Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Billy Budd, The Barbican, 9 December 2007

When Britten announced that he was going to write an all-male opera we thought he was barking mad (just as we did when he said he was writing a requiem interspersing Wilfred Owen poems with sections of the liturgy - and that turned out to be his most popular work: it made,as Michael Flanders quipped, Bundles for Britten, just as he also said of Billy Budd, the all-male opera, that it made Joan Cross. One more quip and then I'll be serious: Britten sent Michael Tippett a copy of the libretto of Budd, asking for comments. Tippett replied saying what a good libretto Eric Crozier and E.M.Forster had written. But he suggested that a line in act One might be misconstrued: Claggart at one point sings "Clear the decks of seamen". Britten wrote back saying what a filthy mind Michael had: but he cut the line.

All this apropos two concert performances (both packed, in the Barbican; I heard the second, December 9) of Billy Budd meticulously prepared by the London Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor,Daniel Harding, conducted with great accuracy, enthusiasm and perception.

It is a large cast and the performance was dominated by Gidon Saks in the part of Claggart, master-at-arms and villain of the piece. This character is so depraved and disliked that it has proved from the premiere (which I saw at Covent Garden fifty-six years ago, December 1951) onward the most difficult of roles to make credible. Saks needed no stage to project a frightening villain, masterfully sung. The audience sensed that this was an overwhelming performance by a great artist.

The title role was sympathetically sung by Nathan Gunn. The Peter Pears role of Captain Vere was sung by lan Bostridge. This concert was the opening salvo in a Barbican series devised by and featuring the tenor lan Bostridge but, truth to tell, his performance, though sung with great understanding and consummate musucianship, was the least satisfying vocally. Style there was in plenty, but vocal beauty was sadly lacking. The large cast distinguished iteelf and it would be invidious to mention one without mentioning all; nevertheless Andrew Tortise forces himself into print here because he made such a convincing sneak of Squeak, Claggart's creature and provocateur. Chorus and orchestra completed the round of performance excellence.

What a great opera is Billy Budd: Grimes was a wonderful first opera but Budd is an even greater work, like an arrow directed so firmly at the target, all of a piece musically with its unique concentration of dark colours (below the Plimsoll line ?) woodwind and brass to the fore, dramatic thrust, the conflict as Vere is faced with the opposing forces of duty and morality. That he fails as a human being is of course what makes the drama so telling. The anti-climax
when the mist thwarts the HMS Indomitable from getting to grips with the enemy is gripping for the audience. (It was typically crass that the British Council sent the original Covent Garden production for performance in Paris and wondered why it didn't go down too well, especially the scene when the officers sing the lines: "Don't like the French.Don't like their Frenchified ways.")

With all the stupid 'concept' productions that do their utmost to disregard the composer's intentions, an intelligent concert performance like the present one is something of a blessing and a relief.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Parsifal, Covent Garden, 6 December

I saw the last performance in the present Covent Garden run of Wagner's Parsifal and it was probably the last time that Sir John Tomlinson sang the part of Gurnemanz (all 65 minutes of it - the longest role in opera ?) and perhaps the last time we shall hear Bernard Haitink conduct it. The word was that the Dutch musician was going slow but the duration was only fifteen minutes slower than the estimated four hours. In old age Toscanini got notably faster, Klemperer and Giulini slower (sometimes their singers gasped like fish out of water). Tomlinson wobbled a bit at the top but nobody cared about that for the main part of the voice is still a glorious instrument. I've heard many Gurneys in sixty years but Sir John tops the lot, not only because of his voice, but because of his acting, his sympathetic approach and his effortless command of the stage and the music.

Haitink led his admiring orchestra to glory, they played their hearts out for him and, since the orchestra and the chorus carry the tunes (I suppose that in Wagner you could say that the orchestra is the meat, solo voices the veg). Petra Lang sang well as Kundry and looked well too, having mastered the art of standing or sitting still but conveying much. Wagner is reported to have considered Kundry his most interesting female role; in which case why did he confine her part in the third act to singing just two words; 'lch dien" ? She was dressed in dark colours throughout - why on earth didn't the costume designer let her slip into something loose (with brighter colours) for her vamping of Parsifal in the Magic Garden scene ? And, speaking of costumes,. Parsifal was dressed in an old jersey with baggy pants, looked as if he had just come from a village football game. Incidentally if Guremanz has the longest part in opera, Parsifal has one of the shortest hero parts, just 23 minutes singing.

