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Welsh Exodus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Review – Moses und Aron (Welsh National Opera, Covent Garden, Saturday 26 July 2014)

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell

Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

I never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have struck a deal to bring one of their productions to Covent Garden.

I hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera House continues and it was a bold choice to bring Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to London.

Incomplete and originally conceived as an oratorio, Moses und Aron was composed in twelve-tone technique, a system invented by Schoenberg as a personal resolution to the move towards atonality. However while some people are put off by the mere thought of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg’s opera is a remarkable work.

Schoenberg was not an instinctive opera composer and many think that dodecaphony lends itself more to music of intellectual vigour than an emotional response.

This performance of Moses und Aron helped disperse this belief slightly.

The Second Act – and particularly the opening with its contrapuntal intricacy – is both dramatic and musically impressive. Personally – and I don’t only mean in this production – the infamous “orgy” scene could have done with a bit of a trim in the original score, but the desolation of the ending holds a tantalizing promise of what Schoenberg might have had in his head for the final act.

However it isn’t Moses who has the most exciting music. It’s Aron. And Rainer Trost found a lyricism in the vocal line, and at times it seemed drew an almost deliberate parallel with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. Despite a slight strain at the top of his range – and I believe this has more to do with Schoenberg’s ‘unsympathetic ear’ when it comes to vocal writing – there was a purity of tone and an eloquence and clear sense of diction in Trost’s performance that was mesmerizing.

As Moses, John Tomlinson inhabited the role, creating a real sense of Moses as a person. Even when not singing, he dominated the stage – from before the music started in fact. On occasion slipping more into speech than the vocal line required, there was no denying the power of Tomlinson’s performance. And the pathos he brought to the closing scene was incredibly powerful.

Of the multitude of smaller roles, Elizabeth Atherton stood out with a clear bright soprano both as the Young Maiden, and in the Second Act as one of the quartet of Naked Virgins.

In the pit, Lothar Koenigs shone a light not only of the lyricism but also the sensuousness of much of the music. Where some conductors might have labored the twelve-note row in an attempt to being a sense of inner architecture to the music, Koenigs’ interpretation focused on the entire sweep of the two acts. And the WNO Orchestra responded with some very fine playing. Under his baton, a real sense of transparency was maintained throughout, and the players drew out the wide-range of colours and details within Schoenberg’s score.

But as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, performing with a confidence and clarity that was incredible.

The production was a mixed experience. I struggle with the concept of any production starting with an open set. Here – with John Tomlinson standing at a window – it seemed far too long. So great was the time between his appearance and the music starting that any dramatic impact was lost.

The one-set-fits-all approach can work – and it almost did here. However, with current events in Gaza, the idea that the opera opened in a room more destined for peace negotiations was slightly unsettling.

But it was in the Second Act that the production came undone. Clearly it’s always difficult to realize something like an orgy on stage – although McVicar manages it quite well in Rigoletto – but here any sense of the destruction of law and order, of licentiousness, was lost with Wieler and Morabito’s idea of having the chorus watch an imaginary film. It wasn’t so much the idea but rather it was too static for too long – again like Tomlinson’s appearance at the beginning of the opera. However, what made matters worse was having the chorus – and I wonder how it was sold to them in rehearsals – indulge in acts of sexual depravity which – quite frankly – was more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. And potentially with the neighbours. Excruciating.

At the precise moment I wished Schoenberg has kept to his original intention of making it an oratorio.

However despite the weakness of the production itself, the daring of bringing this opera to the stage, and the level of music making both in the pit, among the soloists and in the chorus was a triumph.

Sadly I think it is too much to ask for Moses und Aron to remain in WNO’s repertory except perhaps if they revive it with the complete Third Act as composed by Zoltán Kocsis?

Well worth a personal exodus to Cardiff for that.

Tristan Now He’s Older

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Saturday 2 June 2012)

Tristan – Ben Heppner
Isolde – Ann Petersen
Brangäne – Susan Bickley
Kurwenal – Phillip Joll
King Marke – Matthew Best
Sailor & Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle
Helmsman – Julian Boyce

Director & Designer – Yannis Kokkos
Revival Director – Peter Watson
Original Lighting Director – Guido Levi
Lighting Realised by – Paul Woodfield

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs

It is wonderful and inspiring to think that some of the best Wagner performances in the UK are not happening in London but elsewhere in the UK. For example, Opera North’s near perfect Das Rheingold after which I am very much looking forward to their Die Walküre this summer. And there was a moment during Welsh National Opera’s final performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Millennium Centre when it dawned on me that the evening’s performance was exceptional from which the evening’s sideshow distractions could not detract .

It was the beautifully nuanced cor anglais playing of Max Spiers in the Third Act. More often than not, both in live performances and on disc, this moment is overlooked. Under the baton of Maestro Koenigs, Spiers attention to rhythm and dynamic contrast and the overall phrasing underlined the exceptional musicianship of conductor and orchestra alike.

Indeed from the first Tristan chord, the night belonged to the players in the pit. The strings played with great warmth, except and deliberately at the opening of the final act where they eschewed any colour and produced exactly the right sound – bled of any vibrato to reflect the desolation that the audience were presented with as the curtain rose. The wind playing was translucent and a perfect foil to the percussive brass playing. And rarely have i heard each and every note of the off-stage horns in the Second Act so clearly articulated.

And after the opening chords of the Prelude, which Koenig allowed to hang in the air, suspended almost in time, he then drove his players and singers inexorably forward towards the end, pausing again only before the Liebestod itself, as if drawing breath. In the programme, Lothar Koenig remarked that Tristan und Isolde was the first opera he ever saw as he grew up in Aachen. Not only did he see eight subsequent performances of that production, but he resolved to become a conductor.

