Sunday, 9 October 2016

Afternoon Recital (In Mo Yang/Merkin)

In Mo Yang and Renana Gutman in recital (Merkin Concert Hall)
An afternoon recital from young Korean violinist with a paino (27 September).

  1. Bach Sonata no 1 – was a searing, intense violin sonata. In Mo Yang indicated this is standard repertoire for auditions and competitions but not concerts
  2. Janáček Sonata for Violin and Piano. This was a remarkable, almost painful piece of music
  3. Symanowski, Three Paganini Caprices, in contrast, was tremendous fun.
  4. Mendelssohn, Violin Sonata F Major, arrange Menuhin was stunning.
  5. As an encore: Clara Schumann, Romance in D Major was exquisite and delicate

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Deep sea Tristan (Met/Tristan)

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Simon Rattle cond. Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Opera).
I come to write this with a heavy heart. I am more or less resigned to the idea that I am not likely to hear a better Tristan, from the pit or the stage, than that which I heard at the Met last week. The production was stimulating and took a distinctive approach in exploring some of the darkest elements of the text, yet was not perfect; the musical standards, however, were.
The quality of an orchestra’s Tristan can usually be judged by the first act. The second act boils down to the chemistry between the pair of lovers, and the third on just how good Isolde is. On opening night (26th September) Sir Simon Rattle produced some unutterably astonishing sounds from the pit. The intensity of the dramatic opening was awe-inspiring. It was apparent from but a few bars in that this was to be special, given the bankable nature of the cast too, something historic was in store. The other moment when I was particularly struck by the quality of conducting was the final few bars of the third Act. The control was absolute and the music utterly mesmerizing. 

The singing on offer was exceptional. Each voice fitted its part so well. Undoubtedly Nina Stemme is the greatest living Isolde , and after hearing Skelton in English I suspected he was well on his way to a similar accolade; this performance cemented that view in my mind. In Act II, Skelton did at times seem fractionally strained but this was fleeting and slight. Nobody can do the liebestod like Stemme, but what struck me was that this felt much more deeply rehearsed dramatically and musically than the ROH production in 2014 (review); Stemme’s acting was more refined as a result. The chemistry between the pair of doomed lovers was outstanding and convincing. With this in mind, it is inexplicable that Isolde slit her wrists. The whole point is that she cannot bear to exist sans Tristan, and that she simply expires as a product of the intensity of her love. This was an example of directors scared to leave the music to do the talking. And it is regrettable: there were a few fillips and liberties which detracted from a musically superb and vocally immaculate production. The dramatic intensity of the production as weakened only by the staging, and not music.
Ekatarian Gubanova was a revelation as Brangäne. In particular her off-stage warnings in Act II gave serious goose-bumps whilst maintaining perfect verbal clarity, something rarely achieved. Indeed when done well, Brangäne is the voice of fate, that warning of doom (an idea Wagner explored in Erda at the end of the Rheingold too). Her guilt over the devastating denouement of her potion substitution was palpable.
King Marke was sung by René Pape. His effortless bass is like no other; it is low, clear languid, and pure, without even a hint of vibrato. He wowed the audience with these tones as cool as the waters of the North Sea. Yet this Marke was also compassionate and human. Kurwenal (Evegeny Nikitin) was a superb, true companion. Melot (Neal Cooper) made the role complex.
The production by Mariusz Treliński was set on a modern war ship. During the overture a projection showed a circular radar – almost like an ECG. This worked well. A modern warship with different rooms through a sectional view of the ship (almost like the eyewitness guide version) held the action. A grim stateroom in monochromatic colours and a surgical kitchenette off which potions could be prepared. This allowed the malice in the score to be drawn out effectively. In Act II it was on the bridge of this ship, initially with sea raging. This calmed, and the aurora borealis shone for the liebesnacht.  The lovers were then discovered in the depths of the ship, in some hideous freight room holding radioactive material or some other deadly cargo. Death potions, we might even say.
Some gimmicks were, however tedious, and actually undermined a forceful interpretation of Wagner’s greatest opera. It was not just Isolde cutting herself. She returned at the end of Act II. Young Tristan follows Tristan around. A shed (or is it a shipwreck?) is mentally summoned by Tristan as he waits for Isolde in Act III, and is then immolated. Why? What did this really mean? This all detracted from the intense love story written so masterfully in to the fabric of the music. But unlike the ENO production this summer (review), the physical exertions to keep up with fundamental misconceptions of the love story by the director did not prevent the singers from making the right noises. The sort of unforgettable music making which Wagner’s great love story behoves of its singers. 
In cinemas live today and encores this week.
In rep until  October 27.

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle
A sailor’s voice Tony Stevenson
Isolde Nina Stemme
Brangäne Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal Evgeny Nikitin
Tristan Stuart Skelton
Melot Neal Cooper
King Marke René Pape
A Shepherd Alex Richardson
A Steersman David Crawford
Young Tristan Jonathan O’Reilly
Production Mariusz Trelinski
Set Designer Boris Kudlicka
Costume Designer Marek Adamski
Lighting Designer Marc Heinz
Projection Designer Bartek Macias
Choreographer Tomasz Wygoda
Dramaturg Piotr Gruszczynski
Dramaturg Adam Radecki

Monday, 26 September 2016

A discourse on good government (Chosun/Seonbi)

