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Figaro – It’s A Man’s World

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Review – Le Nozze di Figaro (W. A. Mozart)

Figaro – Christian van Horn
Susanna – Fanie Atonelou
Count Almaviva – Andrei Bondarenko
Countess Almaviva – Simone Kermes
Cherubino – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Marcellina – Maria Forsstrom
Bartolo – Nikolai Loskutkin
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Don Kurzio – James Elliott
Barbarina – Natalya Kirillova

Music Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis (Conductor)

In the twelve minute film that accompanies his new recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is undoubtedly passionate about music and music making – it is “not profession, not a reproduction, it’s a mission”.

No arguing with that.

There’s also no arguing with the idea that the problems that Mozart captures in this opera are the same problems people face today. There’s passion, love, betrayal and forgiveness within the span of this magnificent work.

So why does this recording sound so old fashioned, dry and most importantly lacking any sense of emotion – passion or otherwise – at all?

Perhaps it’s to do with his theories in terms of how singers should sing. In interviews he has criticized the “lifeless perfectionism” of classical music; that operas have been disfigured by the diktat of “volume at all cost” and “simplification” and that the original vocal palette of colours has been lost and that opera recordings today contain the “least operatic singing”.

Of course there are times when voices – both on stage and in recordings – don’t fit that particular music, but listening to this recording I did wonder if Currentzis had his own balance quite right?

During the course of the video interview Currentzis refers to Le Nozze di Figaro as a “fantastic monument of architecture with the finest lines … [into which] Mozart puts the defect inside”. By defect I assume he means the twists of the social commentary within the story itself and how the music underlines this commentary.

But in reality, Currentzis missionary zeal has injected the opera with a greater defect – his own in terms of the performance.

The opera starts well enough with a well-paced overture and with an attention to the orchestral detail that is immediate. Indeed the orchestral playing throughout is exemplary with a vigour and muscularity that shines a spotlight on the beauty and skill of Mozart’s scoring. There is a warmth of tone to the strings, the wind playing is light and airy and the trumpets and horns are more audible than normal, adding a frisson to the texture which is – when their enthusiasm doesn’t get the best of them – exciting. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the authenticity of the orchestra playing on their feet throughout and there were times when the orchestral volume threatened the chance of the singers being clearly heard.

Sadly however it’s the ‘over-attention’ that Currentzis pays to the singers that undermines the totality of this recording.

There is no doubting the forcefulness of the men in their roles. The Figaro of Christian van Horn and Andrei Bondarenko’s Count dominate the proceedings and it was sometimes be difficult to tell them apart, not only because of the – if at times one dimensional – forcefulness of their characterisations but because they often seem to be exceedingly loud. Take the trio Susanna or via sortite in Act One – it lacked an equality between the Count, Countess and Susanna that’s so necessary to impart the drama of this moment.

Indeed the only moment when Bondarenko does rein in the volume is at that critical moment in the Fourth Act finale when he begs Rosina’s forgiveness. In what should be a magical moment, this Count strangles his voice to such a diminuendo that the impact is lost.

Van Horn makes for a strong Figaro vocally. All his arias demonstrate his robust vocal ability and there’s a pleasant rhythmic spring to both his singing and his diction. But it seems that Currentzis cannot but tinker – the weird sound effect at the end of Se vuol ballare – I think created by holding down keys no the fortepiano so that they resonate – was simply distracting.

Bartolo fares a little better even if La Vendetta was a little faster than unusual. But in the ensembles Loskutkin seems forced to compete with the two other alpha males and the finesse of the music is lost.

But it is the women who suffer the most from Currentzis’ approach. There isn’t the ‘original vocal palette of colours’ that he refers to in the interviews he has conducted. Almost to a person, Currentzis has stripped these singers of their individuality and character, their vibrato-less voices bled of any emotion range or tone.

Personally I don’t believe that the use of vibrato didn’t exist in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Books on both performance practice and singing from the period refer to vocal techniques that clearly relate to the use of vibrato and it is remarked on by the commentators of the day. I don’t deny that vibrato has to be used sparingly in music of this period therefore to remove it completely as Currentzis has encouraged his singers to do effectively strips them of a fundamental and critical emotional dimension to their voices.

