Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Parsifal

Any good Parsifal should ask as many questions as it answers. Philipp Stölzl’s at the Deutsche Oper definitely does that. The first one probably being: why is Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal in modern dress – coincidentally the same slim black tie, white shirt and black trousers combo that he wears in Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Lohengrin – when the rest of the production seems to be about graphic, painterly recreations of historical tableaux.
(photo © Matthias Baus)

We see the Crucifixion during the prelude, while Act 1 is peopled with weary knights, with a mini castle perched upstage right on one of the rocky outcrops that form the set – I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python, of both The Life of Brian and The Search for the Holy Grail.

Click to enlarge
As the evening progresses, though, at least that first question is answered, as time itself shifts forwards. The second act features (and here it’s shades of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) what looks like some sort of Inca temple, which is home to a shaman-like Klingsor. But then we return to that first landscape, several centuries later; the castle is in ruins, and everyone’s dress is now contemporary with Parsifal’s.

Plenty of other questions remain, but there’s no doubting the production’s overall seriousness, my low-brow cultural reference points notwithstanding – a long essay in the booklet provides a much more sophisticated account of the influences. The skill of Stölzl’s stagecraft is never in doubt either, the sure hand with which he directs, in particular, the outstanding Deutsche Oper chorus, often requiring them to keep still for demanding but theatrically striking tableaux.

The end of Act 2 is a bit of a cop out, but several other individual episodes are extremely powerful. The direction of Thomas Johannes Mayer’s brilliantly acted Amfortas is outstanding, particularly in the final act, while the Crucifixion scene is powerfully done, and cleverly fills in the backstory by showing Kundry’s ur-laugh. What these aesthetically powerful moments really added up to wasn't always entirely clear. Perhaps they aren’t really supposed to add up to anything specific at all.

Click to enlarge
I also wondered to what extent the mixture of realism and – in the case of the non-illusion of the distant castle – effects that were almost kitschily unrealistic was being ironically framed. Further viewings might or might not make this clear. But happily this is a production that presents its ideas without enforcing a particular interpretation; I’d imagine everyone watching understands and interprets it differently.

Stölzl is also a supremely musical director, the action he presents always complementing what’s emanating from the pit. And in this case that was a wonderfully instinctive and patiently paced account of the score from Donald Runnicles, played with a beauty alternately seductive and piercing. Here was a very respectable cast, too, if not as starry as some that have graced this production since it was unveiled almost exactly four years ago.

Anchoring it all was the imposing Gurnemanz of Stephen Milling. His interpretation is a little neutral, perhaps. The voice can be a bit craggy as it goes up and he doesn’t yet enliven the words as some can – and there are, of course, lots of words. But he sings seriously, and his big burly bass fills the theatre with ease. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal is a known quantity: reliable and ethereal-sounding, better at communicating wonder than the erotic tensions of Act 2. Mayer, as Amfortas, is vocally maybe a size smaller than ideal for this house – an impression emphasised by the voice’s soft edges – but his was nonetheless a powerful and moving performance.

Klingsor's domain (photo © Matthias Baus)

Daniela Sindram’s Kundry was extremely impressive. She acted compellingly throughout and had all the notes, even if her rich mezzo timbre seemed to lose a bit of its sharp focus as Act 2 progressed. Derek Welton sang imposingly as Klingsor – perhaps rather too much so, pushing his velvety voice harder than it needed to be pushed. To round it off, Andrew Harris’s was possibly one of the healthiest sounding Titurels I’ve heard.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Rusalka

Timothy Richards as the Prince
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
This Rusalka, first unveiled in 2011, was the first Barry Kosky production at the Komische Oper for me (and only, I’m ashamed to say, my second ever after his Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015). There were some of the director’s trademarks – which I’d picked up during that Saul, as well as through discussions of his work – including a bit of cross-dressing grotesquery, but this was a production very much in line with the wonderful Homoki Meistersinger I’d enjoyed so much last week.

