Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Korngold saved in Munich miracle

It was only under pressure from several of my Opera in Depth Zoom students that I didn't spend a whole term on Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, covering it in a mere seven lectures and saving three for Korngold's Die tote Stadt (which, as The Dead City, opens at ENO this coming Saturday). Ultimately, I'm glad I did, because it introduced me to one of the most moving and real productions of any opera I've seen, Simon Stone's for the Bavarian State Opera with dream casting in Jonas Kaufmann as Paul (never better) and Marlis Petersen as Marietta/Marie, and simply phenomenal conducting by Kirill Petrenko.

Everything's been topsy-turvy in my acquaintance with this peculiar opera. I should have seen it in Vienna, but the baritone was ill, so they replaced it with L'elisir d'amore (and we went instead to see a somewhat crapulous Otto Schenk in an all-male production of Wilde's Bunbury, oder wie wichtig ist est Ernst zu sein - novelty value, but poor, we left at the interval). I myself was ill during the Royal Opera run. I'd only half-listened to the Leinsdorf recording, and before the classes read Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte in a translation by Mike Mitchell, approaching the opera from the wrong end, as it turned out.

Decadent, melancholy Bruges is the protagonist in the book, twinned in the Dedalus edition with Rodenbach's essay The Death Throes of Towns, with which it shares so many phrases and images. 'How moving she is in this centuries-old consumption, in which the town stricken with death spits out one by one her stones - as if from her lungs - and especially moving on this autumnal November morning, beneath a sky whose pallor is in perfect accord with her own!' It chimes - bells playing a crucial role, incidentally - with the main character of the novel, Hugues, who 'needed a dead town to correspond to his dead wife...He needed infinite silence and an existence that was so monotonous it almost failed to give him a sense of belief'. (Portrait of Rodenbach below with Bruges in the background by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer).

Into this buried-barely alive-existence comes Jane, a dancer in the local production of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, who seems to bear a direct resemblance to the unnamed wife. The novel isn't in the first person, but nearly everything is seen from the obsessive widower's perspective, and the living woman's character resides only in her responses. I came eventually to see that Korngold and his critic father, disguised librettists of the opera, don't really care much for characterising Bruges - which the composer may or may not have visited as a teenager - or finding water music. But the operatic take on the renamed Jane, Marietta to Marie the dead wife, is marvellous and modern: a feminist figure of immense vitality, embodying the spirit of life as dance (Petersen seen as Marietta below in Stone's production with her fellow players in an intermezzo that starts out like the one in Ariadne auf Naxos but eventually turns sinister).

Stone capitalises on this, as he outlines in a booklet interview. He says he wants to avoid the 'old fashioned and conservative interpretation' of Marietta as wilfully tormenting Paul (which seems to be the case in the novel, where the character is called Hugues). Instead, Stone declares,

Marietta is a self-confident, happy, affectionate, freedom-loving, adventurous, open-minded woman. And it's exactly this woman whom Paul needed to come into his life and drag him out of his coccoon of sorrow, a dead person whom he had completely under his control. He packed her life into boxes and catalogued it. The desire for control is an instinct that all men carry within themselves and which lead to tension in relationships. Paul is an extreme example of this. So, Marietta is the most challenging of polar opposites to Paul that you could imagine.

We believe in Paul's obsession and Marietta's vitality almost from the start in this production. And we witness Marietta's despair in trying to bring Paul back to life and love that she feels for him - that he, clearly, reciprocates, if only he could break away from his control of the dead wife. 

Is this only a partial vision? In relation to the original story, yes; in terms of Korngold's wish to have his cake and eat it, the solution seems to me totally engaging and moving. The first two acts, after all, end with dancing vibrancy, while at the end of the third the Korngolds, having dispensed with the actual ending of Rodenbach's bleak novel, waken Paul from his nightmare and suggest a brighter future, though Stone points out in the interview that it will be a tough one. I now understand why there's less melancholy in this opera than I originally wanted - Korngold, after all, seems to have been very exuberant in his early 20s - although a Bruges-like dankness hangs around Paul's dialogue with the vision of Marie, which Stone, and Petersen's stunning transformation, make all too plausible.

