Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Historical: In memoriam Sena Jurinac

The great soprano Sena Jurinac died earlier this week, aged 90. In this film from Glyndebourne 1955 she sings 'Porgi amor' from Le nozze di Figaro. I'd challenge anyone to find a purer and more directly from-the-heart performance anywhere.

Here is her obituary from The Guardian.

This Friday Historical is additionally dedicated by JDCMB to all those who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Yes? Maybe

An intriguing evening at the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen and Bonnie Greer's Yes. 'Intriguing' because in some ways it succeeds, in others it doesn't, and some of its strengths also handspring its weaknesses. It seemed a work in progress, needing some nips, tucks and the addressing of some continuity issues.

But at its heart it strikes a deep, true chord: when Wallen is let off the leash of very short scenes and has the leisure to unfurl her best music, moments of great beauty emerge from the distillation of uncomfortable contemporary truths. How and why do we create in a world that is "baking in its own shit"? Thus the artist character, trying to work out what lies behind the "dark, malevolent" quality of what he's just painted, faces the existential question of any creative here and now, and it's a knock-em-dead performance by that brilliant, all-giving, stage-creature baritone that is Omar Ebrahim. 

A reflective ensemble number accompanied by purling strings and pizzicato almost a la Bach or Mozart proved another highlight, evoking the classical underpinning of Wallen's eclectic contemporary idioms; and the recurring, developing chorus, ratcheting the tension, helps to bind together a tricky multi-protagonist structure. Wallen's music has - as it often does - empathy, riff-edged sophistication, high intelligence and, best of all, a big, strong heart. And much of the singing was spectacular.

The problems are that mosaic structure and the staging. The latter first: the Linbury is opened up and the black and white stage is in the centre with seats on both sides. The singers must address one side, then the other and whichever you're on, you tend to miss the words when performers' backs are turned. The brevity of the scenes and the inevitable awkwardness of moving quickly from one to the next means that the flow of drama and music is constantly interrupted, and punctuation by supposed news announcements - delivered in a tone that is unfortunately more Open University than Newsnight - do little to help. Just when you think it's getting off the ground, it stops again.

There's one format in which Yes would work brilliantlyIt is TV. On film you could project writing instead of the spoken announcements, create an unbroken musical web that slides easily from scene to scene without interruption and develop each character that much more; at the moment we can only see a tantalising glimmer of them. 

Greer's libretto may at times feel difficult - the words of John Stuart Mill don't lend themselves especially well to singing, and using terms like "relevance" and "diversity" risks missing the mark in the context of operatic drama rather than commentary from outside. But the threads and connections build: the phone call from Greer's mother, talking about stargazing, finds an echo in the final words from the white grandson of an East Ender. Greer's mother says, "Nobody does that but us", yet this child from another place, another culture and a family of another mindset proves that in fact...we're all the same. We are all the same: we are all human beings. Why is that always the hardest lesson for us to learn?

So, in short: Yes is maybe a success in the making, it has some wonderful moments, it is brilliantly sung, it could use a bit of rethinking and - perhaps appropriately for an opera based around a forthcoming TV show - it ought to be a film. Stand by for snide remarks from white males.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saying YES

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race... of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth." (John Stuart Mill)
 Yes, the new opera by composer Errollyn Wallen and playwright Bonnie Greer (pictured: Errollyn, left, and Bonnie, in rehearsals), opens tonight at the ROH Linbury Studio. It's the story of the run-up to Bonnie's appearance on the BBC's Question Time alongside...That Politician. What emerged from her experience is a picture of the state of the nation: how we see ourselves, our country, our fellow human beings and freedom of speech. My article about it is in today's Independent. As we point out in the feature, it's not every day you hear the words of John Stuart Mill being sung at Covent Garden.

Here's a taster, from Bonnie:
"Any organisations or groups of people that prevent others from expressing a legitimate opinion, whether in print or in person, are absolute enemies of democracy...That's the reason I said yes. I'm the daughter of a man who grew up under racial segregation and couldn't speak out, so there's no way I'm going to be part of anything that won't allow a person to speak his or her mind. I think some of the great and the good were upset that I did this [appearing on Question Time]– and they were even more upset that it turned out to be OK. This is about freedom of speech and expression; about saying yes to the tumultuous nature of democracy."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Historical: Stokowski conducts Nielsen

I am feeling quite fond of Denmark at present (most of you know why, I think). Here is part of a hair-raising, gut-grabbing performance of that Great Dane Carl Nielsen's Symphony No.2 with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. This was 1967, Stokowski was 85 and it was the first time he had tackled the work.

