Monday, 22 June 2015

Swept Away – Continuum Ensemble – Kings Place, 19–21 June 2015

Ernst Toch
(photo Schott Music / G. Tillmann-Matter)
The main focus and interest of the Continuum Ensemble’s weekend of concerts and talks at Kings Place under the banner of ‘Swept Away’ was the music of Ernst Toch (1889–1964). He was a key member of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in inter-war Germany, alongside Hindemith and Weill, but his music and reputation, unlike those of his colleagues, didn’t survive his exile in the US to nearly the same extent. In his heyday, in the 1920s, his music was performed by the likes of Klemperer and Furtwängler; Emmanuel Feuermann played his Cello Concerto and Walter Gieseking gave more than 50 performances of his Piano Concerto. He wrote in all the main media, from chamber music to opera. But when the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Jewish composer suddenly found his music proscribed, and he fled to the US, where he was among the first to follow what would soon become a well-worn trail from Germany to Hollywood. There he became the go-to composer for chase scenes and horror films, though without achieving the film-music success of Korngold, Waxman or Steiner, and he only slowly returned to writing concert music late in life. A more personal exposition of his life as an exile can be read here in the words of his grandson Lawrence Weschler.

But to return to his music of the Weimar Republic era in Germany, these concerts perhaps gave us the most exposure it has yet had in Britain and included more than half a dozen UK premieres. I have already mentioned his miniature opera Egon und Emilie in a previous post and I will discuss the performances of his sonatas for violin and for cello in a forthcoming review in The Strad. The select discography of Toch’s music, most notably on the German CPO label, has passed me by, so this was my first real encounter with it beyond the perennial Geographical Fugue (performed alongside his other ‘spoken music’ pieces by the exemplary BBC Singers).

Was this, then, going to be a revelation of finding a key figure from the period the quality of whose music one cannot understand being so neglected – on a par with the rediscovery of Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky and others in recent decades? I’m afraid that, on the basis of the music performed here, the case remains open. There’s no denying that Toch sounds like no one else, but there’s also a saminess about much of his writing in the 1920s – ostinatos, relentless fury, parallel harmonies and so on – that was highlighted by Erik Levi’s illustration of the contrasting range of Erwin Schulhoff’s output over the same period in his talk on Weimar Republic music. The piano miniatures played with great energy by Douglas Finch exemplified this, with their love of extremes and often unforgiving forcefulness, exemplified by ‘Der Jongleur’ from his Three Burlesques of 1923, which, as Prof. Levi also illustrated in his talk, Toch transcribed for player piano to give it even more super-human forcefulness. Indeed, his music suffered a little by comparison with that of his colleagues that surrounded it in these concerts: Weill (a moving account of the Berliner Requiem by the BBC Singers), Krenek, Wolpe and Hindemith.

The expansion into more chamber-orchestral forces brought welcome variety of colour in the Five Pieces of 1924, but the similarity of the individual movements, where short nuggets of motifs are rather worked to death in swirls of parallel harmonies, left me underwhelmed – at times it was rather atmospheric, but also somewhat one-dimensional. It didn’t help that the Continuum Ensemble, conducted by Philip Headlam, lacked the weight of strings to mitigate lapses of intonation and bring greater solidity to the meandering lines.

But there was one particular revelation in Die Chinesische Flöte of 1922. Although this piece doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind if it’s a chamber symphony or a song cycle, there’s more imagination, colour and expressive range here than found in the other music performed over the weekend of concerts. It alternates instrumental movements with three songs setting texts translated from the Chinese from the same collection upon which Mahler drew for Das Lied von der Erde. The music is framed by a rather effective percussive cortège accompanying a languid melody (not unlike the effect of Ravel’s Boléro) and in his vocal writing – effortlessly sung here by Sarah Tynan – Toch at last reveals a lyrical side that has been sorely missed elsewhere. In the song ‘The Rat’ one can hear why his music would later be sought for movie chase scenes, but it was the more reflective side of the work that had greatest impact, not least the beautiful flute playing from the Continuum’s Lisa Nelson, which played an important role in the performance.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Opera in Miniature – Continuum Ensemble – Kings Place, 19 June 2015

Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith: Hin und Zurück (performed in English as There and Back)
Helene – Anna Dennis
Robert – Andrew Rees
Auntie – Martha Jones
Maid – Gemma Summerfield
Doctor – Barnaby Rea
Orderly – Edward Grint
Wise Man – Norbert Meyn

Ernst Toch: Egon und Emilie (performed in English as Egon and Emilie)
Emilie – Donna Bateman
Egon – Martin McDougall

Kurt Weill: Vom Tod im Wald
Barnaby Rea (bass)

Kurt Weill: Mahagonny Songspiel
Jessie – Anna Dennis
Bessie – Martha Jones
Charlie – Andrew Rees
Billie – Norbert Meyn
Bobby – Barnaby Rea
Jimmy – Edward Grint

Continuum Ensemble
Conductor – Philip Headlam

The opening concert in the Continuum Ensemble’s enterprising ‘Swept Away’ weekend exploring the music of composers forced out of their homelands by the Third Reich concentrated on opera. Not the large-scale ambitions of the late Romantics and Expressionists, but instead work by the exponents of ‘New Objectivity’, who aimed to do away with earlier emotional excesses and bring a new reality and sense of discomfort to their art – in essence what we think of as the ethos of the Weimar Republic. One particular strand of exploration in opera was the short, snappy, satirical miniature: here we had a 30-minute first half to a concert that encompassed two complete operas, including platform reconfiguring.

Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück, written in 1927 as a kind of experimental study for his full-length ‘Zeitoper’ Neues vom Tage, is based on the conceit of a dramatic palindrome: a husband and wife argue over a letter from her lover and he shoots her dead; a Wise Man appears and suggests there’s no reason why life shouldn’t be lived in reverse, from death to birth; so the first scene is replayed in reverse until marital happiness is regained. It’s all over in about 12 minutes. Even in this static concert performance, it made a telling impact, with enough little witty touches – Auntie’s sneeze (her only audible contribution to the drama), the postman’s knock on the door – to make the most of the ‘there and back’ symmetry. Kings Place’s rather full-on acoustic somewhat masked the impact of the singers’ diction, especially when Hindemith’s wind-and-piano orchestra played at full pelt, but Andrew Rees and Anna Dennis as the couple conveyed the drama’s swift changes of light and dark in their singing as much as their on-the-spot acting. It was unfortunately impossible to make out the the tenet of Norbert Meyn’s crucial, harmonium-accompanied intervention as the Wise Man.

Ernst Toch’s Egon und Emilie, here receiving its UK premiere, is another 12-minute miniature, this time based on a brief text by Christian Morgenstern, subtitled ‘Not a family drama’, that sends up 19th-century opera. A diva fails to encourage her husband to perform a five-act drama with her, so she goes off in a huff, leaving her husband to give a spoken explanation for his silence along the lines of who wouldn’t want to remain silent when faced with such a shrew. It’s effectively a coloratura scena for soprano, and Donna Bateman performed her role magnificently, storming around the stage in her frustration and projecting the often angular vocal line with precision and care for the words (sung here in English). Actor Martin McDougall’s mute response was treasurable and his final speech was expertly delivered. (Toch, whose music went from international acclaim before the Third Reich to obscurity afterwards, was the main focus of this weekend of concerts and I’ll aim to write more about him in a later review.)

