Monday 1 June 2020

Elektra's death-dance, Butterfly's flight

For much of my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on Richard Strauss's Elektra - three out of five - we have been incredibly lucky and honoured to have the insights of Susan Bullock, one of the world's great performers of the role (pictured below at the Royal Opera by Clive Barda), who's since entered what she calls 'a whole new world of weird' - the strange territory of mother Clytemnestra's suppurating conscience.

And now, on the Monday after next, Ermonela Jaho will join us for the third class on Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Ermonela was to have repeated her triumph in the role at the Royal Opera (pictured above by Bill Cooper) this summer, but sadly it's not to be; though you can catch her equally heartbreaking Suor Angelica in the screening of the Trittico as vividly realised by Richard Jones in the company's next weekly offering. She'll be there next Monday to talk about the challenges in the first part of Act Two, Puccini's longest and most intense psychological study (and it includes 'Un bel di').

Sue was there throughout our second and third sessions (there she is on the first of two screens above, second row down on the left. You may need to click to enlarge). When she wasn't able to attend the last Elektra class - online coaching has now taken over at the Royal Academy of Music's request - she sent what amounted to three wonderful essays on the Recognition Scene, Elektra's encounter with Aegisth and the turbulent finale. It made me think she should write a book on, say, five or six heroines she knows inside out - Brünnhilde, Isolde, Salome, Elektra, Madama Butterfly, perhaps Katya Kabanova - from her performing perspective. Always going in-depth with the marriage of words and music, text and dynamics - what she had to say about Schoenberg's Erwartung in the second class was fascinating - she could fill a real need, and weave in the crucial autobiography around it. Any publishers out there? I'll do some canvassing.

I am also indebted to Sue for putting me on to her admiration for a great (the greatest?) Elektra, Astrid Varnay. My allegiance, recordings and performance wise, has been to Nilsson (of course), Behrens,  Ibge Borkh,  Erna Schlüter, but now I'm a convert to Varnay's recordings with Mitropoulos live and Richard Kraus in the studio (where her sister Chrysothemis is sung by Leonie Rysanek, later Elektra in the Götz Friedrich film to Varnay's Clytemnestra).

The Mitropoulos experience is a live 1949 New York concert performance which plonks an interval at the end of Clytemnestra's short-lived triumphal interlude and goes on to omit the second Elektra-Chrysothemis scene. The sound is fairly dim for the orchestra, but what pacing and textural clarity! The end is wackier than usual; Varnay decides to go up to a top for her final note (tan-zen, a B, not a low F sharp) and the woodwind hang on before the final two-note thwack.The Kraus sounds much better, and he was a good conductor, but it doesn't quite have that level of visceral excitement. But it is complete.

That final scene wasn't the only end-of-class experience to leave me all worked up and discombobulated. It wasn't until we had the introductory class to Butterfly that I realised we'd left a suffocating, brilliantly-lit house for the open air and a chance to soar into blue skies (for at least the first act and half of the second).

I loved excursions into Saint-Saëns's La princesse jaune and Messager's Madame Chrysanthème (I've just started reading Pierre Loti's memoir-novella which was the basis for that pretty operette); and only just realised what really connects Madama Butterfly with The Mikado beyond the use of the same folksong and the japonaiserie - Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Coasting with Pavarotti, Robert Kerns and Karajan from 'America for ever!' to the arrival of Butterfly put me back into that peculiar lyric ecstasy in which Puccini is unsurpassed. And he was, of course, just as consummate an orchestrator as Strauss. Happy days ahead.

Meanwhile, the course on the symphony from Haydn to Adams has taken on a hue I hadn't anticipated, which is to say distinguished guests on a weekly basis; not sure I can keep it up for every class. I mentioned in the introductory post (all 11 classes duly listed there) having the gift of Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page to comment on Haydn and Mozart, then Mark Wigglesworth with Jonny for Beethoven. It was a real bonus that Nicholas Collon was able to join us for half an hour at the beginning of the class on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (his performance with the Aurora Orchestra from memory is still there on their website, as is their 'Eroica' and now their 'Pastoral').

On Thursday I made the acquaintance of Berlin-based conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire (pictured above by David Beecroft), 15 years a bassoonist with the great orchestras and under the best conductors (Abbado, Haitink, Kirill Petrenko, Rattle, not a bad list). I'm so grateful to Aude-Marie Auphan of Victoria Rowsell Management, with its roster of selectively excellent artists, for putting us in touch.

