Monday, 29 December 2014

Roxy und ihr Wunderteam – Theater Dortmund – 21 December 2014

Sam Cheswick, manufacturer of mixed pickles – Hannes Brock
Roxy, his niece – Emily Newton
Bobby, her betrothed – Fritz Steinbacher
Gjurka, team captain – Lucian Krasznec
Hatschek, goalkeeper – Jens Janke
Baron Szatmary – Frank Voß
Aranka von Tötössy – Johanna Schoppa
Ilka – Tina Podstawa
Football team – Mario Ahlborn, Christian Pienaar, Carl Kaiser, Min Lee, Ian Sidden, Rupert Preißler, Robert Schmelcher, Till Nau, Nico Schweers, Nico Stank, Frank Wöhrman
Boarding-school girls – Yael de Vries, Veronika Enders, Janina Moser, Maren Kristin Kern, Johanna Mucha, Nicole Eckenigk
Manager/Priest – Thomas Günzler

Opera Chorus & Statisterie of Theater Dortmund
Dortmund Philharmonic

Conductor – Philipp Armbruster
Director – Thomas Enzinger
Designer – Toto
Choreography – Ramesh Nair
Dramaturge – Wiebke Hetmanek

Emily Newton as Roxy with her team.

Photo: Thomas Jauk, Stage Picture

Paul Abraham was the toast of Austro-German operetta in the 1920s and 30s, first making his name in Berlin with works such as Ball am Savoy and Die Blume von Hawaii, escaping to Vienna when the Nazi grip took hold in Germany and fleeing to Paris, Cuba and lastly the USA with the Anschluss (he died in Hamburg in 1960). In some ways his music had emigrated before him, since his work is characterised by that fascinating morph of Viennese operetta into Broadway/Hollywood musical and alongside a paeon to Hungary that could have escaped from Lehár (Abraham was also Magyar-born) there’s every suggestion that he knew and absorbed the 1933 movie of 42nd Street in his big choral and dance numbers.

Roxy and Her Wonderteam, premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna in 1937, was one of Abraham’s last European successes and was swiftly made into a film before being abandoned to history. It combines the dreamy nostalgia for the old empire with the craze for jazz and musical Americana. In this context, and as the work of a Jewish composer, it is hardly surprising that it swiftly fell from grace. For this German premiere production by Theater Dortmund, the score had to be reconstructed from various slim sources, including the film soundtrack and orchestral parts.

As with so many of these kinds of works, the story is slight: Roxy, niece of a mixed pickles manufacturer, stows away with the Hungarian football team, returning from a disastrous defeat against Scotland in London. Escaping, in full wedding dress, from her marriage to the wimpy Bobby, she is adopted by the Hungarians as their mascot and, of course, falls for their leading player and inspires the team to triumph. The operetta tapped into the contemporary craze for football in Vienna, and indeed one of the city’s leading stars appeared in the film version. In this context, the home city of Borussia Dortmund seemed an appropriate place for its revival.

Theater Dortmund is one of those German houses that happily stages Wagner one night, Lloyd Webber the next, so is set up to provide any kind of casting requirement from Heldentenor to singer–dancers. Roxy was led be Emily Newton, a Texan soprano who created the title role in Turnage’s Anna Nicole in its German premiere in Dortmund in 2013 and has most recently sung Beethoven’s Leonore in Aachen. So an artist of great flexibility, who had the required stage presence, physical nimbleness and tonal allure for the lead role here. Her dancing (including tap routines) and vocal timing gelled imperceptibly with the experienced song-and-dance crew of the Hungarian football team, led by Jens Janke’s fleet-footed goalie. One could forgive the inevitable Scottish stereotypes for the red-headed, kilted Sam Cheswick of Hannes Brock and Fritz Steinbacher’s wonderfully over-the-top ever-wining Bobby, for they gave winning performances, matched by the suave tenor of Lucian Krasznec as the team captain and trainer Gjurka Karoly and the ebullient Aranka von Tötössy of Johanna Schoppa.

The Dortmund Philharmonic brought plenty of verve to the jazzy numbers under 2nd Kapellmeister Philipp Armbruster, though the depth of the pit meant that, at least from the centre stalls, the orchestral band sound had difficulty carrying with full clarity and impact into the auditorium.

The staging by director Thomas Enzinger and designer Toto proved effective for the revue-like style of the plotting, allowing for easy changes of scene and practical contexts for both intimate scenes and crowds. Whether the project revealed a long-lost masterpiece is a debatable point, but it did show that there’s mileage in resuscitating more of Abraham’s large body of work – as much a victim of the Nazis’ Entartete Musik crackdown as more serious repertoire. Roxy certainly made for an entertaining Sunday afternoon diversion, even if its numbers don’t tend to linger in the memory.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Die Zauberflöte – Deutsche Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg – 19 December 2014

Papageno is silenced by the Three Ladies

Photos: Hans Jürg Michel

Jussi Myllys – Tamino
Heidi Elisabeth Meier – Pamina
Dmitri Vargin – Papageno
Antonina Vesenina – The Queen of the Night
Bogdan Taloş – Sarastro
Sylvia Hamvasi, Iryna Vakula, Katarzyna Kuncio – Three Ladies
Sprecher Torben Jürgens
Julian Lörch, Valentin Geißler, Theodor Wagner – Three Boys
Anna Tsartsidze – Papagena
Florian Simson – Monostatos
Luis Fernando Piedra, David Jerusalem – Two Armed Men

Chorus & Statisterie of Deutsche Oper am Rhein
Chorus master – Gerhard Michalski
Duisburg Philharmonic

Conductor – Wen-Pin Chien
Directors – Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade
Animation – Paul Barritt
Conception – Barrie Kosky, Paul Barritt, Suzanne Andrade
Designer – Esther Bialas
Lghting – Diego Leetz
Dramaturge – Ulrich Lenz

The Magic Flute as a silent film? Not such a mad idea given that Strauss recomposed his score of Der Rosenkavalier for live performance for just such a project. Barrie Kosky’s take on Mozart’s final opera is instead inspired by the golden age of silent film – Tamino is dressed as a 1920s matinée idol, Pamina as Louise Brooks, Papageno as Buster Keaton, Monostatos as Nosferatu. And rather than the dialogue being spoken, it is displayed in large letters across the stage-wide screen in the manner of silent-film captions, accompanied by a Hammerklavier playing various snippets of Mozart keyboard music appropriate to the words. But this tribute is just one aspect of the concept, originally created for the Komische Oper, Berlin, in 2011, restaged in Los Angeles in 2013 (see trailer below) and which is now in the repertoire of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. Kosky collaborated with British theatre group 27 and its founders Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, who effectively animated the whole opera – what we have is a two-and-a-half-hour cartoon in which the singers interact with a constant array of images moving around them. At this performance in Duisburg, it looked like a miracle of timing and coordination, and it would be interesting to know how much scope for ‘performance’ there was in the actual mechanics of the projection (see below).