The concert’s second half was given over to the more familiar sounds of Kurt Weill, though his chilling Brecht setting Vom Tod im Wald – a spill-over from the Berliner Requiem – is a rarity in itself and was sonorously and movingly sung by bass Barnaby Rae. Mahagonny-Songspiel, Brecht and Weill’s 1927 ‘try-out’ for their full-length opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, alternates numbers for male quartet and soprano/mezzo, including the famous ‘Alabama Song’, and conveniently shared the cast members of the Hindemith, at last giving voice to Martha Jones’s rich mezzo, in duet with Anna Dennis’s crisp soprano. Tenor Andrew Rees led the well-blended male ensemble – shades of the barber-shop close harmony that colours Weill’s near-contemporary Seven Deadly Sins.

Throughout the evening, the mainly wind-based instrumentation of the Continuum Ensemble (two violins featured just in Mahagonny) came across with power and panache, even if some of the subtlety of timbre seemed gobbled up by the acoustic. Philip Headlam’s advocacy for this fascinating genre of 20th-century music – conveyed with the perception and enthusiasm of his direction – deserves every commendation.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Pelléas et Mélisande – Welsh National Opera – Birmingham Hippodrome, 13 June 2015

Jurgita Adomonytė (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas)

Photos: Clive Barda

Pelléas – Jacques Imbrailo
Mélisande – Jurgita Adomonytė
Golaud – Christopher Purves
Genevieve – Leah-Marian Jones
Arkel – Scott Wilde
Yniold – Rebecca Bottone

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs
Director – David Pountney
Sets – Johan Engels
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Mark Jonathan

While not wishing hardship on any opera company, forced economy can sometimes reap greater artistic dividends than the generosity of unlimited funds. I find it hard to believe that David Pountney’s decision to base his new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in the same (expensive-looking) set by the late Johan Engels that had embraced their acclaimed staging of Berg’s Lulu two seasons ago was purely an artistic one. But what ever the savings of ‘make do and mend’, there’s validity in the director’s drawing of parallels between the two operas and in particular their leading ladies. Both Lulu and Mélisande seem to have an uncontrollable effect on all the men they meet, but with the difference lying in their self-knowledge: Debussy’s heroine is no femme fatale, but an innocent in a cruel world. Pountney emphasises this, not only in the depiction of her victimhood at the hands of Golaud, but also suggesting that there isn’t a man in Allemonde who can elude her charms – from the aged Arkel even down to the ‘petit’ Yniold, who here enacts his Act IV scene with the boulder and shepherd as a game with Mélisande (and where, in another tiny money-saving solution that brings interpretative insight, it is left to the prowling Golaud to utter the off-stage Shepherd’s single line explaining darkly why the sheep have gone silent – a more ominous portent). Otherwise, the Lulu connection is lightly played, with lurking wild animal figures framing the action (Lulu after all begins with the Animal Trainer and his menagerie, Pelléas with Golaud out hunting an unspecified ‘beast’), leaving us to make our own connections – and what an admirably ‘grown-up’ way of a company embracing the loyalty and trust of its audience through different seasons.

The cage-like nature of Engels’s set proves apt as a metaphor of Allemonde’s stifling sense of imprisonment, with the back of the stage opening and closing on images of stars and sunsets – the inaccessible world beyond the characters’ confines. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s magnificent costumes lend an air of Pre-Raphaelite-meets-Belgian-art-nouveau decadence to the otherwise spare and grim setting. Pountney’s direction of the characters is as perceptive and illuminating as ever, with some elements that seem to cut across the specifics of the libretto – the Rapunzel-like tower scene, for example, where the physical separation of the lovers suggests more a dream on Pelléas’s part than real interaction; and others that interpret the text in new ways: at the very end, the director takes’s Arkel’s words ‘she’s gone without a word’ literally, after Mélisande has got up from her deathbed, wound herself in funeral shrouds and silently left the stage with the servants. This is one of the most intensely moving scenes in all opera and was made even more so in this staging, helped by the equally beautiful and controlled playing of the WNO orchestra, here as much as through the work as a whole. Indeed, Lothar Koenigs’s partnership with his musicians drew playing that was as translucent as it was sheerly beautiful, with a sense of pacing that made the emotional climaxes all the more intense in their effect.

