Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Agrippina - English National Opera

Blind Delius, craggy craniumed Sibelius,, bewildered-looking Bruckner, retired Colonel Elgar, bewigged Bach and that blind old pro Händel - natural that we know them from their old age when artists were commissioned or friends got their Kodaks out. O.K., they were all young once; in his early twenties George Frideric Händel (let's give him his rightful umlaut for once) left his north German homeland for a spell in Italy. He knew his craft so well and had developed such a gift for melody and fluency that his first opera Rodrigo was a success and his second, Agrippina had a run of twenty-seven consecutive nights in Venice. Not bad for a gay blade of a Protestant in a Catholic country - who would never have got a post there because of the religious angle.

"Damn braces: bless relaxes". Religious music favours the first part of Blake's apophthegm,, opera the second, bracing damns are surefire in opera. "She had all the assets except goodness" said Tacitus of Poppea. That lady is as prominent in this opera as is the title-role one. Grip (for short) spins deceit as she tries to propel her son Nerone to the throne whose physical presence dominates the heavy scenery in this producion of Agrippina which I saw on March 1 in the London Coliseum production by David McVicar given by English National Opera (penultimate performance of the run but it will be back - old GFH is popular these days, even with a score of arias that always repeat the A of an ABA form, little chorus work and a length of four hours).

The performance contained swings and roundabouts, metaphorically. In Händel's day the voices, research, logic and guesswork tells us, would have had more personality than present-day ones. At the Coli the whole cast sang musically, accurately and were thoroughly rehearsed and prepared, getting tnrough fiendishly difficult passage work with extremes of vocal range but the voices lacked that elusive quality of character which enabled us to say within three notes, oh, that's Sutherland or Vickers or Callas or Gobbi. But, as I say, we have accuracy, style and enthusiasm, plus pacing and commitment under the Dutch conducter Daniel Reuss, well known abroad and now welcome here.

Production. The general attitude these days to 18th century opera - to which David Mc Vicar obviously subscribes - is: pep it up,boys, look lively and show a leg. The singers showed that they could act, they showed legs (Poppea in her undies) they sang most competently and the conductor kept them on the move, the strings played their lovely intros well and four hours passed in a flash.

Sarah Connolly as Agrippina

What shockers the characters are, regular showers! All except Claudius (remember your Robert Graves ? Him, Claudius, is weak, stutters but he is clean, well he prefers Pop (for short) to Grip,but who can blame him?). Castration not being the order of the day, we have two, no three coutertenors, including Nerone (when he gets to the top of the thirty-nine steps he will soon become that wicked Nero who famously combined fiddling with fireworks) finely played as a slouching yob by Christine Rice and there's the head general, hard done by Ottone well sung by Reno Troilus.

A word about the un-named sign interpreter. This one was quite unobtrusive, graceful and obviously knew the whole, opera by heart. Unfortunately I missed the moment when she has to sign-interpret a line in Amanda Holden's translation which is "Fucketty-fuck-fuck".

Saturday, March 24, 2007

LSO (Daniel Harding), Barbican, 22 March

With what one might call a great rattle of publicity, Daniel Harding made an auspicious debut in his new job as principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is just thirty-one. Cannily, his first item (March 22 Barbican) was by a composer that none of the orchestra has played before; Jean-Philippe Rameau (1685-1764), a suite of dances from his opera Hippolyte et Aricie, music quite in the line of quirky French composers that continued with Berlioz and went on with Debussy, Satie and Boulez. Rameau's delightful tunes and dances never go quite where you think they are going, harmonies and rhythms that are delightfully catchy, in fact, catch you out; as with Stravinsky, you can't tap your foot to Rameau, it is too unexpected.

I admit to preferring to hear these orchestral dances, rather than with singers trying desperately to cope with the mountains of ornaments and graces that overlay the sung parts. The curious thing is that Rameau's first opera was written when he was already fifty years of age. Up to that time he composed nothing but keyboard music and treatises. After the success of Hippolyte et Aricie , he continued to write for the stage operas and opera-ballets, music of great virility, works that (I quote), 'stand like Baroque blocks in Rococo surroundings'. There are over a score of works for the stage composed in his last three decades.

This strong music was strongly played, the first violins in particular shining and soaring as if they had been playing Rameau for years. And if Rameau is quirky, what about Mahler's Number 7? Number 6 was tragic, difficult but satisfying; Number 7 sounds like a symphony composed by a composer, not writing about a tragedy, but a man in the middle of tragic happenings, a man trying to fight his way out of horrendous fateful traps. The symphony is not only difficult, but uncomfortable, and the last movement lets it down like a man desperately trying to survive but failing. The first movement strains every nerve in the listener, it shrieks, it is shrill, unrelenting, bludgeoning. There follow two serenades, not comfortable, but easier on the ear, the second with touches that recall Schumann. These serenades enclose a scherzo that is like a will-of-the-wisp. compellingly thrusting. Queen Mab meets Kafka. But with the finale the vital current seems to fail. Mahler again seems desperate, desperate to provide a happy ending, but happiness eludes him, as he tries one damn thing after another, let's try a minuet; no, bring in the trumpets and drums again, modulate, modulate, ape the baroque. But the major keys merely sound bland and unconvincing and the whole piece ends with Mahler's nerves in a tangle. And our's.

