24 Jan 2015

VPO in Schubert and Tchaikowsky

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday January 20 2015

Conductor: Rafael Payare. Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Schubert: Symphony n°8, D. 759, "Unfinished"
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony n°4
  • (Encore) Eduard Strauss: Mit Chic (polka)

For the 2014-2015 season I decided we'd have a change from quitting second-rate performances of second-rate scores at the interval by dropping one of our usual opera subscriptions and buying a series of visiting (i.e. non-French) orchestras at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.

On account of work (as anyone who goes to operas and concerts knows, these things have to be paid for), I missed the first of these wholly orchestral concerts: the St Petersburg Philharmonic in Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky (in this case, the 6th), magnificent I was told by the friends who were able to attend. This VPO concert was thus, for me, the first, and it was largely a disappointment: I had hoped to be thoroughly wowed, and wasn't.

Rafael Payare has been Dudamel's assistant but, counter-intuitively, is "aussi austère que son compatriote Gustavo Dudamel est flamboyant" ( "as austere as his compatriot Gustavo Dudamel is flamboyant"). Bent over and wearing a long coat, he has, leaving aside the afro hairdo, the dour demeanour of a Presbyterian minister. This should (apart from the hair) go down well in Ulster, where he now works. His conducting is meticulous and restrained, dry almost (using only limited vibrato), businesslike and brisk in spirit but not in tempo, avoiding showy effect and reining in the VPO, from whom he elicited neither very loud fortissimi nor very soft pianissimi.

Of course there were moments when the VPO's virtuosity shone through. The four-square togetherness of the brass. The soaring horn tuttis. The precision of the piccolo in those terrible twiddly bits in the scherzo, that brought an admiring smile to the face of the principal 'cellist. (There must be times when flautists wish they could strangle Tchaikovsky - think of the equally twiddly bits in the finale of the famous piano concerto.) The precision of the pizzicato in the whole of that scherzo. The orchestra's amazing ability to come to a sudden, absolute silence after a gigantic chord with cymbals.

But on a cold night, a restrained performance of Schubert's 8th is no way to warm things up (why don't orchestras do overtures any more?). This concert only really got going halfway through the first movement of the Tchaikovsky - and indeed, the end of that first movement drew an impressed whistle from someone that made the orchestra laugh, and a brief ripple of applause. So there was some excitement. But ultimately, the meticulousness and restraint (which incidentally had Tchaikovsky's frequent "handovers" from strings to woodwind to brass and back again sounding more clunky than thrilling) made for rather a dull evening.

In the end (literally), it was the (single) Viennese encore that brought the orchestra out of its strait-jacket. It was the most convincing part of the programme - short enough to leave us plenty of time for a warming lentil soup at the Turks'.

19 Jan 2015

Puccini - Turandot

Hungarian State Opera - Erkel Theatre, Budapest, Saturday January 17 2015 

Conductor: Gergely Kesselyák. Turandot: Szilvia Rálik. Altoum: István Róka. Timur: Kolos Kováts. Calaf: Atilla Kiss B. Liu: Gabriella Létay Kiss. Ping: Zoltán Kelemen. Pang: István Horváth. Pong: NC. Mandarin: Sándor Egri.

Per capita GDP in the US is about $53,000; in France, it's around $44,000; in Hungary, it's $13,000. Yet the Hungarian State Opera somehow manages to maintain two houses – its magnificent, gilded, neo-renaissance main one and the more modern (and larger) Erkel Theatre – offering a season of fully-staged operas with orchestra, chorus and, in many cases, soloists of international standard. The most expensive seats at the Erkel cost the equivalent of 12 euros (at the main house, that is doubled). The productions may be more or less sophisticated, but clearly this is a company that works hard to give its patrons the best it can with the funds available.

