Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maria von Trapp meets Billy Fud


OK. I said Werther was to be my last operatic outing for the season. OK. I said that I needed time off from ‘modern’ music after suffering the minimalist agonies of Steve Reich at Radialsystem. But … last year I added just one more outing to my intended schedule, a wee half-hearted trip to the Tischlerei, and I was there rewarded with the best fun night and the best performance I’d seen all year. So, it seemed silly not to try again: especially as ‘the Queen of the Tischlerei’, Miss Alexandra Hutton, was again on display. So off I headed, in the company of two active composers, for the studio of the Deutsche Oper to see Love Affairs: four new one-act operas.

New? Well, they were being performed for the first time. I’m not an expert in quasi-modern music and, for a while, the music of the night flowed past me not disagreeably if rather unmemorably: but alas! The four operas were by just two composers, so we had more and more of the same, and ten minutes into the second half I had my chin in my hands. It was the only way to sit, really, my buttocks were painfully perched on a rocky cardboard box. Does ‘modern’ = ‘uncomfortable’?

Number one was a (very) lengthy solo scena sung by the Nightingale of Wilde’s The Rose and the Nightingale, to dance decoration representing the rest of the story. How do you stage the soloist’s role in such a thing? Poor Gideon Poppe who sang the music of the Nightingale quite beautifully was left to run from one corner of the stage to another ... I wish he had just sat on his swing and sung, with his tasty quartette backing-group …

Number two was entitled ‘Musical Land’ and was based on the delicious premise of Cataclysm in the Land of the favourite characters of familiar musicals. ‘Mary Poppins is dead’ is a grand opening announcement!  We had Maria von Trapp (Alexandra Hutton), Evita (Laila Salome Fischer) and Orphan Annie (Christina Sidak) escaping from the wreckage into … a storyline that only fulfilled some of its promises. But the piece provoked some real laughs – in particular when direct parodies of Julie Andrews (hilarious!) and Elaine Paige and their material were on show – and I liked the opening trio, too, when the three women actually got to sing together.

At half time, my two composers were seriously glum. I, who had sat through the Radialsystem stuff so recently, less so. I’d enjoyed the singing. But my backside hurt. Maybe the second half would be more musically original... more, well, something. Interesting?

Number three was an operatic piece based on – oh no! – Querelle de Brest. First Wilde now Genet? Querelle de Brest was a ‘naughty book’ in a brown paper cover when I was young. Now it’s feeble stuff (well, it always was). Recently, my brother and I were asked to become the new English translators of Genet: we started the exercise, we shuddered and we withdrew.
Querelle is little more than a voyeur’s Billy Fud, homosexual ‘thrills’ in pretentious language for the over 70s. What Billy Budd implies (or might imply), Querelle blurts all over.
So, built on this unpromising material, we have an opera: with all the sailors cast with women. Yeah. Shades of Billee Taylor (1880).

The only redeeming graces of this seemingly never-ending piece were the singing of those young women – in particular, the richly vocal Katarina Bradic – and the display of technical skill, by many more people than appeared on the stage, in synchronising the two video screens with which the singers interacted. Broadway be damned: here was a show where you went out singing the scenery!  Well, I couldn’t find much else to sing. I cordially disliked the 'opera'.

For number four we had another old-fashioned gimmick: the piece with movable musical parts. I’d been pulverised into a state of catatonic gloom by number three, so I didn’t take much trouble to follow the text. I just took in the disastrous scene-change, shifted uncomfortably on my bony box, and peeked at my watch. Goat? Donkey? What was that about? Well, I survived Fall thanks to a star performance by Jörg Schörner as a burlesque Queen, yodelling out his music from behind a gruesome make-up, like something out of Bombastes Furioso. I don’t think a man exists alive who could have done the rôle as well.

His partner, Bini Lee, sang her frills and trills like an escapee from Le Coq d’or charmingly … but I regretted that the pair of them played from a high balcony which caused me to add a crick in the neck to my other sore bits.

It was a long night. An uncomfortable night, in more ways than one. I was saved from despair (most of the time) by the grand voices and splendid performances of the young singers. Well, singing is my thing. My two composer companions (one flown in from Paris) were much less happy. They had come for something ‘new’ and had mostly got what sounded like eighty-year-old material. To such elderly texts as Wilde and ex-trendy Genet.

Oh well, we came. We saw it. I suspect we may be three of the few who will ever be able to say that.

But oh! In the end ... my heart goes out to Miss Bradic and her companions who spent so much time and energy learning that Querelle piece …

Monday, June 16, 2014

Werther, or don't hush dear Charlotte!


Tonight was the last night of my grand Berlin opera season. The opera was Massenet’s Werther, and it was given in a concert performance at the Philharmonie with the forces of the Deutsche Oper. Plus two guests.

