Today

"Adams's abstracted cadences evoke blurred boundaries: endless waves on the sea, the whirr of a ship’s engine, the slow ticking away of time. Unfortunately, this music also evokes tedium. Facts about the hijack of the Achille Lauro are projected onto the stage to keep us alert, but the music is saying something else altogether. Furthermore, Adams sets text counter-intuitively, so syntax is distorted in favour of unsettling stresses in places that would not occur in speech. Because our brains don’t process language in this way, meaning is sacrificed. It’s not good when you have to concentrate on sub-titles to figure out what’s being sung. Alice Goodman’s libretto has been criticized for being opaque, but it closely reflects Adams’s musical technique. Images are blurred and shift shape. In the opening Chorus, it’s deliberately unclear who the protagonist is. Is she a young woman in love or an old woman awaiting death? Or both? It’s immaterial. She’s a composite of millions who have been exiled throughout history".........

"Things pick up in the Second Act, when Adams frees himself from earnest pseudo-documentary. Up to this point the action has mainly been in choruses. Now we have individuals with whom we can identify. Some of the words they sing come from transcripts made at the time, others are imaginative creations. It doesn’t matter. In these arias there’s dramatic reality. Leon Klinghoffer is presented as a likeable hero, and at last the opera has human focus. Alan Opie sings Klinghoffer so he comes over as a strong, reasonable man of authority, establishing a moral compass. The Aria of the Falling Body anchors Adams’s wavering oscillations with emotional truth."

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Rossini William Tell, WNO, Oxford

Rossini William Tell  (Guillaume Tell) from the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre Oxford, last night. Companies that tour, like WNO, have to strike a balance between excellence in-house and portability on the road. Even when a production is designed tto travel, it's not easy to make it fit every venue, every time, especially on one-night stops.  A lifetime ago, I used to sit up in the gods. Now I can afford posh tickets but I'm fussier. You can't win. Next time, I'm going to Cardiff.

The New Theatre wasn't built for opera, so the orchestra is so close to the audience that it overwhelms. Had this been a sublime musical experience it might not have mattered so much, but this performance, conducted by Andrew Greenwood (instead of Carlo Rizzi) was pretty ropey. The singing wasn't much, either. The orchestra and much the same cast had been singing for four nights in a row. It would be asking far too much of them, as human beings, not to sound tired. In any case, Arnold is one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire, such a killer role that it's hard to cast at the best of times. All respect to Barry Banks for a good enough performance. By putting 'Asile héréditaire' two and a half hours into the performance, Rossini was expecting superhuman effort. No audience should expect a singer to jeopardize his voice for one night.  I discreetly removed myself after the Third Act, leaving with good memories of Banks and Gisella Stille's moving duet, where they sing alone together, surrounded only by atmospheric, beautiful lighting. A lovely image, which reinforces the idea that Guillaume Tell might indeed be an opera better suited to the imagination than to staging.

Since the Royal Opera House is doing a new production of Guillaume Tell next spring (with Pappano, who is brilliant) , and we've recently heard the Munich production (with divine, unequalable Bryan Hymel)  this is a good time to be thinking about how Rossini's music can be recreated visually on stage. The instructions for the First Act militate against easy depiction. Many small groups of happy peasants mill about doing what happy peasants are supposed to do.  Rossini's music is much too beautiful to spoil with fussy kitsch. Short episodes are great for dancing, though they don't sustain theatrical cohesion. David Pountney uses a backdrop of glaciers. One newspaper critic sniffily dismissed this as depicting Antarctica, not the forests of Switzerland. But aren't there glaciers in Switzerland?  In any case, a friend identified the backdrop as the painting by Caspar David Friedrich The Sea of Ice which also references the boat in which William Tell sails  across the lake.

The Alps kept Switzerland independent. They're much more than decoration.  Many operas set in the Alps, like Catalani's La Wally, are hard to stage because the Alps are just hard to beat in terms of spectacle. Much wiser, I think, to focus on what the music suggests - wide open skies, endless vistas and the fresh, pure air of freedom. In Rossini's music, we can hear local colour, even the suggestion of yodel, carrying across vast distances, wild mountain winds and craggy "hiking" rhythms.  The ideas in William Tell are so noble that the opera shouldn't be reduced to tourist kitsch. Pierre Audi's staging for Amsterdam let the music tell the story! But that's assuming opera audiences actually like music, which isn't always the case.

photos : Robert Hubert Smith, courtesy WNO

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Zelenka - Melodrama to St Wenceslaus