This is particularly evident in the Countess of Simone Kermes. In other recordings of music of this period and earlier, Ms Kermes demonstrates that she is an expert at using vibrato most effectively to colour the vocal line and add a real sense of emotional intensity. While listening to this recording I fancied that perhaps as her character developed from Porgi Amor onwards, she would begin to slowly but surely colour her singing to reflect her growing characterisaton. Sadly, it wasn’t so. Dove Sono was a particular ‘low-light’ – not only was the voice bland but the expected fluidity of the vocal line was uneven as a result. Essentially we have been given a Countess singing the notes without communicating them.

It was a similar case in point with Fanie Atonelou’s Susanna. A lack of vocal characterisation made this a bride-to-be without any bite. This was evident from the opening numbers when she is clearly not Figaro’s musical equal but also highlighted in numbers such as the sextet of the Third Act when we all discover Figaro’s parentage and she lacks the necessary vocal weight. Venite, inginocchiatevi was beautifully paced, but the use of ‘sound effects’ only served to highlight the blandness of the singing itself.

And the beautiful almost sensuous Che soave zeffiretto of the Countess and her maid passed – as it definitely should not – without any notice. A tragedy.

I admit to being most disappointed with this recording’s Cherubino. Mary-Ellen Nesi is an incredible mezzo but casting her in this role was a mistake. I’d like to think that perhaps Currentzis was trying to underline the fact that Cherubino is an adolescent boy whose voice is breaking which is why Nesi was given the role, as there was undoubtedly a ‘huskiness’ – almost a matronliness – to the vocal delivery. But in reality her voice is not suited to this role. Voi che sapete sounding particularly uncomfortable with embellishments that pushed Nesi’s voice uncomfortably at points.

Indeed of the women, only Maria Forsstrom‘s Marcellina was strongly cast, well characertised and it was a nice surprise to hear Il caro e la capretta.

Currentzis follows the vogue of embellishing the fortepiano line. There are contemporary reports of Mozart embellishing from the fortepiano himself and I have to say that the recitatives are handled well and are fleet of foot, with the improvisations on the fortepiano adding to the detail rather than distracting.

I can’t deny that once my ear had got used to Currentzis approach it was refreshing. But I did rather listen to this performance in terms of its ‘theoretical’ approach and argument rather than as a performance in its own right.

Ultimately however it is Currentzis’ theorising and the resultant unevenness of the voices that – despite well-judged tempi – undermines this Figaro. Le Nozze di Figaro and Beaumarchais’ original play discomfited the ruling classes not only because Figaro was an ‘upstart’ but because it offered a glimpse of women – of all classes – as equal both in intellect and power.

Currentzis has undermined the very “defect” that he himself recognizes that Mozart wrote into this opera.

It will be interesting – and hopefully not as disappointing – to hear Currentzis’ Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni due later this year and next.

Priam’s Triumph

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 14, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Review King Priam (English Touring Opera, Linbury Theatre, Thursday 13 February 2014)

King Priam – Roderick Earle
Hecuba – Laure Meloy
Hector – Grant Doyle
Young Paris – Thomas Delgado-Little
Paris – Nicholas Sharratt
Andromache – Camilla Roberts
Helen – Niamh Kelly
Old Man – Andrew Slater
Nurse – Clarissa Meek
Young Guard – Adam Tunicliffe
Achilles – Charne Rochford
Patroclus – Piotr Lempa
Hermes – Adrian Dwyer

Director – James Conway
Designer – Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer – Guy Hoare

Michael Rosewell (Conductor)

The one and only other time that I have seem King Priam was at English National Opera in the 1990s. Until that point the only music by Tippett I knew really well were A Child For Our Time and his Fantastia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli.

Nothing prepared me for the music Tippett had written for King Priam, which perfectly suited this tragic tale, driving the story forward inexorably to its end.

I remember being both awed and drained by the end of the evening.

