Friday 25 November 2011

Tchaikovsky's elusive Tempest

Well, have you ever heard this most imaginative of ‘symphonic fantasias’ live in concert? I hadn’t until Sunday, when I reckon a trip to Rome – with which I fell headily back in love with again after a long absence from a city I thought I knew well enough not to swoon over any more – would have been worth it for twenty-odd minutes of Abbado magic alone. The man IS Prospero, for God’s sake, as one of the violinists of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, sharing the concert with Abbado’s Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, suggested in a roundabout way (‘it is not conducting, it is a Shining’). That the second-half attempted synching of various Shostakovich musics for King Lear with butchered fragments of the masterly Kozintsev film didn’t work is neither here nor there, and certainly not here in this instance because I must hold fire until I’ve got the Arts Desk piece sorted for tomorrow. Anyway, here's an Accademia-furnished photo from the occasion in the interim.

The point is just to say how ashamed I was to have forgotten Tchaikovsky’s most supernaturally beautiful Shakespeare fantasy. Heck, it’s not even on that 60-CD Brilliant set (I wonder if someone got confused with the earlier orchestral work based on Ostrovsky’s play about Katya Kabanova, The Storm?). But it seems to have been a constant in Abbado’s rep: there are two recordings, with the Chicago Symphony and then the Berlin Phil. There’s also a clip on the BPO’s website of a live performance from some time back, sadly not the bit I would have chosen, but worth seeing.

But none of Abbado’s previous performances could quite have had the tear-jerking, jaw-dropping tonal beauty which enveloped us on Sunday in the very first bars within the spectacular panavision space of Renzo Piano’s big hall. That’s a good little snippet to play blindfold to a listener and ask him or her to guess the composer (I think I might have gone for Sibelius, whose own Tempest music is peerless): this is the isle, and the sea around it, full of mysterious noises. Here’s one in the best sound I could find on YouTube – the Toscanini radio broadcast, alas, sounds awful - conducted by Eliahu Inbal

The lovers’ music may be rather more tied up with Tchaikovsky’s sense of yearning for happiness than about the more innocent Ferdinand and Miranda, but how it ravishes on each appearance (such scoring – and we’re talking the youngish Tchaikovsky of 1873 here).

Ariel and Caliban, too, he gets exactly right. Only the development is a bit perfunctory alongside the final, perfected version of Romeo and Juliet. But I salute the composer’s courage in ending where he started, with the island magic. A great piece, worthy to set alongside Sibelius’s late universe of illustrative numbers. I also dug into Sullivan’s incidental music, and there are some winsome dances there.

Tchaikovsky’s genius burned brighter than anyone had led me to believe last night when Neil Bartlett’s production of The Queen of Spades for Opera North played in the Barbican Theatre. Perhaps I was overcompensating for the sheer unfathomable blandness – Toby Spence excepted - of Deborah Warner’s fuzzy, traditional ENO Eugene Onegin; but I did find myself swept up in the tension that takes hold halfway through and, in the right hands, doesn’t let up until the final requiem.

At first I wondered. Richard Farnes’s way, though accomplished, with the doomy Prelude seemed a bit too leisurely: would there be enough narrative sweep in the drama proper? That soon surfaced, but then Kandis Cook’s multipurpose cheapish set with its moveable walls didn’t seem amenable to atmosphere and wasn’t always well lit. It did the opening garden scene a disservice but worked for Lisa’s room, the party

and the Countess’s bedchamber. And soon a not too laboured pattern emerged in Bartlett’s production – a thousand times clearer and more definite with the characters than Warner’s over at ENO. In every little diverting scene or number, somebody’s out of step or mood with the conformist, and usually uniformly costumed, group: a bullied boy soldier, unhappy Lisa when Paulina and the girls try to entertain her, the affianced couple in the party intermezzo, Yeletsky in the gambling room, even Tomsky himself, a bit of a seedy outsider – though not quite as much, of course, as poor Herman.

Whom I pitied, as one should. I know the never over-finessed big tenor of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts has run into difficulties up top; he needs time out to firm it up with a good coach or teacher, I don’t think it’s too late, and the middle range remains strong as well as diction-clear. Nor are he and statuesque Orla Boylan ever going to be Love’s Young Dream.

But I’m not sure Tchaikovsky, already bending Pushkin’s cynical story overmuch, intended that. The more truthful a production, and the pithier the translation – by unfairly maligned Martin Pickard, as in the Onegin, this time with Bartlett’s collaboration - the more artificial their stock protestations in the first love scene are going to seem.

What the English text does stress is that the third man seeking the Countess’s three-card secret is a lover as well as an obsessive, and this is novelly played through thanks to Jo Barstow’s incredible characterization. She made very little impact in the nothing-doing Zambello production at Covent Garden, but here she moves through a succession of bewigged mannequin poses

to reveal the woman who still thinks she’s beautiful and alluring – and in this case, remarkably, is, as she uses her dancer’s arms to shed the years in the Gretry aria. Its second verse even out-pianissimo’ed the immortal Felicity Palmer in the classic Glyndebourne production. And Herman’s persecution, more a wooing until he pulls his pistol out (make what you will of that), is as compelling as her death and her sensuous ghost-appearance.

