Sunday, 27 April 2014
It's been a poleaxing week, in a good way - working backwards, revelatory later Tippett from the phenomenal Steven Osborne and the poised Heath Quartet at the Wigmore last night, an exhausting but instructive and probably unrepeatable double bill of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, with many of the same Russian actors in both, on Thursday - and my introduction to the unique world of Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Group in the Freedom Tent of the People's Park, Cannon Hill on Tuesday. Courtesy of BBC Radio 3's invitation, it was an evening I hope I'll remember clearly for the rest of my life. All the following production photos are by Donald Cooper.
The Utopia I mean certainly isn't the solution of Musorgsky's Old (here True, in other words religious extremist) Believers, a desperate and far from positive mass suicide. In fact all propositions fail in the world of Khovanshchina, set in a time of troubles in some ways like our own transitional, confused and confusing age, as Vick and his translator Max Hoehn understand so well. No, I'm referring to the possibilities realised in this astounding project, above all the unbelievable success of involving local people of all creeds and colours as chorus and actors and bringing us all as standing, shunted-around spectators to the table of a hopeless debate about the future.
Vick's genius, as I said in a rather stunned aftermath recorded for yesterday's Music Matters (also available as a download for the next month), is to save the ubiquitous contemporary references - now obligatory in both Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov, full of tiresome cliches in Calixto Bieito's world-today production now out on DVD - from being just about Russia now, where as Vick points out the past has become the present again. I did feel, incidentally, that as featured on the neat little Radio 3 survey he was a touch craven in interview to say that Britain is actually worse: let him try living under Putin, rather than just dropping in as he's about to for his second production of War and Peace at the Mariinsky, which will have to steer clear of similar controversy (I was there in 1991, as Leningrad was turning back to being St Petersburg again, for his first).
It was a coup in every way to field four fine black singers, three basses and a tenor, to make the power struggle more suggestive of America (and even of the Middle East: Joseph Guyton's coke-sniffing, gun-toting Andrey could be modelled on the sons of several bloody-handed tyrants dead and alive). As are the Christian fundamentalists, while the protesting men evoke Occupy and our own deep trouble with the bankers.
The European riot police are believable, but it's hard to imagine our own bobbies behaving so wildly. But the scene where the Streltsy are harangued by their wives is fun until it all goes sour, so why not enjoy a bit of fantasy with that? Of course it's anything but fun when the young Peter I's advisers show their fangs and dodgy liberal Golitsyn is sent into exile, forced to strip off as he and his supporters are hustled into a van by all-too-familiar balaclavaed gunmen. Shame there wasn't a publicity shot of this scene; perhaps it wouldn't serve Vick's impending trip to Russia too well. Another clever touch, incidentally: while the True Believers wear T shirts bearing the slogan 'Not In This World', a 'terrorist' takes off his combat gear to reveal the slogan 'In This World'
All this takes place on at least a dozen acting spaces inside the huge tent. But there are none of the compromises you might expect. As far as I could tell - and I don't know the work inside out - this was a complete performing version of Shostakovich's orchestration concluded by the quieter ending Stravinsky and Ravel put together for Diaghilev in 1913. There were no supertitles and no amplification. There was a full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a raised platform, fluently conducted by Stuart Stratford; the brass made such an immediate impact that I guessed without knowing that we were hearing Shostakovich's unmistakeable work, and the opening 'Dawn on the Moscow River' rose slowly out of the hubbub, soon stilled, like the most beautiful of morning mists.
We get no further respite of that sort until the final gathering of the True Believers, with whom we now sympathise even though we know what they've stood for. The gathering apocalypse is also chillingly evoked in Ron Howell's choreography by the perverted sexuality and forced nightclub dancing of far-right leader Ivan Khovansky's failing campaign before his murder
In the earlier stages there's plenty of spirit and humour. I've always been a bit bored by the opening scene until the big bass and tenor Khovanskys appear; not here with Paul Nilon's superlative Scribe-as-hack-journalist. And the meeting of princes with Old Believer Dosifey in Golitsyn's palace becomes a riveting telly debate with humorous touches from Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, his every word superbly projected.
