Tuesday 23 December 2014

The shark of the new: recent opera visits

In the last few months - largely thanks to a 'run' of bookings that seemed to land very close to each other - I've been going to operas considerably faster than I can write about them. But three productions I've been to in recent months keep shuffling around in my head as a kind of set, since they all brought something 'fresh' - for better or worse - to the experience:
  • A radical new production of a famous opera: Mozart's 'Idomeneo' (Royal Opera).
  • A brand new opera: Eichberg's 'Glare' (Royal Opera, in the Linbury Studio Theatre).
  • The first staged performances of Adams's 'The Gospel According To The Other Mary' (English National Opera).

I turned up for 'Idomeneo' excited and intrigued. After both 'Don Giovanni' and 'The Marriage of Figaro' at the Royal Opera House, I was keen to see a Mozart opera that seemed a bit more of a catch. The ROH castbooks (these are the free sheets that list the cast and production team without going into all the extra detail you get in the programmes) keep a statistical tally in the small print, and this was only the 22nd performance of 'Idomeneo' given there, ever. So - why does it lurk in the shadows in this way?

In addition, there was the undeniable lure of controversy! This was a new staging by Martin Kusej that polarised reaction in both print and social media - and the production team were booed by some of the audience when taking their bows on opening night. (For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that my attitude to booing is along 'zero tolerance' lines. Part of the contract when you buy a ticket for something artistic, is to experience the interpretation of those you are going to support. It does not give you the right to attempt to ruin the evening for the performers, or those around you.)

The action - well, normally - concerns Idomeneo, the King of Crete, promising Neptune that in return for reaching home, he will sacrifice the first person he sees when he gets there. Awkwardly, this turns out to be his son, Idamante. Ironically, Idamante has made a fair go of things in his dad's absence, bringing peace between the Cretans and Trojans by falling for the enemy princess, Ilia (who returns his feelings) and releasing their Trojan prisoners. Elettra (yes, Electra - that one) is also now resident at court, and remains hostile to the Trojans - unsurprising, given her own unrequited passion for Idamante. Idomeneo dithers, with increasingly catastrophic results - after he tries to send Idamante into exile (with a delighted Electra), a sea monster attacks the island, leading Idomeneo to first offer himself to Neptune, then Ilia does so, THEN Idamante - after killing the monster - also turns up, now happy to die. No doubt utterly fed up by this point, Neptune solves the crisis by having Idomeneo abdicate in favour of Idamante and Ilia. This suits everyone, of course, except Elettra.

This plot, however, is clearly not mad enough already. So Kusej places the action in some kind of modern, featureless police state. There are various hints at cultism and terrorist activities, with the 'sea monster' represented by a rubber shark held aloft as if some kind of idol or totem by entranced adherents. There are thugs wandering with guns through dry ice. Essentially, the story is presented through a kind of neo-Shakespearean "king in thrall to power" filter.

Because 'Idomeneo' clearly isn't really about this, there are inevitable problems. Crucially, they are mostly to do with the monster - since, in this version, there isn't one, it's hard to see what the actual threat is. Sure, it's probably a violent cult or mob (or something), but Idomeneo's in charge - isn't he? And once Idamante returns to the stage in triumph after killing the 'monster', the reading completely resists making sense.

Levering the opera around the 'idea' makes other areas clumsy. It's a bit embarrassing when the surtitle screen is used for captions that explain what's going on (or the programme includes a 'Production Synopsis'). Also to make CLEAR this is a POLITICAL SATIRE, the characters are dressed as ciphers, the 'baddies' (including Idomeneo and Elettra) in black, Ilia in sexy/virginal white dress, and Idamante in a crimson shirt, as though already bleeding in sacrifice.

For all this, I had a good time, though. I liked some of the production ideas: the royals trample over the bloodied rags of the people after the massacre; and the shifting, maze-like set felt appropriate for these textbook Greek myth characters, who are always trapped by fate and their own flaws. And I really liked what I heard: top honours must go, I think, to the darker characters who gave their trauma full vent: Matthew Polenzani (Idomeneo) and Marin Bystrom (Elettra), but Sophie Bevan made an alluring Ilia (this production loaded her interactions with Idomeneo with sexual tension) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac was extraordinarily affecting as Idomeneo's friend and adviser, Arbace. Countertenor Franco Fagioli - whose voice seemed slightly forced and traumatised at times - still seemed apt as someone who sounded like their voice might break; an intriguing vocal metaphor for a boy about to 'grow up' into kingship.

