Thursday 18 October 2012

Other Annas, other Rings

Forgive the note of unusual negativity in a blog which is mostly about sounding enthusiasms: this is a post about why I’m not going to the movies to see Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, and why I’ve not returned to Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production of Wagner's Ring after an underwhelmed first visit. The positives are rather retrospective, but ideals are difficult to shift once you’ve witnessed them. There can only be new experiences of visions which work very differently but on the same level or else disappointments in store.

As for Anna Karenina, first of course you should read (or re-read: note to self) Tolstoy’s novel, and  then head not to the cinema but to DVD to see the old BBC serialization with an unforgettable central performance by Nicola Pagett (pictured above).

Why? Most obviously because the leisure of a multi-parter is always going to be more apposite to Tolstoy’s panorama than a film, even one that’s more than the standard 90 minutes long (a notable exception is Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic, still selective take on War and Peace). The Garbo version, by the way, is beyond bad. But above all I think the BBC casting of Tolstoy's protagonist was so right, possibly because for me as a teenager Pagett WAS Anna before I came to read the book, and even the reading didn't change that. A revisit suggests she’s still apt in so many ways – not least for the nervous intensity, the hectic flushes, which we now know were part of this talented, bipolar actress’s burden in real life. Pagett’s is a vulnerable heroine for whom you want the best, even when you know she’s doomed not to realize it.

The BBC series also gave proper weight to the parallel, equally significant strand of Tolstoy’s self-portrait – following bits of himself projected into both Prince Andrey and Pierre in War and Peace – as Levin. When I heard that the new film doesn’t bring Levin and Anna together, as they must be brought in any adaptation, that was another nail in the coffin of its reputation.

Of course the 1970s television production values were not as high as they’ve become in recent classic serials: Bleak House and Little Dorrit being atmospheric good examples, the recent Great Expectations a misapplication of misty gloom (and vanity casting) over the vitality of Dickens’s novel. But when the performances are as good as they were in the BBC Anna – and that includes Stuart Wilson, Eric Porter and Robert Swann – they overcome the creaky sets and garish studio lighting. A return to the BBC War and Peace, on the other hand, proved disillusioning: though Anthony Hopkins plays Pierre with extraordinary nuance, Morag Hood’s Natasha is too old for the impetuous teenager and lacks charm throughout. The 70s hairstyles, too, are more than a circumstantial liability.

Reports from trusted sources have suggested that many of the major drawbacks in the Royal Opera’s Ring revival still loom large. Not that I probably could have got a ticket even if I wanted to: the house was not giving any to The Arts Desk or any online reviews site, and getting a paid seat was going to be next to impossible. But on my previous visit I hadn't taken away any favourable impressions of the way Keith Warner swilled around a lot of half-cooked ideas, not at least beyond Rheingold, which is in any case a rather theoretical box of tricks and in this case promised more than the rest delivered. And Warner’s real weakness was to pay too little attention to the chemistry of all the crucial one-to-ones; this is where any great Ring production, whatever you think of its mises-en-scene, makes its mark.

I’m glad if Pappano has more grasp of the oceanic tides than back in 2006-7, and if great Bryn now has the strength to make it as Wotan and Wanderer (he was tired out by the end of Walküre when I saw it, but still a major reason for going). Yet while Covent Garden has done right by Sue Bullock, as it should have in the first place when the house cast Lisa Gasteen, she of the shot top, as Brünnhilde, the Siegfried problem continues: Stefan Vinke makes a horrid noise, or did when I heard him labour his way through Proms performances of Mahler’s Eighth and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. I wouldn’t hold out much for his skill as an actor, either. (UPDATE - 11/2/2019 - how wrong I was on that count, seeing him as the Siegfried Siegfried this season. Fabulous forging scene too)

The point is, if you're keen to experience the whole marathon for its own sake, your money will at least have been decently spent. It might be worth while tuning in to Radio 3, currently halfway through its broadcasts from the Royal Opera. But the Ring remains, for me, the sum of the great cycles I’ve seen which worked: Chéreau’s incendiary Bayreuth Centenary staging – my way in as watched, one act per week, on TV during my student years; Kupfer’s first take, which I was lucky enough to see at Wagner’s home shrine, and if I never get there again, I’ll at least have had my vision; and the Richard Jones production at Covent Garden. Not all of it worked, but there Jones's radical ideas resonated throughout the four operas as Warner's much less rigorous rattlebag did not (and Jones's Siegfried was sheer genius). Even the Phyllida Lloyd staging for ENO had unforgettable hits among the misses – I nearly left her Valkyrie after Act One, but Lloyd upped its game from Brünnhilde’s annunciation of death to Siegmund onwards, and the Twilight was inspired as a production from start to finish.

