Friday 20 March 2015

Wagner and Weill: trouble in Paradise

Well, Brecht's brilliant 20th century mythic invention of Mahagonny was only ever a paradise for fools, and the trouble in Wagner's Nuremberg is idealistically remedied by Mastersinger Hans Sachs. So there's no contest in terms of the feelgood factor, and as I've already reported, folk have been coming out of Richard Jones's near-perfect ENO production feeling transfigured (as my pal Edwina put it, 'over-friendly to people on the underground'. I remember a similar sensation after seeing Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire at the now-defunct Lumiere Cinema a block away from the Coli). I should have left John Fulljames's Royal Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny blackly misanthropic about the Saturday night folly all around, but it was no more than usually irritating, and I was just disappointed that the show hadn't been as hard-hitting - or as funny - as Brecht and Weill originally made it.

This Mahagonny packs almost as few punches as Alaska Wolf Joe (Neal Davies) in his unequal boxing match with Trinity Moses (Willard White), perhaps the worst handled of all the group scenes in a production which has none of Jones's precision in blocking and physical expression. The Royal Opera Orchestra sounded tight enough, but more of the music needed to fly; despite the jazzy trumpets and the excellent onstage saxes-for-sex sequence, I was disappointed for once in one of my heroes, Mark Wigglesworth, for not sweeping it along more, or hitting hard with the total anticlimax of what should be a hair-raising apocalypse at the end. The impression, then, was of Germanic ponderousness - a trait of which Wagner shows not a hint in the five hours of Mastersingers, especially when done as superbly and clearly as it was at ENO.

How hard, then, to try and explain to my disappointed students who had seen it that the fault doesn't lie with any lack of inspiration in the work itself. People still misunderstand Brecht's text as outmoded propaganda spelling out the obvious, whereas it's not only painfully topical - the parallel with today's climate change crisis didn't need to be laboured as it was by Fulljames - but also pithily poetic and freighted with black humour. In that respect Jeremy Sams' translation was streets ahead of the production for sharpness.

The refrains of smoking, whisky, fishing and girls (ie sex for cash) in Mahagonny Version I are musical in themselves; the 'everything is permitted' gamechange that brings in the dollars for Version II provides the opera's finest musical sequence - very little of it in the original 25-minute 'Songspiel' - and culminates in what should be the terrifying clause 'so long as you can pay for it' - and if you can't, it's the electric chair for you. I should have been distressed by the execution of Jimmy Mahoney (read McIntyre, in this English language version) execution distressing, but it simply felt as glib and flat as so much else in the production.

Then there was some fatal miscasting. The (again usually just perfect) Anne Sofie von Otter was sometimes near-inaudible as the Widow Begbick, who needs to be a redoubtable old lag, a mezzo matron with a juggenaut of a chest voice like Astrid Varnay in the old Met production. And it doesn't matter whether or not Jimmy is good looking, as Kurt Streit undoubtedly is - though the wig gave him an unappealing Stringfellow effect - when the burning question is whether he's really up to the Heldentenorish demands. In that respect both Peter Hoare (Fatty) and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Jack O'Brien) would have cut the mustard much better than Streit, a lightish lyric with a now-shot top. Willard White was inaudible half the time and didn't seem very committed to a role which could be played with relish.

The star was Christine Rice, a mezzo in a soprano part, who brought typical nuance to Jenny's two big numbers. Why any promising young voices were needed for her 'girls' beyond the chorus beats me: Anna Burford, Anush Hovhannisyan and Stephanie Marshall, among others, were even more wasted than star voices mostly are as Mastersingers beyond the roles of Beckmesser, Kothner, Pogner and Sachs. The best of it, other than Rice? Es Devlin's container set and Finn Ross's consummate video projections, way above the average. They may give a sense in Clive Barda's photos for the Royal Opera of a livelier show than was in fact the case.

One other thing: if Fulljames wanted to extend the world of the opera into the audience, he should have gone further. Once the night of the hurricane is past, and anything goes in Mahagonny, it should in the auditorium and the foyers too. Friends were ticked off by an usher for eating in a box, and I wondered whether the girls in front would return to the mobile phones another usher had told them to switch off five minutes into the first half. Fortunately the dilemma this might have provoked didn't pertain, for they were quiet and attentive to the end, and cheered vociferously, with special warmth for Anne Sofie. The Royal Opera should have produced a tabloid programme, too, along the lines of the brilliant accompaniment to Phyllida Lloyd's scathing Donmar Threepenny Opera, to give free to what Dame Edna called the 'paups' up top. Perhaps too much would be lost in advertising if they were to sacrifice the usual programme, which with its ads for luxury flats, jewellery, investment management and Rolex watches makes an especially ironic counterpoint.