As for Orla – well, I adore her. I heard hardly any of the avowed pitching problems last night, and she does the stricken pathos of the Canal Scene better than any soprano I’ve seen on stage (and more on disc, like Gergiev’s Guleghina, tire at this point; Boylan’s strong semi-dramatic voice doesn’t). The smaller roles all mean something, as none did in the ENO Onegin. William Dazeley's very fine Yeletsky (in the shot below right taking on Herman's final challenge) suggests he'd have been a much better choice of Onegin over at ENO. I liked the contraltoid Paulina of Russian-born Alexandra Sherman - though the 'Chloe' to her 'Daphnis' in the pastoral was poor - and wondered who was singing the excellent Gouvernantka telling off her charges so charmingly in Act 1 Scene 2. It turned out to be that veteran characterizer Fiona Kimm.

The final scene maintains the tension Bartlett and Farnes have established from the bedchamber encounter onwards, helped out perhaps by the second of two cuts (bit of a shame to lose some of the only authentic Pushkinian lines in the gambling-den romp, but never mind). Farnes has true music-theatre instinct; though the Opera North violins need a few extra members, the orchestral sound is strong and true and survives the hideously dry Barbican Theatre acoustics. And there was no problem in having most of the brass and the timps on either side of the stage. What a great and inventive opera it is, even in its padding; and Bartlett saw to it that even the extra stuff tied in well. And thank God - after the leaden waits in Warner's Onegin - for fluid scene changes. Can’t wait for Ruddigore tonight.

Production photos of Opera North's Queen of Spades by Bill Cooper


Jim N said...

I love "The Tempest". The orchestration shows more imagination than "Romeo", and reminds me of "Manfred".

I don't have the composition dates in front of me. I need to know that.

The sixth Sym is also more indicative of Tchaikovsky's very modern style of orchestration. Stravinsky had good reason to admire him.

Thanks for reviewing.

David said...

Believe I mentioned it in the piece, Jim: 1873. So after Romeo and Juliet but before he's generally regarded as digging deep into selective orchestration with the orchestral suites. You're right, Petrushka et al come out of those and the fabulous scoring of the two later ballets.

Andrew said...

Sounds like you had a better time in the Barbican theatre than we did in the Barbican hall - Gergiev drawing Tchaikovsky 5 out to almost an hour. It was beyond awful. A real let down after the first half, with Gubaidulina’s Fachwerk being such an intense and riveting experience.

David said...

Ah yes, Andrew - the finale of Tchaik 5 was just striking up, and being piped more loudly than usual through the foyers, when I came out for the second interval. I've never seen the Barbican more packed: some big event connected to the exhibitions added to the hurly-burly. Quite something when you think the great man had both an opera and a symphony being performed simultaneously.

I'll hear what he makes of fab Gubaidulina and Shostakovich 10 tomorrow - and yet another interview is in the offing, but as usual details are sketchy

Gavin Plumley said...

You're unreasonably hard on that ENO Onegin... looking beyond the central couple, who were admittedly nowhere (not a small oversight, I'll give you), I thought there was loads of detail and depth in the other parts. Lensky, you rightly praise, but what about Olga, Madame Larina and Filipyevna? Warner didn't have the right central couple - one chum called it 'Lensky: the Opera' - but the production itself is sound.

David said...

In your opinion, Gavin. Not in mine nor that of lots of folk I've spoken to. And I've seen a few Onegins in my time; this was much the dullest.

And if the Letter Scene doesn't move - and it doesn't seem to have moved anyone - what's the point?

I've enlarged on detail over on The Arts Desk, but FWIW I got very little out of Montague's Larina, the usually splendid Wyn-Rogers passed for nothing as Filipyevna, and I didn't care for the Olga. Half the time I couldn't even work out what points were being made - like the extra who stares at Onegin in the ball scene.

Roger Neill said...

David, do the Orch Suites ever get a hearing much live? It's as if they were conceived for the recording medium!

David said...

I've heard the Third Suite in concert on two occasions, Roger - once conducted very badly by Lazarev, once beautifully by Vedernikov. The others, never. I suspect the problem in the case of the equally wonderful Second Suite is the extra expense of four accordions to play two chords a couple of times!

Susan Scheid said...

So, here I wing in, not having heard either Tchaikovsky's or Sibelius's The Tempest. Spotify to the rescue, as it has both Abbado versions you mentioned and versions of Sibelius’s, too. I’m listening now to the Chicago Symphony recording (my home town, you see). "this is the isle, and the sea around it, full of mysterious noises." Yes, indeed. I've had to start a "Nice recommendations" playlist on Spotify as I've no chance of keeping up. (I'm still on those Sibelius tone poems (many of which I’ve since purchased)—such magic. Haven’t even got back to Dvorak’s yet.)

