Saturday 20 July 2013

Wie himmlische, nicht irdische

Sophie's wonder at the other-worldly Persian attar in Octavian's silver rose was mine on a very special occasion three days ago. I couldn't put up my most burning emotion about it then, but now that I've reviewed the first Royal Opera concert performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio over on The Arts Desk, I think it may be safely released into the e-ther. It still wouldn't be fair or honourable to write about the unique final-rehearsal experience in any kind of detail or critical nuance. But I hope I'm allowed, as the sole and hence very honoured guest of a distinguished cast member, to shout to the world the final impression of a performance under circumstances I'll remember to my dying day.

I may have - who hasn't? - blown hot and cold about the Renée Fleming phenomenon. Remember how the previous joint holder along with Margaret Price of the Beautiful Voice award, Kiri te Kanawa, could be engaged or on auto-pilot? Fleming's split is to be either naturalness itself, with soaring Straussian soprano instrument to command, or a little arch and vocally curdled. For the gift of Capriccio, though, may all her small sins be forgiven. 

The final rehearsal in question took place to myself and about 15 others luxuriously dotted around the Royal Opera stalls. Most singers were casually dressed, which was absolutely fine; Renée, however, gave us not only a dress and wrap to die for - my programme now tells me it was a 'Vivienne Westwood metallic floorlength Couture corset gown in sequins, with a silver and gold rose jacquard coat' (pictured above and below on Friday night by Catherine Ashmore) - but also absolutely no stinting on the performance at any point. Nor did anyone else hold back, for that matter, but the prima donna really is the one in the spotlight for the last 20 minutes.

That's a great diva as well as a dedicated professional and a canny businesswoman for you. And it meant that the final scene - to hell with whether we care about Countess Madeleine's sticky dilemma, the wonder of music solves every problem - soared and transported us as I've never heard it before in the opera house, which includes fabulous performances by Felicity Lott, Kiri and a singer I've always thought hugely underrated, the charming Margaret Marshall.

For more on the other singers, go over to the TAD review (I might add that newcomers Andrew Staples as composer Flamand and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as classy actress Clairon had added immeasurably to their new acquaintance with their roles by the first public performance). But just imagine it: the great Strauss experience as if presented in the Countess's salon for the select few. Did I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet for hours after. Still do.

We've spent four sessions on the last Strauss stage masterpiece, a love-letter to a life in the operatic theatre, in the City Lit Opera in Focus class. The dilemma here was with whom to end - Renée in Robert Carsen's gorgeous if sharp-edged Palais Garnier production (illustrated up top and in its latest DVD format), or Kiri in Chicago. Early comparisons had quickly revealed that Carsen's vision was wittier and lighter in every respect than Stephen Lawless's on a too-big stage, and we stayed with it for most of the DVD sequences. It moves, moreover, from playfulness to great emotional weight towards the events of the late afternoon in the pre-revolutionary (for which read here occupied Paris) salon, so that tears were to be shed for Franz Hawlata's magnificently acted impresario La Roche long before the transcendent final glory.

Not all the students liked the opera's reference-studded debate, but the ones who didn't were predictably won over by the end. For the conversation-piece centre, despite Hotter and Gedda clamouring for attention on the old Sawallisch recording, I kept returning again and again to Karl Böhm with Schreier as composer and Prey as poet,  Janowitz and Fischer-Dieskau as aristocratic sister and brother, the peerless Troyanos as actress Clairon - oh, listen to those endless phrases of hers - and Karl Ridderbusch a magnificent La Roche (Nazi, sadly, but che artista, which will do if only for the duration of the recording). How well I remember its original LP boxed-set cover, such a poetic incarnation of the music/words issue.

Enough for now, but it might be worth recording the sources we traced.

For the discusssion between Olivier, Flamand and La Roche bringing Gluck into the argument, the Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide, amazingly available in a 1928 recording using Wagner's concert ending with Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra .

Still not found any precise tracing of the Piccinni opera buffa references, two of them, very jolly: anyone out there able to help?

The Countess cites a bit of Couperin which sounds like 'Le tic-tic choc' in Strauss's Divertimento arrangement, and of Rameau's 'Fra le pupille di vaghe belle', an afterthought, I believe, to Les Indes galantes; Carolyn Sampson has made a rather helium-y recording of it.

Much more obvious, to me at any rate, are Strauss's self-quotations after La Roche's aria (where I've just pinned down an elusive reference from Schubert's 'An die Musik'): the ranz des vaches farewell music in both Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, obvious bits of Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne (bizarrely, that passage is cut from the Royal Opera performance). The masks and Sancho Panza turn up in the delightful little servants' scene.

Finally, if anyone cares, who's to be the Countess's choice, 'words' Olivier or 'music' Flamand, or inseparable both?  I'd say the argument is always firmly weighted in the composer's favour, and of course his is the last music Strauss quotes. I managed to sneak that point in my Strauss-operas article in the Covent Garden programme for the two concert performances. Don't miss the second tomorrow if you can get a ticket (there seemed to be a few available at both ends of the price range on the Royal Opera website, despite rumoured sold-out status).

Last musical notes here should belong to a recording I didn't know existed, and which doesn't appear on my 8 CDs of Strauss conducting. The YouTube clip is ascribed to him, and is a performance of the Moonlight Music (originally the piano interlude and postlude in the satirical anti-publishers song-cycle Krämerspiegel) before the Countess's final scene. Habe dank, Meister.


Paul Cannon said...

I dunno David, one day its Renee in Westwood, another its Ed Lyon in a vest...what a life.
Shared your enjoyment of the Rameau,even though the weather was amost too good.

David said...

Wieso, Paul? Too hot? At least there's always shade by the lake - and dips to be had further up, I'm told. And I trust the theatre was cool as ever - remember the bad old days? But it's a hassle to take the train and have to swelter in a DJ, which now can be postponed wearing until the very last minute. I think I shall take a tip from friends Tom and Regis and wear a cool Chinese silk shirt next time.

Last saw you at the Ariadne talk, and wondering what you thought of that curious show.

Paul Cannon said...

I wrote to you after 'Ariadne' but it must have got lost in transmission-it never appeared. Anyhow, I enjoyed the production, especially moving Zerbinetta/Composer duet. And I loved your talk-some lovely extracts there. It's too bad you couldn't show them Debbie as Ariadne.
PS.In the 'Capriccio' DVD,did the group approve of Anne Sofie Von Hayworth?

David said...

That's a shame - quite a few messages have gone awry. May be the complicated 'prove you're not a robot' word identification.

As for Anne Sofie, oh yes - hers is tne best German, our two native speakers agreed, and though her Clairon is more than a little nasty it's such a vivid characterisation. I've seen complaints about Carsen's Nazification, but it's done as lightly as it can be with the Gauleiter in attendance on her. Otherwise, the 1940s setting keeps it world-within-worldish and the camera tricks make it a real film.

David Damant said...

May I suggest a very light weight DJ next time? Indeed a light weight any suit. Nearly all the time nowadays it is warm enough inside ( even in winter) and for cold outside one can wear an overcoat

Is there anything wrong with Nazification which would not be wrong with Sovietisation?

David said...

I'm too mean to spend money on a new DJ when I wear it at most three or four times a year. And I just resent it as a formal costume. Next time, a bit of colour, I think. As in the case of the lady in green shalwar kemise (and matching green turn-up shoes) who came to my Ariadne talk, and whom I saw in a pink one at the Rameau - how I showered her with compliments!

I don't quite understand the question about the Nazification v Sovietification as phrased, but I know the familiar bugbear of yours that's being voiced therein. There were good and honourable Soviet officials, at least in the early days (culture-for-the-people Lunacharsky for one). There were never any good Nazis.

David Damant said...

