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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Die Meistersinger von Bayreuth

Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele


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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Opera North's treasurable Ring: a guest review by Timothy Fancourt QC

Regrettably I haven't been able to attend Opera North's much-lauded Ring cycle myself, but a great friend and passionate Wagnerian Timothy Fancourt QC has, and he's offered us a guest review. Below, delighted to run it. JD
            
Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes in Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Clive Barda


A RING TO TREASURE


 Following Ring cycles at the Proms (2014) and at Bayreuth (2015), this reviewer headed to Leeds Town Hall last week with no sense that anything inferior was about to be served up by Opera North. Indeed, after the egregious nonsense of the Bayreuth production, the simple, semi-staged and beautifully lit production of Peter Mumford was a revelation of how effective the drama in the Ring can be when the music is allowed to speak largely for itself. Wieland Wagner would have approved heartily.

The four operas have been built up by Opera North over the last four years and have received hugely commendatory reviews in the process. This year the Ring is presented as a full cycle, in the traditional format of a week with days off in between. It is of course a totally different experience: the musical language develops and mutates over three nights, so that by Götterdämmerung every note derives dramatic and musical resonance from the events in the 11 hours that have preceded it.  The same themes permeate the whole, but take on different colours and nuances as the story develops.  The demands made of the audience are considerable, but so are the rewards. 
            
The first word must go to the orchestra of Opera North and the conductor, Richard Farnes. The orchestral playing was of a very high quality, one or two minor lapses of concentration excepted. It is clear that the orchestra has benefited greatly from the incremental building up of the Ring over years, and the considerable technical demands of the music were met with aplomb throughout. What is also clear is that there is a huge commitment and level of enthusiasm about the project and the music. It is easy to see this when the orchestra is on stage, exposed to full view, but also in the corridors and on the steps of the Town Hall in the intervals, where cast, musicians and audience happily exchange thoughts and compliments. The majority of the orchestra was on stage 15 minutes before each opera started, and numerous players remained on stage after each lengthy act, practising for the one to follow.
            
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo: Clive Barda
Mr Farnes’ conducting is a revelation too (to those who have not enjoyed it previously). In London it is easy to forget that other parts of the country boast conductors who really do understand Wagner’s music and have it in their blood. His conducting style is calm and his beat clear: no histrionics; no heaving and subsiding with the musical flow. In Das Rheingold, which overall was the least convincing performance, the music was sometimes a bit one-paced, without time to breathe on occasions, and without bite and zip when needed to lend colour to the black comedy being enacted on stage. The ensemble went awry for a while at the start of Scene 4, where the vocal lines and the orchestral commentary are at their most complex. But the difficulty of conducting with one’s back to the actors/singers must be considerable, and overall Mr Farnes achieved a wonderful sound and cohesion. A special mention for Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose Loge was beautifully judged and acted, a personification of flickering fire, volatility, insecurity and cunning.

In Die Walküre, the orchestral sound blossomed fully and the effect was powerful and beautiful in equal measure. Some lovely moments in the woodwind in the middle section of Act 2 (and later in Act 2 of Siegfried) will stay long in the memory. Leeds had a Siegmund (Michael Weinius) and Sieglinde (Lee Bisset) to relish, and each acted with great delicacy of expression and movement and sang to a very high standard. Indeed, one had to pinch oneself to remember that all this was being presented in Leeds Town Hall and not in the Metropolitan Opera. Reginald Goodall used to say, with only a hint of irony, that he was not sure that he had really mastered the end of Act 3 of Die Walküre.  I have never heard it more perfectly judged and played than here: the beauty and colour of the music deliciously set off by the shocking personal tragedy happening on stage, for which equal credit is due to Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde) and Robert Hayward (Wotan). Ms Hogan sang wonderfully well: she is confident, technically secure, acts well, and produces a beautiful but well structured sound. 

