Friday, 18 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (4) - Bronfman/VPO/Muti - Brahms and Tchaikovsky, 13 June 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Brahms – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.83
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

It has never been entirely clear to me why Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto seems to be performed less frequently than his First – other, that is, than on account of the still more extreme technical demands it places upon the pianist. Come to think about it, we probably have our answer there, for it is surely the greater work of the two, or at any rate the one falling more strongly within a tradition of Mozartian perfection. I wonder, though, whether its less overtly tragic demeanour has something to do with it. At any rate, in my experience at least, a performance would appear to be a rarer occasion than one might expect. I therefore greatly looked forward to this concert from Yefim Bronfman, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Riccardo Muti.


It is very difficult quite to put my finger on why I felt slightly nonplussed by the performance of the Brahms. There was nothing wrong with it and a great deal to admire. Was I too hung up on great recorded performances of old? Perhaps: I immediately think of Gilels and Jochum here, and many readers will have their own favourites. The horn solo opening was wondrously tender; as usual, the VPO gave of its best for Muti. Bronfman’s response was musicianly, indeed that of a chamber musician. Not that there were not more turbulent passages, but perhaps on balance, the first movement was a little skewed towards the Apollonian. ‘Skewed’ is probably the wrong word, though, for there was certainly some sense of a dialectic here. And there was admirably big-boned pianism to relish too. Ultimately, though, I felt this a movement observed rather than experienced. Perhaps the fault was mine; stranger things have happened…


I was intrigued by the sense of Mendelssohn in the shadows of the scherzo, both from the orchestra (Muti’s doing, surely) and to a lesser extent the piano. Elfin rhythms were nicely sprung, but there were darker colours and moods too. Muti imparted a fine sense of grandeur to the trio, conflict in the cross-rhythms and all. The slow movement I found just a little matter-of-fact. It was taken on the swift side, but better that than dragging, and there was a greater sense of emotional involvement than in the first movement. The solo cellist’s tone, however, was a bit of a problem, especially earlier on: rather wiry, although certainly able to project. Bronfman’s way with those magical, half-lit passages was special: prophetic, certainly, of the late piano pieces. There was a degree of Haydnesque playfulness to the finale, likewise a degree of Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode; I wondered, though, whether a greater contrast between the two might have been beneficial. At any rate, none of Brahms’s cruel demands held any obvious fear for Bronfman.


I heard Muti conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in May. Memory can play tricks here, even when one reads the earlier review. (I have not yet, although a link may be found above.) However, I suspect that, admirable though that performance was, there was here with the Vienna players a greater sense of urgency. The intimate scenes, redolent of the contrast between public and private in, say, Eugene Onegin, were once again to be heard and, more to the point, to be experienced. And the expressive range was certainly greater than what, for whatever reason, we had heard in the Brahms. A chamber ballet or a song without words? There was no need for Muti to choose in the second movement; nor did he. I was put in mind of Berlioz at times, not least in the way that the emotional complexities of the work were shown potentially to be allied with complexities of genre and structure. The ghostly dances of the scherzo were despatched, with precision, mystery, and fantasy, leading to a finale of considerable nervous energy, rather as if the opening to the final scene of an opera – which, in a sense, this almost is. Petersburg Onegin, perhaps? The argument was symphonic, of course, but Muti and the VPO excelled also in summoning up an aural stage before the eyes of one’s mind.

Salzburg Festival (3) - Mozarteum Orchestra/Luks: Mozart, 13 August 2017

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

String Divertimento in F major, KV 138/125c
Idomeneo: Ballet Music, KV 367
Symphony no.41 in C major, ‘Jupiter’, KV 551

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Václav Luks (conductor)

How difficult – I have not yet lost my English bent for understatement – it is today to find a conductor capable of directing a fine Mozart performance, or at least willing to do so. Perhaps it was always so; not everyone was Colin Davis or Karl Böhm. The perversities of the authenticke brigade, though, have done serious damage. Here, the Mozarteum Orchestra sounded wonderful; when permitted to play, rather than harried or micromanaged, there was much to enjoy. Alas, Václav Luks, who appears very much to have an ‘early music’ background and ‘name’, permitted that far too little.

The F major Divertimento, KV 138/125c, started most promisingly. Had the rest of the performance proceeded similarly, that would have been a very good thing indeed. A small string section (, all standing save for the cellos, offered a bright, cultivated sound, their playing cultivated and quite without pedantry. The first movement’s roots in earlier music were apparent, quite rightly, without over-emphasis, its structure clearly, meaningfully presented. Luks, alas, made something of a meal of the Andante, its ease lost or at least obscured. I could have done, moreover, without that slight astringency he seemed determined to inflict upon the string. At its best, though, the movement evinced a hushed intimacy that compelled one to listen. The finale fizzed with energy. If it might have smiled a little more, counterpoint was admirably clear. The playing itself was, as ever, excellent.

A larger, though still relatively small, band of strings ( was of course joined by wind and drums for the Idomeneo ballet music. Luks’s way with the music, announced immediately in the Chaconne, was unduly aggressive. More damagingly, he seemed unable to communicate a longer line, proceeding bar by bar, sometimes beat by beat. (O for Sir Colin from Munich!) Playing was unfailingly alert; if only Luks had been able to relax a little, to let the music speak ‘for itself’. The Pas seul was warmer, if often hard driven; its corners were well handled, however, and there was no doubting its symphonic nature. Why we had to endure ‘natural’ brass rasping, though, with a modern orchestra, is anyone’s guess. The Passepied was well shaped, if on the fast side, the Gavotte better still, not pushed too far. It was a great pity that the transition to the finale emerged as an arbitrary collection of notes, and that that Passacaille itself proved fierce and, again, quite unsmiling. Messiaen’s charming observation that Mozart’s music ‘smiles’ may or may not be trite; it is undoubtedly true, though, or should be.