I had never seen Werther. Somehow, it had never come my way. But I read the novella at age about 14, and thought it a bit of a bore. Just another love-me-or-I’ll-kill-myself rant, such as those introspective 19th-20th century novelists used to wallow in. The original British reviews called the book 'sickly and sickening' and the theatres promptly burlesqued it. Anyway, not a lot of action, so – as I thought – not a promising stage piece.

Well, I was right. But … then there was Monsieur Massenet.

As played and sung tonight, the opera fell into two pieces. The first half was as uninvolving as I had feared. In fact, the already sparse house got sparser in the interval. The folk on either side of me, and the four in front of me, were among the considerable numbers who didn’t return for part two. They were wrong. Because Act three suddenly catches fire …

I think you would only do Werther if you wanted to showcase a particular tenor in the title-role. That certainly seemed to be the idea tonight. Vittorio Grigolo was heavily advertised by his recording company (oh dear, easy listening) in the programme and the foyer. Well, if that’s how they want to market him …  but I think he’s worth a touch better than to be sold on a sort of French-language Bocelli sales-pitch.

I am a Raymond Amade devotee from way back, so you’ve got to treat music such as Massenet’s rather specially for me. And little Mr Grigolo, I must say, did pretty well. He got through the self-indulgent graunches and grinds of Act I and act II with great earnestness, power … and he worked so hard! He put everything he had into the excessive emotions of the hero, soaring lustily and clearly up to the high notes.

But in Act III he was a different man. Why? Oh, easy. Act III is the leading lady’s act. And here the evening burst into flower. Werther’s beloved Charlotte – hardly given a chance in the first half -- has the first section of this act all to herself, and Charlotte, tonight, was magnificently played by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova. Her rich, glorious voice and her don’t-move-a-muscle emotional power shifted the whole ball-game up a notch, and when the hero finally joined in, he had something grand to play with and against.

It’s the librettists fault that Werther takes ‘an unconsciable time a-dying’ and when he does it’s ‘Oh I’m dead’ (him) and ‘Ahhhh’ (her), but, before that, there are moments of real sentiment, and both performers played them finely. She naturally, and he rather ‘taught’. Yes, well Sony Records, maybe you’ve got it right: he’s a wee bit Robert Goulet/cabaret.

The rest of the characters are also-sangs in this opera. Markus Brück (Amtmann) being beyond criticism by anyone, my decided favourite was Siobhan Stagg as 15 year-old Sophie. A fresh, clear, soubrette-soprano and a delightful personality: she managed better than anyone the hideous exits and entrances of the concert performance. Question: why couldn’t she leave her score on the lectern to which she returned repeatedly.

Jörg Schörner gave another of his delightful character tenor sketches as Schmidt, but John Chest – so admirable as Billy Budd – was rather underpowered and throaty as Albert.

The orchestra, under Donald Runnicles, had a grand time with the beautiful music of Massenet, and the Kinderchor (a speciality of the house) sang in truly lovely fashion.

So, you dozens (or more) who left in the interval, you were foolish. You missed a wondrous performance by Ms Gubanova and the best of Massenet’s score …

But I’m still glad I saw this opera in concert, rather than staged. It is all about two people … anything else is trivial decoration. Anyway, now I’ve ‘seen’, or at least heard it, and I can say ‘whatever the story, Act III is great stuff’. Especially as sung by Ms Gubanova.

Friday, June 13, 2014

LOOPS AND DRONES, or keeping one’s Pekka up at Radialsystem


Each time I return to Berlin for the season, my first stop on the concert-planning schedule is Radialsystem. Normal: my two favourite concerts of the last couple of years have been there. Especially the first one, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Sasha Waltz. So, this year, when I saw the same combination advertised again, I didn’t even look further. Even to see what they were doing. I just booked tickets eagerly.

Last night was the event. And a disappointment.

The evening was not fairly billed. It was nothing like the earlier concert. It should have been billed as Pekka Kuusisto (violin, etc) with a handful of members of the MCO and a fragment by two of the Waltz dancers. I would have still gone, but I would not have been disappointed.

The grand system of having items going on in several venues was repeated, but that too fell into difficulties. Naturally: they were working with reduced forces and a very reduced repertoire. And in one case (the juggler) the space was wholly inapposite: the ceiling was too low and his prime number had to be cut.
From my point of view, there was another difficulty. I’d queued for hours in the morning (with walking stick) at the Ausländerbehörde. Tonight I’d come without the stick. WHY do the audience have to stand in line for every room until one minute before (or after) starting time. I spent over 30 minutes in lines. Why can’t we go in and sit down? It’s unfriendly, and sets up a horrid atmosphere. Last night was worse than usual. The priority of the evening seemed to be getting the thing filmed, and little boys with filmic toys and little girls with walky-talkies swarmed in and out, barring all entrance, while we … waited. Did someone say there was music tonight?

