Monday, 21 April 2014

Zurich Opera: mixed hand

It was a happy coincidence that ever-stylish director/designer Robert Carsen's new production of Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama happened to be running at our old haunt the Zurich Opera following on from the not-too-hard-work Basel stint of my latest Swiss trip (which you can read all about over on The Arts Desk - though I have more to add on the city and the dreamlike Fondation Beyeler). Andrea Chénier was an optional extra, one to tick off as I've not seen it on stage before. Trouble is, it put me off Giordano's very sub-sub Puccini manner so badly that I probably won't want to see even Jonas Kaufmann in the title role this coming Royal Opera season.

Both evenings offered outstanding and not so good in equal measure. Carsen's concept was very austere and a little hard-worked in its insistence on keeping the whole thing green, black and white in entirely indoor settings. It's also the first Queen of Spades I've seen to shed some of the dramatically peripheral but musically accomplished Imperial padding - not least the opening chorus with the delightful post-Carmen boys'-army routine and the long divertissement of the faithful shepherdess which Richard Jones made work so brilliantly as sinister puppet-show in his Welsh National Opera production.

We see the final tableau at the start, as if it were inevitable fate (all Queen of Spades images by Monika Rittershaus) - the same happened on Saturday in Yoshi Oida's also very mixed Lyon Opera production of Peter Grimes - and Carsen exchanges a sunny day overshadowed by storm in St Petersburg's Summer Gardens for the gambling tables. The stage is cleared for Lisa's bedroom - the ladies simply take off their shoes and frolic in petticoats - while the Countess's chamber has an enormous green bed and a dressing table, though this crucial scene lacked most of its tension given Doris Soffel's still too-young and anything but pathos-filled Countess. Perhaps the point was that Hermann woos the older woman in the same key as he does her ward, and sometimes confuses the two.

Best was the funeral/barracks sequel: the variable Zurich Chorus, overworked at present, sounded magnificent and mysterious with their backs to the audience, while Hermann wheels the Countess's coffin forward for the conflict with the ghost.

We drew the wrong card with our Hermann, it seems. Misha Didyk had been off sick, replaced at first by the vocally resplendent Latvian heroic tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (one of the best Otellos I've heard, if not seen). But Didyk, it seems, insisted on coming back for several performances, and so we got a tenor who certainly couldn't act and who was so vocally in trouble that he didn't even try some of the top notes. Lucky I worked this out and checked, because there was nothing in the programme to suggest we weren't getting Antonenko.

Forcibly raising Didyk's game in the 'canal scene' was Tatiana Monogarova's Lisa. A wonderful, truthful and heart-rending actress, she's one soprano size too small for this treacherous role, but went for bust in the aria and duet, making both the most lacerating I've ever witnessed on stage. There were a typically stiff, vocally secure Yeletsky from Brian Mulligan, and an excellent Tomsky from Alexey Markov, secure and vivid throughout the range. Good though it was to see Jiří Bělohlávek in action again, he got variable results from the resident Philharmonia Zurich, not up to scratch in brass and wind departments; some scenes burned, others seemed too middle-of-the-road. Happy to have seen it again, as if I needed reminding of Tchaikovsky's genius in every sphere of the extended drama.

Genius Giordano was not: I'm amazed Andréa Chenier and the even tawdrier Fedora remain in the rep, but I suppose it's a singers' market. Well, the composer got the vulgarity he deserved from the revived production of Zurich regular Grischa Asagaroff, whose Cav and Pag I saw here back in 2009: very conventional direction in a would-be-regie casing, hideously designed by Reinhard von der Thannen (production image by Suzanne Schwiertz).

As far as I'm concerned, there are only two things worth reviving about the score: heroine Maddalena's 'La mamma morta', immortalised not only by Callas's stunning recording but also by how Tom Hanks reacts to it in the film Philadelphia, and the final duet as she and poet Chénier go to the guillotine. Without a doubt we had a touch of the Corellis from Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, who makes an amazingly idiomatic heavyweight-Italian-tenor sound even if it wasn't a pretty sight to watch him brace for the high notes. I've not seen so total a stand-and-deliver performance ever before: Didyk looked like Olivier compared to this.