Siegfried is sometimes regarded as the weak link in the cycle. Not here. The orchestral playing was nothing short of superb throughout, with Mr Farnes finding space and colour for all the subtleties of the music. A great deal depends on the eponymous hero, of course, and Leeds was very lucky to have a recently-engaged Lars Cleveman, who sang to a very high standard, with lovely bright tones, clear diction, faultless intonation and considerable reserves of energy. His voice was well contrasted by the character tenor of Richard Roberts (Mime), whose acting skills were deployed to memorable effect as the evil, scheming dwarf. The musical high at the start of Act 3, with Wotan, Erda and Siegfried, suffered something of a fall when a different Brünnhilde was kissed awake. Ms Broderick unfortunately fell short of the very high standards of the rest of the cast and the musical intensity was lost, which was a great shame. (Ms Hogan will sing throughout in London.)

Götterdämmerung is and was the pinnacle of the cycle. A different Siegfried was with us, Mati Turi, who, while not reaching that heights that Mr Cleveman reached, let no one down, despite some dryness and lack of colour at the top of his range. The show was once again stolen by the orchestral playing and by Ms Hogan, whose scene with Waltraute (Susan Bickley) in Act 1 was exquisitely performed, a telling portrayal of human characters who were once godlike and close but who now live in different worlds and no longer speak the same language. A very well sung Gunther (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Gutrune (Giselle Allen) contributed to the awful denouement, manipulated almost to the point of success by the Hagen of Mats Almgren. Mr Almgren, with resonant deep bass voice and German pronunciation that seems to emanate from some primordial middle earth, had been a fearsome Fafner and was no less fearsome in this opera, bringing off a superbly chilling Rhine watch scene in Act 1 and the Siegfried’s Ende trio with Gunther and Brünnhilde at the end of Act 2. No one doubted that Ms Hogan would steal the show at the end, which she did, unforgettably.

So palmes d’or for the orchestra, Mr Farnes and Ms Hogan, and one other character who I have not mentioned so far, but who appears throughout the cycle. The anti-hero Alberich, who is cruelly abused by the gods and then disdained and dismissed by his son, who for the merely human misjudgement of preferring wealth to love sets the whole disaster in motion and is condemned to misery. It is a wonderfully ambiguous part, and in Das Rheingold has some of the best musical lines; here it was sung to perfection by Jo Pohlheim, whose lovely bass-baritone easily captured the true character of the villain-victim.

For those who missed it in Leeds, it is touring Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead. London sold out its cycle in May last year, within days of going on sale, such is the renown of this Opera North production and the dearth of Ring productions in the capital. For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this really is a Ring to treasure. 
Timothy Fancourt

Friday, January 09, 2015

At the feet of guess who...

I'm officially on holiday - a long way off, somewhere hot and sunny that involves hammocks, trees and the sound of the sea. But there's WiFi, so I can still offer you, belatedly, some impressions of the two gentlemen above, whom I was fortunate to hear at Wigmore Hall last Sunday, at an extremely welcome last minute.

Yes, Der Jonas was back in our top Lieder hall, and there are few finer places in which to appreciate his remarkable qualities at close quarters, within a warm acoustic magnifying glass. Here, even from the back row, the ambience and sound quality are intimate enough to let us hear a degree of nuance that might not come over to the same extent in a larger, more impersonal space.

An all-Schumann first half from two highly sophisticated German musicians could scarcely be bettered. First of all, the partnership between Kaufmann and Deutsch - Jonas's Lieder Svengali - is something quite exceptional. The voice and the piano are so attuned to one another as to fuse into an indivisible sound, just as an orchestra at its best becomes a single entity. To call Deutsch an accompanist would be not just invidious, but unthinkable. They opened with five of the too-rarely heard Kerner Lieder, topped by 'Stille Tränen' - one of Schumann's most devastating songs, laden with the burdens of depression and intense longing, to say nothing of the glories of its melody. Kaufmann built up to this song as the climax it needs to be - and can hardly help being, given its quality - and unleashed the full power of his exceptional dynamic control.

Some musicians' sounds, whether they are singers, violinists, pianists or anything else, strike us at what certain New Age types would call the Chakra points. The vibrations might strike us primarily at the top of the head, between the eyebrows, around the solar plexus, clean in the stomach or guts, and probably one or two other spots as well - but whichever is the case, it becomes irresistible, setting off goose-bumps in some cases, tears in others, or simply the sense of rising far from everyday predictability into something rare, more sensitive, more extraordinary, that carries us with it to some measure of the beyond. Suffice it to say that this song did that.

