Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican, London
Any performance of Philip Glass’ epic Einstein on the Beach (1976) is a major event. The work’s duration is around five hours and it is directed to be performed without interval (although see below — we had one).
Philip Glass : Einstein on the Beach
Einstein / Solo Violinist: Antoine Silverman; Featured Performer: Helga Davis; Featured Performer: Kate Moran; Boy: Jasper Newell; Mr Johnson: Charles Williams. Philip Glass Ensemble. Conductor: Michael Riesman. Director: Robert Wilson. Choreography: Lucinda Childs. Barbican Theatre, London, Friday, May 4th 2012.
Members of the audience are invited to come and go as they please (and some went and didn’t then come back, arguably with some justification). The programme for the event is high-class in itself, lavishly illustrated and includes the libretto, itself remarkably succinct, and a host of other information. None of which helps, really.
The booklet is adorned by a single shaft of white light against a black background— actually from the segment ‘Bed’, in which the shaft moves ever so slowly (tortuously, one might say) towards and upright position before it ascends. All very symbolic— but of what?. The answer is to drop the search for meaning and enjoy the ride and, as a sequence of beautifully executed dances (there is far more dancing than singing) and comedic soap operas (the Trial Scenes, in which one character bore a spooky resemblance to Margaret Thatcher), it works a lot better. Or rather it works differently, for to drop the search for meaning means either to let it all wash over you, or to open a gateway to the subconscious. Injecting Glass into your brain in that way (pardon the pun) might work for some (and probably worked a whole lot better thirty-odd years ago), but alas these days it all comes out as rather dated.
And that sequence of whats— of what?, in what?, to what?— is one that hovers over the entire evening, culminating, at least immediately, in a huge ‘so what?’. Glass’ music rarely moves the listener, except to induce a state of trance, perhaps. So at the end of this sequence of scenes (narrative trajectory really isn’t the point here)— one leaves the Barbican Theatre in a state of some frustration. Just like when you can’t sleep but you know you’re achingly tired. That sort of frustration.
Glass worked with Robert Wilson to produce this minimalist behemoth, taking a series of drawings by Wilson and adding his own characteristic music. There is a sort of willful obfuscation that runs through the piece, and Glass and Wilson seem to make this explicit through the image of a clock running backwards— here, truly, nothing is as it seems.
That it was even longer than it should have been only added to the problems. There was a hiatus (I don’t really want to call it an interval) of what was promised to be ten minutes and ended up being some twenty. This was to fix a succession of glitches that had affected the production, from bits of set really not being where they should be to stage hands with torches in full visibility wondering around, looking as baffled as the audience probably was about the production anyway. It was Wilson himself that came out to apologise— and also to tell us that figures in the final scene wouldn’t be flying around as originally intended.
The standard of performance was remarkably high, as one would perhaps expect from Glass specialists. Antoine Silverman, as Einstein, was jaw-droppingly good. Dressed as Einstein and sitting on the corner of the stage, his violinistic pyrotechnics were magnificent. One shudders to think how long it must have taken to learn Glass’ horribly fast repetitions— one also has to ask was it worth it though. The scenes which were good, were good— the Knee Plays (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) were dispatched with a superb sense of fascinating detachment. The chorus, too, was exemplary, as were the seasoned instrumentalists. But it was the dancers that impressed most— it was impossible to take one’s eyes off them, whether whirling around the stage like dervishes or in stylized movement that evoked Noh theatre.
Einstein on the Beach is the first of three operas Glass wrote on historical figures (the other two are Akhnaten— memorably staged in the 1980s by ENO and centering on the Pharoah who introduced monotheism a long time before Christians jumped on the bandwagon— and Satyagraha, based on the life and teaching of Gandhi). In fairness, some of the excitement of this novelly-constructed work came through, but that was duet to the excellence of performance and dancing. And Glass still has the ability to refract time— in an analogous way to Wagner, for in both cases we experience time differently, yet in a different way (in Glass through mesmeric repetition rather than via Wagnerian extended harmonic plateaux). Try the Entrance Music for Trial 1 to see what I mean.
And yet, and yet as I write some three days on from the evening of performance, there is the niggling feeling that, despite its shortcomings and frustrations, Einstein on the Beach has affected me ins some deep but as yet unlabelled way. Yes, it sounds like Glass should, but it also has a sound-aura all of its own. Images of the Trial Scenes, with their cutesy comedy, reappear and resonate. The impeccable dancers continue to cast a spell. Hence the frustration of the end of the experience slowly transforming itself over the course of the past few days. I’m not sure I’d like to hear it again in the near future, though. Perhaps in another thirty years?