Clive has caught all the tableaux served up, which isn't always the case with press photographers. No images, on the other hand, could quite convey the wonder and the fun of the ENO Mastersingers. Overwhelmed on press night by my second viewing of Jones's production, with addition, after the Welsh National Opera original, I bought tickets for the last night and persuaded godson Alexander to take a break from his Glasgow studies and come down for a couple of nights to see and hear Wagner at its best.

The response was as good as I'd hoped. In a recent email, he wrote:

I still catch myself humming excerpts from Meistersinger several times a day. Such an excellent performance of a great work. I'm still baffled by how the time flew and the music continued in this marvellous sweeping curve for the entire time. I think that your hand in my musical education has reached staggering new heights, the extremity of which I never anticipated. All I want to do now is see more Wagner.

You see, my boy, how time becomes space. I'm only disappointed he didn't mention the Wurst we consumed in the interval at Herman ze German in Villiers Street. Companion Jill suggested we went there in homage to the opera, where David sings to himself, when he can't get Sachs to look up from his book the last act - alas, not accurately rendered in the ENO translation - 'if only I'd put away the sausage and cake first' and later, directly to Sachs,'would you like to try the sausage now?' Here are three of our company including equally ecstatic friend Edsy.

Needless to say, Jones's wit and craft had not palled (on Saturday, I kept thinking what he might of made of Mahagonny, a piece right up his street - though part of his genius is that one can never second-guess the ideas. I can't imagine, for instance, how research on Russian cannibalism is going to feed in to his Royal Opera Boris Godunov). Among the singers, Nicky Spence was on much better form as David than he had been on the first night - no problem at all with the top notes on the 11th - while Rachel Nicholls, though the spread is still a bit worrying for one so young, and the vocally tireless Gwyn Hughes Jones as the young lovers (pictured below in one of Catherine Ashmore's shots for ENO) seemed much more relaxed.

From a seat in the Upper Circle which proved acoustically wondrous - Alexander thought the strings must be miked, so lustrously did they bloom at climaxes - and perfectly good visually, I got more out of the Act Two kerfuffle, especially with David and Beckmesser flitting by at the back.

Our already great new Sachs Iain Paterson was suffering from a heavy cold but clearly has the technique and the generosity of spirit to carry him through (he sounded less tired at the end than Bryn Terfel had in the Prom performance of the WNO production). It seemed even more of a miracle how Ed Gardner knew what to do with the score at every point, breathing with the singers throughout (I may be mistaken, but I thought James Cresswell's Pogner was singing meaningfully in even longer phrases than before). Gardner brought the players onstage at the end. I'd hoped the press office would have a shot; they didn't, but another source which shall remain nameless (certainly not me, as I never take photos at the end).

It's a good enough representation of a source of joy which will feed the community of Mastersingers fans for months, if not years, to come.And, of course, a further yah-boo-sucks to the narrow, jargon-fixated minds at the Arts Council.


David Damant said...

Could not a great deal of money be saved by NOT having new productions/designs so often? New conductors, singers of course. I suppose that the decisions to have the new productions are made by people who have seen the operas and the productions over and over again. 99% of the bums on seats who buy the tickets have not

David said...

Strange comment under these circumstances. Richard Jones's Mastersingers was mounted for Welsh National Opera five years ago. It might never have seen the light of day again had it not been for a circle of enthusiastic Wagnerians (by the way even non-Wagnerians like yourself who opened their minds and went absolutely adored it). And the Royal Opera has never 'done' Mahagonny before.

In the meantime, last night I saw the exquisite Leiser/Caurier Butterfly, which opened in 2003 and certainly doesn't need changing. The Royal Opera's Richard Eyre Traviata probably does. I agree, some good shows disappear too soon, but usually not of the core rep.

David Damant said...

Well I still would argue that if there is a financial problem the number of new productions ( over time) could be reduced without losing all the musical splendours of variation.