Collegium Vocale 1704 perform Zelenka's Melodrama to St Wenceslaus from the 2013 Herne Early Music Days Festival. It is available now on BBC Radio 3. Melodrama to St Wenceslaus, or, to use its original Latin title Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis conspicua orbi regia Bohemiae Corona: Melodrama de Sancto Wenceslao (Under the Olive Tree of Peace and the Palm Tree of Virtue the Crown of Bohemia Splendidly Shines Before the Whole World: Melodrama to Saint Wenceslaus), ZWV 175,V " Jan Dismus Zelenka (1679-1745) was a contemporary of Bach , Monteverdi and Rameau. By baroque standards, the orchestra is huge, and there's singing and spoken dialogue. No expenses spared: it was evidently a piece meant to impress and make a power statement. It was commisioned by the Jesuit order for the occasion of a visit, in 1723, from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI.  By praising the virtues of the medieval King Wenceslaus,  hero and saint of Bohemia, the Jesuits might have been making a political point: don't mess with us, don't mess with Bohemia.
The piece is fascinating because it's not religious music, nor is it an opera, but an early music drama. The performance is wonderful, full of brightness and energy - the spirit of a confident era. Highly recommended as this was recorded live at an early music festival and isn't available on CD.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Peter Sellars The Indian Queen (not Purcell)

Currently on BBC Radio 3, the broadcast of Peter Sellars' The Indian Queen, recorded in Madrid last year, where it received its world premiere. Don't mistake it for Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen.  What remains of Purcell's opera lasts less than an hour: Sellars' The Indian Queen runs four times as long. He's padded the music out with music from other Purcell works, and readings from a modern novel.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with that. Pasticcio was a perfectly normal practice in an age where audiences were happy to hear hot numbers they'd heard before revived and incorporated into new operas. The real secret lies in getting the mix right, so the ingredients blend in a coherent whole. Glyndebourne's The Fairy Queen (more here) is a brilliant example. It recreates the ebullient spirit of baroque imagination in glorious spectacle.  The Met's The Enchanted Island (more here) was another good example, though it would have been more appreciated if it had preniered in Europe, where the style is better understood.  But Sellars' The Indian Queen unfortunately doesn't come remotely close to that level of inventive sophistication. 

For one thing, Sellars wants to create a mega drama about the Conquistadors and the indigenous empires of Central America. It's a wonderful subject, which would lend itself well to dramatic interpretation.  But Purcell's Indian Queen was pure fantasy, describing a much earlier period about which Purcell and his contemporaries had little real knowledge.  These "Indians"  were English people in fancy dress. Purcell's Indian Queen is no more about Latin America than is Indian Queens, the village in Cornwall.  Why conflate the two?  English baroque sounds very different to Spanish baroque. Spanish baroque is hardly unknown - there's even a hybrid genre of works written in Latin America. Why use English Protestant church music when there's so much Spanish and Central/South American church music to be had?  It just sounds wrong. If Sellars wants to explore ideas of cultural collision what could be more appropriate?  The Spanish colonized the Americas by imposing their religion on empires with quite complex cultures of their own because they didn't know any better. By imposing Purcell onto a subject Purcell had nothing to do with, Sellars is using the same kind of unthinking colonialist values the Conquistadors imposed on the natives. In the 21st century, when millions of people are multiracial and multicultural, it's a regressive concept.

For his narrative, Sellars uses the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar, published in 1992. which describes the period from the perspective of the women of the time. Most history is written from a west-centric world view following the assumed superiority of male values, and white male in particular. Modern historians are much more aware of "the Crowd in History" and of non-western cultures. The New York Times article (read here) suggests that Sellars' knowledge of the period and of the issues is fairly limited, but using the novel is, in principle, a good idea. Unfortunately, the texts are delivered with a kind of hysterical agit prop.  The actress shouting the lines uses the same cadential sequences all the time, like a machine gone mad, spitting out sounds instead of meaning. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest shamanic incantation, but it's counterproductive to real emotion. Within a very short time her voice becomes strained and metallic, so grating that it's almost too painful to listen to, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

The other performances are perfunctory. The conductor doesn't have much feel for Purcell, and the music feels tediously drawn-out and ponderous. The choruses, hampered by the disjuncture between English music and the savagery of the story they're singing about, sound lost. The soloists are adequate rather than impressive, with two exceptions: a strong Hunahpu, Mayan hero/Trickster twin deity in Vince Yi, but a Don Pedro de Alvarado with such wide vibrato that it's annoying (Noah Stewart). When Sellars' The Indian Queen comes to the ENO in London next year, things should improve, especially with the conducting. The production was co-commissioned with Perm, in Siberia, so its own chief conductor (Currentzis) conducts. To put it kindly, he's not a Purcell conductor even though he has done Purcell before. For Perm, The Indian Queen is probably a big thing but that doesn't mean it's good for the rest of us.

