Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, RFH

This multi-media production of Tristan und Isolde, the Tristan Project is a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and the video artist Bill Viola. The video below gives you an idea of what it's about; part of the senior admin team kept a diary while it was on tour in mainland Europe which was published in The Guardian last week.

It's a strong evening, an all-immersing experience. In addition to a large screen above the orchestra onto which video pertaining to the action is projected, the entire hall was used with the singers appearing in aisles and boxes. The arrival in Cornwall at the end of act one had the chorus appearing in the balcony with the brass fanfare coming from the very back of the hall, as if the audience were being smothered in a great big (and very loud!) Cornish-cable-knit-jumper manhug. It was very involving and only heightened the impact of the stormy, narcotic Acts that followed.

Viola's tantric-slow video montage has a number of oddities which can jar - there's a certain amount of ritual à la Jodorowsky here. However, at crucial moments there are some wonderful images which do resonate with the story and its music. Principally perhaps is the echt-Viola image of lovers falling through water.

This picture corresponds to the most important single dramatic event of the opera, when the lovers have drunk the love-death potion. Like a number of images - or, I should say, sequences of images - it reminds me of similar sequences in other film. In this case, I can't shake the impertinent thought of Ewan McGregor's junkie searching for lost drugs in a Glaswegian toilet in Trainspotting:

Of course, this seems absurd but for two things. First Danny Boyle uses this comic surrealism in order to try and illustrate the edge-of-madness desperation that comes with drug dependency and the oblivion that its users are after (including one that suggests death itself). Secondly Bill Viola himself is working not to illustrate the action but to catalyse the expericence of it:
I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage...
(from the programme notes)

The images of transformation or purging take in fire as well as water. Tristan's response to the extinguished beacon in act 2 is to march towards us heedless of a pyre in front of him. This is like the closing sequence of the Daft Punk-sponsored feature Electroma, in which the protagonist, bereft of his companion and denied wider social assimilation strides on defiantly in self-immolation:

In the love duet the video shows lovers casting themselves into the sea in a further attempt at oblivion. The closing scene of Jonathan Glazer's modern romantic mystery Birth comes to mind, in which a love-dazed Nicole Kidman searches for oblivion in the univiting waters off the American East Coast:

(incidentally, it's worth noting that the film has a memorable central sequence in which Kidman's character sits in a theatre listening to another piece by Wagner, the prelude to Act 1 of Die Walküre.)

Viola's particular stamp is really to do with the opulent time-frame in which he posits his ideas, rather than the images themselves. The breadth of this video work is what is so consonant with Wagner's opera. I felt the performance and the installation mutually benefitted one another.

Not that any performance of Tristan und Isolde at this level really needs embellishment. As the lovers, Violetta Urmana and Gary Lehmann are well matched but, crucially, also on the same page dramatically. They are enitrely convincing as the supernaturally enamoured couple. Brangäne and Kurwenal are taken by Scandinavian singers, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jukka Rasilainen, both in highly polished performances. Of this second tier of casting though one watches slack-jawed at the artistry of our own Matthew Best. A cavernous, infinitely sagacious sound actually made something stirring from the Act 2 peroration of King Mark, which I often find ponderous.

Above all I really enjoyed the work of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There's an urgency to get stuck into the detail of the music. Though the story arcs are vast and the (realist) action often static, musical argument and beauty is compressed into each phrase. The Philharmonia's touch is forensic but caressing, never clinical.

Responding To Music

This evening I watched last week's Review Show special on the state of the music industry. It discussed lots of interesting topics (with the two men of the group, Tom Service and Paul Morley being the most vociferous in their opposing and inimitable ways). Something in this discussion caused me to think about the manner in which audiences respond to the music they hear and how that feeds back into the manner and environment in which it's performed.

A charge successfully levelled at classical music is that it's an intellectual artform. It seems to demand considered appraisal. It's not music that one expects an audience to simply get up and dance too. In fact, any reaction that causes any sort of distraction, visual or audible is generally frowned on.

This struck me as very similar to the way that modern worship has evolved (catalysed by watching the papal visit to Westminster Abbey on TV earlier). The discretion and modesty that was formerly expected in church is no longer a universal type. More demonstrative styles of worship are fashionable (along with new codes of Christianity). This invariably involves the use of music associated more with modernity, e.g. using electric instruments & percussion.