The quality and creativity of the animated images portrayed a hypnotic imaginary world, one where the Queen of Night is a giant spider, Sorastro’s domain is characterised by mechanical, cyborg-like animals and the trials by fire and water can place the hero and heroine in the range of a flame-throwing head and at the bottom of the sea respectively. It is all done with wit and charm, and a healthy amount of cartoon-inspired slapstick, particularly surrounding Papageno – his constant companion of a little black cat who does his bird-catching for him; his cheesy grin that goes AWOL when he is silenced by the Three Ladies (shades of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python images here); and his perfectly choreographed drinking of cartoon wine from a pink elephant’s trunk and subsequent visualised burps. Elsewhere are Monostatos’s army of hounds, straining at the leash to get at the imprisoned Pamina; the cat’s defensive pose towards a vicious dog; ‘running-on-the-spot’ chases; and waste-high baffles allowing the legs of Monostatos and his minions to turn into cartoon dancers’ legs when Papageno’s music box bewitches them.

Monostatos's monsters are calmed by music
All that was missing in the imagery was a magic flute, but the implication here is that it is music itself rather than an instrument that provides the plot’s safety valve. Also missing is any suggestion of Freemasonry, but Kosky excuses himself by stating that he has no interest in it and that its tenets as presented in the opera are more generally sought ideals of Reason, Wisdom and Truth. If this suggests a wholly lightweight concept, then one should remember that the opera was created as an entertainment, part pantomime, part moral fable, though one darker element that this presentation goes out of its way to bring across, aided by the silent-film-era ethos, is the plot’s sexism, even misogyny – its racism is at least avoided by reinventing Monostatos as a straightforward pantomime villain.

Earlier, I wondered about the mechanical logistics of a live presentation of all this material. The thought was set off once I had experienced the grossly staid account of the overture, performed before a red theatre curtain before the imagery had even erupted in front of our eyes. Things probably weren’t helped by Theater Duisburg’s very dry acoustic, but where were the ebbing and flowing of phrase, where the instrumental colouring, where the rhythmic drive that expresses that sense of anticipation for curtain-up that only Mozart’s overtures seem to do? I feared that under the baton of Taiwanese conductor Wen-Pin Chien the performance had died before it had properly begun – and the lame phraseology and simple lack of idiomatic style impeded the purely musical side of the evening as a whole, as if the cartoon entailed conducting to a click track to keep in time (though I saw no evidence of this). The Deutsche Oper shares productions between its two theatres in Düsseldorf and Duisburg, but uses local orchestras for each – with only three performances in a long run scheduled for the junior house in Duisburg it may have been down to an overall lack of rehearsal time for the Duisburg Philharmonic in an atmosphere of threatened cutbacks for this part of the company.

The Queen of the Night seems to be the one imprisoning her daughter

Thanks goodness for the singers, who between them rose above this prosaic music-making from the pit to add character, musicality and – for all their cartoon-like portrayal – Mozartian humanity. Principal among them was the lyrical Tamino of Jussi Myllys (the convincingly youthful Sali in last summer’s Frankfurt production of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet,reviewed here). Apology was given for the Pamina, Heidi Elisabeth Meier, who was suffering from the onset of a cold, and it is true that her high singing gave lie to the fact that she has been singing the role of the Queen of the Night in other performances of the run, but there was little sense of vocal frailty in general and both her tone and vocal portrayal were warm and congenial. The evening’s actual Queen, Antonina Vesenina, sounded a little dry in her Act I aria, but for ‘Der Hölle Rache’ in Act II she had all the necessary agility and accuracy for the role. Shorn of his spoken dialogue, the Papageno of Dmitru Vargin perhaps made less of an impact than is normal for the character, but his singing was lithe and warmly focused, and his stage interactions with his cartoon cat were a constant delight. Florian Simson’s flexible tenor made for a convincing Monostatos, Torben Jürgens brought Wagnerian weight to the role of the Speaker and Bogdan Taloş’s elegance of line gave Sarastro’s interjections due solemnity. They were complemented by strong trios of Ladies and Boys and a robustly chorale-ing pair of Armed Men.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mini-Mahler - new CDs making the case for pocket-sized arrangements

The arrival of a new recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony reconfigured for 17 musicians is a sign either of our difficult economic times, or of a need to explore familiar repertoire in new ways. Whatever the reason, re-arranging orchestral works for smaller forces seems to be in vogue. In the past month or so, I’ve also encountered a chamber arrangement of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and a piano trio version of Debussy’s La mer. But it’s hardly a new practice: Beethoven was publishing works in more than one instrumental configuration two hundred years ago; Ravel was happy for many of his works to exist in both orchestral and pianistic forms a century later; and Schoenberg and his colleagues made a cottage industry out of chamber reductions in the years after the First World War. In an era before recordings and radio made the symphonic repertoire widely available, these were some of the ways – along with the glut of piano and piano-duet arrangements made for home consumption in the 19th century – that repertoire could gain wider exposure among performers and audiences. And in our own times the practice is counteracted by the penchant for orchestrating piano or chamber works – a particular hobby of my own.

The Prokofiev performance was a highlight of a typically rich and wide-ranging programme given by Eleanor Bron and the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall on 4 December as part of the group’s 50th anniversary season. David Matthews’s reduction of the composer’s orchestral original to an ensemble of wind quintet, string quintet (with double bass), piano and percussion was made in 1991 for the Aquarius ensemble and proved unforced and effective. I had worried beforehand how Prokofiev’s wolf would fare without his three horns, but Matthews cleverly mimicked them with horn, clarinet and bassoon, together with piano adding bite, and the solo wind for the bird, duck and cat sounded as authentic as in the original. As a piece that is educational (in its highlighting of different instruments-as-characters) as much as entertainment, there’s a place for a reduced version to be given in smaller venues such as schools, so it deserves a role in the repertoire of flexible chamber ensembles such as the Nash.

The Debussy, which appears on a new Orchid Classics CD (ORC 100043) that I reviewed for the December2014 issue of The Strad, is a commission from composer Sally Beamish by TrioApaches, the threesome of violinist Matthew Trusler, cellist Thomas Carroll and pianist Ashley Wass, who are keen to expand the repertoire for piano trio beyond the classics and newly composed pieces. Beamish’s transformation is a triumph of transference of instrumental colour and is ingenious in the way it neither diminishes the original nor tries to do more than the new medium can take. It succeeds where Eduard Steuermann’s 1920s arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for the same combination fails, for me, in the way it destroys the uniformity of string sound that is so essential to the original sextet or string-orchestra versions of that masterpiece.