At the ENO, Lawrence Cummings is conducting, and he's good, though that might emphasize the Englishness of Purcell, further divorcing music from subject. We'll have the same Indian Queen (Julia Bullock), a new Don Pedro, but worryingly, the same rabid narrator. Live, at the ENO, we'll be spared the horrors of the close-ups evident in the film of the Madrid performance. Nearly every performer has the exact same expression of awed surprise. It's almost as if they were all wearing masks. Is this a remake of Sellars' Guilio Cesare ? The characters move like automatons. It's been a long time since I've seen acting this bad. (The DVD was broadcast for a while).  Perhaps the problem is that Sellars takes himself far too seriously. But I guess the ENO needs something to bring the punters in.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

How to market Mozart to the masses

Sarah X Mills shows how Mozart can be pitched to reach millions ! She's wonderful, I think. Trouble is, some politicians and bureaucrats might take this to heart.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Plácido Domingo Verdi I due Foscari Royal Opera House

"Why should I go to hear Plácido Domingo" someone said when the Royal Opera House Verdi I due Foscari was announced.  There are very good reasons for doing so. First, Plácido Domingo is an icon. Even past his prime, he has such presence that he can present a role with style. When he does retire, we can look back and say we were there.  Secondly, Francesco Foscari is a role that doesn't present extreme vocal demands. Domingo didn't go much out of range. Foscari is an old man, worn out by tragedy and the intrigues of state. Sounding pinched and dry is part of the character. Domingo knows how to marshall his reserves. At the end, the old man rages against the city and the fates that have destroyed him. Mellifluous sounds would be inappropriate. Domingo sings with such intensity that it feels like a statement. We shouldn't shaft old Doges because they aren't what they were, any more than we should shaft Father Figures like Plácido Domingo. The Council of Ten might be ungrateful, but I, for one, treasured his performance.

Domingo's presence in Los Angeles honours the city, just as a great Doge would have honoured Venice. That's perhaps why the Royal Opera House brought this production to London, so we could enjoy Domingo once again in a role he can still achieve well. The narrative is bleak and sombre. There aren't all that many flashy "big moments" for Antonio Pappano to whip the orchestra into full Verdian glory. The set (designs by Kevin Knight, with costumes by Mattie Ulrich) thus serve to distract from the opera itself. We delight in the gorgeous jewel colours that show Venice at its gaudy best.  But the gem is flawed. The city is rent by vicious intrigue. The Doge is destrotyed in a way that would hurt the most: his last son is accused, exiled and dies. It's not a pretty story. Still, we can fantasize, like the crowds in the piazza watching the circus acrobats and fire-eaters doing their tricks. What a brilliant metaphor! Even at this early age, was Verdi making oblique statements?

Wonderful atmospheric lighting by Bruno Poet, whose lighting suggests mists descending on the city, enveloping it in gloom. Most of the effects are created by video projections. so the set travels well. Just as the invention of electric light changed opera, video allows infinitely greater possibilities than, say, painted flats.  The art comes in using technique well. Here, though,  we see a backdrop of waves, which might have been exciting in Los Angeles, but London audiences would recognize as the backdrop to Birtwistle's The Minotaur. Numerous other projections onto cloth, which seem to be done by fairly basic oil and water washes projected onto cloth. The giant face of the Lion of Venice doesn't do as it's told. Maybe there's a very subtle truth in that but the production isn't quite that deep. The projections dissolve as the cloth is lowered, clumsily, into a hole in the floor. Apart from the nice costumes, the production feels minor house. Thaddeus Strassberger, an American, is director, but there's not much direction as such. The singers strike am-dram theatrical poses, but since the production revolves entirely around Plácido Domingo, there's probably little need to develop the other roles as drama.

Vocally, Maria Agresta's Lucrezia Contarini.was the high point of the evening.What a pure, clean voice, capable of passionate conviction. Agresta and Francesco Meli, who sings Jacopo Foscari, provided the vocal colour otherwise in short supply, in an opera that depicts a harsh, repressive regime.  When Agresta and Meli sang their final duet, the opera came to life. That said, though, Maurizio Muraro, singing Jacopo Loredano, member of the Council of Ten, impressed with the authoritative richness in his voice. The other members of the Council,and the rows of women in white, priests, servants and so on, operate anonymously, which is perhaps right, but Muraro's Loredano has power and individuality. So, yes, go to this I due Foscari, for Plácido Domingo, around whom it's all been created.

Photos :Catherine Ashmore, courtesy Royal Opera House, details embedded. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Idomeneo, Wiener Staatsoper live stream

Later today, Mozart Idomeneo , re di Creta, from Wiener Staatsoper, lived streamed HERE. cast list here and an interview with Kaspar Holten, director. Thre Royal Opera House is doing the same opera in a few weeks, (directed by Martin Kusej), so it will be fun to compare and contrast. Lots of photos on the Wiener Staatsoper site, though you can never go entirely on photos. Why, one might ask, a Holten production in Vienna and Kusej in London?  Actually, that's nothing unusual,  given the way that the business works.  Holten is a much deeper director than he gets credit for.He thinks about what he does (much more than some)  so even when he does something you don't expect, he's done so for well-considered reasons.  Kusej is more simplistic. The notion that audiences don't like Regie is nonsense. Claus Guth's kitschy  Die Frau ohne Schatten was a huge success, though it completely recast the meaning of the opera (Please read my review here). What matters most in any production  is not how decorative it looks, but how it expresses the spirit of the work.The casts are pretty much on the same level (Michael Schade vs Matthew Polenzani) and both conductors are very good indeed - Christoph Eschenbach (Vienna) and Marc Minkowski (London) both of whom I love. I'll be going for Minkowski period-informed energy.

