Sunday, June 24, 2007

Death in Venice and Aldeburgh

There were several threads weaving through the life of Benjamin Britten: on, more like a hawser than a thread perhaps, was the defence of his being homosexual; this ran parallel to the theme of innocence betrayed. Probably this had something to do with some event in his early life that haunted him for the rest of his days. These two threads merged in his choice of opera plots; Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, The Little Sweep, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave, and the last one, Death in Venice, recently seen in London and at the Aldeburgh Festival.
The thirties were a difficult time for a middle-class dentist's sone in a seaside town to realise that he was not as other men were, that he was subject to 'desires that dare not speak their name'. BB's extraordinary and precocious musical ability served as a defence against his sexual inclination, likewise his urge to win at games, a 'look at me, Mum'. The same thing accounts for his chumming up with the royals, marrying off his surrogate father's daughter to an Earl (Marian Stein to George Harewood).
Another strong thread was his composing work after work for his longtime partner the tenor, Peter Pears. Most of the operas, song-cycles, canticles, cantatas, a score of scores. I think that Ben knew that his insistence on finishing Death in Venice before submitting to a heart operation was dicing with death (in Suffolk 1976). And, by the time of composing that last opera (with a massive central part for Pears), the battle for homosexuality had been won. Gone the anxious days when the bourgeois Suffolk man was summoned to Scotland Yard for questioning and warning.
But there it is, Death in Venice exists, his final act of the defence of the Homosexual Realm, hitched to Thomas Mann's novella of an artist who becomes infatuated with a young boy. The opera is not entirely successful, marred by the passages in which occur the highflown Appolonian glorification of the boy Tadzio and his friends prancing about the Lido. As Blake wrote, "Damn braces, bless relaxes"; in other words, evil is easier to portray than good. Myfanwy Piper's libretto (Britten no doubt conniving) sometimes seems, as my colleague Hilary Finch put it in her Times review , like "research notes for a first year course in philosophy and aesthetics". How many times does the artist Aschenbach utter, "My mind beats on"?

However there is plenty to admire and be moved by in Death in Venice, particularly the orchestral parts, the ingenious as ever orchestration, and episodes like the two visits to the barber's (although the film by Visconti sensibly condenses the two into a single one). Ah yes! The film. Wisely or not, this sixtieth Aldeburgh Festival featured the film as well as the opera. I shall probably be drummed out of the town for writing that, in many ways, the film tells the story better, not so wordy, more condensed.

With time, Alan Oke will probably acquire more authority and gravitas in his portrayal of Aschenbach. Already, he sings the music and puts the words across brilliantly, but he does not suggest an artist distinguished in the eyes of the world. Peter Sidhom has a fine voice and bearing as the malevolent Traveller but the director reduces the shock we should feel at his recurrent appearances by having him change his appearance and clothes on stage. Otherwise, there can be nothing but praise for the Japanese director, Yoshi Oida. The brick walls of Snape Maltings are left bare and we are mostly to imagine Venice, aided by lighting and a five foot screen that shows appropriate film; there is real water, real oars, but no gondola. The prancing and dancing of the boys is well done, but Tadzio's looks are plain, so that one wonders at Aschenbach's desires. Paul Daniel conducted the Britten-Pears Orchestra and the student players did fine things under his direction. Could the ends of both acts have been more pointed? Probably.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Pelléas et Mélisande - Royal Opera

Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is a sport. True, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is an influence with its naturalistic setting of language and the Frenchman may have known Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest with its thinly accompanied recitative style.

Debussy had been thinking about writing a new kind of of opera for years: music begins where the word finishes. It must emerge from the shadows. Music is insolently predominant. There is too much singing. Musical setting is too heavy. Extended development does not fit, cannot fit, the words.

All this three years before Pelléas, finished around 1902 the date of the premiere in Paris, a premiere that baffled; although it intrigued many, and the last performances in the run at the Opera Comique actually made a profit.

The new production is botched scenically. As so often these days the musicians fall over backwards to do what is in the correctly what is in the score; and the production villains fall over backwards to show us what is not in the score or the libretto. This is a joint production so Covent Garden 's opera director the usually expert and knowledgeable Elaine Padmore no doubt saw it in Salzburg. So why did she bring over a production that was utterly against anything that would win the approval of critics and many of the audience? I suppose that her answer might be, that she had booked Sir Simon Rattle to conduct and a near-perfect cast.

Mélisande is usually a blonde with long hair, dressed in pastel shades or grey; here she is a brunette with shortish hair and wearing a dark red dress. For contrast everybody else is dressed in clowns' clothing which makes their bums look big in them. What the connection is, goodness knows.

It was during rehearsals for the premiere that the stage director asked for more music to cover the scene changes. Sometimes a conductor (John Eliot Gardiner, for example) has decided that Debussy's first thoughts were best and has omitted those orchestral interludes. But that is to miss some of the most beautiful and profound moments in the score, for they express psychological insight into the characters and events in the work (and they almost certainly led to similar interludes in Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Peter Grimes, highlights in Berg, Shostakovich and Britten).

