1840: a year of contrasts

Last night was, originally, to have been La Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden. However, when we got lucky with tickets for the Christian Gerhaher recital at Wigmore Hall, La Fille had to go – well, in fact we moved to last Sunday’s matinee. The contrast between the two was marked, to be sure. It’s a bit difficult to think back on Fille with Gerhaher’s glorious, and resolutely serious, Schumann still fresh in my ears.

The audience for Fille were certainly there for a good time, and by and large they got one. The riotous energy of the production didn’t flag, anchored by Patrizia Ciofi’s febrile, hyperactive Marie. Its quirky comic interventions hit their mark, for the most part. Juan Diego Flórez hit the high Cs with ringing clarity, and was rewarded with a most indulgent ovation. Speaking of indulgence, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, as the usually non-singing Duchesse de Crakentorp, was permitted a little ditty from Puccini’s Edgar – for old time’s sake – and was actually more effectively comic than I had expected. However nice it was to see her back on the ROH stage, I still secretly wished for Dawn French. As a foil both comic and tragic, Ewa Podleś plumbed her cavernous contralto depths for a wonderful Marquise de Berkenfield. Pietro Spagnoli inhabited the portly buffo costuming of Sulpice. Ciofi was unflagging as Marie, dramatically very effective; she sang beautifully in some of the more poignant arias, but a slightly breathy middle register was rather tried by the more exuberant passages (she had been unwell earlier in the run). A minor carp amidst so much to be joyful about: a festive atmosphere was rewarded by an overall performance of great joy.

It is a pause for thought that La Fille du Régiment dates from the same year, 1840, that Schumann published the bulk of his piano-vocal song sets: the contrasts could not be more stark. In one single year, frivolous opera buffa of the early century meets the ardent Romanticism of the future.  

Inspired by Clara Wieck (to become Schumann), the songs were settings of poetry by some of the Romantic greats: Goethe, Byron, Rückert, Chamisso, Eichendorff and Kerner. Whether a wedding present for Clara (the Myrten set), or expressions of frustration over the protracted wrangling with her father over their hoped-for future, they are songs of gravity and a wide emotional span. Exhilaration is fleeting, serving principally to counterpoint meditations on the restorative power of nature, or a sense of grief that is never far away.

These variations on an essentially ‘Romantic’ mood were beautifully captured by Gerhaher, and his accompanist by Gerold Huber: both performers layered their interpretation upon a vocal and pianistic weight that matched the atmosphere generated the poetry. Gerhaher is a remarkable singer, no doubt, and his captivatingly burnished voice can thrill whether in heightened forte or in delicately-spun-but-solid pianissimo; and Schumann provides plentiful opportunities to explore such dynamic contrasts. His poise in Mondnacht from Liederkreis, or Zum Schluss from Myrten, for example, or the joyous energy of Frülingsnacht, were stunning in their diverging ways. It was entirely possible to become lost in beautifully-shaped phrases, to then be swept on by the song. Huber and Gerhaher seemed perfectly attuned. It was a wonderful recital.

And, excitingly, his biography promises a repeat of his Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. I can’t now recall whether I knew about a planned revival of the 2010 production (I assume), but am pleased to see Gerhaher is promised. Gerhaher portraying the great German lyric poet: perfect casting. 


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