Dichterliebe - the ultimate Schumann cycle, to many - is a work much maligned and misinterpreted, despite its phenomenal beauty and the perfectionism of its writing. This is not Schubert; far from the innocence and tragedy of Die schöne Müllerin and the desperation of Winterreise, this is Schumann's take on a love story - won, then lost - as portrayed by the poet Heinrich Heine, master of double-edged irony. Some suggest, oddly, that Schumann ignored Heine's detachment and cynicism. Yet the composer was a highly literary individual, one as adept (or nearly) with words as he was with music, constantly inspired by the poetry and novels of German romanticism at its peak. Kaufmann and Deutsch's Dichterliebe was as much Heine as it was Schumann; Kaufmann's gifts as storyteller were to the fore, backed by the refulgent tones of Deutsch's pianism; this was delicate, close-sketched life-drawing, leaving an emotional impact as subtle as the poet deserves - not head-butting indulgence, but something far more nuanced and colourful.

After the interval came the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Kaufmann bringing to the world of solo song the composer with whom he is perhaps most strongly associated. Studies for Tristan? If the third and fifth songs are indeed, Kaufmann will (hopefully) be a Tristan to be reckoned with if/when he gets round to singing the role. For the time being, this was a Wagner incarnation as rare and insightful as the Dichterliebe was to Schumann: a fresh, convincing and unexpected take that made complete musical and poetic sense. These songs, usually larger than life with a mezzo and an orchestra, became intimate and transparent, but in a world of their own, distinct from the Schumann; Kaufmann's perfect Siegmund tone shone at its steel-and-caramel best.

For Liszt's three Petrarch Sonnet settings - oddly, better known in their solo piano versions -  Kaufmann turned Italian. Like a religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a faith, he can sometimes seem more Italian than the Italians. The sound of the words becomes not only the inspiration for the music - instead, the words are the music, the latter simply a manifestation of a soundworld that is already there in Petrarch's dazzling love poems. If Dichterliebe was a set of keenly observed charcoal sketches, the Sonnets were as gigantic and perfectly wrought as Michelangelo sculptures. Petrarch gives his all in these poems, Liszt follows suit and Kaufmann and Deutsch delivered in kind. One encore - Schumann's 'Mondnacht' - quietened down to an exquisitely controlled, half-lit cantilena in which - as often through the evening - you couldn't help wondering when he manages to breathe.

Most Jonas concerts involve a substantial quantity of encores, but this one didn't. Whether that was because it was a huge programme and he is saving himself for the small matter of Andrea Chénier rehearsals at the ROH, or because the audience mostly didn't stand up, then started to make its way out while he was taking curtain calls, is hard to say. The Wigmore is the finest concert hall in London by a long chalk, but it is a notoriously difficult place in which to get up and yell and cheer, which is what we'd have liked to do and which is what this performance deserved. Not wishing to embarrass my colleagues in Critics' Corner, I resisted the temptation. What a pity one feels one has to. I've seen a place as staid as Vienna's Musikverein go totally, utterly bananas over a Jonas-and-Helmut recital and the fact that that didn't happen in London says more about us than it does about them.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Parsifal: A Love Story?

Angela Denoke as Kundry & Simon O'Neill as Parsifal. Photos: Clive Barda

Yesterday I mentioned that the Royal Opera's new Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, seemed rather a curate's egg as cooked by Heston Blumenthal. But the more one thinks about it, the deeper it goes. What follows contains spoilers aplenty, so if you don't want to know the results, look away now.

Langridge's concept is startling, thought-provoking and at times extremely disturbing. It is a very contemporary interpretation, some of which works, some of which doesn't, and some of which seems better after you've had 36+ hours to digest it.

First of all, take the giant cube that occupies the centre of the stage. The first impression is that this is infelicitous design - it resembles a set of Portaloos, or alternatively an outsized SAD lamp (goodness knows our knights need one). More to the point, the hammy gestured flashbacks enacted within it (see image below) are unnecessary distractions and add little of discernible value to the whole, while making it necessary for the real action to take place on the peripheries of the stage.

But wait. Our friend Pliable at Overgrown Path has pointed out that the cube has resonances from Islam. There's another image here... The set design, furthermore, places the holy spring at the back of the stage in a rectangular tub bearing no small resemblance to a mosque's howz for ritual purification.