Meanwhile, the Linbury Studio Theatre at the ROH was showing a new work: Søren Nils Eichberg's 'Glare'. Short and sharp, this chamber opera was marketed as an SF thriller with hints of 'Blade Runner'. While I can see why that could be an attractive hook, in a way I felt the movie comparison was slightly unfair on the opera, making it sound less original than it actually is. The common feature is that both feature characters who may or may not be robotic, rather than real, but there the similarity ends.

There are four characters: Alex, Lea, Michael and Christina. Lea is Alex's current girlfriend; she seems perfect and strangely passive - to the point where Alex becomes bothered by it. Christina agitates trouble - she is hostile to Alex and tries to put Lea off him. Then, Michael, Alex's pal, spills the beans: Lea is an android, manufactured to provide Alex with the ideal girlfriend. With this supposed 'truth' out in the open, none of the characters follows up on it in quite the way you'd expect, leading to a nerve-jangling outcome.

I don't actually want to give away the ending, because this is so new and will surely be recorded, released and performed again. Because it's arguably constructed as a thriller first - a tight 75 minutes that feels like half that - and opera second, it really does matter whether or not you know what's coming.

Eichberg's score is superbly perfomed by the ensemble CHROMA, who bring kit drums and electronics into the mix so that you really are hearing a kind of combination sound, somewhere between a contemporary classical composition and an eerie John Carpenter soundtrack. The music is both inventive and functional, allowing the 'dialogue' to move along at a serious clip, and repetition is used superbly. As some characters echo not just words but also melodies first sung by another, is this because they are programmed to do so? Is Lea the only robot - or are any of them robots? Are any of them real? Is what we are seeing happening for the first time? So many questions I can't give you answers to...

The cast were completely up for it, too. Sky Ingram sang Lea with both power and detachment, a crystal clear voice with just a little feeling shaved off and hesistant response in its place to keep you guessing about her true nature, while Clare Presland was more twitchy and impulsive as Christina. Amar Muchhala skilfully conveyed Alex's unpredictability and gradual loss of grip in contrast to Ashley Riches's smooth, sinister Michael. Director Thaddeus Strassberger introduced some darkly humorous touches: the two blokes deliver their key exchange while playing - rather well, it would seem - a game of pool, and as a deft mirror to Lea's 'objectification' as his sexual conquest, Alex spent a significant length of time on stage in his blue Y-fronts. But mostly, the focus was on a slightly sickly neon-lit white performance area that could suggest at any time a spartan flat, hospital, club or laboratory, and as such, the characters moved and acted freely between them.

I would love this opera to come back sooner rather than later (or filmed - which might be a really good medium for it) - not just to enjoy the innovative score, but also to spot clues and just enjoy the ride all over again from a position of hindsight. Brilliant.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Finally, a premiere run at the Coliseum for Peter Sellars's staging of the new John Adams work 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'. Released on CD earlier in the year and given as a kind of concert/oratorio, this is a kind of 'sequel' to the wonderful 'El Nino' (which also fused modern Latin American texts with Biblical verse, but dealt with the Nativity rather than the Passion). Set in an unspecified hinterland between the actual time of the Resurrection and a revolutionary nation in the present day, Martha runs a shelter for the dispossessed, complaining about her more dreamy and less practical sister, Mary Magdalene.

The piece has a satisfying diptych structure which highlights the direct parallel between the raising of Mary and Martha's brother, Lazarus, from the dead in the first half, and the death and resurrection of Jesus himself in the second. The return of Lazarus is one of the most jaw-dropping elements of staging, with a dancer - representing his life-spirit - crawling towards the body beneath what looks like translucent gauze, then lying alongside him, convulsing, until the 'main' Lazarus actor comes to life.

The dancing is an all-important element. Each character more or less has their own 'shadow' dancer, who expresses in movement what the soloists sing. The star turn was the unfussily named Banks, whose visually arresting and impeccable flex dancing (a breathtaking mix, it seemed to me, of street dance and mime) sent bolts of electricity through an occasionally static stage arrangement.

