Thursday, 26 June 2014

King Roger - Wuppertal Opera - 26 June 2014

Roger II, King of Sicily – Kay Stiefermann 
Roxane, his wife – Banu Böke 
Edrisi, an Arabian scholar – Christian Sturm 
Shepherd – Rafal Bartminski 
Archbishop – Martin Js. Ohu 
Deaconess – Joslyn Rechter 
Opera Chorus, Extra Chorus and Statisterie of Wuppertaler Bühnen 
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra

Conductor– Florian Frannek
Director – Jakob Peters-Messer
Set design – Markus Meyer
Costumes – Sven Bindseil
Chorus master – Jens Bingert
Dramaturge – Johannes BBlum

Szymanowski's plot for his operatic masterpiece is an unusual one in that each of its three acts stages an encounter between the shepherd and the king in a different setting without much in the way of conventional action. Jacob Peters-Messer has taken the ingenious route of turning these confrontations into a series of analytic sessions, acting out dreams of Roger's obsession with the Dionysian figure, in which Edrisi, as the king's psychoanalysist, finally frees his mind from its troubles. The problem with this approach, though, is that it is also suggesting the rather distasteful idea that any homosexual feelings Roger has for the shepherd have been expunged by the same method. Surely the idea of the composer's resolution is that he has learnt to reconcile conflicting obsessions rather than destroy them (Peters-Messer even has Roger strangle the shepherd as an act of release).

Markus Meyer's single set (the three acts are performed without interval) is shaped like the inside of a kaleidoscope, with the images projected onto its rear 'lense' reflecting along its length towards the front of the stage. It cleverly suggests the dreamlike setting (shades of Hitchcock's Vertigo) and at the same time provides effective, all-encompassing scenic imagery.
With the singers tightly directed, almost choreographed at times, the interactions were vividly drawn. Kay Stiefermann's Roger was gripping in its focus, no more so than in the final bars, when standing in front of the curtain his words seemed almost personally addressed. His baritone was varied in tonal colour and he brought a Lieder-like detail to the Polish text. Banu Bike was equally seductive a performer, singing Roxane's famous aria with refulgent tone. I warmed less to the sometimes effortful tenor of Rafal Bartminski - the one Pole in the cast - as the shepherd, despite an appropriately lascivious stage presence, and he was even out sung by the lesser tenor role of Edrisi - the cool and collected Christian Sturm.

The chorus, including some rather fidgety children in Act I, sang with imposing weight and the orchestra under Florian Frannek played its heart out in those most miraculous of operatic scores.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Moses und Aron – Welsh National Opera

Photo: Bill Cooper

Hippodrome, Birmingham, 18 June 2014

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost
A Young Maiden/First Naked Virgin – Elizabeth Atherton
A Youth – Alexander Sprague
Another Man/Ephraimite – Daniel Grice
A Priest – Richard Wiegold
First Elder – Julian Boyce
Second Elder – Laurence Cole
Third Elder – Alastair Moore
Sick Woman/Fourth Naked Virgin – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Naked Youth – Edmond Choo
Second Naked Virgin – Fiona Harrison
Third Naked Virgin – Louise Ratcliffe

Chorus, Extra Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs
Directors – Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Based on an original design by Anna Viebrock

Some commentators may down-play the autobiographical connections, but it is easy to see Schoenberg’s choice of subject for the opera that marked his return to the Judaism of his roots as an allegory of the difficulties he found in conveying his new twelve-note language to his audience. Moses, experiencing the revelation of God, becomes effectively tongue-tied as he tries to impart his message to the exiled Jewish people and has to rely on the eloquence of his wayward brother Aron to do the job for him. The opera – of which Schoenberg only managed to complete two of its three acts, despite him living for a further two decades after abandoning it – is a model of serialism. And unlike Berg’s Lulu, written at almost exactly the same time in the early 1930s (and similarly left as a torso, though for more tragic reasons), there’s no leavening of the music’s hard-core twelve-note writing with allusions to tonality or to jazz bands. Indeed, Schoenberg’s language here is uncompromising in the extreme and puts enormous demands on all involved in the opera’s performance.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production was originally created a decade or so ago for Stuttgart Opera (Wieler has since become the house’s Intendant), and strips the opera of anything illustrative. For a work exploring the struggle between idea and image – Aron’s conjuring of physical manifestations to lure the people to the new god – it proved both perverse and strangely appropriate. The directors set the two acts in a conference chamber in the present – where exactly is only hinted at, though there was perhaps the suggestion of an oppressed people meeting to assert its identity and plan its way forward. They seem to impose the hindsight of seeing the opera’s plot as an unforeseen allusion to the way that survivors of the Holocaust found their new ‘promised land’ in postwar Israel. (There was a moment when what looked like a German flag was set on fire while a blue-and-white-striped one with calf image was brandished in triumph.)

There were no miracles at the end of Act I (where Aron attempts to convince the people of God’s powers) and no Golden Calf in Act II: Aron here shows the people a film, brilliantly directed as the chorus sits in rows facing us, and all we see is their various reactions to what we can’t see, but what is obviously a disturbing run of violent and pornographic imagery that inspires its audience to the opera’s celebrated orgy (here a fairly tasteful melée of couplings in the ‘theatre’ seating). In a neat reversal of the work’s theme, therefore, we are made to conjure up our own images to match the ideas we already 'know'.