Schoenberg, as it happens, is the inspiration behind the new Mahler 9 recording. In 1918 he founded the Verein für private Musikaufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), a Viennese invitation-only concert organisation set up to provide a safe and sympathetic environment for new music (he had experienced one Skandalkonzert too many). ‘New music’ at that time still included Mahler, as well as the more recent work of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky and others (Zemlinsky actually set up a Prague chapter of the society at the same time). Funds wouldn’t extend to employing a full orchestra so Schoenberg and his acolytes came up with a succession of reduced versions of symphonic and other works to furnish the concerts, from Johann Strauss waltzes as light relief to heavyweights such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (by Schoenberg himself) and Fourth Symphony (Erwin Stein) and Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune (Benno Sachs). Even so, the society folded after just three years for lack of financial support, but its legacy remains nearly a century on in the arrangements.

Ensemble Mini – a group formed by Berlin-based British conductor Joolz Gale from young musicians associated with the Berlin Philharmonic – is not the first to rediscover these arrangements and give them new life: both the London Sinfonietta in its early days and Reinbert de Leeuw’s Dutch-based Schoenberg Ensemble performed or recorded much of this repertoire. But Gale has gone further by expanding this repertoire with brand new reductions, from a mixture of different arrangers (as I write, his own version of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben was due to be premiered in Ensemble Mini’s concert series at the Kammersaal of the Berlin Philharmonie). The new Mahler reductions played by the group – previously Symphonies Nos.1 and 4 (eschewing Stein) and now 9 – have been made by Klaus Simon, director of the Holst Sinfonietta in Freiburg and a pianist, arranger and music editor (his version of Mahler’s Symphony no.5 has also just been premiered by his own ensemble). Confusingly, Ensemble Mini’s new, self-proclaimed ‘world-premiere’ recording of No.9 on German label Ars Produktion (ARS 38 155) follows swiftly on from a rival one of the same arrangement from Gutman Records, which I haven’t been able to hear, from Camerata RCO – an offshoot of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra with which Gale is also associated – but under another conductor.

As well as giving due regard to practicality, Schoenberg’s original musical ethos for his Verein reductions was clarity. Arguably, even at full-orchestral pelt, Mahler’s music is some of the most transparently scored in the repertoire, so one might expect the gains of a chamber arrangement to be slight. Obviously missing is the rich fullness of strings, so essential to the Mahler sound, and with more wind than string players (Simon uses flute/piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns and trumpet) and the quasi-wind sound of harmonium as harmonic filler (Gale uses the reedier accordion instead), the balance is inevitably altered; sparing percussion (two players) and piano add further crispness. The result is something that still manages to sound like authentic Mahler, whose orchestral textures can often take on chamber-like form in any case, yet can also appear more modernist in the sense that its shriller sound-world recalls Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (written just two years earlier than Mahler’s original).

But there’s far more to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony than mere sonic titillation. Indeed, for me it is one of those rare, deeply profound works that I’d normally only choose to hear from a select number of great interpreters and orchestras (Karajan and Abbado, the latter heard live, with the Berlin Philharmonic have become my benchmarks over the years). Simon is surely right to point out, as he does in his booklet interview, that Mahler’s scores are so meticulously annotated that ‘the freedom to interpret with Mahler is much smaller than with Bach’, a composer who by contrast left much detail unstated. But this does not absolve a conductor from making his mark, and a fair few, from Bernstein to Rattle, have been quite free with the text at times. It is also music that – especially here in the Ninth – needs to transport us beyond the notes, and that’s where the seasoned mind comes in. Yet what Gale’s interpretation might lack in the weight of years of experience it gains in inspiring from his Berlin musicians playing of uncommon passion, intensity and perceptiveness – the intimacy draws one in in a way that is often impossible with larger forces, however well balanced. It deserves to be heard both as an arrangement and as a performance.

Here's the ensemble's promotional video for the disc:

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Creating a buzz: the ‘three Bs’

In 1895, a festival was mounted in Meiningen, the tiny Thuringian dukedom with a cultural influence way beyond its size, devoted to the music of the ‘Three Great Bs’ – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. It was perhaps the ultimate recognition of the coincidence of initial letters that brought three of the undisputed giants of classical music together. The German composer Peter Cornelius had earlier coined a ‘three Bs’ comprising Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz, but by the 1880s, the Frenchman had been deposed in favour of Brahms, whose great conductor friend Hans von Bülow designated them the ‘Holy Trinity’ of music: ‘I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music,’ he wrote.

More by chance than by design, those same three composers feature in the first volumes of my Masterpieces of Music series of eBooks – perhaps inevitable when tackling the ‘greats’ first. (Anyone who has ever shelved a record or CD collection alphabetically will be familiar with the undeniable fact that Bs and Ss dominate among classical composers’ names – or maybe it’s just my taste in music.) But Bach, Beethoven and Brahms share more than just a capital letter – there’s a line of influence from the earliest to the latest, and not purely in the sense that Brahms was influenced by Beethoven, who was influenced by Bach.

Until Mendelssohn came along and returned it to the public consciousness in the 1830s and 40s, Bach’s music – apart from his major keyboard works – had lain almost forgotten since the composer’s death in 1750. Even Johann Sebastian’s masterpiece, the Mass in B minor, had to wait until as late as the 1860s for its first complete performance, despite his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s best efforts 80 years earlier. The late 18th century was a time when old music was shunned in favour of the new (how times change...). And in many senses, Bach’s music was ‘old’ even as it was being written, since his doggedly Baroque inspirations overlapped with the dawn of a new age of galant Classicism (it’s pertinent to remember that Haydn was already 18 by the time of Bach’s death, and would be writing his first symphonies and string quartets within a decade). As a result, it soon fell out of fashion in concert halls and churches and very little of it appeared in print in the 18th century. Bach’s music, instead, had something of a connoisseur’s following among musicians, if not their audiences.

One of these devotees was a court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlieb Neefe, who had studied in Leipzig under Bach’s successor at the Thomaskirche and just happened to be Beethoven’s teacher and who used the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier as the basis of his instruction in harmony and counterpoint as well as keyboard-playing. Later, after he had moved to Vienna in 1792, Beethoven frequented the musical soirées organised by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (the Handel obsessive who persuaded Mozart to ‘update’ Messiah and who collaborated with Haydn on the German texts of his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons). Beethoven’s admittedly often unreliable biographer Anton Schindler wrote of these occasions:

The evening gatherings at Swieten’s home had a marked effect on Beethoven, for it was here that he first became acquainted with the music of Handel and Bach. He generally had to stay long after the other guests had departed, for his elderly host was musically insatiable and would not let the young pianist go until he had ‘blessed the evening’ with several Bach fugues.

Schindler was obviously unaware of Neefe’s earlier input, but it’s fair to surmise that Beethoven’s early years were saturated in the music of Bach, which leads us to consider the effect it had on his own compositional development. Scholars have explored how the exposure to Bach’s ‘48’ coloured the younger composer’s attitude to key, but it is perhaps his use of counterpoint that reveals the most. Contrapuntal episodes feature in music from his earliest days, such as short passages of fughetta and imitation in the ‘Eroica’Symphony, but strangely, the most concerted use of fugue as a formal and developmental tool came in his last years. Most obviously, there’s the Grosse Fuge, the ‘Great Fugue’ originally designed as a finale to his B flat major String Quartet op.130, but which was replaced there by a more Haydnesque rondo. More than one commentator has talked of this single, extended movement as Beethoven’s ‘Art of Fugue’. There are also several instances in the late piano sonatas of full-blown fugues, including the finales of the ‘Hammerklavier’ and of the penultimate, A flat major Sonata op.110. There’s perhaps something in seeing the poor composer, shut off from the world by his loss of hearing, engaging in a musical challenge that is as much intellectual as sonic, as much a work of the mind as of the heart.

