Archive | October, 2012

Hans Werner Henze 1926-2012

28 Oct

I’m sorry to hear of the death of Hans Werner Henze, though at 86 he had had a long and highly productive life.  I suppose that what it’s brought home to me is how little of his work I know and what this says about opera in the late 20th century.

I’ve seen three of his operas: Prince of Homburg, Boulevard Solitude and Elegy for Young Lovers which are certainly the only operas that have had major performances here in my opera-going lifetime (I’m too young to have been able to catch We Come to the River or La Cubana).   This number of performances strikes me as a pretty poor show for a composer who, Britten apart can make a claim to be the most important opera composer of his generation and, more controversially (Birtwistle?) since 1950.

I enjoyed and admired each of them – enough to feel that I’d go back and see them again if they were revived, but not enough to go out and buy such CDs or DVDs as were available (interestingly, it seems to be possible to get recordings in one format or another of most of his major operas apart from Elegy for Young Lovers, which must be the most performed in the UK).

I think it’s understandable that this should be the case.  I think that it’s quite difficult to “get” an opera at a first visit: there is often so much going on that you do not necessarily identify the beauties or the crucial moments all at once, particularly if the music is unfamiliar. Janáček is an obvious example of where I’ve enjoyed a first performance but only really come to appreciate what a masterpiece it is and to identify outstanding parts later on.  You only have to listen to people attending their first Janáček or even Britten opera to understand that these aren’t as immediately accessible to them as some others. I’d apply this also to much of Wagner, Richard Strauss and even Monteverdi: they need work and performances to get a public engaged.  Yet how can we get to know and appreciate these pieces if they are never performed?

I think Henze has suffered from a number of things.  First there is a perception that anything written after Puccini is “modern” and “difficult”, so people won’t go.  The second is the fact that he is following a trend in classical music which rejects much of the aesthetic that makes some operas immediately popular.  His music isn’t “difficult” to listen to in the way that, say Birtwistle’s or Berg’s might be thought to be, but it doesn’t, so far as I can recall, have the heart-stopping moments or instant appeal to the senses as well as to the brain, that successful operas have.  They don’t have an element of entertainment.

It may, of course, be that his operas, rather like those of Haydn, just don’t quite make the grade and will only ever be appreciated by a few enthusiasts to whom his music speaks particularly.  What would be nice, however, would be if one or two companies were to give us the opportunity to see some more of his work and even revive them, so that we can make up our minds.  That’s what happened with Janáček where it was only after a good deal of perseverance that he became popular.  In the present economic climate, can you see that happening?  It’s a shame, but I do feel that Henze deserves more than the neglect his operas seem to be garnering at the moment – how about it, Opera North?


Edgar – my 500th opera

27 Oct

I turn 50 at the end of this year and I had an ambition of taking the tally of individual operas that I have seen to 500 by that date.  On 25th October, in Lewes Town Hall, I achieved this with Sussex Opera’s performance of Puccini’s Edgar.

I had slightly mixed feelings about this.  I admire Puccini, but he’s certainly not my favourite composer and Edgar has a reputation of being seriously bad.  If a 500th opera is to be special, I felt that I’d rather it should be something that rich and rare, perhaps that I enjoy listening to the CDs – La Muette de Portici, perhaps, or I Lombardi (that and Jérusalem being the only Verdi’s that I haven’t seen) or Beatrice di Tenda, or (though I think it would be quite hard work) Sullivan’s IvanhoeRobert le Diable or La donna del lago would have been great, too.  However, I don’t control the programming decisions of opera houses or their timetables and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of seeing Edgar, particularly the first UK performance of the original four act version. It turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I expected.

It’s not a masterpiece.  It isn’t even a good opera, but it does have enjoyable things in it, together with the interest of seeing a young composer engaging with the form.

Let’s get the problems out of the way.  The libretto is not good – it’s not an impossible story for an opera (bored hero has to choose between the innocent Fidelia and the vicious but alluring Tigrana chooses the latter, regrets it and returns, after faking his death to Fidelia, who is then murdered by the vengeful Tigrana) – and has strong melodrama.  But Fontana’s libretto doesn’t establish the Fidelia/Edgar relationship well enough in the first act, while the character of Edgar himself isn’t strongly enough drawn early enough.