There is a clear parallel between the manner in which people worship and the way in which people experience a musical concert. Similarly then, there is a fashionable movement towards a concert experience which the didacticism of performance is exchanged for some sort of dialogue.

We've probably all had the experience where, on leaving a concert hall, we turn to a companion and discover that they've not liked it as much as us - or that you assumed they'd enjoyed it only to be disabused. This quality of experience is often linked with comprehension of the music.

Much the same can be said of the mysterious central rites of a church service, especially when accompanied by a homily (often the scholarly analysis of a bible reading). It's as if the emotional response to this experience is not only ignored but suppressed.

The vogue for interaction with performers or liturgical officials looks to overcome this stifling cultural tradition. There are clearly those who do not wish to deny either the emotional impact of religious or musical experience, or translate that experience into intellectual terms (which, having had a direct emotional experience, seem superfluous).

I think that it is important to talk about musical experience comprehensively, i.e. to talk about the emotional experience but also the argument of composition (and its associative or political gestures, the event). However, it is true that classical music has a skewed vernacular that is predominantly scholarly and analytical and would certainly benefit from a more visceral approach. Logic suggests that, given the recent rise of churches encouraging demonstrative emotional behaviour and the close corollary between worship and concerts, there could be room for unprescripted behaviour in the concert hall. I remain sceptical about the appropriation of this latter idea though.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, ENO

I don't think it works and yet, I find myself deeply stirred. It's a bit like knowing you're walking up to the edge of one of those Escher staircases that don't make sense but stepping onto it anyway to find that it does. English National Opera's Makropulous Case revival seems occasionally either baffling or perverse but as it's never short of conviction - or, this time around, some pretty impressive singing - it somehow finds its mark.

Alden has a number of ideas but the principal one seems to be of text. The men populating the stage often step out of character to write on a blackboard - a historic timeline, a formula, the name 'Μακροπουλος'. Indeed at such moments the men often become ciphers, moving through the space with anonymity, as in Magritte

or, as it struck me, like hieroglyphs. This act of record and the intermittent transformation of characters to tableau (which, as hieroglyph, might be regarded as text) ties in with the profligate documents which, tumbling from the ceiling during the overture are never fully ordered and removed.

Elina Makropulos has initiated this paper trail not only by writing (and forging) documents but by her sexual acts, leaving a trail of lovers and children, or 'bastards', her words in Norman Tucker's translation. Witness of this wake is ever present. In the same way that the men fighting over the estate in Kolenatý's office will step out of character to represent something else so the waiting public at Makropulos' stage door might also be the ghosts of her past encounters. I liked the fluency with which Alden moves between the two, encouraging the audience to see these people from Makropulos' perspective; it's a chill view when a figure is easily interchangeable between person and mere trope.

Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on the role of Makropulos herself who can never become two dimensional, fixed in space and time. In purely charatcerisation terms Amanda Roocroft is all over this idea. She's far less reserved than, say, Anja Silja for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production but her impertinence and disdain serve Alden well. Additionally Roocroft is clearly singing very well, back to her formidable best after a previously equivocal Ellen Orford in this house.

The men are strong, with Andrew Shore and Ashley Holland completely solid. Notable though is Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor. Albert's a classic Janacek tenor role, unforgiving, without even the consolation of heroism to go with the helden-Fach that it often requires. Hoare manages a beauty in the sound that I wasn't expecting (although I've heard it before), which has the curious side-effect of making me wish he didn't have to undertake the same functional role as others in the cast.

Indeed the music - glorious music - is kept simmering but never boils under Richard Armstrong. This is another reason I found the whole thing puzzling. There are small balancing issues in the Coliseum which I suspect, given the extreme and tourettish nature of Janacek's music, are virtually impossible to resolve. However Alden's production does meet the erratic nature of the score as the action often has very sudden movements. Occasionally these were either not perfectly dovetailed or a certain caginess in the music meant that they were left exposed.

This is a nit-picking observation though, especially as I found myself hearing some wonderful things for the first time, perhaps as a result. The pianissimo secco percussion and harmonic strings to accompanying Makropulos dismissing the appeal of sexual intercourse is utterly chilling (there was laughter from the core of ENO's audience at the line - this is fair but there's more to be had from this opera).

