Showing posts with label Die Zauberflote. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Die Zauberflote. Show all posts

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Magic Flute that lived up to its title

Here's my review of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer's "staged concert" of The Magic Flute the other night. They gave it back its innocence, and with it, magic aplenty. I've sometimes despaired of ever hearing this most beloved of operas performed in bearable style, but Fischer's tempi, his spirit, his humanity and his attention to detail were as close to ideal as one could dream of. http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/?ID=518&PID=5

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The JDCMB Long Read: Iván Fischer

As promised a while ago, here is the Director's Cut of my interview in Budapest with Iván Fischer, the founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. We covered a great deal of ground, from the unique qualities he has built up with the BFO to his original and not-uncontroversial ideas for new ways to present opera, seeking increased integration between music and drama. As more and more of us seem to despair over how to resolve what's beginning to look like a global opera crisis - with the Met struggling to fill seats, the Arena di Verona going into administration and ENO gasping for its life - Fischer is one of the few people who is venturing into seriously creative solutions. He brings Die Zauberflöte to the Royal Festival Hall in a month's time....

A shorter version of this interview recently appeared in The Independent.

Iván Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is perhaps the one orchestra for which I would drop everything and run. Founded by its music director Iván Fischer in 1983, it offers a musical cocktail that is unique: a springy, flexible musicianship which combines with red-hot intensity and all-out communicative passion, to inspiring effect. In May they visit London to perform Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) semi-staged at the Royal Festival Hall. I went to their rehearsal studio, a converted cinema in a quiet suburb of Óbuda, to see what makes Iván Fischer tick.

His office is full of schoolchildren. A class has come to listen to the rehearsal and now the maestro is sitting on his desk, answering their questions. “We do this at every rehearsal,” he explains afterwards. It’s just one of the BFO’s numerous community initiatives: “We go out to schools; we give primary school children a chance to try instruments and talk about them with our players; we take children’s operas into to schools; we have a music-based film-making competition for teenagers. Many small things, but one can really get in touch with the community, something for which I feel a great deal of responsibility.”

That responsibility extended to hiring a van and distributing aid to the refugees from the Middle East who arrived at Hungary’s borders as their first entry point to the EU last year. A few months ago in Berlin, Fischer, as conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra, recently joined forces with Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle to present a concert for the refugees. “There was a wonderful enthusiasm,” Fischer says. “Members of my Berlin orchestra do volunteer work, they teach instruments, they really put their hearts into helping the integration process. Music, language, learning about the culture, getting to know this new world that people live in, it must be looked after with great care, because integration is crucial.”

Fischer, 65, is a vivid, powerful yet almost impish personality, in possession of a quality rarer among conductors than you might expect: real creativity. His imagination seems to function non-stop. He credits the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom he studied, and who died earlier this year, for having inspired his questioning spirit: “He was an eye-opener teacher with a wonderfully critical mind,” Fischer says. “He always questioned things, he never took anything for granted. There was a lust for discovery in him and I think I learned it from him. He would say that we must question tradition, because tradition is not the main thing. Discovery is.”

The BFO at RFH, with tree, 2011. Photo: JD
One side effect of this creativity is possibly the key to the extraordinary popularity of the BFO. “When we first started, we played every concert programme once,” Fischer says. “Now each sells out three times.” Nor is it a question of desperately seeking ways to attract new audiences, he adds: “It’s more the opposite: ideas pop up because they fascinate me – this is the way I am – and somehow this attracts the new generation and new audiences. It works automatically.”

Sure enough, although the BFO might perform a standard concert one night, the next might be time for something completely different. A few years ago they offered London a late-night “audience choice” Prom, at which members of the audience were asked to pull a number designating a particular piece out of the tuba and small groups of musicians from the ranks performed while the orchestral parts for it were retrieved for a runthrough. Another time, they performed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with the musicians grouped around an onstage tree. At the Royal Festival Hall this caused some surprise, but a life-enhancing performance ensued (which I, for one, remember with great joy).

“It was very funny to see how ideas like this immediately get people raising their eyebrows,” Fischer twinkles. “A few feel that theatrical elements in a concert shouldn’t happen. But on the other hand, I think we present many different types of works in the same setting. The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is clearly an excursion into nature: you hear the birds, you hear the little brook, the meadows, the folklore scene. Simply by presenting it like an installation – not a theatre, but playing it in a certain frame, such as having the orchestra seated around a tree – for me helped the feeling of the music-making and the listening. I don’t mind if some people are upset about it,” he adds. “Most people loved it!”