A real critic, paid to be impartially objective, may not take such things into account. But as my (French) neighbour put it on Saturday, when the Paris Opera, with its annual subsidy of 100 million euros, is capable of putting on a Seraglio with singers barely audible even at Garnier, and so dire to watch that despite the 190-euro ticket price we escaped at the first opportunity, in Budapest you're inclined to be indulgent.

Still, as Calaf, Atilla Kiss B. was more rough than ready. His voice was so uneven in the first act you sometimes weren't quite sure what he was doing: singing, moaning, groaning or what. It oddly brought to my mind one of those battered jalopies you sometimes see that have been patched up with doors, bonnet and boot lid of different colours. His “Sia benedetta!” was worrying: a bizarre, strangled sort of sound, so it was probably just as well that in the third and highest “Gli enigmi sono tre” he was covered by the soprano. Yet he somehow recovered for “Nessun Dorma”, scooping up into the higher notes from well below, and scored a huge hit with the local fans, the conductor having helped, much to my surprise, by choosing what you might call the “concert ending” of the aria, coming to a (thunderous) full stop that shamelessly called for applause.

Erkel Theatre
Gabriella Létay Kiss sang fairly loudly throughout, with quite a hard sound, so I missed some of the potential subtleties of the part. But remember, I'm contrasting this production favourably with one in Paris where we could barely hear the singers at all. 

Szilvia Rálik, when singing softly, i.e. after she'd gone completely to pieces (as Anna Russell said of Brünnhilde, for those who don't get the quote) in Alfano's ghastly final scenes, had a very beautiful voice with an interesting timbre. Not at all the Wagnerian kind of voice sometimes cast as Turandot. I suppose we can say she's a lirico-spinto, as before that, much of the time she was pushed to her absolute limit – but not beyond it. She can undeniably sing the part, indeed is singing it eight times this month. The question is whether she should. It would be a shame to harm such a fine instrument. (I hope to hear her later this year as Jenufa, which should be more comfortable for her.)

The chorus, sometimes on stage and sometimes dispersed around the house, sang very well (better than they acted). The orchestra too, only conductor Gergely Kesselyák tended to bash his way through the score, giving us real thrills in the loud bits that were meant to be such (the brass, by the way, were in a raised stage-side box and as such especially audible), but very little of the poetry or mystery that should also, quite often, be there.

The single set was made of lightweight, fretted structures in red and gold lacquer, with openwork staircases that could be moved about as required and roofed pavilions that could be raised above the rear terrace as required for the appearance, for example, of the emperor. The faintly rickety, dusty look quite faithfully recalled the Forbidden City in Beijing and there were definitely some visually effective moments. The soloists' costumes were colourful, in some cases visibly copied from actual Chinese theatre (Ping, Pang and Pong, white faced with red streaks, were wreathed in flags; the plebs, though, were all in simple black). Turandot had the usual, Medusa-like headgear, but also, in this case, a gold mask that Calaf ripped off towards the end (i.e. when he might equally have been ripping off her bodice).

That was one of the production's ideas, and a better one than the chorus's rapid semaphoric gestures, which they managed only fitfully, or Calaf's disappearance, once he'd decided to go for the riddle, through a brightly-lit moon door (or science-fiction Stargate) that opened and closed like James Bond's camera shutter. He made no attempt at acting but simply strutted around and took up poses, legs apart. I'm not sure his grim facial expression changed once and I must admit I wondered what Liu and Turandot saw in him (And if looks count, Turandot should really have married the Prince of Persia). Szilvia Rálik, on the contrary, threw herself into the role, so it wasn't surprising to see her turn up for dinner afterwards at the same restaurant as my little party: she must have been starving. I'd be quite happy to see her turn up at the Paris opera, in slightly less demanding roles.

Incidentally, there is noticeably no sign, in Budapest, of opera audiences growing old: everyone is there, mum and dad, grandma and granddad, the kids and courting couples, all dressed up to the nines and apparently enjoying every minute. Paris's Seraglio wasn't worth twelve times as much.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Nessun Dorma".