Quite apart from the utterly involving theatrical experience, we witness two singers tackling roles of superhuman difficulty - the tenor especially needs massive stamina to sing so often in the middle to upper reaches of his voice - without drawing attention to the fact. As one of my students pointed out, she'd only seen productions before this where the strain is in the tenor's voice, while here that never happens with Kaufmann, so all the tension can go into the acting. And Petersen has no hard edges to her voice, so we get none of the usual dramatic-soprano hysteria and just total, lovable energy (her Marietta pictured below at the start of Pierrot's Song in Act 2, so well sung by baritone Andrzej Filończyk, who incarnates both Paul's friend Frank and the troupe player Fritz).

Leinsdorf's recording made me feel that the score is too splashy, with way too much celesta, piano and harp, too many voice-smothering outbursts; there's none of that from the amazing Petrenko, who makes it sound like a masterpiece. Perhaps it is; I wonder what the ENO production will tell us. But one thing's for sure - these DVDs should be an essential part of anyone's opera collection.

More on the Rosenkavalier experience anon (what guests we had: Felicity Lott and John Tomlinson together for the final session, and in separate Zooms, Richard Jones and his movement directer/choreographer Sarah Fahie, Peter Rose, Paula Murrihy and Fergus Sheil while they were rehearsing for the superlative Irish National Opera production). What it does seem pertinent to mention in connection with Die tote Stadt is my first acquaintance with the great Irish writer Sebastian Barry in his most recent novel, Old God's Time. So seductive is the prose in the early chapters that you might be lulled - I was - into thinking this is a poetic reflection on the past by a retired detective in his Dalkey retreat. What's to tell about the past? In fact this turns out to be another high drama about lacerating grief - without giving too much away, it turns out that Tom Kettle is a veritable job in his past afflictions - bound in with a surprising element of thriller. 

I'll say no more; read it, and meanwhile I'll get hold of other Barrys once I've worked my way through Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star - more essential set-in-Bruges reading to follow Rodenbach (Hollinghust provides a fine introduction to the English translation of Bruges-la-Morte

Next term's Opera in Depth choices, by the way, are Handel's Serse - inspired by the peerlessly cast English Concert performance last yeat in St Martin-in-the-Fields, due for release very soon - and (because I'll spend three rather than the usual five classes on that), a Poulenc survey over seven Mondays: one class apiece on La voix humaine and Les mamelles de Tirésias, triumphs of Glyndebourne's 2022 season, and then five on Dialogues Des Carmélites, due this year. Leave a message with your email (I won't publish it but I'll get back to you)  if you're interested in joining us - which, thanks to Zoom, you can do from anywhere in the world, and claim videos of any classes you can't make live.

Friday, 24 February 2023

Wings and weather around visits to The Beast

On Tuesday I rang the bell to mark an end to five weeks of radio/chemotherapy which, it's hoped, will have frazzled my bowel tumour. Before that, a colonoscopy, various scans (several involving unexpected manual probes...), and two biopsies under general anaesthetic. Borderline Stage One/Two cancer like this would normally be removed in an op, but as mine is in a difficult place, and it would be a whopper involving plastic surgery and stoma, my wonderfully energetic surgeon Maria suggested I try an alternative route first.

I now wait eight weeks for an MRI scan to see if this has done the trick, and if not...still the op. But at least I know I'll be fine; I'm one of the lucky ones. Below is one of the three identical Beasts, so named by my kind friend Maev, who also took the photo below. Very impressive; it circulates around you like the spaceships dancing to the Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I've also been fortunate in having only a ten minute walk to Charing Cross Hospital each weekday morning., with various cafes to stop off at on the way back if I have the time. I asked for early appointments because I wanted to carry on my Monday and Thursday afternoon Zoom classes - on Der Rosenkavalier and Nielsen respectively - which have helped keep me buoyant. I've also kept on reviewing, and witnessed some wonderful chamber and orchestral concerts, plus operatic production of varying degrees of success, mich the most impressive being Richard Jones's wacky new ENO take on Wagner's The Rheingold.

The main payoff of this is Margravine Cemetery, an arboretum with 70 different kind of trees and attendant birds: my big delight here was to witness the return of the overwintering Redwing flock which I missed last year.

I also took it as a good omen that while walking along the home square to the first treatment, I heard, then saw, Goldfinches in the early morning light. They haven't been back to the Niger seed feeder in the back for about a year, but good to know they're still around.

This was Day One, 18 January - a frosty day, one of many, beautifying the graveyard.

On the way back, it was surely serendipity that I bumped into near-neighbours Suchi and Jonathan, whom I hadn't seen since semi-Lockdown walks around the cemetery. We'd been planning to meet up, but now they were insistent that I joined them for supper as many nights of the week as I liked. Didn't want to overdo it, but have enjoyed two evenings of superb southern Indian vegetarian food and excellent company, the second on the eve of my last treatment earlier this week. I'm so grateful to them and all friends far and wide who've been supportive in one way or another. Certainly not been short of invitations to lunch and coffee...