This year the Wiener Staatsoper has increased the number of productions it's streaming. They're learning from Munich! Although HD broadcasts in cinemas bring in huge audiences,  it's not an ideal system. Opera houses are at the mercy of cinema distribution chains, who have their own networks and rivalries. The arts aren't top priority for these chains, so the situation isn't going to change soon. HD broadcasts are also subject to weather conditions, and even jammed signals. Time after time shows are interrupted by technical glitches. So switching from cinemas to digital online broadcasts might be a no-brainer. The potential audience is even greater: no-one needs a convenient local cinema. The crucial issue, then, is economics.  Filming is expensive, and online broadcasts don't make much money. The notion that broadcasts eat into live/DVD sales is pretty much a fallacy, Opera houses operate in different ways, so some benefit more than others.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Why shouldn't footballers like opera ?

A famous Premier League Footballer tweets a photo of the Royal Opera House curtain before a performance. The Daily Mail gets wind of it and writes a story about the footballer attending Philip Glass's The Trial "...based on a novel by Franz Kafka - which is unlikely to be on your average player's list of favourite books."

Why not? Footballers aren't stupid. Besides, most young people take to Kafka because he expresses the kind oif frustration young people feel, before they get sucked into the mindlessness of this world. 

Major praise for West Ham Winger Matt  Jarvis, 28, who is man enough to think for himself and do what he wants whatever smartass journalists expect.  I hope he and his wife enjoyed themselves and that they'll come back.

Major kicks to the Daily Mail for hiring reporters who write off Google instead of from things like actual knowledge.  Jarvis's photo shows the main auditorium at the Royal Opera House, where Manon the ballet was on, not the Linbury Studio Theatre, where Glass's The Trial was being performed by Music Theatre Wales! A great show it was, too. Jarvis might have enjoyed himself at that, too!  Read my review here.

Why shouldn't footballers enjoy opera or ballet or modern art or anything else? Harriet Harman raged when she couldn't see her constituents at the Royal Opera House. Maybe she  doesn't have much respect for them (and probably doesn't know them all by sight).  But opera is only "elitist" in the minds of those who want it to be. The rest of us just get along enjoying ourselves. The real snobbery lies with those who want to use the arts as a weapon to act out their own grievances.  But, as the Daily Mail shows, (read more here) maybe they should start by knowing what they're talking about.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Philip Glass : The Trial, Music Theatre Wales Linbury ROH

Music Theatre Wales presented the world premiere of Philip Glass The Trial (Kafka) last night at the Linbury, Royal Opera House. Music Theatre Wales started doing Glass in 1989. Their production of Glass's In the Penal Colony in 2010 was such a success that Glass conceived The Trial specially for the company. Auspicious prospects indeed. Music Theatre Wales did Glass proud with an excellent production, sensitively attuned to the nuances of Glass's idiosyncratic idiom.

Kafka's The Trial, has such iconic status that any opera based on it carries huge expectations. The atmosphere of the novel is so unusual that it doesn't lend itself readily to ordinary operatic treatment. Glass's music, however, operates on the surreal dissociation that pervades the spirit of the novel. As we listen to the repeated sequences, our minds become innured to patterns. Glass's music expresses the existential angst of mechanical, impersonal systems. If Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, had used the German title "Der Prozess" , the connection would be even more clear. Josef K (Johnny Herford) wakes up one morning and everything starts to go out of synch.  He knows something's wrong but goes along with things until he becomes part of what he didn't believe in.  It's reasonable that his Uncle (Michael Druiett) should help  but why strange women like Leni (Amanda Forbes) and a painter (Paul Curievici)?  Or oddballs like Block (Michael Bennett)  who any reasonable person wouldn't trust? As we become familiar with the cadences in the music, our minds start to follow almost by auto-pilot, and we're mesmerized, too.  K's problems start on his 30th birthday. A year later, he's dead. Or perhaps he's at last succumbed to the long slow death that is conformity to systems that have no real meaning. Once he slips into habits of non-logic, the process takes control.  Perhaps that's the real Trial Josef K is undergoing.  He hasn't committed a crime, he's just part of the irrational scheme of things.

Glass's music wonderfully captures the mindless numbness of the processes around us. In In the Penal Colony (also based on a story by Kafka), an infernal machine drills words into the flesh of a prisoner. The concise nature of chamber opera intensifies the effect of Glass's music,  creating unbearable tension,  so concentrated that it might explain why some listeners switched off, emotionally. Please read my review of  In the Penal Colony HERE and my review of the audio-only recording HEREThe Trial is more diffuse, involving more characters and covers a longer time span, So the impact is less extreme. The story is more or less familiar to all, which helps make it more accessible. The opera unfolds over ten scenes in two acts, in fairly symmetrical form, which also helps to distance the audience from the human tragedy. In the Penal Colony is a masterpiece, possibly Glass's finest work, but The Trial should prove much more popular.  By Glass's standards, the music is more concrete than usual, with many good "special effects" like  booming trumpet figures illustrating The Uncle, followed by wailing trombone illustrating young K. There are quirky jazzy waltzes and delightful figues on celeste and xylophone. Moderrn miusic without too much fear, but enough intelligence and integrity to satisfy high standards.

