Friday 4 April 2014

Beethoven in excelsis, Mozart down the toilet

Our Stockholm trip was not quite as planned. Originally centred around an interview with Sakari Oramo, on sensational form in recent Beethoven and Shostakovich as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Principal Conductor, the schedule changed with his indisposition. J and I were still free to go, but the concert had gained another brilliant Finn, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (pictured below, like Radu Lupu lower down, at the very concert by photographer Jan-Olav Wedin - dead impressed that the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra has one on hand for each event).

Thanks to Saraste, the change from new Swedish work and Berwald symphony to an all-Beethoven programme was not the disappointment it might otherwise have been. And we still had a new production of Don Giovanni at the Stockholm Operan to look forward to. But what a painful experience that mostly was, in contrast to the electrifying concert.

I'd seen Stockholm's Konserthuset, home to aforementioned RSPO, on a dark November visit to a contemporary music festival some years back, but not really clocked its idiosyncrasies. Which begin outside with Ivar Tengbom's blue 1926 neoclassical facade, singular by day albeit hemmed in by the unattractive developments around Sergels Torg

and by night,

and continue in its deco interior, full of variable statuary and peculiar detail (what, I wondered, was with the faun orgy in one bas-relief?). Guess this is Papageno guarding one side of a staircase.

And at the back of the balcony, a gallery of distinguished busts lines the doorways. The first, as was right, turned out to be Franz Berwald, whose Sinfonie sérieuse I was sorry to be missing as I've never heard it or any of the other three symphonies live (but I do like my Gothenburg/Järvi set).

While the grand master at the other end was honorary Swede (and, up until the age of 11, I think I'm right in saying, exclusively Swedish-speaking Finn) Sibelius with Stenhammar behind him.

The hall's rather a beauty, I think, with discreet state-of-the-art modernisation. Certainly it sounded to be of rare acoustic freshness (tends to be Gothenburg's all-wood Konserthuset which gets all the praise). That might have been partly down to the RSP's airy sound, or the light Saraste brought into it, but this was another of those extra-London occasions where you hear the music with the roof off, as it were. Another photographer, Mats Lundqvist, also captured our evening.

I'd never really watched Saraste's technique. It's as lovely and lucid as Vladimir Jurowski's; everything you see you hear (absolutely not the case the other week with the albatross-like Michael Tilson Thomas). Saraste had one peculiarly remarkable physical gesture of seeming to pull the first violins in to him at the ends of phrases when he needed to. And he starts with no false flamboyance, only a Finn's let's-get-on-with-it alertness. That was especially true of the opening chords of both the Leonora No. 2 Overture, complete eventually with trumpet from the top back of the auditorium, and the Seventh Symphony. Its dynamism was totally focused, details from ppp to fff clearly delineated, shorter crescendos especially amazing. I'll write no more about it here other than to say that it was one of the three freshest Beethoven symphony performance I've heard - Oramo's Eroica the other month and Ilan Volkov's fluid but not hurried Pastoral at the Proms being the others (I'd probably choose Ticciati's Fifth, too, if I liked the symphony better).

Radu Lupu had star billing, looking rather different above from the posters showing him some considerable years younger than he is now. I haven't heard his mastery live for even longer than that - not sure he comes to London any more, if he has I've missed him - and his Beethoven Third Piano Concerto showed why other pianists respect him so. It was all perfectly placed, nuanced, projected; and yet with the kind of mastery that says, "this is absolutely how I do it now". No encore, either, despite the automatic standing ovation from the elderly but very enthusiastic audience. Quite a few stood for the Beethoven Seven too, myself included.

What happened between the concert and the opera needs at least one more post to the delights of a long walk out along the royal park island to the Thielska Galleriet (all will be revealed soon, though I promised the same about Edinburgh and Bordeaux, and still those city walk descriptions hang fire). The stupendous interior of the Storkyrkan beside the Royal Palace - Stockholm's cathedral in all but name - deserves more future time, too, not least for its overwhelming Renaissance statue of St George and the Dragon and its gilt royal pews.

Here I had the serendipity of turning up shortly before an organ recital at 1pm. Michael Waldenby was playing mostly Bach, with interludes from son Carl Phillip Emanuel and Jon Ludwig Krebs, to follow the composer's birthday.

To my shame I didn't know the Prelude/Preludes and Fugues in question: no great organ man I. But J S can be refused in no sphere, and what a gift he offers to the organist's pulling out all the stops in the big D major Prelude, turning over the stomach with its sudden turn to the bad and then infinitely postponing the triumphant cadence in an extended surprise coda. Absolutely magnificent.

So around the old town and over the bridge to the Opera House, neither fish nor fowl as a statement of rather drab 19th century pretension. But it has a prime setting, and canoeists were riding the rapids beneath.

