Thursday, 18 October 2012

Other Annas, other Rings



Forgive the note of unusual negativity in a blog which is mostly about sounding enthusiasms: this is a post about why I’m not going to the movies to see Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, and why I’ve not returned to Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production of Wagner's Ring after an underwhelmed first visit. The positives are rather retrospective, but ideals are difficult to shift once you’ve witnessed them. There can only be new experiences of visions which work very differently but on the same level or else disappointments in store.

As for Anna Karenina, first of course you should read (or re-read: note to self) Tolstoy’s novel, and  then head not to the cinema but to DVD to see the old BBC serialization with an unforgettable central performance by Nicola Pagett (pictured above).

Why? Most obviously because the leisure of a multi-parter is always going to be more apposite to Tolstoy’s panorama than a film, even one that’s more than the standard 90 minutes long (a notable exception is Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic, still selective take on War and Peace). The Garbo version, by the way, is beyond bad. But above all I think the BBC casting of Tolstoy's protagonist was so right, possibly because for me as a teenager Pagett WAS Anna before I came to read the book, and even the reading didn't change that. A revisit suggests she’s still apt in so many ways – not least for the nervous intensity, the hectic flushes, which we now know were part of this talented, bipolar actress’s burden in real life. Pagett’s is a vulnerable heroine for whom you want the best, even when you know she’s doomed not to realize it.


The BBC series also gave proper weight to the parallel, equally significant strand of Tolstoy’s self-portrait – following bits of himself projected into both Prince Andrey and Pierre in War and Peace – as Levin. When I heard that the new film doesn’t bring Levin and Anna together, as they must be brought in any adaptation, that was another nail in the coffin of its reputation.

Of course the 1970s television production values were not as high as they’ve become in recent classic serials: Bleak House and Little Dorrit being atmospheric good examples, the recent Great Expectations a misapplication of misty gloom (and vanity casting) over the vitality of Dickens’s novel. But when the performances are as good as they were in the BBC Anna – and that includes Stuart Wilson, Eric Porter and Robert Swann – they overcome the creaky sets and garish studio lighting. A return to the BBC War and Peace, on the other hand, proved disillusioning: though Anthony Hopkins plays Pierre with extraordinary nuance, Morag Hood’s Natasha is too old for the impetuous teenager and lacks charm throughout. The 70s hairstyles, too, are more than a circumstantial liability.


Reports from trusted sources have suggested that many of the major drawbacks in the Royal Opera’s Ring revival still loom large. Not that I probably could have got a ticket even if I wanted to: the house was not giving any to The Arts Desk or any online reviews site, and getting a paid seat was going to be next to impossible. But on my previous visit I hadn't taken away any favourable impressions of the way Keith Warner swilled around a lot of half-cooked ideas, not at least beyond Rheingold, which is in any case a rather theoretical box of tricks and in this case promised more than the rest delivered. And Warner’s real weakness was to pay too little attention to the chemistry of all the crucial one-to-ones; this is where any great Ring production, whatever you think of its mises-en-scene, makes its mark.

I’m glad if Pappano has more grasp of the oceanic tides than back in 2006-7, and if great Bryn now has the strength to make it as Wotan and Wanderer (he was tired out by the end of Walküre when I saw it, but still a major reason for going). Yet while Covent Garden has done right by Sue Bullock, as it should have in the first place when the house cast Lisa Gasteen, she of the shot top, as Brünnhilde, Bullock's is not a voice I find distinctive or laser-like enough for the role (punters confirm this; some critics disagree). And the Siegfried problem continues: Stefan Vinke makes a horrid noise, or did when I heard him labour his way through Proms performances of Mahler’s Eighth and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. I wouldn’t hold out much for his skill as an actor, either.

The point is, if you're keen to experience the whole marathon for its own sake, your money will at least have been decently spent. It might be worth while tuning in to Radio 3, currently halfway through its broadcasts from the Royal Opera. But the Ring remains, for me, the sum of the great cycles I’ve seen which worked: Chéreau’s incendiary Bayreuth Centenary staging – my way in as watched, one act per week, on TV during my student years; Kupfer’s first take, which I was lucky enough to see at Wagner’s home shrine, and if I never get there again, I’ll at least have had my vision; and the Richard Jones production at Covent Garden. Not all of it worked, but there Jones's radical ideas resonated throughout the four operas as Warner's much less rigorous rattlebag did not (and Jones's Siegfried was sheer genius). Even the Phyllida Lloyd staging for ENO had unforgettable hits among the misses – I nearly left her Valkyrie after Act One, but Lloyd upped its game from Brünnhilde’s annunciation of death to Siegmund onwards, and the Twilight was inspired as a production from start to finish.