Jurgita Adomonytė (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud)
The opera might as well have been entitled ‘Golaud’, such was Christopher Purves’s command of every scene in which he appeared – as ‘hunter’, jealous husband, callous half-brother or remorseful widower: one of this superlative singer-actor’s most compelling roles to date. As such it put Jacques Imbrailo’s youthful and vocally ardent Pelléas a little in the shade: he was deliberately portrayed as the cowed younger brother whose shyness and insecurity are overcome by the allure of Mélisande. And the Lithuanian mezzo Jurgita Adomonytė inhabited her role in full, conveying an air of mystery at the same time as a kind of almost knowing innocence as her character comes to recognise her power. Hers is a rich but subtle vocal instrument, nowhere more compelling than in her almost whispered ‘Je t’aime aussi’, and she carried Debussy’s parlando lines with lyrical ease. Scott Wilde was a wonderfully sonorous Arkel, Leah-Marian Jones a sympathetic Geneviève, Rebecca Bottone a convincingly virile Yniold and Stephen Wells (bewigged and bearded as if Debussy himself) more than a mere cameo as the Doctor. If I had paid more attention to my French at school, the surtitles would have been superfluous, so clear was the diction all the singers.
Conductor Lothar Koenigs
Director David Pountney
Set Designer Johan Engels
Costume Designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan
Pelléas Jacques Imbrailo
Mélisande Jurgita Adomonyté
Golaud Christopher Purves
Genevieve Leah-Marian Jones
Arkel Scott Wilde
Yniold Rebecca Bottone
- See more at:

Friday, 5 June 2015

2015/16 operatic highlights in continental Europe

Now that the vast majority of new-season announcements have been made, it seems a good time to pick out the repertoire highlights on offer in the German-speaking lands and further afield between September 2015 and the summer of 2016 for anyone who might, like me, be prepared to travel to hear and see things that rarely if ever reach British shores (and even some of those that do). Please forgive the bias towards operas that (Glass apart) most induce me to such travel – devotees of pre-19th-century opera and pre-verismo Italian repertoire will need to make their own investigations.

NB: this summary has been compiled in good faith, but please don’t blame me if I’ve inadvertently misplaced any dates or other facts; further confirmation and details can easily be found by googling venues – there are too many to link to from here. 

Updates since original posting on 5 June in red. 

To start with my own main interest, Austro-German operas from the first third of the 20th century, it’s a good season for the music of Alexander Zemlinsky. His one-act Oscar Wilde adaptation Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, aka The Birthday of the Infanta) can be seen in no fewer than four productions: in Mainz (from 19 Sep, in a double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi), Kaiserslautern (from 19 Sep, alongside Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle) and on its own in Chemnitz (from 7 Nov) and in Düsseldorf (from 5 May, revival). But perhaps of more interest are a rare production of his ‘forgotten’ opera of 1905, Der Traumgörge, a work abandoned just before its premiere when the supportive Mahler left his Vienna post and only rediscovered in 1980 (Hannover, from 16 Apr), and two stagings of the later Der König Kandaules (Augsburg, from 27 Sep; and Antwerp/Gent, March/April).

Franz Schreker gets slim pickings next season, compared to recent years, with just one new production of Der ferne Klang in Graz (from 26 Sep) and a revival of the opera in Mannheim (from Oct). Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, meanwhile, continues its journey towards becoming mainstream repertoire with new productions in Magdeburg (from 23 Jan) and Kassel (from 23 Apr), and revivals in Hamburg (Nov) and Frankfurt (Oct). Korngold’s one-time rival Ernst Krenek fares well with Jonny spielt auf (Hagen, from 16 Jan) and Der Diktator (Dessau, in a double bill with Kurt Weill’s Der Zar läßt sich photographieren, from 28 Feb). There’s more Weill with a spate of new Mahagonnys: Rome (from 6 Oct), Kiel (15 Oct), Koblenz (16 Jan), Dessau (4 Mar), Münster (19 Apr), Antwerp (24 Jun) and Venice (1 July). And from the same generation Max Brand, best remembered for Machinist Hopkins, has a posthumous stage premiere of his 1955 one-act opera Stormy Interlude (Salzburg, from 21 May). Cologne mounts Walter Braunfels's musical passion-play Jeanne d'Arc - Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna (from 14 Feb).