The new ideas keep flowing; now, says Fischer, they have a series of midnight concerts, which are much loved by students. In a further initiative, they occasionally perform in some of Hungary’s disused synagogues, drafting in rabbis to explain to the community what used to take place there, keeping alive the memory of some very dark times in the country’s history. Thousands of Hungarian Jews, including Fischer’s maternal grandparents, were deported and murdered in the Holocaust after the country joined the Second World War in 1944, and thousands of its Roma population as well. Bullet holes in the walls of some Budapest streets still bear witness to the battle between the Germans and the Russians that raged there. Some, too, are relics of the revolution against Soviet control that was brutally crushed in October 1956 (Fischer was five years old then).

Budapest from the Buda side of the Chain Bridge. Photo: JD
“I’m a passionate European,” Fischer says, “because I think the idea that this continent which finally found peace with each other should become an integrated family is far more important than all these small considerations that keep nations separate from each other. I think people should appreciate that for 70 years we didn’t have to turn against each other inside this continent and it’s a wonderful gift. It gives sense to the idea of integrated Europe.” (Brexiters should remember this point...)

Love and wisdom, the two values that feel uppermost in that outlook, are core to Mozart’s masterpiece of seeking and enlightenment, The Magic Flute. The performance that the BFO are giving at the Royal Festival Hall is part of yet another recent Fischer initiative: a trilogy of Mozart operas, semi-staged under his own direction. Critical eyebrows have been raised high over this, but Fischer refutes what he sees as an unquestioning adherence to a modern tradition in which radically new stage directors work with conservative conductors. In an era in which opera seems to have reached an impass about how to attract new audiences, how to stop alienating old ones and how to freshen up its brand for a new century, Fischer’s is one of the few really innovative ideas that has stepped into the spotlight.

“For many years I’ve tried to work on something which I call an organic, integrated opera performance, because I simply think that this idea of visual innovation and acoustic conservatism is now a little boring,” he declares. “We’ve had it now for 40 years and some great things happened. I love to work with many directors. But I’m looking for new ways to present operas and I’m specifically interested in this organic unity between music and stage – instead of polarising the two things, bringing the two things together. That means the music has to be done very theatrically and the theatre must reduce itself; just concentrate on bringing the two artforms to each other.

“Generally I find our whole music life is a little bit narrow and people have great fear of stepping out of it,” he adds. “For example, we started to talk about the opera tradition: nowadays people think the only possible opera performance is where you have an innovative director and conservative conductor and you combine the two. But imagine: in the time of Mozart there was no conductor and no director! So what are we talking about, really? I think we got stuck into a too-narrow perception of music ritual.

Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve
How, then, does he approach Die Zauberflöte for his special production? “I consider it a very beautifully constructed but complex masterpiece,” he says, “because it has many layers. It has the fairytale element, it has the Freemason aspect – it almost literally follows the rituals of the Freemasons – and it has this mysterious day-and-night, man-and-woman aspect, which is partly not PC today! But I don’t think that should concern us too much, because everybody understands it comes from a different century and a different environment. The wonderful thing is that Schikaneder and Mozart managed to create out of these different layers something which is clearly united in style and forms its recognisable own world which feels organic and natural. There is Tamino’s aspiration for wisdom, entering this mysterious circle, yet next to him there is the parody of the same thing, who makes us laugh because he’s one of us, and this is Papageno. How on earth did they manage to bring all these things together? I have great admiration for it!

“But where do productions fail? I think they usually fail when they emphasise one aspect too much. If one simply wants to do a fairy tale without the mystery, or something mysterious without the fairy tale element, it doesn’t really ‘click’ with the opera. I think one needs to present all the layers and find the balance.”

His association with Die Zauberflöte goes back to his childhood. The opera involves a trio of three boy singers; he sang Second Boy, aged 13, at the Hungarian State Opera. Growing up in Budapest, he and his peers – including his brother, the conductor Adam Fischer – benefitted from the country’s radical and inclusive approach to music education, based on childhood singing and pioneered by the composer Zoltán Kodály; even today the BFO occasionally startles its audiences by transforming itself into a choir and singing, rather than playing, an encore. That tradition, says Fischer, is one crucial part of the special nature of Hungarian music-making. The BFO is around 90 per cent Hungarian; it is by no means closed to musicians from other countries, though a distinctively Hungarian approach was part of its original ethos, Fischer having been eager to avoid the homogeneous, one-sound-fits-all nature of many international orchestras.