The ‘authenticke’ brigade and their camp followers seem unable to avoid ‘rhetorical’ gestures – usually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to conceal an inability to phrase – in the Jupiter Symphony, especially in its outer movements. When allied to an apparent inability to establish a basic pulse, the result tends, as here, towards dragging, irrespective of speed. Trumpet and drum interventions were unfailingly, tediously underlined, as if there were any need. Structure was generally clear enough, but formal dynamism quite lacking. The recapitulation merely hectored. Once again, the playing itself was excellent. The slow movement was less pulled around, flowing well enough; it, bizarrely, sounded somewhat inconsequential: pleasant rather than unpleasant, but if that is the best one can say concerning a conductor’s view… The Minuet, needless to say, was taken fashionably, one beat to a bar, but was otherwise played reasonably straight, and emerged all the better for it. Alas, its Trio reverted to type, presumably as ‘contrast’. A weird hiatus prior to the reprise of the Minuet did not help either. The finale was fierce, again, rather than joyful, its counterpoint admirably clear. I could not help but think how much better it would have been had the Salzburg players not been saddled with a conductor whose sub-Bernstein podium antics were now really beginning to grate, not least since they seemingly bore no relation to either score or performance. I do not think I have heard the coda pass by with such little wonder: quintuple invertible counterpoint is nothing, apparently, in Luks’s world.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (2) - Aida, 12 August 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images: Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

King – Roberto Tagliavini
Amneris – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Aida – Anna Netrebko
Radamès – Francesco Meli
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro – Luca Salsi
Messenger – Bror Magnus Tødenes
High Priestess – Benedetta Torre

Shirin Neshat (director)
Christian Schmidt (set designs)
Tatyana van Walsum (costumes)
Reinhrad Traub (lighting)
Martin Gschlacht (photography)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreograpy)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

It is a good thing to put even one’s most settled judgements to the test from time to time. Seven years had passed since my most recent encounter with Verdi in the opera house: seven years of (relative) good luck since. If the nauseating La traviata remains a nadir in the benighted ‘repertoire’ – better or worse than Donizetti, or about the same? who cares really? – then the mindboggling tedium of Aida anoints it a serious contender for any such reckoning. However fine the performances, and they were generally excellent here, any revival of so unremittingly banal a work will prove, at best, an absurd misallocation of resources. There is infinitely greater interest in any randomly selected note of Webern. As Boulez memorably put it, ‘Verdi is stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Quite why anyone would claim to know better remains a mystery.

Aida apologists seem to like to laud it essentially as a chamber opera, scenes of intimacy at its heart, contrasting with the pomp and ceremonial of grand opera. Fine, but that is hardly enough. It matters whether such scenes are any good, of any interest. All we have here is a ‘bog standard’ – with apologies, for the first and last time in my life, to Alastair Campbell – clash between public and private, generalised in the extreme, with ‘characters’ so thinly drawn, if indeed they be drawn at all, that a non-partisan listener cannot even begin to care. They all sing the same sort of stuff, about the same sort of stuff, at interminable length – it may be a relatively short opera, but it certainly did not feel like it – to a plot whose implausibility is so contrived as not even to amuse. (Maybe onstage elephants would have helped in that respect, if no other.) La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s or anyone else’s, this is not; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a greater vulgarisation of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma. Of all the tragedies of occupation and war, why would the weird self-obsession of a woman who, rather than try to rescue her lover, elects instead to enter a tomb in order that they be buried alive, even register? She deserves no better, but what about poor Radamès? It would be nice to be able to care, but if somehow one manages to do so, it will be on account of a performance, not the work.

Frankly, their sentimental festival of smothering – would they at least not have sex for the first and last time? – cannot come quickly enough, even though it does not. Meyerbeer is more dramatically interesting, certainly more historically important. Perhaps this might work very occasionally as the exhumation of historical curiosity, the recipient of due criticism, but to place such drivel at the heart of the repertoire is too silly even to qualify as ‘edgy’ or critical performance art. If Aida is actually a satire on a well-heeled, self-regarding audience’s willingness to sit through anything, however dull, provided that its abject lack of taste and judgement be flattered, then is it not about time that someone finally explained the joke to that audience?

All that said, there is doubtless something for an interesting director to say; there always will be, even if the work does not deserve it. What one hears about Hans Neuenfels’s Frankfurt Aida sounds fascinating, all the more so for 1981: the slave girl an Ethopian cleaner and a typical Verdi audience screaming blue murder. Likewise Peter Konwitschny for Graz the following decade. Shirin Neshat is certainly not one to join their number; instead, alas, she joins the number of film artists who have nothing much to say about opera, or at least cannot say it. Her production is as dull as the work itself, creditably – I think, but now begin to wonder – shorn of the traditional vulgar trappings, but with nothing to put in their place. There are some half-hearted video (of course) images of refugees, but that is about it, other than a ‘stylish’ look and a vast revolving set which sometimes does not quite revolve as it should. (The second interval seems to have been mightily prolonged on that account.) Could we not at least have had the death-wish slave girl as a suicide bomber or something? Weirdly, she seemed to dress very much as Amneris; perhaps that is what happens when you have Anna Netrebko in the title role. The priests’ slightly strange look initially suggests parody; alas, nothing else does. There is nothing much else to it apart from the designs, at least nothing I could discern.

Aida (Anna Netrebko), Radamès (Francesco Meli), Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk)

Netrebko, perhaps needless to say, offered vocalism of a quality that would be spellbinding, were it expended on more interesting material. No degree of vocal shading seemed beyond her, the trademark richness of tone ever present yet variegated; if only the bizarre Orientalist shading of her make-up had shown a sensitivity that came anywhere close... Francesco Meli’s Radamès was every bit as impressive, perhaps still more so, as handsome and noble of tone as of aspect. Ekaterina Semenchuk was every inch the fiery mezzo, again completely in command of her instrument and, insofar as the non-staging permitted, her dramatic performance; I should love to hear (and to see) her as, say, Ortrud. Roberto Tagliavini sounded a bit wooden as the King, but that permitted some degree of contrast with Luca Salsi’s animated Amonasro. Choral singing was excellent throughout, indeed outstanding, as was the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, its shading every bit as exquisite as Netrebko’s, the sweetness of string tone very much of old. Muti clearly cherishes the score almost beyond price, however incapable I may be of understanding why. His partnership with this orchestra rarely disappoints; here he showed himself once again to play it as if it were a piano under his fingers. If I found the pace rather slow at times, that was doubtless a consequence of my feelings towards the work; enthusiasts, I am sure, would have loved it.