Johnny Herford sings Josef K. It can't be easy to create a character disintegrating from a rational man into automaton, but Herford is convincing. His voice has a good balance of rugged manliness and plaintive vulnerability. Even in the throes of his confusion, this K can break off for a quick snog!  Amanda Forbes sings Fräulein Bürstner/Leni, roles which make her switch from prim repression to  voluptuousness.  Forbes's sensual timbre makes one hear the woman behind the compulsive wanton. Leni sleeps with anyone. She's funny,  yet also someone deeply flawed, forced to play a role defined by men. she's not given to reflection, but Forbes shows her fragility by employing a good edgy tension to  her singing. Good performances too from Michael Druiett (Inspector/Uncle), Michael Bennett (Guard/Block), Nicholas Folwell (Guard/ Usher/Clerk/Priest), Rowan Hellier (Frau Grubach/Washerwoman) and Gwion Thomas (Magistrate /Lawyer). Paul Curievici (Painter/Flogger/Student) stands out in small roles: he's one of the better character tenors of his generation.  Michael McCarthy directed, with sets by Simon Banham. Wonderfully idiomatic playing by the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble, conducted by Michael Rafferty.

Philip Glass The Trial is a joint commission between the Royal Opera House, Scottish Opera and Theater Madgeburg.. Music Theatre Wales will perform it again in London until 18th October, and will then take it on tour. (More details here).  Glass's The Trial will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 om 25th October (available also online and internationally). Highly recommended !

photos : Clive Barda, courtesy Royal Opera House (details embedded)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Oxford Lieder Festival 2014 Schubert

Tonight, the start of the Oxford Lieder Festival 2014.  I won't be there, since I'm at Philip Glass Kafka, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury) but I'll be there in spirit.  I've been a Friend since the Festival got off the ground more than ten years ago.  Oxford Lieder isn't like ordinary festivals.The emphasis is on the joy of performance. This is close to the spirit of the original Schubertiades, where friends got together to enjoy and experience.  It's not just big starry names, but also up and coming and community.

There's a costumed Liederabend on Tuesday for which I've got a ticket although I'll be at I due Foscari at The Royal Opera House.  Welcome to anyone. I'm honoured to buy tickets and sponsor songs even though I can't go to nearly as much as I would like to. That's what being a true "Friend" is, caring about things and wishing the group well. Other extra tickets too include Saturday's Graham Johnson talk, which I can't make.

There's more on this site about Schubert and the Oxford Lieder Festival than any other site, so please explore. Here is what I wrote about this year's Schubert Project, the most ambitious Schubert Festival ever mounted in this country - all the songs and part songs, plus chamber works and other events connected to Schubert and to Oxford.

Rameau Anacréon danced - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

"Flying the Flag/L'Amour" ,the catchy title of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's  Rameau programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The title concealed the treasures within, two rarely-heard Rameau pieces, Pigmalion and Anacréon. True to the spirit of Rameau's aesthetic, which lies in dance, the performance was realized by dancers from Les Plaisirs des Nations (choreographer Edith Lalonger). Both pieces are miniatures, far less exuberant than masterpieces like Castor et Pollux but for that very reason, we can appreciate the basis of Rameau's distinctive style. 

Anacréon begins with a simple flourish : two coiled valveless horns (one possibly a genuine antique) evoke the kind of Arcadia which artists of the classical period delighted in painting. The horns are followed by high woodwinds, intensifying the dream-like atmosphere of ancient Greece seen through 18th century French imagination.  In this landscape, Gods, mortals and animals frolic, in idealized fantasy. Chloé (Anna Dennis) and Batile (Augustin Prunell-Friend) cautiously declare their love for each other.  However, Chloé is about to marry the famous poet Anacréon (Matthew Brook). She quite likes him but he's too amorous.  Rameau's audiences would have cackled, since they had enough classical education to know that Anacréon, though revered, was a drunk and a lecher.  Rameau suggests Anacréon's earthiness with lines that descend in almost ostinato: an old roué drooping because he's in his cups.  "Regnez, Regnez" sings Matthew Brook, like the god Bacchus, the lord of misrule. "I live in the moment" he sings. Instead of the deep reflection one might expect from Wagner, or the florid intensity of Verdi,  Rameau's Anacréon watches the dancers do their routines, and thus satisfied, lets Batile and Chloé find true love. Augustin Prunell-Friend sings Batile's long showpiece, which consists mainly of the lines "Let fly, arrows of love, into our souls" but is so beautifully decorated that it makes perfect sense. (The photo above is a 19th century French painting of Anacréon,with his lute with a hairless Pan and cupids - try staging that now)

The parade of dancers thus operates as plot device, which wouldn't be quite so obvious on audio-only recording. Why are the dancers dressed (vaguely) as Turks or Hindus?  Baroque audiences were fascinated by exotic cultures. If people from strange places could do strange things, then why not have them inject another level of fantasy into the proceedings?  Pan the god appears, half-man, half-goat, complete with little red horns like the devil.  Pan was the god of music, but also of sensuality and dangerous wild spaces. Bacchus appears, too, an old man with a wreath of grapevine.  Gods, men and animals mix in joyous confusion : anything can happen in the creative imagination. In Anacréon, we can see, in germ, the exuberance and creative good humour William Christie found in Les Indes Galantes, Les Paladins and Hippolyte et Aricie  The true, adventurous spirit of the age!

