Friday, January 30, 2009

Elena Zhidkova as Judit, Bride of Dracula

Some last-minute (sort of, anyway) substitutions at the Barbican last night resulted in one of the most hair-raising and astounding concerts I've been to in years.

First substitution was that Gergiev/LSO dropped the Love of Three Oranges suite and The Miraculous Mandarin and threw The Rite of Spring into the first half, presumably because they can all play it in their sleep (rehearsal time may have been an issue, given Gergiev's punishing schedule of gargantuan Russian operas with the Mariinsky tonight & the next few days, hem hem...). I thought I could do without the Rite right now, especially in the Barbican's enhanced acoustic - it is b****y loud - but this was riveting: fast and savage with bells-up horns, slow and sensual with dug-in strings, Gergiev using the minimum of gesture except for those long and amaazing sculptor-hands twiddling and twirling. And remember - from the stalls, you can't see his eyes.

Rite as curtain-raiser rather than climax? Oh yes. Switch on the heat and bring on the Bartok. And bring on the Russian mezzo. Katarina Dalayman was absent and in her place there materialised a size-zero supermodel with a fountain of golden hair to beyond her waist, a glittering pink dress and a great big, gorgeous and dramatic voice that had the audience at her feet in nanoseconds. Elena Zhidkova has sung a range of top mezzo roles - Carmen, Dorabella, Orlofsky and Oktavian, and even some Wagneries - but she seems born to be Bartok's Judit, and with Willard White as her Bluebeard, there was no need for scenery, special effects or even the surtitles. Her acting is so vibrant - as she stands transfixed on that top note as the fifth door opens, batters physically with her fists at the seventh door or pleads finally for mercy from goodness knows what as Bluebeard names her the Bride of Night - that one could follow the story without the words (I take my hat off to any non-native who can sing in Hungarian in the first place).

I could only find one photo of her on the internet (above left) and the only biography, except for the quickly-printed extra page in the programme, was in German. But there is going to be some serious hat-eating in Sheen if this phenomenal girl is not up there with the Kozenas and Bartolis in two or three years' time. As for the rest: Gergiev, orchestra and Sir WW produced shivers and shakes and visions of horror and glory that told us - and we do need reminding sometimes - everything that music can do to the human body and soul, at the deepest, darkest level.

On a more mundane note, Bartok's black magic out of Transylvania set me pondering whether it bears any relation to a novel by one Bram Stoker, published in 1897. (Download the e-book free at Project Gutenberg here.) Do the legends share an origin? And why? As a Romanian soprano pointed out to me a week ago, Dracula, or its author, is neither Hungarian nor Romanian but English (and since some call her La Draculette, she should know...more about her soon...).

But vampiric legends go back further in that part of the world...Walter Starkey's lurid memoir Raggle-Taggle, which I devoured in a fascination of dubious delight during background reading for Hungarian Dances, is full of them. Why did Stoker pick Transylvania? What were his sources? And Maeterlinck's play Ariane et Barbe-Bleu was published in 1899, two years after Dracula, and was adopted by Dukas for his opera; linking Perrault's legend to Greek mythology...What happened? Why these tales, at that time?

I have lots of questions, but no answers. Anyone like to discuss?

UPDATE, 12.25: This was the second of two performances of the programme, and Hilary Finch reviews the first here - all just too much, apparently, but I think she could safely have added the extra star she hints at for this second show.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Decca boss decamps to Sony

Hearing that Bogdan Roscic, MD of the Decca Music Group, is pushing off to become president of Sony Classical reminds me rather of the numerous Poles one sees these days at British airports, heading for flights home. Why would anybody in their right mind (which he is) leave Universal Classics - the big one, the quality one, with JDF, Kaufmann and Bartoli to name but a few - to work for a label that's distinctly less glitzy?

A brief news story in Gramophone carries the ominous sentence: "Decca is being subjected to considerable scrutiny prior to an expected restructure by Universal Music." I know that my estimable readers are just as capable as I am of reading between the lines, so I won't elaborate.

If you're looking for Tote Stadt reviews, please scroll to the update on yesterday's post...


Well done, all. Yes, it is of course the making of a grand piano - and The Omniscient Mussel is spot-on. They are bending the frame and clamping it in place.

I took the photo during a tour of the Steinway factory in Hamburg on Monday. Lots of good pics, so I will put them on Facebook as soon as I have a spare moment. The reason for the trip will become apparent in due course!

Love the captions, glad I decided not to give a prize as I wouldn't be able to choose!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's going on here?

No prizes, but here are two challenges for you:

1: What is going on in this photo?
2: Captions, please! (publishable ones...)

Die tote Stadt - first reports

Funny. Nobody seems to have noticed that the opening night of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt at Covent Garden was on 27 January - a) birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, b) Holocaust Day (or the other way round if you prefer).

First reports are now in from Gavin Plumley at Entartete Musik (formerly Mr Norris, now has new name), plus Neil Fisher in The Times and a very ill-informed write-up from a site called Musical Criticism, which risks being sent a copy of my 1987 Cambridge University dissertation about the work's closely wrought and very distinct structural integrity. I'm not saying it's a perfect opera, but frankly neither is Elektra.

When you've finished reading those, please go to the Indy and read Johann Hari on something completely different.

UPDATE, Thursday morning: More reviews...
Erica Jeal in The Guardian - sensible and well-balanced commentary
Ed Seckerson in The Independent - "iridescent with desire" (!). A missing t nearly turns the title into 'the dead stadium'.
Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph. The piece is too gorgeous, he says, therefore...
Simon Thomas at MusicOMH: "This is a dead city of the mind, cloaked in black, with windows into often nightmarish compartments of the psyche..."
George Hall in The Stage: "...a worthwhile show and a work that lovers of Strauss and Puccini will fall in love with."
Barry Millington in The Evening Standard: "the knockout power of the score makes its 90-year neglect truly incomprehensible";
Alexandra Coughlan in The Oxford Times: "the opera is stuffed so explodingly full of melody that a Frenchman would have to be forcibly restrained from cutting out the overture and serving it with toast."
The London Paper (the free thing you get on the train) says: "MORE GOLD THAN CORN". Yes, honest to goodness, they do!

Good sense and fine info from Fiona Maddocks in The Observer (I am going to look for the novel she mentions about Rodenbach, Rilke et al right away);
"More corn than gold" from Hugh Canning in The Sunday Times;
Interesting, balanced and beautifully written viewpoint from Anna Picard in The Indy on Sunday: "Bruges itself – a niche destination in Rodenbach's day, destitute, ramshackle and yet to be rebuilt for chocoholic day-trippers – is painted not in the sober greys of Memling but in the greedy gold leaf of Klimt... Far from being self-indulgent, Die tote Stadt is an uncomfortably frank examination of its characters' self-indulgences."
a vitriolic little blogpost from Ivan Hewett laying into not Korngold but the estimable and extremely hardworking Michael Haas, record producer and curator par excellence, the brain behind Decca's amazing Entartete Musik series of the 90s and a variety of fantastic exhibitions at Vienna's Jewish Museum. Could Michael have a chance to defend himself, perhaps?