Catherine (top row centre above; as with the Elektra class Zoom image, click to enlarge) was brilliant and vivacious on every point, and she induced in me a Sehnsucht to go and live in Berlin. Heck, what a dream: a country where music, and the arts in general, matter to so many more people than they do here, where the orchestral musicians are still on full pay, where there's been a civic and governmental responsibility to the C-19 crisis lacking, at least from our disastrous leadership, here. As our stumbling, irresponsible government in Westminster, in marked contrast to the real leaders in Scotland and Wales, plunges us into another vortex, the thought of joining a responsible society has become very pressing. There have been serious discussions at home; watch this space.

In the meantime, this coming Thursday's class has a double whammy: Paavo Järvi to discuss the unique finale of Brahms's Fourth, Vladimir Jurowski on the endgame genius in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Musicians on the continent are now beginning to go back to their full schedules again - for Vladimir it's a series of challenging programmes with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (listen here to the first), for Paavo work before the second season with his Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and, yes, the Pärnu Festival in July. which I hope and pray to attend because it's my favourite in the world - so we're very lucky to have had this window of opportunity.

UPDATE: I must write more about this anon, but Paavo is joining us this coming Thursday for Mahler 3, Vladimir Jurowski was with us for two hours on Brahms 4 and Tchaikovsky 6 - revelatory - and Ermonela Jaho for two and a half hours yesterday, including a full hour-long masterclass on 'Un bel di'. These are such exceptional human beings as well as top musicians.

SECOND UPDATE (22/6): This is going to look like bragging, but I'm very proud and happy about the latest developments. Vasily Petrenko joined the symphony class last Thursday to talk about Mahler, Elgar, the musical philistinism of British politicians and adapting to smaller forces post-crisis. Mark Elder is visiting the Butterfly class today, while Antonio Pappano has pledged to Zoom in for our grand finale next Monday. More developments expected...


David Damant said...

Sue Bullock's singingof the recognition scene ( "even the dogs in the yard recognised me, but not my sister") was one of the only two occasions since I reached man's estate when tears ran down my face.

David said...

I count it a failure if I DON'T weep every time that's performed. But then I count myself very lucky to have seen other greats in the role - Behrens, Gwyneth Jones, Marton, Goerke (excellent in everything but the very top register, rather crucial). Likewise, show me a Butterfly who doesn't reduce me to a sobbing wreck and I'll be surprised (though I've been left dry-eyed on three occasions).

David Damant said...

We may be in the presence of a difference of opinion. I do not believe that the straightforward human tragedy of Butterfly is tragedy of the important kind. Stories are not important. It is the analysis of the human predicament that is the mark of a great work of art. Hamlet is not about the Prince of Denmark, Wuthering Heights is asking the question of the universe " What does it mean ?". Electra is at a level ( I am not referring to musical achievement in a technical sense) above Puccini (though there are a few bits of some of his operas where I have been pulled up ). Nevertheless I am amazed, David, at the level of your knowledge and insights

David said...

The trouble is that you have held and touted this inflexible view for decades. I think if you'd joined the Butterfly class you might feel differently. And musical achievement is worth little 'in a technical sense'; it's not only about the perfect matching of means to dramatic ends but also in finding a dimension that goes beyond words into something transcendental. Puccini manages that in Butterfly. which is in any case anything but straightforwad as a human tragedy. Glad I don't have to rank Elektra and Butterfly; they are both great masterpieces which achieve different things. One is not better than the other.

Susan E Scheid said...

I'm so pleased to be able to participate in the symphony class. Each week is full of new delights. Catherine Larsen-Maguire is a firecracker, and so knowledgeable; the two of you make a tremendous musical "tag team." I second, also, your alert to the first in Jurowski's Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts. His programming bears the hallmark of his unique perspective in his intelligently chosen progression from piece to piece. Each of your guests--along with Larsen-Maguire, that's Jonathan Bloxham, Ian Page, Mark Wigglesworth, and Jurowski so far--is tremendously generous in time and insight, and bravo most of all to you for putting this all together and offering the through line of your own expert analysis. A tip of the hat, too, for your lists of pieces from which you offer excerpts to illustrate your points. Those, along with the main selections, provide me with wonderful listening the whole week long. (Right now, it's the Brahms Handel variations.) Thank you so much for all.

David said...

And thank you so much, Sue, for your support as ever. No harm in saying that you give back in spades through your support of Democratic candidates and the information you send me about them. I need that chapter and verse on hope for America now that we are so mired in our Toronic nightmare, potentially for another three years.

I have to say that only this extraordinary time has made these classes what they are (very special to me too). Thre's time to reflect, digest and breathe around them, without the usual hurly-burly, and our guests would not be able to give so geneously of their knowledge under usual cicumstances either.