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.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Raven-ous at the ballet

Here's my preview from The Independent of the new ballet Raven Girl, created by Wayne McGregor in collaboration with writer and artist Audrey Niffenegger. (Hover about for more, too.)
Audrey Niffenegger, author of the bestselling The Time-Traveler's Wife, has never felt that she was cut out for ballet. "I'm five foot nine, I'm not the most athletic person by any stretch of the imagination and I've always had a poor sense of balance," she remarks. "Watching someone go up on pointe, it's like, 'How does she do it?'. I didn't even learn to ride a bike until I was nine – I kept falling over. I felt like another species!" ... 
 Read the whole thing here:

And a video from rehearsals...

Opens tomorrow night at the ROH.

Adieu, Dutilleux

Adieu, Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) - who was my favourite living composer, an artist with all the sensibility of the great French tradition to which he'd been heir, but the originality to move that soundworld to new territories that were all his own. I never met him, despite wishing to do so very much. Here is his obituary from his publisher, Schott.,8929.html

A poem from Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, on another of which Dutilleux's cello concerto Tout un monde lointain (extract above) is based - perhaps an appropriate farewell...

La Fin de la Journée
Sous une lumière blafarde
Court, danse et se tord sans raison
La Vie, impudente et crarde.
Aussi, sitôt qu'à l'horizon
La nuit voluptueuse monte,
Apaisant tout, même la faim,
Effaçant tout, même la honte,
Le Poëte se dit: "Enfin!
Mon esprit, comme me vertèbres,
Invoque ardemment le repos;
Le coeur plein de songes funèbres,
Je vais me coucher sur le dos
Et me rouler dans vos rideaux,
O rafraîchissantes ténèbres!"

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.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wozzeck comes home

"Welcome back, boys." Wozzeck and his captain are centre stage in the pub. The first is nervous, surly, moving too fast, the latter a restless, cruel, distracted druggie. To the right, a coffin draped in a Union Jack doubles up as a table on which to rest beer glasses, plus green toy T-rexes that are being stuffed with bags of drugs. To the left, a staircase; and phantoms, silent ghosts in army gear - not too many, just an occasional reminder, occasionally carrying the corpse of a child. Upstairs, Andres, an amputee in a wheelchair; and Marie in her kitchen, seizing what brightness she can find in the earrings the Drum Major brings her in return for sex.

Wozzeck is based on a play from the early 19th century - an incomplete manuscript that was apparently retrieved from Georg Büchner's coat pocket after the young writer's untimely death, the words in faded ink all but illegible. Yet nearly 200 years later it feels as real as ever. Add a 21st-century perspective on PTSD and the poverty plight that so often faces returning servicemen, many of them deeply scarred physically and mentally, and Wozzeck is a tale of today. ENO's new production by Carrie Cracknell (of the Young Vic) goes for the jugular and twists the knife in it, hard.

So, too, Berg's music. Is this the opera we can't get past? Berg died in 1935, but you can still feel his musical shadow in countless new works; his blend of rigorous structure, contemporary language and heightened emotion has proved - like all the greatest music - both of its time and timeless. Many composers over the decades have wanted to write like Berg. Few have managed to, if any. Ed Gardner and the ENO orchestra, in white-hot form, underscore tragedy with sensitivity, letting the voices shine and the words - a fine, natural-sounding translation by Richard Stokes - come over clear as the daylight that's absent from Wozzeck's world.

Leigh Melrose is a heartbreaking, vulnerable Wozzeck, Sara Jakubiak a strong-voiced, clear-toned Marie. Tom Randle is the Captain, all too believable, and James Morris is inspired casting as the manipulative, sadistic and drug-dealing Doctor. Nobody is sympathetic - yet in this vividly evoked world, everybody is.

Like Anna Picard, writing in the Indy on Sunday, I've met returning ex-servicemen in dire straits. Perhaps by now most of us have. I was waiting for a train in a suburban station a year or two ago when one of them sat down on the bench beside me and started to talk about Afghanistan. It was night, but he was wearing dark glasses. His eyes had been full of sand, and were permanently damaged by it. He took the glasses off to show me, but the image that lingers was not the reddened whites; it was the shattered soul behind them. Hardest part was seeing your best mates killed, he said... His tale was a litany of suffering and destruction. But then, as my train arrived, he told me he'd do it all again. Queen and country, or something like that. He believed they were doing the right thing.

It's one small step from there to Carrie Cracknell's Wozzeck. Get to ENO and see it.