Showing posts with label Tristan and Isolde. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tristan and Isolde. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

JDCMB: JD's Coronacrisis and Music Blog

I am turning this blog into a diary to chronicle how things are going, because why not. 

I've always had a sense of fragility about life. It's possibly because I lost both my parents and my sister to cancer within a scant few years, the family home was dismantled and sold and the rug under our feet went west in no time. It seemed a measure of how easily one's life can just...vanish. I remember at the height of the mid-Noughties' good times a violinist friend came round to play through a concerto in our front room. The roses were out, the sun was shining, the window was open, we had world-class Elgar ringing out in the company of close friends, and I went to the fridge to find the champagne, thinking: "I wonder how long this life can go on? It's too good to be true."

Perhaps, after all, it was as illusory as I suspected. We declined. Now we're falling. Of course, thinking like that is not remotely helpful, but as programme note writing vanishes overnight, everything closes, the orchestra does...who knows what, because we don't know yet...because nobody knows how long this will go on for...there is a distinct sense of unreality. Anyone freelance at the moment is facing the nightmare of their lives, whatever their field.

One of the most difficult aspects is the uncertainty of how long it will continue. Weeks? Months? The rest of this season? Over the summer? What about autumn? The Bavarian State Opera has just announced that next season it is having, among other things (ELEVEN new productions) Tristan und Isolde with Kirill Petrenko conducting, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros - and qu'est-ce qu'on fait?

An illustration by Maurice Lalu for Tristan und Iseult, 1909
(Don't try this with your friends at the moment)

Yesterday the government gave "advice". It stopped short of ordering theatres, pubs, concert halls etc to close, but recommended that people do not go to them. Twitter is full of conspiracy theories now about why this is, for example "...the Tories' mates run insurance companies and this will give them a get-out clause to not pay up..." I'd treat that with suspicion as if this isn't "force majeure", goodness knows what is. [UPDATE 2.50pm - fact-check here: https://www.abi.org.uk/news/news-articles/2020/03/statement-on-business-insurance-and-coronavirus/]

We have a basic problem in the UK that, broadly speaking, a) the people do not really trust the government to do the right things, and b) the government does not really trust the people to obey directives (b being a logical consequence of a). That implied social contract went out the window at the last election because we had no credible opposition to elect, and this unfortunately is the price being paid. The crisis shows why we need to elect intelligent politicians who are expert managers in a crisis, who communicate clearly, decisively and sympathetically, and who do not sacrifice good sense to pig-headed ideology: people who can unite everyone when the going gets tough. This seems a distant dream right now. If the government's communication strategy is such a mess, what does that say about the substance of the rest of their "projects"? All we can do at present is...stay off Twitter.

As of yesterday, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera have closed until further notice and the Wigmore Hall has closed until, it says at present, 14 April. Currently awaiting news from more arts companies. There were performances over the weekend: the Philharmonia did the Beethoven 1808 reconstruction, Piers Lane gave a wonderful recital and ENO opened a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but I'm afraid I didn't go to any of them because I didn't want to sit in my home-from-homes wondering when I will ever see them again and whether this is the last concert/opera/recital I will ever attend, because who knows. I do want to keep on being a voice of reason, because that has long been my role, but it can be difficult sometimes.

I thought I'd do something positive, so I'm trying to start a WhatsApp group for our neighbours. We have quite a few elderly people in the vicinity and it is important that everyone feels connected. Of course everyone is all for it, but it turns out that some of the target members do not have smartphones and don't know how to use WhatsApp...and I realise that I, too, do not quite know how to use WhatsApp on an iPad. Which is embarrassing. One neighbour has a son who's in IT, so hopefully he can advise.

We have never been so connected, in a way: the quantity of work that can be done remotely is fantastic. Instead of taking planes, trains and automobiles to other cities or countries, we can hook up from our computers. We can FaceTime. We can Skype. We can WhatsApp (if we know how). And we have the social element of social media. So this is a major advantage. Nevertheless, there is a staggering quantity of absolute claptrap doing the rounds on social media and it is well worth avoiding. The other day a friend earnestly forwarded me a circular from a supposed medical expert source (unnamed, of course) with all kinds of advice about how not to get coronavirus, every shred of which can be roundly disproved in seconds on a good search engine. People are putting around spurious theories about everything from insurance to crash-dieting, and if we are fond of them we have to try to be kind about it.