Williams and the OAE aren't quite in that league of brilliance, but they performed  a new edition of Rameau's  1754 version of Anacréon, compiled by Dr Jonathan Williams, who conducted. Their recording of this "new" Anacréon is the first in the market.

In April this year, Williams and the OAE performed Rameau's Zaïs, also danced by members of Les Plaisirs des Nations. Please see my review HERE.  Pigmalion dates from 1748, as did  Zaïs, but the plot's even thinner.  It's a metaphor fpor the power of artistic imagination. This isn't necessarily a disadvantage, since it means we can focus on the structure and on the role of dance. Pigmalion (Daniel Auchincloss) is a sculptor who has fallen in love with a Statue (Katherine Manley). Pigmalion's lover, Céphise (Susanna Hurrell) calls on the gods for help.  Unfortunately, L' Amour (Venus, sung by Anna Dennis) feels sorry for Pigmalion and turns the statue into a woman.  Everyone's happy, except Céphise, who disappears.  Rameau writes a rollicking good chorus singing about the joys of love. Is it ironic that a composer so given to energy and movement would write a piece where the love interest is an inanimate object? Again, the sheer vivacity of the music  makes anything seem possible.  Three dancers depict the Three Graces, artistic creations born like the Statue fully mature and whole..Although in classical art, the Three Graces, and most statues were shown naked, or semi-naked in Grecian drapes,  Nudity might have been authentic but Rameau and his audiences used their imaginations. The Three Graces appear in outfits which would have been contemporary in Rameau's time, and Katherine Manley wears an evening gown.

Most of the action happens not in sung text but in abstract music. Sequence after sequence of dance figures: I lost count after ten. These probably illustrate specific dance forms, some pastoral, some lively, some almost militaristic.  The patterns in which the dancers move reflect the patterns in the music, as if the abstract forms in music are being made visible. For all his exuberant effervescence, Rameau was a superb craftsman. His Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels  was one of the first great treatises on the theory of music. Rameau's mind reflected the clarity and precision so dear to the Enlightenment.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Listen - Daniele Gatti dirigeert Mahler 9

Listen HERE to a live recording of  the opening concert of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, from August 2013. It's Mahler Symphony no 9, conducted by Daniele Gatti, who was confirmed lasst week as the new Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. The news was hardly "news" in the sense of being unexpected, since orchestras tend to appoint conductors whom they know well, and who are good in their core repertoire. Gatti is also high profile , which matters in an ultra-prestige appointment like the Concertgebouw. Gatti is reliable, with enough flair to make an imprint.

The more intriguing story is what may be going on behind the scenes. Earlier this year, Bernard Haitink decided that he'd never again conduct  the RCO, with whom he's been associated so closely for half a century. (Read my article here)  Pointedly, he marked his 60th anniversary as conductor by conducting the RFO, with whom he started as a young man. Haitink's been emeritus for a long time, so it was even more of a shock when Mariss Jansons suddenly announced his departure from the RCO, while continuing as chief of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he's contracted until 2018. There's some evidence that the RCO is running into financial trouble, but that alone wouldn't deter anyone from an orchestra with the RCO's prestige and reputation  Read more here.

And HERE another Gatti concert, from 2010 - Prokofiev, Brahms and Richard Strauss.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

God only knows what's wrong with BBC Music

Massive hype about the launch of BBC Music. All BBC "platforms" (whatever that might mean in real English) united to play a 3 minute video  The video doesn't actually say what BBC Music is and where it's heading, but that nothingness might be in itself a cryptic clue.

Maybe the producers are revealing more than the BBC bigwigs realize. This video is spectacular, so extravagant you'd think money was flowing like water from an inexhaustable fountain.  It's as if the BBC is sneering at the very idea of financial accountability at a time when it ought to be taking into account calls for prudence.  It's an insult to all who genuinely care about the BBC and about music. If  the faceless suits behind BBC Music really cared about music, the least they could have done would be to put resources into commissioning an original theme tune, rather than rehashing a Beach Boys hit from 40 years ago.So much for any commitment to Britain and British talent. Lots of celebrities appear, each for a few seconds, no doubt being paid big money. Yet many of them have passed their creative prime. If BBC Music wants to be relevant to wider audiences, why pitch to a relatively irrelevant group of 70's retreads?

