The second part of my engagement with the ENO O&E odyssey. (See how easy it easy to be a librettist). Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus first, simultaneously monumental and camp, Philip Glass’s homage to Cocteau’s Orphee to come in a couple of weeks, and there was no chance of me ever signing up for Emma Rice’s take on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
Going in this was probably the one on which the Tourist was most keen. Never heard or seen it before. Learned a lot in recent months about Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714 to 1787) and how he, and his circle, revolutionised opera by insisting on the primacy of drama. With Orfeo et Euridice, from 1762, the first, and prime example of the reform. Less repetition, melisma and showing off in arias, similarly less ritornello in the instrumental passages, intelligible text, less recitative and more accompanied than secco, and more flow in melodies and action.
With a cast of Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, Soraya Mafi as Love and the powerful voice of Alice Coote as Orpheus, the cast was top notch, and with Wayne MacGregor in the director’s chair, the dance passages were going to receive due care and attention. And all played straight through coming in at a tidy 90 minutes.
Or so I thought. Turned out the production did feature and unnecessary interval, (in my opinion though maybe not shared by the dance ensemble), and that the choreography took precedence over the drama. The sublime combination of Alice Coote’s powerful mezzo, Sarah Tynan’s lighter, brighter, and up and coming Soraya Mafi’s sharp, accurate, coloraturas, the modernist clarity of Lizzie Clachlan’s big box set, Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’s flashy (literally at times) video designs, the vivid colours, contrasting with simple monochromes, of Louise Gray’s costumes, and Mr MacGregor’s complex choreography, all worked individually. Together, I wasn’t so sure. And the story, and occasionally the three protagonists, sometimes looked lost in all of the look and feel.
What I hadn’t anticipated was just how good the score was going to be in the hands of Harry Bickett and the ENO Orchestra. Time and again the ENO orchestra has elevated a production, true of The Mask of Orpheus, though Sir Harry’s imagination may have had something to do with it, and this for someone who is a big fan of the ENO. This was Hector Berlioz’s 4 act 1859 version of O&E, with the libretto created by Pierre Louis Moline in French 12 years after the original Italian by one Ranieri de’Calzabigi, drawn from a couple of chaps called Virgil and Ovid who you might have heard of. With English translation by Christopher Cowell.
O&E is apparently an azione teatrale, (I swear there are as many genres of opera as there are operas), mythological subject, with dancing, no chorus, few actors, short in scale, “noble simplicity” is apparently what Gluck was after. The original will have had a castrato singing Orpheus: this morphed into a haute-contre, or high tenor, but as pitch inflated, and even after the French government legislated for pitch, the diapason normale, a female alto became the norm for Orpheus. Berlioz went back to the original key scheme of the Vienna score of 1762 whilst still incorporating much of the additional Paris score of 1774, (Gluck having moved there to further his career, though he returned to Austria when fashion moved on and his final and 47th opera, Echo et Narcisse got the public thumbs down). If you want more details head over to the exhaustive Wiki page where clearly knowledgeable people in love with his work have been beavering away, (remembering to donate please), or even better the encyclopaedic programme notes. All I can tell you is that, whenever it was scored, and whoever it was scored by, this is exquisite music. I see Gluck wrote a few trio sonatas and sinfonias which barely get a look in. Shame as I am not one for listening to recordings of opera, and I like the sound of them.
Mr McGregor is apparently not the first choreographer to take on O&E. The chorus is now off stage (and therefore muffled) and the various shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, demons, Furies, happy spirits, heroes and heroines are replaced by the 14 dancers, with two of them, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, apparently representing their inner selves (you could have fooled me). Now whisper it, whilst I can admire dance, it doesn’t really do too much for me, and, though their were some striking poses, it was all a bit aimless and showy.
Not to worry, Even if the visuals and the action didn’t persuade there was always, as I said, the clean, lithe and lively music from the HIP appropriate band. And the three lovely voices. I am not informed enough to have a roster of favourite women opera singers, but Alice Coote, would join the likes of Barbara Hannigan, Sophie Bevan, Louise Alder, Lucy Crowe and Sally Matthews in leaving a mark as well as Kitty Whateley, Rowan Pierce, Nazan Fikret and Elen Wilmer. Ms Coote debuted in the role when she was just 18 on this very stage, on the night of 9/11. Sobering.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589
Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.
Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.
Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.
What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.
I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.
Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.
Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.
Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.
Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).
Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.
And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.
So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.
I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).
Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.
For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.
The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.
Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.
So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura,rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.
The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels
Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017
It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.
If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.
I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.
Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.
This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.
The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.
Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.