Monday, February 18, 2008

The Goon Show of Lammermoor (English National Opera, 16 February)

It was probably Donizetti's librettist who made Lord Henry Ashton the villain who wrongs Lucia di Lammermoor, instead of Walter Scott's villainess in the novel who was Lucy's mother, thus depriving us of what might have been a great mezzo or contralto role. But in Donizetti's otto cento in Italy one female major role was usually considered the norm. However, we must not complain, because ever since the overwhelmingly successful premiere in Naples in 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor has been hailed as the Italian Romantic Opera par excellence with Lucia's Dotty Scene as the perfect hurdle for coloratura sopranos to jump to fame with, like our Dame Joanie di Sutherland back in 1959 at Covent Garden.

English National Opera premiered a new production of Lucia on Saturday 16 February. Musically it is ten out of ten. every note in place, with quite a few on an instrument rarely heard. Mozart, wrote a Rondo for it, K.617. Old Willi Gluck gave concerts on it and, of all people, Benjamin Franklin became a virtuoso and perfected it, the glass harmonica, a set of glasses tuned so that you produce the notes by running your hand around the rim (a modern parallel would be if George Bush were to play the ondes martenot) - it makes a noise as if the notes were wrapped in tinsel but with upper partials so strong that the sound actually hurts some ears (mine. for one; and, indeed, at one time as a result,the instrument was banned in certain towns in Germany.

So, musically the performance of Donizetti's opera was a treat. But what did we see on stage? Scene one gave a clue to what was going to happen; a Scottish castle with walls that sprouted radiators; now who has ever heard of a Scottish castle with radiators - or one that even nowadays has any heat ? The walls moved and the male chorus entered through the windows; period photographs littered the stage, as they did in most scenes. Lucia soon appears, perched four feet above stage level, so that she has to jump if she wants to move, which she does, wearing a little girl outfit with pantaloons that are on show as she picks herself up after her jump, is this Alice in Lammermoor? The tenor appears and as if to emphasise the fact that he is vertically challenged, he appears on his knees.

The villainous brother is seen on a short bed that features in many scenes; he gropes his sister, Lucia, and ties her wrists to the bedposts. Ah, ha. not only villainy but incest too (Incest - the game the whole family can play). And so it goes on, until you wonder whether Donald Alden, the producer of all this madness, should himself be sectioned. Myself, I know Lucia quite well so that soon I began to tolerate, even enjoy, the mad things that happened. But my companion was seeing the opera for the first time and she was very confused by all the goings on. Oh, yes, and there was also an extra going-on that the producer had not arranged. Bidebent the parson came on and opened his mouth; but he was kidding us, poor chap; he had lost his voice and another bloke stood at the side of the stage and sang his notes. Now there is usually a confidante in operas of this period (early nineteenth century, the otto cento, as the Italians call it). She makes her entry, one hand first round the door and then flitting across the stage to a tilting sofa, for all the world like a Hammer Horror.
Now comes the famous sextet (in the old 78 days, it was the only gramophone record, single-sided of' course, to have a white label and sell for sixteen shillings, the costliest of all - Caruso was the tenor, he made a huge success in the part of Edgardo. poor Lucia's intended but thwarted). Barry Banks was the Coliseum's tenor, English, wonderfully fluent, even if the voice is not ideally beautiful. Anna Christy, American, house debut, was a very fine Lucia, every note histrionically convincing.

When it came to the Mad Scene where was the flute obligato? Banished in favour of the musical glasses, apparently Donizetti's original idea to add spookiness to the wildly careering colaratura. Chorus and orchestra were both excellent under the splendidly driving Paul Daniels, back in the pit where for years he was ENO's musical director. So, if you can bear to see a goonish version of Lucia, go to the ENO show at the Coliseum and join the cheering crowds; they are in the majority, critics of this mayhem in the minority.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A trip to the ballet

WHY do we call afternoon shows matinees ? Probably too late to change it now; but wouldn't apres-midiens be more accurate? Anyway I went on Saturday 6 February to the Royal Ballet performance in Covent Garden which began at 12.30 pm and it was absolutely packed, lots of children. What the little dears made of a tough programme I would like to know; they probably found it easier to take than some of the older ones.

