Thursday, 31 July 2014

Love among the ruins: Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne

Don Giovanni (Glyndebourne Festival,  Andrés Orozco-Estrada, London Philharmonic Orchestra)

You are sitting in the sunshine, on an immaculate July afternoon. The bell goes, and in you go. A salvo is fired into the calm of the gentle murmur of anticipation: the lights are cut and the incomparable overture begins. A real piece of theatre.  

The revival of Jonathon Kent’s production of Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne, a staple opera of one by one of the festival’s staple composers brought some mixed reviews. But the reality is that it is a superb production. The staging was based on a large revolving box which opened at different angles and ways. The set within this is somewhat rusticated, but still has a solidity about it. It works very well even if you need a reasonable seat to see it all – which we fortunately had. 

The catalogue aria (‘Madamina, Il Catalogo é question’) must rate amongst the greatest and wittiest. The use of photographs and an instant camera worked well as a motif, and the photographs arranged into albums to flick through on stage was quite amusing even if they couldn’t equate to the volume claimed – Ma in Spagna son gia mille e tre
The theatrics were never underdone. The explosion of flames at the end of act two gave a foretaste of DG’s fate. 

The dinner scene was a real triumph. Conducted at an angle, that the singers managed it so well indicates their skill as actors too. Flipping the table to reveal Don G’s invited but unwelcome guest was a thrilling moment, however expected it was. 

Festival 2014, Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni (Elliot Madore). Photo credit Robert Workman.
Elliot Madore (above) made an exquisite Don Giovanni, he looked slick and greasy, yet it wasn’t unreasonable that he might have seduced so many women. He had the charm and looks to do it. Infidelity on such a scale requires faithful help, and Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s Leporello was spot on too. He clearly wouldn’t have minded a shot in his master’s place –until he saw his fate perhaps. The Commendatore Taras Shtonda was wonderful. Donna Anna (Layla Claire), Don Ottavio (Ben Johnson) and Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia) all made for a first-rate cast. The LPO under Andrés Orozco-Estrada were wonderful. Mark Henderson’s lighting gave the whole thing a ghoulish, ghastly, love-among-the-ruins kind of feel, with real success. 

Overall: an extremely strong cast of principals, a wonderful stage, and a really super opera. I’d hear this happily every year. Or maybe even every week.

Wagner without the potions (Wagner in Norwich part II: Tannhäuser)

Tannhäuser (Theater Freiburg, Theatre Royal Norwich)
Tannhauser rates highly for me. The tunes are sensational, the brass resplendent, and some wonderful dramatic moments. And no magic potions (not that they bother me). The second instalment of WagnerFest in the Fens this summer was Tannhäuser.  Many will argue this is a more conventional opera than Parsifal. The house was much fuller on Sunday evening than it had been on Friday. 

In contrast to the beautiful music, the staging was very far from striking. It was grey, quotidian, and the production as a whole did not seem as far removed from the previous production. The confessional-pulpit-staircase-desk wheeled on and around worked quite well and provided much of the visual interest in the programme. The exception to this was the highly-successful  

This is Wagner without the potions. But a very similar plot device used was that, on hearing of Tannhäuser’s damnation, Elisabeth (sung very well by Dana Burasová) spontaneously expires, to plead with the almighty, so redeeming the protagonist. That he only loved (and never did anything about as far as we learn, that he was simply impure of heart), doesn’t seem to enter in to it. So despite the fact that Marius Vlad sang an impressive Tannhäuser, this does remain quite silly and alien. But I imagine it did since composition. 

Yet much like Lohengrin, the name of the real star of the show, is a secret. The shepherd boy, was quite terrifying. He sang loudly and clearly and powerfully and was clearly taken aback at the especially-loud cheers reserved. I should be astonished if there is not quite a career ahead. Bravo to the Soloist with the Boys Choir of Calw.

Overall: fine, soaring music, with a reasonable staging.


Iconoclasm in the Fens (Wagner in Norwich part I: Parsifal)

Parsifal (Theater Freiburg, Theatre Royal Norwich)
It was thrilling news that Theater Freiburg had decided to take two productions to Norwich for summer 2014. Billed as ‘WagnerFest’, ‘Parisfal’ and ‘Tannhauser’ are two stand-alone operas of Wagner’s which certainly justify the pilgrimage to Norwich. An unparalleled concentration of medieval churches and a breath-taking cathedral make for a super trip. 