I've been promised some good seafood and a Sarah Lund sweater when I go over soon. Unfortunately the largish pack of thermal stuff I ordered from Uniqlo has vanished into thin air in transit, though naturally my credit card has been charged. Perhaps someone in the delivery company has to go to Denmark too? It's cold out there. Dear readers, here is my lesson for you this week: use your internet to read my blog, but not to place orders for anything that requires manual delivery after payment.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Lang way to go

Calling all keen pianists: wanna go to New York? Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, one of the leading lights of the celebrated Bang on a Can, has come up with a terrific, exciting and innovative idea. He is offering pianists all over the world the chance to compete for a free trip to the Big Apple to play at Le Poisson Rouge. You download his piece (free of charge), learn it, video yourself playing it and upload your film. The judges will watch each video and choose the winner. The successful pianist wins a free trip to New York and the concert date on 6 May 2012. David is also composing a new four-hands piece specially for the occasion.

Here he is to tell you more about it. Get practising!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Great Gate of...Wimbledon?

Last winter I took a very snowy trip to Paris to see the world premiere of pianist Mikhail Rudy's astonishing venture into musical animation. Having unearthed Kandinsky's original designs for a 1928 theatrical staging of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition - they were quietly awaiting attention deep within Paris's Pompidou Centre - Micha conceived a way to update this ever-musical artist's work for a modern context. Joining forces with an expert animation company, he set about breathing life into Kandinsky.

The result? Micha plays - necessarily in perfect coordination with the film - while Kandinsky dances. The animations don't overload the music with extraneous effect. Different images assemble, deconstruct, kaleidoscope; they're often playful, sometimes ironic, always cool and light in touch. Now Micha is on a world tour with the project: given the blessing of the Pompidou, which is putting out a DVD, he has just taken it to the US and Russia for the first time. And this week you can catch the UK premiere in the Turner Sims Hall in Southampton on Thursday night (17 Nov) and at the Wimbledon Festival on Saturday (19 Nov).

It's a new slant on Mussorgsky. But intriguingly enough, it is far from being the first time a pianist has done his own thing with this music.

Since Horowitz, who coined the term 'pianostrate', many performers have taken as read carte blanche to make their own additions to Mussorgsky's already dazzling score. Partly this is down to the popularity of Ravel's orchestration, which appeared to make people think there was more to the piece than its original composer had put into it himself. So pianists are divided, roughly, into those who stick to the text and those who...don't.

When I wrote a 'Building a Library' piece for BBC Music Magazine a few months ago looking at different interpretations of Pictures, it became clear that Sviatoslav Richter's legendary live recording from Sofia has its revered status for a good reason: sticking faithfully to the text, Richter put in all the colour, magnificence and orchestral effects the piece could hope for through his playing alone. Of the 'pianostrated' ones, Horowitz was incomparable, though Leif Ove Andsnes's Pictures Reframed proved fascinating in its own way. Mikhail Pletnev's, while evoking astonishing, multifaceted, eleventh-dimension sounds that you wouldn't imagine a piano could produce, was cold as ice. Vladimir Ovchinnikov's recording was a sure sign that this excellent former Leeds winner remains seriously underestimated today, and among historical recordings Lazar Berman's remains a personal favourite of mine. I listened to loads of good ones, a few less good, and a monstrous heap of CDs that were well-played, faithful renditions of the score without a hint of interest or originality about them.

Anyhow, that is by-the-by. If you're within batting distance of Wimbledon or Southampton, don't miss Micha's audio-visual treat this week.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A poppy from Pavlova

A poppy special for this weekend: I've just come across this astonishing film of Anna Pavlova in 1923, dancing a little ballet called California Poppy choreographed for her by Mikhail Fokine. The music is Tchaikovsky's Valse Melancholique. (The first part of the video is still photographs, but keep going - the film starts soon.)

Friday, November 11, 2011


I have a piece in today's Independent about music inspired by war, talking to Simon Keenlyside about his recital and CD programe, but also asking why so few composers have been tackling the emotions and the human cost involved in the wars of today. Are people who could conceivably commission one maybe too scared of doing 'the wrong thing' politically and displeasing someone powerful?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sartorial snobbery on the stage?

The recent row about Rihanna and her bra in the fields makes most classical musicians' clothing look staid, even at its shortest and tightest. 