By the time Brahms emerged on the scene as a composer in the 1850s, Beethoven had already been immortalised as a musical god and Bach was beginning to be rehabilitated. These two figures were to loom over much of Brahms’s musical thinking and with Beethoven it was with almost a sense of fear as admiration. Most famously, the example of Ludwig hovering over his shoulder made writing his first symphony a fraught, drawn-out affair – ‘You don’t know what it is like,’ he wrote to the conductor Hermann Levi, ‘always to hear that giant marching along behind me.’ And when the symphony finally emerged in 1876 the broad, ‘Ode to Joy’-inspired theme of its finale led to the work being dubbed ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. But it wasn’t just symphonies: Brahms claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he wrote one that he felt worthy of following on from his predecessor’s monumental oeuvre; and much the same could be said of his writing of piano sonatas, though these emerged much earlier in his career – his C major Sonata op.1 has unmistakable lineage to the ‘Hammerklavier’ (Brahms later owned the composer’s own notebooks for this monumental work). Brahms certainly learned much of his developmental technique from Beethoven, and the benefit of using of elemental material such as scales and arpeggios to shape his themes – archetypes that mark out the imposing first movement of the First Piano Concerto, for instance.

The influence of Bach was just as formidable. Like Beethoven, Brahms played Bach’s keyboard works from an early age, and slipped short pieces into his recitals at a time when they were still little known beyond the cognoscenti. If he drew his motivic thinking from Beethoven, he gained contrapuntal command from studying the Leipzig master. Through all this runs the idea that no one who followed Bach could write a fugue except under his influence – it’s a form so bound up with his legacy that it’s difficult to imagine from whom else composers might ultimately have learned the skill. As early as Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, then, there’s obvious Bachian homage in the semiquaver running motion that underpins the main themes of the rondo finale, and in its use of a fugal exposition. Among his solo piano works are Baroque dance forms, preludes and fugues, for organ a collection of chorale preludes and for chorus various canons and motets – all indicative of an obsession with the legacy of Bach. Perhaps the most famous instance of this, though, is the passacaglia finale of the Fourth Symphony, which adapts the bass line from a chaconne in one of Bach’s cantatas, no.150 Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, as the basis for a set of variations – a masterpiece in which all of the ‘three Bs’ seem to coexist.

For a special bundle offer on Masterpieces of Music eBooks – three titles for the price of two – visit the Erudition website.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tristan und Isolde - Theater Lübeck - 27 April 2014

Review from the November 2014 issue of The Wagner Journal:

Jeffrey Dowd (Tristan) and Edith Heller (the run's original Isolde)

Photo: Jochen Quast

Tristan - Jeffrey Dowd
Isolde - Rebecca Team
Kurwenal - Michael Vier
Brangäne - Wioletta Hebrowska
King Mark - Martin Blasius
Melot - Mark McConnell
Young Sailor/Shepherd - Daniel Jenz
Steersman - Kong-Seok Choi

Men’s Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Lübeck
Philharmonic Orchestra of Hansestadt Lübeck

Conductor - Roman Brogli-Sacher
Director - Anthony Pilavachi
Set and costume designer - Tatjana Ivschina
Lighting - Falk Hampel

After its groundbreaking Ring cycle and perceptive Parsifal, Theater Lübeck has now added a fascinating take on Tristan to its Wagnerian portfolio. The defining feature of Anthony Pilavachi’s direction of all three works has been his ability to make compelling human dramas of these oft-reinterpreted masterpieces. His broad remit has been to set them in the context of the theatre’s ongoing celebration of the city’s most famous literary son in its ‘Wagner meets Mann’ strand. In this case, Thomas Mann had a particular obsession with Wagner’s drama, and wrote a novella, Tristan, that obliquely references the operatic version. Moreover, his epic novel Buddenbrooks was written, like Wagner’s ‘Handlung’, heavily under the influence of Schopenhauer. 

There is a hint of Buddenbrooks’s bourgeois milieu in Tatjana Ivschina’s set, which serves all three acts in progressive decrepitude and seems to mirror the declining fortunes of Mann’s eponymous family. (A visit to Lübeck’s Buddenbrooks House, the former home of Mann’s grandparents a couple of minutes from the theatre, and now a museum to the master and his literary relations that includes a mock-up of the fictional interiors as described in the novel, proved to be an apt Vorspiel to the performance.) There is a further Mannian reference in Act III, as we shall see, but Pilavachi’s broader conceit takes a different line. He uses the characters of Tristan and Isolde instead to allude to the affair between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck that inspired the work. This director has an obvious penchant for telling a story onstage that isn’t necessarily that prescribed by the composer but which always follow its own internal logic and on the whole enhances rather than detracts from the line of the original. In so doing, he also has the ability to get around some, if not all, of the inconsistencies between text and new setting in ingenious ways.

Act I takes place not on a ship taking Tristan and his captive Irish princess to Cornwall but in a 19th-century salon, perhaps the Wesendonck villa, laid out ready for a wedding feast and where Tristan has already brought Isolde to await her reluctant marriage to King Mark – in other words, the king is the one arriving by boat at the end of the act. There are telling moments from the first, with the Young Sailor as a member of the house retinue taunting Isolde to her face (he, the Steersman, Kurwenal and Melot are all effectively house staff and come and go through all three acts), and Tristan, rather than being consigned to the usual aft deck is very much in the foreground from the beginning, with Isolde addressing her ‘Mir erkoren’ to his face. And with Melot already on the scene before the arrival of Mark, he is able to witness the growing erotic intoxication of the illicit lovers and in his jealousy concoct his plan of betrayal. Pilavachi’s Personenregie in this final scene of Act I is particularly perceptive – we see the transformative effect on Isolde as Tristan snatches a kiss, seemingly their first and what they are expecting to be their last, before taking the potion. Oblivious to the world around they begin to abandon decorum and layers of clothing, which Brangäne and Kurwenal (maid and valet, respectively) desperately try to retrieve as Mark arrives, and Isolde, dragged reluctantly to meet him, falls with a faint at his feet.

For Act II we’ve moved to the king’s garden house. Here we see what is perhaps Pilavachi’s theme coming to fruition: that Tristan is not only Wagner’s self-proclaimed ‘monument to love’ but also a monument to artistic creativity inspired by love. The Wagner–Mathilde parallel is openly drawn: at ‘O sink hernieder’ Isolde repeats Tristan’s words and writes them on to his manuscript paper as if capturing the moment of inspiration. The end of the act reveals Mark’s tragedy more than in any other staging I’ve seen. After the recoil at being shown the truth of Melot’s accusation, he seems to crumple. Sitting together on the sofa with his wife, he makes one last attempt to win her over, but she has eyes only for Tristan, carefully rebuffs Mark’s proffered hand and the king appears to have a seizure, sitting stock still staring into the distance for the remainder of the act.