Anyway, talking of potted adaptations, I wonder what we shall make of Henk de Vlieger’s 60-plus minute symphonic tour of Ring orchestral highlights, due from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the excellent Mark Wigglesworth tomorrow night (and already espoused by Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos, a recording I have yet to hear). On Tuesday with the BBCSO course students, I had one hour on Tippett’s Triple Concerto, the first work in the concert – triggering a heated debate of pros versus cons, with me somewhere in the middle – and one on the essence of the Ring, with glimpses of the beginning and the end and in between, a couple of selections from the momentous later stages of Rheingold and Walküre to deal with transformation/dramatic introduction of the leifmotifs, and a gallery of nature pictures – water, air, fire and earth.

Those should all be there tomorrow, but will the experience add up? Sometimes charisma can make it work - I love mad Stokowski's 'symphonic syntheses' from the Ring, Tristan and Parsifal, especially in his portamenti-laden Philadelphia recordings from the 1930s. Here's his take sans voices on Act Three of Parsifal.


As for Wigglesworth's Wagner (and Tippett), if you can't be there at the Barbican, the concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. STOP PRESS (20/10): It worked, it truly did (and the Tippett was compelling, too). Listen to the concert for the next seven days here and read the Arts Desk review here.

23 comments:

Susan Scheid said...

I suspect you wouldn’t be a proponent of the Ring I’ll be seeing, stage direction by Robert LePage, though Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde seems to get high marks (do you know her work?). It’ll be quite the Wagner season for me, this first time out, as Parsifal is on the roster, too—that production is by François Girard, with Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal. (Wanderer down in Australia indicated that production should be worthwhile.) In any event, I’ll have no basis for comparison, as this will be my first Ring (excepting the HD of Götterdämmerung), so at least I won’t have the problem, as you so rightly note, that “there can only be new experiences of visions which work very differently but on the same level or else disappointments in store.” As for Anna Karenina, I suppose I can see why Keira Knightly would be cast for that, with her built-in nervous tick, but that’s just the thing—she seems to apply it equally to every role. Last not least, I got a good chuckle out of this: “The 70s hairstyles, too, are more than a circumstantial liability.” I must try to remember that phrase, “more than a circumstantial liability,” for later use . . .

David said...

I thought Dalayman was superb on both the vocal and dramatic fronts as Katerina Izmailova and Marie in Wozzeck, though truth to tell she left less of an impression as Sieglinde in the Warner Ring. Security shouldn't be a problem.

From what I've seen of the Lepage Ring, the technical side overwhelms the human - and the costumes are rather hideous. I like even the 'Gods' to be real. But I reckon it's classier overall than what we're stuck with over here. Kaufmann as Parsifal - now that should be something.

David Damant said...

Great dramatic canvases such as those of Tolstoy can be filmed - he sets out stories of a tremendous generality. There are many novels which are not stories and cannot be filmed - for example Crime and Punishment, which is about the working of the emotions and the minds of men ( probably young men). Also Wuthering Heights, which as David Cecil indicated was about ultimate reality - Emily Bronte asked of the Universe, what does it mean? No filming can capture those aspects of the novels.The fact that people try shows that they do not understand what great works of art are about. But one's understanding of Tolstoy can be enhanced, I think, by a film of the right quality

David said...

Surely Tolstoy, of all people, has his characters ask of the universe, time and again, 'what does it mean?'

Howard Lane said...

Some people would say it's Wagner that makes a horrid noise... (a late musician friend of mine said it made him feel physically sick). I am not always in the mood, but Tippett's Triple Concerto is a real fave so I will be listening on iplayer radio as it now is.

David Damant said...

Why is it that, of all the great composers, Wagner divides educated musical people? Some find the music horrid, some burn sacrifices of devotion. It seems possible that Wagner's own philosophy as a composer - the explicit and written denial of any rational and intellectual control on the deepest human emotions, which are thereby released by the music - is a reason and possibly the reason for the divide. Imagination without the use of reason produces horrible monsters, said Goya. Civilised people can re-order this musical input, but there are many who do not, and did not.

Will said...

Lorin Maazel did his own boildown called The Ring Without Words that I liked very much. There were some unexpected but highly effective elisions from one theme to another and the whole explored some of the lesser known passages and let them shine.