So are these Grail Knights a kind of Wagnerian Al Qaida? As they send four initiates out into the world in woolly hats, armed with pistols, at the end of the Grail ceremony, it seems not entirely impossible. What's certain is that at the heart of this ceremony lies something dark and desperate. At its outset, in a ritual motion, the knights take knives and spear their own hands.

The ailing Amfortas, bound to the cult/temple/whatever-it-is by his father's demand, doesn't want to carry out the Grail ceremony and begs not to have to do it. The question, though, is always why? Isn't lifting the Holy Grail a beautiful thing to do? Not here - because the Grail is a young boy, and Amfortas has to slash his stomach. No wonder he doesn't want to do it. The boy then passes out and is carried in a classic pieta tableau around the knights, who reach out towards him. But when he comes round, he sits on a bench wrapped in a sheet, ignored and alone, apparently no longer of any significance. Parsifal alone rushes to sit beside him; a look passes between them. This also makes sense - for what inspires human compassion as much as a child abandoned, wounded and suffering? It's the discovery of compassion that transforms the 'Pure Fool'.

The question "why?" appears to be a powerful driving force. Why is Kundry going to such lengths to cure Amfortas when she was responsible for his initial downfall? Simple: she loves him. He loves her too, but his terrible wound has come between them. And at the end, Amfortas cured, Kundry redeemed, they walk off hand in hand, away from the cult/temple/whatever-it-is to live happily ever after. Parsifal has saved Amfortas so that he can live and love and be a whole man. Parsifal opens the Grail shrine to find that the Grail - who was there earlier, a bit older than he was in Act I - has disappeared. Parsifal follows suit, walking away and exiting at the back. Job done. True Grail revealed: it is human love.

At least, I think that is what's going on. It could perhaps use a little more clarification. I may have got it completely wrong, but it's been a process of elimination: if that isn't what's happening, then what is? Pass.

The single biggest problem with the notion - which is beautiful in itself - is that while it can, with some effort, be extrapolated from Wagner's original meanings (insofar as any of us really understand them), it doesn't dovetail easily with other issues, notably that of Kundry. An astonishing character, the constantly reincarnated female version of the Wandering Jew mingled with Mary Magdalene and Venus, Kundry is released from her curse by Parsifal: not only the curse of tearlessness, but that of deathlessness. Usually she finds her rest at the opera's conclusion. Here, she may find true love, but the effect is still to diminish her significance.

Since seeing the performance I've been looking at the Royal Opera House's reactions page and found a fascinating post interpreting the production via profoundly Christian symbolism and the eucharistic litury. Scroll down and read; it's the one by Richard Davey. It makes a huge amount of sense and is wholly different from my take. Perhaps this Parsifal will be "read" in a unique and personal way by everyone who experiences it - rather like those psychological tests where you see images in an ink blot that reflect your own mind. Then it becomes fascinating on a whole new level.

So, the performances. Gerald Finley stole the show as Amfortas, in no uncertain terms. Heartbreaking, all-encompassing, impassioned, incandescent, desperately moving. Rene Pape's Gurnemanz is a true classic, but at this performance he seemed short of his best; and Angela Denoke's much-praised Kundry unfortunately went somewhat off the rails in Act II, losing control of intonation and struggling for the high notes. She was absolutely fine in Act III, but we spent part of the interval wondering whether an understudy might have to sing from a wing. Simon O'Neill's Parsifal grew from harsh-toned callow youth in Act I, breaking his own bow on realising his guilt at killing the swan, to steely, determined redeemer with voice to match. Willard White smouldered as Klingsor - the first time one might wish for an evil magician to have a bit more to do. Chorus and orchestra were on blistering form, with Tony Pappano leading an account that was sumptuously coloured, full of tension and concentrated beauty.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A soapbox and an orange tree

A weekend full of anniversaries kicks off with a new weekly "soapbox" slot, which the stringed instrument dealers Amati.com have asked me to write. They've even drawn me standing on one!


You can read my first Soapbox tract here. It's about Great Britten, of course.