During the overture of Parsifal, the curtain was brought up, to show two religious ‘paintings’ burn, sending a shiver up my spine, before the curtain thundered down again. Religion had gone. But where were we? The esquires looked like they were accountants at a bowling club. The Flowermaidens, whom I really liked, by dint of pink dresses and fluorescent lighting, might well have worked in a red light district.  Of props, the box containing the grail was a contemporary-style silver box, of the type often used as a make-up case. The dead swan, as invariably seems to be the case, looked slightly silly. The music and singing were excellent, and there was no critique to make of it. Quite how well the staging, comprising series of doors forming a double-tiered two-sided courtyard, worked is less clear. But this is perhaps Wagner’s most difficult opera to stage, and this was a more than decent attempt. 

The religious iconography had been lost, and in its palace disturbing and moving images were projected of various twentieth-century horrors. This essentially worked quite well.

Overall: a largely successful attempt at staging a difficult opera, with wonderful music-making.
As a footnote, it is marvellous to see such cultural imports, especially outside of London. It was disappointing, therefore, in the extreme, that the audience seemed unable to behave: talking, unwrapping sweets, and in one memorable incident a mobile telephone playing an oh-so-amusing chicken ring tone. Its owner refused to retrieve it, until quite the end of its cacophony, before leaving – or perhaps he was chucked. I asked the duty manager why late admissions were tolerated: apparently this is normal practice in Germany.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Monday, 21 July 2014

What the maid saw

La Traviata (Glyndebourne Festival, Mark Elder London Philharmonic Orchestra)

A few rolls of thunder threatened an otherwise perfect evening in Sussex. But the weather wouldn’t dare spoil music of this calibre. Venera Gimadieva took the role of Violetta to its very height. This is a singer and actress with a long, glittering career ahead of her. And we knew her back when. Similarly Alfredo (Michael Fabiano) was a lover-turned mad.   They made for a highly-believable coupling. Tassis Christoyannis singing Giorgio was superb too. The whole performance was wrung out to its very peak. In a sense, then this was an economical production. The orchestra, under Mark Elder, squeezed every drop of emotion, of drama out of each note. The Glyndebourne rehearsal period was in evidence here, as each note had been carefully considered, just as a jeweller re-seating precious gems in an ornate piece, to stupendous results. The singers got every note. Not a single gesture was uncalculated. Nothing happened by chance. In Act III, Alfredo was restrained by the excellent chorus, it seemed an entirely convincing fracas – but in reality, each move was thought through. Nobody during the 2 hours made a movement onstage which hadn’t been planned. 

There was absolutely no critique to make of the music-making or singing. This worked. The faults, few as they were, were the limitations of the fairly slight drama, and a slightly cluttered staging.
The role of Violetta’s maid, Annina in La Traviata is an interesting one. In the Glyndebourne production, she is positioned to see her mistress in several dark moments, from the start to the end. Is this the gaze of a poor worker on the idle rich? I couldn’t quite fathom but perhaps the cinema relay will allow me to clarify this.
A gauze screen obscured the stage, until a lit chandelier shone through, with Violetta in bed. This was thrilling. The party scene, with the infamous Brindisi means anyone has heard the first ten minutes. But Elder had recrafted it so you heard it anew. This is worth releasing on CD. The lights come up to show a party scene – with a smoking room replete with fug of smoke, which I found to great effect. Yet the first act’s staging was cluttered and it was apparent the cast and directors were unconvinced by it. The layers of fabric etc on the stage were perhaps being used to suggest layers in society. Yet they really just cluttered up things.
The second and third acts were staged with much less clutter, more simplicity and accordingly more coherence. The second act featured a view, out of focus, of some delicious al-fresco dining. It was as if the back of the stage fell away, and we were looking out to the not dissimilar scene on the lawn behind us, where champagne was cooled and tables were set. This was a clever piece of theatre. The Guardian review suggested the critique of the rich was removed to be politic with the audience but this was wrong: the party-goers on stage wore their evening wear- sumptuous and refined-and the Violetta and Alfredo were dining alfresco. The Guardian (plus ça change) was wrong: the audience was directly implicated.

Glyndebourne Production photograph

The final act was heart-rending. The stage was cut down, to give a bed in a tiny niche. The colours of dawn were delicately painted on the set, to wonderful effect.
The staging looked much better than the tired 1980s Royal Opera revival this year, and any criticsm might bear this in mind. The music and singing made this an exceptional evening.  This was special and the audience knew it. 

Overall: it would be a very long wait to hear a better Traviata.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Violetta and violins

The podcast for 'La Traviata' has been posted. Glyndebourne podcast here. Perfect to whet the appetite before Sussex. Interesting discussion throughout, especially about the role of the violins, and stressing that Violetta is not a prostitute. It sharpened my understanding and will improve my appreciation.

