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 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.


Geo. said...

Jump-starting the dangler on your earlier post, to take care of various miscellaneous points before moving on to new pastures.

On Testimony, I guess that we agree to disagree, as what you mentioned of Mark Wigglesworth's evaluation of it as 'true in essence' is perilously close to what Stephen Colbert called "truthiness". I was using the term 'politically correct' as more of a generic swipe at the right-wing, which misappropriated the term to justify its own bigotries (e.g. Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Kim Davis, Rick Santorum). I'm sure you know that 'politically correct' was originally a term invented by the left as a bit of self-mockery. Unfortunately, as so often happens, the wrong people (on the right, of course) stole the term for their own sleazy use. Interestingly, John Drummond in his autobiography used the term as a cudgel as well, but I have a sinking feeling that JD didn't quite realize the origins of the term.

On Mahler 6, that is indeed clever marketing by the BR team for the new Harding album. I did catch your segment on iPlayer with the quick discussion about the middle movements; sorry that I didn't think to get to it before my earlier posting on the other thread. It's interesting that the folks who use the somewhat superficial argument that the Scherzo sounds too much like the 1st movement (and thus A/S is 'better') ignore that the uneasy mood of the Scherzo, if placed 3rd, disrupts the emotional equilibrium before the ultimate catastrophe of the Finale too quickly. Unfortunately, Ratz didn't help us with such sloppy scholarship in his 1963 edition.

On Nielsen 3 with the SLSO a few weeks back, John Storgards led it exceptionally well, and I got the sense that he was having a good time with it, with the orchestra. I'm with you in not being a particular fan of Alan Gilbert, although anyone willing to champion Nielsen's symphonies gets some brownie points.

OK, on to new stuff here. I've never seen a Bielto production, but it sounds as though I'm not missing a whole lot. I think the Metropolitan Opera will get a Bielto production in the next few years, but I forget which opera. Glad to know that MW is doing well with the ENO orchestra and chorus. If ENO thinks that they can take the financial risks on a new Ring, perhaps they could bring back the old Andrew Porter translation? I've heard comments of 'meh' on the newer English translation that ENO has incorporated.

Besides MW potentially conducting a new ENO Ring, I wonder if maybe ENO would book Anthony Negus for some Wagner? AN seems to have quite the cult following for his Wagner, in the manner of Reginald Goodall (and hopefully without the distasteful personal politics).

I wonder if you have any thoughts on Lothar Koenigs' impending departure from WNO, as the announcement of his successor seemed rather to throw LK under the bus by not mentioning LK at all. LK is set to conduct his last performances of the new Metropolitan Opera Lulu, which definitely look of interest.

David said...

'A Bieito production in the next few years' at the Met, Geo.? This one, though I don't know about the casting. I read about Tamara Wilson's total triumph in an otherwise routine Aida there, so I hope they've chosen her.

Negus is a fine Wagnerian, and so - with little experience - was Gardner, but I still think Wigglesworth would bring something even more extraordinary, to judge from his ENO Parsifal.

Can't remember where the 'political correctness' strand came from - haven't looked back - but Stephen Kovacevich used it in a way I didn't quite care for, which didn't make him look good or even interesting on it, so I sheared a whole chunk from the interview.

I don't know anything about Tomáš Hanus, but Koenigs has done magnificent work with WNO and I wish I'd seen more of him. His Meistersinger was superlatively good, couldn't fault it.

Susan Scheid said...

I raced over to see whether Tamara Wilson will appear at the Met this season, but no dice. Such a shame. I very much liked Forza in my one exposure, but I wouldn't relish the Bieito production, from what you describe, so I hope when/if Wilson returns to the Met, it's not in that production.

David said...

Well, Sue, a Bieito production with a couple of revelatory scenes - and there's always one in the general skewing - has to be worth more than the kind of trad Italian production we last had for Forza at the Royal Opera. And when the singers go with it, and they did their best, it can give a special kind of experience. This one is being broadcast on 26 December, so you can hear La Wilson on Radio 3.

Geo. said...

Well, the joke is on me, and I honestly wasn't sandbagging this advance insider gossip info, but apparently the first Bielto production to go to the Met will be .... this very ENO production. No idea of Bielto will tweak it at all beforehand, or if Peter Gelb will prevail upon Bielto to tone things down a bit. I wouldn't be surprised if Gelb wants to HD this Forza, which might require some tweaking to make it "PG-13", or at least not overtly "R"-rated.

BTW, if things go well, I might have a chance to catch your conducting hero live in an all-Rachmaninov program, if world events don't intrude. (BTW, the "PC" strand came from your 'Foo-chick' post.)

David said...

Ummm - yes, see above response to your first comment here. No censorship needed, I wouldn't have thought, and if they could manage to exclude at least two of the women-on-knees-having-hair-pulled incidents, that would help to tighten it up, though it has a long, long way to go in that respect. There's no sex, only violence, and some of it very unconvincing. Bieito has swapped chaos for static tableaux which are a long way from Verdi's lively genre scenes, and of course there's not a glimmer of humour.

Anyway, Wigglesworth swept it along; I hope you get him over there. By 'conducting hero', do you mean Neeme? I still have at least half a dozen 'heroes'.

Geo. said...

On the 'conducting hero' point, you guessed it indeed, Neeme Jarvi, with the New York Philharmonic last week, this program. This was my second live concert hearing him conduct, after the first some years back when he was music director of the New Jersey Symphony. I suspect this 2nd time will be the last, since he doesn't get anywhere near my neighborhood these days. The NYT review was a bit unfairly harsh in its critique of the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 1, unless they had a slightly off night on the 1st night. Amazingly, this set of concerts marked the first time the NY Phil had ever performed it. The very first time was last Thursday; I was @ the 2nd performance. Daniil Trifonov (my 1st time seeing him live anywhere) was splendid in the Piano Concerto No. 4, although the work's slow movement is still irredeemable and hopeless, IMHO. It was interesting to read in the program note the quote from Rachmaninoff himself, to Medtner, to the effect that "why didn't you tell me that the theme of the slow movement is the same as the 1st movement of the Schumann Concerto?", as I'd always regard as a really lame version of 'Three Blind Mice'.

While in NYC, I did catch the new William Kentridge production of Lulu, with Marlis Petersen doing her final set of performances in the title role. She rocked the house, as one would expect. Kentridge may well be the opposite of Bielto as a director, since Kentridge is a visual artist rather than a full-time stage director. So I've no idea how the Bielto production will fly at the Met when it's time comes. There's also the question of who'll be in the cast, and there again, I've no idea.

David said...

Again, you were pipped to the post by Sue Scheid in comments to the reprint post ('priez pour paix'). She found it electrifying. Zachary Wolfe also surprised a pal I made in Lahti, Sedgwick Clark, Editor of Musical America, who took issue with the terms 'stolid' and 'colorless' (as applied to the strings). Neeme is never either of those, surely. Interesting about the Schumann ref. If it applies, it's to the major key rather than the original minor version (which is also another contender for the clarinet solo in *** of the Enigma Variations - Elgar's 'braut', Helen Weaver, played the Schumann Concerto.

Tamara Wilson came to talk to my students last night - an amazing lady - and from her I gather Sandra ?Radvanovsky? will be the Leonora at the Met. Her tales of her own Met debut replacing Latonia Moore in Aida were hair-raising.