The third act is bizarre. It’s intended as a sort of love-test.  Edgar, having faked his death, disguised as a monk tries to blacken his own name.  He is defended by Fidelia and moved by her genuine grief. He then sees Tigrana’s passionate  sorrow and decides to test her by bribing her to confirm his own treachery.  Because she is an atheistical villainess, he succeeds.  The populace then try to desecrate the coffin, only to find that it’s empty, whereupon Edgar reveals himself and the crowd turn on Tigrana. It’s improbable and naively managed but, most of all, Puccini just didn’t at that stage have the skill to make this convincing musically.  The transfer from what struck me as a rather fine and passionate aria for Tigrana (a really strong contrast to the also strong for Fidelia) to a rather silly and unconvincing trio just does not work.

Most of all, the music isn’t quite good enough.  Some pleasant enough arias and duets outstay their welcome and Puccini, at this stage of his career, doesn’t have the sheer theatrical know-how to compose the right amount of music for entrances (usually too much) or to find the memorable phrase or melody that pins you to your seat or makes the tears flow.  I listened to La gioconda after hearing this to check out the influence of Ponchielli’s teaching and heard a lot of it there – including the more conventional Verdian parts of this score (a good old “stand to the front and sing” section of the Act I finale that he’d never have had later on).  The opera’s also a bit long: with a single interval, we were out in just under three and a quarter hours – he learned to be more concise later.

Having said that, I suspect that the original version is better than the later versions, which must have accentuated the silly melodrama.  I can see why he might want to cut much of Act IV – it goes on a bit – but it does at least provide some distance from the ridiculousness of Act III and has a sweet aria for Fidelia and a decent, if over-long, love duet for Edgar and Fidelia.

Moreover, there are plenty of pointers to the Puccini that was to come. The orchestration is beguiling, filled with ideas (perhaps too many, but it’s grateful stuff to listen to). The arias and duets are nice if not memorable.  There’s some good melodrama: Tigrana has a fiery entrance that remind you how good Puccini was at establishing a character at such moments (think of Scarpia).  It makes for an amusing enough evening but not one that makes you want to see the piece again – though I think, if I’d been there in 1889, I’d have wanted to hear Puccini’s next work.

The performance was semi-staged and did its best in the conditions available.  The chorus, dressed in black, looked cramped as the shuffled on and off stage.  The singers carried scores and showed varying degrees of willingness to be without them. Tony Baker did a decent enough job in moving the characters in a small space so we could get a sense of the plot. The company’s new surtitle machine worked intermittently.  I imagine it will all look better in the larger venues that it’s visiting in the next few days and I hope they solve the surtitle problem.

The soloists were strong within these confines.  John Hudson can deliver the style and a grateful, pleasing sound even if I felt his current vocal resources and attachment to the score didn’t really help him show the role in its best light. He looked like a rather slow academic bachelor uncle rather than a passionate, conflicted young man.  Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers seized Tigrana with both fists and shook everything out of it – just what the role needs.  I thought she sang her Act III aria wonderfully and injected the sort of passion that the piece needs to make it work.  Mary Plazas was a sweet and very simple Fidelia who sang her arias and duets with real beauty and a lovely sense of style – it’s impressive that NSO can get her.  Pauls Putnins made a handsome Frank who sang his aria strongly but wasn’t able to do much with a character that pretty much disappears after Act I.  Stephen Holloway was excellent as Gualtiero, father to Fidelia and Frank.

Nicholas Jenkins conducted with certainty and, I thought, a strong idea of how the score should go – perhaps the tempi were occasionally a bit deliberate, but he managed the difficult acoustic really well.  The St Pauls Sinfonia played idiomatically and gave lots of pleasure.  As to the chorus: well, it’s meant to be the basis of NSO and I suppose that it sang decently enough, though not, honestly, at the level of the soloists.  I would also be worried at what looked like a very, well, mature male section.  It’s not just that some younger voices might give it some much-needed ballast, it’s that you had the feeling that, in a few years’ time, there wouldn’t be anyone left.  Surely there are more younger people in Sussex with the interest and time to give to this.