Indeed this is a very adult opera, prepared to incorporate the sexual impulse into its very fabric but at the same time give the characters great lyrical scope to argue against it. An evening to reflect on and maybe encounter more than once.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, ROH

The Royal Opera have done well with this production of an obscure, 3½-hour long opera by Agostino Steffani (1654–1728). There must be quite a temptation to throw everything at it, investing in the ongoing vogue for adding dancers, or dazzling with costume, set design or direction to distract from that dreaded da capo (or aria-as-original-cast-mollifying-folly).

At least that was my worry before I saw this production. Its obscurity is no indication of its worth - no charge of 'justly neglected' here. It's inventive, with both unusual instrumentation and trying all sorts of barmy things with the conventional orchestra. Conventional recapitulations in the arias seem to be discreet or to be written out. My da capo fears never ripened - the music seemed to develop rather than repeat itself.

In this the score is helped by a super staging. Lukas Hemleb does employ moments of opulence, often as wonderful coups (invariably involving large balls, that's all I'm saying). Yet he's clearly aware that the story, and the music that tells it, have their own weight so we get an unfussy space in which to hear it. The cast are similarly costumed in striking but not over-detailed designs, a mentality also applied to props and lighting. Economy is the highly effective watchword of this production.

Economy, expedience but not 'budget'. There's no paucity of imagination. Hemleb uses the auditorium space around the pit for surprise entries and has a particularly simple-but-cunning use for a modest dancing troupe as an underhand plot makes its demonic passage through the story. This got many a laugh - but like a lot of the humour that Hemleb sets free from the work it's a joke shared with the audience, never cheap irony at the work's expense.

The singing is good. Véronique Gens has a gilded way of understating her singing which makes a great dramatic impact - I really felt the hubris of her character and position. Opposite her is the remarkable sound of Polish countertenor-soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as king Anfione. Early concerns that this was a some miscast hooty falsettist evaporate during a handful of central arias in which a strong command of line and beautifully worked super-high tessitura make for special moments. The undulating aria he sings in the aptly named Palace Of Harmony is particularly fine.

There are two more (perhaps) conventional falsettists in the cast. Tim Mead's consistent, present Clearte is also nicely worked on stage, agitated but not over-sympathetic. In this production, I was afraid that Iestyn Davies' Creonte was destined to be an amusing cameo. He certainly came close to scene stealing his way through his parodic entrances through the first half of the opera but then takes his opportunities in the increasingly serious second to sing with supple coloratura and a silken top. Alastair Miles and Delphine Galou proved luxurious casting for the manipulative functionaries the former gamely wearing a London Marathon novelty outfit as the demonic Poliferno.

The Tiberno-Manto-Tiresia trio (of Lothar Ordinus, Amanda Forsythe and Bruno Taddia) occupy an odd position in the opera, a foil for the supernatural events in which they are caught up. This along with Nerea's affected limp, an anomaly in being superfluously invented for a later aria, and the modernist forecurtain with TEBE cut into it were my only reservations. Thomas Henglebrock and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble are indefatigable.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Here Comes The Tsunami

It has been a bit of a wait but the inevitable is now reaching the cultured cove. When the credit crunch was fresh news, almost two years ago now, many in the arts held their breath; the 'entertainment' industry would surely bear the brunt of the suffering.

Strangely, little seemed to happen. In London, the theatres enjoyed the Indian summer of a long golden period that had, arguably, begun with Hare-Schnitzler's The Blue Room back in 1998. The British went from interlopers to institution at the Oscars and the London Film Festival suddenly matured to the next rank of international festivals alongside Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. Dance has been burgeoning for a while but exploded nationwide through the success of troupes on popular TV shows (X Factor, Britain's Got Talent) and their spin-offs; whilst in art, the Young British Artists, (now not so young) have become the craggy tent poles of a British big top of international art creation and dealing.

