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: