Monday, 29 July 2013

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Royal Albert Hall, 22-28 July 2013

The curtain calls at the end of what everyone seems to have felt was shattering experience.

Celebrating Wagner in the best possible way, through a magnificent performance of his questioning myth.

Last year Daniel Barenboim conducted a Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms in one week, interspersed with wonderful contrasting Boulez works. This year he conducted the Ring Cycle over the same span, almost 19 hours, including intervals. The audience was completely bowled over, as you might expect: how will he top it next year?

This semi-staged concert performance is the supreme highlight of the entire season, and not merely because of Barenboim’s ambition. The Ring is central to Wagner’s artistic concerns, and his mythmaking here seems to define the whole of Romanticism.

The struggle to replace a corrupt society with one in which freedom, love and free love can be expressed is at the heart of many, perhaps most, artists in the nineteenth century, and continues as a major presence today.

The Ring cycle wasn’t the first apocalyptic-utopian artwork, but it is the greatest, and can be appreciated purely for its astonishing levels of musical organisation, even if the finer details of the philosophy are lost.

With Barenboim and his seasoned orchestra, there was no chance of losing either. Surely he has conducted this vast work as often as anyone else ever, though as usual he adopts a fairly traditional, steady approach. Erring on the side of caution, this can cause problems in places, most damagingly in the Walküre’s first act, where the peaks and troughs are smoothed out too much.

But then the second act of the same drama shows the conductor and orchestra at their best, weighty, solemn yet maintaining momentum during the cycle’s most significant scenes. And through the same qualities, practically the whole of Götterdämmerung is magnificent.

Justin Way’s stage directions deserve almost as much praise as the conducting. Constrained in having the singers always face the audience, nonetheless somehow some very subtle acting was possible, including some touching death scenes. The whole of the stage was used, including the orchestra, for great comic effect during Siegfried.

Casting a Ring Cycle is a daunting task, and allowances ought to be made for the much more prominent position of the orchestra in this hall, compared to their position in an opera house pit, where they overwhelm the singers less.

From the three major roles, only Brünnhilde was consistently cast across her three dramas. Nina Stemme is intelligent and committed, though her voice seemed to grow in size as the cycle progressed. Her immolation scene was moving, though not especially powerful, and that is perhaps my summary impression of most of the singers.

The Siegfrieds, Lance Ryan and Andreas Schager, both impressively looked and acted the part. Ryan’s voice seemed less powerful than I’ve experienced on his DVD performances, but he dared to sing quietly at times, and of course, the role is murderously difficult.

Of the three different Wotans, Bryn Terfel was predictably the best, in Walkure – in volume and vocal acting, he was magnificent. Iain Patterson, in Rheingold, was impressive if a bit stiff, while Terje Stensvold in Siegfried was distressingly underpowered.

Even more underpowered was Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen; the singer may have had some subtle ideas, but it was difficult even to hear him, such that his performance was by some margin the most disappointing in the work. By contrast, Erik Halfvarson must be one of the most malevolently powerful Hundings ever, and his Fafner was similarly impressive.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was an adequate Alberich; Peter Bronder avoided vocal or visual caricature as Mime; Simon O’Neill and Anja Kampe were a moving pair of Wälsungs, Ekaterina Gubanova a beautiful Fricka. The smaller parts seemed perfectly cast.

It simply isn't possible to do the slightest justice to an experience like the Ring in so few words, but as other commentators have pointed out, this performance, available to hundreds (thousands?) of people for almost no price, made me believe in Wagner's original vision of it transforming society.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Tristan und Isolde

Royal Albert Hall
27 July 2013

Violeta Urman's liebestod, on a different occasion

Despite terrible vocal-orchestral balance, Wagner's dream-interlude to the Ring cycle made an overwhelming impression.

This performance, taking place between performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, roughly where it should be in chronological composition order, was more striking in this context than it might deserve in usual contexts.

For Semyon Bychkov conducted mercilessly, conjuring a beautiful wash of sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but routinely overwhelming the singers, who were helped neither by being placed so close to the orchestra, nor by the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

When this renders a dumbshow of a Tristan of repute, such as Robert Dean Smith (replacing Peter Seiffert, who may have been wise), Bychkov’s approach is insane. I have heard Tristans lose their voice in Act 3, but so far as I could tell Smith was instead husbanding his resources. Well, his caution and Bychkov’s relentless volume practically ruined this extraordinary drama.

Thankfully Tristan is as unsinkable as Carmen. It will have a powerful effect regardless of performance flaws. And in this position during the Ring, its vital importance was amplified.

The Ring is broadly about what kind of life (specifically love) is w orth living. With Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s ecstatic day-music ringing in our ears, the very different night-music of this drama proved the utmost contrast.

These lovers are also seeking value in their life, and in Act 2 conclude it can be obtained only by transgressing all values, and indeed seeking genuine oblivion within each other. The horrifying ‘real world’ intervenes in Act 3, where Tristan’s sufferings reach an unbearable, but enlightening, pitch. Discovering he is the source of his own suffering, he is unable to transcend it and dies too early. This leaves Isolde to perhaps transcend their sufferings; certainly that is what the music implies.
  None of this self-destruction could be the kind of new life awaiting the Ring’s necessarily world-changing heroes, but the exploration gave proms audiences a unique opportunity to learn, as Wagner himself did, more about what the new life might be.

