Monday, 14 December 2009

Scorched by the flames

The image I have in mind is the fire of art; but let's try another. How many singers have flown too near the sun and tumbled earthwards after singing Brunnhilde, Isolde, Tristan? At the Glyndebourne Janacek study day, I learned with sadness and shock that you could also add Jenufa and Katya Kabanova to the lists. Jenufa cover Miranda Keys confided movingly what Peter Wedd had told her: that wonderful Susan Chilcott believed the cancer which was to kill her had partly come about from taking her Janacek heroines home with her and letting their problems weigh heavy.

So how far should you go with a character who demands everything? Do you protect yourself and make the audience weep, but stay calm and objective? The question arose on Thursday night when glorious Christine Brewer (pictured below by Christian Steiner) seemed very much in command of her Isolde Liebestod and Brunnhilde Immolation Scene.

In terms of expression and colour, everything was there (see my review of this and Mackerras's equally commanding second concert on theartsdesk). But one distinguished audience member felt that she 'didn't quite go there'. Is that the price for survival? It put me in mind of all the great singers I've seen who gave what the X Factor folk like to describe as one hundred and fifty per cent, but who didn't last. Maria Ewing, yes, don't laugh, was an electrifying Composer when Glyndebourne brought Ariadne auf Naxos to the Proms. A few years later she was a ghost, or a parody, of her former self. Susan Dunn delivered the 'Libera me' in Verdi's Requiem as I've never heard it before or since, but less than a year later was off the scene.

And then, of course, I come back to Linda Esther Gray, whose problems were triggered by a life-or-death operation, but - never mind that; her Isolde with Goodall is a reminder of someone very distinctly 'going there', admittedly with more than a little help from her conductor, and taking us with her. She came to the Mackerras Wagnerfest with me and was as generous and exuberant as ever, quietly chuckling with joy when Brewer hit her top notes spot-on and clearly carried away by the return of Sieglinde's theme.

Afterwards, having gone backstage to see an understandably disoriented Brewer and Mackerras, we had a drink with Anthony Negus, backbone of Welsh National Opera and a superb conductor; I heard him take over from Jurowski in the baked-beans Wozzeck, and his last-minute rescue act for The Sacrifice when Jimmy MacM was stuck in Glasgow fog is soon to be heard on Chandos (I was delighted that JM, knowing I love this opera, asked me to write the notes, and seemed very pleased with the results). Here is a somewhat demonic looking AN with Linda, who guaranteed he wouldn't mind the picture appearing.

Having started with Rackham, let's end with Walter Crane. I was very, very moved by Angela Carter's re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and struck by the links she makes with The Bloody Chamber. This is, indeed, the redemption of romance: A Winter's Tale to follow Titus Andronicus.

OK, so Crane's Beast is a boar and not a lion. But I still want to trouble you with Carter's ending. The spaniel mentioned in the last line, by the way, is Mr Lyon's pet, usually adorned with a necklace rather than a plain dog collar before she gets into a sorry state with the Beast's decline.

When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers. Her tears fell on his face like snow and, under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow. And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.

'Do you know', said Mr Lyon, 'I think I might be able to manage a little breakfast today, Beauty, if you would eat something with me.'

Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals


John said...


Will said...

Among the prematurely fallen Wagnerians, there was Roberta Knie (also a splendid Elektra for a couple of seasons) who blew out a really superb instrument. Did you have her ever in the UK?

Licia Albanese perpetually advised young sopranos that it is the audience that must be brought to tears, not the singer. That said, she was frequently a total wreck, a fountain of tears in Madama Butterfly. A classic case of "Do as I say, not as I do."

David said...

I never saw Roberta Knie, and the name only rings a very dim bell.

Thanks for the Albanese practice v preaching. I actually don't believe that you can work on the public effectively if you're not totally involved - it was impressive to see the usually poised if not rather chilly Frittoli after her surprising Suor Angelica looking like she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards.

The real problem, then, is not crying DURING the performance. FLott told how she was always a flood of tears processing with her fellow Carmelites to the scaffold at the end of Poulenc's opera. As who could not be?

JVaughan said...


Mr. Robert Hugill, whose blog I follow and with many of whose views I agree, notably re Handel, wrote favourably about this Brewer/Mackerras Wagner concert, and I wish I could have heard the _Tannhauser_ and _Tristan_ excerpts in particular since I have yet to really hear him conduct anything from either of those works, though I do know that there are recordings of those excerpts from Australia. I have and value the _Gotterdammerung_ excerpts from the 70's with the same two principals who would later figure in the complete Goodall recording, though the orchestra at least threatens to drown them at times. Yet _WHAT_ freshness is in that Dawn Duet, and those closing bars are some of the finest Puccini I ever expect to hear, and I do not say that sarcastically since we know that Wagner valued Italianate singing!