22 Dec 2014

Berlioz - L'Enfance du Christ

Bozar, Brussels, Sunday December 21 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Vierge Marie: Stéphanie d'Oustrac. Saint-Joseph: Lionel Lhote. Hérode: Paul Gay. Le père de famille / Polydorus: Frédéric Caton. Le récitant / Centurion: Yves Saelens. Orchestra & Chorus of La Monnaie, Reflection Vocal Ensemble, La Monnaie Children’s Choir.

Pendant dix ans Marie, et Joseph avec elle / Virent fleurir en lui la sublime douceur, / La tendresse infinie / A la sagesse unie.

Berlioz trying to stay awake
“Sagesse” is probably not a word you’d usually apply to Berlioz, whose music is always full of surprises, often quite startling ones; but “sublime douceur” and “tendresse infinie” seem to sum up well the score of L’Enfance du Christ, one of his milder efforts.

Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Bozar in Brussels showed little sign of conductor, Ludovic Morlot having recently stated:

"I can only note that the orchestra and I have not succeeded in sharing a common artistic vision”.

He will be leaving at the end of the month, having served only two out of five years as musical director of Belgium’s Royal Opera. Stéphanie d’Oustrac was a vocally flawless Virgin Mary, round and dark in sound, though looking oddly detached. Lionel Lhote, someone I’ve often admired in Brussels, was irreproachable as an elegant Joseph (elegant vocally; I’m not so sure about his Dickensian evening outfit) perhaps the best I’ve ever heard him yet. Paul Gay, towering over the conductor even though the latter was standing on a podium, was far better employed here than as Gounod’s Méphistophélès at the Bastille, though still lacking the one or two lowest notes called for. Yves Saelens was a sweet, delicate lyric tenor. Frédéric Caton did what he had to do. And the orchestra, once warmed up, was on its best behaviour.

Christ in Brussels
I did write, regarding Morlot’s conducting of Britten’s War Requiem in the same hall, that “the main shortcoming […] was, to me, lack of dynamic variety. It was mostly loud to very loud…” Once again, it seemed to me he might have taken advantage of the Bozar’s acoustics to play with more delicacy and less tendency to cover the singers. And as usual with Morlot, there were times when I could personally have done with more urgency. But apart from that it was a nice, warm performance, very suitable for Christmas (think “sherry commercials”), and warmly received – so no hard feelings, apparently.

The only question is how much simple piety hard-boiled atheists can take in a hot hall after a substantial Belgian lunch without nodding off. “C’est très beau,” said my neighbour. “Mais qu’est-ce qu’on s’en fout.”

9 Dec 2014

Mozart - Don Giovanni

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 7 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets & Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Don Giovanni: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Il Commendatore: Sir Willard White. Donna Anna: Barbara Hannigan. Don Ottavio: Topi Lehtipuu. Donna Elvira: Rinat Shaham. Leporello: Andreas Wolf. Masetto: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Zerlina: Julie Mathevet. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Mozart (again)
You can't win them all. After a series of successful productions (in my view at any rate: his Makropoulos Affair is one of the Bastille’s best ever), I suppose Krzysztof Warlikowski was bound to come a cropper at some stage, and that was exactly how French daily Le Figaro chose to head its review "Don Giovanni : Warlikowski se casse les dents", i.e. Warlikowski comes a cropper. You expect something novel, thoughtful and interesting from him, but here he disappointed by dishing up what any lesser "regie" director might have (and so often has) dished up – mirthlessly cynical high life/hi jinx with embarrassing simulated sex. Cunnilingus coloratura is by now a real cliché, yet Donna Anna sang “Non mi dir” with Don Ottavio’s head up her coat.

