Friday, May 28, 2010


Engaging a director and a set designer to make their operatic débuts at Glyndebourne sounds like folly; and when that opera is as difficult an assignment as Britten’s all-male Billy Budd, folly turns to madness. However... the result is a triumph, the production the most successful to date, from the première, which I saw on December 1, 1951 onwards. Christopher Oram’s multi-decked set transports us to a ship of the line in 1797 when the British Navy was fighting not only the French but the threat of mutiny within its ranks (a member of the cast told me that the cast cheered when it saw the set at the first stage rehearsal). Herman Melville apparently based his short story on a true story of those old times when conditions were tense, discipline strict and cruel. In the first act we see the bloody result of a young novice flogged because he bumped into the Bosun, a flinchworthy sight that matches Britten’s pathetic music, a contrapuntal slow tangle that parallels some of Bach’s passion music with on the top line a poetic saxophone where the older composer used the cor anglais.

The director, Michael Grandage is well known for his work both in New York and in London where he runs the Donmar Theatre. His handling of a large chorus of the crew is as masterly as that of the principals, both the lower deck and the officers on the bridge. We see Captain Vere who fails to save the young foretopman Billy Budd from the penalty of hanging from the yard arm when, unable to overcome his stammer to answer the charge of mutiny brought by Claggart, the master of arms, he strikes his superior officer dead. Claggart is a villain of the deepest dye with a homosexual lust for the young sailor.

Nearly every opera that Britten composed had to have a big part for his tenor partner, Peter Pears. There is no parallel to this liaison which gave rise to at least six major operas. The curious thing is that Britten wrote music for Pears so bound up with the idiosyncrasies of the tenor’s voice and musical personality that one still seems to hear that unique voice again in the performance of latter-day singers. Here it is John Mark Ainsley singing very well but with the overtones of the original portrayer of the part of Vere. Jacques Imbrailo from South Africa is every inch and every sound Budd, loose-limbed, innocent, a carefree young man until he is doomed. Phillip Ens, from Canada, is an impressive Claggart, only lacking a hard edge to his voice that would make him into a kind of latter-day Iago. All the smaller roles are part of a cast that realises Britten’s intentions.

But all this excellence is matched by a mastermind directing Britten’s wonderful music (on reflection this grand opera and The Turn of the Screw, chamber opera, mark the summit of this composer’s achievement, despite the fine qualities of his first success in the medium Peter Grimes).

It seems to me that Sir Mark Elder is now at the zenith of his career. In his early sixties, every work he conducts has a feeling of rightness and he gets what he wants out of his performers. He is at home with modern music, he delights in music of the ottocento (1800 – 1850), his English music, Elgar and Delius, is first class and here he gives us a perfect performance of Benjamin Britten. The Hallé Orchestra is fortunate in having his direction and his visits to London’s concert halls and opera houses bear golden fruit and, as here, bring a Budd to glorious bloom.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Grandest of the grand

Rossini said: “Nobody is capable of writing grand opera except Verdi”: and Aida is the grandest of the lot. Intended for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 it was eventually premiered in Cairo two years later. The triumph scene is just that, a miracle of organisation and inspiration. Aida, the Ethiopian slave girl, in love with the general of the army, Radames, but has a rival in Amneris, princess of Egypt and the two fathers, Amneris’ King of Egypt, an d Aida’s father, Amonasro, King of Ethiopia.

Act two scene two is the Triumph scene, celebrating the victory by Radames over the Ethiopians. Verdi juggles with three crowds, the Egyptian public, the priests and the defeated Ethiopians – it’s a sort of Three Choirs Festival, with climax after climax. By contrast Act Three is sung only by the four chief characters, it is the heart of the opera. Aida’s success rests mainly on these two peak scenes.

Verdi goes for your heart and your jugular. Never since has opera gone so straight forwardly, almost innocently, for the listener’s heart in terms that everybody can grasp immediately.

From Don Carlos onwards part of the secret construction is that Verdi concentrates on using, in technical terms, chords of the tonic key and its dominant, not often in root positions but in first or second inversion (unlike Berlioz who mostly uses chords in their root position). If you look at a few passages in the score you may see what I mean. And, of course, as well as the harmony, his use of counterpoint has in every line something meaningful and beautiful. Verdi keeps up a stream of inspired melody. A composer of genius in full flow is carried by some strange force, inspiration? Benjamin Britten once said to me that when he was prepared and in form he felt that the music came from somewhere else, as if he was connected to some grid of inspiration.

The new production which I saw on April 27 by Donald McVicar pulls together the many threads of this opera, so complex yet having the impetus of an arrow. The production is compelling if sometimes congested, as if McVicar is trying too hard. The sets designed by Jean-Marc Puissant are dark and gloomy, in contrast to the vision most of us have of Egypt, which is light and sunshine. The action is menaced by a large moveable wall whose prime object is to mask the coming and goings of the various crowds. The ballet is all wriggling, jerking and leap-frogging, effective if not inspired. Act three, the Nile scene looks like a slanted organ console with a big hole in the middle. No local colour or palm trees – too commonplace, perhaps?