I heard Miss Knie's Isolde once, in a concert performance at the University of Maryland on a _HOT_ Summer evening in 1978. It was done in the Bayreuth manner, with a long first interval for dinner or whatever and a somewhat-shorter second one. Yet the air conditioning in the Tawes Theatre was not working, but _WHAT_ inspired music-making there somehow was, and the audience, doubtless suffering the heat and humidity as well, was _ENTHRALLED_, giving justly-earned extatic standing ovations at the end of each act! I liked Miss Knie's Isolde, but the real surprise of the evening for me was Mr. Jess Thomas's Tristan, offering the finest singing I have _EVER_ heard from him! I also recall enjoying the other principals as well, though the late Mr. Paul Hume of the _Washington_ _Post_ expressed to me a reservation about the Koenig Marke, feeling that his characterization may not have been as intense as it should have been. I heard at least some of Miss Knie's Isolde again, in a broadcast from Lyric Opera of Chicago with, I seem to recall, Der Vickers as Tristan!

I have been meaning to add, in your latest _Rosenkavalier_ thread, that the audible shifts in the E. Kleiber which appeal most to me are in the final section of the Prelude and whenever that music recurs later, though doubtless such are also apt in the waltzes!

We are having a _LUSTY_ snowstorm here to day, with an expected total accumulation of from 14-20 inches by the time it ends. High winds are also predicted for this afternoon, but I have yet to hear those.

Wishing you, yours, and your readers the best for the upcoming Season and New Year of 2010,

J. V.

David said...

Well, we sought some shelter from the rather wonderful winter cold today in the warmth of Richard Jones's Annie Get Your Gun and also caught some Azerbaijani dancing on the Southbank as we walked back.

I spoke to Sir Charles yesterday morning and he lamented with his usual good grace the fact that he doesn't have the energy these days for whole Wagner operas, only 'bleeding chunks'. I wish some of my fellow critics could have received this with a better grace.

Will said...

From Berlin (Irving) to Azerbaijan--I do love the modern city!

David said...

Indeed - and of course Izzy B travelled from the shtetl to New York, from Yiddish to colloquial Americanese fitting the music like a glove - what a songsmith! Is there any musical with a bigger clutch of hits?

The show, by the way, is superlatively good and I want to go on about it, but I'll let the stardust settle a bit first.

JVaughan said...

If the man is not up to it anymore, he is just not up to it, and we need to respect that, no matter how much we may wish to the contrary.

It would be nice to hear a complete, and hopefully-authentic, _Annie_ _Get_ _Your_ _Gun_, and such is now hopefully possible, given DVD's and, perhaps in a few instances, more-complete CD recordings than we used to have.

Did you hear the excerpt from the Harnoncourt _Porgy_ _And_ _Bess_ on _CD_ _Review_ this morning? Some of the singers had too much vibrato for my personal taste, and the opening chorus of the picnic scene was more foursquare than in the Houston performance I like most, but we got an interesting "It Ain't Necessarily So," and Maestro Harnoncourt seemed to be doing some nice things with the orchestra. Yet I expect this recording will not be replacing the Houston in my collection.

J. V.

David said...

There's a superb very complete (79mins) disc of Annie with Kim Criswell, cond. McGlinn (remember the luxury era of EMI musicals?) I've been listening to it, and - well, only Hampson can match Howard Keel as Bill. Terrific arrangements, one supplementary number and all the dance stuff.

Can't see the point of the Harnoncourt Porgy - and with a non-black chorus to whom swinging doesn't come nat'rally? Need to spend more time as it is with Rattle, Maazel and the older versions.

JVaughan said...

I have and enjoy both the McGlinn _Showboat_ and _Brigadoon_, though, while they are indeed more complete than what we used to get, regret their decisions to still limit what they include from the books. Yet, from what I learned in its notes, a fair amount of _Brigadoon_'s story is conveyed through dance, and thus, even were every word of Lerner's book included, we still would be missing something for not seeing the visuals. Yet I would _MUCH_ rather have had a word-complete 1927 _Show_ _Boat_ instead of devoting most of its third disc to all those appendices, valuable though they are in their own way and _SUPERB_ though the rest of what we are given is, at least for me. We seem to live in a music-ueber-alles age, and we indeed want all of the music, but, as I probably have written here before, these are integral works of art, so why not take the trouble to experience them thus?! Since you mentioned the arrangements for this _Annie_, and since Maestro McGlinn usually uses original orchestrations when he has them, do I assume that the originals for this show were either lost or destroyed, or, Berlin not being as sophisticated as some, was his choice of orchestrator, if he indeed chose one himself, somehow deemed incompetent? From what I have heard of Miss Criswell, notably during the MGM-Musicals Prom, she has a brashness at least remotely, if not more, akin to La Merman's, and thus she is probably an apt choice for that role. We may already have discussed Mr. Hampson! I am already hearing him singing "They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful" in my head, and _LIKING_ it!

I could not agree more about the necessity of a black chorus for _Porgy_, and, of course, the Houston Grand Opera recording is one of those older ones, coming surprisingly-close upon the heels of the Maazel for some reason. It has been a considerable while since I have been around _Wozzeck_, so would have to re-visit to find out what connection, if any, there is between Bess and Marie, though do know that both are susceptible to more than one man. Yet I do not currently recall if Marie is as gullible as bess, though she might be.

J. V.