So I enjoyed myself and it turned out to be a worthwhile 500th opera.  I’m not sure I’d go to see Edgar again unless the ROH were to invite a really good cast to have go at it (Kaufmann would be wonderful with Gheorghui as Fidelia, perhaps Antonacci or whoever is the reigning Lady Macbeth or Abigaille as Tigrana), but all credit to NSO for at least giving me the chance to see it once.



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Götterdämmerung – Susan Bullock stars

27 Oct

So it’s over. Götterdämmerungcame to an end on 24th October and I feel a mixture of huge satisfaction and admiration for the works, of exhaustion after four evenings of very hard work, regret that it’s all over and an element of frustration at the bits that didn’t quite work or were downright perverse.

The great things first. I thought Susan Bullock grew into a fabulously good Brünnhilde.  It may not be the fullest or most grateful voice, but how I admired her sheer stamina and feeling at the end of the immolation scene, that she could probably go on for quite lot longer had Wagner written the music.  She is an intensely communicative singer – singing the words, conveying the meaning and the emotion behind it.  She conveyed the intensity of her love for Siegfried, the sheer bewilderment and humiliation in the Gibichung’s hall and, at the end, the realisation of her role and the joy at the prospect of reunion with Siegfried.  Watching this portrayal grow has been one of the glories of this Ring.

Stephan Vinke is, again, a very strong Siegfried – not the most mellifluous, rather dry of tone but he has the stamina for the role and creates a believable innocent (one day I may do blog about the relative intelligence of tenor roles in opera – Siegfried runs Manrico pretty close). He acts alertly and struck me as highly convincing. His final words about Brünnhilde were very moving.

John Tomlinson makes a wonderfully black Hagen pretty much dominating the stage and his vast voice, black as ink, his completely believable acting, conveying the evil and bitterness of the role was a joy. I thought he created a sense of regret and bitterness in the scene with Alberich that I’ve not seen in other portrayals.  The voice may not be as fresh as it was a few years ago, but it still sounds pretty much ideal for this role.

I wasn’t greatly convinced by either of the Gibichungs – two of the least grateful roles in the cycle, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen struck me as having a voice that might well have a very strong future in Mozart and Strauss.  Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very strong indeed.  The chorus was strong and as exciting as it should be.

I’ve praised Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing.  I think that Pappano’s huge strengths are his consideration for the singers and the sheer clarity of the textures, the way that he brings out the themes and commentary as an organic part of the score.  He gets the dark, threatening side excellently but there were times when I missed the sheer energy and the huge climaxes that I’ve heard in more romantic readings. At the end of all the operas, I’ve felt a little earth bound, in the sense that I haven’t quite had the themes playing around in my head for the next 24 hours.

The virtues and vices of Warner’s production haven’t changed much since Walküre. There is the wonderful direction of the singers, achieving marvellous acting performances and an understanding of their motivation and real imagination.  There are some great stage pictures.  I loved the statue of Wotan looking over the end of the second Act, reminding you of his responsibility for Brünnhilde’s predicament and his inability to help.  Hunding snapping off his spear for the oath scene for a great touch.  There are some things that I just don’t get – why we see Alberich in his boat on a life-support system (why does he need a boat anyway?), what’s all the algebra about?  Why is the Gibichung Hall like the Tarnhelm?  What irritates me more, however are the bits that look to me like sheer clumsiness.  I like the idea of the gods’ statues being melted down in the immolation scene but getting the crowd to attach them to the ropes seemed obvious. I can see why you need to have a platform the last scene of Act II but it did bounce a lot which was distracting and looked amateurish.  Having a splash of water as the Rhinemaidens return to the Rhine is amusing once, tiresome and predictable on repetition.  It’s one of those productions which you feel could have been vastly improved if the design budget had been halved.