The Soviet regime ws from the beginning a terrible one - as Lenin said, the Revolution can only be established by dictatorship and terror (" Hang them! Hang them! - where a hundred of them can be seen") In the 6 years after 1917 200 000 people were executed. It was not a case of the familiar aspects of democratic socialism without the democracy - it was vicious class war from the beginning and everything including culture was sacrificed to that revolutionary end. No Soviet official could survive except with that end in view. In Germany culture was not distorted in this way( though under both regimes what was allowable culture was controlled). But that is not my main point. We cannot discuss Hitler rationally, as one can Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao etc On the radio recently during a perfectly sensible discussion on the Vienna Phil the two guys sank their voices to a "this is horror" level when it was mentioned that it was Goebbels who had the idea of the New Year concert. As Thomas Mann said, Hitler was a catastrophe but ( Mann added)that is no reason for not finding him interesting as a character and an event. It a serious matter that the most important actor in the 20th century and what he did cannot be discussed rationally. And why this deep feeling exists, and why people shy away from even a discussion, is a difficult question to answer. Maybe the Nazi horrors are nearer to us, and the mechanical aspects of the Holocaust hit us much more than remote gulags, however horrible.

David, maybe we should discuss this in another arena, rather than inflict all this on the readers of your Blog
W B Yeats maybe summed up that period
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

David said...

We HAVE had this discussion, many times, and the perspectives don't substantially shift. I repeat, that culture in 1920s Russia was incomparably richer than it ever was in Hitler's Germany. Wozzeck AND Rosenkavalier getting their Soviet premieres within a year? That's something. Malevich, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Shostakovich, Meyerhold: quite a roster for starters for a fertile decade until it all went pear-shaped in the early 1930s. I'm not saying, of course, that terrible things didn't happen outside the sphere of holy Russian art, but within...

As for Germany, the only major works of art were retrospective or the product of internal exile, like Capriccio. Which may help to steer us back to the subject closest to hand.

Susan Scheid said...

You communicate the excitement of this experience so beautifully that I am carried off by both your TAD review and what you write here, even though this is an opera I have never heard. While it may not in what passes for real life be true that "the magic of music solves every problem," it's a statement I thoroughly endorse. I will now be on the look-out for Capriccio with Fleming (I looked for the DVD you noted, but it's out of stock). I hope you have had a glorious time in Norfolk. Today, for the first time in a week, we had the a/c off and the windows open, listening to bird sounds in our woods. I have been reading the Poulenc letters, and they are marvelous. To accompany that, I've been playing Poulenc piano pieces. The magic of music, indeed.

And now I will wade into the discussion David D has prompted, though probably it is ill-advised. I do agree, in a limited sense, with David D’s comment that “it is a serious matter that the most important actor in the 20th century and what he did cannot be discussed rationally.” What I think of immediately, in this regard, is Taruskin’s excoriation of Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Certainly, if we cannot understand that the horrors of the 20th century were perpetrated by people very much like us, then there is no hope. But David’s point is well taken, that “culture in 1920s Russia was incomparably richer than it ever was in Hitler's Germany.” The facts absolutely back this up. Here’s the so-called “bottom line” for me: the two regimes, Stalin’s and Hitler’s, were both reprehensible. I would have abhorred living under either one, if, indeed, I had been allowed to live. I disagree with David D, that “Germany culture was not distorted in this way.” All right, perhaps not distorted in the same way, but thoroughly distorted, nonetheless. Naziism was nothing if not distortion of every human value, every cultural value, known to humankind. Just take, for example, Vienna, where cultural life was so thoroughly indebted to Jewish genius. Hitler destroyed that, utterly. Under the Nazis, Vienna’s cultural primacy died, and so far as I am aware, it has not been revived.

David said...

Playing Poulenc piano pieces, Sue, or playing them on the CD player? I didn't know you were an accomplished pianist. I'm not sure how well I'd do with them, though Satie of course I can manage...