I doubt there can have been many superior performances of the opera throughout its history; I equally doubt that I shall persuade myself to hear another. As for Verdi, see you in another seven years’ time? Perhaps.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (1) - Goerne/Trifonov: Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich, and Brahms, 11 August 2017

Haus für Mozart

BergFour Songs, op.2
SchumannDichterliebe, op.48
WolfThree Michelangelo Songs
ShostakovichSuite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op.145: ‘Dante’; ‘Death’; ‘Night’
BrahmsFour Serious Songs, op.121

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Daniil Trifonov (piano)

This proved an outstanding recital, at least as much for Daniil Trifonov’s searching, protean pianism as for Matthias Goerne’s singing. Such a partnership, something beyond what one might ‘ordinarily’ expect during the concert season, is just what a festival such as Salzburg should be about. Likewise the programming: excellent in itself, yet also offering connections to broader themes on offer in the festival.

Goerne is singing Wozzeck here – on which, more later in the week – so Berg’s op.2 songs could, if one wished, be understood as anticipatory. More importantly, they made for a fine opening to this programme, the Hebbel setting ‘Schlafen, Schlafen, nichts als Schlafen’ drowsy, somnolent in the best way, emerging and yet never quite emerging from that state of half-awakedness. The languor one heard and felt had something of Debussy and early Schoenberg to it, yet could never quite be reduced to them or indeed to any other influence; this was Berg. Above all, it was founded in the piano part, above which words could then do their work. In its Parsfalian leisure-cum-torpor, one almost felt it to be ‘lit from behind’. ‘Schlafend trägt man mich’ continued in a recognisable line, yet initially lighter, soon more involved and questioning. Trifonov showed himself keenly aware of the importance of specific pitches and their repetition; later Berg beckoned already. ‘Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten überwand’ and ‘Warm die Lüfte’ continued the developmental idea, (re)uniting, intensifying earlier tendencies – and again the importance of specific pitch, here in the bells tolling and nightingale singing in the piano part.

Dichterliebe benefited from the alchemy of no clear break: Schumann’s song-cycle emerged from Berg’s songs and retrospectively announced that that was where they had always been heading. From the very outset, the opening ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, the limpidity of Trifonov’s piano playing was to die for, the delicacy of Goerne’s song also spot on. Magically slow, this was something to savour, without a hint of narcissism. ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen’ developed not only, it seemed from its predecessor, but from Berg’s songs too, not least in its nightingale song. Nothing here was formulaic, nothing taken as read: the voice took on the quality of something approaching an instrumental chamber music partner to the piano in ‘ich will meine Seele tauchen’, save of course for the words that both heightened and questioned that sense. The young Wotan seemed to appear on stage for ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’, his piano partner striking in dark, stark simplicity (however artful). The piano’s taunting cruelty in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ could match anything in Schubert: implacable, heartless, almost ‘objective’. It was, moreover, an unquestionably post-Schubertian agony here – distended, just a little, unerringly judged – that characterised the ensuing ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. ‘Am leuchten Sommermorgen’ brought that summer morning to refracted life courtesy of Trifonov, the piano part’s passing notes returning us to Berg, perhaps even going beyond him, whilst the piano chords in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum gewidmet’ spoke in almost Lisztian fashion, not unlike his Il penseroso. The strange tricks and consolations of dreams that followed (‘Allnächtlich im Traume’) seemed almost to prepare the way, following the weakened ebullience of ‘Aus alten Märchen’, for those two extraordinarily final postludes. They spoke at least as keenly as any words, even those of Heine.

Liszt, unsurprisingly, came more strongly and unquestionably to the fore in Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo. His harmonic language and its bitter self-destruction haunted ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft’. Quite rightly, words took the lead in ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ and ‘Fühlt meine Seele’, seemingly inciting Wagnerian harmonies through what, in context, sounded most Schopenhauerian language. The two songs’ different character registered as strongly as what they held in common.

Trifonov’s quasi-verbal directness of utterance, especially in the bass register, struck me especially powerfully in the three Shostakovich Michelangelo songs that followed. It was as if the ability to ‘speak’ were being returned with interest. In ‘Dante’ in particular, Goerne brought to our attention Shostakovich the seer and the critic. That importance ascribed to particular pitches in Berg seemed to haunt the world of Shostakovich too, as if to remind us of what might have been. Once again, however incorrect this priority in the world of mere empiricism, the words of the following songs seemed to grow out of the piano’s wordless speech. ‘Night’ (Noč’) evinced an unfamiliar familiarity, musical and verbal. ‘Hush, my friend, why awaken me?’ Why indeed?

That illusory ‘timeliness’ – what could be more ‘timely’ – of Brahms in ‘archaic’ mode proved especially striking in the Vier ernste Gesänge. Trifonov’s understanding and communication of the piano parts was properly generative, even occasionally verging on a quasi-objective autonomy, an ontological frame within which the Biblical words might be intoned and considered. ‘Ich wandte mich und sahe an alle’ nevertheless spoke of subjectivity, of a late verbal Intermezzo that more than hinted at Webern. An earlier German Romanticism hung in the air, and yet clearly had passed: sad, perhaps, but Goerne’s Ecclesiastes Preacher would surely have understood. An almost Bachian embrace of death, albeit with a more Romantic sense of tragedy underlying it, characterised Goerne’s delivery in ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du,’ flickering half-lights again very much from the world of the late piano pieces. ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelszungen redete’ afforded a climax that was truly Pauline in its depth, complexity, and sheer difficulty. The best theologians will sometimes, as Brahms shows us, be agnostic, even atheist, albeit in a strenuous sense: more Nietzsche than, God help us, Richard Dawkins and his ilk. This was Brahms’s reckoning with how things were, just as much as that of the epistle writer. And so it was with the recital as a whole: a reckoning necessarily both final and not.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (5) - L’Erismena, 15 July 2017

Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Théâtre du Jeu de Paume

Erismena – Francesca Aspromonte
Idraspe – Carlo Vistoli
Aldimira – Susanna Hurrell
Orimeneo – Jakub Józef Orliński
Erimante – Alexander Miminoshvili
Flerida – Lea Desandre
Argippo – Andrea Bonsignore
Alcesta – Stuart Jackson
Clerio Moro – Tai Oney
Diarte – Jonathan Abernethy