It’s an incredible work, both rich in invention and its emotional impact but considering the challenge it presents both to audiences and performance I am not surprised it is not performed more regularly however sad we might feel about that.

So it is to English Touring Opera’s credit that – having taken on the challenge to stage this notoriously difficult work – they succeed for the vast majority of the endeavour.

The most impressive thing about this production is the new orchestration by Iain Farrington for a reduced orchestra hidden at the back of the stage. Never reducing the overall impact of Tippet’s music, it focuses the ear on its scintillating detail, played with incredible technical virtuosity by the orchestra conducted and with authority by Michael Rosewell.

And first mention must go to the chorus, who were stunning. The opening was suitably full-voiced and thrilling as was the close of the Second Act.

Of the characters, it is Roderick Earle’s King Priam and the Hecuba of Laura Meloy who must take the laurels. Earle’s journey from proud king to broken man was most eloquently performed. Tippett isn’t a kind composer for singers, often writing lines of music that seem almost impossible either in terms of range or tessitura. However Earle managed the role most effectively and seemed – sadly – to be one of the sew singers who managed to infuse his role with any colour or dynamic range. The closing scene containing some of Tippett’s most beautiful music – his final acceptance of the end that Fate had in store for him from the very beginning and his final embrace with Helen – was magnificent.

Equally Meloy’s Hecuba, with her impressive steely soprano, matched her spouse word for word, action for action and with the same vocal authority. Her final scene, her reaction as Priam rejected her, was heartbreaking.

The remaining women – Camilla Roberts’ Andromache and the Helen of Niamh Kelly – also delivered strong performances. Andromache’s scene that opened Act Three was – despite a little too much vibrato – impressive both dramatically and vocally. And the ensuing confrontation between the three women was effectively handled. Niahm Kelly’s rich mezzo was ideally suited to Helen and was both beautifully and chillingly sung.

The remaining men – the sons of Troy and Greece – were a mixed bunch. Grant Doyle was a confidant Hector and it was a shame that Tippett wrote so little for Lempa’s resonant Patroclus. Adrian Dwyer’s Hermes possessed a strong tenor voice and made the most of his final ‘aria’, Do Not Imagine All The Secrets Of Life.

But sadly, for me, both Paris and Achilles did not fare so well.

There’s no denying that Nicholas Sharratt has a bright tenor but on opening night it seemed to be always pushed to its most extreme. The result was that there was little finesse to the characterisaton and no discernable dynamic range or colour. For example, his first appearance with Helen was undermined by the strain he displayed. Similarly, the Achilles of Charne Rochford sounded stretched especially in his scene with Patroclus. What should have been a paean of love and friendship sounded more like a shouting match with neither delicacy nor any sense of the lyricism that Tippett had specifically written in to the music over the fleeting guitar solo below. However his scene with Priam in the Third Act was much improved but probably influenced by singing alongside Earle’s impressive Priam.

Yet I couldn’t fault theirs – or any of the singers’ – commitment to the music and the unfolding drama.

The Greek-inspired ‘Chorus” of Clarissa Meek (Nurse), Andrew Slater (Old Man) and Adam Tunnicliffe (Young Guard), for whom Tippett wrote some of the most challenging ensemble music, managed their roles with great confidence and vocal authority.

And all the singers’ diction – of Tippett’s own wordy libretto – was excellent, so much so that I wondered why ETO felt the need for the text displayed either side of the stage.

The direction by James Conway and Anna Fleischle’s staging were simple yet effective and complemented with some smart lighting by Guy Hoare. But was I the only person to be reminded of ETO’s production of Goehr’s Promised End of 2010?

In many ways, the use of the Linbury was perfect. The smaller scale of the theatre made the impact of Tippet’s music and the intensity of the performances more riveting.

Nevertheless and despite the shortcomings, English Touring Opera should be proud – especially at a time when funding is so tight – to have staged Tippet’s King Priam and quite rightly this was a production where Priam, even in the midst of tragedy, triumphed.

Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

Aria For … Friday – Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (Heinrich Schütz)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music on February 7, 2014 at 10:50 am

Not an aria and not the more famous chorus by JS Bach. But rather the version for double choir by Heinrich Schütz but just as impressive.