When Strauss writes that line 'the magic of music solves every problem' he is, of course, referring to bizarre situations in opera, in this case Daphne's metamorphosis into a laurel. I couldn't believe that lovely, wry passage was cut - apparently there are many other snips which fortunately weren't inflicted in this concert version.

Taruskin, alas, is a brilliant, lucid writer with irrational rages which can send his judgment awry(he goes completely wrong in discussing Musorgsky's 'Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle' as a Janus-faced single anti-Semitic portrait when it derives from two distinct Hartmann watercolours, for instance). He also, of course, thinks Prokofiev's regime-oriented pieces shouldn't be performed. In which case he is at one with DD, who would not stay with me at a concert when he found out that Prokofiev's Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, a dazzling, multi-layered and far from blandly celebratory work, was in the second half.

Lucky you, discovering Capriccio for the first time. I'd wait for the Carsen DVD, it's visually ravishing as well as superbly cast. In the latter respect, I guess the Met DVD is too, and has the bonus of P Rose - over my friendship with whom I have been beaten up by a commenter on TAD whose origins I suspect not to be unconnected with the 'Webmalice' piece. But I haven't seen that and I know that the opera is completely wrong for the great barn of the Met.

Your observation on Vienna made me think: the First World War deprived it of its political status as a great city, and the Second of its creative culture. At least there's a young generation there now providing some sort of counter-culture to the undeniably ossified official version (I mean Franz-Welser Most at the head of the Vienna State Opera? The appallingly underrehearsed rep system there? The token three or so women in the Vienna Phil, which has not moved programme-wise with the times like the Berliners?) There's lots going on, but still...I joke that I've seen the swastika unfurled in two productions there, The Sound of Music and Cabaret

David Damant said...

Maybe Churchill said it -
Looking at the Nazi and the Soviet systems is like looking at the Artic and the Antartic. In one there are a few polar bears, in the other some penguins, but in both a terrible and hostile landscape

Otherwise I think we shall have to disagree. But I stick to my point that Hitler should be discussed objectively, as are Lenin and Stalin, and as everything should be

David said...

I think that sums it up very well - though how long did Churchill take to realise that the Stalin of Yalta was a mass murderer?

Susan Scheid said...

The Churchill quote is perfect; thanks to DD for that.

David: I'll be on the lookout for that DVD, and many thanks. As for the piano, playing for me is, alas, confined to CD and Spotify. I did "play at" the piano through high school, never with any discipline, but, as we know, playing an instrument, even a little, is a great path by which to better appreciate performances by those who know what they're doing and do it well.

David said...

Indeed - I never learn anything these days, to my shame, but I like to fumble through more feasible pieces just to see what it feels like 'beneath the fingers'.

By the way, Norfolk pleasures are still to come. Just when the heatwave breaks (storms tomorrow) and it rains and rains...but if I expect the worst we can but be pleasantly surprised. And the performances do look promising.

wanderer said...

I'm with DD on objectivity, except that to not be subjective is all but impossible and one assumes therefore the intent is to be as objective as possible.

All (objectivity / subjectivity) of which leads me to ask has Oliver Stone's Untold History of America surfaced up there?

David Damant said...

I would strongly support piano lessons for the young.......and in addition to appreciating performances by the great one can have a greater understanding of all music.
A tremendous quality of the mind is that one can play pieces from memory - sometimes years later. I suppose that it is like learning a language. It is amazing to see a pianist playing a massive concerto without a score

Churchill knew at Yalta how ruthless Stalin was but it seemed to both Churcill and Roosevelt that Stalin was willing to do business.....he was apparantly more relaxed about things. Of course the reason was that he knew that he had got what he wanted - all Central Europe and the Balkans[ except for Yugoslavia where Tito ( what a man!) saw him off.]It did not take long for the truth to sink in. Alan Bullock is very good on all this ( his " Hitler and Stalin - Parallel Lives " - those that wish to
do so may omit the chapters on Adolf)

David Damant said...