The set is again simple, consisting of little more than a smaller recessed version of the Komische Oper’s proscenium arch around a wall with a door – a bench sits stage left. Dress was, I guess, modern with the occasional Victorian twist: the Prince wore formal white tie; the Foreign Princess was high-class (pipe-smoking) exotic call-girl; Vodnìk, at least as presented by Jens-Erik Aasbø, had some sort of stoic Scandinavian hipster fisherman thing going on.

Rusalka herself, in one of numerous clever but apparently simple touches, had what she wore defined by the Prince, stepping in and out of whatever he presented her with with an increasingly joyless sense of duty. Indeed, Kosky makes it clear right from the start the extent of Rusalka’s tragedy: she has her tail removed in a painful and graphic procedure carried out by Ježibaba and her sadistic simpleton son (the fish skeleton extracted as part of this becomes a visual leitmotif for the production); her happiness is so fleeting as to barely register, while her misery and loneliness in her new life is constantly underlined.

Click to enlarge
But what might have become mawkish, or simple depressing, is compelling and beautiful here, thanks both to the detailed direction and to Nadja Mchantaf’s powerfully committed central performance. Her victimhood is never passive; we see her trying to speak, exasperatedly mouthing words that don’t come, and we get a sense of defiance and strength as she is tossed helplessly about, even if that resistance is ultimately fruitless.

The simplicity of the set creates powerful and evocative dreamlike world: the door becomes a focus, for example, and we never know what characters dredged up from the dark unconscious are going to appear through it next. The only hint of water comes in an ingenious projection effect early in Act 3, where the proscenium arches are made to undulate and shimmer; but Rusalka’s otherness is underlined throughout, as is her closeness to other water-borne creatures – ultimately we’re left with an image that seems to say that the human world cares about her as much as it cares for the dying fish that we see being prepared for the banquet.

A fascinating and moving production, then, which only seems to overstep the mark during that first scene in Act 3, where rather too many extras are thrown into the mix, to the detriment of focus and clarity. And, as I’ve already hinted, Mchantaf’s central performance is terrific: dramatically fearless and sung tirelessly with a voice of gleaming security. Although it must be said that she was probably the least successful in getting the words of the German translation across, and, if one’s going to be picky, her phrasing might have had more limpidity to it.

Timothy Richards’s Prince was small-scale, the voice well focused but a little short on heft and ring, but he rose impressively to his big moments. Nadine Weissmann’s Ježibaba was a good mixture of serious and grotesque, and, given the German version (and the fact that I’d seen her in the role in Bayreuth) made me think of an Erda who’d had rather too many special herbal brews. The German text also underlined the similarities between Vodník and Alberich, as well as, of course, the closeness of the Wood Sprites to the Rhine Maidens – Aasbø sang resonantly if a little stiffly as the former; Annika Gerhards, Maria Fiselier and Katarzyna Włodarczyk seemed to be having great fun as the latter. The grandly named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen turned in a grandly – and excitingly – sung Foreign Princess. Christiane Oertel made a strong impression as the Kitchen Boy; Ivan Turšić’s Game Keeper, here a one-armed knife-wielding chef, will also stick in the memory.

Vodnìk and the Wood Sprites – from the original cast (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

In the pit, Henrik Nánási and his players seemed to take a little while to warm up. The orchestra’s balance could be strange (possibly due to the acoustics from my seat) and occasionally Dvórak’s melodies didn’t flow like they should – the Song to the Moon felt a little chopped up, as did Vodnìk’s Act 2 aria. But the conductor clearly loves this score – as anyone with ears surely should – and offered some impressively Wagnerian climaxes, along with plenty of tenderness.