Yet the obvious parallel between the London circus of artistic production & marketing and the Square Mile of financial (mis-)management looks like it's finally about to consume its own metaphor. Two days ago the abolition of the UK Film Council was announced to a broad, unequivocal intake of breath. This is, of course, the first sizeable action taken by the new deficit-combating government to reduce outgoings to a skeletal minimum. But I couldn't help notice that this has been followed today by a significant aftershock of comment in the bellweather pages of The Guardian where there are no less than four pieces on the subject: Lee Hall on theatre, Tom Service on retailers, Penny Anderson on BBC arts editor Will Gompertz, and a leading article from Polly Toynbee. Indeed The Guardian's Arts Funding corner of its Culture pages looks set to become a cottage industry of comment and reference.

(UPDATE: sorry, forgot this one - but then one is always sceptical of actors making political statements, however senior they are)

This is no coincidence but the recognition that despite good, steadily accumulated investment in the arts, profligacy in other areas of British life will inevitably impact upon it. The sanguine will note that this is a good analogy for the oft-repeated advocacy for the arts; that the impact of the entertainment industry is felt far beyond the aisles of an auditorium or the walls of a gallery, unquantifiable though that is. Well, that quantifiability will now be seen clear as day, in a merciless reverse, as a spray of statistics - like 50%, for example - coming off the spume of a tidal wave that begins to flatten the good work of a decade's application in, arguably, Britain's most successful exporting sector.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Concert Revolution (again)

There have been a couple of articles in this weekend's Guardian concerning the way in which Classical music is presented and the way in which the audience attends. This round of discussion has been prompted by the well-respected composer Jonathan Harvey suggesting that the manner in which concerts are presented and attended should be revolutionised. Here are some thoughts of my own about the current situation, in aphorised form.

As classical music is an acoustic art, the audience will be in direct contact with the performers, i.e. in the same room. Consequently the audience have a vested interest in minimising extraneous noise - the ideal is to sit in silence - to allow the music to be heard to its best effect.

The nature of acoustic art means that it is live. Consequently, there will be extraneous noises, mistakes, variations in the manner of performance and the in the general 'atmosphere' of the venue. This should be seen as in the nature of the experience. Toleration is necessary.

Tolerating the natural invasiveness of extraneous noise in a live performance is not the same as tolerating the variable concert-going intent of others. So:

If a concert-goer sneezes, or their chair squeaks on the couple of occasions that they move in it, though these may disturb, they are involuntary. The intent of the concert-goer is authentic, i.e. their attention is directed at the concert. This should be tolerated. In my opinion, even if a mobile phone briefly rings because someone's forgotten to turn it off, this is also excusable. We've all forgotten to turn our mobiles off once in a while.

Conversely, voluntary disturbances are pretty difficult to tolerate. If a concert-goer talks, eats, rustles a plastic bag or sweet wrapper then the intent of the concert goer is not authentic, i.e. their attention is not on the music. Crucially, of course, this inattentiveness is made clear to others in the audience by interfering with others' apprehension of the music - it's noisy.

However, one must appreciate that an audience may be utterly absorbed by a performance and so have both involuntary and voluntary reactions to the music which may be somewhat unsatisfactorily categorised as 'atmosphere'. Delight, astonishment, boredom, wonder and disgust come in all forms, and often noisily (laughter, yawning, gasping, grimacing). Again, such reactions demand toleration if they're honest. The audience member yawning loudly and repeatedly in order to bring attention to their boredom, rather than as an involuntary reaction to being bored is intolerable.

Above all reactions, the most familiar is applause. Applause has two functions.

Firstly, applause is a courtesy in a concert hall, both to welcome performers to the space and to thank them for giving a performance.

Secondly, applause is an opportunity for release and appreciation on the part of the audience.

The opportunity for release offered by applause should not be overlooked. Quiet concentration on a performance carries with it its own low-level strain which requires some sort of release. A common complaint in modern concert halls concerns the amount of coughing that falls between movements of classical pieces. This is often not only a release for those who have tried to hold their coughing during the performance but also a natural release for all in the absence of general applause (it's a generally observed modern affectation not to clap between movements of a classical piece).

In the same way that no-one wants a classical performance marred by noise, so no-one wants the live nature of a performance stifled by people trying too hard not to cause a disturbance. The effect is directly equivalent to mediating the performance with amplification (for example): the apprehension of the music is no longer direct but mediated in some way.