02 Jun 2014
Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral
A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something.
To have two, plus three associated concerts, all at the same venue, is something very special indeed. The Barbican has certainly done the composer proud with its ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series. Would that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell were regularly so honoured; the contrast with the absurd overkill of last year’s Britten anniversary is instructive. At any rate, Yan Tan Tethera, written in 1983-4, first performed in 1986, and very rarely heard since — might Channel 4 make available its television broadcast? — shone both on its account and for the fuller sense it offered of Birtwistle’s musico-dramatic development.
To a libretto by Tony Harrison — any chance of seeing and hearing their Oresteia, someone? — this may perhaps seem more conventionally a chamber opera than Birtwistle’s earlier music-theatre pieces. And yet, listen more closely, and this tale of North and South, of shepherds counting sheep, of a malevolent piper, becomes more complex. There is a linear story, yes. Alan, the good, northern shepherd, who adheres to the old counting system, ‘yan, tan, tethera, ’ is drawn into the great hill — a precursor to Benjamin’s ‘little hill’? — by the piper and Caleb seems about to triumph, but the tables are turned. A modern, yet timeless, folk-like version of Virgil’s first Eclogue, Alan and Caleb the new Meliboeus and Tityrus, is far, however, from the whole, or perhaps better the only, story. The interaction, and at times apparent lack of it, between Harrison’s words and Birtwistle’s score are at least as much the story.
We are, as it were, in a ‘secret theatre’ once again. The ‘mechanics’ of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ tell of a story perhaps deeper than Virgil, even than Theocritus. Counting itself is both external and internal drama, which repeats, is broken, is reconstructed, yet is never the same. The choral sheep are counted and ultimately they too count. Birtwistle’s division of the ensemble into groups is part of that story, so is the journey towards unison, but, as Paul Griffiths noted in the final line of his helpful programme synopsis: ‘Alan leads his family and flock: Everyone is counting, eventually including Caleb underground, as the musical machinery moves on, now set aright.’ Who knows, however, whether the different perspectives, different pulses, different landscapes, different soundworlds we have passed through, will reassert themselves once again? Interestingly, and tellingly, Birtwistle (quoted in Michael Hall’s book on the composer, likened the structuring of his response to the libretto to that of Stravinsky to Auden. Yan Tan Tethera
has things I’ve never done before and I’m really quite excited about it. Did you know that it was Stravinsky who divided Auden’s text for The Rake’s Progress into recitatives and arias? Auden wrote his libretto without the divisions. Well, I’m imposing something on Tony Harrison’s libretto. Had I asked Tony to provide it for me, it wouldn’t have worked; the result would be too formal in the wrong sense, too predictable.
As so often with this composer, anything but a Stravinsky epigone — there have been more than enough of those — but rather a true successor, the musical drama has a good deal of inspiration, conscious or otherwise, in his great predecessor. As Jonathan Cross has noted, the very notion of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ is rooted in ‘the imaginary song of a mechanical bird,’ just like Stravinsky’s Nightingale. The opposition between North and South, country and the town that encroaches upon it, above all natural and mechanical, may perhaps prove a further kinship between the two composers.
If at first, then, I was a little disappointed by the necessarily basic nature of John Lloyd Davies’s ‘concert hall staging’, I realised after the event that the concentration necessity had thrown upon the music had very much its own ‘dramatic’ virtues too, enabling me to experience and indeed to conceptualise crucial oppositions in a work I had never heard before. For that, of course, a great deal of praise must be accorded the excellent performances. Baldur Brönnimann’s leadership of the equally fine Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices was assured and (mechanically) expressive throughout. String glissandi — are they echoes of Tippett perhaps? — embodying, to quote David Beard, ‘both Alan’s subjective expression and the representative pastoral anecdote’ evoke both human acts and, perhaps still more so, that of the landscape, as ever with Birtwistle a potent force indeed. Such was undoubtedly apparent even from this, my first acquaintance with the work. Likewise the distinction between the almost conventionally haunting piper’s melody — still lodged in my memory — and the dramatic mechanisms surrounding it. The scintillating brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia’s response to the score was not the least of the evening’s revelations.
Roderick Williams’s Alan and Omar Ebrahim’s Caleb — extraordinary to think he appeared also in the premiere — led a fine cast, all attentive to words, music, and disjuncture. William’s naïve, northern sincerity — flat vowels and all, though sometimes they came and went — contrasted just as it should with Ebrahim’s ‘southern’ malevolence. Claire Booth offered a typically fine performance as Alan’s wife, Hannah, beautiful of tone, dignified and assured of purpose. Daniel Norman’s Piper or Bad’Un, and four boys from Tiffin School, Kingston, all made their mark very well too. Above all, this was a splendid ensemble performance. Now, may we hope for a fully staged version, in which dramatic oppositions receive some degree of visualisation from an aurally alert director?
Cast and production information:
Alan: Roderick Williams; Caleb Raven: Omar Ebrahim; Hannah: Claire Booth; Piper/Bad’Un: Daniel Norman; Jack: Ben Knight; Dick: Benjamin Clegg; Davie: Joe Gooding; Rob: Duncan Tarboton; John Lloyd Davies (director, design, lighting). Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Dougan)/Britten Sinfonia/Baldur Brönnimann (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Thursday 29 May 2014.