The critics largely pounced on it, many of them completely misunderstanding what he was trying to do, and seemed to want the parade of bleeding hunks of the standard big moments. I think he may have produced a second suite.

David said...

Howard and Will - hope you tuned in to the broadcast (still available on iPlayer until late Friday and now linked on the post). I'd seen the list of excerpts for Maazel's selection - not heard it, though it's available in its entirety, I believe, on YouTube - and thought him very ambitious. De Vlieger's stitching is very, very clever. Oh, and, Howard, the Tippett worked brilliantly too.

David - the reasoning is surely in the construction, though I agree many primeval instincts are let loose. As Strauss said of another masterpiece, 'the mind that devised Tristan must have been as cold as ice'.

wanderer said...

Then I must make time to listen. I have yet to get anything worthwhile from what I loosely call 'The Best Bits'.

Wigglesworth - I had dreamed and prayed he might be the one to take over the SSO from Ashkenazy.

That he can illuminate the difficult (for me) Tippet and the better known (Ring) comes as little surprise. His Grimes down here was simply shattering and so compelling that I went to three successive performances, a feat not ever done before nor likely again. When asked how he would he interpret the work, he said simply, and abruptly - 'as written'.

So now his Wagner. And what insights in his Shostakovich. Oh god of big things if only he were coming down next year for the Melbourne Ring which Includes Ms Bullock and her husband, Loge of course. However, if nothing else said Ring is likely to be blessed with the essentialness of the one-on-ones as you call them, critical interactions indeed, as the production is in the hands of Neil Armfield (who did some work with WNO, and that Grimes) and his strength is just that - the details in the humanity, or the devil maybe.

I need a winter at least (and spring and autumn perhaps) where the elements conspire to the indoors. Just now, I am hurrying back to town for, amongst other things, a swim. What time for Tolstoy?

Susan, I can't comment on that Parsifal production, but if Jonas is in form, then yes you are in for a treat. But keep your ears open for Klaus Florian Vogt - Bayreuth's next. He's a beauty on many layers.

David said...

That Grimes had a similar effect on another of your fellow Antipodeans. From the conducting point of view, I find that the Glyndebourne performance now on CD conducted by MW has more weight than Britten's own - and I seem to remember the interpretation was coolly received at the time. The Shostakovich symphonies recordings are big and deep too, as was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ENO.

I like what I've seen of Neil Armfield's work. Vogt was disappointing in the Schoenberg chamber version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde under Pappano, but he's attracted raves as Lohengrin. I was looking through old Ring programmes the other day, and it's amazing how quickly so many Heldentenors passed into oblivion. Quite an altar for sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina? Quelle horreur. What is wrong with the casting people of today? I saw her in the TV version of Dr. Zjivago as Lara. Of course, noone could ever approach the perfection of Julie Christie-but Keira Knightley was playing the role as a self obsessed pouting starlet- no dephth whatsoever-( she was actually better in Atonement I thought)
As for War and Peace, I confess to loving the old version with Audrey Hepburn and the lovely Henry Fonda as Pierre....
xxxS

Howard Lane said...

I couldn't find a recording of Hans Werner Henze's ciaccona per violino soloista e orchestra da camera (1977) "Il Vitalino Raddoppiato" on youtube today. Turns out there isn't one, although I still have an old R3 broadcast tape. Not perhaps the most characteristic of this very Italian German composer (perhaps there isn't such a piece in the diversity of his work), but one I am very fond of.

It's something about the relentless repetitiveness of Vitali's chaconne that has an irrestistable appeal. It starts out sounding authentically baroque and then weirdly morphs into 20th century dissonance. I doubt it would be found in Boulez's top ten!

David said...

Sophie - it's the whole star syndrome thing, n'est-ce pas? Actually I thought your double Garbo was awful in the role, never convinced she could act despite the incredible looks.

Howard - I suppose I should have done a Henze thing here or over on TAD, but I have such a partial view of his huge output: an acolyte told me a few years ago I MUST get to know the symphonies, so I shall eventually (the one I heard sounded very clogged). As for the operas, I admire his ability to differentiate between characters in musical terms, but I'm rarely swept away. Even Fiona Shaw's superlative ENO production of Elegy for Young Lovers left me a bit indifferent. Boulevard Solitude a grey soggy mass, Der Verratene Meer accumulating tension in its second half, The Prince of Homburg I remember nothing of, and the best I've seen was on DVD - Der Junge Milord. I don't know the piece you mention and if it's not on YouTube I must look out for it elsewhere.

