07 Oct 2013
Die Fledermaus, ENO
‘Chacun à son goût!’ cries the inebriated Prince Orlovsky, invigorated by champagne and high-living. An indifferent ‘each to his own’?
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’.
‘Chacun à son goût!’ cries the inebriated Prince Orlovsky, invigorated by champagne and high-living. An indifferent ‘each to his own’?
Or, a more sceptical ‘there’s no accounting for taste’? — for Christopher Alden’s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at ENO certainly suggests that he has an idiosyncratic preference for a distinctly dark and bitter vintage.
The curtain rises on Allen Moyer’s economical, sombre-hued set; flock wallpaper and silken bed drapes in various ‘shades of grey’ suggest, ironically, a dampening of the passions in the Eisensteins’ Victorian bedroom. As the polkas and waltzes of Strauss’s overture flutter from the pit, between the sheets Rosalinde tosses and turns, lunging at the air, clutching the plump pillows, writhing and wriggling, the luscious melodies presumably illustrative of her erotic dreaming. And, when winged bat-women sweep menacingly across the bedroom, we infer the stuff of her nightmares. Above hangs an outsize model of Eisenstein’s pocket watch — the very watch that will later incriminate him when he attempts to seduce a mysterious Hungarian Countess — pendulously, hypnotically swinging, a ‘path to the subconscious’, the director declares.
So, Alden envisages his characters as psychiatric case studies: their Vienna is a socially and emotionally repressive prison, and Falke a bat-cloaked Nosferatu, tempting them to turn the frustrated fantasies of their subconscious into corporeal fulfilment. An interesting conceit. But, one which quickly runs aground, the bubbly turning distinctly flat. For, Alden imposes a threatening subliminal world on a musical score which speaks of light-hearted, self-indulgent escapism, and on a libretto which is more farce than psychoanalytical theory. And the disjuncture — a psychiatric ‘split’ — is as large as the fissure which cracks the Victorian chamber wall at the end of Act 1. The music whizzes by, an ear-pleasing stream of movement and melody, while the action on stage stultifies, the characters as comatose as if they lay on a consulting couch.
Things might have been better if Alden had truly allowed his characters to ‘slip free from societal constraints and sip the heady champagne of pleasure and fulfilment’ in the Act 2 ball. But, while he declares that Falke invites his pawns to a ‘dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein to transcend their quotidian selves’, in fact the chasm in the wall of restraint opens on a distinctly dreary and featureless room, billed as Art Deco but consisting merely of a sweeping back-curtain — garishly lit by the psychedelic colours of Paul Palazzo’s lighting — and a nondescript staircase. Indeed, the occasional swivels of the stairway are the only indication that a dance might be underway, for the large chorus of cross-dressed, under-dressed revellers show little inclination to wiggle and frolic. Epitomising the absence of physical exuberance, they sing the rousing finale standing stock still on the stairway; a freeze-frame snap of a Hollywood sequence, this troupe hardly look ready to ‘dance all night’.
Richard Burkhard and Tom Randle
This immobility matters. The polkas and waltzes are not merely tuneful decorations but convey the sentiments of the text. Thus, it is with a waltz that the seducer, Alfredo, lures Rosalinde to drown her cares in champagne. And, Rosalinde saves her own reputation at the end of Act 1 with a polka which dupes Frank, the prisoner governer, into believing that Alfredo is her husband. Adele reads her sister’s letter inviting her to the party to the accompaniment of yet another polka; while the disguised Adele defends herself from Eisenstein’s attentions with a waltz, ‘My dear Marquis’. Falke’s gentle, sentimental waltz at the climax of the ball has hints of melancholy, as he toasts brotherhood and love. The characters are always dancing, and if they are dancing they are also probably seducing. Thus, motionless leads to meaninglessness.
The translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner is full of witty rhyming repartee, but on this opening night many of the words were lost in the set’s vast empty spaces and the audience, with little on stage to indicate that a gag was on the way, largely remained in silent bafflement.
Not surprisingly, the cast struggle to establish credible, engaging characters and dramatic momentum. Even Tom Randle looked a bit lost as Eisenstein, though he sang with his usual power and lyricism. Andrew Shore, as a gender-bending Frank, used his considerable acting talents to get things moving along; and Edgaras Montvidas was a delightfully disreputable and foppish Alfred, demonstrating an appreciation of the absurd elements of the opera which Alden tried hard to bury beneath the Freudian symbolism. Richard Burkhard presented an assured Falke, a confident, slick Nick Shadow figure —although it was hard for the ‘master-of-ceremonies’ to impose his presence in the final Act, given that he spent its entirety in an airborne state, perched precariously on the suspended timepiece.
The rest of the cast were ultimately unable to overcome Alden’s static direction. Rosalinde is envisaged as a Freudian case study: a ‘hysterical woman’, trapped in a repressive marriage to a philandering husband, denied sexual fulfilment. Given that she was largely confined to her bed in Act 1 — albeit, sharing it with a host of others — and directed to sing her Csárdás from a stationary position on the far left of the stage, it was hardly surprising that Julia Sporsén was a rather underwhelming Rosalinde.
As Prince Orlovsky — no longer presented wryly en travesti but rather as a neurotic, misanthropic lesbian — Jennifer Holloway also struggled to convince. Orlovsky’s philosophy is that if he is intent on hedonistic fun, then so must all his guests indulge to excess, but as Holloway pounded the walls in self-pitying misery, it was hard to imagine a less hospitable party host. Holloway’s tone was warm and rich but a thick European accent muffled the text. Rhian Lois’s Adele was a bit too close to caricature, but her two showpiece arias were bright and vivacious, the ‘Laughing Song’ especially sparkly.
Simon Butteriss and Jan Pohl did their best with the bizarre characterisation of Dr Blind, Eisenstein’s incompetent lawyer, and Frosch, the prison jailor — the latter presented as an S&M obsessed Nazi, prone to violent spasms and vicious brutality.
Billed as ‘dangerous and sexy’, Alden’s production is in fact dull and soporific. Conductor Eun Sun Kim drew some infectious, sweet playing from the ENO orchestra, but the dances didn’t quite float and spin with the necessary weightless frothiness. Although Alden admits that the ‘hedonistic waltzes of Die Fledermaus ultimately sweep away its darker connotations in a tsunami of champagne’, in this instance the popping of corks was confined to the pit and a few vocal highpoints, and the end result was distinctly lacking in fizz.
Cast and production information:
Gabriel von Eisenstein, Tom Randle; Rosalinde, Julia Sporsén; Frank, Andrew Shore; Prince Orlovsky, Jennifer Holloway; Alfred, Edgaras Montvidas; Dr Falke, Richard Burkhard; Dr Blind, Simon Butteriss; Adele, Rhian Lois; Ida, Lydia Marchione; Frosch, Jan Pohl; Actors, Peter Cooney, Tom Fackrell, Stewart Heffernan, Adam Trembath; Director, Christopher Alden; Set Designer, Allen Moyer; Lighting Designer, Paul Palazzo; Costume Designer, Constance Hoffman; Conductor, Eun Sun Kim; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 30th September 2013.