Visually it was glamorous and slickly done, with faultlessly chic costumes all round (“the Don wears Prada”, you might say), the tightest, shortest possible dresses and highest possible heels for Donna Anna, and superb coloured lighting – far better done, in its genre, than Andrea Breth’s Traviata in the same house two years’ back, so I wondered why the Brussels audience booed so loudly this time. Exasperation, probably, at being served more of much the same (and they may not have liked Donna Anna shooting Ottavio in the head at the end).

The acting was, nevertheless, outstanding and there were, still, some striking theatrical images - the Don’s death in particular, on his own butcher’s block (the dinner he prepared was raw meat only) - provided you managed not to be distracted by black dancers flailing around and foaming at the mouth, references, so it seemed, to the “Hottentot Venus” or (as the Commander came back from the dead) voodoo trances.

In the sleek circumstances, you couldn’t help suspecting casting was based on looks (especially figure) first, voice later. The suitably slender, blue-suited Topi Lehtipuu sang stylishly enough and Sir Willard White was of course up to his part - more so than Bou, stretched to his limit. Barbara Hannigan’s (amazingly long-legged) performance was oddly mannered, reminding me of Maria Ewing at her most flesh-creepingly irritating. Rinat Shaham, after a rocky start, had her moments: in an otherwise stonily unresponsive afternoon, only she and Hannigan got any applause, both after their big act-two numbers. The rest of the cast were more or less out of their depth; and when Warlikowski had everyone singing from boxes at the sides, no-one was properly audible. I wondered if it was Ludovic Morlot’s own idea to drag the score (recits especially) out to three-and-a-half hours, but imagine the director also had a hand in it, for dramatic (and somehow un-Mozartian) effect. The orchestra was lacklustre indeed and even, at times, sounded out of tune. That surely must have been an illusion, due to my own tin ear?

An eminent musicologist has suggested to me that people are now simply fed up with “regie” productions (leading me to fear a return to “period practice” along the stilted, dust-blurred lines of Cadmus et Hermione at the Opéra Comique or Hippolyte et Aricie at Garnier). Of course, I can understand people being fed up with bad ones; but to me, Warlikowski has always been very good, when not out-and-out excellent. I hope, therefore, that this Don G. is the exception that will prove the rule and that the next time I see one of his shows, he will be back on more imaginative form.

Maestro Wenarto shows how it should be done.

28 Oct 2014

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

ONP Garnier, Monday October 27 2014

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Zabou Breitman. Sets: Jean-Marc Stehlé. Costumes: Arielle Chanty. Choreography: Sophie Tellier. Lighting: André Diot. Selim: Jürgen Maurer. Konstanze: Erin Morley. Blonde: Anna Prohaska. Belmonte: Bernard Richter. Pedrillo: Paul Schweinester. Osmin: Lars Woldt. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Believe it or not, I was actually in Istanbul, having lunch in the grounds of Topkapi Palace* (in Turkish, "Topkapı Sarayı" hence "Serail" in Mozart's title), when I got a text message from Paris: "Entführung is dismal! Opéra de Limoges style." As it happens (this will seem far-fetched, but truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction) the person opposite me during lunch was from Limoges, and took umbrage at the implied slur on her home town. She was with me at last night's performance of the Entführung in question, at the Palais Garnier (in Turkish, "Garnier Sarayı", naturally – unless some phonetically-schooled Turks write it “Gağniye”). Giving her verdict at the interval, she hadn't forgotten that message: "Tell him (a) up yours and (b) even in Limoges they'd never dare..." - meaning never dare put on such a dire show. Wondering what to write about it, I was lost for words. Fortunately the more resourceful "Opera Cake" has since reminded me that "moronic" and "moron" exist: this was a moronic production that took us all for morons.