Some reality checks are taking placed, which is better. There's been shock at the idea that there is £000 to be made from books, and especially not from China (seriously, some company there published a translation of one of mine, yet I had no contract, no payment and not even a copy of it. They got in touch wanting me to do some publicity, which is how I knew.) There have been falling jawbones at the information that members of most UK orchestras are freelance and are not paid a salary. There has been disbelief at the notion that some seriously famous musicians, having lost all their work in a matter of days, have no financial safety net whatsoever. Looking for a silver lining: we can learn, fast, about actuality versus supposition.

If we need and can face a culture fix, there are plenty of streaming services to bring opera, ballet, concerts and theatre into our computers. This is great. St Mary's Perivale, while closing its doors to its devoted audience, is intending to continue its performances as "virtual concerts" to be live-streamed with no audience. If this situation has not cleared up by the end of May, Viv and I may end up doing the premiere of our new Beethoven show like that.

The things that are keeping me sane are:
-- Tom
-- the cats
-- Kalms tablets at bedtime
-- the bits of work that are not falling through because associated with live performances
-- the Beethoven book is due back from the editor any day now and will need a great deal of concentration. Perhaps this is actually good timing...
-- a new confidence in my own intuition, because it's turned out that my superstition about Mahler 1 being a harbinger of doom was absolutely true
-- certain contents of the wine rack
-- it's spring, the magnolia over the fence is absolutely beautiful and so far we are still allowed to go for long walks in the park and by the river.

It is good to have plans and projects, especially creative ones, and I do have several, but the next challenge will be how to maintain concentration enough to realise them.

So today I will press on. I have to finesse some CD booklet notes and transcribe an interview with a lovely pianist. Tonight we were planning to go out to dinner...we might do it anyway...unless the place we want to go has closed its doors until further notice by then.

I'm going to try to write this blog every day. I don't know how much music there will be, but I'll do my best. Good luck out there.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

It's the first night of ENO's Tristan

[FRIDAY MORNING, 10 JUNE: OH DEAR. The trouble with writing previews is that sometimes the reality does not deliver. Warning: the value of investments can go down as well as up....

I'm leaving my original preview up here, but after seeing the performance I have to report that though it was many things, Gesamtkunstwerk it ain't.]


The last Tristan und Isolde I saw was Katherina Wagner's production at Bayreuth 2015. Interesting moments, striking designs, but by and large it was a disappointment. Firstly because there seemed no coherence between the three acts - the style of each was so different that a massive disconnect ensued. Secondly, and more importantly, it imposed on the opera a heap of stuff that simply isn't in it and ultimately subverted the whole point. King Marke is not a vicious dictator. It's not in his music or his words or the drama. And in this miserable vision's finale, he simply dragged Isolde away from the dead Tristan's bed and marched her off. Liebestod schmiebestod.

Having just seen a Manon Lescaut in Munich that didn't make much sense either until the final Kaufmann-Opolais act (which was stupendous), I started to wonder if I was going off Regietheater.

I love radical reinterpretations when they bring us new insights and "relevance" that is actually relevant to the opera as well as the supposed audience. Hats off to Calixto Bieito's The Force of Destiny at ENO, which just days ago won a South Bank Sky Arts Award. But when I talked to Iván Fischer a couple of months ago, I did begin to wonder if he was right: we need to start exploring a "third way" to present opera that does not alienate newcomers and fans alike, yet that also isn't stuck in some imaginary golden age of pretty dresses, painted backdrops and park-and-bark. Something, instead, that brings the music and the drama into one "integrated" whole.

So with Tristan and Isolde opening tonight at ENO - Daniel Kramer directing, Ed Gardner conducting, designs by Anish Kapoor and singers including Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Karen Cargill and Matthew Rose - I wrote this little think-piece for the Indy about whether a refreshed take on Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk can help to save ENO. First, a foretaste of the love duet from rehearsals...



