02 Feb 2011
Jurowski conducts Zemlinsky
This looked an enticing programme before Vladimir Jurowski, in conversation with the Southbank Centre’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, divulged its secrets.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
This looked an enticing programme before Vladimir Jurowski, in conversation with the Southbank Centre’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, divulged its secrets.
It was, Jurowski told us, to be considered as part of a larger programme in conjunction with the London Philharmonic’s Saturday concert (Ligeti’s Lontano, Bartók’s First Violin Concerto, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied). Anniversary boys Liszt and Mahler would be celebrated and contextualised. One might make too much of that; Jurowski mentioned the extraordinary late works of Liszt, but the Second Piano Concerto is not among them. (Most are for piano solo, in any case.) Likewise, though he lamented the neglect of so much of Liszt’s œuvre, as opposed to Mahler’s, we heard neither a choral work nor a symphonic poem, but a relatively mainstream piece, albeit one I was hearing for the first time in concert. Nevertheless, the sense of Liszt, Mahler, and three Hungarian composers sharing a continuum into which it would not be so very difficult also to fit Zemlinsky, offered much to think about. It was a pity that the planned repeat performances in Budapest had to be cancelled in light of economic circumstances, but at the very least Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union could be celebrated.
That conversation took place between the first and second works, since Péter Eötvös’s Shadows (1996) required an unusual seating arrangement, necessitating considerable rearrangement for the Liszt concerto. Shadows, for flute, amplified clarinet, and ensemble or orchestra, here received the first British performance of its orchestral performance. On a first hearing, it did not overstay its welcome, though I am not sure that it proved a revelation either. It seemed well performed, not least by the two soloists, flautist Sue Thomas and clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. They held centre stage, along with Jurowski, two percussionists and celeste player, Catherine Edwards. Two groups of wind instruments, backs to the audience, acted as ‘shadows’ to the soloists, whilst two groups of strings, sparingly deployed, made up the rear (facing forwards). In three movements, the work opens with dance-music: so far, so typically or stereotypically ‘Hungarian’. Contrast between regularity and irregularity caught the ear. Neo-Bartókian string and percussion sonorities proved attractive in the second part, at least two mobile telephones less so. The arabesque dialogue between flute and clarinet, with which the third movement opens, also brought Bartók, this time his ‘night music’, to mind, the prominent part for celesta doing nothing to dispel — and why should it? — that association. Space and time are clearly preoccupations here, though Boulez and Stockhausen, for instance, would seem to have gone further, earlier. I may well, however, have missed the point.
Alexander Markovich joined the orchestra for the Liszt work. This was not to be a flawless performance — there were a few occasions on which soloist and orchestra fell out of sync — but its spirit impressed. The white heat of Sviatoslav Richter’s astounding recording with the equally astounding LSO and Kirill Kondrashin — a Liszt Desert Island disc, especially coupled with the B minor Sonata — may not have been felt, but this was arguably a more exploratory performance, doubtless aided by Jurowski’s conception of the work as more a symphonic poem with piano than a typical concerto. (He referred to its single movement and monothematicism.) The LPO players responded with verve and subtlety — yes, you read that word correctly. They ensured, for instance, that the all-important woodwind opening struck just the right, neo-Mozartian serenading note. To that, Markovich could respond with due delicacy, rapture even, all performers making clear the unorthodox nature of what could so easily resemble a mere virtuoso showpiece. The fluidity of the pianist’s response to the score was especially noteworthy, though all players were careful to ensure that this never descended into formlessness. Virtuosity was present, of course, for instance in Markovich’s thundering octave passages, but always, it seemed, at the music’s service. Sharply profiled rhythmically where necessary, the performance never became hard-driven; indeed, there was always plenty of light and shade. Lower strings impressed with depth of tone in the lead up to the beautiful duet between piano and cello (Kristine Blaumane). Liszt’s chamber music, like Wagner’s, tended to form part of other works, but it is no less chamber music for that. The march transformation, which some puritans have condemned as ‘vulgar’, sounded nothing of the sort; instead, it was dramatically stirring — and, more important, clear in its thematic derivation. Liszt suffers terribly from poor or mediocre performances; he did not here. As a sparkling encore, virtuosic in every sense, Markovich offered a transcription of the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ from Les patineurs. I assume that it was Liszt’s, but not having heard it before, cannot be sure.
Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which I have long thought close to a masterpiece, formed the second half to the concert. It is not so long since the Royal Festival Hall heard what remains a relative rarity; Esa-Pekka Salonen led a truly outstanding performance from the Philharmonia in March 2009. If ultimately Jurowski’s reading did not quite convince me as Salonen’s had, it was interestingly different and proved in many respects complementary. The opening drum rolls resounded magnificently, but I felt much of the first movement unsettled in the wrong way, Jurowski’s direction rendering the bar lines all too audible, however fine the orchestral contribution in itself. Even in this movement, however, the music settled down, and many instrumental details proved sharply etched, not least the crucial flute lines. (The flute is as important to Rabindranath Tagore’s verse as it is to Das Lied von der Erde, a dangerous comparison, which often obscures as much as it reveals, yet which retains some validity when drawn with care.) Moreover, Jurowski proved alert to the teeming of those lines in combination, a combination that edged towards Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was by no means a merely backward-looking composer in 1923.
What of the baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson? Response would largely, I suspect, be a matter of taste. There could be no doubting the intelligence of his verbal response, nor the quality of his diction. (The latter left no one in doubt that he had, in the fifth movement, substituted ‘diesem Zauber’ for ‘deinem Zauber’.) However, for those for whom this is more important, there could be no doubting the vanished lustre of his voice as a voice. The contrast is not quite so simple as that, for sometimes — the final movement was a particularly notable example — the voice had gained a pronounced beat; moreover, pitch could sometimes be more hinted at than centred. Nevertheless, Hampson’s sincerity remained a palpable constant.
Melanie Diener, likewise, did not impress in terms of vocal beauty. However, her performance, in tandem with Jurowski’s, hinted at an operatic quality, perhaps frustrated, to Zemlinsky’s inspiration. It is certainly not the only way to perform the work, and sometimes lessened the importance of song and symphony, but at its best, it revealed aspects one might not have suspected. For instance, the fourth movement, ‘Sprich zu mir, Geliebter!’, was taken daringly slowly, yet it soon became apparent that its reimagination almost as an operatic scene could draw attention to the dark malevolence (Die Frau ohne Schatten?) of Zemlinsky’s writing. As for much of the performance, Jurowski highlighted modernistic timbres, where Salonen had emphasised the work’s sometimes overwhelming — and undoubtedly sincere — late-Romanticism. Flutes glanced towards Pierrot lunaire, perhaps even to Le marteau sans maître. (Now there is a thought: Boulez conducts Zemlinsky? Probably not, though he has recently been performing Szymanowski.) The dialogue between solo violin (leader, Pieter Schoeman) and cello (Blaumane again), which introduces the fourth movement, not only granted an opportunity, well taken, for soloists to shine, but was musically captured as a dissonant yet still tonal turning point.
There was drama, too, quite in keeping with, indeed necessary to, the operatic conception. The interlude following the young girl’s song (no.2), in which she laments to her mother the passing of the young prince’s carriage and its crushing of her ruby chain, displayed real anger, putting this listener in mind of passages and attitudes from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And yet, for all the tugging away from a symphonic conception, when the voices fell silent, the final movement’s coda proved integrative in properly symphonic fashion: thematic and dramatic concerns now sounded as one. If I did not quite feel convinced that the different approaches always cohered, there was much to admire and much to consider.
The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1 February. Readers may therefore make up their own minds, and are warmly encouraged to do so.