Further performances this season on October 21 and 30, November 4 and 20, December 22. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Berlin Philharmonic/Sokhiev: Franck, Rachmaninov & Rimsky-Korsakov

Reviewed for Bachtrack.com

Franck: Le Chasseur maudit
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Nikolai Lugansky, piano; Berliner Philharmoniker, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor)
Philhamonie, Berlin, 13 October 2016

On paper there was a hint of Classical Pops about this programme under Tugan Sokhiev: essentially two rousing tone poems framing Rachmaninov's evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Franck opener was far from a concert-hall staple, though, and, as it transpired, we got a tautly argued, almost abstract account of the Rachmaninov. The performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half, meanwhile, took the composer’s ‘Symphonic Suite’ designation to heart – he was worried that audiences would view the piece as ‘just’ pictorial and not appreciate the intricacies of his compositional handiwork...

[Read the full review here]

Monday, 10 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Il barbiere di Siviglia

Tómas Tómasson (Sachs) & Tom Erik Lie (Beckmesser)
Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
In some ways it’s difficult to explain what made Andreas Homoki’s Meistersinger so beautiful and moving. On paper, it would seem primarily to be defined by what it omits. There’s very little sense of Nuremberg itself, with the set, as such, consisting of just a dozen bits of grey building-shaped lumps of scenery on casters (designs by Frank Philipp Schlößmann). There’s no hint, either, of the ‘darker side’, which I admit I’d come to believe was essential in any staging of this work. In fact, there’s no real Konzept at play – another cardinal sin according some vague version of directorial dogma I’d found myself subscribing to.

The production’s great achievement is that all this omission, though clearly down to some degree to budget restrictions, becomes such a virtue, so creatively and imaginatively used. The empty stage – naked, with all the back-stage bits and bob exposed – itself becomes a leitmotif: it’s what we’re presented with on our arrival, while the scenery is swiftly whipped out of sight for the quintet, or to leave Sachs momentarily abandoned at the close – an effect made so breathtaking, moving and magical by its simplicity. At other times, the blocks of scenery take on a life of their own, almost as an extension to Wagner’s orchestra – bearing down on Walther as he remembers the Masters, adding to Beckmesser’s unease and confusion, toppling over at the climax of the riot, returning in different colours for the Festwiese.    

Click to enlarge
Against this backdrop, Homoki is able to work hard at creating believable and likeable characters, brought to life not through McVicar-style microdirection, but simply and naturally. Tómas Tómasson’s Sachs, young and full of life (if dressed to resemble slightly a melancholy Super Mario), was a case in point. His love for Johanni van Oostrum’s Eva (and hers for him) was painfully clear to see, and cleverly amplified by a couple of well-judged directorial touches. Even Tom Erik Lie’s Beckmesser – a gangly throwback to an earlier period, in his renaissance pudding-bowl hair and pointy tailcoats, and very well sung – was so much more than a caricature, disliked personally by Sachs rather than generally despised. Homoki’s direction of the chorus was outstanding, too: here they became a playful, mischievous collection of individuals rather than an unquestioning mob – which is perhaps why Sachs’s final address came across as so straightforwardly inspiring.

Musically, too, things were excellent. Tómasson’s bass baritone, which has felt a little stiff and inflexible when I’ve heard him before, was impressive in this smaller house, despite running out of puff a little. Erin Caves, though he tired a little in the middle of Act 3, sang with a clear, ardent and evenly produced tone as Walther. Van Oostrum was a little underwhelming at first as Eva, but came into her own in Act 3. In fact, the whole thing came together in the final act: the production, which had felt a little grey in the first two, fully revealed its magic; and Constantin Trinks’s conducting – authoritative, flowing but big-hearted – matched it brilliantly. The Komische Oper orchestra played extremely well, too.

