Friday 25 November 2011
Tchaikovsky's elusive Tempest
Well, have you ever heard this most imaginative of ‘symphonic fantasias’ live in concert? I hadn’t until Sunday, when I reckon a trip to Rome – with which I fell headily back in love with again after a long absence from a city I thought I knew well enough not to swoon over any more – would have been worth it for twenty-odd minutes of Abbado magic alone. The man IS Prospero, for God’s sake, as one of the violinists of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, sharing the concert with Abbado’s Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, suggested in a roundabout way (‘it is not conducting, it is a Shining’). That the second-half attempted synching of various Shostakovich musics for King Lear with butchered fragments of the masterly Kozintsev film didn’t work is neither here nor there, and certainly not here in this instance because I must hold fire until I’ve got the Arts Desk piece sorted for tomorrow. Anyway, here's an Accademia-furnished photo from the occasion in the interim.
The point is just to say how ashamed I was to have forgotten Tchaikovsky’s most supernaturally beautiful Shakespeare fantasy. Heck, it’s not even on that 60-CD Brilliant set (I wonder if someone got confused with the earlier orchestral work based on Ostrovsky’s play about Katya Kabanova, The Storm?). But it seems to have been a constant in Abbado’s rep: there are two recordings, with the Chicago Symphony and then the Berlin Phil. There’s also a clip on the BPO’s website of a live performance from some time back, sadly not the bit I would have chosen, but worth seeing.
But none of Abbado’s previous performances could quite have had the tear-jerking, jaw-dropping tonal beauty which enveloped us on Sunday in the very first bars within the spectacular panavision space of Renzo Piano’s big hall. That’s a good little snippet to play blindfold to a listener and ask him or her to guess the composer (I think I might have gone for Sibelius, whose own Tempest music is peerless): this is the isle, and the sea around it, full of mysterious noises. Here’s one in the best sound I could find on YouTube – the Toscanini radio broadcast, alas, sounds awful - conducted by Eliahu Inbal
The lovers’ music may be rather more tied up with Tchaikovsky’s sense of yearning for happiness than about the more innocent Ferdinand and Miranda, but how it ravishes on each appearance (such scoring – and we’re talking the youngish Tchaikovsky of 1873 here).
Ariel and Caliban, too, he gets exactly right. Only the development is a bit perfunctory alongside the final, perfected version of Romeo and Juliet. But I salute the composer’s courage in ending where he started, with the island magic. A great piece, worthy to set alongside Sibelius’s late universe of illustrative numbers. I also dug into Sullivan’s incidental music, and there are some winsome dances there.
Tchaikovsky’s genius burned brighter than anyone had led me to believe last night when Neil Bartlett’s production of The Queen of Spades for Opera North played in the Barbican Theatre. Perhaps I was overcompensating for the sheer unfathomable blandness – Toby Spence excepted - of Deborah Warner’s fuzzy, traditional ENO Eugene Onegin; but I did find myself swept up in the tension that takes hold halfway through and, in the right hands, doesn’t let up until the final requiem.
At first I wondered. Richard Farnes’s way, though accomplished, with the doomy Prelude seemed a bit too leisurely: would there be enough narrative sweep in the drama proper? That soon surfaced, but then Kandis Cook’s multipurpose cheapish set with its moveable walls didn’t seem amenable to atmosphere and wasn’t always well lit. It did the opening garden scene a disservice but worked for Lisa’s room, the party
and the Countess’s bedchamber. And soon a not too laboured pattern emerged in Bartlett’s production – a thousand times clearer and more definite with the characters than Warner’s over at ENO. In every little diverting scene or number, somebody’s out of step or mood with the conformist, and usually uniformly costumed, group: a bullied boy soldier, unhappy Lisa when Paulina and the girls try to entertain her, the affianced couple in the party intermezzo, Yeletsky in the gambling room, even Tomsky himself, a bit of a seedy outsider – though not quite as much, of course, as poor Herman.
Whom I pitied, as one should. I know the never over-finessed big tenor of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts has run into difficulties up top; he needs time out to firm it up with a good coach or teacher, I don’t think it’s too late, and the middle range remains strong as well as diction-clear. Nor are he and statuesque Orla Boylan ever going to be Love’s Young Dream.
But I’m not sure Tchaikovsky, already bending Pushkin’s cynical story overmuch, intended that. The more truthful a production, and the pithier the translation – by unfairly maligned Martin Pickard, as in the Onegin, this time with Bartlett’s collaboration - the more artificial their stock protestations in the first love scene are going to seem.
What the English text does stress is that the third man seeking the Countess’s three-card secret is a lover as well as an obsessive, and this is novelly played through thanks to Jo Barstow’s incredible characterization. She made very little impact in the nothing-doing Zambello production at Covent Garden, but here she moves through a succession of bewigged mannequin poses
to reveal the woman who still thinks she’s beautiful and alluring – and in this case, remarkably, is, as she uses her dancer’s arms to shed the years in the Gretry aria. Its second verse even out-pianissimo’ed the immortal Felicity Palmer in the classic Glyndebourne production. And Herman’s persecution, more a wooing until he pulls his pistol out (make what you will of that), is as compelling as her death and her sensuous ghost-appearance.
As for Orla – well, I adore her. I heard hardly any of the avowed pitching problems last night, and she does the stricken pathos of the Canal Scene better than any soprano I’ve seen on stage (and more on disc, like Gergiev’s Guleghina, tire at this point; Boylan’s strong semi-dramatic voice doesn’t). The smaller roles all mean something, as none did in the ENO Onegin. William Dazeley's very fine Yeletsky (in the shot below right taking on Herman's final challenge) suggests he'd have been a much better choice of Onegin over at ENO. I liked the contraltoid Paulina of Russian-born Alexandra Sherman - though the 'Chloe' to her 'Daphnis' in the pastoral was poor - and wondered who was singing the excellent Gouvernantka telling off her charges so charmingly in Act 1 Scene 2. It turned out to be that veteran characterizer Fiona Kimm.
The final scene maintains the tension Bartlett and Farnes have established from the bedchamber encounter onwards, helped out perhaps by the second of two cuts (bit of a shame to lose some of the only authentic Pushkinian lines in the gambling-den romp, but never mind). Farnes has true music-theatre instinct; though the Opera North violins need a few extra members, the orchestral sound is strong and true and survives the hideously dry Barbican Theatre acoustics. And there was no problem in having most of the brass and the timps on either side of the stage. What a great and inventive opera it is, even in its padding; and Bartlett saw to it that even the extra stuff tied in well. And thank God - after the leaden waits in Warner's Onegin - for fluid scene changes. Can’t wait for Ruddigore tonight.
Production photos of Opera North's Queen of Spades by Bill Cooper