Schütz travelled to Italy at least twice. First to study with Gabrieli – the master of polychoral composition – and then with Monteverdi and their influence is very much in evidence in this beautiful chorus. The more Italianate style – including the use of infectious dance-like rhythms – had a lasting effect on Germany music and I imagine must have caused a few raised eyebrows even back in more worldly Dresden. It’s also worth noting that he spent some time in Copenhagen during the reign of Christian IV, one of the most Renaissance of monarchs who’s love of music even included his employment for a time of John Dowland.

Like his Italian contemporaries, Schütz is every bit the dramatist, deploying the chorus and playing with the sonorities with incredible effect. The opening is deceptive, the first entry of full chorus and orchestra delayed until the repeat of the first line – almost as if the penitents in the church first declare the honour of God before the ‘Heavens’ join with them.

And this juxtaposition with smaller groupings within the choir gives this chorus a real sense not only of tension but jubilation.

And there’s some effective word painting. When the text refers to no part of the world being immune to God’s preaching, the chorus builds in in contrapuntal complexity to convey a sense of scale to this. Or listen to how the chorus merrily trip along at wie ein Held zu laufen den Weg. You can almost imagine them running.

And at the end, for those most important words – Ehre sei dem Vater, und dem Sohn und auch dem Heil’gen Geiste, wie es war im Anfang, jetzt und immerdar und von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit – we find Schütz at his most reverent. He effectively slows down the momentum and punches out the words, ending on a simple yet majestic Amen.

Written and published in the 1640s this is Heinrich Schütz at his finest – majestic, inspired yet still devotional and sung most marvellously by the Monteverdi Choir under John Elliot Gardiner.

Lies. Damn Lies. And Classical Marketing.

In BBC, Classical Music on February 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Recently two comments about classical music caught my eye in the media.

The first came out of the mouth of Katherine Jenkins as she announced yet another banal and pseudo-classical album. During her press conference at the Ritz no less, she said that “there will always be the core classical critics who want to keep it (classical music/opera) as an elitist thing but I’ve always believed that it should be there for everybody and I want to make it as accessible as possible …”.

The second was during a press conference to announce the Chicago Symphony Orchestra new season. Riccardo Muti said classical music marketing – “Today all you see are violinists’ legs and a conductor with hair like a forest. The future seems to be legs and hair.”

It’s clear that Ms Jenkins was prompted by the label’s canny PR people that to say something contentious would ensure more column inches than the threat of a tenth mediocre album. Words like ‘elitist’ and ‘accessible’ are buzzwords the media love and it does Decca Classical no favours at all to perpetuate this myth.

Maestro Muti’s comment however speaks of an underlying frustration he feels personally. Not only about the trend of marketeers in terms of classical music but also the future of classical music vis-à-vis talent.

I have written about this before and it still rankles me. People like Katherine Jenkins, programmes like the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera are getting the lion’s share of a shrinking pool of money at the expense of real talent and professional musicians. Their activities aren’t perpetuating classical music but rather undermining it and in the long term damaging its future health.

I don’t disagree that classical music should be accessible and not elitist. But it can be done without dumbing down the experience. I contend that what Katherine Jenkins does isn’t about making classical music ‘accessible’ but rather patronising her audience with watered-down performances that deny her listeners the real experience of hearing classical music as it was written to be performed. In a sense, Ms Jenkins and her ilk are perpetuating that ‘elitism’ by implying that their audiences cannot appreciate or love the real thing.

Shame on her but understandable that she should choose the easiest path – one that hasn’t taken years of study, training and dedication coupled with the occasional disappointment.

Because it’s talent that is the most important thing. Not the artwork. Not the photographer who shot it. Not the strap line. And definitely not performing ‘arrangements’ that do no justice to the composer’s original intentions.

I believe that classical music should be a challenge. That’s not elitist and that’s not saying that it should be inaccessible. When people listen to classical music that experience should be as honest as possible.