There’s never going to be a production of the Ring that gets all the subtleties and ideas in there or a cast that can completely satisfy you musically.  For all my complaints, this was a hugely engaging, enjoyable and satisfying four evenings, that I’ll remember for Bullock, Terfel, Tomlinson and Pappano in particular and for the intensity of the acting.  What I’m less sure about is whether I want to see it again.  The days of Rings every year seem to have gone for ever but I bet Pappano will want to have another go at it before he goes and I can’t see the house running to a new production for that.

Siegfried – Not the ideal first opera

22 Oct

During the long interval of the performance of Siegfried on 21st October, I struck up a conversation with a guy who had been wandering past the Royal Opera House about 20 minutes before it started and, on the off-chance, had got a standing ticket in the Balcony for £17.  This was his first opera.  It isn’t one that I’d choose for my first opera but he seemed to be coping pretty well and hats off to him for standing all the way through.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it must be quite difficult to make a lot of it without the knowledge of what has gone before.  For me the most interesting thing about Siegfried is the way in which the characters you have seen before develop – the resonances from the previous operas and the ironies.  How can you remotely understand the emotions going on in the Wotan/Erda scene or the Wotan/Siegfried one without a knowledge of what has gone before?  I think the sense of the old order apparently being thwarted by the arrival of youth and innocence has greater resonance if you have seen the earlier pieces.

As before, there are some wonderful things in Keith Warner’s production and some deeply frustrating ones.  I don’t understand why you need to have a ‘plane have crashed into Nibelheim for the first scene and I found the conscious artificiality of the forest murmurs scene unnecessarily funny.  I think that to have Siegfried just lie back on the mattress while going through the magic fire is a complete cop out.  I wonder if there were some technical problems with the projections – they didn’t seem that well co-ordinated and I don’t remember feelling so frustrated last time I saw this production.  I’m not sure why Wotan needed to kill Erda at the end of their scene together and I’m not sure what having what was, I think, the Woodbird around for the first scene and climbing into the bear costume brought.  Above all I found Mime changing into rat frequently while trying to make Siegfried drink the poison very tiresome and silly.  Can’t Warner trust us and Wagner?  I can’t blame Warner for the early snapping of Wotan’s spear but I did wonder if all was well backstage.

But there are some greatnesses too.  The second act, round Neidhöle is really well done – huge, cavernous darkness and a picture of Fafner on his own, seated, clutching the gold model of Freia and I love the circling stage at the beginning of the third act with Wotan apparently combatting the elements as well as everything else – splendid image of the turnoil he’s feeling.  The direction of the acting is fine and he catches the jokes in the text.  I didn’t find this as fascinating an evening as I did Walküre or, indeed, the Richard Jones production before this, but it’s still a hugely intelligent evening.

I’ve at last seen Terfel’s Wanderer/Wotan and, as before, I admire it enormously.  He manages the conversational elements superbly and his phrasing and ability to sing softly make you understand the subtleties of the role.  He was particularly fine in the scenes when he is playing with Mime and Alberich.  I felt that Tomlinson last time round got more of the elemental anguish and doubt of the first scene of Act III.

We also had a new Siegfried.  Stephan Vincke is a new name to me.  The voice is on the dry side but he has huge stamina and appeared to be singing with the same freedom and energy at the duet as he was at the start – in fact, slightly more so.  It’s not a particularly beautiful sound and there are times when it would be nice to have a little more freedom and heft – but he more than gets through the role and he acts it engagingly – just the right amount of naive cynicism.

I thought Susan Bullock even better tonight than she had been in Walküre.  There was slightly more steel in the voice this evening and, best of all, she brings out the femininity and wisdom of the role.  I remember in particular how beautifully she sang the “Ewig bin ich…” passage (when the Siegfried Idyll bit comes in) – there was a raw honesty about this.  She conveyed the emotions of the woman outstandingly – everything felt true – though how much someone who hadn’t seen Walküre could get out of this scene, I don’t know.

Wolfgang Koch was a lowering, nasty Alberich, Gerhard Siegel was just right as the petty, small-minded Mime, Sophie Bevan a lovely, clear Woodbird and Maria Radner was a fine Erda.