Maximum expense for nil content, whatsoever. To find out what BBC Music really means you have to search around. Follow this link to see what BBC Music plans for classical music (I can't comment on pop and other genres).  Yikes ! short clips from past broadcasts, randomly chosen . No artistic input, but rather the demented dumbing down of the "Ten Pieces" mindset. Please see my article "BBC Ten Pieces : Motherhood and Poisoned Apple Pie". It's bad enough to devise a dopey (and arbitrary) playlist. But to base the whole BBC Music aesthetic on this banality is a crime against art.  What's happened to the mission statement to "educate,, inform and entertain" ?  The policy seems to have been dreamed up by middle-aged, middle-class suits who assume that young people are too stupid to like anything that's not loud and brash.  The real danger is that such narrow-minded rigidity is inherently opposed to the  richness that makes the arts worthwhile. Creativity thrives on imaginations, individuality and freedom of expression. The BBC Ten Pieces are like a Stalinist Five Year Plan, created by committees who think the arts are units of consumer  product.

When Tony Hall announced his vision for the BBC I hoped that, with his experience, he might stand up to the anonymous group-think that characterizes the Arts Council England, and its ties to gravy trains like the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Plenty of money was poured into that scheme, though nearly all the events it claimed credit for would have happened anyway, without any connection to the Olympiad organization. About the only thing it did achieve were the entertainments for the ceremonies around the sporting events. Are the people involved connected.  BBC Music is being launched with the same style: extravagant entertainment but almost no artistic substance. That would be OK if the BBC were just another branch of the Murdoch empire, but it's not.

Tony Hall unveiled his vision for the future in two keynote announcements which I've written about here and here. I worried about the bullet point presentation style but thought it was simply PR bad taste. But I wonder now if the medium was the message, ie that the banality represented banal  conceptual thinking.  Crucial to this non-vision was the creation of a new level of management. In principle, that's not a big deal as long as the people involved are imaginative, but it seems that what we'll actually get might be über-suit apparatchiks who don't actually know the difference between corporate think and real thinking.

The new head of BBC Music is Bob Shennan. He's not a classical music man, which is perfectly fair enough. His ambit is to keep all the different special interest groups in balance. All the more reason why it's worrying that the new head of BBC Radio 3, Alan Davey, has a background in bureaucracy. He's the former head of the Arts Council England and, before that, worked for for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department of Health. The vague, mealy-mouthed ACE Ten year plan was developed under his watch, so it's definitely worth looking critically at that document "Great Art and Culture for Everyone". Harriet Harman's views on the supposed "elitism" of the arts and punitive funding derive therefrom.  To his credit, the present Secretary for Culture, Sajid  Javid,  hasn't said much at all. But Harman might get into power next year. The triumvirate between Harman, the new BBC Regime and ACE would be formidable. The press, unfortunately, is neither analytical nor objective. Charlotte Higgins wanted Alan Rusbridger to head the Royal Opera House, and now wants Tom Service to head the Proms (notwithstanding his time at Huddersfield) and welcomes Davey.

God Only Knows what the future holds. The flashy video alone is an argument for curtailing the licence fee, for it's proof that the BBC places extravagance over substance. This new banalification of the BBC dovetails with wider social and political pressures to diminish the arts, to turn from individualism, creativity and innovation to bland corporate non-thinking.  No amount of spreadsheet clevernesscan ever replace real creative wusdom. And certainly not an expensive pop video mindset.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Rameau Les Paladins Wigmore Hall

Les Paladins brought Rameau Les Paladins and much more to the Wigmore Hall. " ....a Baroque spirit of theatre and imagination. Contrasts of dynamic, register and timbre were exaggerated and celebrated, textures were by turns airy, then plangent, and such vivid shifts engendered a dramatic, playful - and at times, fantastical - mood. Equally at home with the jovial and the sensual, the instrumentalists of Les Paladins - the five female violinists standing to the left, while the male lower strings and woodwind players occupied the right of the stage - entered fully into the spirit of Correas’s endeavour, playing expressively and vivaciously, and giving each musical motif and melody a fresh character."

"Tempi were lively. In the Ouverture from Les Indes galantes an airy buoyancy was enriched by accented chromatic dissonances and tight trills, and the strings’ crystalline runs were matched by the bright vitality of the flutes (Jacque-Antoine Bresch, Lorenzo Brondetta). The dashing semi-quavers of the Ouverture from Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour fizzed with energy, while the piercing gleam of the flutes alleviated the brooding solemnity of the slow opening."

Read the full review HERE in Opera Today by Claire Seymour

MonteverdiL'incoronazione di Poppea, Barbican

Robert Howarth conducted The Academy of Ancient Music in a performance of Monteverdi L'incoronazione di Poppea at the Barbican Hall.  Claire Seymour writes in Opera Today:

"Set in the reign of Nero, it depicts the irresistible power and tragic pathos of human love, as the passion of Nero and Poppea ruthlessly sweeps aside all hindrances and finds ultimate fulfilment in the Queen’s coronation. In the Prologue which precedes the three Acts, Fortuna, Virtù and Amor dispute which of them has most power. In this richly sensory and sensual performance by the Academy of Ancient Music under the musical direction of Robert Howarth, there was no doubt that Amor is justified in claiming victory."

