Modernism in all its glory

This week, as if to lighten the January gloom, I had the chance to experience two sharp doses of modernism.  Both were performances of the very highest quality, and in different ways they both left their mark.

Firstly, back on Sunday evening I managed to score two tickets to The Waste Land at Wilton’s Music Hall.  The production has quite a pedigree, having toured the world and having marked the reopening of Wilton’s Music Hall back in 1996 when the venue was starting out on the road to recovery and was in a more parlous state even than it is now.  For these purposes, however, the venue is perfect, and the air of decayed splendour seems to suit the stifled atmosphere of the poem.

I can’t claim to know it at all well – well, actually, at all!  I read it through on the afternoon before the performance at Wilton’s at 7.30pm.  On the page, it meant nothing to me, barring a couple of passages that gave me some pause for thought.  There must be a discipline about reading poetry, it seems to me, since the contrast between what I had read – rather flat and convoluted lines – and the vivid, characterful, ‘alive’ performance that Fiona Shaw gave was an utter revelation.  It was gripping, with the simple spot lighting effects coming and going, adding to the atmosphere and picking her out complete with stark and disturbing shadows amidst the otherwise flat, eerie backdrop of the Wilton’s stage.  She moved from wild declamation to conversational characterisation and to quiet introspection with seeming lack of effort and almost imperceptible transition.  I still feel I’m a long way away from any understanding of the piece – and I don’t have the impression that there is a single understanding to be aimed for, just the interpretation that suits the reader in that moment.  However, I have a distinct sense of something wonderful waiting to be explored.  And is that not the magic of the theatre?

The other dose of modernism was of a rather more full-on quality: the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance (and recording) of Richard Strauss’s seething mass of unrelenting bitterness  that is ‘Elektra’.  We had the luxury of seats five rows back from the platform, and it was a revelation to watch the soloists at work in such close-up.  The performance was, I thought, shattering.

Gergiev conducted with the excitement, tension and insight that seemed all-too-missing from the Mariinsky Ring endeavour at Covent Garden last summer.  The huge forces were shattering at one  moment, and delicate the next.  The string insinuations that accompany Elektra’s taunting of her mother, the slithery depictions of Aegisth’s drunkenness were  taught and delineated, and the tension built wonderfully to those great climaxes at the end of the mother-daughter confrontation and the final dance of death.  The only bit that was a little more tepid than I would have liked was the recognition scene, which seemed not quite to reach the requisite ecstasy, and the conversational moments before and afterward seemed to ramble a little.

It seemed that may have been part-Gergiev and part-soloists.  They were, overall, wonderful.  Sitting a few feet from Jeanne-Michel Charbonnet it was impossible not to be in awe of the utter ‘bonkersness’ of the role.  Seeing someone sit down and (whilst retaining some malevolence of character) take a sip of water only served to highlight how quickly she was back up and at the music stand again – it was just ridiculously unrelenting in a way that I haven’t noticed in stage performances in quite that way.  She started with minimal glances at the music and evidently tried always to keep the characterisation going even when having to follow passages in the score.  As the performance went on, there was a little more reliance on the pages, but given the excesses of the role and that it was being recorded, an extra focus on the score could perhaps have been forgiven.  Friends who sat in the balcony said that she didn’t come across very vividly, an issue of volume and projection; from where we were she was fabulously vivid.

Angela Denoke’s Chrysothemis was an odd one.  A basically warm voice brought the maternal feelings into sharper focus, but it was impossible not to be distracted by the odd vocal production, with vibrato produced by oscillating her lips when singing, so that a sort of ‘wow-wow-wow’ sound resulted, along with muddied diction as a result.  I liked her though, but she seemed to lose projection and energy towards the end.  As ultimate compliment to her and Gergiev, I found the end passages of ‘Ich kann nicht sitzen’ genuinely moving.  With the excesses of Elektra, finding a tear and a lump in the throat is a rare thing.  Fluffing the near-to-last lines was less impressive:  ‘Elektra, komm’ mit uns’ became ‘…komm’ mit mir’ which is probably not hugely significant but is a change in the dynamics that are at work, so I assumed some editing will ensue…

What to say about Felicity Palmer?  A long-standing fan, I can’t claim to be impartial, but I could  go to my grave after a long, long life and I doubt I will ever see/hear a more convincing, dramatic, tortured and chilling Klytemnestra.   She was on fabulous vocal form, her voice having a graininess to it which utterly serves the characterisation.  And in some of the softer moments in her account of her dreams, she achieved a genuine beauty of singing which is not something that I readily associate as a prime characteristic of her voice (having only previously heard her at a considerable distance in the opera house).  She was high in my estimation before, and she went higher!  I’m going to stop gushing now, but I really was very taken with the performance.

The men inspired less rapture.  Ian Storey was a heroic Aegisth, but lacked any characterisation, an issue markedly highlighted by his non-interaction with the vivid Charbonnet.  Matthias Goerne as Orest, whilst sounding impressive, was if anything even less engaged.  It may come across well on record, but it didn’t do it for me on the night.

As it built to its climax, I was totally enraptured by being ‘up close and personal’ with the source of these fantastic, powerful, massive sounds.  I would be interested to hear the contrast with the experience from elsewhere in the auditorium, but my experience was quite a wonderful one.  Not a perfect Elektra, but seeing the gruelling work that this opera demands at close quarters makes me realise that such a thing will likely never be achieved.  In the absence of that proposition, I’ll sit back and enjoy the memories of this performance.  It, and the Waste Land, will hang around for some time…

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