By the way, what a really professional essay on these topics in your blog

And there is no use asking me to appreciate Wagner. After only a few minutes I feel dragged down to a horrible and corrupt hell.Wagner's genius was based on something dangerous, like Hegel and Nietsche.

There is a question I have never seen answered. Without setting out a fixed order of greatness, most people could agree on an approximate ranking - Bach and Mozart at the top etc etc But in one case - Wagner - there is this disagreement. Hard to explain

David said...

Not sure of your comment on the 'professional essay'. You mean there should be one, or there has been?

I don't see how your remark on Wagner can possibly apply to Meistersinger. There is nothing but radiant geniality in the music - find it twee, if you want, but never dangerous - and nothing in the key character of Hans Sachs, not even the famous addenda of the 'holy German art' speech towards the end, that isn't sane and wise. Which, of course, Wagner was not. It's as if Sachs was the man who wanted to be, but couldn't. Remember - I wish I could find the remark, and who made it - the operas will always be bigger than anything any director, conductor, singer or commentator can make of them.

The disagreement can only be about the man and many of his ideas (gobbledegook in his essays). About the genius and breadth of the music, there should be no doubt. But too few studies focus on that.

David Damant said...

Sorry - I was referring to your brilliant Arts Desk Opinion on ENO.

I do not doubt Wagner's genius. But Hegel and Nietsche were also in that class. The foolishness of German philosophy is embodied in the music of say the Gotterdammerung, the philosophy that has led to so many horrors in the world. We MUST detach ourselves from these ideas and emotions, not wallow in them. I appreciate that Meistersingers may be less dangerous

I should add that I am a Cartesian and if there is a general principle I follow it even if I have to give up convenience and enjoyment ( not that in the case of Wagner I have to give up anything I would enjoy). And I cannot quite understand why others do not do the same. So my position is often out on a limb

Susan Scheid said...

I don't know the opera Mahagonny (I do of course know of it), so can't really weigh in with much intelligence. It's a shame, but not surprising, that your students, as might well be the case with anyone seeing a work the first time, to have difficulty judging whether the performance or the work was at fault, and to what extent. I recall how terrible the Shos 5 sounded under Long Yu's baton. It's not my favorite of the symphonies, but it would be awful if that had been anyone's introduction to the work, which certainly has much to offer. I do love what your godson wrote to you after the Meistersinger, and particularly this: "I think that your hand in my musical education has reached staggering new heights, the extremity of which I never anticipated."

David said...

Sorry to be so combative, Sir David, but WHERE is the 'foolishness of German philosophy' (what, all of it?) displayed in the music of Goetterdaemmerung - or the text, for that matter? If anything the horrors of totalitarianism are foreshadowed in the rotten Gibichung society which ensnares all that's bright and positive. I think of Brecht's closing lines in the 'Little Mahagonny':

People only dream of Mahagonny
Because the world is so rotten.
There is no peace in us
And no compassion
And there is nothing
A man can depend upon.

Yes, Sue, I go around rampaging when a performance sells a work seriously short (fortunately at the Royal Opera it wasn't that seriously short). As for the godsonly words, quoting that bit may have made me look a bit self-congratulatory. I just love the fluency with which he writes (and why should an undergraduate not?) As a child he never wrote as he thought he should, but as he wanted, and it had such spirit. IE over a wound, I forget what, which took him to hospital: 'you think it didn't hurt, you couldn't be wronger'.

Shin-ichi Numabe said...

Thank you for posting the detailed article about "Mahagonny" at the Royal Opera. I listened it in Japan through podcasting of BBC Radio3. Appreciating only by ears, I was rather disappointed by the performance. Wigglesworth's interpretation seems lacking poignancy and bitterness of Brecht/Weill and some singers (especially von Otter's Begbick) are obviously miscasting. I saw "Mahagonny" on stage only twice (at ENO with Sally Burgess and Lesley Garrett in 1995, and at L'Opéra Bastille conducted by Jeffrey Tate in 1997), but this Royal Opera's new version seems musically low-levelled and inadequate for me.

David said...

Thanks especially, Shin-ichi, for reminding me about the ENO cast. I have yet to dig out my programme, but the only singer I remember vividly was Robert Brubaker, exactly the right voice for Jimmy. The production reduced the universality of the piece by making it very American - all stars and stripes and dollars - which made us feel too comfortable about it. Fulljames' had the virtue of bringing in all sorts of references from around the world - the programme is good on photosources - but failed to tie them into anything meaningful.