The first item was only the sixth performance of the sensation of 2006: Chroma, choreography by Wayne McGregor, sets by the architect John Pawson, lighting by Lucy Carter - all three need to be mentioned as highly commended. The set was described as "in a sense, charged limbo", a rectangle with another one, raised, towards the back, excitingly lit and frequently metamorphosed.
The choreography, ah!, difficult to describe. It is classical dancing thrust forward in language, legs, arms, neck, head and trunk move in wave not seen before; fluid, rippling, bending, curving, twining, but you really have to see it and I sincerely hope you do, for this is something new and exciting, an extension of the ballet language. What that language is saying is not quite clear but perhaps that is not so important as the sensation of seeing it.
There are ten dancers involved, dancers but here also super athletes too. Twenty minutes is the duration, most of it quick and strenuous almost to the point of violence at times. But there are two brief pas de deux, the first of which I found as unutterably beautiful and rivetting as anything I ever saw on a stage, limbs twined, ravishingly lovely human bodies in motion.
Joby Talbot's music, with some extra settings by Jack White, is up to date, stretched tonality, with hints of minimalism, orientalism and other isms, snappy, strident, plenty to assault the ears but not 'frighten the horses'; not great music but strikingly effective.

Different Drummer is one of MacMillan's troubled pieces, telling the story inside-out fashion of Berg's opera Wozzeck but, weirdly, using not Berg's music but early, stretched, tonal music by Berg's colleagues, Webern (Passacaglia, opus 1) and Schoenberg (the gorgeous string sextet Verklaerte Nacht, an aural counterpart of Klimt?). We see all Buchner's characters as in the opera and the choreography gives ample roles for Marie (Leanne Benjamin) and Wozzeck (Edward Watson) - fine performances both.

The last ballet was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I know the generally accepted cliche is that the music is just too powerful for any choreographer to match. But MacMillan gives Stravinsky almost as good as it deserves. The rounds and tribal dances do go on perhaps a bit too long but MacMillan's half-a-hundred corps de ballet (the most numerous in any ballet ?) do wonders and at the end are quite terrifying. And the Sidney Nolan sets and costumes are mightily impressive to look at. Tamara Rojo had recovered sufficiently from her efforts in Chroma to be a vibrant and pulsating sacrificial Chosen One.

Barry Wordsworth celebrated his return to the post of the Royal Ballet's Music Director to conduct thoroughly lively and convincing performances with a responsive Covent Garden Orchestra.

Mikado times two

Political correctness forced Robertsons to remove from their jams the charming gollywog logo. But The Mikado, the most successful of all the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas has survived and is even to be seen in London currently in two productions: by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in Jonathan Miller's by now quite ancient version, black and white, hardhitting and not at all traditional, and by the Carl Rosa Company in the Gielgud Theatre where it is in repertory until 1 March, in tandem (tricycle?) with Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance in something like the traditional style of the D'Oyly Carte productions which adhered to the first prompt book ("two steps down stage, wait for the pause" - and so on)? At the Coli, everything is writ as large as the theatre itself. In the intimate Gielgud. the twenty or so chorus members have to watch they don't bump into one another.
In the good Doctor's writ-large-production the singers are mostly members of the company whereas the Carl Rosa have sought to be sure of bums on seats by bringing in TV favourites who are probably singing for money for the first time in their lives. Thus Jo Brand is Sergeant of Police in Pirates, whilst Alistair McGowan sings (somewhat in parlando fashion but very effectively) the title role in The Mikado, whilst Nichola McAuliffe sings extremely well in a more human portrayal of Katisha than usual.
The Carl Rosa Mikado is quite soft-centred (as opposed to hard-core Doctor Miller) and quite toothsomely kitschy. Since we all know that hypocrisy and lying are the order of the day the production by Peter Molloy has no sting (though however it has a pleasant bite: several anachronistic gags as is usual these days).
I didn't see any Japanese in the audience the night I went (February 4, a Monday traditionally the worst night of the week; and although the audience was most enthusiastic and knowledgable it was sparse - can the impresario Raymond Gubbay keep going, one wonders ?) and I wonder if the Japanese shun it because of its political incorrectness, although in fact ' topsy-turviness' being Gilbert's genre the success of The Mikado is because the entire is not aimed at the Japs but at us British.

