Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Anthony Negus conducts Das Rheingold at Longborough

There are those in England who decorate their front lawns with ever-smiling garden gnomes, but in rural Gloucestershire the Graham family has gone one better; their converted barn is inhabited, not by diminutive porcelain figures, but fantasy creatures of Norse mythology - dwarves, giants and gods.

Carmen in San Francisco

A razzle-dazzle, bloodless Carmen at the War Memorial, further revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Covent Garden production already franchised to Oslo, Sidney and Washington, D.C.

Weimar Berlin - Bittersweet Metropolis: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

Strictly speaking, The Weimar Republic began on 11th August 1919 when the Weimar Constitution was announced and ended with the Enabling Act of 23rd March 1933 when all power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag was disbanded.

A superb Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park

Investec Opera Holland Park’s brilliantly cast new production of Un ballo in maschera reunites several of the creative team from last year’s terrific La traviata, with director Rodula Gaitanou, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren and lighting designer Simon Corder being joined by the designer, takis.

A Classy Figaro at The Grange Festival

Where better than The Grange’s magnificent grounds to present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Hampshire’s neo-classical mansion, with its aristocratic connections and home to The Grange Festival, is the perfect setting to explore 18th century class structures as outlined in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

A satisfying Don Carlo opens Grange Park Opera 2019

Grange Park Opera opened its 2019 season with a revival of Jo Davies fine production of Verdi's Don Carlo, one of the last (and finest) productions in the company's old home in Hampshire.

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 2019

The first woman composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could not have been a worthier candidate.

Josquin des Prez and His Legacy: Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall

The renown and repute of Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) both during his lifetime and in the years following his death was so extensive and profound that many works by his contemporaries, working in Northern France and the Low Countries, were mis-attributed to him. One such was the six-part Requiem by Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) which formed the heart of this poised concert by the vocal ensemble Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall, in which they gave pride of place to Josquin’s peers and successors and, in the final item, an esteemed forbear.

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio United – F X Roth and Les Siècles, Paris

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio together, as they should be, with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link below). Though Symphonie fantastique is heard everywhere, all the time, it makes a difference when paired with Lélio because this restores Berlioz’s original context.

Ivo van Hove's The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Linbury Theatre

In 1917 Leoš Janáček travelled to Luhačovice, a spa town in the Zlín Region of Moravia, and it was here that he met for the first time Kamila Stösslová, the young married woman, almost 40 years his junior, who was to be his muse for the remaining years of his life.

Manon Lescaut opens Investec Opera Holland Park's 2019 season

At this end of this performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at Investec Opera Holland Park, the first question I wanted to ask director Karolina Sofulak was, why the 1960s?

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic traveling through his Klavierstücke, Kontakte and Stimmung

Stockhausen. Cosmic Prophet. Two sequential concerts. Music written for piano, percussion, sound diffusion and the voice. We are in the mysterious labyrinth of one of the defining composers of the last century. That at least ninety-minutes of one of these concerts proved to be an event of such magnitude is as much down to the astonishing music Stockhausen composed as it is to the peerless brilliance of the pianist who took us on the journey through the Klavierstücke. Put another way, in more than thirty years of hearing some of the greatest artists for this instrument - Pollini, Sokolov, Zimerman, Richter - this was a feat that has almost no parallels.

Don Giovanni at Garsington Opera

A violent splash of black paint triggers the D minor chord which initiates the Overture. The subsequent A major dominant is a startling slash of red. There follows much artistic swishing and swirling by Don Giovanni-cum-Jackson Pollock. The down-at-heel artist’s assistant, Leporello, assists his Master, gleefully spraying carmine oil paint from a paint-gun. A ‘lady in red’ joins in, graffiti-ing ‘WOMAN’ across the canvas. The Master and the Woman slip through a crimson-black aperture; the frame wobbles.

A brilliant The Bartered Bride to open Garsington's 2019 30th anniversary season

Is it love or money that brings one happiness? The village mayor and marriage broker, Kecal, has passionate faith in the banknotes, while the young beloveds, Mařenka and Jeník, put their own money on true love.

A reverent Gluck double bill by Classical Opera

In staging this Gluck double bill for Classical Opera, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, director John Wilkie took a reverent approach to classical allegory.

Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and Strauss

Superlatives to describe Lise Davidsen’s voice have been piling up since she won Placido Domingo’s 2015 Operalia competition, blowing everyone away. She has been called “a voice in a million” and “the new Kirsten Flagstad.”

Nicky Spence and Julius Drake record The Diary of One Who Disappeared

From Hyperion comes a particularly fine account of Leoš Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Handsome-voiced Nicky Spence is the young peasant who loses his head over an alluring gypsy and is never seen again.

Time Stands Still: L'Arpeggiata at Wigmore Hall

Christina Pluhar would presumably irritate the Brexit Party: she delights in crossing borders and boundaries. Mediterraneo, the programme that she recorded and performed with L’Arpeggiata in 2013, journeyed through the ‘olive frontier’ - Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Spain, southern Italy - mixing the sultry folk melodies of Greece, Spain and Italy with the formal repetitions of Baroque instrumental structures, and added a dash of the shady timbres and rhythmic litheness of jazz.

Puccini’s Tosca at The Royal Opera House

Sitting through Tosca - and how we see and hear it these days - does sometimes make one feel one hasn’t been to the opera but to a boxing match. Joseph Kerman’s lurid, inspired or plain wrong-headed description of this opera as ‘a shabby little shocker’ was at least half right in this tenth revival of Jonathan Kent’s production.

A life-affirming Vixen at the Royal Academy of Music

‘It will be a dream, a fairy tale that will warm your heart’: so promised a preview article in Moravské noviny designed to whet the appetite of the Brno public before the first performance of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the town’s Na hradbách Theatre on 6th November 1924.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

27 Nov 2015

Šimon Voseček : Biedermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

Šimon Voseček: Beidermann and the Arsonists, Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells (Baylis Studio Theatre) Tuesday 17th November 2015

A review by Claire Seymour

 

The words of the Chorus of Firemen and the images of a burning citadel which open Independent Opera’s production of Šimon Voseček’s opera, Biedermann and the Arsonists - receiving its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells, following the premiere of the 90-minute opera at Neue Oper Wien in 2013 - are disturbingly close to the bone, in the light of recent terrorist atrocities in Paris and the IS attack upon Russian Airbus A321-200.

The opera sets Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter, which was written for radio in 1953 and adapted for the theatre five years later. David Pountney has provided a new English translation, though as Voseček has noted, ‘[t]he piece is already written as if it were a libretto - it was hardly necessary to do anything to it’; thus, except for the excision of the prologue, epilogue and one character, a ‘Dr of Philosophy’, Pountney has made few significant changes. The play reflects Frisch’s contempt for Europe’s lack of vision or moral cowardice when faced with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and the continent’s similarly complacent response to the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1948. And, despite the Kremlin’s announcement this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart, François Hollande, have spoken by telephone and agreed to coordinate military attacks in Syria, it is hard not to see parallels between the West’s recent unwillingness to acknowledge, confront and challenge the threat from radical Islam.

Gottlieb Beidermann (whose name implies ‘Everyman’) is a bourgeois businessman who has made his fortune peddling fake hair lotion. His town has a problem: arsonists are burning down its houses. Biedermann thinks the perpetrators should be lynched. But, when two homeless strangers - a brutish former jailbird turned wrestler and a slick head waiter - knock on his door, and weasel and wangle their way into his home, taking residence in the attic, Beidermann, inhibited by middle-class guilt, pushes aside his suspicions that his lodgers are the fire-raisers in the vain hope that politeness and courtesy will keep the threat they pose at bay. His pyromaniac tenants subsequently fill his garret with barrels of petrol but he turns a blind eye to their evil intent, failing to recognise that his wilful ignorance implicates him in their destructiveness. The ineffectualness of denial and self-deception as a strategy for self-protection is overtly confirmed when Beidermann literally becomes their accomplice, handing them the very match that they use to turn his own home into an inferno.

The director of this production, which celebrates Independent Opera’s 10th anniversary, is twenty-five year old Max Hoehn - the recipient of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells 2015 Director Fellowship: the first competition of its kind for opera directors in the UK, offering a young director the chance to stage a chamber-scale piece in London with resources comparable to those of the main UK companies.