But then, ah, then there was the sublime Martina Serafin, whose Marschallin in Vienna had seemed Crespin-worthy to me some years back. Such bearing, such handsomeness, and more colour in the middle range than I think I've ever heard from any other soprano. I kick myself for missing her Tosca at Covent Garden but hope we'll see more of her in the great Verdi and Puccini roles, for only the slightly lighter Harteros is a match for her in such Italian repertoire. Alas, there are no production images of the revival, so I've stuck to portrait shots.

The rest was good to poor: a stalwart Gérard from Lucio Gallo, no-one else really able to make anything out of the excessive number of characterless smaller parts, and veteran (85 year old) Nello Santi in the pit, conducting with expected style but perhaps not able to hear too well since the orchestra was relentlessly loud. Anyway, we certainly had our share of A grade stars in those two performances, so that's one respect in which respect I feel blessed.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

To the Thielska Galleriet

It was a dazzling sunny March morning in Stockholm, so what better than to walk to the most outlying of the city's many galleries and museums, the collection of Swedish banker Ernest Thiel (1859-1947) in the grandiose villa he had built by Ferdinand Boberg in 1904?

By a not unhappy chance, the Gallery wasn't where the Rough Guide put it on the map: that turned out to be the Maritime Museum, where a nice lady gave us a bigger and better map which showed we had another couple of miles to walk across to the former royal hunting grounds on the island of Djurgården and its westernmost tip on the Baltic. Better still, we'd be able to walk back to the city centre via a different rustic route. From the map on the noticeboard at the entrance to the Djurgården, which of course we only saw on the way out of the park, here's the furthermost part of the island with the Thielska Galleriet illustrated.

So let's embrace the grand sweep. We packed up and paid for our night in a clean, comfortable and quiet hotel with a lovely breakfast room, the unpromisingly titled 2Kronor in Norrmalm, and strode out past the church opposite

down to the 18th century Adolf Fredriks kyrkan, unprepossessing enough from the outside but surrounded by a pleasant cemetery with crocuses in abundance.

The inside is minimalist but boasts some fine monuments, not least this one to Descartes, who was buried here for 11 years until his body was removed to France in 1661,

and one of the few which can boast a camel on top, in memory of the explorer Sven Hedin.

Even the modern fixtures sit naturally within the white space, not least this crystal font

and outside there's a simple memorial to Olaf Palme, shot dead outside the cinema opposite in 1986 - a crime that shocked Sweden out of its liberal sense of security.

Then up the hill on the other side past the Johannes kyrka, one of several grand cousins to Victorian St Augustine's Kilburn but with a pleasing wooden church in its grounds

and past the Royal Library with workers and students basking in the sun through the posh district of Ostermalm, with its deco designs writ large (as is so much, rather inappropriately, in central Stockholm).

Linnegatan finally ends at the waters of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, where a statue of Diana and a stag (Actaeon transformed) reminds you of the hunting grounds across the inlet.

Stockholm's suburbs now give way entirely to nature,

with plenty of joggers and strollers out in the spring sunshine. Here's bracket fungus on a waterside tree

and now we're out on to the Baltic via a narrow canal which is all that separates Djurgården from the mainland.

Around the shoreline, and then the over-imposing dome of Thiel's villa on an eminence comes in view.

We were, of course, ready for lunch after our exertions and the Thielska Galleriet's light, airy cafe serving superlative soup and cakes did us proud (the house has been under state control since Thiel, virtually bankrupted after the First World War, bequeathed it in 1926). We'd just missed an exhibition on naked Swedish manhood, worse luck, which meant that the downstairs rooms were empty, but the gallery spaces on the first floor are the thing, approached by a staircase immediately displaying the idiosyncratic nature painting of the wonderful Bruno Liljefors, a good friend of the not entirely conventional Thiel (who described himself in the third person as 'a banker with a mind of his own').