So why do people get into such a stew over the gorgeous Yuja and her concert attire? At least she looks good in it. And as for orchestras... I'd say "don't get me started," but recently my boss at the Independent did indeed get me started, so here's the result.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

John Foulds: the true story

Over at Slipped Disc, Norman has linked to a fascinating story from the Western Mail, hauling out, for Remembrance Day, the question "Whatever happened to John Foulds and his World Requiem"?

The work is freely available to listen to on the recording that was issued following its resuscitation and performance four years ago at the Royal Albert Hall, so you can make up your own mind about its quality. At the time, I interviewed Foulds's grandson, gatecrashed the rehearsals and became completely fascinated by the zeitgeist that surrounded the work, to say nothing of Foulds's own astonishing story, and that of his partner, Maud MacCarthy. The World Requiem may in fact have vanished for a good reason: though before that performance expectations ran high indeed, it turned out to be rather disappointing, despite some magical moments. Foulds (1880-1939) at his finest is completely fabulous - a fascinating mind, a generous spirit and an original, ingenious creator and craftsman. But even Sakari Oramo, who is largely responsible for reawakening interest in the composer through his championship and superb recordings with the CBSO, admitted in an interview I did with him some time ago that the World Requiem was not really one for him.

Professor Cowgill's research, quoted in the article, is certainly a fascinating addition to the existing body of material about Foulds, which also includes a book by the magnificent Malcom MacDonald. The article, though, doesn't go into the whole picture of the politics that left Foulds out in the cold. He came from an extremely modest background in Manchester, where his father was a bassoonist in the Halle Orchestra; to make matters worse, Foulds's parents were Plymouth Brethren - aged 13, he ran away from home to escape this oppressive religious regime. Snobbery in the musical establishment was of course rife - but more than that, Foulds espoused strong left-wing views, which increased the suspicious attitude towards him. Living in abject poverty, he found himself forced to decamp abroad for a while and he worked in Paris as a cinema pianist.

But spiritualism, eastern philosophies and Theosophy in particular were both fashionable and popular in Foulds's day. And Maud MacCarthy was an exceptional case. She was a child prodigy violinist, then became a pupil of Annie Besant, who had morphed from feminist pioneer to disciple of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. The story goes that when she and Foulds fell in love, both already being married, the two couples sat down together to discuss the situation and agree a conclusion in a civilised manner - though later, when Foulds and MacCarthy went ahead and set up home together, Mrs Foulds (also named Maud) was devastated.

Acceptance of the notion of contact from the spirit world and the dictation of musical themes from the beyond comes through strongly in Foulds's book, Music To-Day - he terms the phenomenon 'clairaudience'. This was nothing new. Even Schumann believed in this sort of thing; there's one famous instance in which he insisted that the theme of his Geistervariationen was dictated to him in a dream by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert (though in this case the unfortunate composer, his mind disintegrating under the influence of tertiary syphilis, had forgotten he'd written it himself and had already used it twice before). As for Theosophy, the poet WB Yeats was another believer, and just two of the other composers lured by the promise of worlds beyond our own - eastern or spiritual or both - were Scriabin and Holst.

What was different was the passion with which MacCarthy devoted herself to her spiritual life, perhaps to a certain extent dragging Foulds along in her wake. She was clearly a powerful personality; Foulds adored her, was absolutely in thrall to her, and seems to have followed where she led. She insisted on the couple's move to India apparently because of a directive she received from the spirit world...

But meanwhile, somewhere in the east end of London, she encountered a beautiful youth - illiterate and poor - who had the ability to channel messages from a group of wise entities that MacCarthy called "The Brothers". We don't know the youth's name; in her books, MacCarthy simply calls him The Boy. She took him to India and set up what today we'd probably call a visitor centre or even an ashram. Devotees came from far and wide to consult The Brothers, as channelled by The Boy, for advice, wisdom and healing.

Foulds, meanwhile, went to Calcutta to be head of music for India's national radio. There he caught cholera and died. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed by the climate or eaten by vermin. We'll never know exactly what was lost, though the idea of an East-West Symphony is both tantalising and tragic. After his death, MacCarthy took the name Swami Omananda, and married The Boy - yes, a swami is a monk and there is a discrepancy there. She insists in her book The Boy and the Brothers that the marriage was only nominal and for appearance's sake, and was never consummated, though the tone of the text suggests at every turn that she was madly in love with him, and was perhaps deceiving herself.