Interesting, though, that it failed on the radio. I believe the Radio 3 broadcast of the ENO Mastersingers is yet to come. THAT shouldn't disappoint.

Catriona said...

I, like Shin-ochi Numabe, listened on Radio 3, and was unexcited. I was underimpressed with Jimmy, who sounded rather distant, so I am quite interested to read your comments. I remember the Scottish Opera production back in the 1980s - in the Kings Theatre, as I recall - and there was the concert performance which opened the EIF a few years ago. Both were fun and memorable in a good way.

David said...

That Scottish Opera production must have before or after my university days (1980-84), Catriona, or I would certainly have seen it. Sarah Playfair was telling me at the Royal Opera how SO's Jimmy couldn't make it, so she called up Richard Cassilly in the States, and he came. That must have been something: he's on the 1979 Met film, conducted by Levine and directed by John Dexter with Stratas as Jenny. Much harder-hitting than the latest. 'Fun' has to be a key word, or at least 'black comedy' should be a key phrase.

PS (later, hence revised comment) - went back to Act 3 in the Met film and, no, there's no problem with the work itself. Sharp, racy when it needs to be and spare. Cornell McNeil astonishingly good as Trinity Moses in the courtroom scene, and Stratas just riveting without trying to be the centre of attention. The most amazing achievement is Levine's: nothing heavy there, though always trenchant. Also shows it can be done in a big space - courtesy of video filming, I guess - though I'd still like to see it in a smaller venue. Someone suggested that this is the one that should have been done in the Roundhouse, and I agree.

David Damant said...

Difficult to deal with German philosophy in a few words !! But nearly all German philosophers wrote the most convulted prose AND thought like that. And arrived at the most foolish conclusions. Russell and others blew the whistle on that dangerous confusion of thought and though the linguistic analysis people went too far the other way one can now feel confident that the German methods of the 19th century are mostly coralled in universities.

Hegel inflenced Marx directly and Hitler indirectly

Hegel argued for Heroes - their thoughts, their ideas, were the best for their time and to achieve their aims "many an innocent flower must be trampelled down" Nietsche - "I teach you now the Superman" Siegfried? And the commitment in the Gotterdammerung to complete sacrifice, absolute devotion to a higher cause, the collapse of the embattled "wrong " (Valhalla) involves that devotion to the dangerous unreality so foolishly embodied in the philosophers and which Wagner reflects. Or something like that

David said...

Too much of an oversimplification there, Sir David, of the kind true philosophers would disdain. Schopenhauer was a fine writer with many sound ideas; Nietzsche's value is in his poetry. Adapting slightly what was said about him recently, Wagner in his music-dramas is always bigger than any one view can make of him - and, to judge from his often awful writings, bigger than his earthly self. But maybe I head into dangerous waters there.

Now, someone, carry on connecting Wagner and Brecht/Weill and I think we could have some surprising analogies there. Brecht, too, was a creative artist, not a politician, so Mahagonny is full of paradoxes and contrariness.

Catriona said...

It was indeed after your time - from SO's '50 years of opera' page "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Weill
(Sian Edwards / David Alden / David Fielding) Mar 1986"

David said...

Ah, yes - thanks for checking, Catriona. I finally left Edinburgh after two months selling cameras in the St James Centre Boots - got my first proper job at Music and Musicians in Feb 2005. The rep, I think, became a bit more adventurous - there was something a bit shabby about Scottish Opera c.1984-5. We did get the Pountney Janaceks, though, so I saw my first Vixen, Makropoulos Case and From the House of the Dead thanks to Scottish Opera.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing you this May in Goettingen - got Handel fever again after superb RCM Giove in Argo conducted by Laurence last night.

Geo. said...

We're scheduled to get the ROH Mahagonny cinema relay (delayed, of course) in early May. From your comments, and the reviews that I've seen, would it seem advisable to skip it? It would be a shame, as I was looking forward to it when I saw it on the schedule. I have hazy memories of hearing the Metropolitan Opera radiocast back in the '80s/'90s or so.

David said...

No, geo., I'd say see it, but don't judge the piece by it. May well be one of these shows that benefits from close-ups, since the action seen as a whole can be messy and diffuse. It's certainly taken me back to the piece, and though the John Dexter production from the Met isn't perfect, there are so many amazing performances in it.