The 'Festwiese' – Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

A friend after the show wondered why Bayreuth – or any larger house – couldn’t stage a production like this. I fear its apparent simplicity would be deemed inadequate and insufficient for such a stage – a cop out, even. Here, though, it let the work speak for itself with powerful eloquence. It was funny, too, but in a way that grew out of the words and music and never undercut the work’s essential seriousness. It was something of a revelation, and I left convinced that Meistersinger was Wagner’s masterpiece.


click to enlarge
Things could hardly have been more different the following evening, the first night of the house’s new Barbiere di Siviglia (I’m reviewing it elsewhere, so will only offer a few more informal thoughts here). The director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a name new to me but an important figure in the theatre scene in his native Russia, apparently, and someone turning increasingly to opera. Perusing the interview with him in the booklet before the start, I came across signs that were both positive and slightly less encouraging. 

In the former category were the observation that Barbiere is a dark comedy (thoughts echoed by the production’s conductor, Antonella Manacorda), and an expression of the desire to explore the small-scale tragedy of Bartolo’s unrequited love for Rosina – taking that into account ‘makes the comedy a little less superficial,’ Serebrennikov suggests. 

By contrast, though, he then tells us: ‘Almaviva’s world is the exact opposite from Bartolo’s – totally contemporary, totally bloodless [‘blutleer’], totally fleshless [‘fleischlos’ – excuse the literal translation]. He and Rosina live entirely virtual lives. It’s about nothing but electronic toys, communication, social media etc.’

It’s a bold gambit to declare these two characters essentially uninteresting and unsympathetic, not least since most of Barbiere revolves around them. Serebrennikov sticks to his guns, though: he removes the drama’s heart and fills the void with a procession of visual gags, many of them revolving around projections (by Ilya Shagalov) of Almaviva and Rosina’s social-media interactions. This starts during the overture, in which Fiorello, promoted to Leporello-style assistant to his master, mucks around with Manacorda. The stage is extended out beyond and round the orchestra pit (into which the orchestra sinks after the overture, before rising up again for the Act 2 finale), and the director makes constant use of this extra space – indeed, the stage area itself isn’t revealed until we meet Bartolo and his world (some sort of antique shop).

(l. to r.) Tansel Aksybek (Almaviva), Dominik Köninger (Figaro),
Nicole Chevalier (Rosina) – photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
There’s no faulting the cast, and there are some good ideas among the dozens Serebrennikov lobs into the mix. Almaviva dressing up as a Muslim refugee rather than a soldier is not quite as crass as it might sound, for example, offering a Biedermann and the Arsonists style critique of Bartolo’s bourgeois politesse – even if it raises a lot of other questions, more dramaturgical than anything else. His return dressed as Conchita Wurst for the music lesson was more in keeping with the rest of the production: it elicited plenty of laughs and oh-no-he-hasn’t! gasps, but didn't make much sense beyond itself. 

We only really got any sort of exploration of Bartolo’s situation during the Act 2 tempesta, where he dressed Rosina in an old-fashioned wedding dress. It was a brief moment of seriousness, too little too late, before the finale brought an apotheosis of Serebrennikov’s dispiriting vision of selfie-obsessed modern life. He’s got a point, I suppose, but it’s never really that clear why it’s a point to be made in this opera. One could just as easily apply it, say, to Meistersinger. Call me grumpy, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I for one am glad at least that he didn’t get that opportunity.    

Monday, 3 October 2016

Salzburg Festival: The Exterminating Angel and Die Liebe der Danae

[From OPERA, October 2016, pp. 1261-64]

Alexander Pereira’s new opera strategy at the Salzburg Festival has not all gone according to plan—not least when it comes to the continuing, appropriately Beckettian wait for György Kurtág’s Endgame. So there must have been something reassuring about the arrival, on time, of Thomas Adès’s second full-scale opera, The Exterminating Angel. The work’s high-profile co-commissioners—Covent Garden, where it’s due this season, the Met and the Royal Danish Opera—will no doubt have breathed a sigh of relief too, especially after some encouraging reports from the first night.