Often, of course, you don't get the line up of sacred monsters you'd expect at the Mariinsky or Bolshoy, but each fine singer is totally inside his or her role. Guyton (pictured above) shows huge promise as an Andrey Khovansky verging on heroic-tenor territory, and Claudia Huckle's Marfa, seen below with Keel Watson as 'father' Dosifey, plays the confused young girl with some moral sense superbly. Her pianissimos in the final scene draw us in still further. I'm not entirely sure about the final solution, but you can't really have a big fire in a tent.
So I'm not exaggerating when I say that not only have I never seen a more gripping Khovanshchina, I've also never experienced a more involving or singular evening at the opera. And it really is for everybody, as the reactions of all sorts on the way out proved. I hope it's filmed or televised; but if not, then I bear in mind Richard Jones's wise words about his Welsh National Opera Mastersingers - that theatre should by its nature be both ephemeral and unforgettable. Ironic in retrospect, because that production is being revamped for English National Opera next season (as we know from Wagnerians gathered to raise funds at the Coliseum, though the formal press announcement of the 2014-15 season is due early tomorrow morning).
One final footnote, framed by photos from a second protest outside the Barbican before an LSO/Gergiev concert once again orchestrated by that superb tactician Peter Tatchell: I recommend you read my brilliant colleague Ismene Brown's commentary on and translation of an interview with Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's horrifying 'Culture Minister' (my inverted commas) - the same who said Tchaikovsky was not gay. Read more on the sort of creature we're talking about in this 2012 article - a ridiculous individual in a dangerous position of power not to be confused with the even worse new media controller Dmitry Kisilyov, who is famously on camera declaring that gay people 'should be prohibited from donating blood and sperm. And their hearts, in case they die in a car accident, should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone's life.'
So Zhdanovshchina beckons all over again, this time with the veneer of democratic vocabulary Putin has already used to lie and manipulate over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Parallels with Hitler's Germany ludicrously exaggerated? I think not.
Friday, 25 April 2014
The Fondation Beyeler in Riehn, just outside beautiful Basel and right on the German/Swiss border, is one of the wonders of the art world - indeed, as a building, the wonder among artspaces in my experience. I've already written over on The Arts Desk about how I felt I was floating, first through the phenomenal Odilon Redon exhibition - hurry, hurry, it ends in late May - and then through the wondrous rooms full of choice 20th century masterpieces from the stupendous collection of Basel art dealers Ernst Beyeler and his wife Hildy. Here's Ernst with Picasso at Mougins in 1969, courtest of the excellent Fondation Beyeler website.
Beyeler was inspired to commission Renzo Piano on the strength of his designs for the Pompidou Centre (along with Richard Rogers) and for the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, which in contrast to the Beauborg's 'originality and brashness' Beyeler admired for its 'quiet human scale'. A 'greenhouse' barrel-vaulted roof was rejected in 1992 in favour of what Roman Hollenstein calls 'an airy steel and glass construction with five parallel north-south "aisles" under an expansive, translucent roof with angled glass panels'. I've taken the liberty of borrowing a photo by Niggi Bräuning, Basel, from the website since we didn't have time to walk around perimeter of the lovely grounds.
What Beyeler writes of the Menil Museum is perfectly applicable here: each is 'a building which is completely in the service of art, with a single-minded focus on optimal use of light and a natural modesty that delegates artistic pretence in architecture to the background.' Paradoxically, that only makes one respect, even love, Piano's achievement all the more. He's taken influences from fellow Italian Carlo Scarpa, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, and made the end result both his humane own and everyone else's. Hollenstein even thinks Hadrian's villa at Tivoli is evoked by the porphyry columns hovering above the water near the entrance.
and I suppose there's a further mirroring in the conservatory that runs the length of one side. In our communal home for our old age we hope to share with friends who'll have us, if we live that long, this would be an ideal component (I can dream, can't I?).
This is a dynamic space, not least because every time there's a new exhibition one half of the single-storey building remains open. Which means, essentially, a rehang/repositioning for what's on display of the permanent collection (I was delighted, by the way, to see two of the Beyeler's Matisse cut-outs in the superb Tate Modern exhibition a few days later; but oh, the come-down in terms of the big rooms for the big pictures).