Because it’s that transaction of honesty and the resultant emotional reaction that gets people hooked. And not only to classical music. But all genres. Yes, even pop and dance. I admit that there are still a few dance tracks that I heard in my youth in clubs that still set my heart racing because of the emotional response and memory they evoke.

There are numerous examples of organisations doing everything they can with every shrinking budgets to reach new audiences. From work with schools and in the community to live cinema broadcasts to reinterpreting the format of classical concerts themselves and even the venues where they take place, some great work is being done to keep classical music alive and kicking.

Sadly the search for an easy route to a quick buck also means that the marketeers are increasingly seeing classical music and those who perform it simply as a commodity adopting an approach that’s more suitable for – to be frank – perfume ads. You know the adverts – glamorous models, often half naked or disrobing as they walk through palatial splendour saying absolutely nothing about the fragrance itself but rather the lifestyle it implies can be achieved.

It might work for perfume ads. It might work for car ads. But it doesn’t work for classical music. More often than not undermines the talent and effort that has gone into creating that recording, that production or that recital.

I’m not asking for a return to moody landscapes and the like and I don’t mind portraits of artists on albums and posters. But surely it be done with a little more honesty and integrity and less of the ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ factor?

Of course the power and arsenal of tricks of advertising should be harnessed for classical music. But intelligently harnessed and deployed. Personally ENO’s condom ad for Don Giovanni didn’t work for me but you can’t deny the impact of their artwork for Le Danse Macabre or Peter Grimes. Similarly recitals can feature portraits of artists without them having to bare a leg or – in some cases – that little bit more. The recent campaign for Yuja Wang by the Barbican waxes lyrical about her “fearless individuality”, “fitting no stereotype” and “speaking with her own voice” so that it seems that her talent doesn’t seem as important as the glamour and “edginess” of her personality.

I fear that labels and their marketing departments are seeing classical music simply as a units to be shifted and a bottom line to be achieved. Of course there has to be a commercial side to classical music but should it be the only impetus?

Why does profit have to be the driving denominator?

That approach does a huge disservice to this creative and artistic community that makes such a massive contribution to the UK’s cultural scene.

A Slice of the Public Pie.

In BBC on February 3, 2014 at 10:27 am

Michael White’s article in the Telegraph on Friday was a well-argued view about the decline of the quality and lack of direction at BBC Radio 3. Personally I always thought it was a shame that Radio 4 got the extra digital channel. A second Radio 3 channel featuring archive broadcasts would have been superb – and possible, reading as I have today of the demise of ‘Archers Lite’ – a more successful station audience-wise – not only pleasing Whitehall listeners but potentially being a way to find those elusive new audiences.

But what White’s article also reminds us is that discussions about the future of the BBC and the review and renewal of its Charter, have started. I am hoping that this will be a longer process than the ‘signed-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet’ deal that Miller’s predecessor signed with the BBC over the level of the Licence Fee.

It needs to be fought over. Line by line. Not to destroy or undermine the BBC but more to ensure that the BBC remains relevant in the future.

Annually the BBC receives over £3.0bn directly from the public. I’m not here to argue whether it’s an unfair tax or not. Personally I think the Licence Fee is necessary, vital in fact, to ensure that the UK’s cultural landscape continues to enrich our lives. And I mean ‘cultural’ in the broadest sense. Alongside the BBC’s role in television, radio, online and the development and distribution of new technologies I also include the impact it has right across the cultural spectrum.

But while most of their activities are positive, there is no denying that the BBC has not always leveraged it’s Licence Fee wisely or fairly.

For every wildlife documentary featuring David Attenborough, there is something as crass as The Voice. For every Prom concert, Cardiff Singer or Young Musician there are the equally disturbing idiocies such as Maestro At The Opera. For every Shakespeare season there is a search for the UK’s best barber, baker or ballroom dancer to ‘snog, marry or avoid’.

Sadly the return of Tony Hall to the BBC as Director-General has seen a slide back to the imperialist approach of the Corporation he left behind in 2000. Surrounding himself with acolytes like Purnell and Bulford from that yesteryear period, the BBC has become more adamant than ever that it should not shrink further but rather – and more worryingly – expand.

