Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Making a splash with Der fliegende Holländer

Royal Opera House, 5 February 2015. ****
(This is my review for The Independent, now online here.)

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta, with the chorus of ghost sailors
Photo: Clive Barda

Before the opening night of Der fliegende Holländer some of the Royal Opera House Orchestra had already taken a soaking; apparently the patch of on-stage sea for act III found its way into the pit at the dress rehearsal. But Tim Albery’s Olivier Award-nominated staging, first seen in 2009, is an immersive and immersing experience, pulling you into its depths even if you don’t get splashed en route.

Like many of the most interesting Wagner productions, it is not overloaded with activity, but homes in on human interaction, within elemental shapes; the basic concave shell could be a sail, a wave, a ship’s belly, or the slope of the shore’s hillside. Dark, stark and strong, it is impressively lit by David Finn, with intriguing angles, sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, usually symbolic. There seems no need to interpret to excess. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman comes across not as psychosis, but a genuine love; at the end, instead of throwing herself into the sea, the poor girl seems to die of grief. The mini model ship, though, sometimes feels like a prop too far.

There are two ways, very broadly speaking, to treat this opera. It can emphasise the influence of its musical roots, including Italian bel canto, Weber and Marschner (his Der Vampyr); or it can look forward to the composer’s mature masterpieces. It can be gothic horror with high emotion and great tunes; or a dusky foreshadowing of the philosophical drives that Wagner brought to bear on the Ring cycle and its companions. This account is the latter in no uncertain terms: Albery’s atmospheric staging and Andris Nelsons’s spacious conducting combine into a seriously grown-up angle.

Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman is so strongly characterised that the doomed seaman’s entire history seems visible at his first entrance, weary and burdened, dragging the ship’s rope around his shoulders; vocally he paces himself finely, saving the strongest for last as the dramatic tension peaks. As Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka is simply magnificent, with a warm and radiant voice that melts in its lower register and cuts higher up, and the ability to inhabit the role to heartbreaking effect. The central pair are more than superbly supported by Peter Rose as Senta’s father, Daland; tenor Michael König is a lyrical Erik; and in smaller roles the contributions of Ed Lyon as the Steersman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mary were outstanding. One of the night’s biggest plaudits, though, goes to the chorus: the terrifying clash of the locals and the ghost ship’s crew in act III packs a massive punch.

Some elements perhaps still need to settle a little; on this opening night it was hard not to wonder whether Nelsons’ drawn-out tempi challenged sustaining power too much. The overture dragged surprisingly – not aided by the hypnotic waves of grey curtain rolling from left to right – but Nelsons’ skill as an accompanist with forensic control of line and texture allows the singers to shine without shouting, to be supported without ever being drowned.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Bryn Plus

I had a wonderful interview with Bryn Terfel last week and it is in today's Independent, here. Bryn sings the lead in Der fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden, opening tonight.

Here are a few bonus bits of the interview.

Bryn on...Andris Nelsons (who conducts the Wagner tonight):

"The first time I met him was in Birmingham - and then I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra had snapped him up. He’s married to Kristine Opolais,of course, which will only make him an even better conductor of singers – but he can sing! Goodness gracious, you should hear his voice. He's a stunning bass-baritone and he loves to sing from the pit- and he laughs and winks at you. From what I hear, the orchestra loves him as well. Isn’t that a great formula already? Who knows where he’ll go?"

Bryn on...his foundation to help student musicians:

"Whatever I do concertwise now, the money I get for that goes to the foundation. I need to work a little bit harder, maybe, on getting people to invest some of their money into the youth of my chosen career, so I’ve given some nmoney to young Welsh singers, I’ve given some mopney to a young accordionist who's doing really well at the moment, Ksenija Sidorova, I gave her a little foundation money – I’m sure that any student coming out of college would like some help. So that’s something for the future. In the next 10 years I’m going to home in on my foundation. I started it because I heard from students that they were coming out of university with debts and that made me think that maybe they need the money now, while they’re still in college. So the money I’ve given to students, they’re in college now, spending it. And there’s no stipulation about what they can spend it on – they can buy shoes, a car, a dress – and these are things you need as a performer. I’ll never forget Sir Geraint Evans telling me: 'Buy a new suit.' And he was right. Because that generation, thety’d come to rehearsal in a three-piece suit! I’ll never forget who I got money from. Capital Radio gave me £500 once. The Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship I won was £5000 and that was really important for extra coaching and extra language coaching."