Thus one might have expected one of Monet's vaster waterlily paintings to be where older photographs show it, reflected by the pond beyond. Instead, here there are luminous pastels by Odilon Redon in the exhibition zone. Incidentally, I only took my courage into my hands right at the end to ask if I could take room shots without flash, not having found any postcards of the artworks en situ. The answer was a friendly 'yes, and with flash, if you like' - but I preferred not to. Everyone seemed to respect the space, and I hope I did too.
We first had our vision of Redon's genius in the Musée d'Orsay, and J has done some fine work, if I may say so, in pastels both copying Redon's originals and taking inspiration from them (I love one I dub 'Brünnhilde's Rock' which sits on the piano). Several of those masterpieces from Paris are here, including the heady Chariot of the Sun reproduced over on TAD. My other obvious favourite is the Buddha
later complimented by his deep blue death.
The phases of Redon's creativity aren't hard to chart. He was a late beginner, leaving the architectural profession his father wished for him and first properly experimenting with charcoal technique in 1875, when he was 35. So the first two rooms, the only darkened ones in the Fondation, were devoted to the angels and monsters of the 'Noirs' and the lithographs. Most haunting is the all-seeing eye - there's one in a lithograph from the series Dans le rêve which could be an inspiration for a production of The Magic Flute. This Cube is rather more sinister.
and later in 1914 Redon returned to the theme in oils for Le Cyclope.
The first move from darkness to a special kind of light comes in the third room, with a work acquired by the pianist Ricardo Viñes - Matisse was another enthusiastic patron - part in charcoal, part pastel, described by Redon as 'columns all round an indeterminate stained glass window. To the right, below, an angel holding a sort of skull.'
As we move on, we find that it wasn't that Redon didn't depict real human beings in detail very often because, like Turner, he was incapable; there are three marvellous female portraits framed by flowers, followed by floral fantasias. Religion and mythology are very often the thing, though, from Mesopotamian and Greek themes to Parsifal and a Virgin linked to natural history. The exhibition is bracketed by four giant fragmentary landscape frescos painted for the Burgundian chateau of Baron de Domecy and a gentle room of mythic boats taking wing.
Then you're out in to the Beyeler Collection proper, elevated by the space around the Giacomettis,
a Mondrian with its yellow square mirrored in the rape field outside the window
and a Rothko 'chapel' at the very heart of things which makes you appreciate how crucial it is that Rothko's paintings are seen together (though I take the liberty of isolating this one).
The best is possibly the last one comes to, a vast room facing the other end of the garden from the entrance, mixing Beyeler's objects from Oceania and Africa
with two colossal canvases by Anselm Kiefer. Lilith is an apocalyptic skyscraper scape seen from above, while Your Age and My Age and The Age of the World (1997, the year of the Fondation's public opening, pictured on the left below) constructs a pyramid of oil, emulsion, shellac and ashes hung with terracotta fragments
Had we more time, we could have retired to the commercial world of the tea shop well set apart in the main farm building, but there were only minutes for a quick spin around the garden and then the tram back to Basel - of which more cries out to be described - and next the train to Zurich.
Next, here and on tomorrow's Radio 3 Music Matters, another rave about another miracle in a large space, Khovanskygate in the big top of Birmingham's Cannon Hill Park - simply one of the most amazing experiences, certainly the most singular, of my opera-going life.
