Saturday 23 December 2017

Seasonal sugar plums in Leipzig

A serendipitous double: on Wednesday evening I caught the legendary Leipzig Gewandhausorchester giving a nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky's heavenly Nutcracker score to lively choreography (ballet photos by Ida Zenna - featured below, Madoka Ishikawa as Clara, Francisco Baños Diaz as Drosselmeyer and David Iglesias Gonzalez as the Prince)

and then the following morning there was a full performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel (premiered, incidentally, only a year later than The Nutcracker, 1893, just down the road in Weimar, conducted by Richard Strauss). While the ballet crowd was of all ages, including lots of young adults, this one consisted mainly of children (opera photos by Kirsten Nijhof).

The cast I caught included the perfect Gretel, Olena Tokar, regrettably not pictured, whom many may remember in the 2013 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. I only just missed by a week her Rusalka in Leipzig. Here's why she would probably be incomparable in that role, too.

I was in Leipzig to see the Blüthner Piano Factory in operation, a unique opportunity to witness perfectionists in the art of pianomaking; I'll be writing about that on The Arts Desk. But of course I was equally excited to follow Bach from the font at Eisenach to the grave in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, for the choir of which, of course, he wrote all of his great choral masterpieces. More on that anon; in the meanwhile here's an Arts Desk feature on how to listen to Bach cantatas throughout the year, with a photo of Bach's statue outside the Thomaskirche at the top.

Anyway, it was clear from Tchaikovsky's Miniature Overture that this Nutcracker would be an interpretation, under Tobias Engeli, the like of which I've only once experienced in the theatre when Svetlanov conducting a run of the long-serving Peter Wright version at the Royal Opera House. The orchestral sound in the most recent theatre on the site, begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1960, is so warm and immediate, with every timbre of the exquisite cor anglais and clarinet solos beautifully captured. For much of Act One Jean-Philippe Dury's choreography follows familiar lines. It's matched by elegant sets from Yoko Sayama that achieve all the necessary transformations with state-of-the-art effects as well as flats which fly up and down nimbly and costumes by Aleksandr Noshpal serving up a handsome contemporary bourgeois party (Drosselmeyer stands apart).

There's one interpolation - the opening and middle sequences of the delightful 'Marche Miniature' from Tchaikovsky's First Orchestral Suite as a variation for the quirky Fritz (Alessandro Repellini - I assumed the tap-dancer who makes a novelty addition to the Waltz of the Flowers was supposed to be Fritz too, but apparently not).

In both acts' narrative scenes the mice appear prematurely - pictured above, Kiyonobu Negishi's Mouse King and Flavia Krolla as Young Clara - but their battle with female as well as male soldiers is very well choreographed, and the first Pas de Deux for Clara-as-young-woman (Ishikawa) and her Prince (Iglesias Gonzalez) has plenty of novel spinnings to the second transformation scene. The snowflakes sequence has good visual effects, too.

On stage, it all goes a bit half-cock in Act Two. There's a lot in the programme from Dury about Clara's passage to womanhood, but whatever's intended, some of the character dances don't 'read' - least of all the three stomping, punkish folk doing a weird routine to the Mirlitons number (Mother Gigogne, as usual, is nowhere to be found - I love that musical number and always miss it). It's always difficult to thread some kind of narrative through the divertissement; Matthew Bourne's fun Adventures version is best for that - I see from the early days of the blog that I last saw it a decade ago - this one doesn't really try. Some of the costuming shows a penchant for bondage gear, too, though I liked the men's floral waistcoats in the ensemble waltz, even if the women had rather lopsided rose-tits.

The Leipzig corps de ballet is good and hard-working, though one of the six Arabian Dance men did threaten to sabotage the symmetry. The Pas de Deux becomes a Pas de Trois for Drosselmeyer, Clara and Prince, with the Sugar-Plum Fairy (Anna Jo) and her cavalier (Yan Leiva, hat on sideways, doing a Bob Fosse shuffle in the Tarantella) getting the variations. Still, the celesta player (Alden Gatt) was as fine an artist as many of the wind players.

The league of nations in any ballet company always intrigues me, and of course makes for photo-enlivenment of the foyer spaces. What a brilliant idea for Leipzig Opera and Ballet to promote its ensembles through pairs of contrasting photos by Andreas Pohlmann, updated every season. These were complemented on Thursday morning by first the rucksacks and then the interval snacking of the kids there for Hansel.

