Music in the Christmas countdown…

Christmas Day afternoon at South Norwood Lake

Christmas Day afternoon at South Norwood Lake

In the middle of November the days off at Christmas seem to take ages to arrive; in the middle weeks of December there seems to be no time at all as they career towards us. And then they appear to be over in a flash – or, perhaps, a haze – of social activity. By which I mean to own up to not having written up a couple of good musical events in those hectic pre-festive weeks.

One, in particular, was better than good: it was absolutely in a category where only superlatives will do. The last night of Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden was the sort of performance that stays with you for a very long time, in fact I strongly suspect it is unlikely to be surpassed for its singing in my future opera-going. We had seen the first night, which was something wonderful, but by the end of the run the performance had cohered into something which was nothing short of transcendent.  

Crowning the cast was Nina Stemme’s Isolde: unbelievably powerful singing, wedded to the dramatic presentation of the passionate Irish princess, but without ever resorting to the barely-controlled scream that can be so many an Isolde’s downfall. The warmth of her tone never wavered even in the most declamatory passages of Act 1, and by the end of the piece she had the reserves of vocal strength to sing a Liebestod of such controlled, ecstatic intensity that it will not be forgotten by anyone who heard (and saw) it. How can singing at this extreme of the physical range be made to appear so effortless? Utterly extraordinary.

In a similar vein was Stephen Gould, a revelation in his singing – and I mean really singing not shouting – of Tristan. I can’t recall ever being so drawn into that long Act 3 monologue before, when most Tristans very quickly run out of reserves and have to resort to an approximately-pitched shout. Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, unrecognisable in a bob wig, was on great form, wracked by her guilt for switching the potions. Sir John Tomlinson’s King Marke was dramatically strong, and his forceful stage presence drew focus from the pronounced quaver in his voice: for once, the portrayal of Marke’s betrayed fatherly affection for Tristan was vivid and convincing. Iain Paterson was a strong presence as Kurwenal, singing with security and a beautiful, fine-grained tone.

Pappano’s reading combined drama and poise, and the orchestra played with stunning beauty. The Cor Anglais solo at the start of Act 3 was played to particular effect (I’m assuming by Cor Anglais principal Alan Garner), though it set off volleys of the most dreadful coughing from those in the audience who couldn’t give a toss about the rest of us.

Oh, and the production: more coherent than I remember it, being now able to see it, with a full-on view rather than absolutely no view as had been the case in the last run when we sat auditorium left (the numbers of empty seats on this side of the house must add to the cost of staging this production). Christof Loy moves the stage images with a grace that calls to mind the second act of his Ariadne auf Naxos. However, whilst the ‘back-of-stage-is-day, front-of-stage-is-night’ structure might be reasonably sound in principle, the back-and-forth isn’t coherent throughout the evening, and the production misfires majorly in one important respect: the ‘interruption’ of the love duet is utterly cack-handed and works against the most explicit bit of musical staging in the entire score, irritatingly elongating what is clearly an abrupt change of mood. Still, the musical side was able to transcend all of the stage business.

On a completely different note, we went to see The Mikado at the Charing Cross Theatre on Tuesday, 16 December. Reminiscent of the great English National Opera staging in its updating to a 1930s-ish period, it was full of life and energy. Crowning the cast with a performance of Katisha both majestic and glamorously grotesque, was mezzo Rebecca Caine. Revelling in every flash of an eye, she nonetheless more than passed the key test for a Katisha: the ability to turn on a sixpence from high comedy to get us to feel the tragedy of Katisha’s lot in the aria ‘Alone, and yet alive’. There was a great ensemble quality about the whole performance, led on two pianos by Dean Austin and Noam Galperin.

Finally, on the Friday before the Christmas week, it was off to the Wigmore Hall for a decidedly un-festive programme: the wonderful baritone Christian Gerhaher was presenting a programme of Mahler songs, concluding with Kindertotenlieder. Well, Christmas is a time for children, after all…

An all-Mahler lieder programme can be hard, unrelenting work for the audience, especially on a Friday after a long week at work, and that is possibly why I remained a little unengaged, even if immersing oneself in Gerhaher’s stunningly beautiful sound and cultivated shaping of phrases is a consistent delight. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen set us off, followed by selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn straddling the interval, with Kindertotenlieder to close. Gerold Huber accompanied in an extrovert style which better suited the more declamatory songs; Gerhaher captivated in the more flowing, lyrical offerings. By the end I was ready for my glass of wine with a late supper. Two years ago it was Simon Keenlyside offering a pre-festive programme of depressing songs: what is it with baritones and the week before Christmas?

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