PS: After 5 weeks and 2 tries, Amazon finally managed to deliver the Abbado DVD of Mahler's 9th, so I'm looking forward to that—though the edu-mate (if you’ll forgive the play on your phrase) has drawn the line on that, so I’m on my own. We did both enjoy the DVD of Glyndebourne's Pique Dame, though, in our plebby way, we couldn't fathom why Lisa fell for nutty Hermann, when Prince Yeletsky seemed such a nice guy. In any event, Felicity Palmer’s Countess, for us, definitely stole the show.

David said...

Won't 'greatest concert ever filmed' do it for the edu-mate, who would be missing greatness - but perhaps must be allergic to Mahler?

As for Felicity Palmer, I never thought her Countess could be equalled, but Barstow for Opera North brings something different and just as valid to this fascinating role, and sings the French aria with even more supernatural softness.

Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving and delighted to see you back online quicker than expected.

Howard Lane said...

Your Onegin review dissuaded my own edu-mate (I don't think that one's going to catch on somehow...) from ENOing it tomorrow, although it was highly impractical given her work-overload. She was keen to go even after hearing R3's broadcast, which I abandoned after the lacklustre letter scene (Luke asked what language it was, a fairly common operatic problem I admit). But the fateful resonances did take me back to the brilliant 4th Symphony we all thrilled to at the Proms.

I would have suggested The Queen of Spades as a substitute but then realised it had finished, but she said it's not one of her favourites.

The Building a Library recommendation this weekend was another Abbado masterly performance, and when I heard Julian Johnson talk of Mahler composing the 8th Symphony in the Swiss Alps I had an immediate vision of Ken Russell's lakeside hut which, being Ken of course, later exploded violently. And now I read of Russell's death only yesterday. However idiosyncratic and mythic they were, his films on Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Delius etc. left an indelible mark.

David said...

Yes, I've a very soft spot for the Mahler and Tchaikovsky films, though the Monitor ones I always found a bit disappointing. And although the acting even from good people in a lot of his films seems like village-institute stuff, the star of Salome's Last Dance is compelling. Suppose I'd better say a word or two here in due course.

Geo. said...

The closest I've ever been to hearing Tchaikovsky's The Tempest live is the Dudamel/LA Phil HD movie-cast this past season, with the 3 Tchaikovsky concert overtures inspired by Shakespeare in one program, with actors reading selected passages (Malcolm McDowell and Orlando Bloom among them). It wasn't a long program in terms of musical length, which may be why "El Dude" took each overture rather spaciously, as if to give everyone in the hall and the cinema their money's worth. I don't expect the local band to program the work anytime soon, even though they recorded it two music directors back, so there is some history there.

David said...

'The local band' being? Chicago? They did it with Abbado, right? Can't think who else would fit the bill.

Not sure the Dude's idea of all three together would work (I know there's a CD which I haven't heard). I'd love a concert where both Tchaik's and Sibelius's Tempests co-existed. Why does Abbado not do Sibelius? One could even at a pinch have the best of the not absolutely great Ades opera, which is the orchestral writing

Gavin Plumley said...

I saw the Onegin again last night - with an ailing Toby Spence and Adrian Thompson, no less, singing Lensky's Act 2 from a box. It is of course my opinion, but it's equally shared by many... but I totally agree, as I thought I made clear, that I was unmoved by the Tatyana (vocally and dramatically). I just think, as you did about the Tsarina's Slippers, that the production could really zing when well performed.

Gavin Plumley said...

P.S. How did you get on with Ruddigore?

David said...

Well, Adrian Thompson sang v. 2 of Lensky's aria so beautifully ppp - still not sure why - that I bet he could still make a good job of Lensky's farewell.

You may well be right about the casting. Gergiev was saying that when he conducts the same production at the Met, Netrebko will sing Tatyana, and possibly the very sexy Marius Kwiecien will be Onegin. Trebs didn't hugely move me as Prokofiev's Natasha, but she will at least be in the right zone for the Letter Scene.

I still think my main problem is that I didn't KNOW what Warner wanted me to think about the characters.

Ruddigore: not as overwhelmed as folk promised me I would be, though there were terrific scenes and Burkhard's Sir Despard lifted it all. I did wonder whether it's not the top notch G&S I used to think it was (the Dick Dauntless stuff, apart from 'The battle's roar is over', seems like an unflinchable bore). See TAD Buzz piece (

Gavin Plumley said...

So glad you felt that about Ruddigore. It was a terrific charge of a production, but Gilbert drives Act 1, while Sullivan drives Act 2. I adore the Ghosts' scene, but we're asked to believe so much, to have it dashed in front of us. I do wonder whether it's all worth it... and, as you said about QofS, the Barbican acoustic is an unflinching serial killer.

David said...

Yes - I felt Farnes handled it, whereas our much admired John Wilson failed to shine as he usually does, despite some nimble tempi. I did miss the 'terrific charge' for the most part - there was that fatal sense of sometimes trying too hard, though everyone characterised decently. But I've been spoilt by the supreme exuberance/pathos of the Union-in-Wilton's Iolanthe and even the King's Head Mikado.

Geo. said...

Very late reply about The Tempest and the local band, re: recording. Not Chicago, but this group. I haven't actually heard this CD, admittedly.