And the audience was amply rewarded. Only on the rarest of occasions did they threaten to drown out the singers and only once, when Tristan and Isolde were reunited at the beginning of the Second Act did the momentum threaten to wrest itself from his grasp. Yet it was his overall marshalling of the orchestra, with the greatest care and attention given to detail, that enabled the chief protagonists to give their very best.

A great deal has been written about “Ben Heppner’s Tristan”. I was unlucky to fall victim to both his and Deborah Voigt’s cancellations during their Met run in 2008, but I did see him alongside Nina Stemme in Christof Loy’s production for Covent Garden. It was not good. Not good at all.

So I admit to more than a certain amount of trepidation as I arrived in Cardiff. But it was, on the whole, misplaced. Heppner is an incredible musician and his knowledge and experience of this role is without comparison. And it was this talent and ingrained knowledge, combined with brilliant support from Koenig, the orchestra and his Isolde, that made this a most mesmerising and compelling performance. Of course all the notes were not there.

Of course there was more than ample evidence that this role doesn’t so much challenge him but more drives him beyond his current vocal stamina. But it was a great performance. There were moments of clear discomfort in the Second Act but those who stayed for his monologue in the final act – and yes some people seemed to have left in the interval – witnessed an incredible performance. Heppner’s delivery of the text was as clear as crystal and he invested the words with real passion and understanding. Yet it was a performance that clearly took no prisoners in terms of the physical demands.

Wrong as it may be to suggest it, but how many Tristans does Heppner have left one wonders? I hope he records it in the safety of a multi-session recording before he finally agrees to retire the role to Kareol.

Alongside Heppner was the radiant Isolde of Ann Petersen. Clearly there is something in the water of Scandinavia – or at least in the training they give their sopranos – which has created such a list of magnificent Isoldes. And while Ms Petersen might not yet be magnificent she isn’t that far off as her stature in the role continues to grow and develop. While she may not have the ‘biggest voice’, Ann Petersen’s performance was one of great intelligence, musicianship and, when it mattered, heft combined with a clear and bright tone. At no point – and once again due to Koenig’s masterful control of the orchestra – could she not be heard above or – just as importantly – through the orchestra. She supported and led Heppner through the Second Act and spun some of the most delicate singing as I have ever heard in what is often just seen as an ever-increasing crescendo that starts forte. And he musicianship elicited a similar performance from Heppner. And her Liebestod was simply beautiful. With none of the more common directorial gimmicks to distract, everything and everyone was focused on her performance. And it was, as I said, radiant. As the light finally faded you felt the audience truly believed she had been transfigured through her love of Tristan. Magical.

And as with Heppner, every word was invested with meaning and incredibly clear. I want to see and hear more of Ms Petersen, not only as Isolde but as other Wagner heroines as well as Strauss’ Marschallin.

And perhaps because the stage was dominated by two such strong and focused performances, the remaining singers were in sharp and lacking relief. I am afraid I am not convinced that Brangäne is a role for Susan Bickley. She delivered a musically accomplished performance but there was a metallic brittleness to and lack of warmth in her voice that at times verged on the unpleasant.

Of the men it was the Sailor/Shepherd of Simon Crosby Buttle and the Helmsman of Julian Boyce that were most well sung and beautifully phrased. For me, Matthew Best’s King Marke had all the notes but was bland and the Kurwenal of Phillip Joll was too blustery and had a real lack of diction.

The staging – as was clear from an interview with Yannis Kokkos in the programme – more than nodded to both Adolphe Appia and Wieland Wagner with devices including a frame within the proscenium arch, hints at, but no delivery or understanding of the importance of lighting and their focus on the relationship of shapes and angles with the space that the drama inhabits.

For example, having hinted at, and focused on the only curve on the stage in the first act, where Isolde draped herself, it didn’t feature again although it remained until the end. The Second Act felt too hemmed in with its two-dimensional wood and curving balustrade. Neither added depth or were sufficiently knitted into the narrative except for the obvious use in Brangäne’s warning. All the soldiers for example, simply looked awkward – and slightly Ming-The-Merciless-Meets-Buster-Crabbe – as King Marke sang his monologue of betrayal.

I always thought revivals were an opportunity to review and learn, much as one hopes that when Covent Garden revives their Loy production they don’t allow him to shunt everything to stage-left again. My friend who attended with me said it was the same production with no changes from 1993 so what did Peter Watson do? He clearly even didn’t think of redirecting the two hapless singers to avoid the ham acting in their Second Act duet. And there was one word for Act Three. Clutter. After the minimal clarity of the first act and the ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’ Second Act, Kareol looked distinctly, well, messy. Loy littered his final act with toys and memento mori of Tristan’s childhood, Yannis Kokos and Peter Watson clearly visited the local beach or driftwood shop. If they were inspired by Appia and Wieland why suddenly the over-crowded set which simply distracted from the simplicity of Wagner’s drama. Beats me.

Even the lighting was less than inspired until the very closing moments.

However the simple fact is that Kokkos’ production did not detract from the incredible level of musicianship and commitment of the Tristan and Isolde and the players in the pit. All brilliantly led and inspired by Lothar Koenigs.

For this we have the original conductor, performers and director of that Tristan und Isolde all those years ago in Aachen to thank.

Further Reading
1. Something Rotten In The Opera House In Gotham
2. Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection
3. More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

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