Jean Bellorini (director, lighting, set designs)
Véronique Chazal (set designs)
Macha Makeïeff (costumes)

Cappella Mediterranea
Leonardo García Alarcón (conductor)

Whose first thought when Cavalli is mentioned is anything other than Raymond Leppard? Certainly not mine. Whilst many, indeed pretty much all, such associations will be simplifications of varying degrees of grossness, and some bizarrely, often chauvinistically, incorrect – Bernstein and Mahler, for instance – Leppard’s role in the rediscovery and revival of Cavalli’s operas can hardly be gainsaid. What I should have given to hear one of his imaginative, luscious realisations in the flesh. Much has changed in the meantime, of course: save for the very occasional actual ‘reorchestration’, it has long been a capital offence to perform seventeenth-century music on modern instruments. I suppose we should be grateful that the fatwas of ‘authenticity’ have extended less frequently towards staging, although the vaguely ‘stylish’ mishmash that often results tends at best to be a mixed blessing.

What we saw and heard here was much in that line, and proved enjoyable enough in its way, although I could not help but wish that something more daring had been attempted. The theatre itself, the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, is a delight. However modernist one’s view of other matters may be, the growth of opera houses into outsize monsters should surely be deplored by all. Presumably someone will object that it is an eighteenth-century theatre; in which case, kindly get thee to seventeenth-century Venice and leave the rest of us in peace. Leonardo García Alarcón and his small, yet far from shy, Capella Mediterranea played in the accustomed ‘we’re Mediterranean and thus “sensual”’ style, or alternatively, ‘sex please, we’re not Christopher Hogwood’ – which is certainly preferable to, well, Christopher Hogwood and other puritans. It is, though, all a bit predictable after a while, not nearly so ‘interesting’ or indeed ‘sensual’ as it thinks it is – or, indeed, as audiences in thrall to ‘authenticity’ have been trained to believe it is. Have a ‘colourful’ continuo group, turn as much as you can into dance music, accompany that with a good deal of silly dancing on stage, hint at largely spurious parallels to other traditions, be they folk, jazz, anything other than the dread ‘symphonic’, and you are ‘counter-culturally’ away.

It is a business, of course, and it has succeeded greatly in those terms, not least by its ruthless suppression of the ‘competition’. And unlike those frankly unlistenable-to Northern European puritan forerunners – the Leonhardts, Goebels, Hogwoods, et al. – it is in many respects welcoming. Perhaps it is too much so, or at least too complacent in its remarkably non-reflective conception of history. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was an exception in that latter respect; his greatest problem was a peculiar inability to phrase.) There is more, though, to ‘Mediterranean’ culture, and indeed there is more to Cavalli, than that. Moreover, violin intonation was sometimes little short of excruciating, although no one else seemed to mind.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the orchestra and conducting (how ‘inauthentic’!) though, the singing was excellent. A young cast, with acting abilities largely to match, held the drama, such as it is, in its hands and projected it with the vocal excellence that has long been the trump card of so much of the ‘early music’ movement. If I were compelled to single out one soloist, I should unhesitatingly opt for the bright, clear, and yes, sensual countertenor of Jakub Józef Orliński; it was a great pity he did not have more to sing. But this was a true company achievement. Orliński’s countertenor companions, Carlo Vistoli and Tai Oney also greatly impressed, each voice and character ‘naturally’ differentiated from the others. So too did Susanna Hurrell’s Aldimira and Stuart Jackson’s properly outrageous nurse-in-drag, Alcesto. There is a good deal of ensemble writing here, yet I cannot recall a single case of problematical balance.

Jean Bellorini’s staging falls into the aforementioned stylish-‘modern’ category. No particular point of view or framing seems apparent. Clothes are ‘modern’ and a good deal of attention is productively paid to movement and interaction. Again, though, I could not help but think that something a little more than having light bulbs  disintegrate at critical moments might have been done with the opera. For it is, frankly, difficult to care too much about the characters and their fate; this is neither Monteverdi nor top-drawer Cavalli. There is probably too much silliness; Leppard, anything but humourless, nevertheless remarked upon an all too easy tendency towards disguise and cross-dressing for the sake of it in a good number of Cavalli works. Indeed, Leppard was actually highly selective concerning those he selected for editing and performance. We, however live, for better or worse, in an age of completism. Not that that problem arose here; this is an opera eminently worth performing. Perhaps, though, at some stage, it might be done in a realisation and staging a little more interested in stretching our eyes, ears, and minds.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (4) - Philippe Boesmans, Pinocchio, 14 July 2017

Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Patrick Berger / artcompress
Father: Vincent Le Texier

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Director of the Troupe, First Crook, Second Murderer, Circus Director – Stéphane Degout
Father, Third Murderer, Schoolmaster – Vincent Le Texier
Puppet – Chloé Briot
Second Crook, Cabaret Director, Judge, First Murderer, Donkey Salesman – Yann Beuron
Cabaret Singer, Bad Pupil – Julie Boulianne
Fairy – Marie-Eve Munger
Troupe Musicians – Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone, improvisation coordination), Philippe
Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (violin tzigane)

Joël Pommerat (director)
Éric Soyer (set designs, lighting)
Isabelle Deffin (costumes)
Renaud Rubiano (video)

Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomarico (conductor)


As the third of my four Aix operas this year, I saw the Festival’s new commission: Pinocchio, with music by Philippe Boesmans, to a libretto by Joël Pommerat, after his own play (itself, of course, in some sense ‘after’ Carlo Collodi). I wish I could be more enthusiastic about what I heard, but I was very much left with a feeling of something that had fallen between (at least) two stools. Is this a ‘children’s opera’, whatever that might be? There were certainly some children in the audience, although not that many: perhaps hardly surprisingly, for a performance that started at 8 p.m. and finished at 10.40. (There were, though, two performances out of the six that started earlier, at 5 p.m., on Sundays.) I could not help but think that if it were ‘for’ children, it might usefully have been about half the length. Indeed, pacing seems a bit odd more generally: lingering somewhat earlier on, perhaps with room for a cut or two.