The prelude to Act III plays out to a front gauze depicting the Venetian Grand Canal: we are now obviously in Death in Venice territory (and in fairness, Wagner’s own death in Venice is a gift for a director drawing parallels between Wagner and Mann, between the opera and its creator). The action is initially confusing, though: each time the ‘alte Weise’ plays out, a ‘young Tristan’ (presumably the result of the offstage quicky his parents grabbed during Brangäne’s first warning in Act II) walks on with a wreath and a coffin is carried across the back of the set – on its third appearance Isolde herself is revealed as mourner. The main action is therefore presumed to be in flashback, and for the Liebestod, Tristan rises from his death to sit at the piano and write down Isolde’s words as she sings them. In the final moments, Isolde is back in widow’s weeds grasping the manuscript as if to demonstrate that love is the fount of creativity. 

The production opened in the early autumn of 2013 and reappeared, with subtly varying casts, more or less monthly for the rest of the season, until I caught this penultimate performance in April. Jeffrey Dowd, who had been a fine Parsifal but disappointing Siegfried during my Wagner bicentenary travels last year (see TWJ, November 2013), was in fine voice as Tristan, combining impetuousness with obsession. Rebecca Team, previously Lübeck’s triumphant Brünnhilde, made a very human Isolde, with firm singing and a crisp projection of the words – given Pilavachi’s detailed direction, both leads presented their roles as far from the statuesque Wagnerian cliché as could be imagined. 

All the subsidiary roles were well taken by members of the company, though Michael Vier’s Kurwenal didn’t have quite the vocal sheen of Wioletta Hebrowska’s Brangäne or Martin Blasius’s sympathetic Mark. Roman Brogli-Sacher conducted with his customary combination of forward impetus and textural detail, and the theatre orchestra surpassed itself in warmth and passion. By the time you read this, Lübeck’s Wagnerian odyssey will have moved on to Tannhäuser, and a post-Pilavachi/Brogli-Sacher era will have replaced one that has so enriched this city’s cultural life in recent years. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Music for Music's Sake: Brahms the Abstract Romantic

It’s hard to think of another major 19th-century composer who rejected pictorialism in music as wholeheartedly as Brahms. Bruckner, maybe? Though one could argue that while his symphonies are as outwardly ‘pure’ as any, the music expresses tangible sensations and feelings through his channelling of religious and Wagnerian influences. Chopin? For all his poeticism, his musical forms are abstract and any descriptive subtitles were imposed by others – except that he felt the need to label the viscerally illustrative ‘Funeral March’ of the B flat minor Sonata as such. Even Brahms’s idol Beethoven allowed the outside world to invade his otherwise highly cogent musical edifices with the babbling brook and thunderous storm of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.

Aside from works with texts – songs and choral works in his case – the closest Brahms came to illustrating anything tangibly extra-musical was the Tragic Overture, and even here the portraiture is generic and non-specific in the extreme (and in some commentators’ views not even particularly ‘tragic’). No symphonic poems like Liszt or Dvořák; no operas or works for the theatre requiring pictorial scene-setting like most of his contemporaries; no descriptive piano pieces like Schumann. And there’s a tell-tale indication in that none of his pieces – even his piano miniatures, which persist in using generic musical titles such as ‘intermezzo’ or ‘rhapsody’ – has been given a poetic nickname, or at least one that has stuck. Instead, we have symphonies, concertos, a wealth of chamber music, all couched in purely musical terms. Could this be one reason why some people don’t ‘get’ Brahms, as was discussed recently when BBC Radio 3 devoted a week of programmes to the composer’s music?

I’ve recently been absorbing myself in the musical intricacies of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, in the writing and preparation for publication of the latest of my Masterpieces of Music eBooks. It’s a work that, by all accounts, was written under the influence of life-changing experiences for the young composer: witnessing at first hand the tragic decline of his new mentor Robert Schumann, while recognising his growing affection for Robert’s wife, Clara. The concerto’s central slow movement has variously been described as a portrait of either Clara or of Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim, who acted as his musical and career advisor through the 1850s. But while these options may well have been in the composer’s mind when he wrote the music, as indeed Robert’s suicide attempt may have coloured the portentous nature of the first movement (though in reality it was drafted before Schumann leapt into the Rhine), it is fair to say that expressions of these extra-musical inspirations do not reach the audience as such. The emotions have been sublimated into musical abstraction.

The bulk of my book, as in the others in the series, is devoted to a blow-by-blow description, with audio and musical illustrations, of the music itself, with the intention of taking the reader through every thematic transformation, each formal reference point, all the textural and harmonic subtleties of a work that lasts some three-quarters of an hour in performance. What I found hard to avoid was presenting the concerto’s first main theme in terms of a vehement question that frustrates the questioner by going unanswered. Here I was not attempting to pose anything descriptive, but merely pointing out how a musical line can mirror the structure, the grammar, of prose or poetry, how a theme can be constructed like a sentence, with principal and subsidiary clauses.

In the end this ‘analysis’, for want of a better word, reinforced my view that Brahms, above nearly all his contemporaries, used music in an abstract way to express nothing more than itself. Which isn’t to degrade his ambition in any way, but to emphasise that he was the supreme exponent of ‘pure’ music, music whose effect on the listener’s brain and heart is achieved not by reference to things beyond itself but instead by drawing an emotional response from the very notes, harmonies and textures of his writing – in short the very essence of the Classical–Romantic creator that he was. Strangely, this might almost make him a kind of soul-mate to Stravinsky of all people, who claimed in 1936 (at the peak of his neo-Classical phase) that music ‘is essentially powerless to express anything at all’. Yet we know that it can and does, and in Brahms’s case the composer manages, by the miracle of his genius, to express the whole of human experience in music – it’s just that as listeners we don’t have, or have the need, to translate it into a medium beyond the music itself.

Friday, 19 September 2014

London Sinfonietta/Nicholas Collon – Kings Place, London – 18 September 2014

There’s always been the danger that in concentrating on Schoenberg’s audience-friendly early works performers and concert promoters ignore the very substantial body of work that followed the breakdown of tonality and subsequent codification of his twelve-note method in his work. And indeed, placing this more ‘difficult’ repertoire in the context of his late-Romantic music goes a long way to aid understanding both of where he was coming from and where (and why) he was going. Yet while one may regret that room wasn’t found in a concert that offered barely 80 minutes of music for a palate-cleanser of, say, the Serenade or Wind Quintet, the London Sinfonietta’s traversal of some of the key works of Schoenberg’s first decade of maturity was both welcome and rewarding.