Bryn on...the great pianists:

"I’ll never forget going to hear Martha Argerich play with the young Verbier Symphony, full of kids under 25 years old. I sat there with Peter Gelb and he said 'It’ll be brilliant tonight.' I can guess a pianist will be brilliant by the names, but to hear piano music being played I need to study a little more, I think, on the difference between brilliant and mediocre, because I think they’re all fantastic. And Peter said that at the end of Horowitz’s career he was his agent and filmed him playing in Moscow for the last time. He said they didn’t want to film him from the front of the audience, so he had the camera on Horowitz from behind - and looking through into the audience, all these Russian people were sobbing. But he said Horowitz had said to him: 'Only one pianist will take over what I’ve started, and it’s Argerich'. So I was about to listen to this woman – I listen to a lot of Horowitz anyway on Youtube - his White House soirées with presidents are recorded on video. So that was one of the most exciting evenings I’d ever had, having heard that story."

Monday, September 02, 2013

Nice work

Been here, reviewing.

As locations for music festivals go, it really ain't bad. This is Lake Lucerne, snapped from the shore at the bottom of Wagner's lawn at Tribschen. I spent a happy afternoon there, working on the revision of my new play Sins of the Fathers, which is, at Tribschen. Pure coincidence, but nice. (The premiere, 24 November, is selling fast...)

I was really there to attend two concerts in the Lucerne Festival, one conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the other by Jonathan Nott. Somewhat amused to see the heading "Viva la revolucion!" on the programmes. In Spanish. One concert was of Viennese and Russian music, the other was Wagner's Das Rheingold (part of Lucerne's first-ever Ring cycle). Few festivals have a less revolutionary atmosphere - the glorious lakeside and the wonderful acoustic of the KKL are populated by the sleek and meek of the moneyed festival circuit - but nevertheless, the programming is absolutely sterling and below the gleaming surface the waters are deep and fertile, especially where the Festival Academy is concerned. My review is out now in the Independent, here:

Sunday, April 28, 2013

DH Lawrence for spring. Plus a bit of Wagner...

The Enkindled Spring

By D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence
This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that's gone astray, and is lost.
To match this, here's Jonas singing 'Wintersturme...' from Wagner's Die Walkure, because - why not?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston tackles Wagner's Flying, er, Scotsman?

Tonight Boston Lyric Opera opens a new production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Except that it isn't the opera as we know it: instead, it's an early version - the critical edition of 1841 - set in Scotland. The production is directed by Michael Cavenagh and stars Allison Oakes as Senta, Alfred Walker as the Dutchman, Gregory Frank as Donald [?? - sic] and Chad Shelton as Georg [EH? Ed. - yes, he is Georg, not Erik...] It is the US premiere of this version.

The British conductor David Angus, music director of BLO, is at the helm and I asked him a few questions about this distinctly unusual project for the Wagner bicentenary...
JD: David, please tell us something about the differences between this version of The Flying Dutchman and the one we usually hear? Are they obvious or subtle? Does it present any challenges that are significantly different?

DA: The most obvious difference to the audience is the location - Scotland - and the names of the characters.  While this may seem superficial, the music actually contains many references to Scotland, with the typical bagpipe sounds of drones and little grace notes that underpin most of the chorus music, and even form the melody lines. Apparently there are even direct references to real Scottish folk songs, although I have not yet managed to trace these.  The ultimate authority on Scottish Folksong, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser makes this claim.  

The point of all this is to understand that he really did write it with Scotland in mind, and so the shift to Norway is not casual and irrelevant.

The musical changes are slight in the modifications for the first performance.  He transposed down the main aria for Senta which is central to the whole piece, at the request of the soprano.  It is not easy to sing, even at the usual pitch, and up a tone, in A minor, is really tough.  However, it then makes a better contrast with the chorus that precedes it, in A major, so we are sticking to his original higher pitch.  The orchestration is hardly altered for the 1843 version, but he later made much bigger changes, in particular adding a sentimental "redemption" ending to both the overture and the final scene.  This introduced the harp, at these two points only.  The harpist sits there the rest of the evening doing nothing!  This Tristan style interruption blocks the energy of the ending in both cases and holds things up for no reason.  It has no place in the piece as he first conceived it, and we are not performing it.

