Saturday, 14 November 2015
Farewell Katerina, welcome Leonora
Prefatory note: this was mostly written before I heard the news today. Not that there's anything to say except, thoughts not just to Paris but to the families of everyone blown up or mown down indiscriminately in tens and thousands around the world so far this terrible century. It's almost too much to bear..
As on the stage of the London Coliseum, so in my Opera in Depth course - we've said our goodbyes to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (ENO production image by Clive Barda) after six Monday afternoons and found ourselves hooked by Verdi's La Forza del destino (or rather "Force" as they have to call it at ENO, though I'd be happier with The Power of Fate as an English title. All ENO photos by Robert Workman). We had a very distinguished transitioner, new ENO chief conductor Mark Wigglesworth, to talk us through a retrospective on Lady M and what to expect from his second opera of the season. He's generous with his time, candid and of course absolutely the best thing that could have happened to ENO after Edward Gardner, able to apply his own deep sound to an orchestra (and chorus, too) in top shape.
Even more amazing is that I asked him if he'd mind mentioning to American soprano Tamara Wilson, making her London debut and giving possibly the operatic performance of the year as Verdi's Leonora, that we'd like her to visit us at the Frontline. She said she'd come, with wit and verve, and so Monday 23 November will be a love-in with La Wilson. If you'd like to attend this one-off, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I've even been able to schedule an extra class at the end of term so we don't miss out on going through the opera (and four two-hour sessions still aren't enough).
I'm able to divulge what I thought of Force now that my Radio 3 Music Matters chat with Tom Service, who was very much on the same wavelength, has been broadcast; it's up on the iPlayer and as podcast here*. As expected, Calixto Bieito's production was a maddening mix of woolly, repetitive grimness and the odd scene of penetrating brilliance. Certainly I wept and was left shaken when our pitiable heroine seeks consolation in a monastery and meets - wrench of Verdi's intention, this, I know - only sadism and brutality. But as this is the Spanish Catholic church, is it that surprising? Coincidentally, I've just been reading in Glenn Watkins' beautifully written The Gesualdo Hex a document testifying to Spanish monks' infinite misogyny (we're talking Civil War with Bieito, though it's too much to the fore rather than providing a context for the private pursuit of revenge).
Bieito, as usual, overstates that misogyny; there's hardly a scene where a woman isn't on her knees having her hair pulled, or worse - and the expensive set on the revolve isn't usually as effective as it looks above, though the video projections are always impressive. But thanks to Wilson's magnetic acting with voice, face and body, and her fusion with Wigglesworth's phenomenally dramatic and stage-attuned conducting, pity and terror were the keynotes at the end of ENO's first half. There are plenty of hallucinatory moments, like 'Piu tranquillo l'alma sento' and the ghostly clarinet and violin solo reprises of the big phrase in the preceding aria. James Cresswell played his metallic-grim bass part in this superbly: could he play Wotan to Wilson's Brünnhilde, if she stays the course and develops as expected? Mark MUST do a new Ring at ENO, and Richard Jones has said he's willing to look at it again after one and a half productions, so how about it?
We have, of course, to wait another act and a half for Leonora to return, whereupon the tension levels rise again, and the floating of the lines in the great trio of Verdi's revision banish regrets that Bieito didn't go with the first version, very much his line with two corpses and Alvaro throwing himself off a rock cursing God. The other payoff is the most intensely quiet of pianissimos from the ENO Orchestra. Heck, they could all do Aida *now*.
For me, neither of the genre scenes works. Bieito insists on decontextualising them, replacing the old messes of his Don Giovanni et al with chorus stock still in lines; the patchy lighting means you can't often see who's singing when. Predictably, every moment is brutal here, no light and shade (though I wouldn't condone a completely cosy Preziosilla either). Andrew Shore was presumably engaged to make a funny Melitone, but he's just horrid according to Bieito.
The two principal men don't blend well, though each is good. Gwyn Hughes Jones, as we know from his Walther in the ENO Mastersingers, is tireless but a bit bright and underballasted for a tenor of his build; Anthony Michaels-Moore is now merely solid in middle range, inaudible below - I used to like him a lot. Still, he plays the war-crazed veteran compellingly in a Klaus Kinski kind of way. Bieito doesn't help the two stagewise, keeping them apart until Alvaro rants about pulling a knife on Carlo when he's pinioned under him with no chance of doing so. GHJ does fire on all cylinders in the last act, though.
Mark prepared us well the Monday before. Interestingly he had been engaged, before his big appointment, to conduct the opening opera of the season, but that had changed to Carmen. And he was already down to return for another Lady Macbeth. I can't remember everything he said - should have recorded the talk - but among the most interesting observations was one in which he said that while singers will do anything a director asks - because they've come from a musical, rather than a theatrical training, and lack the confidence to speak out - they won't take notes from the conductor half so readily. Though I imagine Wilson did both, so closely bound to her orchestra in sense and intensity, so committed to the sometimes cruel hoops through which Bieito put her, did she seem.
In the first hour of that class, we finished off Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - or rather Katerina Izmailova, since it was Shostakovich's revision, further cut, which Mikhail Shapiro used in his 1964 film. Mark came in to see the very end, Vishnevskaya so devoted as Katerina that she was prepared not to have a body double for her character drowning self and fellow convict Sonyetka in the Volga.
Memorably she spoke about it some years back - 'weather very cold, water very wet' - and writes in Galina: A Russian Story of how because a reel had been lost the scene had to be re-filmed, not in warm water near Odessa but in the much chillier Gulf of Finland. Well, it was worth it. We also used scenes from Martin Kušej's Amsterdam production with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris; the class agreed that the wedding scene was more convincing than it had been in Tcherniakov's ENO staging. Otherwise, I beg to differ with some of them that his Act Four was unsatisfactory; for me, that was pure genius.
In the meantime, Georg Friedrich Haas's Morgen und Abend really worked for me at its Royal Opera world premiere last night (we're back to the great Clive Barda for the last image, of Sarah Wegener as Signe and Christoph Pohl as her dead, or departing, father Johannes). Wish we could have asked Graham Vick back to talk about it; apparently he adores the music, and I can well see how it would get under one's skin. Haas is fascinating talking to Tom on that same Music Matters episode: the notion that if you love something enough, there will aways be people in the audience who love it too is beautifully put.
*And/or you might like to listen to Tom Jones interviewed by Cerys Matthews on the BBC World Service. Total tonic on a day bleak in more ways than one.