Six of the group’s string players under the directorship of violinist Clio Gould began with a fervent but amply paced account of Verklärte Nacht. The musicians’ experience of playing in any number of different configurations led the ensemble to feel more like an orchestral string section pared down to single players than the usual quartet-plus or ad-hoc groupings familiar in performances of this work. Thus there was weight – aided by the full, resonant acoustic of Kings Place’s Hall One – and a more ‘orchestral’ sense to the texture that belied the number players involved, especially in the many instances where Schoenberg has two or more instruments playing the same music in octaves. Gould herself had a few moments where intonation went awry, but this was as much as anything to do with being swept up in the composer’s emotional sound-world. Tim Gill’s statement of the big, Dvořák-like melody when the music magically glides into the major mode was warm yet imposing, and the subsequent music of transfiguration was atmospheric in its ethereal duetting between cello and violin. However, one misjudgement was the elevation of Gill’s subordinate theme at the Etwas bewegt before the piece’s last big climax to the foreground, which stuck out uncomfortably and masked Gould’s principal line above. It is true that Schoenberg’s dynamic markings here are not that helpful, but by the time of his later string-orchestra version he had adopted his distinctive marking of Haupstimme/Nebenstimme and indeed labels the violin ‘P’ and the cello ‘S’ (in this American-era publication standing for principal and secondary). It was one moment of unease, though, in a performance of integrity and power.

For the concert’s second half, the strings were joined by wind, brass, piano and harmonium for Schoenberg’s own chamber-orchestra arrangement of the ‘Song of the Wood Dove’ from Gurrelieder. With the estimable Sarah Connolly as soloist this was luxury casting indeed, and the piece came across less as a ‘song’ than as a fully fledged dramatic scena, so vivid was the mezzo’s projection of the text and its heartfelt sentiments. Her security and evenness of tone from passages below middle C to a thrilling top B flat on the crucial word ‘Tod’ were marks of what makes her such a sought-after and wide-ranging artist – by no means hemmed in by stereotyping as a ‘Baroque specialist’ and now, of course, an experienced Wagnerian as well. The concision of Schoenberg’s original, vast orchestra into such a small instrumental ensemble is a masterpiece in itself, and Nicholas Collon drew all the colour he could from the 17 players at his disposal.

The neat dropping of piano and harmonium from that ensemble left us with the exact configuration for Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, the final work in this programme. Collon here drove the music hard, at times making us wonder if it was ‘Sehr rasch’ or just rash. But the players of the Sinfonietta seemed up to anything as ever and the performance celebrated their collective virtuosity as much as the composer’s fecundity of imagination, contrapuntal ingenuity and textural flair.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Chasing Ghosts on the Bach Trail

Visiting some of the places where Bach lived and worked in 18th-century Thuringia and Saxony, while working on my latest Masterpieces of Music eBook on the composer’s B minor Mass*, revealed varying degrees of evidence of the great man’s existence

Bach’s disputed birthplace in Eisenach, now a musuem
TRYING TO FOLLOW the stations of Bach’s life around the cultural heartland of central Germany is a bit like trying to grasp at apparitions. From the Bachhaus in the small western Thuringian town of Eisenach to his final resting place in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, nothing is necessarily as it seems. That Bachhaus, bought by the New Bach Society in 1906 on the assumption that it was the composer’s birthplace, has since been discounted by historians in favour of another as yet unknown site in the same Eisenach square. Yet it still has its commemorative plaque and houses the town’s Bach Museum. On a visit in July 2014, the church where Bach was baptised, his father worked and where Luther preached was unfortunately closed for restoration (scheduled to reopen in October 2015).

Bachkirche in Arnstadt, with the restored
interior and original Wender organ
Bach had his first major appointment in nearby Arnstadt, a small town south of the regional capital of Erfurt and on the northern margins of the Thuringian Forest. Here, at least, there are tangible Bachian mementoes. In time for the 250th anniversary of his death in 2000, ‘Bach Year’, the local authorities undertook a complete restoration of the church in which he had worked. In his time this building dedicated to St Boniface was called the Neue Kirche, but in 1935, his 250th birthday, it was boldly renamed as the Bachkirche (Bach Church). The works removed 18th- and 19th-century accretions and returned the church to the state in which it had existed in Bach’s time (it had only been rebuilt two years before Bach’s birth from the ruins of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire in 1581). The interior is now a rather typical example of German Lutheran Baroque: a limited colour scheme of white with gold tracery and clean lines (St Michael’s Church in Hamburg, where Telemann worked around this time and where Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel is buried, is the supreme example of the style). Also restored to pride of place is the organ on which Bach played – fortunately, although it had been replaced in the church by a 19th-century instrument, it had survived in a museum and could be reinstated. It was this organ that first brought him to the town, when he was asked to assess it and effectively give it a service.

Bernd Göbel’s Bach statue in Arnstadt
Outside the Bachkirche is perhaps the most original of the sculptural memorials to the composer. Rather than the usual stern, bewigged figure we see Bach as a young man in a strikingly laid-back pose – it was sculpted as recently as 1985 by the noted East German artist Bernd Göbel, whose works can also be seen in Leipzig and elsewhere.

As for Bach’s living quarters in Arnstadt, two houses bear evidence – one simply called the Bachhaus appears now to be solicitors’ offices and opens to visitors once a month or so. The other is a nondescript building on one of the main shopping streets and now a chemist, but it bears a plaque installed by authority of the Nazi-controlled Reichsmusikkammer in 1935.

It was from Arnstadt that Bach famously walked all the way north to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude. Here we encounter another ghost – the organ on which the Danish composer played in the Marienkirche was unfortunately bombed to smithereens in the Second World War.

BACK IN THURINGIA, Bach spent some of his most fruitful middle years working for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Weimar – his one major secular post. And once more we’re into phantom territory. The great Renaissance palace in which Bach worked burned to the ground in 1774, so the building we now see (an impressive early 19th-century replacement built under the guidance of no less a figure than Goethe) has no material connection with the composer. And to cap it all, Bach’s former lodging – and birthplace Carl Philipp Emmanuel exactly 300 years ago – is now a car park adjacent to the Hotel Elephant (almost as much an indignity as the site of Clara Schumann’s birthplace in Leipzig now being a Karstadt department store). Perhaps as a result, Weimar plays down its Bachian connections (there’s a bust at least) in favour of later figures – both Hummel and Liszt were to succeed Bach at the court – and its unsurpassed literary heritage.
Thomaskirche, Leipzig, where Bach worked
for over a quarter of a century

It is perhaps Leipzig that can lay greatest claim to being the home of Bach – he spent over a quarter of a century there, after all, and despite constant ructions with church and town authorities produced some of his greatest music there. There are still ghosts, though. The Thomasschule, where he lived and taught his choirboys, was knocked down as recently as 1902 (it’s difficult to establish the reason since Bach memorialisation was already strong by that stage). So the house of one his former neighbours across the street now provides the home for an excellent Bach Museum in which his music, rather than ephemeral memorabilia, plays a key role, not only thanks to excellent portable audio guides (and a room where you can hear all the orchestral instruments Bach used) but also the Treasure Room which houses a display of the composer’s manuscripts. The foundation that runs the building is arguably the most important centre of Bach research, and its holdings are like no other. It was fascinating, and moving, to see a complete set of parts for one of his cantatas, laid out in a line in the display cabinet, evidence not only of his own handwriting but that of his wife and sons who helped him with such chores.

