Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arabella hits Australia

Which opera by Richard Strauss has a text by Hoffmannsthal, a big soprano monologue to end act one, an important transvestite role and waltzes galore? Trick question, but the answer is not Der Rosenkavalier but Arabella, 16 years younger, premiere in 1955 in troubled times. The Nazis interfered with the production and Strauss's choice of conductor. The crits were mostly anti, pointing out the obvious similarities. However, there are many choice moments even though Act Two is not a bad time to have dinner. You would then miss the pallid waltzes that lack the charm and memorability of the earlier opera. Though it would be a pity to miss the duet at the beginng of the act, between Arabella and Mandryka, der richtige mann (Mr Right). But the first and third acts contain the best music: the fortune teller's at the very beginning where the orchestra fizzes about and Mandryka's aria where the Croatian country-man talks about his life and forests in the backwoods.. .and his wealth, offering his wallet to Arabella's father, Count Waldemer, who is a bad gambler and has come to Vienna to try to restore his fortune by a good marriage for his elder daughter, Arabella (to save money ? her sister has to pretend to be a man); Mandryka memorably says to the Count: "Teschek, bedien dich" - help yourself, mate. The best music, as so in often with Strauss, comes in the closing scene when Arabella descends the staircase of the hotel (where the family is lodging) holding out a glass of water to Mandryka (an old Croatian betrothal custom).
Admittedly there are many passages where the composer scores too busily and the tunes are mostly not vintage Strauss, Hoffmansthal (the poor man died before the premiere) was taking a risk with a second Viennese comedy. It needs a really good production to paper over the cracks. And this it had in the Sydney Opera where I was present at the first night, March 7. In charge of the stage was John Cox, veteran master-Strauss director with many successful productions at Glyndebourne. This Arabella was as near perfect a production as you will ever see. Overall and in detail it was the tops.
And sharing the honours was Robert Perdziola, once again aiding by creating wonderful costumes and settings. How Richard Hickox manages to produce such wonderful sounds and playing from his orchestra is a bit of a wonder when his technique seems to be what orchestral players term 'a box of down beats'. One cannot help thinking that a more fluid and linear style might produce even better results. Still, he has just celebrated his 60th birthday and signed up for another five years with Opera Australia, so let's just say "Bravo and Happy Birthday" and leave it at that. The casting was good if not 100% ideal. Best was Peter Coleman-Wright, a natural for Mandryka. He has the range, a fine voice, acts superbly and copes with any extremes that Strauss chucks at him. His real-life wife Cheryl Barker makes a pleasing Arabella, looks fine , sings well and only lacks a little cream in the voice (that cream that Lisa della Casa had a'plenty, the Arabella one could dream about when she sang the role in 1953 in Covent Garden).
Emma Matthews made a fetching Zdenka , the sister in drag, although she is deficient in the rich middle voice that the part calls for, but she has musicality in spades. (Isn't it curious that the chorus, prominent in the ballroom scene Act Two, keeps mum. Might not singing improve the shining hour?). All in all it was an enjoyable evening and made one remember Neville Cardus writing that the 1955 revival at Covent Garden "proved that Strauss was the best person to write a Strauss opera".
The rumour is that the Sydney Opera House is going to close for the whole of 2010 to re-jig the interior according to the architect's original plans. For years now opera has been staged in the smaller of the two halls, the disadvantage being that the acoustic which is bad is not improved by the pit being open, with the result that the orchestra sounds too loud, forcing the singers to bellow to make themselves neard. If the rumour is true, roll on, 2010!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The wizard in Oz

Enter a scruffy maestro, Nigel Kennedy himself, him wiv the bovver left boots, tassels a-dangling. He carries his violin in the left hand, the right hand making footie stadium gestures, punching the air and knuckle-greeting members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, all very with it (and slightly bogus?). He picks up a mike and does some stand-up comic, complete with some naughty Billy Connolly words. At last he relinquishes his mike for his bow and...hey presto, all is forgiven as he launches into the Prelude from Bach's E major Partita. The playing is faultless, likewise the musicianship. A Nigel Kennedy evening has begun. The date is mid-March (15th), the place is the Hamer Hall Melbourne's concert hail, seating over 2500 but with a perfect accoustic, every note clearly heard, good overall balance.
Bach over more chat leading up to Nige announcing "Mozart's Concerto in D, K.218, for violin, orchestra and harpsichord." Ello, ello, did he say harpsichord ? Well, that's not in the score, but don't let's fuss, because it can't be heard. Nige occupies quite a large space in the middle of the strings so that he can direct the concert without the use of a conductor (he doesn't think much of the breed as we have heard). The opening tutti is virile and sinewy, no 18th century lace-making. Not too tough but good style. Nige moves around, now encouraging, almost daring them to play their best and beyond. The orchestra obliges, entering into the spirit of the fifty-one year old Maestro's direction, the concert is more of a show than the usual programme. The advertised items are just the Mozart and the Beethoven, just 75 minutes music but the evening lasts very nearly 3 hours.
One unusual feature of the Mozart is that the strings play during parts of the cadenza, sustained chords over which the violin hovers, now in virtuoso style, now rhapsodizing beguilingly in almost Romany style. It was a shock that soon became a pleasure, a fine performance.
To find anything like an equal one, my memory went back a long way; to hearing Szigeti with Sir Thomas Beecham. Mozart over, Nigel chats up the leader of the orchestra, Wilma Smith and they join forces for three enchanting duets of the 44 composed by Bartok. Interval and straight into the Beethoven, fastish tempi, drum taps underplayed. The slow movement was ecstatic, a truly rapt experience - is it not Beethoven's most dreamy piece ? A dithyramb.
Much applause, the audience is enthusiastic and it seems that an encore is in the offing and when it comes it seems the most unlikely of numbers; Monti's Czardas. Stone the crows, mate!Sacrilege ? As much as on the occasion of the Concerto's premiere when between the first and second movements a double-bass did a turn with the instrument played upside down.
I went afterwards backstage and asked some of the orchestra if they enjoyed the evening, had Nige gone too far with his fooling around interludes ? No, they all said, it was great fun and they respected Kennedy because they knew that he played his instrument better than any player in the band. And they were amused when I told them that I knew Nigel before he acquired his cockney accent. Mind you, he was only three months old.
So...good on you, Nige!