Pappano and the orchestra did fantastic things in the second Act – they caught the tension and danger, together with the beauty of that act beautifully.  I’ve heard more incandescent love duets – I remember both with Haitink and, I think the last time here, catching the train home with the themes at the end rolling around my head – not so much this time.

So this was a civilised was of spending a wet Sunday and I got a lot out of it.  I hope that my acquaintance wasn’t entirely put off opera.

Stamp Collecting with the Jette Parker artists

20 Oct

The friend that I met at the Jette Parker double bill at the Linbury (19th October) described the evening as stamp collecting and other addicts will know exactly what he means.  When was Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne last done here? And to put it in a double bill with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri struck me as a stroke of genius.  I hadn’t seen either before and both were on my list of operas I wanted to see.  They made a nice contrast to the Ring and gave the opportunity to take a look at the latest crop of Young Artists on the scheme.

I’m ambivalent about early Mozart.  I tend to find it the sort of music that a supremely talented 12 year old might well produce – entertaining, hugely competent, with some nice inventions but let’s not mistake it for having the scope, knowledge or experience that Mozart was later to bring or even that significantly less talented older composers show. This opera doesn’t change my mind.  I think that, if it was indeed first performed at a garden party, Dr Mesmer’s guest would have started off thinking how charming and wonderful it was but might have been consulting their watches after about half an hour and wondering when the drinks were coming back.  The text is meant to be a parody of Rousseau’s Le devin du village and it might possibly have been amusing to an audience that knew that piece, but I rather doubt it.

It’s an inconsequentail operetta about a quarrel between a shepherd and shepherdess over his unfaithfulness, which they then make up with a bit of help from Colas, the local savant. It’s made up of a few short but competent arias for each of the characters,a duet and a trio. There’s a lot of charm in the orchestration and in the word setting struck me a very good even if characterisation is non-existent.  The libretto strikes me as absolutely suited to a 12 year old prodigy in that it’s pretty naive and doesn’t set any particular challenges.  It could do with losing about 20 minutes and I think it’s one for collectors which I feel no great desire to see again.

The singing here was quite as good as the piece deserved. Dušica Bijelić and David Butt Philip made a nice pair of lovers and Jihoon Kim was fine as Colas. I just wished they’d been given something a bit meatier to get their teeth into.  Michele Gamba conducted a slightly scratchy Southbank Sinfonia which, if the story is true, is probably not very far from what it was like at the first performance. Pedro Ribeiro directed and didn’t really help the piece. The couple spent their time pushing trolleys of sheep along a railway line and the whole thing moved very slowly. Possibly it’s not Mozart’s fault that the piece outstayed its welcome.  Ribeiro tried too hard.

Mozart and Salieri is a very different story.  It’s a setting of a short text by Pushkin. It’s in two scenes, lasts 45 minutes and tells how Salieri poisoned Mozart. It’s infinitely preferable to the flummery of Peter Shaffer’s play and is a nicely concentrated, intense two-hander. The interest is in the lowering portrayal of Salieri and his growing jealousy of Mozart, leading to the scene where he poisons him after hearing a portion of the Requiem. The piece opens with a huge aria for him outlining the development of his envy.  It’s followed by the first of two meetings between the two characters, Salieri’s decision to poison Mozart and then the poisoining scene.  Rimsky’s score is pastiche Mozart but fully informed by developments since then.  It’s well paced, with outstanding characterisation of the two parts and has real interest both as an experiment in the form, but also in its outstanding depiction of the two characters. I wanted to see it again, either with native Russian singers or with slightly more mature singers singing in English – it’s an opera where the text is important.

This is not meant to be unfair to two very talented singers but simply to remark that someone with the experience of a Chalyapin is likely to make more of the colours and emotions of Salieri than Ashley Riches could at this stage of his career.  Even so, I thought that Mr Riches is someone to look out for.  This was a hugely confident performance by a singer with a fine voice, admirable security in Russian and a personality that commanded the stage and the audience.  I’d love to see him do the role again in 10 years time and a good many other roles too.  I think then he’ll make even more of that rather chilling moment at the end when Salieri remarks that Mozart will be sleeping for a long time – as it was, I thought he conveyed the conflicted emotions of Salieri really strongly.

