Tristan und Isolde

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.   (more…)

Proms Tristan & Isolde

A storm broke somewhere in the distance during the second act of the Proms’ Tristan und Isolde, but the physical atmosphere inside the Royal Albert Hall remained resolutely Im Triebhaus until the bitter end: the musical atmosphere kept up a moderate heat as well. (more…)

22 May 2013

A 32-piece Brass Band fighting against the wind to perform Vitali Bujanowski’s arrangements of Ring themes for brass instruments

A 32-piece Brass Band fighting against the wind to perform Vitali Bujanowski’s arrangements of Ring themes for brass instruments

A suitably festive atmosphere pervaded the foyer areas of the Royal Festival Hall on 22 May 2013, the focus of the year’s Wagner bicentenary events.  A brass band provided Ring extracts, Opera Forge performed bits of Walküre and Rheingold (well, the bits I heard anyway), and from the balcony above the bar we were summoned to the auditorium by Wagnerian fanfares, Bayreuth-like. (more…)

Berlin Regietheater x2

A weekend in Berlin and two operas, both exhibiting similar highlights and flaws: the Komische Oper’s Der Freischütz and the Deutsche Oper’s Tristan und Isolde. In common, they were musically strong. Equally, their Regietheater tendencies both misfired at crucial moments. What follows may come across as a reactionary opposition to Regietheater but in fact it is more a reaction to it being done badly and inconsistently. Overall, both performances were thoroughly enjoyable with much to think about. (more…)

Why I put up with London

This blog was supposed to strike a balance between operatic musings and various ramblings about work and life generally.  It hasn’t quite panned out in that way, with opera as the main subject.  However, work formed an important context to my visit to Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden on Friday, having been a difficult week (to say the least) which followed the return to work after a lovely, relaxing week in Mykonos.  My energy levels were not, therefore, at their best, and my general frame of mind tinged the inevitable excitement with just a hint of dread at the prospect of some of the longeurs that are built into Tristan.  With that context, it is a tribute to all concerned that the evening was as unremittingly wonderful as it turned out to be.

What the hell is controversial about Christoph Loy’s production?  It was coherent, dramatic and thoroughly engaging.  It threw a spotlight on individual performances and characters in a way that its truly dreadful ‘red-box-blue-box’ Covent Garden predecessor completely failed to do, as it reduced them to mere symbols illuminating the Schopenhauerian subtext.  This was intelligent, mostly well-executed and elegant to look at.  The aesthetic was as engaging, clean and interesting as the same director’s wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos.

It wasn’t without a few problems.  The curtain which was drawn across the back-scene at various speeds was noticeably drawn by feet visible from where we were sitting in the left Lower Slips.  More significantly, when we arrived at those seats, we were greeted with little notes sellotaped to the backs (so elegant!) saying that they had tried to get hold of us but been unable, and we would be getting a £21 refund on our £30 tickets because of the ‘severely restricted view’.  There was no need for the action to take place against the left-hand wall, including many of the critical scenes in the opera and much of the ramblings of those longeurs I mentioned.  The note made reference to realising the problem after the transfer out of the rehearsal room, but this has to be rubbish:  surely the management know their theatre and know the limitations of the restricted view seats.  Someone should have said to Mr Loy that such an approach to the positioning of key scenes needed tempering for this theatre.  As it happens, from the best Lower Slips (on the end before the break and the start of the Amphitheatre) we could lean over and see most of what happened (albeit through a forest of little lampshades on the balcony front).  I would have been angry indeed to have been in any worse position, this was either sloppy management of the staging process or wilful insolence on the part of a director that refused to adapt the concept.  As a final nail in the coffin, Isolde started the Liebestod laying in Tristan’s arms, stage left, got up and moved slightly centre stage and then slowly backed all the way to the wall as she finished.  There was no dramatic reason for that whatsoever, and it should surely have been easily amended after the dress rehearsal to give those on the left a final relaxed engagement with this most important crowning moment of the musical drama. 

