Friday, 28 September 2012

Die Walküre, Royal Opera

Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Die Walküre © Clive Barda/ROH 2012
I saw this Walküre as part of the first cycle of Ring operas staged by the Royal Opera this autumn. I'll get straight to it. I've never heard such good singing on the stage of the Royal Opera before. Bryn Terfel's Wotan swept aside a lifetime's accumulated prejudices and easy, lazy nit-picking accrued from tinny broadcasts on car radios, CDs being played in a room next door or hagiographic TV shows more in love with his totemic, masculine Welshness. Stripped back in this most demanding of operatic roles, I was pummeled and caressed, confided in and spat at and I can barely remember whether it was his sound or his bearing that was the agent. For Terfel is not just a fine singer but an actor as well, as required by his calling. His gestures happen within the ribbon of the music, never bouncing out of it. It was complete.

Trying to eye a performance objectively under these circumstances is a difficult proposition. All the parameters are out of whack. Luckily there were others on stage (and off) who were in the same league. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Seglinde was as good a vocal performance as Terfel's. Singing in her prime, phrase climaxes are glorious vistas of sound rather than great blitzkriegs. I also liked Simon O'Neill's nickel-plated Siegmund whose vocal seemed appropriate for his character's sense of purpose, if not the bear-like masculinity of others' portrayals.

Susan Bullock was hindered from the off by a safety cable malfunction on her entry. It's notable as Brünnhilde's arrival is an energetic affair and anything putting the breaks on will affect the impetus behind the singing too. By the all-important third act though (masterfully and minimally staged in Keith Warner's revival of his production) she was well in control with easy top notes. John Tomlinson's Hunding and Sarah Connolly's Fricka were both highly polished, professional characterisations. A special impression was made by the team of Valkyries in a feral staging of the third act with Sarah Castle's Siegrune with a contralto projection every bit as powerful as her 'sisters' in alt and Elisabeth Meister's precision in that higher reach, as a baying, horse-skull wielding Helwmige reaching but not rasping right through to the back seats.

I have since heard that the orchestra has taken a curtain call from the stage following the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. This is probably right, as the score is a mountain range not only to scale but to render with beauty. Alas, I felt that it was surprisingly untidy for this fine orchestra. The physical violence of the opening forte-pianos just could not be sustained. Perhaps there was a lack of pacing. However my disaffection was redeemed by some truly exquisite woodwind playing in the third act.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Pastel Dreams of Les Demoiselles

Finally I have got around to watching one of the key works in Michel Legrand's output (OK, it's Remy's film, but I'm Legrand-fixated). Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is the follow up to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg but no sequel. From a musical viewpoint, one of the principal differences is that it is not through-sung; there is spoken dialogue. What it does retain is character, that sense of parochial lightness - and the sharpness of the drama when that goes awry.

Principally though Les Demoiselles is a fantasy ballet. From the first improbably shot taking from various perspectives on the Rochefort-Martrou suspension bridge to any number of ensemble set pieces on the streets of the town itself, co-ordinated costuming and choreography are the beating heart of the film. It's no surprise then - though a stunning coup - when the godfather of the Golden Age Hollywood musical Gene Kelly turns up (as a composer, i.e. as Legrand. Told you it's about him).

The sisters of the title are musicians and tell us as much in a charming, bouncy numbet hat starts the film and reappears later. The distinctly European DNA of the enterprise becomes clear when the girls try the only dedicated, diegetic song and dance routine of the film (above). A version of Monroe & Russell's red-sequinned showpiece in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it looks studied. Indeed Remy might even have filmed it as such to better realise the breeziness of the rest of his conception.

The essence of the film is distilled in a set piece, known as the concerto ballet, when Kelly and Françoise Dorléac finally come together to acknowledge the love that all but exploded into flower near the film's start. The sequence forgoes the natural causality of the story, making the same assumptions as the audience, and gets right down to the dancing in a gleaming, Elysian temple that is the music shop to the proto-Rachmaninov gushing of Legrand's ersatz piano concerto.

The bittersweet character - the poignancy of love - that the sequence carries became all too real immediately after the film was completed, as Dorléac was killed in a car accident.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Britain

Tate are calling it The Victorian Avant-Garde. That certainly puts me on my guard, given that the pre-Raphaelite movement has always struck me, as a precursor to the Aesthetic Movement, as being concerned with art above political or aesthetic confrontation.