For me the biggest differences are that the standard version, as produced in 1895 by Felix Weingartner, contains every added direction and modification that anybody (not just Wagner) had thought to apply to every performance in the first 50 years, and, on top of that, there has grown a tradition of further modifications, to tempo in particular.  When you see the clean original score, it contains so little in the way of directions that one hardly recognises it.  To take just one example; at the height of the development section in the overture, Senta's theme appears no fewer than four times, with just a few bars between each.  There is not a single marking to identify this.  In the later version somebody, possibly Wagner, wrote Un poco ritenuto.  What does that mean to you?  The tradition, which seems to have become so ingrained that I could not find a single recording that didn't do it (not even Roger Norrington or Bruno Weill on their "authentic" performances), is to slam on the brakes and reduce the speed as little as 1/3 of the main tempo!  Hardly un poco ritenuto!  You build up the momentum, stop in your tracks for a few bars, and then set off again at tempo for a few bars, only to screech to a stop again a few bars later - and they do this 4 times in a row.  Everybody does it!  Why?  I just don't understand.  One might argue that Wagner is quoted as saying that each musical idea has its own natural tempo, but the very same theme occurs immediately afterwards in the coda at an even higher speed, without anybody every questioning it.  We perform it without losing momentum at all, and it works much better, maintaining the forward thrust to the coda.

JD: In what ways does Wagner reflect the intended Scottish setting in the music? Did he keep any of those elements in the final, Norway-set version? 

DA: He kept them all, and didn't make any reference to Norway except in the names - Donald became Daland, Georg became Erik, and Holystrand (where they shelter) became Sandvike.  There were other minor changes to the vocal lines, but nothing of any significance.

JD: How did the Scottish version come to light? What kind of editorial work had to be done to it to make it performable? What attracted you to the idea of staging it on in Boston?

My New York manager mentioned that he had a client who had performed this version in Australia many years ago, and it had been very successful.  At that time it had been uncovered by the conductor during his research, and he had produced orchestral materials himself.  I contacted him and was persuaded to follow it up, only to find that Schott had just produced a critical edition of this very version which had yet to be performed in the US.  You can imagine that, as I was already interested in it, the idea that we could actually have a US premiere of a major work by Wagner was an extremely attractive bonus.  This year there are so many Wagner performances that anything to help us stand out is very valuable.

JD: The story goes that he changed the setting to Norway after a fearsome experience at sea when his ship was forced to shelter in the fjords from a North Sea storm, but do you think there is any other reason for his decision to change the setting?

DA: There are various theories, but he had already had that experience on his journey to London and then Paris, before he wrote this piece, so it was already in his mind when he composed it; he still set it in Scotland.  I believe the reason he later changed it was that he had begun to construct the "lone creative giant" myth about himself - one of the original "spin-doctors" - and decided to make the piece more autobiographical.  Maybe he also wanted to distance himself from his sources - both the Heine original Scottish story and even his musical influences such as Marschner's Der Vampyr (set in Scotland, in which a pale man is redeemed by the death of an innocent girl!).  Wagner's original outline for the opera, set in Scotland, which he had sold to the Paris Opera when they didn't want him to compose the whole opera, had just been set by another composer, and I am sure he didn't want to be associated with that.

To sum up, Wagner wrote a strong early Romantic opera, following directly in the line of Weber (with whose music he had a great deal of direct contact when growing up in Leipzig) but which he and his followers then diluted by tinkering with it.  It has ended up as neither the Musikdrama (i.e. grand symphonic work, through-composed, and woven together with leitmotivs) that it later aspired to be, nor the much more athletic and punchy work that is was originally.  I believe strongly that the original version, shorn of all the "traditions" and modifications, is much stronger.

I have been in contact with David Breckbill, the US authority on performance tradition in Wagner, and he wrote the following which makes a very clear case:

“To perform the Holländer as though it were a later work is to expose the younger Wagner’s inexperience.  Paradoxically, in order to deserve equivalent status with its partners in the Wagner canon, Der fliegende Holländer requires performers whose temperament, spontaneity, and technique can bring out the fresh, vigorous qualities that set this opera apart from the later “music dramas”, instead of assuming that a uniform performance style based on the later works will bring the Holländer closer to them.”
(David Breckbill, Cambridge Opera Handbook)

JD: Not about Wagner, but we've all been following the Boston Marathon bomb developments and have been thinking of you over there. How is morale in the company and how is everyone feeling? 

DA: Morale is now good, because the show is going very well and we are all excited to be doing our first big Wagner here.  There was a general feeling that nobody was going to let lunatics like that ruin our lives.  The bombs were awful, and caused chaos in Boston, as you will have heard.  We lost many important rehearsals, but everyone has done everything they could to catch up and we are now back on track.  We were all very shocked at the time, but I also regret that this admittedly horrifying event resulted in a worldwide media frenzy that will encourage every terrorist organisation - showing how simple it is to shut down a major US city twice in a week.  If it had happened in Syria or Iraq, it would hardly have been mentioned!