So, we read the programme. Hmm. Maybe this should be called Kuusisto plays Steve Reich. Four works by one composer in one evening? Odd. But I’ll try anything. Once. Maybe twice.
Once we had got over the ghastly German ‘management talks its head off’ bit that seems to precede every concert here, Reich number one started. Kuusisto et an al doing ‘Clapping Music’. Well, clapping anyhow. I thought the definition of ‘music’ was rhythm plus melody. It was a harmless little display, but it really sounded like nothing more to me than new 42nd Street chorus girls rehearsing their taps, and I soon lost concentration. Then Reich number two. A violin duet (Kuusito et an al). Again, rhythm seemed to be favoured above all, and any kind of melody absent. I felt it was ‘amn’t I clever’ music. And it DRONED. Like the bass note on a bagpipe. I think I preferred the clapping. At the end, Paul ventured ‘nice little piece’. I could only think: boring bagpipes.

Then we had relief. The musical highlight of the night. A lovely version of the Brandenburg Concerto no3, Mr Kuusisto at its head. It sounded really splendid, but I’m afraid the Reichs had put me in an irritable mood. I couldn’t watch the star with his cheesy smirk. Cool it down, man. So I watched an enchanting viola player instead and had a grand time.

End of chapter one. Rush (!) to the next queue, for the fifth floor (lift provided) studio. There you can lie on mattresses on the floor. Super. And we were to have a violin quartet. By, oh dear, Reich. Well, I thought, he can’t drone for fifteen minutes. Wanna bet? I resisted the temptation to put my head down on the mattress and …

My revivfying breather of Bach being cancelled, we moved next to the juggler, Jay Gilligan, who was to have accompanied the Chaconne. I know much more about juggling that I do about 20th century music, and him I liked a lot. Tall, slim, graceful and above all extremely adept and even original. In spite of being handicapped by the ceiling he gave us a really enjoyable turn and we descended to the next queue in a cheery frame of mind. Which evaporated as we queued and queued.

Happily, they had played the fourth Reich piece while we were upstairs, and we were to have the dancers – hurrah! – performing to something called ‘Hautfelder’ by Ruth Wiesenfeld. But ... only two dancers?  I’m not going to linger here. This was the nadir of the night. Utterly nondescript music, the most un-Waltzian meaningless choreography ... it reminded me of Eulalie Shinn teaching her Ladies Antique Greek Dancing …

It ended (no one knew it had ended, it just stopped) and I got up to go … but I’d forgotten: one more item. Violin improvisation (Kuusisto) with juggler. Ah! the juggler. And videos by Lillevan. Well, at least this time we had a bit of colour and movement: the images of Gilligan performing in front of the jolly and pretty backdrops of coloured light were delightful. The music? One loop after another. Which really wasn’t what was needed after a whole evening which had sounded like loops.

Gilligan ended on a delicious trick with flashlights and once again I went out feeling OK. Which wasn’t the case with one nice, tall, motherly lady. As Paul stood in one more queue for a needy post-Pekka beer, she burst sadly into chatter on the subject of the Wiesenfeld piece. ‘Is this what music has become? Can this still be called music? Those splendid players playing that … nothing. I am going home..’. She wasn’t angry or strident, just puzzled, sad and rather hurt. We could only agree with her.
And we went home too.

Next time I go to hear the MCO, I will check that it is the whole orchestra. I will check the programme carefully to be sure it isn’t loaded too heavily towards one composer. With no Reich. And I will check that if Ms Waltz is billed, its kosher Waltz with a decent sized troupe.

Next time I go to Radialsystem, it will be for something that doesn’t require queueing. And that includes the food and drink department which needs a huge kick up its operation.

Heigh ho. Not my favourite Radialsystem or MCO evening. Maybe even my least favourite. But if you don’t take risks, life and concert-going will never deliver you the unexpected …

Monday, June 9, 2014

Detox Diary: The Photographic Proof

or, Not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached.

Well, I said I’d have to submit to the camera – the ‘photo finish’ so to speak – to find out if my last three weeks of determined Holmes Place physical jerks and allied efforts had made a visible difference to my unbeautiful body. So I have.

Yes, I’m down to 78.6kg now, so there must be a difference, but I don’t really see it, and Paulie who sees me every day (and in the sauna) hasn’t noticed anything in particular that is different, so we decided to leave it up to the camera that cannot lie.

So after sauna and singing shower today, I got out my figleaf, Paulie his camera, and here are the results. Before (ie 3 weeks ago) and After (yesterday). Still not very pretty, but encouraging, yes?

 Well, if it makes YOU shudder, think what it does to me. Holmes Place in one hour ...