Wednesday, 5 March 2014
At times it felt like ten years before the walls of Troy. And out of over 100 operas, some of them repeated, that I've covered in my opera course over 25 years at the City Literary Institute, only Tippett's King Priam along with Beethoven's Fidelio - my own personal blind spot - made me glad I'd finished with them.
King Priam is not an easy opera to love, nor does Tippett ever try to make it so. Up to a point, I understand his intention: to write music of thorny, embattled combat for a more relaxed age (not that 1962, the year of my birth, was that relaxed) having written an opera of exuberant lyricism for the tense postwar era (The Midsummer Marriage). But there are moments of supposed transcendence - as when Achilles yearns for his homeland, or when Hermes sings first that we should feel 'the pity and the terror as Priam dies', then of 'divine music' to 'melt our hearts, renew our love' - where the actual musical substance still doesn't yield what the text promises. Flute and harp do not the sublime create if the idea still isn't on the level of what, say, Britten would have made of it.
The other problem is that the vocal lines are so relentlessly declamatory that it's not just the singers who tire of them: while the guitar writing for Achilles' meditation is fascinating (shameless and not very good painting of Achilles and Priam above, not worth crediting the French artist), the vocal line is not. I pitied the poor young tenor having to grapple with that in English Touring Opera's disastrous-from-the-start staging the other week.
On the other hand, if any opera stars could convince us of Priam's vocal worth, it would be the line-up on David Atherton's incandescent Decca recording with the London Sinfonietta (now on Chandos). What a vintage this was: a team led by Norman Bailey, my all-time favourite bass-baritone, in which a youngish Philip Langridge and Ann Murray, sounding gorgeous, especially shine and in which Heather Harper, Felicity Palmer, Thomas Allen and Robert Tear all sound very much their own distinguished selves.
And it was certainly a relief to get back to the recording after the poor live experience - though that too had its revelations: the women were superb, and the Andromache, Camilla Roberts, a possible future star (pictured in the foreground seated below; above, bad hat and make-up day, both images by Sim Canetty-Clark).
Atherton grabs you by the throat with the trumpet fanfares, timpani rattles and choral howls at the start (all properly placed, as they were so ridiculously not in the Linbury). The instrumental groupings are always fascinating. But again I'm not always convinced by what Tippett does with them. And structure-wise, there are fascinations - above all the strings-free, short 'war' act - but, while the middle of Act Three is gripping, ultimately it feels a quarter of an hour too long. Somehow the old Kent Opera production by Nicholas Hytner, the only one on DVD, is more companionable. And Omar Ebrahim, pictured as Hector below with the young Paris his brother, was rather delectable in those days (a couple of students even rather fancied Rodney Macann's Priam shirtless, a silver-fox fantasy perhaps).
And that, Tippett operas-wise, is as far as we'll be going in the class: to me, it's a law of diminishing returns with The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year, though admirers say I should try harder. I do love the Piano Concerto, the first two symphonies and the piano sonatas - looking forward to Steven Osborne playing the Second and Third - while I want to get to know the string quartets. Mastery, yes; genius, only sometimes. But I'll keep my Priam score for the singularity of the instrumentation. As far as the class goes, we're now liberating ourselves with the intoxicating panache of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.
A family at war is the starting point for Richard Jones's dazzling production of Handel's Rodelinda at English National Opera. I've already waxed indecently lyrical about it for The Arts Desk, but this is the opportunity to use some more of Clive Barda's fine photos of the pre-dress (I hope to go again before the short run ends). Jones deals well with Handel's slow kindle in Act One - like most Handel first acts, low on inspiration - but rises to match the greatness in the duet at the end of the Second Act, which like the staging of a third-act lament is one of the most startling things I've ever witnessed in the theatre. This gives you some idea of the ultimate tableau, John Mark Ainsley's vacillating mobster standing statue-like between the separated husband and wife.
Rebecca Evans is Iestyn Davies' equal for vocal beauty and prowess: what a transformation into an Anna Magnani strong woman. Barda's money shot, IMO, is the one I used to lead the TAD review, but this is a good one. Christopher Ainslie as a long-suffering servant is to the left, the charismatic and attractive young actor Matt Casey as her son to the right. Love the hands (some, like my erstwhile Arts Desk colleague Igor Toronyi-Lalic, did not).
Here's the bar where the soda waters flow, Iestyn Davies centre with Ainslie left and Sue Bickley right.
And a hint of the berserk - which is to be a topic here soon in an American context - as Ainsley's capo tries every which way to despatch his enemy.
It's funnier than it looks. Some reviews thought Jones's concept too jokey, some too dark. I reckon the genius lies in the risk-taking flip between one and the other. It's neither more nor less than Handel's fitfully inspired score deserves. But go and see it, do.
Meanwhile, there's also a certain comedy amidst the horror to the Russian abuse of language in the present standoff: Putin is the defender of the Russians against the 'fascists' - a fair number of those on both sides, though probably Russia scores rather higher than Ukraine - and 'anti-semites'. He represents 'humanitarian values' and human rights. Ponyatno/Yeah, right. And of course there are no Russian troops in the Crimea, even though a BBC World Service reporter had confirmation from a young soldier that he was officially representing his country, and personally didn't think it was right. How Lavrov will worm out of this, how it will all be resolved, makes the mind boggle and the soul despair.