Is it, then, a work about childhood, or some other form of work ‘for’ adults, using a children’s story as its basis? Again, I am not sure. For Boesman’s musical language and the use to which he put it seem determined to accommodate: somewhat at odds, I think, with what struck me as a rather more interesting libretto and indeed staging by Pommerat. Perhaps we should leave arguments concerning whether children need assistance into the world of opera by tonality until another day; for me, that is actually part of the problem, making post-tonal music – more than a hundred years on! – something to grow into, even to fear. So-called popular culture, more usually mass culture (quite a different, exploitative thing) has a great deal to answer for – in every respect, as any good, or even bad, Adornian would tell you. I was a little surprised, in any case, not only by the frankly tonal language employed throughout, but also by the almost childish – or should that be childlike? – simplicity of the score. A few motifs of reminiscence will certainly help anyone gain his or her bearings; a few references to other operas might appeal to people who like that sort of thing; a few more ‘with it’ moments may or may not grant a degree of ‘street’ relevance. (I suspect you can guess what I think.) However, whereas Pommerat’s libretto and the (literal) darkness of his production seem very keen lightly to explore the darker side of the fable, to open up philosophical questions concerning existence, a lack of justice in the world and so on, the score almost sounds as if it were intended for a children’s television programme. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, and perhaps not, but there seems neither to be genuine, productive conflict between different impulses and possibilities, nor the true collaboration of which the Festival’s outgoing director, Bernard Foccroulle, speaks in the programme: more a bit of a mismatch.

Director of the Troupe: Stéphane Degout

In performative terms, it all looked and sounded tremendous. No one could accuse the Festival of having done anything other than wholeheartedly supported the project. The Puppet, as he is always called, looked anything but cuddly, instead almost horror-movie fodder. Chloé Briot’s spirted performance stood much more in a line of offering fruitful dramatic conflict. Stéphane Degout proved a towering presence onstage, not least in the largely spoken narrative role of the Director of the Troupe. It seemed a bit of a waste of his talents, though, to have him devote so much of his time to speaking, and when singing, to lavish such vocal beauty and verbal acuity on so musically facile a part. Vincent Le Texier's seemingly wise, certainly compassionate Father impressed too. Marie-Eve Munger stood out in the high-lying part of the Fairy, whose lack of straightforwardness (on Pommerat’s part) certainly intrigued. Klangforum Wien under Emilio Pomarico offered truly luxurious orchestral support; I cannot imagine they have often, if ever, played anything quite like this. Again, though, it did seem to me somewhat to squander the talents of one of the finest new music ensembles in the world. Last month, Répons in Vienna; this month, well, this.

Fairy (Marie-Eve Munger)

It is certainly not that I am against ambiguity concerning audience, or broader appeal; far from it. This, however, gives the impression – or at least did so to me – that, perhaps like Pinocchio himself, it does not know quite what it wants to be. Or perhaps the problem lies with me, and I do not know what I want things to be. At any rate, whilst I was happy enough to have seen the opera, I cannot imagine wanting to do so again; for me, at least, the Festival’s offerings of The Rake’s Progress and Carmen proved infinitely more dramatically satisfying. Now, one Cavalli opera, Erismena, to go…

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (3) - Carmen, 13 July 2017

Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Patrick Berger / artcompress
Carmen (Stéphanie d'Oustrac), Don José (Michael Fabiano), Micaëla (Elsa Dreisig)

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Carmen – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Don José – Michael Fabiano
Micaëla – Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo – Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita – Gabrille Philiponet
Mercédès – Virginie Verrez
Zuniga – Christine Helmer
Moralès – Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre – Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendadao – Mathias Vidal
Administrator – Pierre Grammont

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)

Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône (chours master: Samuel Coquard)
Chœur Aedes (chorus master: Mathieu Romano)
Orchestre de Paris
Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor)

Carmen and Don José 

At last: a Carmen that takes a step back (from the work) and several steps forward (in every other dramaturgical respect). If one wants Carmen straight, as it were, Calixto Bieito’s Franco-era production will do very nicely indeed. As for borderline racists lusting after picture-postcard ‘Spain’ – it makes a change from lamenting the lack of blacking up in Othello – who cares? They certainly did, I am delighted to report. I do not know what the reaction was on the first night, but here various audience members, keen to show that the French wing of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ is pulling its weight, contributed greatly to the cabaret. Some booed during the performance; some shouted things out. Perhaps my favourite was one man who helpfully informed the cast that they were delivering ‘the wrong dialogue’. Bless him, or rather do not. An American family – the parents anyway: the children seemed fine – could be heard during the interval lamenting the ‘Eurotrash’ they had seen: surely a title la Carmencita herself would happily ‘reclaim’, although she might have to return with those visitors to the era of big-hair Dallas and Dynasty to do so. I should also not forget a woman seated not so far from me. At the end, she was visibly excited when Pablo Heras-Casado came onstage to take his bow. It was her moment, she knew, and she took it, starting to boo vigorously. Her husband then explained to her, a little too late, that Heras-Casado was the conductor, not the director. Who cares, though? When you want to make animal noises in a theatre and generally behave like an uneducated fascist, go for it. At least they all have a new hate figure to supplant Gerard Mortier; and what is petit bourgeois life without hate figures?

Dmitri Tcherniakov does far more, though, than épater les bourgeois – although I shall not deny the theatre in that itself. We all know the ‘monster opera Carmen’, as he calls it; and if we do not, we can do so at the click of a mouse. What is far too often lost – not, to be fair in Bieito, but in most productions, which are simply ghastly – is the drama. We do not actually know the opera at all, most of us; we know some tacky visualisations, often more fitted to a set of plates to be bought from a Sunday colour supplement. (Do they still exist? Do we care?) We play at knowing it, keeping our distance from anything that might challenge us. We, then, are the protagonists – albeit in a drama that is true to no one’s ‘intentions’, least of all to Bizet’s or Merimée’s. That is emphatically so here: we are confronted with what we – all of us – have done to Carmen and to ourselves, and by what we continue to do so.