Posters were inviting, for who would deny that Ola Eliasson looks like a handsome Don Giovanni? Public reception had been wildly enthusiastic, too; the day after the performance our hosts delighted in our incredulity that Norwegian Ole Anders Tandberg's production was the No.1 'must see' on the Stockholm arts scene according to one Sunday paper.

Well, all I can say is that I'd even welcome back Kasper Holten's hit and miss Royal Opera production after the dizzying ineptitude of this one. It starts with a row of toilets: maybe the Swedes have never heard about Bieito's ENO Ballo in maschera with courtiers on the bog - not a bad start to a show of diminishing shock-returns. This one immediately alienated my support: any production is going to lose me which leaves not a hint of ambiguity about whether Donna Anna was right to cry rape - that indeed, she's having fun, as she was in the Holten production and here, with Leporello filming entwined legs from the gap under the toilet door. And, what a surprise, the only director who's ever got it right for me has been a woman, Deborah Warner at Glyndebourne, who conveyed in no uncertain terms that when a lady says 'no' after a certain point, for whatever reason, she means it.

But this was only the start of the inconsistencies Tandberg posed the audience. The women get a poor deal, as usual: Donna Anna is an hysterical self-harmer, Donna Elvira - who arrives with her suitcase in the public lavatory - a repressed nymphomaniac and Zerlina a psychopath who straddles Don Giovanni at gunpoint in 'Là ci darem' (he ends up shot, of course: no hell, only a corpse for the ladies to keen over). No idea why. Was Eliasson's libertine more sinned against than sinning? Didn't really care, because his character never began to add up.

Much worse was the overall level of the singing and playing. OK, so Malena Ernman was a last-minute replacement for Elin Rombo, whose Elvira may have been high quality for all I know. Ernman's was not, nor were Yana Kleyn's pneumatic-drill Anna nor Sara Widén's colourless Zerlina. Eliasson mistook near-inaudible recit for suave sotto voce, though to do him credit he's the only Giovanni I've ever seen to play the mandolin for the serenade, which meant his breath control went to pot. His Leporello, Luthando Qave, sang coarsely and offered no leavening wit. It all looked unappealing, too, so all credit to Markus Gårder's photography (three specimens reproduced here) for making it seem stylish.

Which leaves two saving graces - Linus Börjesson's Masetto (pictured above with Widén), much the best of the Swedes coping with the Italian in the recitatives, more virile and charismatic than Eliasson if not as obviously cute, and the star, Michele Angelini (pictured below) as Don Ottavio: a true Italian (Italo-American) tenore di grazia, full throttle when needed but superbly elegant in ornamentation. His variations in the da capos of the arias - thank God we got them both - were a model of style which any tenors incapable of making their own should note. Honour bound to return for Act Two, unlike J, I consoled myself with the hope of 'Il mio tesoro' - not guaranteed if the pure Vienna version is being given - and was not disappointed.

One other plus: the onstage wind band for the supper, infinitely better than their fluffing counterparts in the pit. Lawrence Renes conducted without style or elegance - disastrous for Zerlina's two numbers - though at least there were no extreme tempi. Only the opposite pole of bad tradition, as opposed to bad supposed 'innovation', from the Novaya Opera's Prince Igor aka Carry on Up the Dnieper visiting the Coli this week was worse; but at least the musical values were higher. And that, I hope, is the last snark you'll find from me on here for a while.


Susan Scheid said...

Well, I can only say, given your description of Saraste conducting, that I want to make sure to take advantage of an opportunity to see/hear him conduct. You bring the concert, which to me seems a bit dull "on paper" very much to life, and it's worth remembering that the "old canon" can be made new in the right hands. The details of the hall and buildings--and that organ!--are fascinating, reminding me once again to pay closer attention to such things than I normally do on my own.

Now, as for the DG, the word that springs to mind is "potty," taking advantage of both British and American usage. How dreadful. You know, the Met's Grandage DG last season (which I saw and thought not great) received particularly scathing reviews. You may have had a better time of it in Swansea, as it happens. I don't know what your TAD correspondent thought as yet, but from the reports so far, John's opera was very well received, not to mention lots of fun.

David said...

'Bit dull' - well, I still find Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto tedious in patches, especially the slow movement; not even Lupu brought that to life for me. Only the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony leave me colder. My blind spots, maybe. But on the other hand having dissected the Seventh Symphony for the students earlier this year, I'm still newly reeling from the genius of its construction. And I can see why it's the ideal youth piece: heavy-metal regularity rather than the unpredictabilities of The Rite of Spring, two benchmarks of their respective centuries' early years.

I do think the Stockholm Konserthuset is exceptional in the care for its detail, more usual in an opera house. And Operan feels pretty fusty to me, inside as well as out.

Potty - do you know we caught an old posh man saying to his wife in the interval of a Grange Park (Glyndebourne imitator) opera 'You go potty? Me go potty'.