Frisch assigns no designated time or place to the action, and Hoehn and his designer Jemima Robinson set the drama in the present. Inside Beidermann’s chic abode, the minimalist décor, unread books and token art, decorative candelabras and domestic maid, confirm his wealth, status and pseudo-culture. Amid such comfort, Biedermann enjoys his cigars and the wine flows copiously. The split-level set frames a modish dining room with a bathroom stage-right (where the characters take refuge as the tension escalates) and an attic stage-left, where the barrels of petrol are stored. The domestic realism is tempered by the surreal glow of lurid greens and pinks, and the blinding flashes of search-lights and red hazard beacons.

Frisch employs a Chorus of Fireman, which functions to some degree in the manner of a Greek chorus, describing and commenting on action which takes place off-stage. Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis sang with precision, forming a well-coordinated ensemble, but also distinguishing the fire-fighters as individuals. Lodged in a pillar-box red, children’s-book fire engine, these ‘officers of order’ were portraits of inanity, the cartoonish stylisation of their movements, together with the juxtaposition of overly grave recitation and hysterical falsetto heightening their idiocy. The angel-wings they sport on their high-vis uniforms might infer that they guard the town with religious zeal, but while their role is to protect the population, the images of blazing buildings and their ‘Keystone Cops’ style clock-working suggested that, though they are preparing for the worst, they are doing little to stop it happening. They repeatedly warn and observe: ‘We are ready!’ But, they do nothing but wait, strewing the set with yellow ‘Do not cross’ fire-tape and danger signs, and tying themselves in knots with a snaking red fire-hose.
There are obvious echoes of Brecht’s alienation techniques in Frisch’s use of the Chorus, but, as Hoehn shows, the Swiss playwright is not as didactic as Brecht.

Frisch’s Chorus is deliberately ironic: while their remarks on the action of the play reinforce our awareness of the citizens’ helpless, we know that it is in fact Biedermann’s actions that are leading to his demise. Frisch’s firemen admit they are, ‘Always well-disposed citizen/Towards the well disposed citizen. Who in the end pays our wages’, and boast, ‘Sometimes we stop, take the weight off our feet, But never in order to sleep. We are untiring’. Hoehn deepens the irony, for his fire-fighters do in fact take a snooze.
The principals all negotiated Voseček’s tricky vocal lines successfully and demonstrated considerable vocal stamina. Moreover, despite the vocal challenges the text was unfailingly clear, rendering the surtitles (which shook during moments of more frenzied physical chaos) redundant.

We are familiar with the padded excess of actors’ fat-suits, but Leigh Melrose, as the tattooed, moustachioed wrestler, Schmitz, sported an outlandish variation on the plumping prosthesis: a muscle-suit whose grotesqueness was enhanced by Melrose’s comic-strip costume and deranged psychotic stare. Melrose was admirably dynamic as the maniacal fire-raiser; his attention to detail - to the nuances of vocal colour, facial gesture, physical timing - was impressive, and he employed a wide expressive range, by turns snarling then crooning, that conveyed the unpredictability, indeed lunacy, of Schmitz. Melrose’s commitment to the role was absolute, whether impersonating the black-veiled, high-heeled widow of one of Biedermann’s sacked employees, or stuffing himself with goose and red cabbage at his host’s dinner party. As Schmitz’s partner-in-incendiarism, Eizenring, Matthew Hargreaves was a wiry figure of restlessness, his charred apron suggest combustible mishaps more furious that those that might occur in the kitchen. Hargreaves’ is a large, grand baritone, and he imbued it with thunder and darkness to convey Eizenring’s menacing mania.

Tenor Mark Le Brocq was superb as Biedermann: he convincing communicated the businessman’s increasing anxiety and unease, and while it was clear that pride and over-confidence were the cause of Biedermann’s downfall, his guilt and insecurities were evident too - ‘tragic’ flaws which inspired pity.

The two female roles were taken by previous recipients of Independent Opera’s Postgraduate Vocal Fellowships. Alinka Kozári was a neat, conventional Babette Biedermann, and demonstrated a good sense of comic effect. As the put-upon maid, Anna, Raphaela Papadakis was both wittily melodramatic - throwing frustrated tantrums, manhandling the crockery and coffee carafe - and genuinely despairing, as she yielded in defeat to Schwitz’s grotesque embrace and fed him ladles of sauerkraut.