While a hint of spring was already evident that day,

I snapped the first crocus in Margravine territory on 20 January, 

which was when I first saw the Redwings this year.

Three days later, an even more spectacular frost hit. I don't remember one quite like it in London, but probably I'm not usually walking in semi-nature so early in the morning.

Attempts have been made to have plenty of 'art' on the walls of the Radiotherapy Centre, and the theme here was alphabet-themed, but I did have to wonder about the wisdom of this one, next to one of the rooms where I had regular bladder tests (machine below pic) before the meeting with The Beast.

Moving swiftly on, here from 30 January is a clump of snowdrops from 30 January,


and crocuses waxing more abundant.

For about a week resurfacing of the cemetery paths meant I had skirt the edge, but that was all the better for catching the female Peregrine perched on the top of the hospital from different angles. Using my Leica Zoom to the full meant these aren't ideally sharp, but you get the gist.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, I'd joined the Peregrine watchers in the graveyard, was summoned to look through their telescope - 'be quick, before she flies off' - and then saw her swoop at immense speed over Margraviniana, circling back again (though without prey). Many of the hospital staff didn't know about their nesting guests who bring such glamour to the massive block, so it was good to be able to tell them and show them the pics. 

More common, but still a delight: on the morning of 6 February, there was a twitterfest going on just a couple of block further down the square, a convocation of Great Tits (here's one),

and the ubiquitous Ring-Necked Parakeets still add such colour, especially when they're eating the blossom on the cemetery's first flowering tree.

Snowdrops were now flourishing nearby,

and the magnolia next to the prunus will be flowering soon (though at the end of last week, there were no signs of that in Kew Gardens' magnolia grove.

Here's the first magnolia flower I saw, on Monday morning.

It's part of the beautifully landscaped garden in front of the Maggie's Centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital. Read the story of the inspirational Maggie Keswick Jencks and her husband Charles here. I really regret not having gone there earlier - I hadn't even noticed it, though I knew of its existence from friend Cally, who found and still finds it a godsend during and after her extensive treatment last year - but I investigated on my penultimate day of treatment, and found it a very Utopia.

The building, like all Maggie's Centres, is an architectural treasure, designed by Rogers (as in Richard) Stirk Harbour + Partners, and won two RIBA awards in 2009; again, the website entry is excellent on this. This is the entrance as I first saw it

and one side of the building with the magnolia in front of it.

I look forward to the garden, designed by Dan Pearson, flourishing as the spring arrives - this is one of the first bloomers, a hamamelis or witch hazel - 

 and the three lovely people I met who worked there told me I was welcome to visit for as long as I wanted - one person in remission have been coming for nine years. Anyway, I earmarked it to host the four friends who wanted to come and hear me ring the bell on Tuesday. After my quickest ever treatment - 20 minutes; bladder and bowel fullness or not mean getting to be zapped can take up to an hour or more, and if you go later, there are inevitable delays - I had time to kill, so I wandered round the cemetery again and was very happy to hear the Redwing flock in full voice and see them in full flit and forage

before returning to radiotherapy reception at the time I'd told my pals to come along, 10.15. Wonderful Sharon, seen in the second photo below beckoning in the flowery blouse, summoned as many of the staff who could make it to witness my three rings.

My absolute faves weren't on duty at the time, but all the staff have been kind and courteous, without exception, and I was especially pleased to see my oncologist, Dr Basiak, who looked delighted: she's next to my flowers in the third pic, with friend Deborah behind. Then with a Gail's bag full of buns and cakes to Maggie's, where we sat at the central table and had excellent conversations with other visitors. None of them is in the below picture, because reasonably enough when I asked if I could take it, the request was to keep it to my friends - Carolyn, Tania, Henrik and Deborah. But you can see how lovely it is.

And soon, at last, I get to see my one and only in Dublin after a month apart; he was here for five weeks over Xmas and New Year, but the start of my treatment was put back, so he could only be around for my first four days. But how blessed I am in such good friends to provide support. Onwards!