And so, Tcherniakov presents us with a man of today, an Everyman even: Don José. Carmen is decentred; she will, like the rest of the cast, be brought in as and when required. The man, whoever, he is, clearly wealthy – a beautiful suit and shoes – is in a bad way. He needs therapy, and his wife is determined to have him undergo it. Should we not suspect her actions too, though? On what basis does she derive any authority in this treatment, or game, or drama, or whatever we want to call it, think of it? As this ‘thing’, let us call it an opera, progresses, we are certainly given reason, often quite subtle, to doubt her, to doubt everything and everyone: above all, we are given reason to doubt ourselves. (Will we be brave enough, even able, to do so, though? Tcherniakov helps; the performers help; but therapy requires preparation, consent, participation.) When the mysterious – or is he merely mundane? – Administrator explains what will happen to our (anti-)hero, he laughs, refuses to take it seriously. Michael Fabiano’s laugh is itself a thing of artistic horror, almost to put alongside that of Klytämnestra (in another twisted therapeutic context). But play the game of Carmen he must; or rather he decides to. Scepticism is palpable; we have surely all felt sceptical at some time towards dramas and productions that reveal things we should rather leave unrevealed. But once the game is afoot, wallet and telephone handed in for safe keeping, he must continue. Indeed, he refuses the advised option of calling it quits at half time. His progress has been such that he is about to be discharged. He wants to carry on to the end, and so he does.

Soldiers, Micaëla, and Don José 

Who are the expensive – opera is expensive – cast of characters and extras brought in for the game? His wife returns, in need of a role. She becomes Micaëla. But like him, we are sometimes a little unsure what is for real, and what is not. Are the troops who storm the stage at the end of the first act, to impose order, actually from ‘outside’? It is cleverly suggested – or I lazily assumed – that they might be; but no, we discover, in the Administrator’s next visitation and explanation (true, or not?) that they were part of the game. That is what opera is; is it not? Guns fire ‘smiley’ faces of approval; we are the customers, after all. No, of course we are not; we are the participants, but we, or at least some of us, like to think we are customers. No more in Carmen than in the Ring should that be the case. As Pierre Boulez once remarked, ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ His playful suggestion, or rather hinted suggestion, a few years earlier was that an elegant solution would be to blow them into the air. Indeed. There are more ways, more interesting ways, of accomplishing that, of course, than with actual explosives. We might as well just read out the stage directions if we want to play at opera – which is precisely what happens here.

Carmen – or the woman playing Carmen – becomes deeply concerned about where things are heading. She wants out, but the Administrator says no. What are her feelings for the man she is paid (presumably) to help? Interestingly, even ironically, relieved of simply being Carmen, the ‘icon’, she becomes a more interesting, more complex, or at least less readily stereotyped, character. Her interaction with Fate thus acquires new meaning – and new questioning. Tragedy, however, reinstates itself. At the end, the man is broken more than ever before. Don José has killed him; Carmen has killed him; his wife has killed him; therapy has killed him. Others – neither ‘Carmen’ nor his wife, though – have been busily celebrating the end of the game, the end of the opera. Life and art are not like that, not at all. Do you want ‘picturesque’ scenery and a ‘heart-warming’ justification of your own existence, followed, perhaps, by a ‘nice meal’: go elsewhere. You – we – actually need this.

Mercédès (Virgine Verrez), Carmen, Frasquita (Gabrielle Philiponet), Don José

Fabiano gave a tireless, often terrifying performance in the central role. If there were occasions when his style was a little on the Italianate side, then who cares, especially on this particularly occasion? So much of what we were seeing and hearing in any case concerned the playing of roles. (I keep telling myself I should include myself in all of that – and I should, but do not want to seem still more solipsistic here. But what gives any of us the right to expectations, and should we not at least question them vigorously?) In any case, identification with something that was both Don José and yet was not became clearer and deeper as he and we penetrated role and game deeper too. I do not think I have seen a more tormented, possessed man on stage, certainly not for a long time. This was his drama – and by his, I mean at least as much Fabiano’s as the anonymous man’s or as Don José’s. And he can certainly sing too, with dark, repressed menace, just as much as with splendidly ‘operatic’, climactic passion. Liberated as discussed above, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, gave a splendidly thoughtful portrayal – or whatever we wish in this context to call it. Expectations subverted, she could present a woman who did not always know what to do for the best, and yet tried to do so, a woman with agency of her own, agency that was yet hemmed in by powerful forces from without. Sung with an elegance to offset and yet also to complement Fabiano’s passion, this was a performance to make one think just as much as his – provided one permitted oneself to do so.

Carmen, Escamillo (Michael Todd Simpson), assembled company, and Don José

Elsa Dreisig’s Micäela became more manipulative, less predictable: something to be heard as well as merely observed. Treating opera as drama creates opportunities for all, both on and off stage. (Both Joseph Kerman and Tcherniakov could have told us that; so could both Bizet and Boulez.) Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo – playing Micaëla’s extra-marital lover, or was he actually so? – was vocally disappointing, somewhat dry of tone; yet, as with so much else here, there were other ways of approaching what we saw and heard. Amongst the ‘smaller’ roles, everything was well taken; special mention, I think, should go to the voices of Gabrielle Philiponet and Virginie Perez. Choral singing was excellent throughout, as was the incisive, often colourful – yet not unduly touristic – playing of the Orchestre de Paris. Heras-Casado seemed to me to make a great effort as collaborator, not simply as ‘conductor’. (We all play roles, but that does not mean we should not reconsider them.) There was, throughout, a keen sense of engagement with Tcherniakov: not necessarily simply mirroring, for that is certainly not what orchestra or conductor should be doing. Taken as a whole, the musical performances engaged with, enabled, and criticised the production; as it did them; as all did the work. Ladies, gentlemen, however we wish to define and perform ourselves: welcome, whether you like it or not, to musical drama. It comes alive when you least expect it. It may sometimes not even work. Life is like that, but it is not life; it is both less and more, better and worse, than that.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2) – Orchestre de Paris/Ward - Stravinsky, Schubert, and Beethoven, 12 July 2017

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Stravinsky: Suite no.1 for small orchestra
Schubert: Symphony no.3 in D major, D 200
Stravinsky: Suite no.2 for small orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60

Orchestre de Paris
Duncan Ward (conductor)

This year’s Aix Festival has a ‘Stravinsky cycle’ of concerts to accompany its excellent Rake’s Progress. I am delighted to report that the two small Suites for small orchestra received splendid performances. Alas, the problem lay with the remaining ninety per cent of the programme; would that we had had more – much more – Stravinsky instead.