In the cool of the Wigmore Hall

Mahan Esfahani, Harpsichord  (Wigmore Hall Early Music and Baroque Series )

There is nothing quite as unpleasant as London – especially the underground – in the heat. But stepping in to the Wigmore Hall had a decidedly cooling effect. Mahan Esfahani gave an utterly wonderful performance. I don’t think anyone could have doubted that it was the humidity which caused any beads of perspiration as Esfahani pored over the harpsichord. 

It proved a highly educational experience too – Esfahani not only provided useful programme notes but introduced some of the pieces himself. It was almost an academic exercise.  Couperin’s 26e ordre from Quatrième livre de pièces de clavecin was an utter delight – each movement was brought to life: the clown in particular was executive very cleverly. Bach’s Well-tempered clavier and Toccata was a thrill. C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata no 2 was all the more enjoyable for Esfahani’s exposition. It was written for Frederick II (of Russia). In the programme he is described by Esfahani as a ‘hipster’ but he explained from the stage Frederick was an enthusiastic musician if nothing else. When the French ambassador visiting Frederick’s court  exclaimed “what rhythm”, CPE Bach is alleged to have responded “what rhythms”. 

After the interval was just as enjoyable: what music indeed. Benda’s 4th sonata, delivered superbly, opened up things wonderfully. Perhaps the most interesting piece was a modern one after the interval. Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming (1986) fitted surprisingly well – creating remarkably evocative textures. Entirely new to me, and it if is to you, have a look at this. It was new to me, and I really enjoyed it. Surprisingly, it fitted well. CPE Bach’s Sonata no 4 brought things to a more conventional close.
The first encore, a Rameau piece was perhaps the most splendid. 

Two trips to the Wigmore Hall in a week! Jaroussky wooed his audience more overtly, with Hallmark greetings, flowers and chocolates (musically speaking); Esfahani invited us to recline by a beautiful rusticated fountain in the gardens of Versailles. Both were compulsive.  

Overall: what rhythms indeed. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Sad news

I was sad to read last night that Lorin Maazel had passed away.  I had the privilege to hear him conduct earlier this year with the Philharmonia at the De Montfort Hall (detail). The rendition of Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra shall stay with me for a very long time indeed.

Friday, 11 July 2014

‘Twas within a furlong of London Town

L’Arpeggiata, Philippe Jaroussky (dir. Christina Pluhar, Wigmore Hall)

Philippe Jaroussky has been at the top of my “absolutely must hear at some point list”. As a counter-tenor he is to my mind unsurpassed. He pulls off the feat of being almost girly without being in the least effeminate (am I that unreconstructed?). He is involved in musical archaeology, and trying new things. I may add a chapter to the hagiography noting him as showman after last night’s performance.

A wonderful blend of beautiful music, rhythmic improvisation, fine and high singing, moving songs, and excellent showmanship came together under the directorship of Caroline Pluhar. The interposition of almost jazzy tunes and old singing gave this the feeling of being timeless, i.e. impossible to situate in time. It reminded me, in the juxtaposition of thrilling tunes with ornate, refined singing of the Brazilian Baroque concert (Ex Cathedra) recently. This was pushing the music envelope. 

Music for a while
We were indeed beguiled from the very start . The extract ‘Twas within a furlong of Edinboro’ Town’ was delivered with art and humour.  ‘An evening Hymn’ and ‘Strike the viol’ were likewise utterly delightful. ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ was another wonderful selection. 

One charming night
If the whole evening was charming, which ‘gives more delight, / than a hundred lucky days’. The words of the songs described exactly how I think we all felt. 

Man is for the woman made?
The first encore was Man is for the woman made. This was given in the libretto, but appeared to have been skipped. It was played with every ounce of humour that might have befitted John Falstaff in the tavern – there was a bawdy, raucous element to this. Exotic rhythms and improvisations from the instrument players saw Jaroussky turn around, hands on hips in mock exasperation. Quite why it was skipped and then used as an encore out of sequence is not immediately apparent. The only possible explanation I could fathom was that Jaroussky felt unable to play it straight – it is fairly absurd- and the deeply tender plaint from the Fairy Queene would have landed oddly after it. Nothing lost in the end, as it made an excellent encore.

Remember me
The second and final encore saw a plea from Jaroussky to ‘Remember me’. The audience were hardly likely to forget anytime soon.

Overall: more delight than a hundred lucky days