Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Damnation of Faust

'Damn braces: Bless relaxes' William Blake

Goethe's Faust gripped the imagination of the civilised world. Hector Berlioz was gripped amongst those; he couldn't wait to start setting it to music. A vast cantata was his work although its dramatic possibilities have spawned many staged versions, thousands of performances in the Paris Opera where forty years ago I saw the fattest Marguerite and Faust ( memorable also because Dinh Gilly was the most mellifluous Faust ever).

The latest performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall on April 30 and it did full justice to this (mostly inspired ) work conducted by veteran  conductor Charles Dutoit with the orchestra whose director he is - the Royal Philharmonic, superbly supported by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, in the finale by the New London Children's Choir.

There are three protagonists : Faust himself , Marguerite and Mephistopheles. Faustsings like  mo st French tenors of his century, including the fashionable high C (Tenors visiting Rossini were told to park their high Cs  in the cloakroom before entering his drawing room).

Berlioz brilliantly avoids fully characterising the golden plaited Marguerite by giving her two of the most exquisite, touching and poetic songs in all music. 

Mephisto scoops the pool. this devil doesn't have quite all the best tunes (only most of them). His is the weirdest music, the most Berliozian, electric, he is the ear catcher. Sir Willard White has been singing this part as long as I can remember but he is still the best, musically as outstanding as his voice. He has a resonance only ever equalled by the great Paul Robeson.

The unforgettable orchestral moments were duly unforgettable - the three piccolos squirming about like eels, the graceful Sylphs , the eloquent viola solo and the Hungarians so brazenly brassy.  It was a great evening, only  slightly let down, as usual, when the bracing stops and the final heaven starts to bless too long.

A Mad Ariadne

This season is Vladimir Jurowski's thirteenth and last season as Music Director at Glyndebourne. If he is sad to go it is nothing to the our sadness that he is going. Because he is a great musician and conductor, moreover his principles are of the purest. His ego is minimal; his ambitions are entirely for the good of music. If there is one weak spot it is that he has not spoken out against productions that he must surely know go against the intentions of the composer.       

But that is a general operatic malaise of our time and as far as I know Solti was the only one who ever rebelled and said he would not direct a production that contravened the composer's intentions. On the whole conductors either go with the producer's ego flow or they give in because they need the money. It was known, for example, that Haitink disliked certain productions while he was director at Covent Garden but forbore to make protest.                  

The buck is in the court of the direction of the opera house. Nowadays there is no overall boss who is willing to say yea or nea; it needs a Diaghilev or a Ninette de Valois director to override if a production looks like being contrary to the wishes of its creator. Such overall directors with good taste and general cultural expertise do not exist anymore it seems.                                                     

Nowadays it appears that a director is chosen, for whatever reason, and is given a free hand. So that by the time of the first rehearsals, the die is cast and it is too late for anybody to protest.  

And so to Glyndebourne' new production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos which I saw May 25, the third performance. Contrary to what I had heard: music fine, production bad, I found the staging of the Prologue quite acceptable, dear old Thomas Allen in superb form as a commanding , irrepressible Music Master, in good voice, Kate Lindsey a spirited sympathetic Composer although without the vocal warmth of Jurinac or Soderstrom. But post-interval, what do see?  A replica of wartime Glynders, a makeshift hospital ward and just to date it, attaché cases marked ENSA, blimey, Zerbinetta's going to play Gracie Fields! And Laura Claycomb is just as vocally agile as Gracie was but she is the least sexy 'Netta ever seen. In her aria she is always surrounded by nurses and even straitjacketed at one point, poor girl. This whole episode became like Mad Scenes from Ariadne. Anybody seeing this as their first Ariadne should ask for their money back, it's a travesty of the intentions of librettist Hofmansthal and composer Strauss. One is told that this is the début production of Katharina Thoma (why should we pay her college fees?).  
Once again, incidentally, we are paying good money to hear musicians busting their guts out to give us a superb musical performance whilst on stage the producer is busting her guts out to go against the intentions of composer and librettist.

The Finnish dramatic soprano Soile Isokoski gave a beautiful rendering of the deserted heroine, playing the title-role. The final duet when Bacchus rescues Ariadne is often an anti-climax but not in this performance mainly because of the excellent singing and presence of the Russian heroic tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, kitted out as air pilot. The harlequins were allowed to look like clowns but the Naiads were playing nursey-nursey. O what a tangled web this German producer wove!   And what an insult to a great composer and a great opera!
Shall we drink a glass of Lachrymae (John) Christie?