Friday, 4 October 2013

Parsifal all autumn, Fidelio anew

So I am now leading my not-so-secret band of 30 acolytes at the City Lit through ten classes on what Mark Wigglesworth recently declared in an email to be 'the greatest opera by the greatest composer' (he has promised us a visit). Well, it depends what you want, but after three decades' acquaintance I'm certainly more open than I used to be to the possibility that Wagner's Parsifal is the most spiritual. And I had better keep liking it because in early December I record a Building a Library for Radio 3's CD Review on this of all works. Not my choice, and a very surprising offer, but under the circumstances - and soulfully primed by the incredible Proms performance - I can only rejoice.

Ask me if I still do by 14 December, the broadcast date. But I welcome the journey ahead, be it strewn with thorns as well as roses. With the third class looming next Monday, we've still only got to the end of the Prelude after so much setting up, so many glances back at Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan. Preparing ahead to Gurnemanz's long opening narrative, I was surprised - using René Pape with Gergiev conducting Mariinsky forces in glorious sound - to discover that what had felt like the first ten minutes of the opera proper had lasted nearly half an hour.

The famous 'time becomes space' syndrome is largely due, I realised, to the special setting-up effect of the Prelude's vasts. I liked what I heard of the Mariinsky recording - past achievements of the increasingly alarming Ossetian are permitted here, live events are not - and of Marek Janowski's performance. But I stick unyieldingly, for sound and sense, to Bruno Walter's concert version with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It isn't on YouTube, and I know that background silence should really be an integral part of the experience, but I'm fascinated by Walter's 1927 version with the Royal Philharmonic, not least for the strings' extraordinary use of portamento.

Now we at last tackle the sources. My Penguin copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival is full of significant markers sticking out of the book, yet I have no memory of having read the whole. It's so funny and quaint and ungainly, reminding me why Cervantes made fun of such romances with their silly names and aims in one of my two favourite books of all time, War and Peace being the other (Pope Francis, whose demi-Tutuesque promise I must reflect in another post, also cites Don Quixote as his No. 1 and among films he loves La Strada, Roma, città aperta and The Leopard. No poker-faced prelate he).

I've also ordered up the Chrétien de Troyes version which inspired Wolfram, so bathing in chivalry will be obligatory from now on. As to interpretations of the opera, we've only just begun.

After unhappy experiences with Calixto Bieito's productions of Don Giovanni and Un ballo in maschera at English National Operas, his Parsifal was not one I thought I wanted to see. But then last season's Carmen, for all its flaws, changed my mind. And in the same way his Fidelio is touched with genuine vision as it gathers weight.

Three things drove me to want to see the ENO takeover of the Bavarian State Opera production despite warnings: Ed Gardner's conducting, especially in the Leonore No. 3 Overture which I haven't heard live for so long, Emma Bell's Leonora and the intelligence that a string quartet descends in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet - shorn of the bouncy bits; no one ever seems to jump for genuine joy in Bieito's world - after 'O namenlose Freude'. All production photos for ENO by Tristram Kenton.

This last was more compelling that I'd anticipated - indeed, moving to tears as a symbol not just of the quiet intimacy between husband and wife which the noisy duet can't achieve but also of freedom in chains: physically the players are contained, but the incredible sounds the Heath Quartet achieve reach out as the music of the spheres. It's actually the first time I've ever wept in a late Beethoven quartet movement, and the intimacy of the couple who haven't been able to express themselves properly in song alone, at least while it holds, adds to the sense of painfully private emotion.

At first the variously lit glass and steel labyrinth of Rebecca Ringst's design seems like an overwhelming concept that dwarfs the singers. Bieito seems to have no idea what to do with the unwanted characters of Marzelline and Jaquino (poor Sarah Tynan is just left to despair all over the place, with, what is it, red lipstick or blood smeared around her mouth for no intelligible reason). James Cresswell's Rocco animates the space with a well-projected bass, Philip Horst deflates it again as a woofy, self-harming Pizarro. David Pountney's English translation is banal and sounds so old-fashioned.