Pablo Bensch was a very successful Mozart who was, perhaps a bit serious but he has a strong tenor that seemed to me to suit the Slavonic repertory really well. He created a lonely figure.  This was, again, a really strong, confident performance by a tenor who should go far.

Paul Wingfield got really good playing out of the orchestra and Ribeiro’s production – suits and black, with excellent lighting giving the right sense of melodrama, shadows and darkness – seemed to me to capture very nicely this haunting little piece.

It’s a shame that the way we currently watch opera isn’t well suited to performances of excellent one-acters like this.  It would be good to catch it as a lunchtime or early evening pre-dinner event.  It might make a nice curtain raiser to something like Osud or even Vixen or perhaps as a triple bill with, say Trial by Jury and Enfant et les Sortilèges to make a really varied evening.  Any other thoughts?
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Die Walküre – Triumphing over the set

20 Oct

I’m still on a high after the ROH Walküre on 18th October.  Most of the reasons why I was ambivalent about Rheingold are still there, but the wonderful things about this performance overcame them and I found myself increasingly engrossed and in a way which transcended the feeling that I was “at the opera”.

The programme talked about family relationships looking at fathers and children. But it also struck me that there is something strong in this opera about marriage and we see two different failing or failed marriages which you cannot but contrast with the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.  In Act I you have (very vividly depicted here) the abusive nature of the Hunding/Sieglinde marriage where Hunding has Sieglinde completely in thrall. And then there’s the Wotan/Fricka scene where Fricka pretty much by virtue of going on and on and applying emotional blackmail, trounces Wotan.  What interested me particularly in this performance was that Bryn Terfel’s Wotan suggested a respectful tenderness towards Fricka and a suggestion that this is a relationship that has endured, however unsatisfactory it may be, albeit at the same time that he was rather patronisingly telling her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  This wasn’t just the marriage of convenience between two people who hate each other, as you often see.  With Sarah Connolly’s implacable, emotionally secure but deeply unhappy Fricka, this scene was one of the most fascinating of the cycle so far.

But Walküre is, pretty much, Wotan’s opera and Terfel demonstrated what a wonderful Wotan he is. What I admire most about him is his ability to sing this music softly and as if it were dialogue in a play. This huge man, with a vast voice, can sing softly and tenderly creating a hugely moving character.  He knows absolutely what Wotan is thinking and communicates it – passages you expect to be loud and hectoring become persuasive, explanatory. I got the depth of his love and trust for Brünnhilde and his anger at her betrayal, the bitterness at sacrificing Siegmund and the sheer regret at the loss of them both.  One of the things that he brought out for me, as well as the love, was the transition from the god who, at the start, still thinks he can control everything and, by the end realises that he can’t, that his role is simply to watch.  And that gives a link to Siegfried.  I’m looking forward impatiently to his Wanderer.

Last time I saw this here, Susan Bullock stepped in as Brünnhilde for an ill Lisa Gasteen and I remember being astonished by her assured performance then.  With proper preparation this time, I thought she was very fine indeed. It’s not a voice I would instantly think of for the role – it’s not as full and powerful as, say, Nilsson (who is?) and it also lacks the voluptuousness of Eva-Maria Westbroek who, as Sieglinde, sounded as though he voice was bigger.  And yet there is a steely stamina there and, like Terfel, an ability to use the words and music to convey the thoughts. I don’t normally think of the Ring as  particularly moving series of operas – fascinating and interesting but not that emotional – but when Bullock talked to Wotan about love in Act III, the colours that she found there, combined with Pappano’s achingly responsive conducting, brought tears to my eyes.  This was someone who had been changed by her experiences in Act II.  Bullock’s hoydenish opening turned into someone who had chosen what was to follow.  The dialogue with Wotan was so intense that she caught you up in her joy when he announced that he’d be surrounding her with fire.  The way that she developed the character in this opera bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

The others were of an equally high calibre.  Westbroek was a generous, beautiful Sieglinde.  Simon O’Neill has the heft and stamina for Siegmund but if, like me, you’ve always thought that heroic warriors were, well, fit and probably youthful, then he can’t really be a visually acceptable Siegmund. John Tomlinson was a vicious thug of a Hunding and, as ever, it’s wonderful to hear his voice and his intelligence in Wagner.