Returning to this performance, it was dominated in every sense by the conductor, a figure regrettably more charismatic on stage than any of the singers. His orchestra created dark, flowing, potent waves of sound, so that the ending was as elating and shattering as it ought to be.

But this is much more than a tone poem with obbligato voices. Of the leads, Violeta Urmana was at least mostly audible, and has a beautiful voice, especially in the lower registers, though her upper range is much less impressive. Dean Smith, in addition to being inaudible, seemed to be biting off the words, so was neither beautiful nor convincing, a terrible performance in fact.

As often, it was left to King Mark, Kwangchul Youn, to make the best impression, taking the side of the audience, at least later, when we reflect upon what transcending our values might actually mean. When the sufferings of the lovers is no longer in front of our eyes and ears.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Verdi at the Proms

Royal Albert Hall
20 July 2013 

Verdi's Libera Me from the unperformed Rossini Mass (starts at 4:34)

A celebration for connoisseurs, but only rarely showing the composer at his best.

Verdi’s bicentenary is hardly noticed at the Proms, whereas Wagner’s is being celebrated at extreme length and cost. I would much rather this than the other way round, but still, one concert devoted to Verdi, and mostly obscure minor works at that, is not doing the great dramatist any sort of justice.

The first piece we heard isn’t even Verdi, but rather a string arrangement, or enlargement, of his string quartet. As a quartet, the piece may be a curiosity; in this distorted form it is merely tedious.

A late, occasional piece, the Ave Maria for soprano and orchestra, made a useful complement with the equally late Ave Maria in the slightly more familiar Four Sacred Pieces. Likewise the original version of the Requiem’s thrilling Libera Me linked closely with the Te Deum in the four pieces.

I was struck by two consistent approaches Verdi has in his overtly Christian music. On the one hand, through the Virgin, his sopranos pray for support, though typically in vain, at least in the staged dramas.

On the other, he presents God, or his believers, in the most fearsome and unyielding Old Testament style. This reaches a peak with the Dies Irae section of the Libera Me and the Requiem, but can be found also in the Te Deum, where the creator of this frightening world is appropriately presented as worthy of awe and terror.

Verdi was agnostic, but the programme notes are greatly undervaluing him by placing him in the same tradition as Brahms and Vaughan Williams. This concert forcefully confirmed that Verdi entered the beliefs of Christians with a dramatist’s skill, and presented two important aspects of them with his customary straightforward brilliance.

For Verdi, Christianity is about recognising that the horrors of the world are caused by God, perhaps justly (though perhaps not), and then about desperately hoping to supplicate that God, typically through the human closest to him, the Virgin.

Depending on preference, this music both supports and critiques the beliefs of Christians, and no other composer has done this so well. I cannot comprehend that Christians continue to find succour in Verdi’s religious works, but this in itself is the highest praise of this composer, who ought to be as controversial as his exact contemporary, Wagner.

Performances were excellent, and giving us an opportunity to explore this composer’s beliefs is priceless.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth

Old Vic theatre
2 July 2013

The trailer.

This theatrical witches brew cannot fail to make an impact, despite some low-wattage leads.

The bird of the title is not looks or charm or even hope, though this is what Chance fears he has lost, but rather imaginative power, which must be transfigured with maturity or we lose the vital sparks within us. Alexandra, while much older, retains her vitality, as established in the final scenes, whereas Chance has lost his, and so waits for the catastrophe, castration being a fairly obvious euphemism for his loss.

As often with Williams, the drama is weakened by a lack of inwardness: the characters are neither articulate nor interestingly inarticulate, so that the audience is no wider than the characters about their predicament.

His detailed stage directions, attempting to convey his characters' inner thoughts, are themselves a sign of insecurity, indicating similar frustrations to those of Henry James when he writing for the stage. If this seems crazy given Williams' obvious theatrical strengths, I think it does suggest that he feared something was missing from his characters, and that needed to be provided by the actors.

Thankfully the author's powerful theatrical quality, and in particular his very distinctive style, can make us overlook these weaknesses while in the theatre.

His works seem indestructible, and this one too. Marianne Elliott's production sensibly centres the action on Chance, and likewise the adaptation appears to remove some of Alexandra's lines. This also allows the repulsive political backdrop to come through forcefully, and Boss Finley's terrible speech becomes something of a dark highlight here.

It is hard for a Boss Finley not to steal the show, but it doesn't happen here. Owen Roe presents a quietly menacing figure that is all the more effective for being restrained.

Kim Cattral is the star name in the cast, but her Alexandra is a disappointment, an unsubtle portrayal. Seth Numrich's Chance is the central character, but although he looks good, and clearly understand the role, its charisma seems beyond him. The result is that his character is unlikeable, and while some of that risk is intrinsic to the part, we are told repeatedly that everyone once loved him.

These are small criticisms. The drama is effective, and if it doesn't bear deep reflection afterwards, these are the faults of the writer, not the creative team.