And so tomorrow it is the world premiere, as rehearsed reading, of my new play Sins of the Fathers, about Wagner, Liszt and Cosima, at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Info here. Call the box office for returns.

What does a playwright do all day once the thing is written and delivered? Well, I've been hunting for candle glue, preparing some labels for the bottle of magic wine and sourcing Wagner's dressing gown. Social media proved worth its weight in gold where the latter was concerned: an appeal on Facebook ("Urgent: need a silk dressing gown for Wagner, must fit John Sessions") has produced a friend - the real sort, not only the Facebooky sort - who inherited an antique silk red paisley number from her great-uncle that fits the bill to perfection. Now we just have to find the right something for Liszt to wear. A cravat should do the trick.

From this anniversary line-up, Verdi is missing. Only one thing for it: over to Jonas...






Saturday, November 16, 2013

My tricky waltz with Wagner

I've written an article for The Independent about creating my new play, SINS OF THE FATHERS, which is premiered next Sunday in the International Wimbledon Music Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. In brief: how do you write a play about somebody you can't stand?

Incidentally, the only way I could get started was by thinking: "Well, what would Woody Allen have done?"...

Cast for our performance:
VICKY/COSIMA: Sarah Gabriel
FRANK/LISZT: Jeremy Child
WAGNER: John Sessions

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/my-tricky-waltz-with-wagner-8940302.html

Monday, July 29, 2013

A very spoilt opera lover's home thoughts from abroad

So last night, here in Munich, I heard Don Carlo with Jonas Kaufmann sounding perhaps the best I've ever heard him (and you know how good that is), Anja Harteros sounding like a platinum-plated Maria Callas only possibly better, Rene Pape sounding like King Marke as King Philip II and a baritone new to my radar, Ludovic Tezier, as Rodrigo sounding like a presence who will dominate his repertoire to very fabulous effect for years to come. How many great voices can you have on a stage at any one time? It occurs to one that - perhaps unusually for a Verdi performance - one could reassemble the same team for a certain thing by Wagner to fine effect, one named Tristan und Isolde...

But oh dearie dearie dear... I went and missed Barenboim's Gotterdammerung at the Proms, and today have been inundated with messages full of overjoy, overwhelmedness or plain old Schadenfreude from those who were there, or heard it on the radio, or who are calling for a Ring cycle to become a regular feature of the Proms, please, something I will second with all my heart (provided it's done by the right performers). After a 20-minute ovation, Barenboim made a speech declaring that what the audience had been through with him and his musicians was something he had never even dreamed of. Can't manage to embed the code for some reason, so please follow this link to hear it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ddfdr

Extra plaudits for the Proms this year for having made me seriously question the wisdom of taking a summer holiday abroad while they're on.



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dragon-slayer: Lance Ryan IS Siegfried

Here's my write-up for the Indy of last night at the Proms, where things are turning seriously steamy in the Ring. A slightly less packed turnout for this one, perhaps because the temperatures in the hall have been in the news, but hey, there was more air for the rest of us as we rushed back for episode 3. If this is what happens in a Wagner anniversary, please can we have another next year? I mean, he'd have been 201 - isn't that worth celebrating too?

Shock confession: this is the first time I have actually enjoyed Siegfried. The first act can be heavy going and unless you have a top-notch chap in the title role, so can the rest. It needs to be done very, very, very well, all round, to succeed (at least where my ears are concerned). This one...just flew by, with laughter, tears and suitably raised consciousness. Where's it been all my life? Canadian Heldentenor Lance Ryan as Siegfried simply owned the role and thus the evening.

If you were wondering whether to go to Gotterdammerung on Sunday, but hesitated: stop thinking and just go. I can't, as I'll be in the only other place an opera buff (never mind critic) should be just now, which is in Munich, listening to Jonas in a spot of Verdi. But even with that to look forward to, I am sick as the proverbial parrot about missing the last night of this Ring cycle.