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Zoom courses: from Lucretia to Rosenkavalier

"S'ist mein Leiblied' - 'it's my favourite song' - declares Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier of his signature waltz-tune. By the same token, Rosenkavalier is probably my Leiboper - certainly the one I know best, the intricacies of which, in both Hofmannsthal's libretto and Strauss's music, seem inexhaustible. This coming term's Zoom course, starting tomorrow (9 January) will be my third visit in the opera classes, but since the last time there have been new recordings and new productions on video (including Bruno Ravella's for Garsington, the exquisite and Grace-Kelly-stylish Miah Persson's Marschallin and Hanna Hipp's fine Octavian pictured in it above by Johan Persson; Irish National Opera takes on this staging in March with a fine cast led by Celine Byrne, the fabulous Paula Murrihy and Claudia Boyle). There's always more to discover. And as always when I repeat a classic, I don't look back on old notes. 

Last term ended rather more positively than I was expecting. I'd been reluctant to revisit Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, so whittled it down to three rather than five classes (Rosenkavalier will have seven, Korngold's Die tote Stadt also three). Ronald Duncan's often excruciating libretto troubled me even more in Oliver Mears' production when I saw it at Aldeburgh

I'd always wondered about André Obey's play Le viol de Lucrèce - about which all the contributors to the Rape of Lucretia symposium book I picked up are so cagey that an addendum slip had to be printed giving it proper credit. Then I found that Thornton Wilder had translated it in 1933. Surely Eric Crozier, at least, knew this? It's so much better, in every respect, than the drama Duncan fashioned. For a start there's no Christian overlay. There ARE two narrators, a man who follows Tarquin's progress, a woman who reflects Lucrèce, but they don't appear until Obey's second act (the first has two soldiers relay, chorus-like, what's going on in Collatine's tent). The aftermath is much more acceptable today: Lucrèce as powerful tragic heroine, knowing that her divulging of the rape will trigger Collatine's vengeance and a Roman uprising, not some self-disgusted victim. 

At the beginning of the last and third class I continued the comparison between opera and play. But joining us were Jean Rigby, the most moving Lucretia I've ever seen on stage, and her husband Jamie Hayes, who'd directed the work for British Youth Opera. Jean had already instigated a kind of cast reunion of the original Glyndebourne Albert Herring - since I don't seem to have written about it here, I must boast about the other visitors: John Graham Hall, Alan Opie, Felicity Palmer, Alexander Oliver and Felicity Lott (who sang Lady Billows in a revival) - and I knew what a fun and generous person she is. 

Everything Jean had to say about the circumstances around that remarkable Graham Vick Lucretia at ENO back in 1987 informed what we were about to watch - namely Act Two from the moment Tarquinius awakens Lucretia to the end of the opera. And the film itself was testament to how, when every singer has worked on phrasing and meaning so intensively - not just Jean, but everyone else in an extraordinary cast - reservations about the infelicties of the text vanish in the face of such consummate music-making, such singing-acting. The whole film is available on YouTube but in a fuzzy picture, so I recommend you get the DVD. 

We were blessed with our guests this last term. I'm so happy that John Savournin, our most innovative living Savoyard as singer and director, was able to join us for the two classes on The Yeomen of the Guard (I still didn't manage to persuade two students that G&S is worthy of keeping company with the best). John's brilliant re-imagining of Patience for nine singers at Wilton's Music Hall was the big surprise in my operatic 'Best of 2022' for The Arts Desk. When we spoke he was preparing for the last performance of Golijov's Ainadamar at Scottish Opera, a production I long to see; hence, I think, the moustache.

And right at the end of the five classes on Verdi's Aida, I suddenly remembered that Tamara Wilson, one of the most generous of guests way back when I was still giving live classes at the Frontline Club and she was performing Leonora in The Force of Destiny at ENO, had sung the title role all round the world (but not, sadly, in the UK, and after a bad experience in Verona which I think may have had to do with a refusal to sing it in blackface, as the vile Netrebko recently did, she has retired the role from her rep). 

When we met online, Tammy was preparing to revisit the role of Turandot, this time for Barrie Kosky in Amsterdam (I was so hoping we could go and stay with our friends there, and see it, before Christmas, but too many hospital appointments got in the way). I remembered how revelatory she had been on the previous visit about how she marks up the score, and includes intentions, and so requested she did the same here. The 'intention' behind 'straniero, ascolta!', for instance, reads 'feel pleasure that I'm going to kill him'.

So yes, what fun we had. And I'm hoping we'll be able to welcome at least one Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie and Ochs to the Rosenkavalier sessions; watch this space. Still not too late to join if you can - from anywhere in the world, time depending. And if you can't make the class, you get the video. Full details below; click to enlarge.