And the music is stunning. I'm an Adams fan already, and all the hallmarks are there - the fast, chiming string repeats - but I still wasn't prepared for the intensity and drive on display here. Everything sounds percussive and vibrant. Adams's bravura mix of traditional/ethnic instrumentation (now including a dulcimer-type instrument I now find is called a cimbalom) with classical orchestra - not to mention some magnificent choral writing that gives us close harmonies to Latin rhythms - is more or less perfect and no doubt a key influence on Sellars's decision to blend music and dance, past and present.

The soloists hold the whole thing together: Patricia Bardon acts up a storm as Mary, sounding note-perfect yet believably distressed; Russell Thomas a phenomenal Lazarus, only given voice once he returns and has holiness coursing through him. Another marvellous touch: Jesus is hardly represented as a single figure himself on stage - his words and actions are normally reported or enacted by a trio of countertenors: their number suggesting the three-in-one Trinity, their voices a group of angels.

I'm by nature an agnostic; but the effect of the evening on me was such that I rather felt music and expression can supply spirituality enough by themselves.

Season's greetings to all of you - back soon (hopefully!) with a 2014 round-up or two...

Saturday 13 December 2014

Lieder column 2: 'Gretchen am Spinnrade'

After looking at 'Auflösung' in the first of these columns, I'm staying with Schubert but this time, his treatment of a scene from the first part of Goethe's 'Faust', 'Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel'. Since I don't suppose too many manly tenors, baritones or basses are in a rush to embody Gretchen (or at least, they're hiding well from YouTube if they are), the chaps get the day off this time round.

Reading various CD booklets and descriptions strewn across the net, one key fact stands out: this is regarded as Schubert's first proper song, dating from 1814, when he was 17. I won't dwell on that - we are talking about a genius - but I think it's worth bearing in mind as you give the song some attention how astonishingly mature its combination of sophistication and eroticism really is. When I was 17, my idea of combining eroticism and sophistication would be remembering to take the 'Marks & Spencer' label off a bunch of flowers before giving them to a date.

The other point you will find in every description of the song you read, is its representation of the spinning wheel. Gretchen is thinking about Faust as she operates the wheel, the circling pattern in the right hand gives the turning motion and the left hand provides the beat of the foot pedal. There are two key points in the song that show Gretchen's preoccupation and arousal. At the first, she decides in a moment of near self-loathing that her mind is in pieces, and the voice goes down in a kind of irritation ("zerstückt"); while at the second, the song's fever-pitch moment, she imagines - after first detailing his form, lips, eyes and touch - his kiss ("sein Kuß!"). You'll hear that the piano tends to speed up, slow down, or get louder and softer, with Gretchen's train of thought, and the 'kiss!' is the point where she's so exercised, she stops spinning. The song grinds to a halt, and the piano part gradually picks it up again as Gretchen regains her composure, and rhythm. The first verse ("My peace is gone ... I shall never rest again") returns several times as a kind of chorus, playing the still-gloomy nature of the text off against the 'pull yourself together' repetition of the musical figure.

Gripped by the song (like last time), I listened to a variety of performances, wondering how much room for interpretation there was given the strong narrative in the words. A great deal, as it turned out - and pleasingly, giving the accompanists as much room for manoeuvre as the singers.

Here is Kiri Te Kanawa, followed by Lucia Popp (one of my favourites!). I find these renditions interesting because both women seem to me to give performances of dignity and beauty, while the pianists have rather different takes: Richard Amner on the KTK version completely nails the regular motion of the wheel, while Irwin Gage accompanying LP suppresses the right hand a little in favour of the left to emphasis the staccato tap of the foot on the pedal. So while the overall effect of the KTK version is arguably 'poise', the LP has the edge of the accompaniment undercutting the beautiful melody line with the agitation provided by the machinery.

Another beautiful performance here from Barbara Bonney, but see what you think of the tempo? Can you spin this slowly? Gretchen's heart isn't in her work at all.

