10 Oct 2012
Die Zauberflöte, ENO
‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme.
Maybe they are, maybe not; the same has been said before. It is, at any rate, difficult to think that they should not be. Quite why such reverence should be accorded what at best one might call a ‘straightforward’ production is beyond me. Some will doubtless applaud the lack of anything so strenuous as an idea or two, anti-intellectualism being so ingrained in certain quarters of this country’s commentariat. (Remember the outrage at the Royal Opera’s splendid Rusalka?) Some, ignorant of or simply uninterested in, the Rosicrucian mysteries of the work, will doubtless have been happy with a naïveté that sits at best awkwardly with our age, irreversibly ‘sentimental’ in Schiller’s sense. But surely even they would have found this revival tired, listless. Apparently some of them did not, however, given the raucous laughter issuing from around the theatre: any time a rhyming couplet appeared on the surtitles, some found it almost unbearably hilarious. Moreover, audience participation went beyond even the usual coughing, chattering, and opening of sweets. (A woman behind me must have made her way through a good quarter of the city’s stocks of Wine Gums). Someone even saw fit to disrupt the performance by shouting out a proposal of marriage to Papageno just at that saddest, pathos-ridden of moments when the music turns and he resolves to take his life. No matter though: it elicited a great deal of hilarity. And that of course is all that matters. Those who laughed at the priests’ dialogue may or may not have been aware how offended Mozart was at someone who did the same in the composer’s presence. Presumably the same people thought it ‘amusing’ to boo Adrian Thompson’s rather good Monostatos too. They seemed, however, a little hard of hearing, for their applause generally began long before the orchestra had concluded.
Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night
Jeremy Sams’s ‘English version’ doubtless egged them on in all their boorishness. I have asked before what is held to be wrong with Schikaneder. One can point to shortcomings, no doubt, though one should always bear in mind Goethe’s admiration. But the only good thing one can really say about this hodgepodge is that it is not nearly so bad as what Sams has inflicted upon The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It remains intensely pleased with itself, drawing attention to itself rather than shedding light upon the drama, and remains distant enough that ‘version’ is wisely substituted for ‘translation’. Yet, given the difficulties so many of the cast had with delivering the dialogue, it really might as well all have been in German. That would also have relieved us of that terrible clash between the text we know in our heads - especially for the text set to music - and that we hear on stage and/or see in the titles (the latter two not always being the same). Different accents are ‘amusingly’ employed; one might have thought it offensive to find a Welsh accent (Papagena) intrinsically funny, but apparently not.
Nicholas Collon’s conducting was disappointing. One often hears far worse in Mozart nowadays; yet, as so often, it was difficult not to long for great performances of the past (Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, et al.), or indeed of the present (Sir Colin Davis). ‘Lightness’ was for the most part all, a peculiar mannerism being the falling off into nothingness at the end of many numbers. Quite why one would wish to make this score, often but a stone’s throw, if that, from Beethoven, sound so inconsequential, is beyond me; at least it was not brutalised, as ‘period’ fanatics would wish. That said, the brass sounded as if they were natural; they may or may not have been, since modern instrumentalists are sometimes instructed perversely to ape the rasping manner of their forebears, and I could not see into the pit. At any rate, the result was unpleasant. A few numbers were taken far too quickly, but for the most part it was the lack of harmonic grounding that troubled rather than speeds as such; we were spared the ludicrous Mackerras triple-speed approach to ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s,’ one of the worst atrocities I have ever had the misfortune to hear inflicted upon Mozart. But as for the lily-gliding of introducing a glockenspiel part into the final chorus... Mozart is not Monteverdi; he does not need to be ‘realised’, and certainly not like that. A good number of appoggiaturas and other instances of ornamentation were introduced to the vocal lines, not least to those of the Three Ladies at the beginning. The fashionable practice does no especial harm, I suppose, but nor does it really accomplish anything beyond drawing mild attention to itself.
Duncan Rock as Papageno, Elizabeth Llewellyn as First Lady, Catherine Young as Second Lady, Pamela Helen Stephens as Third Lady and Shawn Mathey as Tamino
Vocally there was more to enjoy, though the record was mixed. Elena Xanthoudakis made for an unusually rich-toned Pamina. Best of all was Duncan Rock’s Papageno, for the most part quite beautifully sung, though his dialogue veered confusingly between outright Australian and something less distinct. Kathryn Lewek had some difficulties with her intonation as the Queen of the Night, but then most singers do; more troubling was her tendency to slow down to cope with the coloratura. Shawn Mathey resorted to crooning more than once during his Portrait Aria and was throughout a somewhat underwhelming Tamino. Robert Lloyd’s voice is, sadly, not what it was; Sarastro’s first aria sounded very thin, though matters improved thereafter. There was luxury casting, however, when it came to the Three Ladies; Elizabeth Llewellyn is already a noted Countess, and it showed. The Three Boys were excellent too: three cheers to Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. Choral singing was a bit workmanlike but that may have been as much a matter of the conducting as anything else. One certainly had little sense of the kinship with Mozart’s other Masonic music.
The website and programme have the Two Armoured Men as the ‘Two Armed Men’, a strangely common yet baffling error: the German is perfectly clear. At least the production had it right, the men donning breastplates at the opening of that great chorale prelude. The Queen of the Night remains, for some reason, the ‘Queen of Night’.
Tamino: Shawn Mathey; Papageno: Duncan Rock; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Monostatos: Adrian Thompson; Pamina: Elena Xanthoudakis; Speaker: Roland Wood; Sarastro: Robert Lloyd; Papagena: Rhian Lois; Two Priests, Two Armoured Men: Nathan Vale, Barnaby Rea; Three Ladies: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young, Pamela Helen Stephen; Three Boys: Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, Thomas Fetherstonhaugh; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Revival Directors: Ian Rutherford and James Bonas; Designs: Bob Crowley; Lighting: Nick Chelton, Ric Mountjoy. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick); Orchestra of the English National Opera/Nicholas Collon (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Thursday 13 September 2013