Permission for reproduction from the Fondation Beyeler as listed above, with additional picture details and copyright acknowledgments as follows:
Odilon Redon, La Mort de Bouddha, ca. 1899
Pastel on paper, 49 x 39.5 cm
Millicent Rogers Collection
Photo: Davis A. Gaffga
Odilon Redon, Le Bouddha, ca. 1905
Pastel on paper, 90 x 73 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Odilon Redon, Le Cube, 1880
Charcoal on paper, 43 x 29 cm
Odilon Redon, Le Cyclope, ca. 1914
Oil on cardboard mounted on panel, 65.8 x 52.7 cm
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Photo: Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Odilon Redon, Temple vitrail, ca. 1900
Charcoal and pastel on paper, 87 x 68 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red-Brown, Black, Green, Red), 1962
Oil on canvas, 206 x 193,5 cm
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel
©2013, Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ProLitteris, Zurich
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel
Monday, 21 April 2014
It was a happy coincidence that ever-stylish director/designer Robert Carsen's new production of Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama happened to be running at our old haunt the Zurich Opera following on from the not-too-hard-work Basel stint of my latest Swiss trip (which you can read all about over on The Arts Desk - though I have more to add on the city and the dreamlike Fondation Beyeler). Andrea Chénier was an optional extra, one to tick off as I've not seen it on stage before. Trouble is, it put me off Giordano's very sub-sub Puccini manner so badly that I probably won't want to see even Jonas Kaufmann in the title role this coming Royal Opera season.
Both evenings offered outstanding and not so good in equal measure. Carsen's concept was very austere and a little hard-worked in its insistence on keeping the whole thing green, black and white in entirely indoor settings. It's also the first Queen of Spades I've seen to shed some of the dramatically peripheral but musically accomplished Imperial padding - not least the opening chorus with the delightful post-Carmen boys'-army routine and the long divertissement of the faithful shepherdess which Richard Jones made work so brilliantly as sinister puppet-show in his Welsh National Opera production.
We see the final tableau at the start, as if it were inevitable fate (all Queen of Spades images by Monika Rittershaus) - the same happened on Saturday in Yoshi Oida's also very mixed Lyon Opera production of Peter Grimes - and Carsen exchanges a sunny day overshadowed by storm in St Petersburg's Summer Gardens for the gambling tables. The stage is cleared for Lisa's bedroom - the ladies simply take off their shoes and frolic in petticoats - while the Countess's chamber has an enormous green bed and a dressing table, though this crucial scene lacked most of its tension given Doris Soffel's still too-young and anything but pathos-filled Countess. Perhaps the point was that Hermann woos the older woman in the same key as he does her ward, and sometimes confuses the two.
Best was the funeral/barracks sequel: the variable Zurich Chorus, overworked at present, sounded magnificent and mysterious with their backs to the audience, while Hermann wheels the Countess's coffin forward for the conflict with the ghost.
We drew the wrong card with our Hermann, it seems. Misha Didyk had been off sick, replaced at first by the vocally resplendent Latvian heroic tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (one of the best Otellos I've heard, if not seen). But Didyk, it seems, insisted on coming back for several performances, and so we got a tenor who certainly couldn't act and who was so vocally in trouble that he didn't even try some of the top notes. Lucky I worked this out and checked, because there was nothing in the programme to suggest we weren't getting Antonenko.
Forcibly raising Didyk's game in the 'canal scene' was Tatiana Monogarova's Lisa. A wonderful, truthful and heart-rending actress, she's one soprano size too small for this treacherous role, but went for bust in the aria and duet, making both the most lacerating I've ever witnessed on stage. There were a typically stiff, vocally secure Yeletsky from Brian Mulligan, and an excellent Tomsky from Alexey Markov, secure and vivid throughout the range. Good though it was to see Jiří Bělohlávek in action again, he got variable results from the resident Philharmonia Zurich, not up to scratch in brass and wind departments; some scenes burned, others seemed too middle-of-the-road. Happy to have seen it again, as if I needed reminding of Tchaikovsky's genius in every sphere of the extended drama.
Genius Giordano was not: I'm amazed Andréa Chenier and the even tawdrier Fedora remain in the rep, but I suppose it's a singers' market. Well, the composer got the vulgarity he deserved from the revived production of Zurich regular Grischa Asagaroff, whose Cav and Pag I saw here back in 2009: very conventional direction in a would-be-regie casing, hideously designed by Reinhard von der Thannen (production image by Suzanne Schwiertz).
