A rather odd night at the symphony

BoulezI went to see the TSO last night because there was a Boulez piece programmed that I wanted to hear.  It was a rather odd evening.  It kicked off with Morawetz’ Carnival Overture Op.2.  This was I suppose the designated Canadiana.  It’s a roughly five minute piece that sounds like the Brahms of the Academic Festival Overture crossed with Dvořák.  Too much brass and cymbals for my taste.  Then came about ten minutes of faffing about reorganising the stage for the Boulez followed by Peter Oundjian coming out and making one of those cringingly apologetic speeches for programming something “difficult”.  I hate this.  If an orchestra, opera house or chamber ensemble is going to program atonal, serialist or what you will music (and they should) by all means explain how it works in a program note but don’t patronise the audience and, above all, don’t apologise.  If it needs an apology why are you programming it?

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Chéreau Ring – Götterdämmerung

And so, at last to Götterdämmerung.  The scene with the Norns is dark, very dark.  There’s a rope and not much goes on (at least that is visible) but the singing is good.  The “dawn” scene comes off more effectively here than the final scene of Siegfried but it’s still not great.  I think the problem is a combination of Manfred Jung’s dry, rather nasal tone and Boulez rather fast tempu.  It seems rushed rather than ecstatic and the Rhine Journey doesn’t thrill.  I was concerned at this point that I was being unfair to a renowned production so I put on the same scene from Kupfer/Barenboim.  It’s much better.  Siegfried Jerusalem sounds truly heroic, Anne Evans richer tone blends better than Gwyneth Jones’ (though this could be an artefact of the recording) and, crucially, Barenboim gives the singers room to sing before markedly speeding up for the orchestral music.  At least there is no naff attempt to depict a literal Grane in Chéreau’s version.  At the conclusion of this scene Brian Large pulls off the first of his artsy effects.  During the Rhine music he holds a close up of Brünnhilde for a rather long time before pulling out to a full stage shot which he then shrinks until there is just a tiny square of picture  in the middle of a black screen which, when he slowly expands it, has transformed to the Gibichung hall.  He does the same thing a couple more times.  It seems odd to introduce that kind of thing at such a late stage in the cycle.

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Chéreau Ring – Siegfried

Chéreau’s Siegfried is even less obviously “industrial” than his Die Walküre.  There’s a forge of course but there rather has to be.  Other than that we get workshop, forest and lair pretty much as one might imagine until, of course, we end up back at the ruin where Brünnhilde waits.  Brian Large injects lots of smoke at every opportunity.

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Chéreau Ring – Die Walküre

The second instalment of Patrice Chéreau’s 1980 Bayreuth Ring cycle is set, like Das Rheingold, in a sort of industrial bourgeois late 19th century.  One would almost say steampunk if that were not an anachronism.  Actually the “industrial” side is much less evident than in the earlier work.  There’s a sort of astrolabe/pendulum thing in Valhalla but that’s about it.  Setting aside, the story telling is very straightforward; so much so that it takes a real effort of the imagination to get into a mindset where this production could ever have been considered controversial.  It’s quite literal; Brünnhilde has a helmet and breast and back plates (worn over a rather severe grey dress), Wotan has a spear, Siegmund has a sword.  There’s not an assault rifle or light sabre to be seen.  It is though dramatically effective.

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From the House of the Dead

Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is a curious piece.  It sets certain episodes from Dostoevsky’s account of his life in prison into a collage of stories that doesn’t have a straightforward narrative arc at all.  It’s quite brutal, as one might expect, and very male dominated.  Few characters stand out as individuals and so the piece becomes very much an exercise in ensemble musical theatre.  The music is unusual too.  In Pierre Boulez’ words it is “primitive”.  Certain phrases are repeated over and over with minimal development to create a sort of “expressionist minimalism”.  It’s extremely interesting to listen to and a great sonic match for the brutal and repetitive nature of prison camp life.

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Pelléas et Mélisande in the Valleys

The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 describes the DVD of the 1992 Welsh National Opera performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande thusly:

This is, in every respect, a model of what a DVD ought to be, a perfect realisation in picture and sound of Debussy’s sole and inspired opera.

Followed by a good deal more in the same vein.  This, regrettably, tells us more about the Gramophone Guide than about this DVD(1).  Actually it’s not bad at all by 1992 standards but “a perfect realisation” it isn’t.

Peter Stein’s production is semi-abstract and monotone.  The tone is “dark”.  There’s some interesting lighting but visually it’s pretty nondescript.  The director’s focus is clearly on the actors and their interactions and in a work like Pelléas et Mélisande that makes sense.  There is some very good acting, especially from Alison Hagley as Mélisande.  The tower scene is brought off rather well with perhaps the most extravagant hair extension in the history of opera.  This also features in a disturbingly violent Act 4 Scene 2.  Act 4 also sees a brief appearance by a live sheep, no doubt in deference to local sensibilities.  I’m not entirely convinced that Stein gets enough complexity from his cast to really raise the psychology beyond the cardboard cut out level.  Donald Maxwell’s rather crude and coarse Golaud doesn’t really make a case for his descent into jealousy, madness and murderous rage based on not much at all really.  He’s not helped by the rather colourless Pelléas of Neill Archer.  On the other hand Alson Hagley conveys the fragility and mystery of her character exceptionally well.  (I also wondered whether a visual reference to Gerald of Wales’ Melusine was being made in the tower scene but maybe that’s over-theorising).  She’s very much in the same frantic and febrile mould here as Natalie Dessay on the Theater an der Wien recording.  Kenneth Cox gives a strongly characterised Arkel with particularly good chemistry with Hagley.  Stein uses a boy treble, Samuel Burkey, in the role of Yniold.  It works dramatically but I don’t much care for it musically.

In general the singing is very good.  All the principals have adequate French at least, though they can’t quite match Vienna’s line up of Francophone star talent.  Pierre Boulez conducts.  He gets a very detailed, transparent reading from the WNO orchestra while occasionally pushing out a genuinely Wagnerian dramatic climax.  No complaints here.

Stein also directed for TV/DVD.  It’s pretty conventional 1992 TV direction.  There are lots of close ups but generally there’s no sense that one is missing anything.  Although recorded live, there is no applause and no sign of an audience.  During the orchestral interludes we get film of the orchestral score which is an interesting treatment but tends even more to make this like a film rather than a theatre performance.

The picture is average DVD 16:9 and the sound options are PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1.  The surround tracks were created from an original stereo source using DG’s AMSI II technology.  The DTS track is very decent but not quite up to best modern standards.  Extras include a trailer, a picture gallery and some DG promo material.  Subtitles are French, English, German, Spanish and Chinese.  There’s a trilingual booklet with track listings, synopsis and a short, not very useful essay.

This is a good (though far from perfect!) effort.  It’s definitely worth a look though I personally prefer the more recent Vienna recording.

fn1. I’ve long been skeptical about reviewers who claim that the best recording of a well known work is one made by Fritz Busch in his garden shed in 1935.