Photos by Eric Antoniou

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann, swamped with red roses

Now, look. We have the Internet. We have Social Media. We have Instant Messaging. We have Facebook Chat. We have, for goodness' sake, the telephone. We have any number of means of communicating with our fellow human beings, in the same business or otherwise. 

So how can it happen that people go and schedule a Jonas Kaufmann concert at the Royal Festival Hall and a two-hander with Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato at the Barbican on the same flippin' night?

The fact that the inaugural Opera Awards are taking place tonight at the Park Lane Hilton, presenting prizes in 23 categories in front of 700 people, is probably a complete coincidence...

As it was, we had to choose, and I chose Kaufmann. There was Verdi and there was Wagner, and OK, it was one of those dates that pad out the sung programme with under-rehearsed orchestral extracts - but it was still Kaufmann. 

He started off by charming everyone with a little speech about why he was using the music. He doesn't usually, he insisted, but he's had so much to deal with these past few weeks...and he didn't want us all to sit there watching him sweating and shaking and suffering, so...well, fair enough. 

Wagner or Verdi, then, Jonas? Both, he says; and proceeded to prove that singing the one to near-perfection in no way precludes doing likewise for the other.

His Verdi selection was well planned, traversing the composer's development from the cod-Rossini idiom of the overture to Luisa Miller and the aria "Oh! Fede negar potessi...Quando le sere al placido"; through Simon Boccanegra - "O inferno!...Cielo pietoso, rendita" emerged as an absolute masterpiece in his interpretation - towards the ever-growing sophistication of Don Carlo ("Io l'ho perduta....Io la vidi") to La forza del destino ("La vita è inferno all'infelice...O, tu che in seno agli angeli").
This Verdi singing had everything: unleashed power matched by ever-alert nuance, tender covered tone balancing taut rhythms, expressive enunciation colouring mellifluous phrasing. Above all, Kaufmann's identification with the drama came across as utterly genuine. Many of these arias were pieces most of us have not heard him sing before. Therefore much anticipation had focused upon what he'd do with them; and he did not disappoint.

The Wagner extracts, though, are all on his recently-released album (of course) - and in some cases his performance even exceeded the achievements of the CD. The extremely extended Siegmund cries of "Wälse" suffer on the disc from a little drifting intonation, but not for a moment yesterday. Precision, power, character, colour, intelligence and that unmatchable, unmistakeable Kaufmann tone: it was all there and who could ask for anything more? 

The special truc about Kaufmann is that he is a musician first and foremost: one who expresses his innate, sterling-quality musicianship through a voice that happens to be a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. This is rare. And he can act; and he looks great. All of that is a bonus.

He brought us a powerful, bitter Siegmund, a disingenuous Walther "Am stillen Herd" (we longed for the Prize Song but didn't get it) and his magnificently tormented "Amfortas! Die Wunde" from Parsifal - the opera that works least well as bleeding chunks at any time. (Pictured: Kaufmann as Parsifal at the Met.) Yet of the whole programme, the Wagner encores stand out as the most cherishable moments: two of the Wesendonck Lieder, "Schmerzen" and "Träume", sung entirely as the Lieder they are rather than as opera manqué, the emphasis falling upon the poetry, the intimacy, the sensibility. And "Winterstürme" from Die Walküre brought us an assurance that after this awfully long winter, spring really had come at last.

So had the flowers. Rarely do we see a man showered with bouquets of red roses to this extent -  brought to him on stage, but also handed to him from the audience. One lady trotted to the front with a red shiny bag to give him, content invisible. Let's hope it was chocolate. He deserved some.

The Florez/DiDonato concert sounds like a classier event, as far as peripheries are concerned - the RFH audience had to deal with a programme sprinkled with ridiculous misprints (Wagner was in the Dresden Uprising in 1949?), equally ridiculous summaries of entire opera plots yet no song texts, and huge pin-up style photos of our tenor (well, that's OK to some...). But all credit to the Philharmonia and conductor Jochen Rieder for delivering much better than the other orchestra did last time Kaufmann sang a Gubbay gig, even if - thanks, I fear, to the RFH acoustics, which have been  infuriatingly biased against the treble ever since the refurbishment - the brass drowned the upper strings at every turn. A guest clarinet in the form of Andrew Marriner proved worth his weight in gold

UPDATE, 3.40pm: There was a fourth encore. It was Verdi's 'Ah, la paterna mano'. I missed it. I thought it was all over...Fortunately, though, someone filmed it and has put it on Youtube. Here it is.