Anyway, talking of potted adaptations, I wonder what we shall make of Henk de Vlieger’s 60-plus minute symphonic tour of Ring orchestral highlights, due from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the excellent Mark Wigglesworth tomorrow night (and already espoused by Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos, a recording I have yet to hear). On Tuesday with the BBCSO course students, I had one hour on Tippett’s Triple Concerto, the first work in the concert – triggering a heated debate of pros versus cons, with me somewhere in the middle – and one on the essence of the Ring, with glimpses of the beginning and the end and in between, a couple of selections from the momentous later stages of Rheingold and Walküre to deal with transformation/dramatic introduction of the leifmotifs, and a gallery of nature pictures – water, air, fire and earth.

Those should all be there tomorrow, but will the experience add up? Sometimes charisma can make it work - I love mad Stokowski's 'symphonic syntheses' from the Ring, Tristan and Parsifal, especially in his portamenti-laden Philadelphia recordings from the 1930s. Here's his take sans voices on Act Three of Parsifal.

As for Wigglesworth's Wagner (and Tippett), if you can't be there at the Barbican, the concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. STOP PRESS (20/10): It worked, it truly did (and the Tippett was compelling, too). Listen to the concert for the next seven days here and read the Arts Desk review here.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

One crazy day

Referring, of course, to the action packed world of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, currently running at Glyndebourne in a very classy touring version of Michael Grandage’s production, rather than the Study Day before it, masterminded by Sarah Lenton with a pair of excellent actors (Anna Brecon and Marcus Hutton) to take on multiple roles and in which I played my part as the morning's musical guide. In the afternoon's session, singers who will take over the roles of Susanna and Figaro later in the tour, Ellie Laugharne and Derek Welton, were joined by Marcellina Jean Rigby for a guided tour around some of the treasures.

Preparing to condense the joys of Figaro into one hour (!) only made me fall head over heels in love again with this most flawless of all musical comedies – though I wasn’t expecting so much from the Grandage show as revived by Ian Rutherford; production photos suggested a facile disjunction between the late 60s costumes and the crumbling elegance of a Moorish palace (fabulously designed by Christopher Oram and often evocatively lit by Paule Constable).

While I’m not convinced that the chosen era and its fashions went much beyond the decorative, I did suspend my disbelief at the whole shifting of the class boundaries from social to financial – ‘l’argent fait tout’, as Marcellina sings, in this bohemian world – and thought the evocation of the time added mostly a sense of fun. Jiving and twisting lent a groovy weirdness to the behaviour of Bartolo (Andrew Slater, most amusing) as well as a delightful exuberance to the wedding fandango. Floppy hats made the ladies’ disguises in Act Four more plausible than usual, despite the difference in their heights. And a terrific wig + Zapata moustache + funky flares + flowery shirts + a nice array of waistcoats dolled up the Count to make him a mixture of sexiness and absurdity.

American John Moore, who plays Almaviva until the tour shifts base, couldn’t have been better: an assured actor, reining in any caricatural aspect by striking a fine balance between preening and insecurity, and as a singer of impressive control never overdoing or forcing the big vengeance aria in Act Three. Which was where, in this musically brilliant and up until then pacy Figaro, we finally took a breather and allowed the aristocratic characters their display.

Layla Claire’s Countess, drifting around in floaty dresses and platform shoes, was more than equal to hers, drawing on luscious resources of colour and ornamental prowess so that you felt she could do anything in ‘Dove sono’: likewise, a finer Rosina I’ve not seen on stage (though Dorothea Röschmann at the Royal Opera was wonderful on a bigger scale; but Glyndebourne's is really the ideal for this work - no need to test the singers' projection any further).