Pappano was in complete accord with his singers and, even if the orchestra wasn’t as completely secure throughout the evening as it had been in Rheingold, this was a reading that sounded “right” in that it worked with the production and the singers so that the emotions, the ideas were reflected in the orchestra.  He weaves the textures in the score beautifully – I remember particularly the passage for ‘cellos and woodwind in the first scene as Sieglinde and Siegmund have their nervous introductions – the two voices there were perfectly balanced and gave huge pleasure as well as commenting on what was going on onstage.

Keith Warner has to take a lot of the credit for a performance as intelligent and effective as that.  His direction of the interaction between the characters is outstanding and shows such knowledge and thought of the text that it’s a privilege to watch.  And yet you admire this in spite of sets and the sheer clumsiness and occasional inconsistencies of parts of the staging and the sheer heaviness of the set.

Perhaps I’m just too literal, but in my experience you do not have a fan working in a room where there is also a blazing fire (Siegmund warms himself against it).  The furnishings chez Hunding suggest wealth (and, indeed, Hunding suggests that he has wealthy patrons so some of this has clearly rubbed off).  They include a nicely upholstered chaise longue with ram horn decorations which is clearly also a shrine to Fricka and one which Brünnhilde is put to sleep – ürather a good touch).  If this is right, I think that Hunding might want to keep his wife in something rich rather than the typical Sieglinde-fustian that she wore here.

It’s a very busy set.  Hunding’s house is set clumsily within the Magic Mountain set that we had for the gods in Rheingold and which is now derelict for Act II of this (looking slightly like the preparations for a house clearance).  When the house flies up for the end of the love duet, the steps up to it have to fold up like the steps into an aircraft – and you’re watching that rather than concentrating on the lovers.  There’s still the ladder leading to Valhalla until Siegmund destroys it with Nothung after the Todesverkündigung – a nice, flashy gesture but is this the right place in the cycle for it or is it even appropriate? I felt that the revolving wall revolved rather too often while the door placed in it looks random, inelegant.

And you feel there are self-imposed hindrances.  It’s a nice idea for Brünnhilde to descend by the ladder from Valhalla but isn’t that really compromised by her undoing her safety harness when she gets to the bottom: wasn’t there another solution?  You feel that Terfel has to worry too much about where to leave his spear and his cloak and when to put them on again.  The mattress for the Valkyries’ ride just looks random and silly.  More seriously, I didn’t get why Sieglinde had to wander round the stage during the Todesverkündigung and I found that this, together with the projection of the rotating wall frustratingly distracted me from what Miss Bullock and Mr O’Neill were doing in one of the most important scenes in the entire cycle.  I think it’s a definite failure that you are left looking at the white wall while Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep behind it.  Presumably this is to give Terfel the time to attach the contraption to his hand so that he can hold the magic fire in the next scene and to find a way of getting a spear and breast plate for Brünnhilde by the chaise longue, two items that have rather obviously not been part of her acoutrements for the rest of the opera.  This feels like laziness.

I don’t underestimate the problems of staging the Ring but it’s frustrating that so much that is strong and good in this performance is compromised by a design concept that simply doesn’t have the flexibility that’s needed.  The singers and conducting triumphed over the problems and made for a great evening.  I just felt that it might have been easier for them without the distractions.

Rheingold at the ROH

17 Oct

A complete Ring in London is still enough of a rarity for me to want to catch it when it comes, even if it does play havoc with the rest of my social life and bedtimes.  I chose the third cycle of the ROH’s latest lot of them and, on 16th October girded my loins for this marathon.