At the second night (August 1) in the Haus für Mozart, it revealed itself, like its predecessor, The Tempest, to be an impressively ambitious, well-crafted piece of work. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, however, Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film hardly seems a suitable subject for the lyric stage. The plot is ambiguous and elusive: a group of aristocrats assemble for dinner after an operatic performance but fail to leave at the appropriate moment. Having adjourned to the drawing room they become trapped there by an unexplained force, the veneer of civility gradually wearing away as basic survival becomes paramount.

Subtly conversational, playfully surreal and with a multitude of characters whose identity is only fleetingly established, the Buñuel certainly isn’t ‘operatic’ in the sense in which film criticism tends to employ the word. But in a programme interview with both Adès and Tom Cairns (who directed and who co-wrote the libretto in collaboration with the composer), the composer seems to relish precisely the challenges it poses, openly acknowledging the fact that the film doesn’t follow a standard operatic trajectory: ‘Every piece of music is looking for an exit,’ he says, ‘and the fun thing in this opera is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room.’

The score is undeniably brilliant, the composer having been drawn, magpie-like, to some of the most enticing influences of the last musical century and a half—the Viennese Strausses, Bartók, Debussy, Schoenberg, Britten, Piazzolla, to name but a few. He employs them either earnestly, with haunting, disorienting twists, or, in the case of the Strausses, as parody. The opera’s three acts (the first two tied together by a powerful martial interlude) are woven together with dizzying compositional skill. The orchestration, through which the elastic sound of the ondes Martenot winds itself mysteriously, swings between the utmost refinement and almost shocking rawness. With Adès himself conducting, the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played with often exhilarating commitment and skill.

The libretto distils the film’s screenplay effectively, and the drama is weighted towards a third act that builds up a real head of steam, its final thunderous passacaglia offering a powerful conclusion, as well the apotheosis of something we sense throughout: the music exerting its own force, dragging the words with it, often excitingly but also frequently at the expense of their audibility. Cairns’s production (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) offers a timeless contemporary aesthetic, with chic costumes and a single set consisting of a wooden revolving arch, half-suggesting a proscenium and representing the threshold between the guests’ captivity and freedom.

The large cast was impressive, running the gamut from Audrey Luna’s stratospheric Leticia (very much a reprise of her Tempest Ariel) to John Tomlinson’s gruff Doctor—a marked contrast in characterization, incidentally, to the suave, calm equivalent in the film. Anne Sofie von Otter stood out for her portrayal of Leonora, a tragic, desperate patient of the Doctor’s, and Thomas Allen brought the rakish charm of a great Don Giovanni to his portrayal of the oversexed conductor Alberto Roc. Iestyn Davies was excellent as the impetuous Francisco de Ávila, and Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan were ardent as the tragic young couple, Eduardo and Beatriz. Charles Workman dealt admirably with the tortuous lines Adès gives to the host, Edmundo de Nobile, while Amanda Echalaz (as his wife Lucía) and Sally Matthews (as Silvia de Ávila) brought bright, shining tone to their roles, but were guilty of some very poor diction (not, admittedly, helped by Adès’s writing).

One of the most touching performances came from Christine Rice, as Blanca, who is given two of the score’s highlights. In Act 1, she plays (or mimes playing) a hauntingly wonky piano arrangement of a Ladino song. In the second act, she has one of the few lyrical interludes in which a character is given time to express herself, a gentle and lightly accompanied aria based on Chiam Bialik’s poem ‘Over the sea’. More lyrical respite comes in the form of Leticia’s Act 3 aria, which holds up the action after she has worked out how the guests are to effect their escape.

In isolation these are touching and memorable moments. But they also underline what seems to me a major problem with the work. They represent possibly the most significant additions and departures from the Buñuel original as well as, it seems, an attempt to bolster the opera’s status as opera. Their inclusion, however, only emphasizes the fact that so little of the rest of the work makes a compelling case for being opera, least of all full-scale opera as we have here. Undoubtedly Adès imbues the material with a new tragic grandeur, but he never finds a successful equivalent to the laconic, louche chitchat of Buñuel’s characters, which is surely better suited to chamber opera treatment à la Powder her Face, opting instead for vocal writing that often seems resolutely ungrateful, unnatural, occasionally almost arbitrary, even, and which repeatedly struggles to assert itself against the full orchestra.