Verdi said that his idea of Amneris was a bit of a devil aged twenty. At Covent Garden in this new production he got a singer looking more like a dowager. Admittedly the American mezzo, Marianna Cornetti, was a replacement but she did us no favours with her singing. Amneris is the most interesting character in the opera, dramatically and musically (Verdi seemed to love mezzos) and it is usually a gift to a singer. But this Amneris had a painful beat in her voice and she wob-bob-bob-bled. The Aida, Micaela Corsi, was not wobble-free either and she sang flat sometimes. Her oboeist in her act three aria, O patria mia played his obbligato solos exquisitely; if he had played like the two ladies sang, he would have had his cards (and I bet they were paid ten or twenty times more that he was). The Radames, Marcelo Alvarez, coped with his difficult part well without impressing with any great beauty of timbre. The best singing came from the two kings, Egypt sung by the company stalwart Robert Lloyd, Amonasro (Ethiopia) sung by Marco Vratogna.

The director in the pit, Nicola Luisotti, held things together but smouldered rather than flamed. The chorus did not sound as fresh as it usually does.

The previous production I saw at Covent Garden was Turco in Italia by Rossini and everything was first-class from beginning to end, cast, staging, orchestra, and chorus. This Aida was mediocre by comparison – win some, lose some – does it always have to be like that?


Myaskovsky, Copland and Liszt

Thats not a bad harvest for the latter half of a single week in London April 29, 30 and May 1, the middle symphony in the Barbican, the other two in the Festival Hall. At the Barbican Antonio Pappano led the London Symphony Orchestra; for the other two Vladimir Jurowsky the Philharmonic, all performances exemplary.

We don’t hear much of Nikolay Myaskovsky’s symphonies; did he flood the market, with twenty-seven of them? I cherish the only one I know, which is number 6 in E flat minor, Opus 23, 1923, particularly for its helter-skelter scherzo (with a slow flute trio of enchantment) and its luscious slow movement. The opening movement is frantically romantic, full of tension and silent gasping pauses; the finale is a bit of a let-down, so desperately jolly as if sucking up to the party bosses; quoting French Revolutionary songs somehow doesn’t help. Jurowsky conducted it as if his life depended on it. It is a long work, its course stated in the programme to be 75 minutes but Jurowsky passed the post at 62.

Copland kept his symphonic tally down to three and the Third Symphony is also long. By 1946 he had established himself as American’s most prominent composer and felt he had to make a statement. He did. It is a fine work yet has elements in it that are overblown, bordering on the portentous. Some of the finest moments are those in which this urban Jewish composer manages to evoke the wide open parts of his continent with widely spaced ethereal high notes, nothing in the middle, supported by a strong bass. The finale is preluded by the Fanfare for the Common Man which became so popular that it/is often played by itself, even used for commercials! Pappano gave it the works. God bless America!

The cliché has it that the Devil always gets the best tunes but in Liszt’s A Faust Symphony in three Characteristic Pictures the Devil steals the tunes of Faust and Gretchen and twists them, mangles them, parodies them in the finale; the first two movements being portraits of Faust and his loved one. Liszt does not tell the story at all, he sketches the characters of all three, except for one episode in Gretchen when the music seems to be saying: “He loves me: he loves me not”.. Sometimes it appears almost as if Liszt is improvising, not at the piano as he was frequently apt to do but on the orchestra. A section comes to an end and the textures pares down to a single line, as if Liszt was wondering what to do next. Sometimes, notably in the symphonic poem Orpheus and in Gretchen, Liszt put aside his virtuoso habits and his devilish complexities and wrote gentle, purely lyrical music. There are some longueurs in the symphony but on the whole the work goes ahead meaningfully and poetically. The melodic material is memorable. And Liszt makes sure that we know the tunes by repeating them again. Faust, the first movement is dramatic, searching and often frantic; Gretchen is graceful, lyrical and as beautiful as Goethe portrays her. Mephistopoles is Allegro vivace, ironico, he has no tunes of his own but transforms the themes of his victims. How to end?

Liszt sums up with an epilogue of almost political correctitude although he calls it a mystical chorus (with tenor solo) proclaiming that “everything is transitory... eternal womanhood leads us on high!! ... das Ewig weibliche!”.

Liszt finished his Faust Symphony in 1857. At the very beginning Faust has a motive that seems to question, with notes of the whole-tone scale, a device that looks to the future of melody and harmony, a pioneering gesture all Liszt’s own. The transformation of themes owes much to the Symphonic Fantastique that Berlioz composed some twenty years earlier.

The symphony was passionately and superbly played. Jurowsky solved the problem of the final by employing an eighty-strong chorus. Too often the final chorus is sung by a small body so that the performance ends in anti-climax. Not so here; Liszt’s symphony ended powerfully.