I have to say my expectation that the noise levels would abate during the actual performance, as they so impressively did at Glyndebourne-on-Tour's schools Falstaff, wasn't realised, but there were many younger kids here too. Quite a bit of the Overture was lost in the loud, long applause for curtain-up, even if it was only on a shooting star. And the restlessness crescendoed across Sandman, Evening Prayer and Angel Pantomime (why the whale? Because Gretel's main comforter is a toy one).

Still, it was a luxury to have Leipzig Opera Generalmusikdirektor Ulf Schirmer conducting. There were some frissony horns and lower-string activity; what a varied miracle Humperdinck's score is, always knowing when to slim down from the full Wagnerian works to the simple. Olena Tokar's little mushroom-Lied was so exquisite, likewise her morning wake-up call. She does some mean dance routines, too, which made me laugh aloud. The other standout among the voices was baritone Julius Orlishausen, and it was good to have a tenor in drag as the batt-y witch, Dan Karlström (though this morning I've been listening to Christa Ludwig on the peerless Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis recording, perfect throughout).

The opera company as a whole seems in very good health. Among its regulars in the photo-parade, especially impressive in the parterre foyer on the first floor,

I recognised Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, Hagen in the Budapest Ring and very good company at the aftershow gathering (on the right here),

and Wallis Giunta, at the top below and marked out as a star in the making in Opera North's Trouble in Tahiti.

She's Leipzig's resident Cenerentola.

On the way out, I found Tokar between handsome dancers (Yan Leiva and Francisco Baños Diaz, with fellow singer Gal James to the left)


and left the Opera House ahead of lines of departing kids.

And so, with an hour to catch my 14.15 train, I wandered back through town and snatched a quick bowl of excellent soup Zum Arabischen Coffe [sic] Baum, which I had to see

because Schumann's gang gathered here and even have their places marked - here, Schumann and Mendelssohn next to each other

while other musical giants line the walls.

Shame about the piped quartet music, but the place seemed to be inhabited by regulars. Bit difficult to tell, though, if the other diners might not have been German tourists here to visit the justly celebrated Christmas market, which fills the centre of town, radiating outwards from the Markt. More on that, too, in a future entry. Meanwhile,


John Gardiner said...

Completely agree with you about the miraculousness of the Humperdinck, David. (And the Tchaikovsky too: I see traces of the old Tchaikovsky-snobbery in people pointing out, almost irrelevantly, that The Nutcracker isn't The Sleeping Beauty. The answer must be: no, the soundscape is different, has changed, surely?) But as to the Humperdinck, I too love the Colin Davis; yet have heard the Jeffrey Tate with the BRSO? I cut my teeth on that, on to my mind it's still very formidable.

This also an opportunity to thank you for another year of interesting, thought-provoking blogs. I regularly read, and feel all the better for it. Warmest wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

David said...

What a timely and encouraging comment, John, thank you, and likewise. As for Nutcracker, it's an absolutely perfect score, I think, and makes up in symmetry and compression what it might lack in expansiveness or a truly dramatic story. Always been horrified by David Brown in his multivolume study dissing the level of inspiration - I see it as a new minimalism. And the art of orchestration in The Sleeping Beauty continues here. I'd say Swan Lake was at a slightly lower level in some ways, if only because it's earlier (though the dramatic and thematic elements are very strong). But those three and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet remain THE great full-length ballet scores of all time (OK, Nutcracker is mid-length. When it comes to one-act-ers, the three early Stravinskys surely have it, maybe Apollo and Orpheus too).

I did have the Tate recording of Hansel but for some reason got rid of it (even though I remember it being good) and now I'm left with Davis, Solti - ah, Popp and Fassbaender! - and the old Karajan which I keep for Grummer's sake.

John Gardiner said...

We owe a debt of gratitude to David Brown, but the magnitude of the work (he 'must' be right, having written at such length!) means that many readers have imbibed the prejudices too. One of these I think is a low-level homophobia, which is an issue in musicology generally because it blurs the aesthetic with the moral (or is it simply moralising?); and with Tchaikovsky it's a particular issue on account of his deliberate attempt at ear-pleasingness (prelest', I think, roughly in Russian?), such that there can be an increased suspicion of artifice (=camp =false =lack of inspiration...). One scholar to challenge this - and he's never one to challenge half-heartedly! - is Richard Taruskin. Have you read his brilliant essays on Tchaikovsky in Defining Russia Musically? DB really gets it in the neck!