By what process, I have often wondered, do people who have never directed an opera before get invited to do it? Of course, you have to start somewhere; and of course, sometimes it's a success: I remember being surprised when Warlikowski, who admitted he hadn’t a clue about opera, was asked, but he has since become my favourite director. As usual, I had to look Zabou Breitman up. She has acted in lots of films, and the very person who sent me the text message tells me she is genuinely talented at that. I'll take his word for it. Her production was indescribably cringe-making, like the very worst of school plays, with wobbly painted sets and shaky crepe-paper vegetation, a brainless oriental fantasy worthy of a tacky provincial Christmas panto, with acting at least as badly directed and far fewer laughs; indeed no laughs at all. Benny Hill would have done a better job. My neighbour swore blonde’s litter was copied from a Belgian cartoon strip called Marsupilami.

Blonde's litter
I felt sorry for the extras, looking forlorn as they slouched around with nothing to do, and the belly dancers: yes, there were even belly dancers. The spoof "silent film" images projected on the curtain during the overture showed promise that was not fulfilled. I imagine they were intended to prepare us for a naive treatment of the oriental theme. But if the action was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, I'm afraid it just looked incompetently directed; and if the use of exclusively Moorish designs (including some djellabas among the rag-bag of corny costumes) in a supposedly Ottoman setting was meant to be an elaborate joke, it fell flat: it came across as sheer ignorance.

The Paris Opera website rattles on regardless about the serious messages behind the plot: “... humanist values […] the virtues of tolerance and fidelity in love, the celebration of human goodness [which] prefigure those developed in The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, [Mozart's] final operatic masterpieces. A metaphor for the combat between Liberty and all forms of absolutism, Belmonte’s quest to deliver Konstanze from Selim’s yoke resounded throughout Europe, inspired at that time by the spirit of the Enlightenment. ‘All our efforts to express the essence of things came to nothing in the aftermath of Mozart’s appearance. Die Entführung towered above us all,’ wrote Goethe, overwhelmed by the composer’s nobleness of spirit and radiant optimism.” Excusez du peu. Well, there was no sign of anything of that sort in last night’s shipwreck.

A future opera director
Whatever their intrinsic merits - and Bernhard Richter, for one, has undeniably displayed those, as Atys, for example, in 2011 - the mostly young singers were not up to their parts in a space of Garnier's size (Garnier may be smaller than the Bastille but it still has 2,000 seats) and over a modern orchestra. Konstanze's dramatic "Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele" was met last night with excruciating silence. And not everyone was as audible as Erin Morley: my elderly neighbour (on the fourth row) wondered aloud if her hearing was going as, so she claimed, some of the soloists were inaudible. The impression I got, though admittedly I may just have been projecting my own dismay on the cast, was that everyone involved realized that this was one giant turkey and had lost heart, for which they can't be blamed.

The only brief pleasure I got personally from the undertaking was listening to the excellent quartet of soloists ordered out of the pit by Selim himself to accompany "Martern aller Arten" on stage. "Bravi" to them. If the evening improved in any way after the interval, I can't say: we were off to an early dinner - mercimek çorbası, köfte, sütlaç at the Turks'.

*At Karakol, between the entrance gate and St Irene's church. This is an excellent restaurant, open-air in fine weather with views down to the Sea of Marmara, and it's a shame it doesn't open in the evening as excellent restaurants are hard to find at dinner time over in the old city.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen!

27 Oct 2014

Nicholas Lens - Shell Shock

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday October 26 2014

Conductor: Koen Kessels. Choreography and production: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Sets and videos: Eugenio Szwarcer. Costumes: Khanh Le Thanh. Lighting: Willy Cessa. Soprano: Claron McFadden. Mezzo-soprano: Sara Fulgoni. Counter-tenor: Gerald Thompson. Tenor: Ed Lyon. Bass: Mark S. Doss. Dance: Eastman - Aimilios Arapoglou, Damien Jalet, Jason Kittelberger, Kazutomi Kozuki, Elias Lazaridis, Johnny Lloyd, Nemo Oeghoede, Shintaro Oue, Guro Nagelhus Schia, Ira Mandela Siobhan. Child sopranos: Gabriel Kuti, Theo Lally, Gabriel Crozier. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

“Whether you call it shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, war creates serious psychological wounds. A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War, Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian author and musician Nick Cave have written a new opera on this theme. In twelve poems or canti he evokes the anonymous protagonists of the war in a highly personal and fluent style: soldiers, mothers, orphans, prisoners, etc. The testimonies of these individual characters, with whom everyone can identify, make the universal call for a humane and peaceful world. […] This new creation by La Monnaie has been incorporated into the official calendar of the Federal Committee for the Organisation of the Commemoration of World War I.” From La Monnaie’s website.