Adès is too smart a composer for this not to be a deliberate strategy, perhaps aiming at a productive friction against our expectations of the natural rhythm of the language, but its benefits in the theatre seem minimal. Nor is there any getting away from the fact that live theatre can’t really do what a film director’s camera can in pointing us towards minor details of behaviour, towards telling looks and glances, or to apparently innocuous objects that later gain significance. Where Buñuel is able to communicate with whispers and nods, Adès and Cairns have too often to resort to shouting and gesticulating—and I don’t mean that entirely metaphorically.

The Exterminating Angel is no doubt a serious, fascinating piece of work, and ultimately packs a powerful punch, but we’ll have to wait and see how it fares on the even bigger stages it moves to next, and whether it retains a place in the repertory.

After seeing Alvis Hermanis’s dismal new production of Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae (at the Grosses Festpielhaus, July 31) I found myself wondering whether Strauss’s penultimate opera deserves even its occasional airings. Salzburg obviously feels a special affinity with Danae, whose 1944 premiere there was cancelled after the Nazi declaration of Total War (as a concession to the composer, it was allowed to proceed as far as the dress rehearsal). The premiere did finally take place a decade later, and the opera was subsequently revived at the festival in 2002. For his new production, however, Hermanis shows an almost perverse disregard for this history, stating in an interview that his aim ‘was simply to tell a musically and visually beautiful fairy tale’.

Admittedly, he’s probably not far from the mark in saying that Danae ‘belongs to the aesthetic and mentality of Jugendstil, where the oriental-decorative and folklore meet modernity’, but there was no sense of that meeting with modernity in his production, which in its unreconstructed pursuit of the ‘oriental-decorative’ simply reduced Jugendstil to kitsch. The gentle seriousness of the piece and its all too politically relevant message regarding the pursuit of human love instead of untold wealth were lost in a riot of oversized comedy turbans and orientalist clichés, apparently employed without the slightest sense of irony. There was a real donkey in the final act (which elicited some quiet giggles from the first-night audience), a life-size white elephant to deliver Jupiter, not to mention a troupe of almost omnipresent female dancers, appearing in golden catsuits and a variety of other costumes that referenced everything from belly-dancer tassles to hijab and niqab (the choreography was by Alla Sigalova, the costumes by Juozas Statkevičius). The whole thing seemed to be pitched somewhere between L’italiana in Algeri and Las Vegas.

With such concentration on the peripherals, Hermanis seemed to be little concerned with the characters at the centre of the drama. Krassimira Stoyanova’s Danae remained a somewhat neutral presence throughout. She sang the tortuous role with remarkable security and control, but her tone—always a little covered and somewhat backward in the throat—lacks the penetration and brilliance this part surely calls for. As Jupiter, Tomasz Konieczny was similarly admirable in terms of stamina, but he is far from vocally ideal, his grainy voice, with its slightly snarly default timbre, lacking Heldenbariton ring and authority. Gerhard Siegel was a robust character-tenor Midas, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Norbert Ernst vivid as, respectively, Pollux and Merkur.

The principal pleasure was probably hearing the score handled with impressive virtuosity by the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst. But even that was a source of modified rapture: it was only really in the final half-hour that the conductor introduced warmth and tenderness into his reading; until then much had seemed to be on luxurious cruise control, the sound rarely dipping below forte, the golden shards of Strauss’s writing more abrasive than seductive. And too many of the score’s highlights—and moments such as Danae’s awakening in Act 2 are as fine as anything the composer wrote—passed for nothing in the context. With a director and production that seemed to care so little about the work, and showed even less interest in understanding it, this was a missed opportunity and a major setback to Danae’s cause.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Book Review: Noisy at the Wrong Times, by Michael Volpe