Joélle Harvey, a petite Susanna with excellent eyes for comedy, followed the distinction of Claire's set piece with a heavenly Act Four serenade. Taking the Study Day folk through it, I’d mixed and matched Reri Grist (regal for very slow Klemperer), Barbara Bonney and Lucia Popp, but Harvey had her own subtle charms to rival them all, including a last-minute gem of gorgeous ornamentation. Only the Figaro pictured with her above, Guido Loconsolo, fell behind the other three principals – and behind conductor Jonathan Cohen’s vigilant beat; the only times in the whole evening where energy levels dropped were in his ‘Non piu andrai’ and ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’. I must say I didn’t mind the Marcellina and Basilio arias being cut from Act Four; to have heard them would have marred what felt like structural perfection. And, as we'd discussed earlier, it makes you realise all the more how Mozart and Da Ponte raise the servants to the level of their masters when their arias stand in similar relief.

Cohen did a superlative job of making the numbers flow so that the first two acts dazzled with their action: fast tempi, very often, but with plenty of breathing expression from strings and wind. And the deftness of the Overture was well worth keeping down the curtain for (in the main season, the Count and Countess drove up to Aguas Frescas in a sports car - not a touring option, if you see what I mean, and the revolve which revealed the different rooms of the palace had to go, too. Optional-opulent extras both, I'm guessing).

So much depends, in comic terms, on the right pace from the conductor: I got goosebumps of sheer pleasure when the music slowed to reveal Cherubino hiding, or Susanna stepping mock-innocently out of the closet. The recits were delivered with gilding style from fortepiano continuo player Ashok Gupta, and such quick-witted meaning from the singers that you’d have thought all the members of the cast were native Italian speakers (whom to credit most? Grandage? Rutherford? The conductor? The language coach?)

Kathryn Rudge may not have been quite the most quicksilver of Cherubinos, but Cohen got such a spring from the furtive ecstasy of pizzicato strings lining ‘Voi che sapete’ that the spirit of delight steered us happily through. The superhuman happiness of the great Sextet and the Countess’s pardon rose to the heights, too. Not much more to ask, then (except a stronger Figaro); and if the production found no novel ways of expressing the ensemble oppositions and the comic twists, then we were fairly comfortable with that since the singers all seemed happy in their characters’ skins.

Glyndebourne rehearsal standards had clearly wrought the usual high-level results. The work's the thing, and thanks especially to Cohen, his Count, Countess and Susanna, we all came out reeling afresh at Mozart’s comic genius.

As for Glyndebourne, it was looking especially enchanting on a sunny Sunday morning, when I arrived for the soundchecks: dew on the lawns and mist on the fields. Something of that brilliance had faded by the time I took these pictures in the late afternoon, but the essence of the early autumn mood down by the lake remains.

All production photos by Bill Cooper for Glyndebourne

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Concert afterchat: bells and Poe

At the end of his hard working week with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and just after Rachmaninov’s serene epilogue to all the doom of Poe’s funeral bells had sent us floating down from the Festival Hall, a beaming and relaxed Vladimir Jurowski joined me for a post-concert dialogue in the RFH’s ballroom zone. That’s another prime pick from Chris Christodoulou’s Proms shots above – we annually present a selection on The Arts Desk – which seemed like a better lead than the diplo-mate’s loyal phoneshot of the afterchat, though here it is anyway.

We talked about the weird disappointment of this brilliantly planned Bells ‘n Poe programme having been cancelled a month ago on what should have been its first airing: the lights failed at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival so – no concert (and they’d even flown in a baritone to replace indisposed Vladimir Chernov at 24 hours’ notice). VJ mused on The Bells’ ill-starred history - it has a reputation, it seems, somewhat akin to the Scottish Play - despite its highest place in the composer’s self-esteem, starting with the misplaced dedication to Mengelberg who’d only just dissed the work (hard to understand why). 

Although the ‘choral symphony’ has plenty of light and shade, it fascinates me especially how Rachmaninov goes beyond the bleak finality of Poe’s death-ode and provides the most levitational – I have to repeat that word, especially in the context of Saturday’s performance – conclusion imaginable. Jurowski remembered, as so well do I, Svetlanov’s last concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and how, knowing he was very shortly to die, the great man stretched out the transcendence to seeming infinity. That searing event has been issued on CD, but isn’t on YouTube, but another classic Russian recording is, albeit somewhat oddly via a crackly LP rather than the CD transfer – Kondrashin’s Moscow Philharmonic stunner. The final Lento lugubre begins at 23’36; the levitation comes at 32’40 though needs to be prefaced with at least a bit of the preceding gloom to have its due effect.