Bach’s final resting place in the
chancel of the Thomaskirche
ACROSS THE SQUARE is the Bachian holy of holies, the Thomaskirche itself, which fortunately largely survived the city’s wartime bombing. The church where Bach was originally buried, St John’s, unfortunately fared less happily, so it was fortuitous that the composer’s remains had been dug up in the late 19th-century when the church’s cemetery was being redeveloped and moved to the church’s crypt. At least these were the presumed bones of the master, identified by dint of the oaken coffin they were found in, the mark of an important burial, and the perceived age of the man himself. An information panel in St Thomas’s recounts that Bach’s zinc sarcophagus was found open in the bombed remains of St John’s and carted across town to his former workplace, presented by the stonemason charged with the carriage with the words ‘Hello there, Superintendent, I bring Bach’. The open casket was watched day and night until a home was made for it, originally in 1949 on the chancel steps, but since 1964 in pride of place beneath a large bronze plate in the centre of the choir’s floor and now permanently strewn with flowers. The interior of the church itself has changed since Bach’s day, with 18th- and 19th-century additions, but it’s still humbling to stand there and imagine all the great music that was first performed there under Bach’s direction.

The exuberant Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, completely
remodelled after Bach’s death
One doesn’t get quite the same feeling in the city’s other major church, the Nikolaikirche, where the St John Passion was premiered, since this underwent a major refit at the height of the late 18th century and is now an exuberant fantasy of palm-inspired columns and vaulting. A final case of only the spectre of Bach remaining, despite the presence of a spotlit bust of the master:

* The Masterpieces of Music eBook on Bach’s Mass in B minor - a complete listening guide to ‘the greatest musical work of all times and all people’ - is published later this month - see Erudition for full details

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Village Romeo and Juliet – Oper Frankfurt – 6 July 2014

Photos: Barbara Aumüller

Sali, Manz’s son – Jussi Myllys
Vreli, Marti’s daaughter – Amanda Majeski
Manz, rich farmer – Dietrich Volle
Marti, rich farmer – Magnús Baldvinsson
The Dark Fiddler – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Sali as a child – Ludwig Höfle
Vreli as a child – Chiara Bäuml
First farmer – Pavel Smirnov
Second farmer/Shooting gallery man/Hunchbacked bass fiddler – Matthias Holzmann
First woman – Birgit Treschau
Second woman – Julia Heße
Third woman/Cheap jewellery woman/Wild girl – Yvonne Hettegger
Gingerbread woman/Slim girl – Magdalena Tomczuk
Wheel of fortune woman – Natascha Djikanovic
Showman/Poor hornplayer – Hyun Ouk Cho
Carousel man – Garegin Hovsepian
Three bargemen – Matthias Holzmann, Gerhard Singer, Sung-Ho Kim

Chorus & Statisterie of Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra

Conductor – Paul Daniel
Director – Eva-Maria Höckmayr
Set design – Christian Schmidt
Costumes – Saskia Rettig
Lighting – Olaf Winter
Dramaturgy – Norbert Abels

The strongest of Frederick Delius’s six operas has not, to my knowledge, been seen on a professional British stage for half a century (a planned Royal Opera production three years ago was sadly ditched following the death of Charles Mackerras, though there was a concert presentation at the Southbank Centre in 2012). But A Village Romeo and Juliet is gaining a following in German-speaking countries, not least, it would appear, thanks to its source in a novella by the 19th-century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. And it did indeed receive its world premiere, in Jelka Delius’s German translation, in Berlin in 1907. It was staged in Karlsruhe two years ago and is scheduled in Bielefeld for next January. Coming in between the two, this Frankfurt debut for the work could be seen as its final coming of age: playing to full houses and receiving the complete Regietheater treatment in such a major house it gave the sense of having at last achieved acceptance and esteem as a stage work.

Certainly no expense seemed to have been spared in its presentation. Christian Schmidt’s monumental set was an almost constantly mobile trio of three-dimensional structures that must have required some nifty computer-aided mechanics to choreograph in time with the music and action. Such scenic fluidity meant that the opera could be performed without a break and so maintain the musical and dramatic tension over its hour-and-three-quarter span. This setting was strangely interior – even, with its apartment-block staircase, urban – for a work in which nature plays such an important role, both scenically and in the music, and the farming context of the plot seemed deliberately alien. The only natural feature was a live caged rabbit in the first scene – no doubt symbolic, and later (dead and stiff) doubling as the Fiddler’s violin and inexplicably reappearing in cartoon-style human form towards the end. This baffling intrusion went against the generally understandable tenor of Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s interpretation, one where one didn’t even miss the imagery of the final scene where the two young lovers are supposed to float away on a sinking hay barge – here their fatal consumption of a cocktail of drugs made for just as poignant a close.

On the face of it, the story of the opera is a simple one: two children, offspring of two farmers who have long been in dispute over a parcel of land, meet again as teenagers, fall headlong in love and given their situation and the poverty that their fathers’ rivalry has brought upon their families see the only way out in death. The genius of Höckmayr’s concept of the opera was to people the stage almost constantly with doppelgängers of the two lovers at different times of their lives, from young children to the never-to-be-reached old age. The effect was an almost surreal obsession with the inseparability of Sali and Vreli and the pursuit of their impossible union, epitomised by the scene in which they both dream of their wedding and the brides and bridegrooms proliferate.

The dreamlike nature of the conception was taken a step further in the staging of the ‘Walk to the Paradise Garden’ interlude before the final scene. What on face value is supposed to be a rather forlorn amble to the pub to escape the abuse from the villagers at the fair was turned into a vision of Eden itself in which two more young Sali/Vreli lookalikes removed all their clothes, stood in composed embrace and then faced the audience in all their vulnerability like the pre-temptation Adam and Eve. As an idealised counterpart to the sexual awakening that was hinted at on another part of the stage by two more extras, it was profound, beautiful and heart-rending all at the same time, and Delius’s soaring lines in the purely orchestral arrangement of his ‘Walk’ will never sound the same to these ears again.

Like the ‘original’ Romeo and Juliet, Delius’s characters are assumed to be in their mid-teens, a difficult age to cast plausibly. But Finnish tenor Jussi Myllys and American soprano Amanda Majeski both looked feasibly youthful and sang their roles with convincing ardour and portrayed their characters’ enveloping mutual attraction most affectingly. Their younger selves were also sung with confidence by two members of the house’s Children’s Chorus, Ludwig Höfle and Chiara Bäuml. Höckmayr and her designers did little to distinguish between the two farmers, Manz and Marti, as if to emphasises their joint culpability in affairs, but Dietrich Volle and Magnús Baldvinsson were contrasted enough in voice to give them some sense of humanity and vulnerability.