It's only a pity that the World Requiem does not entirely measure up to its back-story. Perhaps, as Remembrance Day approaches, it is time to give it another listen.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A tiger at the ballet: meet Sergei Polunin

He's 21, he's been called "better than Baryshnikov" and he has tiger scratches tattooed into his torso. Sergei Polunin, the youngest star of the Royal Ballet, makes his debut tonight as Des Grieux in MacMillan's ManonHis extraordinary roller-coaster of a story, from rags to incipient riches, as told to me a couple of weeks ago by the lad himself, is in today's Independent.

He's rather lovely - intelligent and self-aware, under that youthful bravado - and I couldn't help teasing him a little when he started talking about how he envies the street life of his former school friend back in Kherson, Ukraine, whom he encountered "walking around in a gang, looking cool". I asked where he lives and he named a reasonably rough bit of north London. Plenty of gangs there, I said. I'm sure they'd have you, what with the tattoos and all. Fortunately he recognises that he can't risk breaking a leg. Still, he's already seen more of real life in his 21 short years than many of ballet (and music)'s practitioners will experience in twice that.

Monday, November 07, 2011

John Adams on 'Klinghoffer' in London & NY

My goodness, the folks at ENO and the Met are brave. They're staging a co-production of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, directed by Tom Morris (of War Horse fame). ENO will give seven performances, opening on 25 February. It will be the London stage premiere of this American supremo's most controversial opera. The Los Angeles Music Center Opera, one of the work's co-commissioners, cancelled its planned staging without explanation back in the early '90s and the only one in the US since then took place a few months ago at the Opera Theater of St Louis (read review here).

In a statement that ENO has just put out, Adams has this to say:
"ENO has become the home for my operas in the UK. I count myself a very lucky composer to have such an artistically progressive company in my corner. ENO has already introduced Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic in powerfully committed performances and I expect nothing less from Tom Morris's new staging of The Death of Klinghoffer which has every promise of being provocative, humane and deeply imagined. London audiences are my ideal listeners - sophisticated, musically literate, enthusiastic and of course a little bit insane. I look forward to being among them for the premiere."
His introduction to his opera and its performing history on his site,, is well worth a read. Meanwhile, I only hope that our London audiences won't prove too "insane" to give the work a listen and judge it objectively on its own merits.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A little note about pronunciation...

A few questions this week re how I pronounce my name. The official version is "duCHENNE". But until about 7 years ago it was always DOOchen. Then my brother married an Italian girl and their first son has an Italian name, which sounds a bit funny beside DOOchen but, with duCHENNE, could well suggest a healthy future as a celebrity chef, cellist or conductor. So now you know.

I'm on the radio today

This morning on CD Review, BBC Radio 3, I'm having a chat with Andrew McGregor about some new recordings of piano concertos, both rare and less rare. We're covering Howard Shelley's set of Beethoven, Stephen Hough's Liszt and Grieg, some concertos by Herold (composer of La fille mal gardee and Zampa) and, um, the Busoni. UK listeners can, if you so choose, tune in via the link here, or catch it later on Listen Again.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Krystian Zimerman talks about sound...

...and about pianos, maturity, Rubinstein, Lutoslawski... This seems to be from Hong Kong radio - not sure precisely when the broadcast was, but it seems to have been uploaded about six months ago.

And here's another treasure I just found: Krystian aged about 25 playing the first movement of Chopin's B flat minor Sonata in a televised concert in Japan, 1982.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Artists Against Racism.EU

Andras Schiff tells me that following my interview with him in the JC about the rising tide of racism in Hungary, he has been on the receiving end of a new slew of virulent anti-Semitic abuse, some of which extends to Holocaust denial.

I'd like to draw your attention to an organisation founded by the conductor Adam Fischer, who has recently resigned from the Hungarian State Opera. Artists Against Racism has an excellent website that, amongst other things, highlights the incidents that somehow do not always make our news pages. It is largely but by no means entirely focused on Hungary. It is described as "a union of artists opposed to racism and intolerance in Europe and the world" and it has come into being not a moment too soon.

Less than two weeks ago the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi (grandson of the composer Erno Dohnanyi) cancelled some appearances in Hungary in protest at the appointment of a new intendant and artistic director with far-right associations at the New Theatre, Budapest. Read more here. Artists Against Racism has further information on this situation and publishes an open letter to the mayor of Budapest, as well as a link to a petition.