So, at the Gielgud we had a small but spirited orchestra (conductor Martin Handley), and excellent chorus and a first-class cast and it is a pleasure to name them: Andrew Rees/Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko/Fenton Gray, Pooh-Bah Bruce Graham. Charlotte Page/Yum-Yum was pretty but a bit under-parted. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

What a joy this work is ! Sullivan's score is a masterpiece of the genre, so incredibly felicitous. If the words have barbs the music cancels them out, practically every melody is a winner, its presentation perfect. Maybe the cadences can veer towards cliche but otherwise charm, grace and a heaven-sent imagination rule the staves.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book review

Sandor Vegh in Cornwall: the Hungarian Virtuoso Violinist and the founding of the International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove.

By Hilary Tunstall-Behrens
49 (large)pp £15
IMS 52 Grafton Square, London SW4 ODB Tel. 0207 720 9020

Sandor Vegh's claim to fame, a large fame, was as a violinist, leader of a celebrated string quartet bearing his name, a teacher of international renown and a conductor. He was a pupil of the great Hubay, of Kodaly, he led the Budapest National Orchestra, premiered Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 and with his quartet made recordings of the complete set of Beethovens that are still considered one of the best half a century later.

His postwar association with this country was his nine visits to the Summer School of Music at Bryanston, later Darlington, over a period from 1950 to 1979, concerts with the quartet in the fifties, recitals and master classes in the seventies. Students came from far and wide to study with him, for his work with Bartok, Kodaly and, later, Casals somehow led to his playing and teaching embodying the best of the traditions of the nineteenth century. What he taught was imagination and colour, with the bow especially, to make music sound fresh, spontaneous and inspired, so that performances were not manacled to the printed notes or the bar line but took off into the air. And that spontaneity had to be based on proper study, hard work and tradition/experience. His master-classes were inspiring, combining intensity with the basic truths of music that could often bring tears to the eye.

His playing of the late Beethoven quartets almost matched the profundity and spiritual qualities of those works, not forgetting the prodigious skill required to negotiate the abnormally high flying first violin parts of those works. As a soloist he illuminated Bach's solo sonatas and one never-to-be-forgotten evening at Darlington, it felt as if he almost changed our lives with his playing of all three of the Brahms Sonatas.

But at Dartington his classes were part of a large programme of teaching and a visit to Cornwall led to the formation of the seminars at Prussia Cove; master-classes for strings and piano in the spring, chamber music with teachers playing together with students in the autumn, Sandor Vegh in charge. The author of this handsomely produced little book organised the sessions. The Cove is based on a fascinating house with art-decorations, a stone's plop from the sea, not far from Penzance. Here the students and professors live, eat together, work together, play together and, who knows, sometimes sleep together. Now that Vegh is gone (he died in 1997 at the age of 86 according to Behrens, although Groves says 95), Stephen Isserlis is music director.

He was a vast man and his looks led many Americans to ask for what Vegh called his 'autogram', only to be disappointed when they found he was not Charles Laughton. Strong accent: Hungarian mixed with German. From observations over several years in the green room it seemed to me that the other three members of the quartet did not relish his company. It seemed as if they avoided contact as much as possible and that they argued all the time; but that might have something to do with the Hungarian language. The desire of the various members to get away from each other was also apparent. For years Vegh lived in Zurich, the violist and cellist in Geneva and Basle, whilst the second violinist was domiciled in Paris. This meant that the question "Where shall we rehearse ? Your place or mine ?" was fairly important.

Another feature was their reluctance to give balance tests. "We always play the same - so what's the point?" they said. In old age arthritis brought his playing to an end, so he took to conducting: string orchestra versions of quartets and sextets (the Brahms larger chamber works were a speciality) and then recordings with Andras Schiff of all the Mozart Piano concertos, the rehearsals were like master-classes, fine CDs they were.

His wife survives to this day. A stunningly beautiful actress before their marriage, she was bright and witty, protective and trying - sometimes vainly - to curb his appetite for a fattening dish or a pretty girl. He had a good life and he was good for musical life, he brought music to a better life and students nearer the goal.

Hilary tells it like it was and it is a heartening story, including good quotes (particularly from Susan Tomes who played many times for his classes and writes of them perceptively). Some of Vegh's sayings are included and they tell something of his wisdom: "to be a soloist one must also be a chamber musician; if I engender a tension be it physical or mental, its corollary must be a relaxation of that tension; there is never an authentic interpretation; never be a slave to your violin. First be a musician and then a violinist; make music with love and joy". Vegh lived all these sayings, especially the last.