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Mena’s Moto Perpetuo Mahler

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on September 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Review – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”.
Ailish Tynan, Iris Vermillion, London Symphony Chorus.
BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena.
Saturday 24 September, 2011.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, Mahler is challenging to conduct convincingly. As well as being a master of orchestration and – what is often forgotten – having an incredibly keen sense of the orchestra’s colour palette and dynamic flexibility, he was himself an excellent conductor. Having been educated at the Vienna Conservatory he was well acquainted with – in fact acutely knowledgeable about – the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as well as of Wagner and additionally he was one of the few exponents of Bruckner.

All of these elements have to be considered, combined and balanced when it comes to performing his music. In the right combination, with an ensemble of the highest standard and under a conductor of intelligence, passion and experience, a performance can be truly remarkable.

And on Saturday night at Bridgewater Hall, at the inaugural concert of the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, all the elements came together, fused brilliantly and created just such a memorable evening.

Mena opened the first movement at a brisker pace than usual. From the first ‘bite’ in the tremolando strings and the rhythmically muscular cello entry – every note clearly discernable – it was clear that Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was a piece that Mena was both steeped in and loved.

And in the opening section it was also clear that Mena’s approach would balance the “bite” with the lyrical. The violin theme is so often “chopped up” by conductors – even Jurowski in his recent and excellent recording – but Mena’s handling was much more song-like. And throughout the first movement, the attention was in the detail. Mena perfectly balanced the ‘walking bass’ against the woodwind so that as ever before I heard so clearly the inference to chorales.

In the first movement Mena also demonstrated a clear grip on the need for transparency and dynamic control. Throughout this movement and indeed the whole performance, he skillfully balanced the need for transparency so that Mahler’s detailed orchestration could be heard with a broad and at times astonishing dynamic range. It wasn’t until the cataclysmic chord halfway through the first movement that I thought that Mena finally unleashed the full dynamic power of the BBC Philharmonic. It literally made Bridgewater Hall hum. But I was wrong. He held back the full force of the orchestra until the final moments of the whole symphony and pinned the fact that he had – from the beginning – an unerring sense of the whole architecture of the symphony.

Mena took the landler-like second movement at a pace a hair’s breath faster than Jurowski. But while the latter conveyed more of a sense of ‘weight’ – and perhaps not the sense of ‘intermezzo’ that Mahler had originally envisaged – Mena struck a lighter, more genial note with an almost Latin lilt that was clearly conveyed by his own movements when conducting the orchestra. Methinks that on the dance floor Mena is light on his feet and a ‘mover’. However again transparency was never sacrificed for a sense of ‘moto perpetuo’ and at times Mena’s chambelike handling of the orchestra harked back to the symphonies of Beethoven.

The sense of perpetual motion in the second movement was carried over and maintained in the third movement. Yet Mena’s pointing up of the orchestral colours – particularly in the wind – created a different palette – nervous and threatening at the same time, ratcheting up the tension into the outburst from the brass. For the conductor this was a movement of distinct contrasts.

Iris Vermillion’s entry in Urlicht with “O Röschen rot!”, for which Mena daringly brought the tempo to its slowest ebb, was nothing less than magical. Hers is a rich and warm mezzo and she delivered a wonderfully sustained vocal line with clear diction and conveying a real sense of the words, particularly at “Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”. If you haven’t heard her then I would recommend her Abschied with Sinopoli or her recording of Alma Mahler’s lieder.

The final movement, opening as it does with the orchestra at almost full tilt created the right sense of rude awakening from the preceding bliss. Mena skillfully handled the off-stage performers against the full orchestra, managing the transition to the dialogue between the off-stage brass and the flutes. But it was the first hushed entry of the London Symphony Chorus with “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” was breathtaking in its simple beauty. The sound they produced seemed to appear as if from nothing, perfectly balanced with clear diction and joined by the crystalline soprano of Ailish Tynan, a late replacement for the indisposed Susan Gritton. Ms Tynan’s voice glided over the chorus and melded beautifully with Ms Vermillion’s voice.

Mena kept control throughout the closing sections of the symphony, marshalling the soloists, chorus and orchestra to the thrilling climax at “Sterben werd’ ich, zu leben … Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du … Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!” and the closing bars of the orchestra. The silence at Mena lowered his baton, and the final sounds died away in the hall, was palpable.

Throughout the evening the BBC Philharmonic followed Mena with complete focus, instinctively translating every gesture and movement into music making of the highest calibre. Under Gianandrea Noseda the BBC Philharmonic developed a distinctly ‘European’ sound – warm strings, sonorous winds and some of the best brass playing I have heard. And under Mena this direction of travel seems set to continue. Is it perhaps no coincidence that Richard Wigley, General Manager and the orchestra have veered more towards European conductors than their other BBC orchestra colleagues? This distinction stands them in good stead and sets them apart. The other BBC orchestras are excellent but having heard them all at the Proms, and after last night, I believe that the BBC Philharmonic is the strongest of them all in terms of performance.

Mena’s control of speed showed a clear and in-depth knowledge of the overarching architecture of the symphony. From the brisker opening, through the incredibly slow yet serene Urlich to the closing bars, Mena had perfectly judged the tempi thoughout. Not only did he maintain a real sense of momentum as he unfold an incredibly musical interpretation, but never before have I heard the closing bars have such impact, not only in terms of sound but as a result of his perfect sense of proportion and balance in terms of tempo.

I look forward to future performances of Mahler by Mena and the BBC Philharmonic.

Saturday night’s performance of Mahler was – I think – one that the composer himself would have approved of.

Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

Vacant Valery & His Kinder-Egg-Emperor

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)

The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova

Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev

An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.

On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.

It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.

As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.

As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.

While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.

Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.

It was a relief when the curtain fell.

In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.

In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.

But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.

The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.

So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.

One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?

Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.

Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?

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