Fischer founded the organisation in April. This is his introductory message:

Dear colleagues, dear friends, 
I would like to welcome you on this website. Together with other Artist colleagues I have written an open letter, published in early January in Brussels, calling for more tolerance in Europe. In this letter we expressed our concern about growing intolerance and increasing racist tendencies in Hungary and in Europe as a whole. I would like all artists who feel the same way to start building a network that helps us to coordinate and stand up together against this growing wave of intolerance. In times of economic crisis, it is easy to direct peoples’ frustration against the more vulnerable in society and to use them as scapegoats. Demagogic politicians, due to opportunist and short-sighted reasons, will often stir up hatred against minorities. I think that artists must use their fame to work against such demagoguery. On this site, I would like to create a forum where we can share our thoughts and ideas. I would ask you, first of all, to simply get in touch, so so that we know how many of us who share these ideals. I look forward to your letters and I wish you all the best.
Adam Fischer

This is not an isolated matter. Hungary is not a small East-European basket case, despite its impenetrable language. It's a major European centre bang on the Danube. And in many fields, in many countries, in many ways, there are signs not only of rising racism but also the repression that usually goes hand-in-glove with it. In the US, National Public Radio has just jettisoned an opera show because its host, Lisa Simeone, took part in the Occupy movement. Nor is she the only one to lose her post because of her personal outlook: more info and some interesting, disturbing questions in The Guardian

I am still haunted by Maria at Wexford and its evocation of the brute force to which totalitarian states almost invariably resort sooner or later. How do they take control? Their populations, eyes wide closed, let them. They do not notice what's happening until it's too late.

You will find a permanent link to Artists Against Racism in the JDCMB sidebar section entitled MUSIC INSPIRATIONS.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wonderful time in wet, wet Wexford

OK, so it rained a lot, but I finally made it to the Wexford Opera Festival. This Irish coastal town, with its soft and subtle colours under low-blowing clouds and sweet-scented, damp air, is famous for much more than its delectable strawberries (but do dip them in chocolate. Oh yes...). It's where such luminaries as Juan Diego Florez, Joseph Calleja and the fast-rising Eglise Gutierrez cut their teeth. I thought it'd be good, having been hearing about it more or less forever. But I didn't realise quite how good until I emerged from Maria by Roman Statkowski [who? ed] shaken to the core by Michael Gieleta's staging - so realistic that I'd sat there reminding myself "it's only an opera, it's only an opera..."

Statkowski, since you ask, was Szymanowski's teacher and his dates are 1859-1925. Maria is a political tale based on an epic poem by Mlynarski from 1825, set in an obscure province of what's now Ukraine in the 17th century. Waclaw, son of the powerful Count Palatine, is in love with Maria, daughter of a mere District Governor - and has run away and married her. Big daddy the despot is furious because his son is the apple of his eye, his sole heir and hope. He appoints his henchmen to bump off Maria so that Waclaw can be unencumbered by a wife from the wrong social class. Despot dispatches army to attack 'thugs' who are 'vandalising' his territories; during the mayhem Maria is abducted and thrown into the river to drown. Waclaw discovers that his father ordered his beloved wife's murder and goes to take revenge - but kills himself instead of his father. There's a grand ball complete with polonaise and mazurka, ravishing love music that seems to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, and folk elements that seem to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.2 (though this tune was a Ukrainian folk song long before either composer got hold of it).

Structurally it could be an awkward opera - for instance, the eponymous heroine only stars fully in one scene, plus a brief moment in the next before she is murdered. But Gieleta has updated it to Poland of the early 1980s, to devastating effect. The 'thugs' represent the rise of Solidarnosc: Count Palatine becomes the general in charge of beating them down under martial rule.

I had a long, intense talk with Gieleta, who was a child in Poland at that time and saw it all with his own eyes. Nevertheless, he told me, he was keen to capture not only that specific reality, but the universal relevance of a narrative about totalitarian regimes. He described an incident in which a friend from Venezuela had come up to him with tears in his eyes after seeing the performance and declared that it was about his country.

The staging is violent, at times terrifying in its realism - for instance, the scene in which the women take refuge in the District Governor's yard trying to escape from the threatening troops with riot gear and batons, plus a sleazy priest seeking long-haired candidates to comfort; or the injured, blood-drenched Waclaw stumbling about the container yard, hunting for Maria, unaware that she is dead. The party scene captures the ghastly naffness of communist Poland trying to dress up and party, complete with a few manically grinning folk dancers and a desultory bunny girl emerging from a polar bear suit - Berlusconi bunga-bunga this ain't. Orchestral interludes are illustrated by huge black and white photos under falling snow - queues for food, a bus stuck in a blizzard, the grim shipyards of Gdansk - mirrored by tableaux on stage. Apparently on the first night the Polish Ambassador attended and spotted, in one picture of the demonstrations, an image of his younger self.