I agree with wanderer on objectivity/subjectivity and, reluctant as one always is to quote a German philosopher, there is always Lessing's comment that the search for truth is more important than its possession.

And Goethe said that history had to be re-written from time to time, not because new facts had appeared but becuase the perspective changes

David said...

Wanderer - I don't know about the Stone and I regret to say I'm not interested. Seem to have lost touch with new releases, though there's one I can't wait to see - the Spanish silent take on Snow White.

How far we have steered, however interestingly, from Capriccio. Does Strauss's debate stir no-one?

Capriccio said...

Could you provide bar numbers for the self-quotations you mentioned? I am obviously a very great fan of this opera having named my blog for it!

David said...

I will when I'm reunited with the score, promise. All best for the big Straussian year in the meantime. At last I'll get to hear and, as it were, semi-see Feuersnot live. Must check out where Guntram's to be found.

David said...

OK, as promised (assuming you want the references to others' music as well as Strauss's own):

Gluck's Overture to Iphigenie en Aulide is at 13 and much developed thereafter.

Off the top of my head, I don't think the 'Italienische Oper' is identified at 16, but five bars after is, I think, Piccinni (don't ask me what).

The Countess cites Couperin (a harpsichord piece which sounds a bit like 'Le tic-toc choc') at the Allegro six bars after 29 and then Rameau's 'Fra le pupille' which is a splendid piece - there's a good recording of it by Carolyn Sampson - four after 30.

No need, perhaps, to reference the horn-led arrangement of the piano interlude from Kraemerspiegel in the ensemble and the interlude.

'Die damen ist mit trueben sinn' from Ariadne is quoted in La Roche's aria at 191.

Once he's finally done, great emotion in the form of the 'ranz des vaches' which crops up near the end of both Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (hero's withdrawal) is at five after 205.

And then the obvious self-quotations so cruelly cut in the Royal Opera performances: Ariadne's 'Du wird's mich befreien' at Flamand's 'too often composed', 220; Daphne six bars later, with the oboe continuing it.

Finally, in the servants' scene, more Ariadne commedia dell'arte, both in the general vein and at 224.

I'm sure there are more, but anyone who cares to identify them will add to our knowledge.

Capriccio said...

Hi - thanks for these! The more obvious ones I knew already of course (e.g. the horn melody, the cut section, the Piccini/Rameau bit), but references to Don Quixote (a favourite of mine), and Heldenleben (not a favourite!) had escaped me, and the Ariadne quote in La Roche's speech. You mentioned in the review that Sancho panza turns up in the servants scene - where is this? And which bit of Sancho Panza!

David said...

How you do work me, Cap. Well, it's when the first servant observes what a huge appetite the Italian Prima Donna had and how she ate all the cake, 9 after the beginning of the scene (fig 236). It's Sancho's main theme as originally outlined by bass clarinet and tenor tuba. It's also related, of course, to the servants in Bourgeois Gentilhomme and even the harlequinade.

I, too , hugely prefer Don Q - the most amazing of all the tone poems, though Domestica is my personal favourite - to Heldenleben, but I guess they were devised as a pair.

Nicholas Clifford said...

In my younger days, I used to think that no one could beat Schwarzkopf in this piece, but that was before I heard Janowitz do it. I've never heard della Casa's recording with Georges Prêtre, but if anyone could transcend Janowitz in this piece, she's probably the one (and I'm very grateful indeed to have er Arabella. (I'd also rank them at the top on the Four Last Songs.

David said...

Capriccio is one of the few things I can take Schwarzkopf in, Nicholas - at least until the final scene, which needs more bloom. Her Four Last Songs seemed wrong from the start; never understood why so many people bought in to the Szell recording (the Legge machine at work?) The Bohm Capriccio with Janowitz is still probably the best on CD (Ridderbusch as La Roche, whatever his offstage persona, is even better than Hotter).

I always wonder what Della Casa must have sounded like live - difficult to get an idea of the bloom on the oldish recordings.