Wagner would have loved his operas being done at the Proms: to a huge crowd of passionate enthusiasts in the arena who have come from far and wide for the occasion and pay just a fiver to get in. He wanted admission at Bayreuth to be free. It didn't prove very practical, of course, but that was the original idea.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

On your feet! It's Proms time


The sun is shining, Andy Murray's in the final and next week it's time for the Proms to begin. This season is stuffed full of Wagner operas and I have just one word to start you off: footwear. My guide to how to make the most of the Proms is in today's Independent, along with my personal pick of ten unmissable events. And yes, there will be Korngold.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/on-your-feet-for-the-2013-proms-8687389.html

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Die Walkure at Longborough

Feel as if I am being flown like a kite by Wagner today, after a glorious performance of Die Walkure last night at Longborough.

Here is my review for The Independent.

Please take immediate note of this man. He is a Wagner marvel. http://www.anthonynegus.co.uk/

And these two sopranos are absolutely world class:

Rachel Nicholls - Brunnhilde
Lee Bisset - Sieglinde



Nor is it a bad place to hear music, or to enjoy a quiet interval picnic overlooking the Cotswold countryside...


Friday, May 24, 2013

Wagner Friday Historical, sort of



It's not easy to choose a Friday Historical for Wagner Woche, and this extract dates from 1976, which in the grand scheme of things is not terribly historical. Nevertheless, there's a distinct sensation of "they don't make 'em like this any more" about Gwyneth Jones's Brunnhilde and Donald McIntyre's Wotan. This is the final scene of Die Walküre in Patrice Chéreau's tremendously human and humane staging from Bayreuth, conducted by the peerless Pierre Boulez.



In case you missed my love letter to Big Richard on his birthday the other day, here's the link.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dear Richard, I need to tell you something...

Dear Richard,

It's your big birthday today, so we have to do this now.

Listen, mate. I love you. I can't help it. You can't help who you love. I don't want to love you. I've kicked and screamed against it, but I can't change the way I feel. There's nothing I can do about it.

Nobody wants to love a person who is - who is - well, not very nice. I once wrote a show about your father-in-law, Liszt, and you didn't come out of it too well. Your ego is so excessive that you can seem almost buffoonlike. Cosima bolstered that ego and pandered to it. "You should have a god for a husband," you said to her once. "But I do," said Cosima. There's something almost sickly about these inflated personalities, these relationships, these terribly 19th-century concepts through which you built your days, your years, your decades. 

They're not half as sickly as King Ludwig II's obsession with you. I went round Neuschwanstein a few years back. Murals of your operas all over the place. Not that you'd recognise them from the way some of the stagings are done nowadays. I'd love to know what you'd make of the rat laboratory Lohengrin that was done a couple of years ago with Kaufmann and Harteros. (Yes, I did say "rat laboratory".... What did you say...? Oh yes. You left instructions about what you wanted. Why don't we follow them? Can't help you there, Rick.)

But look, people get that way over you. People obsess. People go crazy. People go rushing round the world to hear the Ring Cycle again and again, forking out huge sums of money to do so, because once it gets to them, they can't do without it and they need more. So we need new productions, don't we? We need new ways to inject ourselves with the sweet, irresistible, mind-bending poison of your genius. I can think of no other music that changes us so. You raise our consciousness, and once it's been raised, we can't turn back.

I don't remember the first time I heard your music. Most music reached me via osmosis, because my father used to have BBC Radio 3 on whenever he was home, from 6.45am until 11pm most days, and I had a decent ear and absorbed much of it. He had some difficulties with you, though. He loved Meistersinger above all else, and every time it was on at the Royal Opera House or Coliseum we'd go. I didn't know what to make of it when I was 15. I think I sat there waiting for the big tunes and the bit at the end of Act II where the whole town comes out to tell Sachs and Beckmesser to shut up. But Dad wouldn't go to the Ring. Nor would he touch Tristan. Let alone Parsifal

So it got to the point that I was in my mid twenties and I had a job on a music magazine and I'd never seen the Ring. I hadn't even heard very much of it. My college friends who'd chosen to take a special paper on the thing in the third year, taught by John Deathridge, spaced out in drugged-like ecstasy over it and taunted me about what I was missing. (You know something? They still do.) And my boss got wind of this rather large gap in my musical education and said: right, kiddo, you'd better come to Covent Garden with me. We went, and Haitink was conducting, and I will never forget coming out of Act I of Die Walküre feeling as if I was floating upside down by the ROH ceiling (which is quite high) - I literally couldn't feel my feet. I don't remember the singing, the production, or anything except the way that music of yours changed my world in minutes. And that, dear Richard, was that.

