Showing posts with label Antonin Dvorak. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Antonin Dvorak. Show all posts

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dvorák's The Jacobin in Buxton, aka When Viktor Laszlo Went Home....

In a gloriously sunny Buxton for our Alicia's Gift concert the other day, I took the opportunity to catch The Jacobin, a little-known opera by Dvorák that the doughty festival director Stephen Barlow, the conductor, had somehow, somewhere, found and resuscitated. Here he is, with director Stephen Unwin, talking about it and how it all happened:

Result? An absolute joy - indeed with a great, warm heart. This is Dvorák in Slavonic Dances mode, glittery and foot-tappy and soulful, with a touching family twist and a subplot that was almost surreal in its clash of two worlds.

The opera ostensibly takes place in the wake of the French Revolution. Bohus and his wife Julie have come home to his Czech village, where his father is the Count. But the Count has heard, on the grapevine, that Bohus has joined up with Paris's revolutionaries and become a Jacobin, and that he intends to stir up revolution at home. Hence he's disowned him and is about to make his nephew, the evil Adolf (yes, really), heir to the title instead. He blames Julie for leading Bohus astray. Of course, he has got everything wrong: Bohus is a seriously good bloke who wants to save the people from oppression.

Cue Bohus's former music master, Mr Benda (yes, really - though no relation), who is trying to marry his daughter, Terinka, off to the corrupt, pompous but "important" Filip, steward to Adolf and the Count - but she's in love with Jiri, the only guy in the village who has a decent tenor voice. The Bendas take in Bohus and Julie, convinced that they are authentic Czechs when they sing a gorgeous duet about the wonderful music of their homeland. Meanwhile Mr Benda has written a cantata for the Count, who is about to hand over power to Adolf. The choir is rehearsing - and along come two nasty policemen to press-gang Jiri into the army, ordered by Filip to get him out of the way. "You can't do that," says Mr Benda. "He's my lead tenor! Don't you know how rare good tenors are?" And no way is he going to let them take Jiri. (This is priceless.)

The final act features a poignant scene where the two elderly men, the Count and Mr Benda, recall their long association, the days when Bohus was a small boy and Mr Benda taught him piano every day, and the Count still loved Mr Benda's music. Now the Count's beloved harp-playing wife has died, Bohus has gone and all is lost. Mr Benda is trying to pave the way for Bohus and Julie's return, but the Count will not listen. Julie must win him over herself. She plays the harp and sings the lullaby with which Bohus's mother used to sing him to sleep. The Count melts, Adolf's plot is revealed just in time, the Count finds himself surrounded by long-lost family and adoring grandchildren, and they all live happily ever after.

The production by Stephen Unwin was beautifully done, simple and sweet, with some very special qualities - the choir rehearsal with the kids mucking about, or the moment when Mr Benda reaches out to the Count and very, very slowly dares to touch his shoulder. As a whole it reminded me of something...First of all, the Count is a dead ringer for Dvorák himself. But beyond that, the costumes, the stances, the story, updated to the 1930s, seemed closer to home. Just a minute....

It's Casablanca, the sequel! 'Everybody comes to Dvorák's', perhaps....

Imagine that Viktor Laszlo and Ilse have gone home to his Czech village. Julie is blonde and elegantly dressed, with hat à la Ingrid Bergman. Filip is the spitting image of Louis - the corrupt policeman played by Claude Rains - and Adolf is just like Major Strasser. Music as consolation, support and evocation is constantly present - and it is Julie who plays it again, her song evoking the long-lost happy days that the Count - an odd and older version, perhaps, of Rick - has left far behind. So similar were they that I kept expecting the excellent Nicholas Folwell, as Filip, to say 'Round up the usual suspects' and Bohus, baritone Nicholas Lester, to stir up a Czech equivalent of the Marseillaise. There is even an Yvonne and her barman, of sorts, in Terinka and Jiri.

Terinka was a superb Anna Patalong, Anne Sophie Duprels a fulsome-toned Julie, and as Mr Benda we were delighted to see and hear Bonaventura Bottone, whom I used to see in everything at ENO but hadn't heard for years. The Count was a larger-than-life Andrew Greenan - on the grapevine I heard a story that he had stepped in at the last moment and learned the role in three days, which, assuming it's true, we would never have guessed. Stephen Barlow conducted with huge flair and energy (can't we have him at ENO sometime soon, please? He'd have got my vote to be their new music director, had I had such a vote.)

And full marks to the Buxton Opera House (see above), a Matcham theatre that feels like a miniature version of our own Coliseum, even sporting a turquoise curtain, which is what the Coli had before they refurbished it and it all went red. The opera was sung in English, too. A reasonable enough decision, under the circumstances - though Czech is a particularly awkward language for which to reset the rhythms and I would very much have liked to get my own hands on the translation to give it some finer tweaks. That is a very small caveat indeed. Basically: it's wonderful.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cats and mermaids take over Covent Garden

I went to have a sneak peek behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House the other week, where they were rehearsing Rusalka. The Dvorak masterpiece is new to the ROH - this will be its first-ever staging there - and the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, first seen in Salzburg, looks to be ever so slightly startling. Here is my piece about it from today's Independent. And below the video is the full director's cut.

I’m all for cats at the opera. Toy ones, giant ones, glove puppets, real ones (well, maybe not – they’re not renowned for doing as they’re told) – a fuzzy feline will always raise a smile. But isn’t there something alarming about it when a mermaid meets one? We all know what cats do to fish. It looks as if that might happen to the unfortunate Rusalka, the eponymous heroine of Dvorák’s post-Wagnerian take on The Little Mermaid, in the opera’s first-ever production at the Royal Opera House.

Rusalka is a grand-scale epic, a seriously dark fairy tale, its ending notable for its bleak lack of redemption. A co-production with the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden’s staging is headed by the long-established directorial duo of Yossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, with Samantha Seymour as revival director. They have clearly been having some fun transforming Dvorák’s bizarrely neglected masterpiece for the age of postmodern regietheater, or ‘director’s opera’. And, filled as it is with Freudian subtexts and timeless mythical symbols, Rusalka must be an absolute peach of a job.

I meet Morabito and Seymour at the end of a long rehearsal day on the set at the ROH. Bright, surreal couches are in view: in their interpretation, the last act takes place in a type of brothel – an American-style one, Seymour assures me. A glance at photographs of other scenes reveals a lavish wedding dress for Rusalka, a dishevelled witch in pop-socks, large and threatening crosses, a lot of blood – and a giant cat, played by a dancer. In this opera the human world has much the effect on the supernatural side of Rusalka that the cat would have upon the fish tail.

“Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid,” says Morabito. “We are trying to go with that and to be playful with it. We decided, together with the designer, not to have a naturalistic setting in a wood, but still to try to evoke a summer night’s dream atmosphere, which is a part of the score that you can’t just ignore.” The physical sets are complemented by film projections, which apparently include a jellyfish floating past during Rusalka’s famous ‘Song to the Moon’.

Controversy is still king in opera in Germany and Austria; regietheater holds strong sway. Typically, responses to this production’s unveiling in Salzburg in 2008 were polarised. “Wieler and Morabito tell Rusalka as a gripping narrative of magic realism with every theatrical means at their disposal...heart-rending yet oddly exhilarating,” said one UK reviewer. But a critic from the US, where tastes are generally more conservative, objected to a production he termed “ugly in mind, spirit and soul.” London audiences must make up their own minds.

It seems odd that Rusalka – based on a universally known story and written by a composer whose Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ is the ultimate popular classic – should be new to the UK’s leading opera house. Perhaps its sinister qualities and tragic conclusion have proved daunting; or perhaps it is too derivative of Wagner (the opening, starring three nymphs and a water goblin, parallels Das Rheingold, while the final scene has something in common with Tristan und Isolde). Then there’s the awkwardness of singing in Czech. And there’s the paradox that the heroine, struck mute by the witch, sings not one note for half of the second act.

There could be another strand to its long absence from international stages. Fairy tales are dark by nature: the more alarming their imagery, on the whole, the better they address our psychological depths. Many adaptations try to neutralise this bite and replace it with cutesiness. But in Rusalka, Dvorák, writing in 1900, did exactly the opposite. Andersen’s already pain-filled The Little Mermaid is only its starting point.

His nameless Prince is a defiant, screwed-up wastrel who betrays Rusalka with ease, before going mad with grief. Rusalka herself journeys from young, infatuated girl to passionate woman suffering horribly for the sake of love; from there she becomes a supernatural sprite, denied rest or salvation for eternity, her only mission to lure men to their deaths. Jezibaba the witch is vicious and cruel in the extreme, complete with that sidekick cat, who is in the text.

“The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat: it is funny that this fishwoman loves a toy cat,” says Morabito. “Then in the scene with the witch, it transforms into a cruel monster which transforms her and gives her legs instead of her fish tail.” Seymour adds: “It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and is horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her.” But in act III, says Morabito, when the foresaken Rusalka goes back to Jezibaba in the brothel, “there is a cat sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is trapped and she commits suicide.”

In Dvorák, there is no suicide. Morabito and his team have Rusalka kill herself rather than face a degrading life; thus they transform her into an ‘undead’ vampiric figure – a concept far from out of place in the legends of eastern Europe. There is nothing gratuitous about this interpretation, Morabito insists: “We always develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and musical text. Here it was a question of achieving a very careful balance.”

Ultimately, he adds, Rusalka is “a modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music. It’s an incredibly colourful score, permeated by a deep sadness. Dvorák takes elements of Czech folk music and a strong influence from Wagner, then melds them together in his characteristic style.” What would he say to those who, like that American critic, just want a traditional fairy-tale, with mermaids, wood nymphs and visual enchantment? “We have them!” he insists. “We have mermaids. We have a giant cat...”

Rusalka opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 27 February. Camilla Nylund stars as the eponymous heroine and Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Box office: 020 7304 4000