Tonight English National Opera opens a new production of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner’s gigantic, groundbreaking hymn to love and Schopenhauerian philosophy. With designs by the artist Anish Kapoor, ENO’s ex-music director Edward Gardner conducting, direction by Daniel Kramer – the company’s artistic director elect – and a starry cast featuring the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, it promises much. ENO, strapped for cash and mired in controversy, badly needs a smash hit, other than Sunset Boulevard; hopes ride high that this could be it.

Kramer has described the production as “a very poetical, mythical, simple world that Anish Kapoor and I have created to let the music and the singers just become gods”. This feels unusually close to Wagner’s own ideal. In 1849, the composer wrote a series of essays entitled The Artwork of the Future, expounding the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”: a complete art work, fusing together music, drama, design, dance and more, in which a fellowship of artists would work together towards one shared goal.

Today, though, this is radical in its own way. And here’s why.

ENO's image for Tristan
There’s a Facebook group called “Against Modern Opera Productions”. No, really, there is. It loves “beauty” and often pours vitriol upon “Regietheater”, the director-led concepts that have dominated European lyric stages for the past several decades. Some critics, academics and opera professionals watch its hatred with a fascination of horror. It feels reactionary; as if operas’ blood-and-guts tales of sex and violence can only succeed if prettified for some imagined 1950s golden age. Yet this group currently boasts well over 35,500 “likes”. That’s enough people to fill the beleagured London Coliseum for nearly a fortnight.

Is the operatic audience really in revolt against Regietheater? Recently the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer told me in an interview here that he was seeking ways to develop “organic, integrated opera performances”. In his view, the disconnect between staging and music that can result from focus on supposed originality in the former and on historical accuracy in the latter has run its course. It’s become a cliché and it’s time for a change.

When Regietheater is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better. I admire and enjoy the finest of it. Yet reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans. Success stories seem to be thinner on the ground than duds and in certain territories audiences have started to vote with their feet. As for the singers, I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja what the most outrageous thing is that a director has asked him to do on stage. His answer: “Singing the Duke of Mantua [in Verdi’s Rigoletto] wearing a monkey suit.” The production was set on the Planet of the Apes.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Enrico Nawrath/© Bayreuther Festspiele
A couple of years ago I attended Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, the festival founded by the composer himself. It was staged as an opera-within-an-opera: a supposedly futuristic society putting on a show. The set was dominated by a huge processing machine glooping away throughout; the concept must have cost a pretty penny to design and produce, yet added to the opera…precisely nothing. Last year the same festival’s new Tristan und Isolde imposed a vicious, dictatorial character on King Marke that simply isn’t in the music or the drama. And the lovers had to sing their heavenly duet with their backs to the audience.

That festival appears still to be able to afford controversy, indeed to court it. But in the UK cash for opera companies is ever more difficult to come by and increasingly requires justification. If a new staging of a popular piece goes clunking to an early death, there’s a sense of tragic waste. Yes, artists and companies need space to fail. But that space is getting smaller every year.

Still, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has not been enjoying much success of late with supposedly safe, traditional productions. The current season is projected to reach only 66 per cent of potential box office revenue, its lowest ever. Some punters, and even some critics, would like ENO to stay safe and traditional too: middle-of-road productions of popular repertoire for middle-class audiences. But that’s not how London works these days, or New York. These audiences can mingle eager newbies with knowledgeable, cosmopolitan types; and none like to feel they’re being fobbed off with something predictable and second-rate any more than with something pretentious or incoherent. If opera houses want audiences, they have to find out how that audience functions now and what its needs are. These are not the same as the 1950s. They’re not even the same as the 2000s.

And so a radical readoption of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk principles might hold some answers, along with Fischer’s “integrated” approach. It’s possible to be wonderfully imaginative, sophisticated and stylish while working in harmony, rather than in a seeming struggle between inherently opposed ideals.

If Kramer can indeed bring ENO a strong, simple, transcendental Tristan, perhaps he can signal a way forward for the troubled company. Can Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk save ENO? It’s time to find out.

Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, London Coliseum, from 9 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300