Indeed if the music was glorious and did not make one regret that a balcony seat cost £175, the production was scarcely worth change for a pound. For instance, that scene where Klingsor throws the Spear at Parsifal; in the old days at least some attempt was made with wires; could not present-day technology fudge up something better than just turning off the lights as Klingsor hurls and switching them on again with Parsifal holding the said spear (money back!)? Christopher Ventris has played the Fool in five productions during the last ten years but this was his Covent Garden debut as Parsifal. He gets through right enough but he glows rather than shines and the production doesn' let us know if he can act. Also debuting in the house was Falk Struckmann, an adequate Amfortas without appealing charms - the programme is dolefully uninformative about him, as it is about most of the artists. Klingsor was suitably blackhearted in a red dressing gown, dark brown in voice and multi-coloured is nis villainy, Willard White was the singer. The best thing in the £6 programme book is the illuminating article on the opera by Lucy Beckett.

All in all then - and continuing the culinary idea - musically this production delivered a shining, perfectly prepared dish, whereas the production laid an egg. Thank you, Sir John, thank you (Sir) Bernard (hon.KBE), thank you Miss Lang, thank you Willard White, thank you Glynne Howell (a fine Titurel), but shame on you Covent Garden for not matching the musical excellence with a tolerable production.

What a genius is the composer Richard Wagner and how adored he is by so many! His admirers are fiercer in their adoration than lovers of other classical or romantic composers. The majority of music buffs swear by him. And we others who cannot abide his operas, what of us? Why do we not relish the Ring?

I myself concede that he is a great genius and I can still bear to attend a performance of Parsifal, only that one amongst his oeuvre. I am convinced he was on the wrong tack when he declared: "The melody must therefore spring, quite of itself, from out of the words; it must not attract attention as sheer melody for its own sake, but only in so far as it was the most expressive vehicle for an emotion already plainly outlined in the words. Given this conception of melody, I now completely abandoned the usual mode of operatic composition and no longer tried for customary melody, or in a sense for melody at all, but absolutely let the vocal line base itself upon the expressive utterance of the words.. I heightened the individuality of this expression by a more and more symbolic treatment of the instrumental orchestra....."

And there you have it; Wagner's vocal lines in solo singing have left the stage for the pit and the orchestra becomes more important. For the most part the vocal lines have notes related to the harmonies in the orchestra. Which becomes tedious. And that tedium is pointed up in those places in the score when Wagner returns to the old order, the voices sing melody and the music takes wing, as in much of act One of Valkyries, the Woodbird's Song, parts of the duet in Siegfried, Wotan's Farewell, the Prize Song and the Quintet in Meistersinger and various other parts of the operas, notably in the choral passages. And why does he return to writing melody ? Because of its greater power to capture our hearts. The orchestral sections capture our hearts because there are no dull vocal lines. The orchestra has all those motives which go amazingly deep into our subconscious.

Another reason for distaste for much of the operas concerns the incredibly slow pace that the drama moves at, as if stuck in a time warp, like some of the old black and white silent films. Repetition palls too of which there are many examples in Parsifal, for example Gurnemanz goes on and on, nagging the boy for having shot the swan.

Bernard Miles pondered the idea of a shortened Ring which might have consisted of the beginning and end of Rheingold, most of act One of Valkyries, Wotan's Farewesll, the Tinkers chorus and some of the love duet from Siegfried preceded by the Hero encompassing the firegirt rock, Journey down the Rhine, the glee club number, the Hero's death, march, and the finale from Gotterdamerung, plus all the bits where the orchestra plays alone. I'd book for this straightaway. And I am sure many others would join me. Wouldn't it be luvverly ?