Saturday, 27 July 2013

Proms Ring Cycle (3) – Siegfried, or, Living with the Interpretation

I ended my piece on Die Walkure by suggesting there were two questions ahead of this performance, so we'll start with the answers to those. A) Lance Ryan is a very good Siegfried – not completely perfect but he more than meets the most crucial challenges. B) Act Three Scene One does not stand up well to the Barenboim approach – we'll come to exactly why later on.

The things that have been excellent about this cycle so far continued to be excellent in this third installment. Top of the billing here was the Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme. Obviously she has only a comparatively small part in this opera, but it's a crucial one, and she was simply outstanding. There were also strong contributions from three returnees from Rheingold, Eric Halfvarson's Fafner,  Johannes Martin Kranzle's Alberich and Peter Bronder's Mime. The acoustic did odd things to Bronder from where I was standing in Act One, but he was compelling in Act Two. The Staatskapelle Berlin continue to give an exemplary orchestral performance in terms of quality of sound. When Barenboim's approach fits best to Wagner's music – the best instances here being probably some of the Woodbird-Siegfried exchanges, and parts of the Brunnhilde-Siegfried scene – the sound is more beautiful than any performance I can recall.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Strange Interlude at the National, or, At Last! A Funny (and Moving) Mockery of Theatre

For years I have watched directors mock the whole idea of theatre. They rip classic texts to pieces, they transplant them to locales to which they are unsuited, they put items of furniture on stage whose point is entirely unclear, and, when all those methods are exhausted, they have the actors start declaiming at you about the pointlessness of it all. On just about every such previous occasion these efforts have either proved boring or highly irritating. And it is now clear that none of them need have bothered, for a master has got there before them. That master was Eugene O'Neill and the play in question Strange Interlude which the National has now revived (though I gather in a somewhat truncated form as this version lasts a little over three hours while the original lasted five).

The principle conceit of O'Neill's play is that characters speak their inner thoughts direct to the audience as asides both when alone on stage and in the middle of dialogue exchanges and we must believe that only we, the audience, are hearing those thoughts. Now it is only fair to say that this does take some getting used to in the early scenes, but it entirely justifies itself later on. O'Neill also crafts a highly complicated plot which does verge on the ridiculous – again I felt there was a point being made about the potential absurdity of theatre here. But, and this is the crucial point, neither of these things are simply arid devices. For O'Neill also makes his characters devastatingly human. The emotional engagement here is not so easy as in others of his plays that I've seen, but as their various crises become more acute, their lives more entangled, the various devices give the situations both humour and heartbreak.

Proms Ring Cycle 2013 (2) - Die Walkure

Following a Das Rheingold which didn't wholly convince me, the Proms Ring cycle continued on Tuesday with Die Walkure, the Ring opera which I've seen most often and with which I'm most familiar. This wasn't the most powerful performance I've ever heard, I continue to have issues with what seems to me to be a lack of drive from Barenboim in crucial places, but its impact was considerably greater than the Rheingold's and Act Three was pretty special.

For me the great contributions of the evening were Bryn Terfel's Wotan and Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde both of whom I was hearing in these roles for the first time (though I did hear Terfel sing the end of Act 3 in an Edinburgh Festival concert quite a few years ago). Here I must make a confession. I had been rather sceptical about whether all the hype surrounding Terfel's Wotan was justified – perhaps I was more swayed by his having cancelled on me on the one occasion I was due to hear him in the role and the famous dropping out from the Covent Garden Ring than was justified. I did also listen to some of the relays from the Met and he didn't make much impression on me. But last night I thought he was outstanding. He delivered the text magnificently, he really seemed to feel the part (more so it must be admitted than Paterson in Rheingold, but the latter is just starting out in the role) and he had the stamina to carry it through to the end. The Third Act in particularly going from rage to sorrow to authority was a tour de force. I was equally impressed by Stemme, indeed I'm not sure I've ever heard the role live so commandingly sung. She has power without being shrill and like Terfel did not tire. She did not make quite the overwhelming impression of the latter at all points, but there were I think other factors here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Proms 2013 Ring Cycle (1) – Das Rheingold, or A Tendency to Beauty over Drama

I'm not of the Wagner persuasion who travel the world seeing Ring Cycles, but it does, I suspect, take some special kind of madness to sign up to stand for a Ring Cycle, and in concert at that. After Das Rheingold I can confirm that so far it has been worth doing, but I do have some reservations.

In terms of orchestral sound this has to have been one of the most beautiful Wagner performances I've ever been fortunate enough to hear. The Staatskapelle Berlin had marvellous richness in all departments. Barenboim's tempi, which we'll come back to, were clearly designed (at least to my ear) to accentuate space and beauty and there are places where this pays major dividends. I can't recall Froh's evocation of the rainbow bridge ever being delivered so clearly and beautifully.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Britten Canticles, or, Musically Superb, Staging Mostly Mistaken

Britten's Five Canticles for various combinations of voice and instruments are not among his frequently performed works, and are certainly not often performed as a set. On the strength of this performance they should be done this way more often, but as straight concert performances.

All five works demonstrate Britten's skill in setting the English language. I was most haunted by the repeated refrain of “Still falls the rain” in the third Canticle, but in each one there is some moment to appreciate like God's call to Abraham which frames the second, or the way the three magi in the third repeatedly echo one another's remarks. Ian Bostridge, who I have not always enjoyed as a soloist, gives a superb performance in all five, making the most of the Linbury's resonant acoustic (the Royal Opera should consider more vocal recitals in there). He is ably supported vocally by Iestyn Davies and Benedict Nelson and with accompaniment from Julius Drake (piano), Richard Watkins (horn) and Sally Pryce (harp). Musically then this is another significant contribution to the Britten centenary.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gloriana at the Royal Opera, or, A Window on a Vanished World

A slightly belated review of the performance on Thursday 4th July 2013.

Near the back of Royal Opera programmes is usually printed a short essay detailing previous productions and casting of the evening's work at the House. On this occasion it revealed that Britten's Gloriana hasn't been staged by the company since 1954. The work is genuinely a “problem” piece. But there are marvellous musical elements, Richard Jones's production is brilliantly devised, and taken altogether this is another important contribution to the Britten centenary.

The programme argues for parallels with Verdi in terms of the juxtaposition of public and private dramas. This is a somewhat unfortunate comparison because it brings Don Carlo to mind with which Gloriana does not compare. And yet the point is a valid one. Britten and his librettist William Plomer do consistently juxtapose the public (for example Elizabeth's public reception in Nottingham complete with masque) with the private (Elizabeth & Essex's two confrontations). The work is at its best in those two private encounters. Essex's lute song, and its later moving recall during their final, fateful meeting, show music and text in a much more harmonious partnership than is always the case elsewhere. Elsewhere, most particularly in the masque and in the rebellion scene (which is only reported by a Blind Ballad-Singer) some judicious trimming of the score and text was needed. Both Britten and Plomer do fall short in key moments. Plomer is too fond of obscure words, and the lyric for the chorus's evocation of Elizabeth's significance (“Green leaves are we, red rose our golden queen”) may be echt Tudor but it can't carry the emotional weight required. Britten also has problems with the ending where Elizabeth's final phrases are spoken, almost never effective in my experience in an operatic setting and this is not an exception. But despite these issues it is simply unjustified to dismiss this as an operatic dud.