Thursday, November 17, 2011


It's been a busy week here in the Big Smoke. Briefly, here is a run-down of a few memorable moments.

An intriguing disconnect between international political/economic disaster and business as far more than usual at the Salzburg Festival. Last Friday at the London launch for the 2012 event, artistic director Alexander Pereira unveiled the sort of programme that can blow everyone else clean out of the water. Just a few highlights are the original version of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which includes the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, puts Zerbinetta up a whole tone and features Jonas Kaufmann as Bacchus; Die Zauberflote with period instruments and Harnoncourt having had his arm twisted into conducting it; Il re pastore with Villazon; Carmen with Magdalena Kozena (!) and good old Jonas; La Boheme with Netrebko - yes, Puccini in Salzburg; and wall-to-wall superstar orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland and the West-Eastern Divan, pianists like Murray Perahia, Krystian Zimerman (in a Debussy recital) and Andras Schiff; and Mozart, Mozart and more Mozart. The whole thing is a week longer than usual, having been extended to incorporate a festival-within-a-festival of sacred music; and Pereira declares that in future all of Salzburg's operas will be new productions. If you want to see the show, you have to see it right away. Of course, a new production can be about E400,000 more costly than a revival, but hey. For Pereira, the sky is no limit.

I trotted off to hear James Ehnes play the Barber Violin Concerto a week ago, with the Royal Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit. The RPO's home base is Cadogan Hall, so I waited half an hour for a District Line train in a rainy rush hour (all the while informed by disembodied voices that "a good service is operating on all underground lines"), trundled soggily in to Chelsea and found the hall awash with excited people in evening dress. Wow, the RPO has a devoted following, I thought - until it turned out there was no sign of a ticket in my name and, er, this was actually an operatic evening, which explained why there were notices up about who was singing what instead of whom. Duh. Made it to the RFH just in time. [NB update: I'm sure I was told at Cadogan that it was the Chelsea Opera Group - but apparently it wasn't, so I'm now even more confused.]

I have a soft spot for the RPO: it was the first orchestra I ever heard (I was 8, Rudolf Kempe was conducting, Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto...). Nice to find them on excellent form, with Dutoit conducting in the second half a Tchaikovsky 5th that frankly, after all the Mahler and Shostakovich and Bartok that's been taking place this past year, sounded almost like Mozart. Dutoit doesn't reinvent the wheel: he lets the players play. No new insights or fancy angles, just a well-facilitated, thoroughly enjoyable and expertly rendered account of a score you can't help but love. Tchaikovsky says what he means, means what he says and speaks it concisely and eloquently: how strange to find him so refreshing. This was perspective enough. And James Ehnes dazzled in the brilliant Barber, but perhaps even more in the encore he hurried on to perform before the applause stopped - Paganini's 24th Caprice, nonchalant, charming and apparently effortless.

It is utterly unfair that the RPO has become regarded as the poor relation among the London orchestras. It was left out in the cold when the LSO snaffled the Barbican and the RFH was divvied up between the Philharmonia and the other one; the RPO's subsidy is consequently less than half of what the Southbank resident bands receive. Hence the commercial dates necessary for its survival, and the sadly compromised situation in which events like that Kaufmann concert the other week are tragically underrehearsed (we blame the promoter, not the orchestra). This Tchaikovsky treat proved, as if that were necessary, that they're as fine as anybody else when given half a chance - indeed, finer than some I could mention, notably the cellos and the magnificent horns.

The one really unconvincing thing on stage was the maestro's hair. He would look great if he allowed it to stay silver. (You see, if male critics can grumble about a girl soloist's short skirt or say that Janine Jansen's hair would sound excellent if bowed on by mistake, then I can jolly well grumble about a conductor's hair dye. So there.)

La Sonnambula at Covent Garden has divided opinion., it hasn't. Most agreed on the outcome. Eglise Gutierrez's Amina was the point of it, and really the only point. What a voice she has: persuasive, malleable, spot-on, seductive, tender and powerful. A star is born? You bet. The production, despite a beautiful Art Deco set with a snowy mountain view, clunked its way through a variety of odd decisions at the most basic level: it muddled the drama, confused the crowd control, involved some ridiculous quick-change-of-clothes events that were unnecessary and did an already daft story few favours beyond the actual design. Elizabeth Sikora as Amina's mother sang superbly, and Michele Pertusi as the Count proved that Amina had picked the wrong guy. As for the tenor - unless it can be demonstrated that he was having a severe off-night, I would be quite happy not to have to hear him again.

Back to Covent Garden with my ballet hat on for Manon with Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei "Tiger Tattoos" Polunin: two radiant young stars, both gloriously expressive, open-hearted dancers with a sophistication to their acting that paid handsome dividends in MacMillan's dark tale of the destruction of innocence by greed.

In our interview for the Indy the other week, Sergei explained that Des Grieux is a difficult character to tackle because he is essentially rather weak; the challenge was to make him interesting and convincing without putting over the wrong personality. He managed this magnificently, for it was clear that Des Grieux is the only person on stage with his integrity intact. Perhaps he's a Russian poet. A moment of consideration over his next move when Manon wavers sees him decide to fall to his knees and open his arms to her: his only weapon is to stay honest and give her his true self in this world of corrupt artifice. Lauren Cuthbertson made Manon herself just as convincing, building up an honest and nuanced relationship not only with Des Grieux but also with the lust crazed, too rich, too powerful Monsieur GM (who reminds me of someone as he wields his gleaming-eyed, appalling revenge, only I can't think who). The audience was on its feet for Sergei and Lauren at the end, and they deserved every flower that flew their way: a magnificent performance, compressing into those extraordinary pas de deux a wealth of emotional shading and a frenetic, heartbreaking journey from flirtation to destruction.

I've seen Manon less frequently than certain other ballets; partly because I'm not mad about the music, even in its new Massenet-lite orchestration, and partly because much of the choreography, except of course for the various pas de deux, gets up my nose a bit - the excess of cavorting tarts is starting to look dated. But for the first time Manon struck me for its contemporary resonances. I am sure this wasn't the case 20 years ago. You could update it to certain places very easily. Italy? Russia? London? Oh, but you know what happened in Paris at the end of the 18th century? Hmm.