Manfred Gurlitt’s ‘rival’ setting of Büchner’s Wozzeck can be seen in Bremerhaven (from 5 March) at the same time as Alban Berg’s version is in rep in nearby Bremen (from 13 Feb), and Frankfurt’s new production of Berg’s opera (from 26 June) offers a comparable experience by coinciding with the run of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Wozzeck-inspired Die Soldaten in neighbouring Wiesbaden (from 30 Apr). Berg’s Lulu receives a new production in Wuppertal (from 14 May), Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron features in Paris (from 17 Oct) and Madrid (from 24 May), Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is a highlight of the season in Dresden (from 1 May), Boris Blacher’s Die Nachtschwalbe can be seen in Leipzig (from 10 Oct) and Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids is staged in Mannheim (from 23 Oct).

Among other Germanic rarities are the 14-year-old Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Das Waldmädchen, staged in the place in which it was composed, the east Saxon town of Freiberg (from 11 Nov), and works by Weber’s contemporary Heinrich Marschner, Der Vampyr (Berlin Komische Oper, from 20 Mar) and Hans Heiling (Vienna Theater an der Wien, from 13 Sep; Regensburg, from 19 Sep). Emil von Reznicek's Holofernes features in Bonn (from 29 May). And one particularly interesting prospect is discovering the music of Hans Sommer (1837–1922), whose 1904 fairytale opera Rübezahl und der Sackpfeifer von Neisse is staged in Gera (from 18 Mar).

Among Czech operas are a couple of Leoš Janáček rarities – The Excursions of Mr Brouček in Trier (from 30 Apr) and From the House of the Dead in Nuremberg (from 7 Mar) – and two by Bohuslav Martinů: The Greek Passion in Essen (from 26 Sep) and Graz (from 5 Mar), and Julietta in Prague (National Theatre, from 24 Mar) and Berlin (Staatsoper, from 28 May). Russian highlights include Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in Frankfurt (from 30 Oct), Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Lubeck, 4 Mar; Oslo, 1 Apr; Augsburg, 16 Apr) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel (Dusseldorf, from 15 Apr) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Dresden Staatsoperette, from 16 Oct); and French works of interest include Hector Berlioz's Les troyens (Hamburg, from 19 Sep), Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le prophete (Karlsruhe, from 18 Oct), Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites in Mainz (from 11 Jun, plus a revival in Amsterdam from 7 Nov) and Gabriel Fauré’s Pénélope (Strasbourg, from 23 Oct).

Prize for most enterprising house must go to Braunschweig (Brunswick), which continues its exploration of rare operas on literary themes with the German premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park (from 5 Dec), the world premiere of a new chamber opera based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando by Peter Aderhold (from 22 Apr), the Baudelaire-inspired La falena (1897) by the little-known Puccini contemporary Antonio Smareglia (from 15 Apr) and Robert Ward’s 1950s operatic treatment of Miller’s The Crucible (as Hexenjagd, from 28 May). These run alongside revivals of Werner Egk’s Peer Gynt (27 Sep) and Jenő Hubay’s Anna Karenina (6 Nov).

Keeping the Ward company among American operas are André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Koblenz, from 14 May), William Bolcom’s McTeague (Linz, from 6 Feb), Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (Oldenburg, from 6 Feb) and Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain (Salzburg, from 27 Feb).