Daria Masiero was Maria - not the romantic beauty-queen we might expect, but instead a cuddly, down-to-earth girl in a cardigan, caring towards her father and thrilled when Waclaw gives her the gift of a small teddy bear. As Count Palatine, Krzysztof Szumanski's strong-centred bass-baritone packed a tremendous punch, a big voice with oodles of personality (though he didn't quite have the role's bottom notes); he's an alumnus of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Covent Garden and we are likely to hear much more of him. In this trailer for the Deutsche Oper Berlin's Le nozze di Figaro, you can glimpse him as Figaro.

Quite a buzz, though, emanated around Waclaw: the Polish tenor Rafal Bartminski, who portrayed the tale's youthful hero as a peaceable, academic type caught up in forces that do their best to politicise him from either side, somewhat against his inner nature. It's a starry role, romantic and beautiful, and Bartminski carried it off to the manner born. (ENO please note, this would be a terrific role for Toby Spence.)

Listen to Rafal sing Schubert's 'Du bist die Ruhe':

Donizetti's Gianni di Parigi - "Johnny from Paris" - couldn't have been a better antidote: a pure bel canto comedy of dinners. The Dauphin of France arrives at an hotel disguised as a wealthy traveller named Gianni, and bribes the muddled hotelier so that he can take over the whole place although it's been booked out long ago by the Princess of Navarra. He's supposed to marry this princess, but hasn't met her and wants to check her out first, incognito. Unbeknownst to him, though, his dad has told her exactly what's going on, so she turns up fully briefed...and the pair try to outwit each other until they finally admit they're madly in love. Caught in the middle is the hotelier, his daughter, the prince's page boy Oliviero and the princess's snobby, self-important chief steward, who finds himself trapped between his sense of 'honour' and the temptation of a giant vol-au-vent. There are some irresistible arias, foot-tapping ensembles and plenty of those Italian crescendi that remind one of being tailgated more and more closely on the Autostrada.

The production, by Federico Grazzini, was costumed in 1950s style - it seems to be the default setting for Donizetti right now - and my only problem with it was that the chorus consisted of the hotel staff. If they'd had two royal entourages to cater for, they wouldn't have time to stand around singing, drinking and asking the princess for autographs.

More superb singing, though. Zuzana Markova, a Czech coloratura soprano, sang bel canto rings round everyone, saving some her vocal richesse for the glittering final scene; and she bore a rather startling resemblance to the Duchess of Cornwall. Edgardo Rocha, from Uruguy, was a cute, luxury-loving charmer as the Dauphin in disguise, with a high and affectionate tenor that suited the music to a tee. But the one who stole the show, as far as I was concerned, was the trouser-role mezzo of Oliviero the page boy: Lucia Cirillo from Italy, who showed absolute mastery and deep, innate, stylish musicality, as well as offering a lovely sense of fun. Not a huge amount of her to hear on Youtube as yet, but here is a spot of Italian baroque in which she's accompanied by the excellent Fabio Biondi and his orchestra.

Wexford has much more on offer than just the evening operas (and unfortunately I missed the third of those, Ambroise Thomas's La Cour de Celimene - you know what Saint-Saens said about Ambroise Thomas, but I'd still have liked to hear it...). There's an impressive fringe programme of morning lectures, lunchtime recitals and afternoon "shorts". I caught an afternoon performance under the umbrella title of Double Trouble: two one-acters about love, marriage and discord in the suburban states, Menotti's The Telephone (with Laurie Ashworth and Byron Jackson) and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti starring Toby Girling as Sam and Martha Bredin as Dinah.

Having always heard Trouble in Tahiti described with words like 'flawed', I loved every minute of it: Bernstein's high energy, his focus, his versatility, the way there's no emotion he won't have a go at grabbing in music, the way he can juxtapose irony and pastiche in the close-harmony trios with near desperation over the thin and fragile surface that holds our existence in place... Full marks to the lot of them, including director Michael Shell and music director Adam Burnette.

The Wexford audience? People with a true passion for opera, eager to dress up and hear whatever Wexford deems fit to serve them, in the certainty that it will be good, inspiring, fascinating. Many of those I encountered have been attending annually and faithfully for 15 or 20 years or more. Now I know why.