Here's some more of Poe's text if you feel like accompanying your listening with a bit of authentic English-language flavour (though even enlarged, it's not always easy to decipher):

VJ seemed pleased with his own matured interpretation of a work he loves: I mentioned the exceptional balances in the glitter of the sleigh-bells movement, and he felt that tenor Sergei Skorokhodov and the amalgamated London Symphony and London Philharmonic Choirs had really, for once, come through the orchestral busy-ness. He wanted a feeling of exultation, not craven terror, in the ‘Alarm Bells’ movement: this, after all, was 1913, when the imaginative anticipation of sweeping away the old order was far from the horrifying reality it would become.

I was impressed how little Jurowski repeated of what he’d recorded for the LPO’s website, where he expounded so eloquently on the place of bells in Russian culture as the only instruments heard in Orthodox services and on the Russification of Edgar Allan Poe. Even so, he is clearly so involved with the poetry of Konstantin Balmont, Poe’s distinguished Russian (hyper) translator, that he had more to say about this silver-age master. We to- and fro-d a bit about the other bell pieces on the programme, post-war collages by Shchedrin and Denisov which I think I’ve written just enough about on the Arts Desk review. Curiously there is a performance of Denisov's impressionistic Bells in the Fog on YouTube, though alas the audience is not as receptive to its cusp-of-silence beginning as Saturday night's crowd was.The big picture, by the way, is of Sofia Gubaidulina, for me the greatest voice of contemporary Russian music.

Jurowski also passionately defended the other Poe-inspired piece on the programme, Myaskovsky’s Silentium. As he pointed out, the Poe fable of a man who can withstand anything the Devil throws at him except silence is a tale for our times, perhaps even more so than for the late 1830s when it was written. So far as the symphonic parable is concerned, there’s a loyal Jurowski family connection with the honourable, somewhat lugubrious Myaskovsky, and I couldn’t help but admire the dogged sombreness of this early piece, so often mentioned in the correspondence with Prokofiev. Jurowski sticks to the line that ‘Myaskusya’ develops his symphonic ideas better than Prokofiev, who was often openly dismissive of his musical substance – as was I when VJ conducted the Sixth Symphony, a work I’d been hoping to like as well as I had on a first recorded hearing.

So I suspect VJ was being a bit naughty in passing a passionate Myaskovsky admirer’s question about why we didn’t hear more of the 27 symphonies over to me, and what I thought might be the problem. But I voiced my mixed feelings about the unevenness and deferred back to him again, since he’s spent time studying the works as I have not.

Come question time, I was glad one lady took us back to the earlier concert in the week, and – observing how the players seemed to have a whale of a time in the ‘symphonic picture’ drawn from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten - asked whose selection it was. Jurowski’s, of course, and I’m glad we agreed on the awfulness of Strauss’s own ‘fantasia’, which VJ pointed out contains much of the worst music in the opera. There was another great critical split along the lines of the Martinů divide on how effective this much more interesting selection was; having accepted that we weren’t going to get the voices, I tried to enjoy it for what it was, and found myself seduced by all those odd extra instruments on full display: the Chinese gongs, the glass harmonica (pictured below in hands-on by Thomas Bloch; no working one in either of the big Russian cities, Jurowski told me about a performance there), the four tenor tubas. It gave me a fresh perspective on Strauss’s extraordinary score, and you can’t ask for more than that. 

Coming up: three titanic programmes from the tireless Jurowski, linking British and Russian attitudes to ‘War and Peace’, marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Borodino and 70 years since the premiere of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. It should be amazing to hear the Russian National Orchestra tackle Vaughan Williams’s Sixth – VJ reports that Muscovite audiences were stunned by that unique, drifting finale – and combined Anglo-Russian forces in Shostakovich 7. Too much choice this week, alas: to be loyal to my BBC Symphony Orchestra class, I have to attend that band’s first concert of the season tomorrow and miss Jurowski’s Prokofiev War and Peace scenes: not too great a wrench when the alternative is to hear Jukka-Pekka Saraste conduct Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and the peerless Alice Coote singing the most beautiful song in the world, Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, among the Rückert Lieder. 

Image of a lighthouse bell in Primorsky Krai in Russia's far east above by V Kotelnikov, courtesy of Russian language Wikipedia