Yet as usual in the work, if you've got a great Leonora, everything soars upwards from 'Abscheulicher!' onwards. Emma Bell has an odd technique, a rather hollow choral-mezzo-ish sound at times, a little like Kathryn Harries used to sound with a similar mixture of hits and frays in the totally different voice of the upper register, but she projects the text with such urgency that you're won over. At times it truly is heroic. And the Prisoners' Chorus works with the voices coming at you from all levels at the front of stage, Leonora distributing photographs of her disappeared husband. This I liked.

Everything comes down to ground level for the dungeon scene. The labyrinth flips to suggest that we're heading into the depths of the earth. Perhaps it was this that allegedly prompted Gardner to throw in the towel, only to be held to his contract (a ruckus confirmed by him, again allegedly, in a pre-performance talk). Maybe a compromise was reached, for the creaking happens before the Act 2 Prelude, not during it. Last night we had a second Florestan in the absence of Stuart Skelton (pictured here), Bryan Register, a bright but genuine heroic tenor who just made the ridiculously strenuous vision music. Lovely line in the trio; not much of an actor.

Still, it all flowed, despite inept attempts at applause. A weakness, Bieito's attempt to get the singers to declaim portions of eloquent texts by Borges and Cormac McCarthy when these would have been better amplified or video-projected, had dwindled; the music took over, Gardner always lucid and keenly springing. Leonora's acid attack on Pizarro got round the usual awkwardness of a too-long freeze at the trumpet call.

The 'Heilige Dankgesang' remained the höhepunkt for me: why can't we hear the Heath Quartet's Tippett/Bartok series in the UK? Nor was the ambiguous parade-ground scene the mess I'd read about: Roland Wood's Joker-Fernando had his moment, the open-ended suggestion of government-forged manacles of a different sort after supposed liberation worked well. The blank cards with 'free' scrawled on some of them offered a symmetry to the 'disappeared' photos of the First Act, just as the quiet of the quartet echoed the only still point of Act One, the celebrated chorus. This is the kind of joining-up I always love about a more consistent genius of the stage, Richard Jones.

How often have I seen this opera fail - at Covent Garden, here at ENO under Graham Vick - and yet Bieito really had something to say at times, and said it unforgettably. Kudos. And who knows,  I may end up enjoying the Christopher Alden Fledermaus more than expected, though I'm not going to see it until after my pre-performance chat with Christopher Cook next Wednesday; much as I love the froth on CD, at least the Boskovsky and Carlos Kleiber sets, it has NEVER worked on stage for me and I don't want to slam the prison door decisively shut before I speak.

STOP PRESS (5/10) or rather something that slipped my mind: I'm talking on Mahler and Opera tomorrow (Sunday 6 October) for the Gustav Mahler Society of the UK at the airy, attractive Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge, 11-4. I'm interesting myself in unexpected areas of the subject, so I hope I can communicate that. Full details on the Mahler Society website here.


Susan Scheid said...

This is so absolutely packed with gems I don’t know where to begin! I take that back, I do, reiterating again that I hope, hope, hope you one day find a means by which to take the City Lit show “on the road,” as it were. Mark Wigglesworth might visit? That is too marvelous to imagine! (I love the way you’ve woven in Don Quixote, too.)

The Fidelio production looks so interesting, based on your reports and photographs. I don’t know this opera. Though I own it in CDs, I never really got to it. I think one really does need a DVD or live performance as the first introduction to any opera. This really got to me: “a string quartet descends in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet,” and how you describe its effect.

These are asides, but relevant at least to past exchanges and posts over here and my way. First, I had noted to me today, in a lively discussion at the Biss-Beethoven course, a DVD of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel that looks enticing (I know, we got off point over there, too!). Kirov Opera Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Galina Gorchakova. I suspect you know it, and wondered what you think? Secondly, Alex Ross posted DiDonato’s Proms performance of tanti, affetti (I put it up Over There in the sidebar). While I know you’ve have concerns about her voice, I have to say I found it hard to fault a thing here. If I’d heard that quality of performance at the Met performances I attended last year, I would have been floating on air. But my ear is uneducated, that’s for sure. And I know we both think the world of her: so right-minded and willing to speak out while others stay mum (or worse—e.g., Petrenko).