Friday, 28 February 2014
1923, 1931, 1938: these were golden years for enthroning the city/town hall as palace of the people. Stockholm, Oslo and Norwich respectively all put their edifices high on a list of priorities. All seem rather functional from a distance until you look at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the detail, which in Oslo's case wasn't actually polished until 1950, though the foundation stone was laid 19 years earlier and much of the work was done in the 1930s. There's the city hall very much at the centre of the above schools-assisted tapestry lodged in the building itself, and here are its twin towers from the nearby open space just below the Akershus Fortress.
My inadequate city booklet - Berlitz, more or less useless, should have picked up The Rough Guide to Norway in Stanford's because there wasn't one at the airport - tells me one useful thing about it, how 'detractors joke that it resembles two large blocks of brown Norwegian goat's cheese ([exte] geitost)'. Of course I had to look for images of that very produce, and the one I liked best comes from this excellent cheeseblog which gives a very flavoursome description of its making and taste. Sweet, sweet, sweet is the keynote.
Forbidding from a distance, Oslo City Hall welcomes with its details from the moment you step up to the colonnades flanking its impressive main doorway and astronomical clock. Around them are painted wood carvings of scenes from Norse mythology by Dagfin Werenskiold (1892-1977). The swans who turned into maidens on landing catch the eye first on the right.
Stripped of 20th century frocks, the Norns - not the hags of Wagner but pneumatic girls - pour water on the wounds of Yggdrasil, the tree of life.
T(h)or rides his chariot drawn by rams
while beasties populate Ragnarok, the day of destruction.
Inside, Werenskiold also sculpted more Yggdrasiliana above the fountain.
This great hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place on 10 December each year, has some of the biggest frescoes in existence, notably by Alf Rolfse and Henrik Sorensen, which celebrate labour and don't shy away from images of the Occupation.
Don't look too close, though, because while details on the fittings like the reindeer on the doors are superb,
the painting of the bigger murals is crude. Which you couldn't say of Per Krohg's impressive work in the Eastern Chamber upstairs. The wall above the east end has the imagery of bees flying from the hive (the city)
to a rosebush (nature) applied to human effort.
The vast north wall works its way from winter at one end to autumn, spring and summer in the central panel.
Higher up are images of the camp in which Krohg was interned by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Everywhere you look, outside as well as inside, the detail is impressive. A hymn to fisherman on the east wall.
And of course this is very much an active building, with rooms for state-sponsored artists at the top of the western tower and over 300 events a year including weddings/civil ceremonies held in a chamber with a pastoral Munch over the fireplace. Of course the room everyone should see in Oslo is the Munch collection in the National Gallery, including the one of the many Screams which was stolen and recovered next to the blobby faces of The Dance of Life and portrait proof that mighty Edvard didn't just paint distressed aliens.
Looking in the other direction at the room full of Norwegian landscapes and sculptures of varying quality.
The Gallery, due to move to spacious new quarters in some years' time, has impressive selections of French painters, real quality in its handful of Cezannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins. Not enough visitors turn left at the top of the stairs instead of right. Because of Oslo's minor status for centuries, there are few old masters, in fact only one absolute masterpiece, a Goya of a toreador, but the room of icons from Novgorod is a surprise.
My biggest regret, apart from the fact that weather conditions and time shortage combined meant we didn't cross over to the peninsula with the viking ship museum, was that I didn't make it to Ibsen's apartment (guided tours on the hour made it tricky given the patchwork schedule centred around the National Opera). Homage to his National Theatre and the statue outside, though, was essential.
and here in this central oblong of public space, plenty was going on - skating, with Parliament behind
and a musical Ukrainian protest.
I've already posted one picture of the Akershus Fortress, silent and empty in the snow of a freezing Sunday morning. We slowly made our way there over the ice past the old town which includes the former City Hall, a very pretty cafe and barracks-like housing.
All was silent apart from the odd crow and a tramping sentry(below; that's a tramping diplo-mate above)
until we heard bells and organ music coming from the castle chapel.
Passing the stone coat of arms on the left
and an intriguing cellar-like door with royal crown
we found a christening taking place inside the chapel (1500s with baroque accretions) to which we were welcomed, sitting on a bench alongside paper and crayons which little girls rushed up to use from time to time. Modern Norwegian dad knew how to rock his crying infant into stillness.
Pretty as the chapel undoubtedly is, Oslo Cathedral has the bigger treasures, though it isn't really the sum of its parts.
The present building was consecrated in 1697 and much done over in 1848-50, though the Gothicisation then has been reduced in favour of many of the original baroque fittings. These include the 1700 carved altarpiece,
the singular font of 1726,
the1727 organ facade which conceals a state-of-the-art instrument
and the 1699 pulpit,
not a patch on the one in Stavanger Cathedral, but with the curiosity of multiple hour-glasses to time the sermon.