Kodály with young students. Photo: http://bridgestomusic.com.au
“Kodaly was a wonderful person and devoted his life to reforming music education, introduced a method, published exercises, a completely thought-through system which helps children. He is really to blame for the high quality of Hungarian music making and musical culture,” Fischer says. “There are a few more elements here, too, such as the geographical position. Budapest is in the cross-roads: Vienna is very near, so there’s a lot of Viennese influence and Mahler worked here. The Balkans are relatively close with wonderful rhythm and folklore traditions, and there is a high level of Gypsy musicians, who injected a lot of temperament and virtuosity into Hungarian musical culture. I would even say that Russia is not far away – many Hungarian violinists had Russian teachers. This closeness of Russia, Balkan, Vienna and the Gypsies created a wonderful melting pot, but the person who is most responsible is Kodály.”

The unique qualities of the BFO, though, go far beyond its nationality. Why has Fischer remained so devoted to it? “Because we found a completely different way to consider what an orchestra is all about,” he says. “I think the difficulty is that a symphony orchestra has to play in many different styles. In Mozart’s time everyone played in the style of Mozart. And now we have to play next to Mozart occasionally Messiaen or Bach or Bartók and the result internationally is music-making that is too uniform. The danger is that people play the notes but don’t understand the phrases, and don’t understand the meaning of the music.

“Especially with the way the orchestras work these days, with conductors who come and go, they become a little uniform and there is a lot of moaning and complaining about the geography – that one cannot distinguish between an American, French, Hungarian or Finnish orchestra. But I think there is another problem: that one plays more or less Beethoven, Ravel, Mahler and Messiaen the same way. It’s the uniform type of music-making that very often damages the meaning of the music.
 
The BFO play at their Midnight Music series. Photo: http://www.bfz.hu
“What we wanted to find back in the 1980s, and have worked on ever since, is a symphony orchestra that works with the same serious kind of fanaticism and research as a chamber group would. To have a whole orchestra work with that attitude is a wonderful journey. Always when I come back to the BFO after working with other excellent orchestras, I always feel I can breathe freely because people immediately focus on the meaning of the music, not the outside symptoms; not the technicalities but the meaning.

“We want to be a laboratory where we imagine we want to move ahead to the orchestra of the future. So what do we do? We have a group within the orchestra playing on original instruments, so we play baroque music on period instruments. We sing, so we can suddenly turn into a choir. We have a group in the orchestra who specialise in Transylvanian folk music. We try to bring many styles into the family of the orchestra.”

It would be easy for any conductor as successful as Fischer to rest on his laurels, but clearly that won’t happen any time soon. He is full of ideas for both the present and the future, in which he dreams of creating a new opera festival, ideally in Italy, to work towards his ideal of organic, integrated music and drama. Moreover, he not only conducts, but also composes: “I would never consider myself a composer,” he insists, but is nevertheless writing his third opera at present. His first, The Red Heifer, was a caustic and impassioned denunciation of a vicious anti-Semitic incident that took place in Hungary in the 1880s.

“I feel close to the heritage of, let’s say, Leonard Bernstein, who I admired because of his complex activities,” he says. “What was he? Conductor, composer, educator, pianist? For me this is a little more interesting as a lifestyle than a narrow profession. If I would only conduct symphony orchestras, going from one to the next, I think I would be a bit bored.”





Monday, February 08, 2016

Did this man get under Mozart's skin?

OK, I know this may cause a few splutterings and shouts of "preposterous" and "piffle", but this story has been bugging me like one of those planets you can't see, yet whose presence is indicated by the tugs of energy around the encircling orbs. It's a theory, nothing more. I may have added two and two and made 130. I just think it's worth a little look.

In short: was Monostatos Mozart's revenge upon the person who was probably the only man of colour he encountered within his own circles as a young man - someone happier and more successful than he was, someone of whom he had reason to be jealous at one of the most terrible times of his life? Namely, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Here's my theory and the reasoning behind it in the Independent. (Incidentally, this could put a slightly interesting slant on the Queen of the Night, too.)

First, here's Covent Garden's solution to the Monostatos problem. We find many remedies for that in the opera world - but little explanation of why they might have been there in the first place.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/chevalier-de-saint-georges-the-man-who-got-under-mozarts-skin-a6859191.html





Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday historical: Fritz Wunderlich sings Tamino



Last night left me convinced (as if I needed convincing) that this is the most beautiful aria for tenor ever composed. What a good excuse to listen to Fritz Wunderlich singing it.