As far as I'm concerned, there are only two things worth reviving about the score: heroine Maddalena's 'La mamma morta', immortalised not only by Callas's stunning recording but also by how Tom Hanks reacts to it in the film Philadelphia, and the final duet as she and poet Chénier go to the guillotine. Without a doubt we had a touch of the Corellis from Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, who makes an amazingly idiomatic heavyweight-Italian-tenor sound even if it wasn't a pretty sight to watch him brace for the high notes. I've not seen so total a stand-and-deliver performance ever before: Didyk looked like Olivier compared to this.
But then, ah, then there was the sublime Martina Serafin, whose Marschallin in Vienna had seemed Crespin-worthy to me some years back. Such bearing, such handsomeness, and more colour in the middle range than I think I've ever heard from any other soprano. I kick myself for missing her Tosca at Covent Garden but hope we'll see more of her in the great Verdi and Puccini roles, for only the slightly lighter Harteros is a match for her in such Italian repertoire. Alas, there are no production images of the revival, so I've stuck to portrait shots.
The rest was good to poor: a stalwart Gérard from Lucio Gallo, no-one else really able to make anything out of the excessive number of characterless smaller parts, and veteran (85 year old) Nello Santi in the pit, conducting with expected style but perhaps not able to hear too well since the orchestra was relentlessly loud. Anyway, we certainly had our share of A grade stars in those two performances, so that's one respect in which respect I feel blessed.
Wednesday, 16 April 2014
It was a dazzling sunny March morning in Stockholm, so what better than to walk to the most outlying of the city's many galleries and museums, the collection of Swedish banker Ernest Thiel (1859-1947) in the grandiose villa he had built by Ferdinand Boberg in 1904?
By a not unhappy chance, the Gallery wasn't where the Rough Guide put it on the map: that turned out to be the Maritime Museum, where a nice lady gave us a bigger and better map which showed we had another couple of miles to walk across to the former royal hunting grounds on the island of Djurgården and its westernmost tip on the Baltic. Better still, we'd be able to walk back to the city centre via a different rustic route. From the map on the noticeboard at the entrance to the Djurgården, which of course we only saw on the way out of the park, here's the furthermost part of the island with the Thielska Galleriet illustrated.
So let's embrace the grand sweep. We packed up and paid for our night in a clean, comfortable and quiet hotel with a lovely breakfast room, the unpromisingly titled 2Kronor in Norrmalm, and strode out past the church opposite
down to the 18th century Adolf Fredriks kyrkan, unprepossessing enough from the outside but surrounded by a pleasant cemetery with crocuses in abundance.
The inside is minimalist but boasts some fine monuments, not least this one to Descartes, who was buried here for 11 years until his body was removed to France in 1661,
and one of the few which can boast a camel on top, in memory of the explorer Sven Hedin.
Even the modern fixtures sit naturally within the white space, not least this crystal font
and outside there's a simple memorial to Olaf Palme, shot dead outside the cinema opposite in 1986 - a crime that shocked Sweden out of its liberal sense of security.
Then up the hill on the other side past the Johannes kyrka, one of several grand cousins to Victorian St Augustine's Kilburn but with a pleasing wooden church in its grounds
and past the Royal Library with workers and students basking in the sun through the posh district of Ostermalm, with its deco designs writ large (as is so much, rather inappropriately, in central Stockholm).
Linnegatan finally ends at the waters of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, where a statue of Diana and a stag (Actaeon transformed) reminds you of the hunting grounds across the inlet.
Stockholm's suburbs now give way entirely to nature,
with plenty of joggers and strollers out in the spring sunshine. Here's bracket fungus on a waterside tree
and now we're out on to the Baltic via a narrow canal which is all that separates Djurgården from the mainland.
Around the shoreline, and then the over-imposing dome of Thiel's villa on an eminence comes in view.
We were, of course, ready for lunch after our exertions and the Thielska Galleriet's light, airy cafe serving superlative soup and cakes did us proud (the house has been under state control since Thiel, virtually bankrupted after the First World War, bequeathed it in 1926). We'd just missed an exhibition on naked Swedish manhood, worse luck, which meant that the downstairs rooms were empty, but the gallery spaces on the first floor are the thing, approached by a staircase immediately displaying the idiosyncratic nature painting of the wonderful Bruno Liljefors, a good friend of the not entirely conventional Thiel (who described himself in the third person as 'a banker with a mind of his own').