In Elly Ameling's version, we're back up to speed - her achievement here is to give an extraordinarily tender performance despite the song moving at quite a clip. I'd assume that's partly down to accompanist Jörg Demus using a hammerflügel - or fortepiano - where there is less sustain; so he powers through the runs and as the wheel turns, the notes cascade into each other.

This performance is from Jessye Norman, who with accompanist Phillip Moll, performs it at a lower pitch than the other versions. I'm a huge fan of Norman's 'Schubert Lieder' CD - it's a thrilling listen and has the feel of a 'greatest hits' about it - but her performance is utterly 'authoritative' and her "Kuß!" shattering. It gives me the impression that Gretchen is totally in control, and in response the piano seems hardly disturbed at all until she kicks the wheel across the room in a fury. Brilliant, but strangely maddening.

Here's Renee Fleming. Now a megastar, obviously, she is - I think - far more widely represented on disc in operatic roles/repertoire and songs with orchestra. I only discovered her lieder CD very recently. While I suspect she might be an acquired taste in this field, I've acquired it - I think here you can hear the role being 'acted'. In those two key moments I mentioned at the start, she spits out "zerstückt" with real venom, and her 'kiss' goes on for so long, she doesn't want it to end. Once the wheel is up and running again, she's still in recovery and draws a quick breath before continuing. Christoph Eschenbach is a fantastic foil, who gives an assured performance while still managing to give the impression the piano/wheel could de-rail at any minute. As almost a curio, I've added immediately afterwards a performance of the Reger orchestration of the song. RF is accompanied by Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. It's a fascinating exercise, but the orchestra cannot really mimic the wheel. Even with all the tempo changes present and correct, everyone has to be attuned to each other and there's no sense of impending loss of control. RF has her work cut out to convey that alone. Spirited stuff.

While we're getting inside the inner workings of the song, here's another detour: Yuja Wang performing Liszt's arrangement of the song, where the solo piano carries the melody and accompaniment together. While exercises like this are partly academic - what makes it a great song is how the music so perfectly brings to life the lyric - I think it must be a fascinating transcription to play because there can be no separation between Gretchen's feelings and the music. They're all conjured up in the same person. So while this is instrumental, I'm not surprised that we seem to see a glimpse or two of YW mouthing the words to herself.

This, however, is where my whole post has been leading. Dorothea Röschmann's latest recital CD, 'Portraits', with Malcolm Martineau, has only been out a few weeks, but it already feels like one of the discs of the year. DR's voice has both the beauty and drama required, and she includes reverie as well as rapture - listen out for how they slow the song right down in the run-up to the kiss, as well as the usual pause after it. DR's ability to bring loud/soft dynamics that change very quickly make her vocal line feel like it's spinning like the wheel, taking some of the dramatic pressure off the piano.

In response, I genuinely think MM gives a truly inspired performance. This is some distance away from the forcefully rhythmic versions we started with, and while the regularity is there, he seems to shift and play with the emphasis of certain notes, so that the wheel's spin is actually uneven, a bit nervous and jittery. He is incredibly alive to 'gaps' in Röschmann's vocal, not just where she is silent but also where she holds a note without moving, and he darts in with small increases in volume to puncture Gretchen's hesitancy and pull her back to the wheel. I can't believe it's a coincidence that MM is so immersed in Debussy (at the piano for Hyperion's Debussy mélodie series - three superb volumes so far), with that gliding unpredictability surely informing his playing here. (Or vice versa? Both?) I hope this particular creative partnership brings this programme to us live, and gives us many more CDs in future. One for the ages.

Seamless link alert! - If I can, I want to talk about a particular Debussy mélodie in the next of these columns. Cliffhanger!

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Echo-logy: Shadow Biosphere

It's always a thrill when you find an album that gives you no obvious reference points to work with. I've been living with 'Parallel Evolution' - the startlingly original album from Shadow Biosphere - for some weeks now. And every time I think of something to compare it to, a whole host of reasons flood my brain to show me how it actually leaves that particular example far behind, or wrong-foots it completely.

First, the facts. The record is electronic, and instrumental. It's a concept album - in fact, SB are something of a concept band. The name 'shadow biosphere' refers to the proposition (real, serious but not proven) that other lifeforms exist on earth which have evolved entirely separately - hence the album's title - and remained at the microbe level, hidden from the 'known' world.