Noisy at the Wrong Times: The Story of a Boy Who Didn’t Know His Place
By Michael Volpe. Two Roads Books. 309pp. £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-473-62940-0

[Review published in Opera, January 2016, pp 121-2]

The title gives a two-fold clue. This book, first published earlier this year and now appearing in paperback, might be the memoirs of the founder of Opera Holland Park, but it is by no means an ‘opera memoir’. It tells primarily, instead, of Michael Volpe’s remarkable childhood. ‘Noisy at the wrong times’ is a phrase the author has extracted from his first headmaster’s school report from Woolverstone Hall, the ‘poor man’s Eton’ outside Ipswich to which Volpe, plucked from inner-city London, was sent as a young boy.

Volpe lays out the details of his childhood on a Fulham housing estate. It’s difficult, knowing Volpe’s later history, and not least Opera Holland Park’s penchant for the more extreme corners of the verismo repertoire, not to see much of this childhood as ‘operatic’, with young Michael witness to a tale of fiery Cavalleria urbana. (Early excursions to Italy, where his relatives included a marvellous trapeze-artist uncle, offer a few moments of rusticana contrast.)

There’s the Italian mother, abandoned by the philandering, ne’er-do-well father, who eventually drags herself and her three young boys out of abject poverty: a fierce, noble and instinctive woman whom Volpe describes with the honest and open sincerity that defines the book. As appendices he reprints the eulogies he offered at both her funeral and at that of his brother Matteo, whose troubled life of addiction and intermittent incarceration we’re constantly aware could also have been emulated by Volpe. In a touch that’s typical of the book, Volpe describes both losses with heartbreaking but big-hearted candour, and then goes on to turn his account of Matteo’s death into a passionate paean to the National Health Service and plea for its survival.

It’s too late for the survival of Woolverstone, which we gradually get to know as the book proceeds after Volpe wins a place there, and the book is shot through with a regret both for its demise and for Volpe’s own inability to make the most of the opportunities it afforded him at the time—he embraced the chances offered by the remarkably adventurous drama department and the tension-releasing opportunities available on the rugby pitch but was otherwise, by his own admission, a stubbornly obstructive and rebellious pupil. Volpe’s account of his time at school is, like the book in general, entertaining and often riotously funny, but wise after the event; he writes movingly in retrospect about those teachers who inspired him, with regret about those whom he treated, he admits, disgracefully. That first headmaster quoted above, takes pride of place: ‘Paddy’ Richardson was a man whose wisdom and gentle encouragement—and wily methods of psychological gameplay to bring out the best in his charges— made a deep impression on young Volpe, even if their effects took a long time to manifest themselves. His death in a car crash came at a pivotal time in Volpe’s Woolverstone career and was a catalyst both for the unleashing of the boy’s (self-)destructive tendencies, the author suggests, and for the eventual demise of Woolverstone. This latter event sparks a broader discussion about social mobility and the manifold inadequacies of the well-meaning but, in Volpe’s view, ineffective strategies that replaced the idealism that had informed the Woolverstone project.

This is a pattern throughout the book, where later the specifics of Volpe’s own engagement with opera are also used as the platform from which to launch a passionate defence of the art form and its universal appeal: a philosophy that has informed Opera Holland Park since its foundation, via a somewhat roundabout route, over a quarter of a century ago. As such it’s an inspiring and thought-provoking memoir, its narrative—unpredictable and bracing—driven along by Volpe’s humour, honesty and generosity as a storyteller. And the ultimate message, that seeds sown on apparently unreceptive soil can stubbornly bear fruit, is a powerful and important one about education, opportunity and culture.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Semperoper Dresden: Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra

[From OPERA, March 2015, pp. 328-9]