Perhaps not entirely unlike some of Schoenberg’s later tonal works, these little Stravinsky Suites offer an excellent introduction to Stravinsky’s processes without the ‘difficulties’ some may find in some of his music. Such was emphatically the case here; bite-sized the pieces may be, but they emerged as echt Stravinsky. The Orchestre de Paris imparted a pleasingly ‘French’ sound, suggesting kinship with Ravel, that was anything but inappropriate, although the particular colours were entirely Stravinsky’s own. In the ‘Española’ of the First Suite – and certainly not only there – rhythms proved tight and generative, even menacing. The Soldier’s Tale came to mind, but so, inevitably, did Petrushka, especially in the Second Suite. Stravinsky here sounded truly in puppeteer mode – although is he not always, in one sense or another? My only real cavil was Duncan Ward’s extreme holding back in the ‘Valse’. Parody is fine, up to a point, but that seemed too much for the material and its context. Otherwise, these were sparkling, colourful, delightful performances.

Schubert’s Third Symphony started promisingly. The introduction to the first movement sounded properly generative, very much in the line of Haydn, albeit with an intriguing, almost Mendelssohnian lightness to the sound. (It is not how I immediately think of Schubert, but it is surely a good thing to be challenged.) Alas, the rest of the first movement was hard-driven: more Rossini than Beethoven (or Schubert!) It was beautifully played by the Orchestre de Paris: actually one of the best performances I have heard from them, in purely orchestral terms. Moreover, there was nothing unduly distracting. Nevertheless, the formal dynamism that makes sonata form a form rather than a mould or even a mere structure was absent, save, perplexingly, for a darkly serious development section. It is a common problem in much of today’s symphonic conducting, yet no less grievous for that. (Memories of Daniel Barenboim’s outstanding recent Berlin performance will die hard.) Structure and form are not the same things; at least, they should not be.  There was winning intimacy to be heard from the Paris players in the Allegretto, but it emerged as an unduly sectional movement, whatever its very real incidental charms. The Minuet gained from being taken straightforwardly, but the Trio never settled; likewise a charming enough finale. What was truly missing, here and throughout, was a sense of harmonic rhythm, of much of the music being founded upon the bass line, curiously underplayed. Schubert’s music is not merely a string of melodies; nor is any music that is worth performing from the Austro-German tradition in which it stands.

Beethoven’s is certainly not, but yet again that was how it sounded. Ward’s direction of the Fourth Symphony was, for the most part, mercifully free of the perversities that characterise, say, the Beethoven of his mentor, Simon Rattle – so much so as to make it frankly unlistenable. That excellent omission, however, was alas pretty much the only positive aspect to the performance here: again, very well played, on its own terms, but quite uncomprehending of how Beethoven’s music works, let alone of what it might mean. The first movement, from the Introduction onwards, was taken very fast: nothing in principle wrong with that, but it never yielded, never breathed, and never actually spoke of, let alone in, sonata form and its processes. Ironically, there was more than a hint, both here and in the Schubert, of sub-Stravinskian parody. The slow – not at all slow – movement flowed by pleasantly enough; yet again, however, it seemed at best observed rather than lived, its existence entirely on the surface. Prolonged, extreme pianissimi were presumably intended to create tension; they ended up merely sounding weird. As the movement progressed, or regressed, it sounded more and more disconnected. This, at least, seemed very much in the line of Rattle’s Beethoven; the scherzo and finale behaved similarly, albeit in less pulled-around fashion. Ultimately, it was just all rather dull; I was never moved, never even interested. There were incidental orchestral ‘beauties’, but surely that is not what Beethoven is about? If it is, then God help us all. A pity we could not have heard, say, Petrushka instead.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (1) - The Rake's Progress, 11 July 2017

Théâtre de l’Archevêché

Actors, Chorus, Mother Goose (Hilary Summers), Tom Rakewell (Paul Appleby), Nick Shadow (Kyle Ketelsen)
Images: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

Ann Trulove – Julia Bullock
Tom Rakewell – Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Nick Shadow 2, The Keeper of the Asylum – Evan Hughes
Trulove – David Pittsinger
Mother Goose – Hilary Summers
Baba the Turk – Andrew Watts
Sellem – Alan Oke
Actors – Antony Antunes, Kirsty Arnold, Nichole Bird, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Andrew Gardiner, Chihiro Kawasaki, Maxime Nourissat, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Gabriella Schmidt, Clemmie Sveaas

Simon McBurney (director)
Gerard McBurney (dramaturgy)
Michael Levine (designs)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Paul Anderson (lighting)
Will Duke (video)
Leah Hausman (choreography, design assistance)

English Voices (chorus master: Tim Brown)
Orchestre de Paris
Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor)

Auction guests, Baba the Turk (Andrew Watts) and Tom 

I thought it was longer than it had been since my most recent Rake’s Progress. When I checked, I discovered that had only been a couple of years or so ago, at the Royal Academy: and very good it was too. Nevertheless, this new Aix production from Simon McBurney proves mightily refreshing. It has something in common with the RAM staging (John Ramster) in that it concentrated on the opera as an opera, rather than the debates surrounding it – although those can surely never be far away from most of our experience, whatever Stravinsky, with typical disingenuousness, might have suggested. But the emphasis and the illumination are different, which is surely just as it should be.

London stands at the heart of this Rake. Not, thank God, in a particularist sort of way: that would be especially absurd for a staging in Provence. This is not only the city of Hogarth, but also the city that was, for all its flaws, indeed in many ways on account of them, until recently the greatest in the world. It destroyed itself in part, of course; ‘its’ greed, both in the eighteenth century and under neoliberalism, rightly provokes revulsion, none greater than that of those who live or have lived there and are not members of the ‘banking community’ and other such delightful trades. But for those of us estranged from our country at the moment, Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, we know who really did it. We are also able to recognise our city with all the delicious agony of an exile, internal or external, in what we see before us, without collapse into the merely didactic. For the great, indeed diabolical con trick that is capitalism, whether neoliberal or in an early mutation, is in large part the parable here; it always was, whatever Stravinsky or even Auden might have told us. (Repeat after me. Intention is not everything; sometimes it is very little at all.) When Tom goes to London, he goes to the City; he goes to one of those plush, joyless, ‘pleasurable’ towers, from which one may see other towers. He has well-dressed, superficially attractive – very attractive – people fawn over him, change his clothes, transform him into one of them. He is – and this would hit home as strongly as I have ever known it do – ‘weak’, as Ann tells us. Christina Cunningham’s costumes are a profoundly important – and knowingly shallow – contributor to the drama; they make us envious, even complicit, wishing or at least in danger of wishing we were part of the tragedy we know this pleasure garden to be.