Caroline Jago and Lesley Malone, the duo behind SB, have a fascinating creative partnership which here reminds me very much of a lyricist/tunesmith team - except there are no lyrics. Instead, Lesley has fashioned the entire theme of the project - right through to the imagery used in the artwork/video - and Caroline provides the sound. With the ideas so thoroughly worked through in this way, the end result is music that brings this theme to life so completely, any words (on top of the sparse, enigmatic phrases in the CD inlay) would be redundant.

If we assume that any instrumental record is the soundtrack to whatever it conjures up in the listener's mind, then the shadow biosphere is a fantastic, magnetic subject in itself. While it may exist in the realm of possibility, it is curious and strange enough to evoke science fiction as well as fact, and - with the idea that other creatures are among us, developing in the gaps between what we see and recognise as the natural world, and what we don't - a kind of reverse-Lovecraft touch of horror.

The album has a vast atmosphere. Where you might expect earthy acoustic tones (typical of the folk world, 'neo' or otherwise) for reconnecting and identifying with nature, this music sounds like science. The opening title track is a textbook example: it introduces what sounds like the 'ping' of a sonar, only for the tone to fit perfectly with the synth that wells up beneath it. It's what I'd put on the stereo if I drove a bathysphere.

Everything about the way the record is put together cements the underlying idea. The album sounds completely 'current' - that is to say, its warm, robust synths and beats can hint at both the past (Kraftwerk, say, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the glitchy futurism of someone like Shackleton without relying on any of them. Making electronic music seem timeless is some achievement - successfully avoiding the twin pitfalls of sounding 'retro' and 'like nothing on earth' - and underlines the idea that the sound is referencing something equally eternal: it should concern us now, but it has always been there, and it always will be.

It's almost impossible to pick highlights, but some individual numbers display particularly brilliant and inventive ways of depicting how these two worlds rub together. Tracks like 'Bylakupee' (the name of a Tibetan refugee settlement in India - again, an artificial substitute home) and 'Multiversal' establish their outer parameters: for the former it's a huge beat and stately low synth, while the latter has a relentless, driving keyboard riff that allows the percussion to bounce around it. Then, the layers of extra keyboard and ambient noise build up from the inside of the production, and the 'middle' of what you're hearing increases in intensity, pushing at the edges until you feel the whole thing might burst - as though the subterranean species are finally breaking through into our consciousness. While the extraordinary 'Interstellar Endoliths' sets up two short figures at similar pitches, one a brief resolving melody, the other more of a discordant drone: they grind against each other, seeming to clash at first until it all coalesces into quiet. The ambiguous closer, 'Mycelium Dreaming', moves more or less into total ambient territory, foregrounding a light but persistent pulse, and leaving it up to us to decide if this really is a march of the microbes, sharing our space at last.

If Caroline's and Lesley's names are familiar, it may be because you know them from their work with other bands, particularly the neo-classical group Seventh Harmonic, the main vehicle for Caroline's band compositions. I mention this not just because I think you should check out Seventh Harmonic - and you should - but because I'm sure that Shadow Biosphere's music has such a distinctive character because it is electronica put together by people who know how to make acoustic music work: where to place sounds for an overall '3D' effect, when it's a good thing to have chords clash, why you sometimes want the drums to be quieter than everything else - and so on.

It's also a very pleasing thought that musicians and artists like C and L, appearing in various guises and with like-minded 'non-mainstream' individuals in various UK/Europe concerts and festivals that give dark ambient / folk / classical the space it deserves - are hiding in plain sight, ready to break through.

* * *

You can help, of course, by buying the record. It's a very limited edition on CD - only 100 copies were made, so don't hang about. Currently, you can still order one directly from the band through their Facebook page here. However, if you are too late to get hold of one, the download is forever. Find the details (and possibly a few more physical copies) at the record label's Bandcamp page.

I know this blog is a little bit global on its day, so - if you're in Estonia (or just passing through!) you may catch the band's live debut. This promises to include Lesley's ace live percussion skills alongside Caroline's synth sorcery, so will bring the album to thunderous life. Alas, I have no teleport, but please go in my stead - here's the Facebook event page.