Please read the Full review HERE in Opera Today

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Jurowski, LPO, Rachmaninov

From Alex Verney-Elliott

"On Friday the 3rd October at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I heard a brooding mooding account of Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead  Op. 29 (1909) eloquently played by the London Philharmonic under the sensitive conducing of Vladimir Jurowski. As I bathed in a sea of agitatedly-serene sensations I suddenly longed to exist in a pre-linguistic state in a sensation of sounds devoid of words longing to live without language and never wanting to speak again,  realizing that not only was there nothing to say but that music and art are able to say what is important and interesting whilst language is always lacking. If only we could leave language and communicate through sensations of sounds outside our language.

The composition was inspired by a black-and-white print of the painting 'Isle of the Dead' by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin who described it as “a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door." Vladimir Jurowski magically made the stillness stormy, made the stillness shimmer, made the stillness shiver.

Jurowski also gave an intensely incandescent insightation of Rachmaninov's 'Symphonic Dances' Op. 45 (1940) with its mellow alto-saxophone melody melancholically moaned by Martin Robertson. Jurowski knows how to sculpt sounds and sow sensations from the tranquil to the turbulent and from the reposed to the roused and ending the performance with a glowing gong that slowly settled into the storm of the arousing arresting applause. Again the mesmerizingly moving music made me want to become pure sound in itself becoming sensation in itself void and devoid of words that wound the world."
Good news - Jurowski's contract with the LPO extended three more years! 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

ENO Girl of the Golden West Puccini

At the ENO, Puccini's La fanciulla del West becomes The Girl of the Golden West. Hearing this opera in English instead of Italian has its advantages, While we can still hear the exotic, Italianate Madama Butterfly fantasies in the orchestra, in English, we're closer to the original pot-boiler melodrama. Madama Biutterfly is premier cru: The Girl of the Golden West veers closer, at times, to hokum. The new ENO production gets round the implausibility of the plot by engaging with its natural innocence.

Bright lights greet curtain up, startling the audience. More fun to come as the music evolves. In The Girl of the Golden West we're enjoying Arcadia in Wild West costume, the stuff of childhood dreams and simple homilies. The men at the Polka love Minnie for her good nature and rough edges, but they turn savage without much provocation. So much for her teaching the Bible.  Perhaps there's a reason why Ramerrez (not Ramirez) is a Mexican.  As soon as Minnie reappears the would-be killers turn back into lambs. Where will Minnie and Ramerrez go when they leave California? Both are now displaced from a place where they belonged. But let's not bother ourselves with too much detail. Richard Jones's production, with designs by  Miriam Buether,  presents the opera as plain good fun, rather like Minnie herself, not in the least bit sophisticated but with her heart in the right place. As usual, Jones takes his cue from the music. In this opera, Puccini employs special effects, like wind machines and "gunshots" in the percussion, There are many good moments in the music, like 'Ch’ella Mì Creda Libero', Ramerrez's big 'Un bel Di' moment. But in general, this music works well  as pure, uncomplicated fun. Not for nothing I've been calling the opera has been called the first Spaghetti Western for the last 40 years..

Casting Susan Bullock as Minnie is a stroke of inspiration. Bullock is a Wagnerian, so she has the timbre of a Brünnhilde charging into action to protect the wronged. Puccini doesn't give Minnie long heroic passages to develop her personality, since after all, she's plainfolks, who falls for Mr Johnson because he treats her like a lady. So Bullock's innate sense of style does for Minnie what fancy clothes and tight shoes can't do. Bullock's words ring out with desperate heroism. Minnie has seen an alternative to the life she leads. Like Senta, she's prepared to risk all for her man. Bullock's portrayal adds wonders, bringing out humorous levels in this opera that might get missed in too prosaic a reading. The effect would be heightened even more if she sang with her normal English accent, but English audiences, much given to literal fake accents, probably wouldn't understand why. Bullock's natural good nature warms Minnie's personality and creates a convincing character.

Peter Auty sings Ramerrez/Mr Johnson. The fit is good.  Auty's experience adds authority and depth. In the second act, Minnie tries, ineptly, to seduce Mr Johnson, Auty shows how Ramerrez's nobler instincts motivate his actions. Auty's resolve suggests why Minnie is drawn to the stranger, so different from the rabble around her. Again, this isn't obvious in the libretto but a sign of sensitive directoral interpretation. Richard Jones's staging is far more perceptive than meets the eye, but probably too subtle for some.

Craig Colclough  sings Jack Rance. His voice is technically secure, but the portrayal is relatively straightforward, allowing greater definition to Minnie and Mr Johnson/Ramerrez. It was good to hear Graham Clark again, albeit in the fairly small part of the bartender. Clark is a national insititution, and a long-term stalwart of the ENO. His very presence makes a statement.

The cast included Nicholas Masters, Leigh Melrose, Adrian Dwyer, Jonathan McGovern, Richard Roberts, Sam Furness, Alexander Robin Baker, Nicholas Crawley, Jimmy Holliday, Clare Presland, George Humphreys, Trevor Eliot Bowes, and Daniel Mullaney.  Good singing, good chorus: proof that the ENO nurtures talent in a way no micro mini company ever could.  The conductor was Keri-Lynn Wilson, making her ENO debut.