Hyun Ju Baek and Kwang Te Su, Seonbi (Yoon Sang Timothy Cho cond. Union City Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall)
On Sunday 25th September a major event in the Korean cultural calendar in New York occurred. Seonbi was performed at the Carnegie Hall. Apparently “sold-out” there were in fact a great deal of seats empty, especially the cheaper ones. This is surprising given that the top whack was $350. The first ten minutes were a “VIP introduction” – the ambassador was there. With a mind addled by jet-lag, truthfully I could have done with finishing earlier and getting sleep, but it was part of the thing.
Curtain call: own photograph.
So how different was the opera itself? Other than being in Korean, not very is the answer. Musically, this was akin to light Dvorak (New World Symphony) and Puccini (Act II Boheme, perhaps). Some arias were stunning. ‘The Scent of October’, Ui Jun’s aria was given some lovely colouring by Hyan Ju Kim. The Children’s chorus ‘Oh Sobaek Mountain’ has a cracking tune.
What was the problem with this?
1.       Odd translation of libretto didn’t help. All the ‘dog poo’ business, as a cure for illness, may make sense in Korean culture, but this juvenile-sounding translation made this harder to fathom. At other times the translation was simply weak and the meaning was made slightly unclear.
2.       The plot was a thinned-out Measure for Measure: it was hard work when it was outright didactic diagloue about good government - it didn’t make for good plot (it is bearable as background for Simon Boccanegra).
3.       Indeed the libretto (albeit in translation) felt like a parodyof Western Opera. Much like a derivate-sounding score, this felt like a chance to do something radical and different was lost.
4.       Weaknesses in the score, which was pleasant enough, failed to create a backdrop to the drama. I would guess the orchestra were unused to playing for singers, given how unhelpful thye were to them. Neither volume nor tempi seemed to take in to account of what might help the singers.

In the second half, the plot became even stranger – including odd singing from a ghost. The third act offered a sort of budget Isolde – love vs. death etc. Had it ended there, it would have been stronger; however the inclusion of a second scene with all the cast singing away on stage made it seem something like a musical, or that bit and the end of Don Giovanni with the warning that all sinners will thus get their comeuppance.
All appeared in sumptuous costumes and acted out much of the drama on the generous stage of the Carnegie Hall. Backdrops provided quite close approximations of the original set. Not withstanding the powerpoint slide of VIP presentation and during curtain call, this was all pretty effectively done.
I don’t wish to appear snide: this was a lovely evening of music and singing. I had no real expectations, but I think means I hoped for something more different.

Overall: this felt more like a lost opportunity than anything else. The froth might actually take quite well commercially. Yet I was glad of the rare opportunity to catch this piece.

Chosun Opera Company
Conductor: Yoon Sang Timothy Cho
Sopranos: Jee Hyun Kim, Hyun Ju Kim, Ji Eun Jang, Hyo Won Lim, and Hye Rin Yoon
Mezzo-Sopranos: Hak Nam Kim, Eui Soon Sung, and Ran Lee
Tenors: Robin Yujoong Kim, Paul Han, Chung Gu Kim, and Woo Jin Lee
Baritones: Seong Kyu Lim, Hyong Sik Jo, and Gee Seop Kim
Bass: Do Jin Jung

A complicated 'Così' which is not entirely satisfying (ROH/Così)

Mozart, Così (Bychkov cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)
I struggled to fathom, quite frankly, what this production was driving at much of the time. Was it really as simple a business as saying all (forms of art and enterainment) are just this same? Would any sane director really try to hollow-out Mozart’s most beautiful and profound opera? I think the effort to collapse the distinction between art and entertainment was at the heart of it. Gloger overplayed and over complicated this. It is not clear what was achieved in so doing.
Promotional image/ ROH
The singing was good. Daniel Behle (Ferrando) offered some tender signing which was frequently sublime, even if he was a little quiet at times. The other foolish young fellow was Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo). HE simply smouldered vocally. Both were stunning. The wicked puppet master (or producer in this production) was Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso), who had a seriously creepy but amusing presence on stage. The darkness which I think this role ought to have, and certainly easily sustains, was wanting here.  There was, however, much comedy and decent singing.
The female voices were not as well-attuned to their parts. Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi) was very fine but never quite seemed to fit. Likewise Dorabella (Angela Brower) offered technically-good singing but something didn’t gel. Despina (Sabina Puértolas) was the best actor, in a role which offers much scope for good comedy (Danielle di Niese being a memorable example in a Met relay). When she negotiated a cash price with Don Alfonso at the end, this humour was much on display.
The problem was Bychkov. He was disappointed before at Covent Garden. It was under-rehearsed, I suspect, generic without reference to the production, and unsympathetic to the signing. I haven’t forgiven him for the risible Onegin in January. He is on the ‘avoid’ list now. This undermined fine singing and a passable staging which provided visual enjoyment and confusion in equal measures).
So this Così was less than the sum of its parts. But in the end of the day, even a bad Così (which this isn't) is still pretty good. Maybe they are all the same after all.

Overall: unwrapping several levels of complexity would give the production clarity and beauty.


Music - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto - Lorenzo da Ponte
Director - Jan Philipp Gloger
Set designer - Ben Baur
Costume designer - Karin Jud
Lighting designer - Bernd Purkrabek
Dramaturg - Katharina John

Performed by - The Royal Opera


Conductor - Semyon Bychkov
Fiordiligi - Corinne Winters
Dorabella - Angela Brower
Ferrando - Daniel Behle
Guglielmo - Alessio Arduini
Don Alfonso - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Despina - Sabina Puértolas
Chorus - Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - TBC
Orchestra - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

At a glance