Surely there must come a time when the BBC must recognise that it must reduce the scope of its services in some way? It doesn’t need to axe BBC Three for example but considering the amount it invests in developing new technology couldn’t that channel feasibly become a mobile or online channel only? That way not only could it guarantee that it served new audiences and reduce that channel’s overheads considerably but also lead the way for other companies to follow? Whenever the BBC invests in platforms or technology and takes the risks, other companies are more willing to follow.

And the BBC isn’t above a little ‘aggressive’ competitiveness. There’s ample evidence of that in their chase of ratings and I don’t buy that high ratings are evidence of quality. The BBC invented it’s so called Audience Appreciation index which clearly demonstrates that what the audience perceives as ‘quality’ or ‘distinctive’ doesn’t have to equate to high rating. I also believe that the BBC has played a role – however small – in the demise of local media and journalism.

Three billion pounds is more than a great deal of money. What’s more it is public money, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of ‘top-slicing’ – or sharing a portion of the Licence Fee – resurfaces whenever the future of the BBC is debated.

Fortunately for the bean counters and the policy wonks based at the BBC’s new billion pound fortress, there has never been a cogent or well-argued reason for top-slicing. In the past it’s only been other broadcasters who have argued for it, often against the backdrop of falling commercial revenues.

But perhaps it is because the argument is not bold enough? Perhaps that slice skimmed off the top of the BBC’s coffers should be made available for everyone to share?

Michael White refers to Classic FM’s bid for a cut, arguing that BBC Radio 3 isn’t ‘distinctive’ enough. How the BBC must hate it when their own buzzwords are used against them.

So what if an amount – a figure extrapolated from the total amount of the Licence Fee collected and factoring in the billions the BBC aims to save in the long term – was ring-fenced for the Creative Industries as a whole. Of course I mean orchestras, opera companies etc but also theatres and other performing groups and even the digital and technology companies that are now part of the fraternity.

Of course there would have to be incredibly strict criteria – as well as checks and balances – in place to ensure that this money was awarded correctly. And even stricter conditions would also need to be set in terms of how that money is spent and impact measured.

Perhaps one condition could be that the money received has to be spent within the organisation’s local community, in a sense paying it back into the lives of Licence Fee payers. Larger organisations could potentially guarantee to match-fund any money through their own fundraising efforts. Or the BBC could make good on its often talked about promise of greater collaboration and make long-term investments in permanent exhibitions, co-productions and the like rather than short-term investments that benefit the Corporation more than their partners. I think the shine of the history of the world in one hundred objects has dulled considerably and nothing new seems to be on the horizon.

It’s not unfeasible that the BBC could get a small return on investment in some way. Not a financial return necessarily but perhaps sharing any audience data or insights from funded projects for example.

But is there another reason to seriously consider top-slicing?

Over and above any industry-led argument is there also a moral argument for the BBC to share its largesse?

I’m not suggesting this in reference to the tidal wave of badly handled calamities that have engulfed the BBC in the last few years, the backwash of which is still swamping the organisation. In the face of accusations of corporate malfeasance, weak management, even weaker succession management in the guise of Tony Hall and a continued lack of strategic direction aside, is it right that one single organisation should be in receipt of this entire levy?

And that’s before you factor in the dominant role of BBC Worldwide in to the equation, and the millions of pounds it returns the the Corporation every year. And with Tony Hall looking to expand – not shrink – the BBC’s international business that revenue stream looks set to grow.

And other BBC departments take public money from elsewhere. For example, the BBC Philharmonic receives from Salford Council. I love the BBC Phil and laud their projects such as the current collaboration with the Hallé and their funky Presents series, but what is the money from Salford spent on exactly?

I’m even sure that the hundreds in the BBC marketing department could make it look like the BBC was acting like some ‘public service philanthropist’ throwing proverbial pennies from behind a silk screen.

A while back Maria Miller insisted that the Creative Industries make a greater revenue contribution. Perhaps the creative opportunities of top-slicing could help.

Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

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