Nicholas Lens
Nicholas Lens calls his new work an opera, and he knows best, but it is subtitled “A Requiem of War” and, as mentioned in the text published by La Monnaie, above, is structured in twelve “cantos” written by Nick Cave. In my usual ignorance, I had to Google to find out who Nick Cave was. If I found his texts flat and uninspiring - “I float, I emote,” for example - that’s probably also more evidence of my ignorance. People used to his songs would know better, and undeniably the overall structure was clear.

I should imagine the kind of shortcut-by-analogy I’m about to take to describe the music drives composers mad, but I see no other simple way to give an idea of what a new work sounds like. It’s somewhere between mature-to-late Britten and Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (without the spirituals), with occasional excursions into Ligeti (the opening especially, reminiscent, no doubt superficially, of the "Dies Irae" of his Requiem) and brief hints of Gershwin. It is accessible to any regular classical-music listener and is often tonal in sound, at times even “traditionally” melodic, but without dumbing-down into easy listening. It calls for a large orchestra, with a piano, a cartload of percussion instruments, and a couple of balloons to burst; so large that at times (but not often) the singers are nearly drowned, making the supertitles especially useful.

Nick Cave
The vocal parts are mostly quite conventional; the soprano’s is perhaps the exception, requiring some stratospheric notes closer to screaming than singing. That would explain why Claron McFadden was more stretched than the others in the excellent cast: any soprano (with the possible exception of Yma Sumac, who might, however, have looked out of place in a commemoration of WWI) would be. Sara Fulgoni was so excellent I now wonder why I didn’t admire her Maddalena in Rigoletto. Ignorance again, probably. Perhaps I don’t like the part. Ed Lyon, who comes in for a fair (or rather, unfair) amount of ill-natured stick on websites, seems to me to be firming up and maturing into an excellent English-type tenor. Mark S. Doss was very impressive indeed. Gerald Thompson started out less so, but improved as the work progressed.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s staging was legible and neatly executed, seamlessly combining acting, dance, video and scene changes. The stage was white, with a white rear wall that folded into terraces of various heights, making platforms for the performers, or video screens. (At the beginning the dancers, dead, dropped off these high shelves alarmingly.) The men's costumes were the various uniforms of the armies at war, and to create a sense of sheer number, of wave after wave of soldiers and officers thrust to their deaths, the performers appeared in different uniforms as the afternoon went on. The soprano, a universal wife-and-mother figure, wore a plain, wifely, motherly, maroon dress.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
The dancers, nearly all men, kept up a kind of perpetuum mobile, not only dancing (writhing expressively) and dying in quick succession, over and over, rolling from stretcher to stretcher, but shifting around, as they danced, a small selection of props: sandbags, wooden crosses, stretchers and rifles, and using them to create new spaces or structures on stage. The singers, both soloists and chorus, were incorporated, as I just said, seamlessly into this carefully-choreographed action. Videos of soldiers in various positions: crouching, crawling, shooting, falling, dead… were projected on to the floor – this was very effective from where I sat but presumably less so from the stalls – and equally effectively on to plain white cut-out figures lined up on the terraces.

The production was, overall, impressively slick – which was the one thing about this excellent show that “bugged” me a tiny bit: the war itself was, of course, a humongous, lethal mess.

This is a work it would be good to listen to at home, or better still watch. I see La Monnaie willl stream it in November. Perhaps, after that, it will be available to buy. I’d like to.