Well, I struggled to find the avant-garde in this exhibition, partly, I suppose, as there was little context alongside the exhibited are in which to couch it (the Picasso/English Masters exhibition earlier his year had it built into the title, for example). The iconoclasm seems to exist merely in the use of ecclesiastical arched frames, culminating in William Holman's famous The Light Of The World (1852, right).

Biblical figures and scenes are co-opted in the pre-Raphaelite movement but as interesting narratives rather than proselytising art. The emphasis is on story and style rather than message or philosophy. There's a lot of pathos rather than moralising in pictures of Christ in childhood, for example and a later Ford Madox Brown picture of Christ's silhouette caught falling on crossed beams of wood in his father's workshop is deleteriously camp, completely self-absorbed.

Madox Brown's fine picture Work (1852-65), a moralising road-building scene set in Hampstead, is an exception, although it does suffer from the excess of detail that these pictures can be burdened with. Edmund Millais sublimates this most effectively and the ever-popular Ophelia (another arched frame!) benefits from the almost forensic approach to rendering nature. It is the parity nature is accorded with the mysticism of the Biblical narratives that makes the pre-Raphaelite movement interesting, presenting nature as hyper-reality as the industry of Victoriana takes over from the now-taking roots of the psychological enlightenment of early Romanticism.

Such burgeoning of reality has to break though. The later rooms show the stylistic abstractions of William Morris, the figurative visions of Burne-Jones and the poor, over-perfumed pre-impressionist art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It's no surprise that the narrative psychedelics of Burne-Jones' tapestries should have appealed to Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who has loaned two tapestries of his own collection for the exhibition.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Music in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is predicated on its function - the creation and ordering of sound in film making. Peter Strickland's new film is at once sumptuous and disturbing, almost abstract in its focused collage of images and sound, and all the time hinting at something below the surface.

Naturally the making and application of sound is extremely important. Strickland has blogged and interviewed about the process at some length. I would recommend an account of the process for Film 4 and an interview in MOJO about his musical influences.

One might also want to read Strickland's blog, which seems to act as a scrapbook for his interests. I went to it as I am interested in two pieces of 'classical' music imported into the film.

*possible spoiler alert*

First of all there is Luigi Nono's Musiche per Manzù (1969), a slowly shifting, metallic composition with stretched-out vocals on tape. The piece was originally intended for a film itself - a document about new doors for a church in Rotterdam damaged in the war.

In his blog, Strickland flags up a short document on the Studio di Fonologia, a Milanese version of experimental workshops, like Karlheinz Stockhausen's Cologne laboratory or IRCAM in Paris, where Nono worked. Founded in the mid 1950s by Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio (yesterday I tweeted a "pun" about the film being a biopic of singer Cathy Berberian but, of course, that comes back to bite me as the soprano was famous for her collaboration with both Berio and Maderna) the Studio di Fonologia was distinct from explicitly cinematic studios like Cinecittà, concentrating on sound and music for it's own sake.

Given the abstracted nature of much of the music and sound in the film (though, as Strickland has pointed out, all the sound has some diegetic origin, even if the sound and its source doesn't always coincide on-screen), probably the most startling moment in the film is a breakaway to something apparently conventional. A documentary film about the Surrey countryside takes over (as if Strickland has just interpolated it wholesale). It's like Toby Jones' psychosensually-besieged Gilderoy suddenly has a moment of 'clarity', not only recalling the England he claims to have left behind but also the sort of innocent work that is the exact opposite of his present project. The music that accompanies the film is the appropriately halcyon Lark Ascending by Vaughan-Williams, (in this recording by Hugh Bean conducted by Sir Adrian Boult).

What I found remarkable about experiencing this music at this point in this film was how alien, how wrought it felt. The Lark Ascending is a fine piece, much loved for its alchemic ability to conjure a bucolic vision of a former Albion. But that alchemy is in its compositional art and having adjusted to the immediacy and imaginative associations of the Berberian Sound Studio soundscape it struck me as just as overripe as the saturated colours of the film which it accompanies, when in this context.