Rainer Trost (Aron) and John Tomlinson (Moses)

Photo: Bill Cooper
One of Schoenberg’s inspirational moves was to make the role of Moses a speaker, using his trademark Sprechstimme style of delivery to emphasise the character’s communicative difficulties (the composer also uses it for the choral voice of God, thus setting them both apart from the rest of the cast). John Tomlinson was born for this role – not least, if one is allowed to make physical remarks these days, in appearance, with his ‘Biblical’ mane of white hair. He tended to sing rather than strictly speak much of his role, but with a certain roughness not uncharacteristic of a singer now in late 60s and here giving appropriate edge to his delivery. Needless to say, Tomlinson’s identification with his character was unremitting and his stage presence as compelling as ever.

Schoenberg deliberately contrasts Moses’s vocal faltering with a lyrical tenor role for his brother, Aron. German tenor Rainer Trost was suitably persuasive in the part, never allowing Schoenberg’s angular melodic lines to harden into rhetoric and portraying the character with a winning combination of guile and rebelliousness.

While one can’t easily dismiss the contribution of the singers of all the smaller roles, the third lead character in Schoenberg’s opera is really the people, and the expanded WNO Chorus excelled itself in singing of confidence, accuracy and ensemble that bore witness to its 18 months of preparation for these performances. It is hard to imagine a more ideal realisation of this phenomenally complex choral writing, and if any other opera company has plans to stage this work in the near future it would be well-advised to book WNO’s chorus over its own.

The same might be said of WNO’s orchestra (and here I must declare an ‘interest’, given that my brother is a member), which played with such beauty and clarity of tone that the alleged difficulty of Schoenberg’s musical language was dispelled from the very first notes. Lothar Koenig’s eloquently delineated reading, with chords and ensemble balanced to perfection in Birmingham Hippodrome's dry acoustic, went a long way to argue for wider acceptance of Schoenberg’s masterpiece as a repertoire work rather than a mere footnote, let alone dead-end, in 20th-century opera.

Final performances on tour at the Royal Opera House, London, on 25 & 26 July.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Haitink - Schumann, Berg and Beethoven, 5 June 2014

Isabelle Faust/COE/Bernard Haitink
Barbican Hall

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole, I have to state from the start that this concert, in which the 85-year-old Bernard Haitink conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, was one of the most musically enriching experiences I have had for years. In a period in which we’ve recently lost some eminent octogenarian conductors – Charles Mackerras, Colin Davis and Claudio Abbado – one feels a certain morbid need to catch the rest of these great figures while we can. And thankfully, Haitink looks in the rudest of health – happily standing for 40 minutes uninterrupted for a Beethoven symphony and only once eschewing the effort of the stage steps before returning for an ovation. And what an ovation. Before he had even conducted a note there was a warmth to the applause at his arrival on the Barbican Hall podium that recognised both the great contribution he has made to Britain’s musical life over the decades and the regard in which he is held by concert-goers.

The qualities of Haitink’s artistry were displayed from the very start: Schumann’s Manfred Overture had tonal richness, sense of purpose and the ideal balance between lyricism and rhythmic thrust. The weight of the string sound – perhaps the section was slightly more numerous in personnel than most ensembles that call themselves ‘chamber orchestras’ – was particularly impressive, with the sound seeming to well up from the fundamental of the four basses. And with the violins left and right of the conductor there was some nifty stereophonic interplay between the two sections in the calmer centre of the overture. Apart from some slightly tremulous trumpet-playing in the same portion of the work, the wind added refinement and character to the whole.

Alban Berg is not a composer normally associated with Haitink and as befits this great Mahlerian, the conductor took a very late-Romantic approach to the Violin Concerto, drawing out its engagement with the composer’s Viennese heritage more than its acerbic, forward-looking aspects. In this he was in complete agreement with his soloist, Isabelle Faust, who, while sometimes lacking the last ounce of tonal weight, touchingly caught all the music’s poignancy and guided its emotional trajectory with consummate command. There were some telling details to her playing, too, such as the way at the start where she mimicked the open-string fifths of her first entry with non-vibrato articulation of the motif’s repetitions at higher pitches, only introducing vibrato as the music sunk to its first cadence. However, where one might have expected a purer approach – her first exposition of the Bach chorale – her heavy vibrato contrasted a little too much with the following harmonisation on the organ-like clarinet choir. It was touching, nonetheless, and with Haitink’s masterly control of the orchestra the performance as a whole left a profound effect that lasted well beyond the much-deserved applause.

Haitink’s account of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in the second half was as close to perfection in this composer’s music as I’m ever likely to hear. In recent times, we have come to expect lean and fierce Beethoven from chamber orchestras whether or not the players are adopting period manners on their modern instruments. Haitink’s way was neither purely old school, nor over-burdened by ‘authentic’ mannerism and the most obvious aspect one took away from this performance was the music’s abundance of tonal detail and colour. As a past master of Debussy and Ravel, Haitink seemed to bring some of those composers’ colouristic subtlety to Beethoven’s orchestration, making us aware as never before how carefully the composer shaded his orchestral palette. It was a performance notable for its clarity and tonal beauties as much for its symphonic integrity, and much of this wouldn’t have been possible without the supreme artistry of the COE’s musicians at Haitink’s disposal, from the rich blend of the strings to the personable individuality of the wind soloists. A memorable evening indeed.