The Semperoper’s Strauss-anniversary celebrations came full circle at the end of 2014 with the return, with a new cast, of Barbara Frey’s Elektra, with which it had all started in January. The main attraction, however, was a reprise of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2000 production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Anja Harteros as the Marschallin and Christian Thielemann at the helm (seen on December 14). The production itself holds up well, placing the action in a contemporary setting but doing so with a light touch: paparazzi plague the ‘celebrities’ that the principal characters have now become; the Marschallin’s palace apparently has to be propped up financially by guided tours; Faninal’s residence becomes the penthouse of Trump Tower. There are a few unsuccessful touches, not least the staging of the Prelude (Strauss’s music here is not, it’s fair to say, depicting the act of frantic undressing), or having Mohammed indulgently pampered by the Marschallin. One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a much finer effort than Frey’s Elektra.

Musically, too, this Rosenkavalier showed the Semperoper at its very best, with the playing of the Staatskapelle reaching the highest levels of exquisitely relaxed virtuosity—a sort of supreme flexibility, of both tempo and texture, that reminded me of the playing of another Staatskapelle, Barenboim’s Berliners, at the 2013 Proms Ring. Thielemann’s tempo fluctuations could be, by any normal criteria, outrageous at times: the nearly ten seconds of silence before the Trio or the impetuous surging towards its climax, for example, or the way he lingeringly eased the orchestra back into its waltz at Baron Ochs’s ‘Ich wart’ auf Antwort’. But with the orchestra on such form, these moments were totally convincing, and with such a fine cast playing along, the overall effect was both beguiling and moving.

Harteros, in particular, benefited from the flexibility, and her Act 1 monologue was superb, all the more memorable for the way in which the production allowed her space to stalk the stage and command it fully. As already noted in these pages, the voice is not quite the silky, creamy stuff of Straussian dreams, but it has enough of those qualities as well as its own special beauty—a slight gauziness encasing a firm, powerful core—and is always employed with the greatest elegance and musicality. Similarly, her characterization is impeccably aristocratic, even a touch austere—dressed in black and white, she seemed to resemble a stern Spanish Habsburg, rather than a high-ranking subject of their Viennese cousins. 

Her Octavian was Sophie Koch, very much a staple in this role, but one whose commitment and vocal richness shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if her mezzo has lost some of its vibrant sheen and security. Christiane Karg’s Sophie was wonderful, a perky, sparky characterization matched by singing that spoke of very human vulnerability and sensuality rather than doll-like purity. I’m not sure I’ve heard a finer Trio: with help from the Semperoper’s glorious acoustic, all three voices managed to remain distinct while blending beautifully. Peter Rose was in fine voice as Ochs, and Adrian Eröd’s emphatic Faninal and Yosep Kang’s excellent Italian Tenor led a fine extended cast.

The fact that the evening belonged to Thielemann and his orchestra, though, was largely emphasized, I’m afraid to say, the following evening, when Peter Schneider took to the podium for Elektra, in the production that Thielemann had conducted with such fleet-footed ferocity at the beginning of the year. Schneider’s account was solid and unremarkable, and his cast seemed not to have had a great deal of rehearsal. Nonetheless, the performance was worth hearing, primarily for Elena Pankratova as Elektra. The Russian soprano had tackled the role in Bari earlier in the year and here showed that her voice, a remarkably powerful and beautiful instrument, smoothly produced across its range right up to a thrilling top, is up to the challenges of the role, even if the middle register felt occasionally under-projected. Dramatically her performance was routine, admittedly, but this would no doubt improve were she given more direction in a more interesting production; vocally, though, she is a
welcome addition to the relatively large number of fine Elektras on today’s scene.

Manuela Uhl sang a powerful, often exciting, sometimes sharp Chrysothemis. Jane Henschel showed that she’s still a formidable Klytemnestra, offering the polar opposite of Waltraud Meier’s understated and under-sung characterization in January. Markus Marquardt was a solid Orest, singing in a pleasingly grainy and powerful baritone.