Wagnerians will want to head to Leipzig in late May when all three pre-Holländer operas can be seen on consecutive nights. Das Liebesverbot is also being given in Strasbourg the same month and earlier in Madrid (from 19 Feb). The most important new productions are probably the two key Meistersinger stagings, in Berlin (Staatsoper, from 3 Oct, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and with a couple of one-time Siegfrieds giving cameos among the guild members) and Munich (from 16 May, starring Jonas Kaufmann). Other new Meistersingers are being given in Chemnitz (from 19 Mar) and Erfurt (from 29 May) and Stefan Herheim’s Salzburg production reaches Paris (Bastille, from 1 Mar). There are new productions of Der fliegende Holländer (Wiesbaden, from 25 Sep; Vienna Theater an der Wien, from 12 Nov; Frankfurt, from 6 Dec; Heidelberg, from 9 Apr), Lohengrin (Ulm, from 24 Mar), Tannhäuser (Antwerp/Gent, Sep & Oct; Aachen, from 7 Feb) and Tristan und Isolde (Dortmund, from 6 Sep; Baden-Baden Festival, from 19 Mar; Karlsruhe, from 27 Mar; Kaiserslautern, from 9 Apr; Passau, from 14 Apr). No new Parsifals (yet), but revivals in Karlsruhe, Cologne, Berlin (Staatsoper), Chemnitz, Leipzig, Madrid, Vienna and Stockholm.

Kiel (from 26 Sep) and Karlsruhe (from 9 Jul) launch new Ring cycles with Das Rheingold, while Nuremberg (from 11 Oct) and Leipzig (from 30 Apr) conclude theirs with Götterdämmerung. Complete cycles can be seen in Halle (Oct), Vienna (Jan), Leipzig (May/Jun), Frankfurt (May/Jul), Mannheim (Jun) and Berlin Staatsoper (Jun). The Ruhr Triennale (Bochum, Sep) is also mounting a one-off festival staging of Das Rheingold in a former industrial complex (alongside Luigi Nono’s Prometeo).

Fans of Richard Strauss have the usual favourites to seek out, with too many Rosenkavaliers to list (new productions in Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam), but there are new stagings of Elektra in Wiesbaden (from 28 Jan), Detmold (from 12 Feb), Essen (from 19 Mar) and Osnabruck (from 21 May), of Ariadne in Duisburg (from 25 Feb) and of Arabella in Düsseldorf (from 18 Sep) and Leipzig (from 18 Jun). It’s a better-than-average season, though, for the composer’s more infrequently staged works: Friedenstag in Budapest (from 1 Oct), Daphne in Budapest (from 1 Oct) and Hamburg (from 5 Jun), Capriccio in Meiningen (from 16 Oct), Paris (from 19 Jan) and Vienna (Theater an der Wien, from 18 Apr) and revivals of Die ägyptische Helene and Der Liebe der Danae in Berlin (Deutsche Oper, Mar/Apr).

Further contemporary operas include new productions of Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face in Brussels (from 22 Sep) and Brno (from 29 Jan) and of The Tempest in Budapest (from 19 May); Louis Andriessen’s new Theatre of the World in Amsterdam (from 11 Jun); Elliott Carter’s What Next? in Duisburg (from 4 Jun); Wolfgang Rihm's Die Eroberung von Mexico in Cologne (from 8 May); Philippe Boesmans's Reigen in Stuttgart (from 24 Apr); Peter Eötvös’s Der goldene Drache in Bremerhaven (from 4 Jun), Three Sisters in Vienna (Staatsoper, 6 Mar) and brand new Senze sangue in Avignon (from 15 May); Wolfgang Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine in Zurich (from 24 Jan); the world premieres of Toshio Hosokawa’s Stilles Meer in Hamburg 24 Jan), Elena Kats-Chernin’s Schneewittchen und die 77 Zwerge in Berlin (Komische Oper, 1 Nov), Wolker David Kirchner’s Gutenberg in Erfurt (24 Mar), and Helmut Oehring’s Agota in Wiesbaden (5 Apr).

I will add further items of interest as and when information comes available.