David said...

Yes, I have, and it's a brilliant book, though I found when I taught on Goldsmiths College's Russian Music degree course that the students were far too slavish in taking everything Taruskin writes as gospel truth. He has, famously, marked biases of his own. For instance he takes 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle' in Musorgky's Pictures at an Exhibition as an anti-Semitic portrait, the Jew outwardly prosperous but snivelling within. This is completely against the origins, Hartmann's drawings, which do indeed show two distinct Jewish men (though you might question where the 'whingeing' comes from).

Interesting about the homophobia, which I confess I hadn't picked up on, though now of course in Russia the history books are being rewritten with Tchaikovsky the passionate lover of women. The cultural minister knows no shame in his propagation of fake news.

John Gardiner said...

Ah, yes, I'd forgotten about RT banging on about Musorgsky, and of course I should have known that you'd know the book. The truth - rarely pure and never simple! Well, unless you're a particular breed of politician... I always quite enjoy reading Melodiya sleevenotes for a different perspective on Tchaikovsky: not so much denial as evasion!

David said...

Well, if the truth about a person can be elusive, the facts at least shouldn't be twisted. Taruskin has been the terror, and often the unintentional entertainment, of many a musical conference.

John Gardiner said...

In warm agreement, David. One of many happy things about your blog is that, while you make your line of thinking clear, there's no question of people being shouted down or out. There's use for the internet yet. Happy Christmas!

David said...

That's kind of you to say so, John. Not all have been in agreement. There was one anonymous comment I never published, but it's been sitting in the store pile facing me every time I have to check for new responses and never deleted, so for general amusement and the chance to get rid of it there and immortalise it here, this might be the time to quote it:

'You are an arrogant know all. Who on earth ARE YOU to criticize great artists interpeting Elgar?!! They ALL have more artistry in their little fingers than you do in your pompous body!'

Usually I like to respond to comments, but I wouldn't have known where to begin with that one. Peace and harmony!

Susan said...

Leipzig must be close to perfect for a holiday music sojourn. I enjoyed the reminder of your cantata project (and Gardiner’s), including popping over to the TAD link and the further link back to your blog. At this time of year, I tend to bring out all my Bach choral work CDs and play them one after the other, without, however, regard for the season for which they were meant. Today I lined up a group of these CDs, collected over time, only now discovering that every one of them was conducted by Gardiner. (The early choices were surely by happenstance, only the later purchases were by design.)

David said...

Yes - only Vienna is comparably rich on that front, and I was seduced quite by the extent of the Xmas Market, supposedly the best in Europe, and I can see why since it spreads out from the central Market Place along all major thoroughfares. After dark the Leipzigers come out in their thousands and queue for food and consume lots of Glu(e)wein.

Well, now you need to think about Rilling and his supersingers - 71 CDs for under £100; though that does look excessive, it isn't. But if I hadn't picked up two LPs at the British Heart Foundation shop for £1 each, I'd never have realised I needed the whole thing...Started today with the fourth Sunday of advent, and for the next three days it's three more Xmas cantatas (not the ones for the Xmas Oratorio).

Hope you're both having an easy time, wherever you are, away from the worldly mess. I have resolved not to look on the faces of the Horror Clowns on both sides of the pond for at least the next three days.

Susan said...

We are in NYC for the holidays, spending a good bit of time catching up with longtime friends. As I write, J is already cooking for tomorrow's feast. This will be the mode going forward, at least when we're in NYC, which I hope, now that J is retired, we can make our "Winter Palace." What I take away from last year's adventures (and considerable misadventures) in trying to do my bit is a much better understanding of where I can help out effectively and still have plenty of time to enjoy life. Which is all to say that your resolution is a good one, which I heartily endorse. Warm wishes, once again, for the holidays, and here's to a better year ahead.

David said...

No-one could have campaigned harder on a local level than you did - glad you both survived, and as we've said before, advance, retreat and advance refreshed would seem to be the best motto. I bet New York at this time of year is wonderful: enjoy.