Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Messiah Bicket/English Concert/Barbican

I'm a bit late with this one but it's lasted in the memory. This town has been flooded with Messiahs this year as ever but prima inter pares has probably been the ENO production, created for the stage by Deborah Warner. This is, of course, because ENO wanted to put on a Messiah to get bums on seats. I don't understand why they didn't simply put the band on the stage. The Messiah's not for staging; it has all the rhetorical abstraction of the gospels (why the Passions shouldn't be staged either, incidentally).

That's not to say that Messiah has no drama. In the performance I saw last Wednesday Harry Bicket really demands that his musicians respond to the latent drama in this oldest and most familiar of stories. No-one needs staggering, dancing or grafted-on gestures to communicate this piece, especially with singing and playing this good.

Lucy Crowe is the gilt voice to a contradictory but opulent collection of soloists both floating and pointing notes with ease and pathos, as well as tearing up the joint with one of the fastest but least troubled Rejoice Greatlys I've ever heard. Allan Clayton's febrile but manly tenor was well matched to her in every respect. The lower voices - the voices of us here below on earth were totemic and resonant. I particularly liked Patricia Bardon.

It was all about the orchestra though, supernaturally in tune in both pitch and ensemble and making small gestures tell with the same weight as grand lyric sentences of music. Oh, and apparently people still stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus, amazingly.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

Der Rosenkavalier is a pain in the backside. It has more than its fair share of first-class operatic music and provides a superb vehicle for the opulence and escapism that any evening out on the town can offer. Alas, it's also an over-inflated work, stretched by its investigation of the limits of tonality at the same time as indulging its pathological need to set up the moments of great beauty and pathos. At either extreme, to get at the beauty you need to resist the bore.

The trio of Act 3 it has both beauty and pathos in one of the great operatic set pieces. The cast of the Royal Opera's revival are beautifully balanced in ensemble, making this a ravishing, irresistible moment in the work. The music flows off the stage and into the stalls in much the same way as their fourth-wall-breaking manoeuvre from the stage-within-the-stage does. To my mind these three are glove-perfect fits in the roles. Soile Isokoski is porcelain-beautiful in production and decorous use of her sound. Sophie Koch produces a supple, almost-virile tone. Lucy Crowe is possibly the central gemstone with freshness, sparkle and an unselfconscious élan in her high threads of sound. I felt that her stagecraft was a little constrained but wasn't watching fairly soon after hearing her start to sing.

However, refined singing apart, for me the great joy of the evening was Peter Rose's Ochs. I have been waiting for the chance to see this characterisation ever since missing a well thought-of Scottish Opera production 12 years ago and I was beyond satisfied. This Ochs is not quite the slobbering thug that secures our distaste of him well before the close. Instead we can luxuriate in a finely-sung performance of exemplary German and a comic timing - nay, simply timing - that made the others look rather mannered.

The set-piece pillar-and-post of Act 2 presentation and Act 3 trio apart, Rosenkavalier has a fine opening Act which rather showed the cramped functionallity of Kiril Petrenko's approach. There was precious little space for the music to breathe a hush as the Marschallin reflects on the futility of sonnambulant clock-tampering. I also missed the surface sadness (the one 'wet' eye) as Octavian's imagination convinces him that his rejection is imminent - it sounded too close to the sexual raging of the overture. Otherwise this was a secure rendition from the pit.

The production may be old but I enjoyed its careful variations on a limited palette. This is a production that appreciates the importance of the periphery: the blocking, the modulation of the innocuous to the seminal, just as the raging, chaotic wash of noumenal atonality sometimes spurts through into the action and changes the outwardly serene course of the phenomenal drama. This performance was not that cosmic, fin-de-siècle interpretation that renders psychotropic drugs redundant and makes you weep openly on the train home, but it was enchanting nonetheless.

UPDATE (10 December 2009):
Reviews collected at Culture Critic

Monday, 7 December 2009

Brubeck honoured at White House

I'm pleased to hear that the great jazz musician Dave Brubeck received a Kennedy Center Honour at the White House yesterday. Immediately I was reminded of the episode in season 6 of The West Wing ('Drought Conditions'), in which a remarkable final sequence - a party hosted by the White House - is edited to Brubeck's famous jazz composition Take Five, including a brilliant moment where the burgeoning romance between Kate Harper and Will Bailey is underscored by the drum solo.