What's relatively modern is well done here, too, especially the chancel windows by Emanuel Vigeland c. 1910.
That's quite enough of old Christiania for now. I'd like to explore further. My Icelandic friend Steinunn pointed out that while Reykjavík doesn't change its essential character too much between winter and summer - though I found it hauntingly empty on a Sunday afternoon in early February - Oslo is a completely different city in July and August. Hoping to return then and see much more in and around the city. In the meantime, a grotesque farewell in front of a real scream of a train in Oslo Airport's railway station.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
Preparing my pre-performance talk for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's concert last night, which included Khachaturian's lumpy behemoth of a Piano Concerto, I was expecting this in the middle movement:
whereas what we got was this:
Which was a pity, because the Khachaturian concerto has only two redeeming features: its opening melody, done to death, and the novelty value of what ought to be a solo for flexatone, not musical saw. The former instrument also has notable roles in Shostakovich - The Nose, The Golden Age, Hypothetically Murdered and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (for the Schoolteacher with his Gogolian question as to whether frogs have immortal souls) - Schoenberg (unlikely - the awful Variations for Orchestra) and Křenek's Jonny spielt auf; I had the lively 'Leb'wohl, mein Schatz' foxtrot lined up for the talk but didn't use it when I realised that one tantalising soundbite of the flexatone was enough if the audience wasn't going to hear it live in the concerto. Here's Khachaturian and piano, though I believe the concerto was too difficult for him to play.
For a clear definition of the flexatone, I resorted as so often to Norman Del Mar's A Companion to the Orchestra: 'the curious penetrating whine it produces is created by rapid oscillation of two little wooden knobs at the end of thin flexible strips against the broad curving metal plate, whose curvature - and hence pitch - is controlled by the thumb.'
The distinctive rattling timbre is nothing like that of the musical saw, but at least we got something in the form of consummate saw-ist, chanteuse and actress Katharina Micada, who I'm sure is the glammy lady pictured in the unattributed Wiki image above; I checked my Russian Disc recording with Nikolai Petrov as the pianist and Khachaturian conducting, and there's nothing, only violins taking the melody. David Fanning writes in his excellent programme notes: 'The instrument [flexatone] was only patented in 1922 [the concerto was written in 1936], and there is some evidence to suggest that in the 1920s and 30s 'flexatone' may also have been used to designate the musical saw, an 'instrument' known in traditional Russian and Armenian music'.
Well, I'm not convinced, since the tone-qualities are so dissimilar. Anyway, Micada has quite a career; she was off, a player told me, to Amsterdam today. And many contemporary scores do engage the musical saw; I can see why, even if it was a bit 'pitchy' last night.
But fundamentally I didn't care, since not even the virtuosity and shading of Marc-André Hamelin (pictured above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) could redeem the boggy meanders. He does Khachaturian no favours by reviving it; at his best, the Armenian can induce hilarity and exhilaration with wildly OTT scores like Spartacus, as I found at a delirious Bolshoi Ballet performance a couple of years ago, but this is (almost) his turgid worst. Anyway, here's the second movement, actually sounding more artistic in the hands of that profound musician Boris Berezovsky. The orchestra from the Urals furnishes a proper flexatonist, answering my question as to whether any still exist, though the sound is faint: he enters 2m18s in.
Hamelin disappointed, too, in his encore by bringing out yet again his unfunny-once-heard-once distortion of Chopin's 'Minute' Waltz. I'd have loved it if he'd played even only the last third of Balakirev's original Islamey.
For this, the only first-class work on the programme, we had Casella's overblown but entertaining orchestration to begin, allowing me to cue Lezginka links in the talk. Call me callow, but I didn't stay for Osmo Vänskä's interpretation of Kalinnikov's quite interesting First Symphony because a) I didn't have to - I wasn't reviewing, b) I thought I had to get up at 6am to travel to Bordeaux, though it turned out early this morning before I set out to catch the Eurostar that I'd got the day wrong and I leave tomorrow and c) I'd heard my hero among conductors Neeme Järvi conduct a really wonderful performance with this very orchestra and I don't much care for Vänskä's slightly bullying style. If you want to hear the complete concert, it's on the BBC Radio 3 iplayer for the next six days, and the Khachaturian concerto, of all things, seems to have been selected for 'clip' status which means it may never go away.
But all this Russian/Soviet stuff is small beer compared to what's happening as Kiev goes up in flames. Shame on Putin for labelling a people tired of a dictator terrorists - though there are extremists as in any situation which has gone too far - and on Medvedev for raising the spectre of a divided Ukraine, which according to many who live there - admittedly those with western contacts - is such a distortion of the situation (and latest reports suggest help for the protesters and obstruction of the military from all parts of the country, including the east).
Maybe the time for laughing at those two is over, but it's been a good way of dealing with Sochi. Peter Tatchell, whom I'm invoking for the second time in two days, produced a neat Valentine's Day card last Friday.
Seriously, my thoughts are with the poor people of the Ukraine. I watch developments with a terrible anxiety.