All the interior shots, incidentally, were taken without flash, and there was no-one in attendance in the empty rooms to ask if I could or couldn't: what a delicious far cry from National Trust properties where you'll be mugged by anything up to five old volunteers in attendance wanting well-meaningly to intrude on your absorption.

Undoubtedly, despite many more obvious masterpieces, the picture I'd most like to take away with me from the Gallery is Liljefors' Winter Hare. This one, reproduced on Wikimedia Images, isn't quite the same, with the hare more in motion and less snow clumps on the vegetation, but it gives you some idea.

Liljefors also painted a very fine scene with a curlew which would be my second choice. The next great painting hangs above the piano in the central first floor room. In Five Portraits Vilhelm Hammershøi, now hugely popular in the UK thanks to a stunning Royal Academy exhibition and the championship of Michael Palin, depicts his younger brother and four friends in sombre mood around a table with candles and glasses (in one of the Thielska's few marketing ploys, you can buy replicas of those glasses). I'd use the Wikimedia image but it's much too dark.

A room to the right is all contrasting light, hung with the mostly sentimental pictures of Carl Larsson. I do like the two male portraits either side of the clock here, though.

And then comes another surprise, of which the leaflet with its very strange choice of illustrations gives no hint: another large gallery room full of Munchs, including his portrait of Nietzsche above a hideous piece of furniture which would surely give the philosopher a nasty turn in his grave.

I'd like to know more about Thiel's connections with Nietzsche. I think the acquaintance might have stemmed back even to before he took up with the circle of cultured Signe Hansen, the woman for whom he so scandalously left his wife. At any rate Thiel funded a luxury edition of Also sprach Zarathustra and a proposed Weimar archive. It's not surprising, then, that the death mask of the great man greets one in an attic room

surrounded by Munch prints, all of which remind me that this is the aspect of the artist's work I like the best.

The Scream looks best in that form, too: Thiel's lithograph has a hand-written insciption which reads 'Ich fühlet das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur' (' I felt the great scream [resounding] through nature'). Back in the downstairs room there's also a treasurable version of the girls on the bridge

and Munch's portrait of Thiel himself (left)

while up the stairs three of Strindberg's nature scenes, perhaps not his best, hang together

next to a vivid Toulouse-Lautrec and an exquisite tiny Vuillard interior.

Now it was time for the exterior - mostly under scaffolding, but haunting at a distance under the beeches beyond the wall.

A haze had gathered over the view of the distant Stockholm skyline (third picture up top) and we rounded the peninsula past the old customs house where boats enter the city harbour were obliged to stop.

Snowdrops appeared on a nearby rise

and then we arrived at the bird-loud lake we'd only seen (and heard) from the other side of the canal.

Its chief attraction is the heronry high in the trees.

I'd never seen one before, and so it was all the more surprising - and just a little deflating - to find a smaller one on the lake island of Regent's Park a couple of weeks later. This one, though, was rather spectacular

especially as I'd always thought of herons as solitary birds, perched at distances along the Thames. We even saw a couple on one of the nests

and further east a duck or two I'd be pleased if someone could identify for me.

Palace buildings and monuments became more frequent as we came closer to the park entrance, including this statue of Jenny Lind.

And then, with one look back across the Djurdgårdsbrunnviken to the radio tower on the Ladugårdsgärdet,

we were at the gates

and crossed the most picturesque of Stockholm's bridges

back to Ostermalm, passing Dramaten where years before we'd seen an interesting production of Three Sisters with each act set in a different 20th century decade, and Bergman actress Stina Ekblad (the androgynous Ishmael in Fanny and Alexander) as one of the sisters.

Bergman has the most miserable street imaginable named after him behind the theatre

but there are grander allees up towards the Konserthuset, namely the cinema street of Kungsgatan, with the familiar Svenska Film motif everywhere

and the gigantic towers of, what, the 1930s, giving a green light to the outsized developments of later years. With which, as our day's walking was over and we had only to return to the hotel before heading out for our friends in deeper nature further south, I take my leave in a shot to complement our starting point.