We saw HWH at a performance of Birtwistle's The Minotaur. J persuaded Sir David to ask him what he thought; the answer - 'very competent, but extremely well conducted and performed'.

David Damant said...

When I asked HWH about the Minotaur, just after the performance, the reply was fairly neutral about the opera, as David reports. But the spontaneous comment on Pappano was very strong - I had not raised the matter of the conductor - " Pappano is a genius ", said with great energy.

David said...

Did he really go as far as that? I thought I got the second part of the statement right... But, si non e vero, e ben trovato.

David Damant said...

I can assure you that that is what HWH said - I remember especially as I was somewhat taken aback by the energy with which he made the comment on Pappano, having used a very ordinary voice for his (almost) non-comment on the opera.

Someone to whom I told this story said that Papanno had recently co-operated with Pappano ( on one of HWH's operas?)and that therefore HWH might be rather pro-him for that reason. But the remark erupted, as though he had to get it out

Howard Lane said...

I expect you have heard plenty more HWH than I, and although I feel he is a worthy cause I should explore further there are many others I would turn to first whose work I still know little of. If his operas are as good as The Minotaur that would be worthwhile. Ars longa vita brevis, but at least as a mere punter I have the luxury of taking him or leaving him.

You won't find a commercial recording of Il Vitalino Raddoppiato - there isn't one as far as I know. Mine came off the radio a long time ago, and I don't have any notes on date, venue or performers, although I think Gidon Kremer was involved in the project at some stage.

Having heard it again after a long time I am now more ambivalent about it. It's scarcely more than an orchestration of Vitali's chaconne with embellishments, and although the orchestration is very fine it's not quite in the Ravel league. The fiddle playing is superb, and somehow it's like Borges' Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote - it's all the more remarkable written by a 20th century German composer instead of a baroque Italian one...

Susan Scheid said...

So, David, I am off to hear Adès's Tempest tomorrow night. Echoing in my head are The Tempest gifts you gave to me: Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Very different Tempests, to be sure. In any event, I will be on the lookout tomorrow, as you wrote a couple years back,"for purple passages when Adès touches something rich and strange. Those include the evolution of the young lovers’ music from homages to midsummer Britten and Tippett to the heights of Act II, Ariel’s banquet and masque in Act III, and the ensemble-passacaglia which takes the ultimate centre of gravity from Prospero’s perfunctorily written farewells." All the best from both of us to both of you.

David said...

Gosh, that makes it sound as if I actually like the piece, whereas I was just trying to see the good bits in it. But you should find enough to enjoy. I'm actually very cross with TA for saying so many asinine things about greater masters in a recent clutch of interviews. A good man would at least find more gracious ways of saying them.

Susan Scheid said...

I didn't read you as totally sold on this piece, rest assured! I haven't seen what he's been saying in recent interviews. Note to self to get on that.

Susan Scheid said...

I believe I've run across one of those interviews (with Tom Service). Pretty appalling, I agree. I've been enjoying a good bit of his music, too--notably Polaris, but also In Seven Days. It's going to be hard to listen with unalloyed pleasure for a bit.

Susan Scheid said...

Now, I'm a rank amateur, mind you, but here’s my take on The Tempest. (Thought, after my earlier comments, I at least ought to “report in”!) I will confess to having liked The Tempest a good bit BUT my friend and I (not the Edu-Mate, who can't get to NYC on weekdays) checked your comments along the way against our own impressions and thought they were spot-on. We thought the libretto dumbed down, the vocal acrobatics required of soloists at certain points inexplicable, and the high points pretty much exactly as you state. I generally liked the instrumental music, often reminiscent of other pieces of his I know and like. It led me to wonder whether Ades is more grounded on the instrumental side and less so in dealing with the voice. Our Ariel (Audrey Luna) was, we both thought, remarkably good, such that the vocal acrobatics she was handed made sense. Keenlyside, the only common member of the cast with Covent Garden (at least I think that's the case), seemed to have been handed a really rough part, and it showed. We both thought the production beautifully done.

David said...

Thanks for the swift impressions, Sue. Exactly right about instrumental vs vocal (the problem for most contemporary operas, save Adams, James MacMillan and Jonathan Dove, in my experience - there are probably a few others that I can't think of at the moment). Audrey Luna must have been remarkable indeed to make sense of Ariel's high-pitched yapping, which was a real turnoff at the premiere.

I still think Ades is punching way above his weight, though if young Dylan finds so much to admire in some of his works, that's not to be taken lightly. I suppose the most disappointing aspect of The Tempest for me at its first airing was how conventional, almost establishment-y it was.