And what musical drama it was!  I have to start with Nina Stemme:  she’s an utter marvel.  Seemingly effortless, her voice projected richly into the auditorium, was nuanced and matched to a phenomenal dramatic intensity.  I don’t think I’ll see as good as this again.  When we saw her at Glyndebourne we were impressed, but this seemed a whole new level again.  Her approach to the character seemed to suit the production, and she seemed to wring every opportunity for ‘real’ characterisation out of her role, of the kind that the Glyndebourne production makes a little more difficult with its more abstract shape-and-colour world.  A thrilling performance to revel in.

I’ve never been a Ben Heppner fan, indeed I am rather a sceptic.  Nothing that I’ve seen him do has ever been totally satisfying, and it always seems that the effort involved carries across the orchestra pit far more clearly than the result.  My opinion hasn’t changed significantly but, again, there were flashes of interesting dramatic presentation.  In particular, the higher-octane histrionics of the third act were carried through very effectively, all the more impressive for having had an announcement before the third act that he was suffering ‘an allergic reaction’ but would continue.  This would have explained some really very curious sounds that he made in quieter passages, particularly noticeable in the second act love duet.  It was a curious explanation that was given as well:  Torsten Kerl had an allergic reaction which prevented him from singing Tristan at Glyndebourne, and Ian Storey stepped in.  Are Heldentenors a particularly sensitive bunch when it comes to allergies?  Are they all allergic to the same thing?  Perhaps we should be told…

Sophie Koch’s Brangäne, Michael Volle’s Kurwenal and Richard  Berkeley-Steele’s Melot were all tremendous and kept the drama buoyant and convincing throughout.  The curious reworking of the ending, wherein Kurwenal killed Melot and the Shepherd killed Kurwenal turned a normally quick, impetuous clash into something reminiscent of Titus Andronicus, but it didn’t detract at all and fitted the concept well.  Not entirely sure about the Kurwenal-Brangäne relationship that was played out, but no harm done as far as I can see.

Nina Stemme’s remarkable achievement sits alongside that of Pappano, conducting a fabulously on-form orchestra.  The volume dynamics were tremendous, with clear ‘forward’ playing underpinning all of the drama, but the extent to which the orchestral volume was in fact held back to support the singers only becoming apparent at occasional moments: the (non-)climax of the love duet, for example, or the rumbustuous end of Act 1.  The whole thing was fast-paced, but not noticeably hurried, and the overall effect was of a genuine drama being played out not, as can sometimes seem the case, the reading out loud of an undergraduate essay on post-Kantian philosophy.  That said, the stillness that was thrust upon the auditorium for the opening of the prelude, as well as some of those reflective passages that can come hard on the heels of moments of high drama, was electrifying.  

And the reason for the title of this blog entry?  London can be a bastard to live in: expensive in all respects, an appalling transport system, and a general requirement that you put in a hell of a lot in order to get the best out of the place.  And the reason I go through all of that hell on a daily basis (not to mention work in London local government with all the crap that goes with that)?  Quite simply, for evenings like yesterday…

Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde: quicky

Rushing off to the station to go to Paris.  In summary, Torsten Kerl afflicted by an allergic reaction to something.  Ian Storey as stand-in.  Very good, though inevitably a bit uncertain clambering around the curves.  Lost the battle with the third act orchestra.  Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke fabulous.  Anja Kampe an outstanding Isolde, warmer than many a voice to sing that role and held out for a fabulous Liebestod.  Conducting started all fiery drama, caught the mood of act 2, but sort of lost tension in the third act (or maybe Storey did?) and the Leibestod didn’t quite have the thrust and pulse that I like to have in my, umm, orchestral orgasms.  Fabulous night though…   more later.

Cesare at Glyndebourne: woo-hoo!

I am a lucky sausage.  As well as all these lovely Covent Garden and ENO performances of late, I got tickets for Glyndebourne.  Giulio Cesare, no less.  That production on the DVDs.  Woo-hoo.  Not sure it hadn’t gone a little off-the-boil though. 