Nick, Tom, and images of Baba

When Mother Goose’s establishment comes into view, the emphasis shifts to eroticism that is both blatant and subtle. Again, most of us probably want it, although we know we should not. A subtle orgy might seem a contradiction in terms, at least to those of us on the outside of this world, but Leah Hausman’s choreography really does its work here. Far more is suggested than actually depicted; our minds, our imaginations are made to do the dirty work. Pornography, the pornography of late capitalism, is thus dramatised and accused. I could not help but think of Antonio Negri’s Constitution of Time. In all the pleasure, the beauty of the young bodies, there is of course neutralisation too. Everything becomes the same; it does not matter whom one chooses, whom one adds to one’s iPhone collection. And so, after Tom has taken his pictures – displayed to the world, as they would be, although in this case on the walls of the set – of his final nubile companion of the evening, Nick Shadow, the capitalist Devil himself, shows him pictures of Baba the Turk. The rest you know – save for the twist here that Baba is now played by a counter-tenor. Her whole life is performance, an act, of course, and this takes its place in her line of publicity strategies. There is no especial jolt to our – or at least to my – understanding; that, I suspect, is part of the point. The auction is full of typical metropolitan ‘style’, that of the empty, expensive sort in which the drama has been mired all along: Mayfair, not Whitechapel.

On the other side, however, Ann seems, and I think probably is, more present than ever. She sometimes, earlier on, walks past. Tom appears to see her, but does he? And would what that even mean if he did? She is good, a symbol of goodness, but she is not just that; I felt her more as a character than I can remember doing so before. That is partly a matter of Julia Bullock’s tremendous performance, touchingly pure, and with every word readily audible (far from always the case in this role). But it is partly McBurney’s conception too. She is, perhaps, a social critic too, no mere inegénue. There is indeed, as McBurney suggests in a brief programme interview, ‘dans une certaine mesure une figure révolutionnaire’ to be perceived there too. Baba knows that, it seems. She has her own roles to play, but she is convinced by Ann, and actually sends her on her way to attempt, however vainly, redemption.

Ann Trulove (Julia Bullock) with auction guests behind

Before that, moreover, Ann walks through a typical Tube subway, cleverly conjured up with design technology: a bit of that South Kensington pedestrian tunnel to it, actually, although more ‘desolate’, ‘poorer’, to the non-London, or con-comprehending, eye. That actually means more alive, of course; the homeless people and the busker – playing solo trumpet, in a nice touch – are, for us Londoners, for us human beings, the real story, the real tragedy. And in a final, potentially Foucouldian twist, the man running the show in Bedlam is Nick Shadow’s shadow. Madness has of course always been a way to deal with criticism. Had Tom perhaps an inkling of what was going on; or might, at the very least, Ann have helped him enlighten him had he not fallen ‘mad’? The voices in his head are the voices we hear all around us: ‘unelectable’, ‘sensible’, ‘moderate’, and so forth? They are the voices that will do all they can to prevent us make London, not what it was, but what it should have been, could have been, all along – and in many ways still is.

I almost – almost – believed, then, in the ‘love story’ that comes almost sentimentally to the foreground of work and production alike. Bullock played her part in that, of course. So did Paul Appleby’s lovable, lovably weak Tom: the sort of character one knows one should distrust, and yet desperately wishes to do otherwise. He never seemed quite the author of his own actions; which amongst us is, whilst Nick is at play? More than that, though, his sappy tenor proved just as sympathetic and manipulative as Bullock’s crystal-clear soprano. Kyle Ketelsen’s Nick was every bit as persuasive as he should be – and more so. He was reassuringly ‘normal’, ‘as things are’, until one really looked and listened: just like capital itself, and with all the dangerous, often surprisingly understated, attraction it exerts. Evan Hughes proved an excellent shadow to the shadow: the same, and yet different. A more real ‘normality’ was offered by David Pittsinger’s splendidly sane Trulove; or is Trulove just a better actor, the voice of old-school conservatism? Hilary Summers made for a fantastic Mother Goose: ruler of her own world, not least vocally, and with a splendidly naughty sense of genuine fun. Is she not a ‘revolutionary’ in her way, too? Or are we just meant to think so? Andrew Watts made much of Baba’s staginess; how could he not? But there was definitely a human heart beating strongly there; the appeal to her fans is far from entirely to be dismissed. Alan Oke’s Sellem imparted a fine sense of slightly camp insidiousness: all the better to sell Tom’s goods with. 

The graveyard scene

There was a ruthless dryness to much, not all, of Eivind Gullberg Jensen’s conducting which was not only echt neo-classical Stravinsky, but very much of the dramatic idea. The orchestra, both unlike and not unlike Wagner, was telling us something. A delight in contrivance, moreover, fused perfectly with the score’s well-nigh miraculous forging of continuity out of what ‘should’ merely stop and start. Stravinsky’s cellular method here is, in many ways, not so very different either from his late serial masterpieces or, dare I suggest it, The Rite of Spring. The miracle is his – and, in a way, that of capital too. If the Orchestre de Paris had its soloistic moments and was for the most part commendably sharp of rhythm. If there was certainly nothing wrong with its performance, though, there was perhaps a slight lack of presence, even of commitment, that slightly detracted from the musico-dramatic whole. Maybe it was as much an acoustical matter as anything else: outdoor performances, notoriously, take a good deal of getting used to. There was certainly no such fault to be found with the singers of English Voices, all of whom played their individually directed performances to a tee. They, like the rest of us, were both enthralled and ultimately destroyed by the game afoot.