Apart from the two farmers, the main subsidiary character is the Dark Fiddler, who appears three times through the opera to suggest ways out to the lovers that ultimately they refuse to take. Here, as played by Johannes Martin Kränzle – the Beckmesser and Alberich de nos jours – he was on stage almost throughout, and paradoxically dressed all in white, as a kind of orchestrator of the action – whether malign or benign was often deliberately unclear. In one sense it was a shame that a singer of such charismatic power and richness of vocal communication only had three ballad-like ‘arias’ to sing, but his stage presence, whether sidling in through windows or providing the model of a tree to complete the Eden image, was all-pervasive – and what’s more he even played his own violin solo, quite creditably, in his first scene.

Delius’s original English libretto sounds horribly effete and dated to 21st-century ears, so it was a relief that it was sung here in Tom Hammond’s revision, originally made for the Delius Centenary Festival staging by Sadler’s Wells in 1962. On CD, Delius’s score has often come across to me as rather overly rhapsodic, despite the strength of its main, opening motif and the obvious glories of the ‘Walk’. But seeing and hearing the whole thing in the theatre for the first time changed my view completely and its searing, heartfelt lyricism and Romantic sweep completely consumed the senses. Much of this was down to the conducting of experienced Delian Paul Daniel, who seemed to have convinced the members of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra that this glowing, febrile score is one of the masterpieces of early 20th-century repertoire.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Jonny spielt auf – German National Theatre, Weimar – 5 July 2014

Krister St Hill (Jonny) and Steffi Lehmann (Yvonne)

Photo: Stephan Walzl

Max, a composer – Alexander Günther
Anita, a singer – Larissa Krokhina
Jonny, a jazzband violinist – Krister St Hill
Daniello, a violin virtuoso – Bjørn Waag
Yvonne, a chambermaid – Steffi Lehmann
Manager – Daeyoung Kim
Hotel director – Artjom Korotkov
Station supervisor – Detlef Koball
First Policeman – Klaus Wegener
Second Policeman – Yong Jae Moon
Third Policeman – Oliver Luhn

DNT Opera Chorus
Weimar Staatskapelle

Conductor – Martin Hoff
Director – Frank Hilbrich
Set design – Volker Thiele
Costumes – Gabriele Rupprecht
Dramaturge – Kathrin Kondaurow

Larissa Krokhina (Anita) and Alexander Gunther (Max)

Photo: Stephan Walzl

It’s difficult to imagine the same happening today: when Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up) premiered in Leipzig in 1927 it was such an instant hit with audiences (less so with the critics) that some 30 other theatres had taken it up and staged it within its first year. Krenek’s publisher, Universal Edition, produced a map showing where it had been put on in that one year and it covers virtually every major and minor opera house in Germany bar Munich, as well as places further afield from Antwerp to Budapest, Basel to Leningrad. Its fall from grace was almost as swift – its subject-matter made it the target of Nazi demonstrations from its early days and later Jonny literally became the poster-boy for the ‘Degenerate Music’ (Entartete Musik) exhibition held in Düsseldorf in 1938.

The reasons for both its fame and its rejection seem tame to us today. In short, it is in effect a cross between opera and operetta in which the tussle between European art music and American jazz being played out by composers across the continent in the 1920s is made manifest. Jonny, a black leader of a jazzband, steals an Amati violin from the classical virtuoso Daniello because he feels the old music is dead and his is the future and more worthy of the instrument, in doing so encouraging everyone to head for the New World as the music of America is set conquer the Old. The catchy jazz numbers and subversiveness and raciness of the action were lapped up by early audiences and were among the very reasons that the work fell foul of Nazi doctrine – Jonny spielt auf was almost designed to provoke its worst prejudices (although Krenek wasn’t Jewish, it didn’t stop Viennese protesters complaining of a ‘Jewish–Negro soiling of our opera house’).

As a key representative of 1920s Zeitoper (opera of our time, or more specifically opera with a contemporary milieu), it is also a signature cultural artefact of the Weimar Republic. The chance of seeing it in the very theatre (admittedly rebuilt post-war) where that republic was declared in 1919 was too good an opportunity to miss. Weimar is named on that Universal map, so this was presumably its first return to the theatre since the late 1920s.

Jonny sets its challenges for the director and designer, calling for a singing glacier, a Keystone Cops-style car chase and a character falling to his death under a moving train. Frank Hilbrich and Volker Thiele avoided all three: the glacier was presented as a giant picture in a gallery, and the hard-to-portray action sequences took place off stage. The idea of the gallery, overseen by a trio of decrepit curators (who also undertook the roles of arthritic scene-shifters), actually proved an apt analogy for the ‘museum culture’ that Jonny wants to sweep away, but the added scene at the very beginning, before the music had even started, in which the entire cast paraded past the glacier image was interminable overkill.

The glacier is a paradoxical symbol – the one place where composer Max feels secure while the world around him seems to be slipping from his grasp. Here by chance he meets Anita, who has sung in one of his operas, wins his heart and persuades him to follow her and her career to America. For all the slapstick and all that jazz, it is their relationship that leads the plot, even if ultimately it is Jonny whose guile wins the day. Also in the mix are the chambermaid Yvonne and the lascivious and conniving violinist Daniello who gets his comeuppance under the train. Hilbrich staged all this with cinematic fluidity, helped by Thiele’s mobile set that easily transformed from gallery to hotel to station. His characterisation was sharp, helped by a cast that played together as a true ensemble, from doddery silent museum staff to leading roles.

Most of these were cast from Weimar’s in-house team of singers. Alexander Günther, who has been with the company for 22 years and has recently moved from baritone to tenor roles (most singers tend to move the other way), found the lyricism in the role of the ever-troubled Max. He was strongly partnered by Russian soprano Larissa Krokhina as Anita, who coped well with the part’s demanding coloratura and had admirable presence on stage. Steffi Lehmann was winningly lithe of voice as Yvonne – the perfect soubrette – and Norwegian baritone Bjørn Waag managed to garner some sympathy as a warm-voiced Daniello.

But inevitably the show was stolen by Jonny in the person of guest baritone, the Swedish–Trinidadian Krister St Hill, veteran of the Decca recording of the work from over twenty years ago, but still in full command of the role in voice and character. It’s a part that demands wit, cunning, charm and charisma, and he possessed them all, coupled with a sleek tonal quality and winning way with the German/cod-American text.

Krenek’s score is an unusual cross between 1920s New Objectivity, even atonality, and the popular song and dance idioms that so entranced those early audiences. It’s a difficult mixture to hold together, but Weimar’s General Music Director Martin Hoff gave the score admirable shape and integrity and if the Weimar Staatskapelle wasn’t quite up to the level of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on the Decca recording it was nonetheless idiomatic and enthusiastic in its execution of the music.