McBurney's Mozart is a Flute for our times

Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I want...to take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Luxor for Mozart lovers

I've been in Egypt - for longer than expected. A few hours before our flight was due, a fearsome, hot wind sprang up from the Sahara and visibility was reduced to pea-souper levels by whirling sand. The incoming plane diverted to Hurghada and after a very long afternoon playing Scrabble in Luxor Airport we found ourselves facing an extra night away. We didn't get back until yesterday evening, so unfortunately I missed both a vital interview and the Proms launch. But April showers and the news that there's to be a Wallace and Gromit Prom have assured me I'm finally back in Blighty.

For the whole week, touring Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, I have had one piece of music on the brain. It is Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. The connection of this extraordinary and still almost unfathomable opera to the symbols and temples of ancient Egypt seems stronger than I'd anticipated. It is impossible to appreciate the full marvel of those ancient carvings, paintings and hieroglyphics without seeing the real thing - the widespread reproductions and tourist tat we see here give no idea of them, any more than a cack-handed copy of a Rembrandt would of an actual portrait by the master. And when you're there, immersed in it, the impact of those surroundings conjures an atmosphere that feeds forward by thousands of years to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Mozart/Schikaneder's symbols? You don't have to look far in the hieroglyphics to find images of a three-headed serprent, which might have attacked Tamino; nor for images of creatures half human, half animal - mostly gods, of course. Is Papageno perhaps an Egyptian god in disguise? Either way, he would have had a field day with the Egyptian birdlife.



Tour the Luxor Museum and the image of the incredibly beautiful face of Thutmosis III brings to mind the perfect balance of Tamino's great aria - Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön indeed. The vast, jagged-cheekboned image of Akhenaten seems to conjure Sarastro.

Could this be Sarastro's temple?


Or, even more likely, it might be Karnak, where Papageno could easily be lost amid the forest of "papyrus" columns...



Here, too, Tamino and Pamina might walk together through their trials of fire and water. They are often staged with Pamina just behind Tamino, one hand on his shoulder....


Such Mozartian fantasy prods at the grey matter (or what's left of it) and leaves you marvelling at how much there is to learn of this other world - so distant yet, in its imagery, also so close, for it's clear that neither owls nor people have changed all that much since 1500BC.

My friends keep asking "Is it safe?" One taxi driver summed up the current Egyptian situation neatly: "Cairo: problem. Luxor: no problem." (Basic Arabic, lesson 1: Mishmushkela = no problem.) The pleasure over the revolution is split, with the younger generation happier than the over-60s. A young man I spoke to in the Luxor souk expressed surprise that tourists seem more reluctant to come to Luxor now than they did when Mubarak was in power, since he considers things much improved. The scenes around the petrol stations told a story of their own: an older taxi driver raised his hands in frustration as we passed a jungle of minibuses - "No Mubarak, no petrol!" (But then, once upon a time, people also argued that Mussolini got the trains to run on time - you know the syndrome...)

The elections are coming up in about a month; candidate posters and the odd rally or two dab their way across the town centre. As tourists, though, Tamino and I never felt threatened or unwelcome in any way; quite the reverse. You get hassled by people wanting to sell you things, or by demands for bakshish for small and unsolicited services; but it's all good-natured and, in our experience, never threatening.
 
There's a slight sense of desperation across the town. Since the revolution, tourism, on which Luxor absolutely depends, has dropped; as a consequence airlines have been cutting back on flights and even if tourists want to go there, it's not as easy as it used to be to find a flight on the day you want. This means tourism is reduced even further. The cruise ships that progress along the Nile were plentiful, but on their decks inhabitants seemed, from the shores, sparse. 

Truly lovely hotels are therefore rather good value. We were at the Jolie Ville Maritim, booked about a month ago via Thomas Cook for a rate, including flights, that wouldn't go very far towards a UK "staycation". Run by a Swiss manager who seems to have left no stone unturned in his efforts to welcome his clientele, it's a real oasis, well removed from the hectic town centre. The food is terrific, the gardens gorgeous, the atmosphere friendly - we enjoyed an unexpectedly rewarding social time with many fascinating people among the guests. And for recharging the batteries, relaxing and soaking up some very serious sun, I can't imagine anywhere more lovely.

Tamino and I needed our break, having undergone trials by metaphorical fire and water of late. We are deeply grateful to Isis, Osiris and Wolfang Amadeus. Here is Solti with a tribute.

[UPDATE: A Musical Vision has a fascinating post about Die Zauberflöte - "Mozart's magical mystery tour de force". Well worth a visit.]

 
 
Triumph!  Triumph, triumph, du edles Paar!    
Besieget hast du die Gefahr!  
Der Isis Weihe ist nun dein.   
Kommt, kommt, kommt, kommt,   
Tretet in den Tempel ein!