Laurent said...

Have you visited the Castles in Fussen. Louis II of Bavaria thought himself to be Parsifal.

David said...

Fidelio has always been a sometime blind spot among operas for me, Sue: probably the only one I didn't often warm to in 25 years of the City Lit Opera in Focus course. Its opening numbers are so sub-Mozart, tho' the canon, 'Abscheulicher!', the Prisoners' Chorus and a few bits of the second act go beyond Mozart's realm.

I also usually don't believe in the parade-ground ending of the famous revision - original Leonore much better - and find it verging on the totalitarian if too hard-hit, which is why I liked Mackerras's approach to it. Only worked properly in Deborah Warner's Glyndebourne production. So this one had good ideas at least.

Goodness knows how Beethoven-Biss led to The Fiery Angel but yes, that production is famous for causing a stir in Russia in 1991 (naked nuns!) It's absolutely compelling, with Gorchakova at her short-lived peak and the excellent Leiferkus. Wish I'd got to see Richard Jones's production at the Monnaie - I was poised to go, and had food poisoning. Right up his street. Don't think it was filmed.

Well, Joyce, lovely woman and all that, excellent in Rossini, but still I'm not a fan of the voice per se.

Mum or worse - just to clarify, because it doesn't seem to have been picked up much, Gergiev told a Dutch journalist that Putin's laws weren't about homosexuality, they were about paedophilia. So there, sadly, we have it.

David Damant said...

I am not sure that Beethoven, in Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony, really understood how to write for the voice. Some sense of strain. Sensational outcomes of course. I would like O namenlose Freude to last and last ( as it does in one's head)

When a famous performer was moving from one opera house to another the new intendant asked the former intendant for a reference. Glowing, but there was a sting in the tail. Look at such and such an edition of the libretto for Fidelio, page X line Y....."First kill his wife"

David said...

You can say that again - and the killer Missa Solemnis (I've sung tenor in the choruses of both, and it's exhausting). Argument goes he wanted that sense of strain in Florestan's vision of Leonora, but I've never heard it flawlessly done (by all accounts Skelton manages). On the other hand, I've never heard 'Gott! Welch Dunkel hier' more spine-tingingly executed than by a certain diplo-mate in his Helden guise.

Original version of 'O namenlose Freude' - very different - is in my books preferable. The quartet-epilogue to it was so moving, for me, not for everyone (see Fiona Maddocks in The Observer).

Now THAT's what I call an anecdote. Laugh out loud.

And Laurent, sorry, I forgot to add a response - which is that I know you've been to Fussen. Ludwig II - love it that you've frenchified him - doesn't much appeal, though my childhood self craves to see the swan grotto at Lindehof. More to my touristic instincts is the Wartburg Caste of Tannhauser fame, with the added bonus of its Luther room. Many German candidates in the romances for Montsalvat, though Wagner is clear it's in Spain. And I've been to Ravello, of course, where the lower floral exuberance is candidate for Klingsor's magic garden (I still have a postcard with a quotation from the score at the bottom!)

David Damant said...

I wonder if Galina Gorchakova is related to the princely house of Gorchakov? They are ( there is one in London at the moment) descendants of Rurik ( 862-879)the first of 52 rulers of Russia and vastly more splendid than the Romanovs ( from 1613 only, poor things... rather new). After the fall of communism the Russians added a plaque to the wall of their embassy in Berlin, commemorating the Prince Gorchakov who was a school fellow of Pushkin and Chancellor of Russia - a contemporary of Bismarck. with whom he was sometimes friendly

David said...

Now that really is a tangent to a tangent. I doubt it: she's a Siberian girl...

David Damant said...

In her website Galina Gorchakova claims decent from the princely family, though one can never be quite sure how these names originate. It would be interesting to check somehow.