Mélisande is named after a character in another Maeterlinck play Ariane et Barbebleue, turned into an opera by Dukas, in which she is one of Bluebeard's wives (which is how she came by the crown that features in Debussy's first scene). Now we know that Mélisande is good at evading questions but how did she evade being killed by Bluebeard ? The character can be portrayed as totally fey or straightforward and a bit sly; Angelika Kirchschlager, the Austrian soprano favoured the latter approach and carried it out in a convincing way, a singing actress of stature.

Two of our finest baritones play Pelléas and Golaud, the half-brothers; Simon Keenlyside copes with the high lying part, is a superb, communicating performer of the highest quality, the best I have seen in the part. He says that he is getting long in the tooth for Pelléas and this was his last per6rmance in the role (May 25) but let us devoutly hope he changes his mind. Gerald Finley as the sad victim of jealousy and great provocaion will no doubt be even better in five years time but is already very fine.

Earlier I said the singing/acting was near perfect; so is anything missing ? The voice of experience says 'yes': mature character in the voice: I am thinking of Söderström's charisma as Mélisande or Jose Van Dam's as Golaud. Robert Lloyd's present portrayal of the old King Arkel had that quality of ripe maturity that the rest of the cast must strive toward.

Curiously enough, there is not a single French singer in the line-up. Now we English do not always have great love for the French but let any foreigner maul the French language about and we are up in arms. One must be able to hear the difference between e grave, e aigu and plain e; here at the Jardin de Couvent everything seemed en place.

The orchestra is a protagonist in this opera and no praise is too high for the playing, virtuosity, balance, power, passion, elegance, Sir Simon Rattle coaxed the players into the spirit of the work. It could not have been better. The big interlude in Act Four was moving, thrilling, overwhelming.

One or two of the stage pictures were eloquent but on the whole the director Stanislas Nordey seemed determined to show what a clever fellow he is and put his stanp on the production. Alas, he did. No water, no tower, no tumbling hair, no castle, no sword, all make-believe, Mélisande dies in a chair; the only furniture visible. The sets were cumbersome and had to be laboriously hauled about; they consisted mainly of vast rectangular objects patterned like pencil boxes. There were also some expensive gimmicks: one scene had a wall filled with thirty-eight rreplicas of Mélisande's red dress; the final scene had twenty male dummies. What a mess! Salvaging what is possible from the wreckage, my advice is to listen to the relay on Radio 3 on 9 June.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


"Where's your favourite opera venue?' an acquaintaince asked last Monday. Looking out over rolling Hampshire fields and countryside not far from Winchester I said I would settle for Grange Park Opera which we were attending. Truly beautiful, with a partly renovated Palladian
style house, pillars and all, in the foreground, two magnificent cedars and, a touch that would have delighted Salvador Dali, a red telephone box all by itself in a fold of the fields. And a recently built small opera house where every summer a season takes place, the whole enterprise fired, and I do mean fired, by an attractive conductor turned administrator called Wasfi Kani.

If I tell you that the programme book is priced at £15 you can get an idea of how much dinner and your ticket would set you back. Heigh ho! when financial rape seems inevitable, open your wallet and give way to luxurious serendipity, especially since the roster of operas this season includes Falstaff, Bellini's take on the Romeo & Juliet story, Handel's Semele and The Magic Flute.

But before these delights there was some medicine to take, a Russian pill to swallow in the form of The Gambler, a setting of Dostoevsky's story based on his own unhappy experiences at the wheel of misfortune. An elderly aunt comes to the townof Roulettenburg to investigate Alexei's addiction to gambling. She gets badly bitten by the bug and loses thousands. In the fourth act Alexei wins thousands but loses his girl.

This was the first completed opera of Prkfv (Prokofiev's own abbreviation) and it reveals him as still wet behind the operatic ears, misjudging the pacing and continuity of music for the stage. In a word, the score is fidgety: ideas overlap, fresh ideas occur every few seconds, rhythms, vocal lines and orchestration change constantly, likewise moods; in his desire to avoid operatic conventions, Prkfv employs the sort of kaledioscopic movement that Verdi created so effectively in quite his last opera Falstaff. However the Italian composer was by then quite dry behind the ears. The Russian began The Gambler is his early twenties but was thirty-seven by the time he had revised it for its premiere in Brussels in 1929. It was slated then as it usually has been (Edinburgh 1962 and Wexford) but it remains a challenge that some opera houses seem unable to resist. David Fielding's Grange production and designs are apt and smooth running. Prkfv himself concocted the text, retaining (apparently) much of the original dialogue. The words come plenty and fast, too quick for surtitles and it was not easy to hear David Pountney's translation. Only, as usual, Andrew Shore's words, singing the part of an old general, could be easily heard, and it was not easy to sort out who was who in the large cast. The central figure,
Alexei, the gambler, was convincingly played by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (looking slightly like another Alexei, Sayle), a tenor. Carol Rowlands made the most of the cameo part of the visiting aunt, but Katherine Rohrer's voice, as the girl, was not at all ingratiating. Andre de Ridder, formerly assistant to Mark Elder in Manchester, coped tidily with the busy score with the Orchestra of St.John's.

There are moments when one can discern the future genius but on the whole this is a lack-lustre, lack-lyricism, lack-charm, lack-too much score, a gamble that fails to hit the jackpot.