27 Jul 2014
Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.
It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
All of that would be more or less in vain, were the results not to attain the excellence Schoenberg demands. They were, in pretty much every respect, any of the doubtless inevitable shortcomings being of relatively minor importance. This was probably the finest work I have yet heard from Lothar Koenigs - to whose partnership with David Pountney we clearly owe many thanks. There can be no faking the necessary depth of musical understanding in this score, any more than there can be in Wagner or Brahms (or, indeed, anything that matters). Koenigs’s textual clarity and clarity of purpose not only enabled the drama to develop; they were in good part the Wagnerian embodiment, even representation, of the musical drama - not the least here of Schoenberg’s dialectics. There were occasional slips by the WNO Orchestra, but in no sense did they detract from a wholehearted contribution, which might have suggested that the work had been in its repertoire for years. (Recent Wagner, Berg, and indeed Henze will have done no harm, but even so )
Perhaps the most exceptional work of all - though opera is, or at least should be, one of the supreme elevations of collaboration over miserable, bourgeois ‘competition’ - came from the WNO Chorus. In an interview to accompany Pierre Boulez’s second recording of Moses, Schoenberg’s great - alongside the very different Michael Gielen, his greatest? - interpreter and critic remarked: ‘People always say that it’s not an opera but an oratorio, which Schoenberg later turned into an opera. That interested me, because I disagree with it. The chorus, for example, is the most important character in the opera. It’s like a chameleon, speaking for or against, sometimes even internally divided or emphatic in its support of one particular party; it is angry, it is docile, it comments on the action.’ Musically and dramatically - indeed, quite rightly there seemed little distinction to be made - the chorus succeeded in fulfilling Boulez’s and Schoenberg’s expectations. Whether en masse, soloistically, or at various stages of in between, whether singing, speaking or at various stages of in between, Schoenberg’s highly charged and often ravishingly beautiful choral writing - I was often set thinking of his psalm settings - were faithfully, viscerally communicated. And of course, communication, both its necessity and its impossibility, is very much the thing in this of all operas; or rather, it is one of the things, all of them, like the score itself derived entirely from a single row, proceeding from the necessity and impossibility of representing the Almighty Himself. If indeed that is who He is, for at least at times, an element of doubt should and did set in, with respect to whether Moses is on the wrong track all together. This is and was a drama, not a tract.
I had my moments of doubt concerning the production too. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, as revived - very well, insofar as I could tell - by Jörg Behr present the entirety of the action in a single, courtroom venue. Law is of course a concern of the drama in several respects, the law-giving properties of the twelve-note method involved in a complicated, dramatically generative relationship with Mosaic law and the law of Creation itself. Moreover, as Aron points out to Moses, the Tables of the Law are ‘images also, just part of the whole idea’. That said, the idea or ideas of law do not seem to be especially emphasised, and - without wishing for some entirely impractical as well as undesirable Cecil B. de Mille Biblical ‘epic’ presentation, which would make only too clear the truth of Adorno’s charge that grand opera prepared the way for popular cinema - it is difficult to feel, at least at first, that there is not an element of dramatic constriction in the monothematic scenic realisation. (I am not entirely sure what was meant by the description of having been ‘based on an original design by Anna Viebrock’, given that no further design work was credited.)
And yet, so long as one is prepared to do some thinking - and anyone who is not should be allowed anywhere near this opera - it is perfectly possible to glean a great deal; what appears to be constriction was in some sense also mental liberation, which again is one of the crucial dialectics at work in the drama itself, concerned as it and indeed all modern philosophy are with the Kantian antinomy between freedom and determinism. Not only can the courtroom - if indeed that is what it was - readily convert itself, sometimes with a little scenic rearrangement but above all through the engagement of our minds, into a venue for political and/or religious activity or, through Aron’s manipulative-representational skills, into a cinema, upon which the crowd can watch the orgy, as we watch the crowd. We, the receptive and creative audience - at least, that is what we should be - have to employ our minds to represent what the Israelites were seeing, and thus to engage in that very necessity and impossibility of representation of which Moses and Aron spoke and sang. That is not to say, of course, that we should never see what goes on; Reto Nickler’s excellent Vienna production (available on DVD, under the inspired musical direction of Daniele Gatti, with the Vienna orchestra playing this music as only it can) shows what can be done with modern communicative messages of advertising and pornography. But what first seems as though it may simply be a cowardly - or even financially necessary - abdication of responsibility is revealed to be something much more interesting and, at some level, even provocatively Schoenbergian.
John Tomlinson’s assumption of the title role was predictably imposing. There was a good deal of what Gary Tomlinson has called the ‘Michelangesque terribilità’ of Schoenberg’s flawed hero, though I could not help but feel that the melodrama was overdone in the final scene. Still, the tragic grandeur, very much in the line of Wotan, of Tomlinson’s Moses was unquestionable. Although he seemed to have tired a little in the first half of the second act, Rainer Trost’s Aron proved a fine foil. I am not sure I have heard so clear a contrast between Sprechstimme and sinuous twelve-note bel canto (with a good deal of Siegfried et al. thrown in). Spatial matters played their role in the first act; placing on stage heightened the unbridgeable contrast between the two characters competing on unequal yet still justified terms. (One should never fall into the trap of saying that Moses is right and Aron is wrong; Schoenberg tilts the scales but remains some way from upending them, and there are certainly occasions when Moses is shown to be unambiguously, even unimaginatively in the wrong.)
Were I to proceed to hymn musico-dramatic excellence in the smaller roles, I should probably find myself simply repeating the cast list. However, I shall, in the spirit of the work, attempt the impossible, and single out Richard Wiegold’s stentorian Priest, the exemplarily alert contributions of Daniel Grice and Alexander Sprague, and the - literally - unearthly beauty summoned up by the chorus of six solo voices: Fiona Harrison, Amanda Baldwin, Sian Meinir, Peter Wilman, Alastair Moore, and Laurence Cole. For a work that struggles, like Aquinas, with a theological via negative, there was a great deal to be positive and thankful about. Three cheers to WNO!
Cast and production information:
Moses: Sir John Tomlinson; Aron: Rainer Trost; A Young Maiden, First Naked Virgin: Elizabeth Atherton; A Youth: Alexander Sprague; Another Man, An Ephraimite: Daniel Grice; A Priest: Richard Wiegold; First Elder: Julian Boyce; Second Elder: Laurence Cole; Third Elder: Alastair Moore; Sick Woman, Fourth Naked Virgin: Rebecca Alonwy-Jones; Naked Youth: Edmond Choo; Second Naked Virgin: Fiona Harrison; Third Naked Virgin: Louise Ratcliffe; Chorus of six solo voices: Fiona Harrison, Amanda Baldwin, Sian Meinir, Peter Wilman, Alastair Moore, Laurence Cole. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (directors); Jörg Behr (revival director); Anna Viebrock (original designs); Tim Mitchell (lighting). Chorus and Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris)/Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Lothar Koenigs (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday 25 July 2014.