I think the performances were – pretty much universally – a little more ‘knowing’ than they were on the DVD or during the first run.  Nods and winks – and even a bit of mugging – was thrown in to a production which, for all of that, still has a remarkable energy and life in it.  It really is a striking piece of theatre.  If you are a real Handel devotee and aficionado, I’m sure you would revel in an ‘authentic period’ production of this piece.  For the rest of us (six hours of Wagner, yes; four hours of Handel, ummm…) we need a bit of oomph added.  Otherwise it can get a bit long… 

But, bloody hell, was it long…  The third act, in particular, had that structure that is also apparent in Mozart:  everyone has a ‘number’ to deliver, so that half-way through, suddenly the formula becomes apparent.  Oops, yes, Sesto is left on stage and, yes… it’s two lines of recitative and, oh… off we go into the aria.  And every aria has its da capo (is that the term?) repeat.  To paraphrase the immortal words of Joyce Grenfell describing Beethoven in a monologue:  “well, that’s the thing about Handel, isn’t it?  Just when you think it’s finished, the whole thing starts all over again…”

But these really are remarkable performances.  Is this is a solely Glyndebourne production, or has it travelled?  I ask because I can’t imagine the casting for some parts, other than that assembled…  Danielle de Niese is remarkable as the complete package – I can’t imagine a more ‘Cleopatra-ish’  exponent of that significant role.  If I were to carp, though, I wonder if the singing alone would quite stand up to scrutiny.  I thought her runs were a bit indistinct, and some of the pitching generally was just a bit out.  But you can’t fault that overall performance, it was genuinely a tour-de-force of theatricality.  She revelled in the comedy, delivered pathos in the tragedy (including a genuinely moving Piangerò) and moved like an Egyptian queen possessed.  Well worth the huge cheer she got.

And then there’s Christophe Dumaux.  My recollection of countertenors when I was at Oxford was that they could give fabulous dinner parties, were engaging company, and could sing impressively if a little starchily.  Whilst it’s never been my favourite voice type, I have to honestly say that none of them could back-flip, fall on stage in quite dramatic style or hop effortlessly on and off of tables.  Could anyone else perform this production’s vision of Tolomeo?  Again, a complete package seems to be demanded and this sort of Gesamtkunstwerk requirement really does seem to be a tall order…

At the centre of all this nonsense stood the wondrous Sarah Connolly as Cesare himself.  She really does manage to carry it off like no ‘trouser role’ I have ever come across.  She comes across like the sensitive ‘thinking man’ at the heart of all of this barbarity going on around her.  Cesare’s repudiation of the ‘gift’ of Pompey’s severed head, presented by Achilla from Tolomeo, is believable because he seems to be detached from the countervailing crudity of spitting countertenors and venom of embittered women.  It really works to detach the character and raise him above the goings on around him…  She is a tremendous performer, as demonstrated in the ROH Dido & Aeneas.

One thing about all of the abounded joy swilling around the production is the effect it has on poor Cornelia and Sesto.  In particular Cornelia:  every time she comes on stage she seems to drag behind her a dark cloud of gloom that blots out any of the uplifting material that has gone before, and makes for such an uncompromising contrast.  Patricia Bardon was, however, marvellous and displayed a rich voice and a remarkable stage presence.  Achilla threw her around the stage like a rag doll and she performed that marvellously, retaining a remarkable poise under assault. 

Such camp fun, it was all rounded off with a Cesare-Cleopatra wedding scene which somehow called to mind the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady.  Hats, parasols, big frocks, etc. and all in biege and pastels.  Had it come half an hour before, it would have been a little more welcome.  Even McVicar’s high-octane approach to the goings-on of Guilio Cesare couldn’t stave off a few longeurs in that one-after-the-other stand-and-deliver final act.

And the Glyndebourne experience?  Being early in the season, we booked a restaurant for reasons of weather:  Over & Middle Wallop, to be precise.  It was wonderful but added considerably to the cost.  The other downside (which does mean that a picnic is always the best option really) is that you are sort of at their behest.  You take however long to get out of the auditorium, then queue at the Maitre d’, then get sat down and the meal unfolds, but you miss the opportunity to wander and enjoy the grounds, watch the crowds (who, let’s face it, are always entertaining) and browse for nic-nacs and tat in the shop.  That’s half the Glyndebourne fun!  Well, that and the privilege of watching a fantastically well-drilled, collaborative, polished performance of an opera in an almost perfectly-sized theatre.

We have Tristan und Isolde in August.  I said I was a lucky sausage…