If the descent is not from Rurik, the name could have occurred if there were a Jewish link somewhere. Some aristocratic names were taken by Jews when they were required to take surnames, not having had them before, and the local big name ( family or place) was quite popular. Thus I would guess that the family of Fred Austerlitz (aka Fred Astaire) came from the village of Austerlitz in Moravia ( where the battle was fought)

Susan Scheid said...

David: The Mahler talk looks wonderful! I posted it on FB, in case any Londoners are looking in . . . (On other fronts, yes, I remember that appalling Gergiev statement.) And on still other fronts, I sort of love how the comments have wended their way from Beethoven to Fred Astaire.

David said...

Thanks so much for that, Sue; I forget that Facebook, for all that I spit and fume when I look over J's shoulder at it, has its uses. So from heiligen Richard and Ludwig to Fred and Galina...

wanderer said...

A shame you missed Mr Skelton who was in splendid form I gather, and singing Florestan interspersed with Grimes no less. He's a jolly good fellow, jolly and good, and organising a fund raiser for ENO young talent programmes along with, amongst others, Iain Patterson and for which there are at least Twenty One Reasons to go.

If I were half literate in music I might be able to construct my thoughts about Fidelio into something meaningful, but all I can manage is that there is some structural awkwardness about it that leaves me quite unsatisfied in a rare case of the great master making something less than the sum of its parts. Shoot me.

Parsifal is another one of Skelton's big trump cards. I hope you let us in one the insights, as they come. It is endless and intoxicating and as David Lynchy as any plot could be, and I wonder sometimes if it's better less studied and more through a looking glass.

David said...

I know how fond you are of SS, wanderer, and I now agree - I didn't a couple of years ago - that he is the Grimes of choice. I may yet go back to see Act 2 with him in it. The production is pitifully undersold - loads of empty seats the night I went. People have 'bought' the reviews, which is a shame as when the show is good, it's astounding.

Will check your links, but I believe the fundraiser is on Wednesday, when I'm talking on Fledermaus and braving another barrage of negative reviews to see it afterwards. I actually believe it's unstageable these days, so I'll be lucky if I'm pleasantly surprised.

Like the 'Lynchy' reference to Parsifal. Just read a fascinating article by Nike Wagner on the sanctification vs wider import issue.

For yesterday's class I turned to Hotter for Knappertsbusch, the famous 1962 Bayreuth recording, re the Gurnemanz narrative in Act 1, and - though past his best then - he blew us all away. Blow me if that recording, with its fabulous sound, isn't going to figure at least very high on the list...but I have many, many more to go.

David said...

I was wrong: the fundraiser's on Thursday. I still can't go as am pledged to an Irish thingy at J's. Hearing Skelton sing the Preislied would be quite something, but I fancy the excellent Prima La Musica's 21 reasons are a bit OTT. I mean, Sarah Tynan and Leigh Melrose are fine singers and good stage animals, but would I go out of my way to hear them in the concert hall?

But ENO does need supporting. It's running up a huge deficit and I fear could go the way of New York City Opera, even if I like to think Londoners wouldn't allow it. There's a lot of bad feeling about its choice of directors at the moment. I still support John Berry as far as Bieito goes. The UK still doesn't get Regietheater at its best; Robert Wilson was laughed out of town, again IMO wrongly, for an Aida of mixed fortunes. Again, when it worked, as in the final duet, it was unlike anything else we'd seen.

Sarah said...

Well, OTT is my specialty, especially when in marketing mode! If it sells a few tickets then I've done my job. Thanks for the plug, Wanderer.

David said...

Gosh, La Musica in person! Well, at least you know I genuinely think you 'excellent' and haven't visited enough since you brought the Sydney Grimes so vividly to life. Wish I'd seen that, and that we'd had Sue Gritton the other Sunday.

Regards to the Teurer Held. Can I ask what HE thinks of the Bieito Fidelio? If negative, you simply don't have to respond. But I hope he found the string quartet moving, as I did.