You even get to my cat, for heaven's sake. I well remember coming back from a not-very-good performance of Siegfried once and remarking that I wasn't so sure I loved you after all. I mean, if your operas are not well done, it's a very long sit, and when you understand just how bad it's going to be after seven minutes and you can't get out...sorry, I'll shut up about that now...anyway, I went home and said "I don't think I like Wagner." Next thing I knew the OH had put on the end of Siegfried in the Solti recording and there we were, up by the ceiling again. And in comes the cat, settles himself down right beside the piano, puts his ears forward and starts purring. That animal isn't called Solti for nothing.

My favourite? Parsifal, I think. I've been twice this year - hooray for The Met's cinecasts. There's real compassion in Parsifal, a lesson in empathy and pain and wisdom, woven into the music in the most subtle, exquisite, extraordinary way. Absorbed in this unique soundworld, we become someone else. We blend our spirits, and Parsifal shows us how. Besides, it was Fauré's favourite, and that's good enough for me. 

And yet, and yet... I was reading recently about your relationship with Hermann Levi. He was the first conductor of Parsifal (yes, I know you know that) and he was the son of a rabbi. He was devoted to you in a way that's perhaps more appropriate for a pet dog to be devoted - well, that's how the story struck me. You had a strange, love-hate, abuse-of-power relationship with that man, that excellent musician, that maestro to whose hands you entrusted the last and arguably the greatest of all your works. But you hated him being Jewish. You'd warn him of the rising bad feeling against those of his race and tell him to be careful. You'd taunt him. You'd pull rank, you'd pull race, and the more you put him down, the more double-edged your communication, the more he'd kiss your hands (metaphorically speaking, at least). Cosima said he was lucky to have "people like us" socialising with him and supporting him

You were a really nasty piece of work, Richard. You really hated the Jews. It wasn't just that you wrote one stupid dissertation on the subject. It went on and on. You and Cosima often used to talk about "the Israelites" as a matter of course when you went on your country walks, according to her diaries. It seems to have been one of your favourite topics. And take Parsifal. Hang on: Parsifal is the redeemer of the redeemer? The redeemer of Jesus Christ, you mean? What? Oh yes, Richard, you wanted your pure, compassionate hero to redeem Jesus because He was Jewish! (This is made abundantly clear in Michael Haas's excellent new book, Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis.) Boy, am I glad I didn't read that before I went to the Met cinecast. You wouldn't have seen me for dust. And then I'd have missed Jonas, and I'd have missed having my consciousness changed, and I'd have missed everything else you packed into that opera along with that bit of odious thinking, which is far from obvious when you listen to the music. One has to read the books to learn about it, because although your music goes into one's veins, every piece of your philosophy does not go in with it, thank heavens.

I like to think, Richard - call me naive, but it makes sense - that creative artists put the best of themselves into their works. It's the finest of you, distilled, turned into sound. There's good and bad in everyone. In you, there was more than most have of both. Perhaps it's time that the redeemer of the redeemer was able to redeem you? Or is that asking too much? Who knows? I have no answers.

I go through all this, Richard; I soul-search, I agonise; yet I still love you. You can't help who you love, you can't help how you feel. It's pure chemistry; and both physically and spiritually it's beyond your will. Loving you is like Siegmund and Sieglinde loving each other. It's like Brunnhilde and Siegfried, like Tristan and Isolde. It's always impossible, if you try to rationalise it; it's utterly transgressive; yet it's impossible to resist.

Loving you breaks all our taboos.  

And you'd have wanted it that way, because that's how it is for your characters and you know, as an artist and craftsman, that the taboos heighten emotion. So we don't just love you - we become slaves to you, because of the insecurity, the fear, the taboo-busting passion you arouse, and it is manipulative and frightening and terribly, terribly beautiful.

And we go running back for more. That's how it is. And would I miss it for anything? Nope. Not for all the green tea in Mariage Freres. Would I have missed all your wonders, your fires, your alchemy and your spirit-bolstering craziness? Never! 

How fortunate we are, we who love you, to have found you at all. I should be so lucky as to have you in my life. I accept you. I surrender. So be it.