29 Sep 2013
Elektra, Royal Opera
Charles Edwards’s production of Elektra, first seen in 2003,
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
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’.
Charles Edwards’s production of Elektra, first seen in 2003,
and revived in 2008 , now returns to Covent Garden under the baton of Andris Nelsons. There remains much to admire in the staging, though I found myself entertaining a little more in the way of doubt than I had on previous occasions. My impression was that it had become gorier, and it may well have done, though by the same token, it may have been that I was now more attentive to what it had in common with, rather than what distinguished it from, David McVicar’s Royal Opera Salome. (McVicar was present in the audience.) Violence had always been present, not least in the shocking torture of the Fifth Maid, her twitching and indeed at one point revivified corpse, long present on stage to remind us, lest we forget. Playing with time, the ‘present’ of Strauss and Hofmannsthal meshed with ancient Mycenae, or rather with an idea thereof, remains a strength. A sense of the archaeological is offered by Agamemnon’s bust, and the shadow it casts: at one point as towering as the motif associated with the murdered king. Perhaps that sense might have been stronger; there are moments when the relationship seems unclear and a stronger impression of recreating a past that never was might assist. But it is quite possible that that is the point; we are after all in the world of dreams, of psychoanalysis. A splendid touch in that respect is Elektra’s desk. One might read its role in various ways; I could not help but think of a more or less explicit consultation, not only when Klytämnestra comes to her in need of interpretation, but also in the scene with Ägisth. Piercing the darkness with the fierce ray of her desk lamp heightens that impression, Elektra’s lighting his way viewed from a new standpoint, both literally and more figuratively. A particularly troubling sense of familial sickness — I realise that in this opera, that is something of an understatement — is offered by the relationship of Elektra and Orest. It appears that there is something rather more than sibling affection between them, though that is not laboured. It certainly seems confused, as it would be: fleetingly maternal, fleetingly paternal, at one point apparently sexual. Or maybe it is that Edwards’s staging allows the audience the space to offer its own interpretation; whatever the ‘intention’, the result is provocative in the best sense. My present taste may lie more with relative abstraction; that, however, is no reason to dismiss other approaches.
Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis
‘Ob ich nicht höre? ob ich die Musik nicht höre?’ Elektra asks, commencing the last and most delirious of her monologues: ‘Do I not hear it? Do I not hear the music?’ She maintains that it comes from inside her, though we, in a sense, know that at best to be a partial truth; Strauss’s orchestra has shown itself true to Wagner’s Opera and Drama — for Strauss, the ‘book of all books’ on opera — conception of the orchestra as the modern Attic chorus. Far too often, however, we find ourselves lamenting the tone-deafness of stage directors, wishing to ask them, in the nicest possible way, or perhaps not, whether they do not hear it, do they not hear the music? Therein perhaps lies the greatest strength of Edwards’s staging, aided by Leah Hausman’s movement, in that it clearly hears Strauss’s music. It is not enslaved, but rather liberated by it. There are instances where movement is clearly tied to the score, others when it is more a case of heightening of tension on stage relating to the orchestra as much as to the libretto. Lighting — Edwards’s own — is as attentive and revealing as movement.
And what music, it is, of course, in what must surely be Strauss’s greatest opera. (It may not be our favourite, but that is a different matter.) Nelsons was often impressive, at his best offering an object lesson in transition: Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’, as it should be in Strauss too. The recognition scene was but one exemplary instance. Not only was dramatic process tightly and meaningfully controlled, with an aptly unsettling sense of release that was not at all release when Elektra’s slinky ‘Orest! Orest! Es rührt sich niemand’ stole upon us; Strauss’s phantasmagorical cauldron of orchestral colour here and in many other cases had been stirred so as to provide just the right sense of dream-world and nausea for us to receive what was unfolding. Indeed, there were numerous instances in which I heard the score sound closer to the Strauss of earlier tone poems than I can recall; it is doubtless no coincidence that Nelsons has been exploring that orchestral repertoire in some depth of late. Other transitions were handled with less security; the second scene, for instance, seemed to follow on abruptly from the first, indeed from a prolonged caesura rather than musico-dramatic inevitability. There may well, however, be good reason to believe that the flow will become still more impressive as the run of performances continues. Likewise, if Nelsons’s ear for colour seemed somewhat to desert him at the very close, that may well be rectified, and may have been more a matter of orchestral exhaustion than anything else. The orchestra itself was on good rather than great form, but it was only when one made comparisons, as inevitable as they are odious, with one’s aural memory — always a dangerous, deceptive game — thinking, for instance, of Karl Böhm’s magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden, or of Daniele Gatti’s astounding Salzburg Festival account , the Vienna Philharmonic at the very top of its form, that discrepancy became apparent.
Christine Goerke’s assumption of the title role may be accounted a resounding triumph. There was dramatic commitment, to be sure, but also vocal security and clarity that are far from a foregone conclusion in this treacherous role. If there were moments of strain, I either did not notice, or have forgotten them; this was very much a sung rather than screamed Elektra. Adrienne Pieczonka gave the finest performance I have heard from her as Chrysothemis, her voice more focused and with considerably greater bloom than I recall from, for instance, her Salzburg Marschallin. (Perhaps this role is a better fit vocally for her, or maybe her time has more fully come.) Michaela Schuster threw herself wholeheartedly into a splendidly malevolent portrayal of Klytämnestra, with John Daszak as her husband finely managing the tricky balancing act between portrayal of a weak, contemptible character and convincing assumption of the role. Iain Paterson offered a typically musicianly, quietly chilling Orest. Smaller parts were all well taken, the individual lines and timbres of the five maids impressively apparent.
At the end, then, I felt duly bludgeoned, as that least affirmative of C major chords dealt the final blow. There is no redemption: a concept that Strauss never understood, as witnessed by his bemusement over Mahler’s desire for that most Wagnerian of goals. Here, however, as is not always the case with the composer, thoroughgoing, post-Nietzschean materialism and dramatic truth go hand in hand. Adorno’s attack upon Strauss’s concluding music seemed to me more wrongheaded than ever: testament, surely, to a staging and performance worthy of Elektra.
Cast and production information:
First Maid: Anna Burford; Second Maid: Catherine Carby; Third Maid: Elizabeth Sikora; Fourth Maid: Elizabeth Woollett; Fifth Maid: Jennifer Check; Overseer: Elaine McKrill; Elektra: Christine Goerke; Chrysothemis: Adrienne Pieczonka; Klytämnestra: Michaela Schuster; Confidante: Louise Armit; Trainbearer: Marianne Cotterill; Young Servant: Doug Jones; Old Servant: Jeremy White; Orest: Iain Paterson; Orest’s Companion: John Cunningham; Ägisth: John Daszak. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)/Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Andris Nelsons. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 23 September 2013