The symphony calls for endurance in the players and virtuosity. It got both, plus mental concentration. The LSO proved its top quality and so did Daniel Harding. He was alert to the main line (where there was one) and also to every detail, controlling the ship and steering it safely into port, even though the music biffed the quayside.

Yet what a master Mahler is. His use of the orchestra brings new life, his harmonies touch the souls of the faithful, and his counterpoint is, in its own way, as remarkable as Bach or Beethoven, or Wagner.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

American Ballet Theater, Sadler's Wells

How often do ballet critics mention the music? Sometimes they even omit the names of the composers. And when they do they don’t seem to sense the difference between Stravinsky and those dreadful rum-ti-tum purveyors of musical fodder, Minkus and Pugni. Of course, there are exceptions but on the whole.... So permit a few thoughts on the recent visit to Sadler's Wells by the American Ballet Theatre by a music critic who scarcely knows a jetée from an entrechat-dix. But over half a century I have often visited the ballet ever since a blessed day in the early thirties when the headmaster of my prep school took us to a matinee which included in the programme Petrushka with the great Leon Woizikowski in the title-role, a knock-out experience, almost equalled later by seeing the new ballet danced to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (my Covent Garden gallery seat cost all of sixpence in 1959). Then in 1947 I got together the orchestra for a Covent Garden visit by the Colonel de Basil company; I got to know the interesting repertoire and also some of the dancers.

My favourite ballets are both by Bronislava Nijinska, genius sister of the great dancer: Les Biches and Les Noces - Sleeping Beauty comes next, then Agon and anything choreographed by that most musical of ballet creators, George Balanchine. He, above all choreographers, understands the relation between music and the dance. Which brings me to the ballet, which featured in American Ballet Theatre’s opening night. O.K., you have to accept the convention of classical ballet and if you don’t, the wedding of Mozart to dancing on pointe in tutus may seem twee and an artistic mistake. Accept it and you enjoy Balanchine’s poetic analysis of Mozart's early masterpiece, his Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. The solo instruments are mimed and danced by two ballerinas, the tuttis by a female corps de ballet, the girls sometimes grouped even to differentiate between those that are strings only and others which have pairs of oboes and horns. Tutus apart, the marriage of Mozart and dancing is absolutely complete but never academic, there is no nudge-nudge. At the beginning of the profound and heart-touching slow movement a male dancer is introduced to very the supports and groupings. (Am I right in thinking that American girls have longer legs, two or three inches, which add to the beauty of the movements of their limbs. In this ballet the arm movements are especially beautiful.

On both evenings there were pas de deux. Outstanding was Xiomara Reyes as Le Corsaire and Julie Kent as Odile in the duo from Act 2 in what all dancers call Duck Pond. An extra mid-programme item was Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Suite songs taped by King Frank, showing just a pair of dancers who begin decorously but then get a bit rough in a way that Fred and Singer never did. Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (the title's significance was not explained) pleased the whole of the audience except that chap sitting in my seat. It dates from the first wave of aerobics and consists of energetic clichés of gymnastics and ballet accompanied by a score by Philip Glass in his minimal music style. Pierre Boulez once laconically declared that Minimal Music was correctly named. The score was played at the same time as the dancing (big cast) but seemed independent of it. All I enjoyed was the way that the costumes gradually turned red: shoes first, then shorts, then shirts. I willingly vacated this Upper Room.

My companion was unaware that The Green Table was created as long ago as 1932 and seems to reflect the politics of the times. An opening scene of a (presumably Versailles) group of statesmen is one of the great coup de theatres of all time. Ten men in masks round the eponymous table. (Incidentally, why isn’t there more use made in the theatre - remember Michel St.Denis’ marvellous use of them in his production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Sadler’s Wells.

The Green Table (flatfooted as opposed to On Your Toes) is a savage, agit-propelled, dance of death with Death on the stage, powerfully portrayed by David Holmberg, kitted out as a medieval paining lookalike. The eight tableaux come in-yer-face fresh and horrifying, backed up by Fritz Cohen's music crashed out on two pianos, not great music but effectively redolent of its time. I met him several times at Darlington where Jooss's company nested for a awhile after their escape from Nazi Germany (Cohen told me to address him as Cohaine - a bit poncey, I thought that was). These were great evenings performed by our friends from the other side of the Big Pond. The enthusiasm of the audiences made it clear that this company will be more than welcome any time it cares to come again.

Ouch, I did just what I complained of in ballet critics. So, here are the composers' names: 1, 3 and 5 Stravinsky, 2 Poulenc, 4 and 7 Tchaikovsky, 6 Adam. 8 five Golden Oldies.