Wish I could have made the trip to Swansea - especially as our reviewer, Stephen Walsh, had to pull out last week.

Susan Scheid said...

Your "potty" story is hilarious! Too bad about Walsh. Would have been interesting to get the TAD "take." Now even further off the point, must report: I've missed the few opportunities I've had to see a production of Peter Grimes (live or otherwise) and finally picked up the Art Haus DVD of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach. I thought it breath-taking. Britten is remarkable. That the Met is doing nothing by him (or by R. Strauss!) in the coming season is criminal. Thank goodness for DVDs!

David said...

Must watch my Aldeburgh Grimes DVD. I curse the migraine that stopped me hoiking up on the press bus and back in the wee small hours. You still need to see Philip Langridge in Tim Albery's unsurpassed ENO production. He, I think, was the greatest Grimes - more right than Pears who can still be caught in the TV film. Stuart Skelton is fast catching up.

Perhaps you've noticed that in the interim I got three super pictures from the Stockholm Phil which make all the difference.

David Damant said...

Can nothing be done about these potty productions? And why does it happen? Why can't people in charge as at Glyndebourne just stop it?

Years ago a well known director on the train back from Glyndebourne said ( in response to the question why he had put such a production together) replied that if his production had been conventional he would not have everyone talking about him. But I fear that it is worse than that. The people actually believe in what they are doing. Is it because they know the music so well that they believe that some new twist has to be added? One has to take dark glasses to the opera these days so as not to see more than the main movements on the stage. And there is also the tremendously relaxing comment by top singers that one of the virtues of the Proms is that the design people cannot get to work there

An opera director of the right kind said to me today that NOT to have a loo ( or is it lou?) on the stage was becoming so unusual as to be called innovative. And in the case of Lulu there are two

I was walking past the opera house in Stockholm once and seeing an opera advertised in Swedish and by W A Mozart asked my Swedish host which one was being performed. Glancing rapidly as we walked past he replied "The Amazing Whistle"

The restaurant at the Operakallaren is rather super, if one needs to recover from the horrors of a production. Or anyway

David said...

But stop what, Sir David? Not all innovation, surely. I don't subscribe to the anti so-called-regie faction. Each case on its own merits. And of course I am not of the 'lovely music if you close your eyes' brigade either. I smell a rat at your 'director of the right kind', too. There are only two types: good and bad. Actually I would love to have shut my eyes in that most conventional of Prince Igors.

The food in the various opera restaurants comes highly recommended. The basement room for interval refreshment is horribly lugubrious. Generally we ate very well indeed. But more of that in another post.

David Damant said...

I would suggest that innovation in operas must respect the music and the plot. I once saw a Faust where when singing the soldiers' chorus the soldiers were variously wounded,crutches etc, and showing gaps representing those who had been killed, etc - but LISTEN TO THE MUSIC !! [Why did Napoleon's army rally to him in 1815? To serve in the colours was for them a marvellous thing, whether we agree with them or not] To have made this a tract for the horrors of war was just distortion. I still feel ill when remembering this.

I saw an Idomeneo where in the last act bodies were being thrown into pits in a ruined city. No connection with Mozart, and neither would there be a connection if lavatories were on the stage in Don Giovanni. Either silly or those without genius presuming to add to the composer's genius.

The parts of a Total Work of Art should be coherent with each other and with the whole. And if so, let us innovate......The Walkure on motor bikes - super. I would like to have had the bikes whizzing up and down the aisles at the opera house. Ditto Rigoletto set in the NY mafia ( whether these productions worked or not is not my point - they were in line with the music and plot)

David said...

Two things - Gounod's Faust, which is dramatically pretty trite bearing in mind the sublime subject, DOES depict soldiers returning from the war, so the director's take would at least be realistic, whether relevant or not to superficial music.

And you refer to Johannes Schaaf's Idomeneo (which I reviewed in my first assignment for the short-lived Sunday Correspondent). The lime pits were an illustration of the plague which has been ravaging Crete, and Mozart's music before the intended sacrifice of Idamante is very serious, so I saw no great disjunction with what I was hearing.

But, yes, my main point about the Don Giovanni was its inconsistency, and the fact that one simply couldn't work out what the director thought about ANY of the characters. Make a vision, create a world, and even if parts jar, it might carry us along with it.

David Damant said...

I fear we must disagree on this point. However trite or superficial, the music in Faust does reflect the emotions of soldiers that Gounod intended, and to add the idea that they have different emotions is a distortion. Plus the tragedy of war is not something one has not thought of. It is like the recent disgraceful sending up of Rule Britannia at the last night of the Proms, as the Powers That Be back away from anything jingoistic ( if that is so important Rule Britannia should just be omitted) And although I see your point about that Idomeneo the connection of ideas was very stretched, and if one accepts that degree of stretching the door is opened to silly productions.
Incidentally I thought of leaving that production of Idomeneo before the last act, but a friend said No No - you MUST stay - the last act is by far the worst

David said...