I enjoyed this high-octane theatrical event; but reflecting afterwards I had some reservations about both the production and the work. Hoehn’s approach seemed to me to emphasise the undoubted comedy of the piece at the expense of its tragic dimension. The physical theatre was well-choreographed, the caricatures appropriate. Frisch’s play is after a descendant of the medieval morality play with its archetypal representations of vices and challenges: just as Biedermann is ‘Everyman’ (in German ‘bieder’ means respectable and unsophisticated), so Eisenring is ‘The Trickster’, Schmitz is ‘The Sidekick’. But, the laughter which came readily should, perhaps, stick in our throats; Hoehn might have discomforted us still further, inferring our own complicity.

There was a decline from pointed satire into comic chaos, particularly so in the final alcohol-fuelled dinner-party scene. So, when Babette sang an aria of love for her husband, the sincerity of her feelings was undermined by her incongruous stuffing of the splayed goose. ‘Who are you?’ pleads Biedermann in confused anguish: to which the music ‘replies’, Mozart’s Commendatore - as the Voseček’s score slips into the graveyard scene from Don Giovanni and Schmitz calls for Biedermann’s hand, luring him to hell. This had the potential to be a frighteningly powerful theatrical moment: but Babette’s exclamation, ‘Oh! We saw that at Glyndebourne’, while it mocked her bourgeois pretention, also weakened the polemic of the parody.

More might have been made too of the arrival of the policeman who informs Biedermann of the death of the employee he fired, Knechtling. I was reminded at this point of Joe Keller, from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, who similarly lives a life of denial, refusing to take responsibility for the deaths of US airman whose planes were brought down by faulty mechanical parts supplied by Keller, or for the destruction of his colleague Steve Deever’s life, whose imprisonment results from Keller’s lies. Both men verify to the harmfulness of those whose failure to act condemns both others and themselves.

Voseček incorporates much spoken text alongside his straining vocal lines; indeed to some extent it is only during the spoken dialogue that the relentless theatrical tempo and pitch are alleviated. The score itself, too, is similarly feverish, but it functions more like a Hitchcock sound-track - illustrative of, but separate from the action, rathe than an integral part of a musico-dramatic narrative. That’s not to suggest that Voseček’s score is not inventive and colourful: the abrasive sound-world conjured by violin, three cellos (one tuned down a third from standard pitch), three clarinets/saxophones, three trombones, tuba and percussion is exploited resourcefully by the composer, and the screeches, whines, bangs, dissonances and quartertones are aptly disorientating, seeming almost to ridicule the singers.

This is an overtly theatrical production. But I found the end somewhat anticlimactic. The fuse is lit, a sparkler fizzes, and then we are plunged into a darkness which is punctuated by a final flash and an image of an askew fire-exit arrow. By removing Frisch’s epilogue - in which Biedemann and his wife are seen burnt to a crisp but still in denial - Voseček has also removed the moral frame: we have no heaven and hell. But, that said, even in Frisch’s play there are no answers, just absurdity. We do not know what stops Beidermann from confronting and standing up to the arsonists. We do not know what motivates these grotesque characters.

Fritsch subtitled his play, ‘Ein Lehrstuck ohne Lehre’ - ‘a moral play without a moral’ - ironically contradicting Brecht’s notion of the ‘lehrstuck’ or ‘teaching piece’. At the final reckoning, the only ‘message’ evident is the insistence on man’s need to interrogate his world and his actions. As Edmund Burke said, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. This production was a timely reminder of the dangers of bourgeois orthodoxy and timidity in the face of terror.

Claire Seymour

Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells (Baylis Studio Theatre)
Tuesday 17th November 2015

Biedermann - Mark Le Brocq, Babette - Alinka Kozari, Schmitz - Leigh Melrose, Eisenring - Matthew Hargreaves, Anna - Raphaela Papadakis, Firemen - Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis, Policeman - Laurence North; Director - Max Hoehn, Conductor - Timothy Redmond, Designer - Jemima Robinson, Lighting Designer - Giuseppe di Iorio, Video Designer - Daniel Denton, Britten Sinfonia

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):