All the interior shots, incidentally, were taken without flash, and there was no-one in attendance in the empty rooms to ask if I could or couldn't: what a delicious far cry from National Trust properties where you'll be mugged by anything up to five old volunteers in attendance wanting well-meaningly to intrude on your absorption.
Undoubtedly, despite many more obvious masterpieces, the picture I'd most like to take away with me from the Gallery is Liljefors' Winter Hare. This one, reproduced on Wikimedia Images, isn't quite the same, with the hare more in motion and less snow clumps on the vegetation, but it gives you some idea.
Liljefors also painted a very fine scene with a curlew which would be my second choice. The next great painting hangs above the piano in the central first floor room. In Five Portraits Vilhelm Hammershøi, now hugely popular in the UK thanks to a stunning Royal Academy exhibition and the championship of Michael Palin, depicts his younger brother and four friends in sombre mood around a table with candles and glasses (in one of the Thielska's few marketing ploys, you can buy replicas of those glasses). I'd use the Wikimedia image but it's much too dark.
A room to the right is all contrasting light, hung with the mostly sentimental pictures of Carl Larsson. I do like the two male portraits either side of the clock here, though.
And then comes another surprise, of which the leaflet with its very strange choice of illustrations gives no hint: another large gallery room full of Munchs, including his portrait of Nietzsche above a hideous piece of furniture which would surely give the philosopher a nasty turn in his grave.
I'd like to know more about Thiel's connections with Nietzsche. I think the acquaintance might have stemmed back even to before he took up with the circle of cultured Signe Hansen, the woman for whom he so scandalously left his wife. At any rate Thiel funded a luxury edition of Also sprach Zarathustra and a proposed Weimar archive. It's not surprising, then, that the death mask of the great man greets one in an attic room
surrounded by Munch prints, all of which remind me that this is the aspect of the artist's work I like the best.
The Scream looks best in that form, too: Thiel's lithograph has a hand-written insciption which reads 'Ich fühlet das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur' (' I felt the great scream [resounding] through nature'). Back in the downstairs room there's also a treasurable version of the girls on the bridge
and Munch's portrait of Thiel himself (left)
while up the stairs three of Strindberg's nature scenes, perhaps not his best, hang together
next to a vivid Toulouse-Lautrec and an exquisite tiny Vuillard interior.
Now it was time for the exterior - mostly under scaffolding, but haunting at a distance under the beeches beyond the wall.
A haze had gathered over the view of the distant Stockholm skyline (third picture up top) and we rounded the peninsula past the old customs house where boats enter the city harbour were obliged to stop.
Snowdrops appeared on a nearby rise
and then we arrived at the bird-loud lake we'd only seen (and heard) from the other side of the canal.
Its chief attraction is the heronry high in the trees.
I'd never seen one before, and so it was all the more surprising - and just a little deflating - to find a smaller one on the lake island of Regent's Park a couple of weeks later. This one, though, was rather spectacular
especially as I'd always thought of herons as solitary birds, perched at distances along the Thames. We even saw a couple on one of the nests
and further east a duck or two I'd be pleased if someone could identify for me.
Palace buildings and monuments became more frequent as we came closer to the park entrance, including this statue of Jenny Lind.
And then, with one look back across the Djurdgårdsbrunnviken to the radio tower on the Ladugårdsgärdet,
we were at the gates
and crossed the most picturesque of Stockholm's bridges
back to Ostermalm, passing Dramaten where years before we'd seen an interesting production of Three Sisters with each act set in a different 20th century decade, and Bergman actress Stina Ekblad (the androgynous Ishmael in Fanny and Alexander) as one of the sisters.
Bergman has the most miserable street imaginable named after him behind the theatre
but there are grander allees up towards the Konserthuset, namely the cinema street of Kungsgatan, with the familiar Svenska Film motif everywhere
and the gigantic towers of, what, the 1930s, giving a green light to the outsized developments of later years. With which, as our day's walking was over and we had only to return to the hotel before heading out for our friends in deeper nature further south, I take my leave in a shot to complement our starting point.