Anonymous said...

David, I read with interest your thoughts on opera updates, and especially David Damant's comments and your responses to them. I have had reservations about updates since the first college production I saw of a Shakespeare play modernized to the 1960's. I feel a bit unimaginative admitting this, and I do understand the desire to make old stories seem relevant to modern times - at least, I think I do, or perhaps should! Your article here is especially pertinent to me this week, as our Public Broadcasting Service will be giving us the Met's production of Verdi's Falstaff, directed by Robert Carsen, and updated to 1950's London. My opera-loving Aged Relative doesn't think she has seen any production of Falstaff, but loves Verdi, and so we have agreed to record it and watch it together. I have only to decide whether I want to face it during teatime or later, with wine! No doubt you have seen it already .. any thoughts? -- Elizabeth

Susan Scheid said...

Totally off point, but I was just thinking of you, because my "Great Composers Society" group is discussing listening choices for the coming month (new selections start mid-month). The theme is Shakespeare, so of course I had to suggest the two Tempests (Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). I then found Abbado/Lucerne performing the Tchaikovsky on YouTube. Oh, so glorious. And I would have known nothing about any of this had it not been for you!

David said...

Honest response, Elizabeth: I don't think you'd have any problems with a 1950s Falstaff. I can only remember one Merry Wives of Windsor done in period - very beautifully, at the Globe - and it seems so specific to Elizabethan times in its prose vocabulary that you'd have thought it would happen more often. The thinking for at least the past three decades, though, is that it's a kind of sitcom - hence Alice and Meg under hairdryers, the young 'uns lindyhopping or jiving, etc.

If you're nervous or disappointed by the Carsen, I still can't recommend too strongly Richard Jones's 1940s version for Glyndebourne on DVD - very, very funny and inventive (Eton boatswains punctuating merry wives in their vegetable garden etc). As for Carsen, he's also the serious business though I've just returned from Zurich where we saw his very austere Queen of Spades (entirely in green, black and white - he's a designer too). Some scenes worked better than others, where Jones always follows through more imaginatively. And there were major cuts. Anyway, let me know what you think of your Falstaff.

Sue, I'm so pleased about the Abbado Tempest. Late lamented Claudio had a special belief in that score, and his Rome performance reminded me that it really is one of Tchaikovsky's finest, from both the orchestration and the melodic points of view.

Susan Scheid said...

I promise I won't continually load you up with extraneous posts here, but just have to report: the listening choices for our group this period are going to be two Romeo and Juliets: Berlioz and Prokofiev. The Berlioz I didn't know at all, so I searched about for a good presentation and found a great one: David Nice's CD Review! This is amazing, because we can't get podcasts in the US and (I assume) that this one is well past the usual listening period when I go to CD Review directly. In addition to the recommendations, your bits of back story are marvelous. Perhaps my favorite (so far) has to do with those antique cymbals. PS: If you have a recommendation on the Prokofiev (and I've no doubt you do!), I'd love to know.

Susan Scheid said...

I think I may just have found the answer to my own question. Too bad the audio for your CD review is no longer available to us in the US, but your recommendations are there, so, unless they have changed, they are here.

David said...

So your agile mind beat me to it as usual, Sue. I wonder if that Melodiya version is still to be found. If not, you'd be happy enough with the Gergiev - harrumph - and it has my notes in the style of the Sleeping Beauty ones you liked (ie number by number). I don't think the broadcast is still to be found even here, but I might have a way of getting it to you if you're interested...

But ah, the Berlioz - perhaps (along with Ravel's Ma mere l'oye) the most ravishingly orchestrated piece ever. Shakespeare's only a springboard for his genius but I so came to love more than just the Queen Mab Scherzo when I did it. And Gardiner's 'authentic' recording is peerless, though Colin Davis's first version comes close. There were difficulties in finding it when I did the programme, a real lesson in the complexities of downloads v hard discs.

And you may like to take a diversion to the early cantata La mort de Cleopatre, where the queen's invocation of her ancestors is music also connected to Juliet lying in the Capulet vault. Astonishing effects there, and the death-throes still sound shockingly modern. Great, great recording with the phenomenal Karen Cargill also including Les nuits d'ete and conducted by Robin Ticciati.

Susan Scheid said...

Well, David, I don't know about agile--more likely dogged and determined! My order has now been placed for the "Gergiev - harrumph," for I must have those liner notes. I have found the Gardiner Berlioz and ordered the additional Berlioz you recommended, too . . . along with Adams' Gospel, which I've had cued up for far too long.

I would love to get the audio for your Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, if that's possible and not too much trouble for you. Beyond that, I'm delighted to see you have a new post up and will look forward to getting over there before too long.