I often find Rheingold the most difficult of the operas to get into. Not always – I very much enjoyed it at ENO in Phyllida Lloyd’s production where, with excellent diction and a good English translation, it was rather like listening to a play. It’s an opera of bargaining, politicking without any particularly sympathetic character.  It crams in quite a lot of action but it can also seem to take quite a long time for it to happen in. Am I the only one who finds my mind wandering during parts of the second and this scenes? Or the interminable time it seems to take to build up the gold round Freia?

These feeling arose quite a bit at this performance and had, I think, quite a lot to do with Keith Warner’s staging. I found it a cluttered, frustrating staging in 2004 and 2007 and, although he’s altered it quite a bit, it still feels like a production that assumes a level of knowledge of the influences on Wagner that even those of us who are quite familiar with the operas don’t necessarily possess and one which seems to try be too clever.

Some of what he does seems unnecessary. The first figure we see on stage is a man carrying a branch.  “Aha”, say those of who know the plot, “that must be Wotan carrying the branch of the World Ash Tree”. If memory serves, we don’t actually get to learn about that until we meet the Norns three operas later [Actually in Siegfried].  If Wagner wanted us to know about Wotan and the tree, he could quite easily have written this but, in fact, it’s of limited interest to the story.  More, I think that Wagner’s opening music presents a world of darkness and innocence which is wrecked by the theft of the gold and where what went before is of little immediate interest. That is the way the narrative goes.  The next person we see is, I think, Erda ensconced in the middle of the stage – again, Wagner tells us about her when she comes on later and so it’s quite hard to see what the point of putting there is. Finally we see the Rhinemaidens.  Now these additional characters appearing early do no real harm, but it’s hard to seee what their significance is either.  it’s typical of an approach that adds commentary and symbolism like confetti.

There are other minor irritants: anyone can see that gold isn’t nearly enough to cover Freia even with the ring and tarnhelm and how, exactly did it get turned into the image of, presumably, Freia with which Fafner kills Fasolt? Why are the gods strewn asleep on what looks like Wotan and Fricka’s living room/conservatory when there must have perfectly satisfactory bedrooms for them? Freia is seen anxiously looking out of the window throughout the beginning of the second scene – to me the music for her entry requires more of a run in than the few paces downstage allow. Alberich’s boat looks clumsy. At the end Wotan unwraps Nothung before sneaking off to pay Erda a visit – Just So We Know.

There are good things.  The picture of Nibelheim as a nightmarish tyranny is very well done and provides images that actually add to the understanding of what it might be like.  At the end, as the gods climb their ladders towards Nibelheim, what looks like a huge ring descends as if they are now trapped by it.  I loved the picture of Loge elegantly flambé-ing one of the golden apples at the end.  But for each of the images that provoke thought or help understanding there’s another that just seems unnecessary and distracting.

There’s also some really good acting and characterisation and the musical side is generally strong.  Bryn Terfel makes a violent, arrogant, unpleasant Wotan who sang with great intelligence and beauty.  He was matched by Wolfgang Koch’s bitter, enraged Alberich who delivered his curse in the last scene with just the right intensity to set the disaster in motion.  Sarah Connolly was a glorious Fricka singing with all the strength and beauty that her Glyndebourne Brangaene had led me to expect: there was a real confidence and certainty about her character.  Stig Andersen was a good, subtle Loge though I think that the god of fire should be slightly more mercurial – he caught the cynicism very well.  Iain Paterson is a great Fasolt – singing with power, intelligence and, as perhaps the only half-sympathetic character on stage, looking the most human also.  Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner promises well for Siegfried.

I thought the Rhinemaidens were good but was less happy with the lesser gods, who sounded under-powered to me.  Gerhard Siegel repeated his excellent Mime.

The greatest part of the evening, however, for me came from Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  I don;’t think I’ve heard the horns parts in the prelude played quite so beautifully and expertly.  as ever, Pappano accompanied the singers marvellously, while getting the flow and the pacing of the piece  as good as I have heard.  On purely musical grounds this looks to me as though it’s shaping up to be a pretty marvellous Ring.  I just wish that, visually, this was a engrossing and clear as what was going on in the pit.