Abendstern Tannhäuser – Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Wagner Tannhäuser at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich,  with Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros and Georg Zeppenfeld, conducted by Kiril Petrenko.  That the singing was brilliant is no surprise, since these singers are so familiar that what they do isn’t “news”, though I’ll write more later.  What was a surprise was the staging, or rather the thought that went into the dramaturgy.  The Overture seemed to make no sense at all. Venusberg represents unbridled sexual excess. Wagner’s description is unashamedly explicit – Sirens are bathing – naked – in waters pouring from a cave hidden by cliffs, lit in lurid flesh tones. A vagina !  Modern audiences couldn’t cope. Yet here we saw maidens in Grecian garb, as elegant as marble figures.  An Abendstern Venusberg? “Wie Todesahnung, Dämm’rung deckt die Lande,umhüllt das Tal mit schwärzlichem Gewande”. Venusberg aping Wartburg? Upside down, I thought, at first.  But maybe that was the point. Venusberg and Wartburg represent opposite poles. Venusberg symbolizes sex, creativity, and life: Wartburg symbolizes denial and death. Which, in fact, is more “pure”?  Thus the Cupids around Venus’s couch are unformed blobs of flesh: a shocking image, but again that might be the point.  Venusberg is tainted. Tannhäuser needs to get away if he is to develop.  

In Tannhäuser, Wagner develops his ideas on the role of art in life. Tannhäuser is a precursor of Walter von Stoltzing, the two Siegfrieds and Parsifal, who don’t spring fully formed from the start.  Hence the Sirens at Venusberg, firing arrows, an image that doesn’t make sense til we journey a while with the production.  If you don’t know what you’re shooting at, don’t shoot! You might just be wrong. Wagner’s heroes start out thinking they know everything. They only grow when they learn to learn.  Nothing wrong with that, as Wagner shows.  In our own time, when anti-intellectual populism prevails, Wagner’s message is frighteningly prescient.  Like the Knights of the Grail, the Knights of Wartburg are aggressively insular, blocking out ideas other than their own, resenting dissent.  Tannhäuser could have an easy life playing their games, but he chooses not to, striking out on his own. He searches for truth whatever the forces against him. And Elisabeth sides with him, sacrificing herself.  Tannhäuser may never unlock his Grail, but redeems himself because he has vision. For Wagner, religion “is” art, so the quest for artistic integrity can never end.   An artist seeks enlightenment, not playing to the crowd.  Thus the Grail Knights desiccate until they learn compassion. What will happen to Wolfram and the Minnesingers of Wartburg with their sterile dreams and inhibitions? An insular community based on denial, and hatred of women in particular, isn’t conducive to creativity. 

The best Tannhauser I’ve ever heard live was Johan Botha (read my tribute here)   Klaus Florian Vogt comes pretty close: two voices of exceptional beauty and purity.  In fact, I can’t think of any time when I haven’t loved what Vogt’s done, even outside opera.  Fortunately, the action in this production was understated  – “Abendstern” stillness – so we could savour the voice and its subtle nuances.  Vogt’s voice is glorious, but he can convey Tannhauser’s weariness, suffering and, at last, humility.”0 Wolfram, der du also sangest, du hast die Liebe arg entstellt!”  and later “Hör an, Wolfram, hör an! Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büsser noch sie je gefühlt, sucht’ ich den Weg nach Rom”  When Tannhauser sings like that, Wolfram is eclipsed.  Even in small, trelatively unobtrusive moments, Vogt excels: “Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich! ”  The voice is luminous, Vogt;’s face glowing as if lit from within. . 

Christian Gerhaher is the Wolfram of choice these days, after his  astonishing breakthrough in the part seven years ago.  He’s had his ups and down in recent years, so it was good to hear him back on form here: much better than in Vienna in 2015 though not quite as astounding as in London.  I’ve been listening to him since he was young and unknown, nearly fifteen years ago and have his first CD.  He’s an opera fan’s idea of a Lieder singer, better in opera than in art song, though it would be nice if he’d broaden his repertoire.  I’d like to hear Matthias Goerne as Wolfram in the alternative cast, with a darker, more mysterious timbre.  Anja Harteros we hear a lot of live, too.  So what if she doesn’t do the Met ? The European market is huge, the population’s coming up to 750 million.  Rich as her voice is, there’s a sensitivity to her singing that suits houses like Munich and London (ROH capacity 2200). She’s an unusual Elisabeth, but interesting. Elisabeth’s a strong, independent-minded person who stands up to the bullies in her community.  Harteros’s Elisabeth is no warrior. Her weapon is prayer. Hence the air of humility which Harteros brings to the part expand characterization, and makes the role even more sympathetic.  Georg Zeppenfeld, another much-loved regular, creates a forceful Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen.  Unlike Wolfram and the other Knights, The Landgraf is decisive: a Gurnemanz, a leader among conformists.  Elena Pankratova’s Venus was full-throated and voluptuous. As always, minor parts and chorus at the Bayerische Staatsoper are wonderfully cast.

Kiril Petrenko conducted. The Overture and other orchestral passages were written to accommodate dancers, so a certain amount of rhythmic liveliness is in order, In many productions, the dancing is much more exuberant : Venus hosts orgies, and her sirens dance in order to seduce.  Petrenko’s tempi were on the slow side, more langorous than orgasmic, but coolness works better with the “Abendstern” imagery, and the idea of the Moon. (Wagner would,of course, have been familiar with Goethe and his relationship with the Duchess of Weimar.)  The orchestral playing was well judged and rather elegant, again matching the marble and silk stylishness of the staging.  I would have liked more punch in the Pilgrimage music to emphasize themes of movement and physical travail.  Still, in music as good as this, there’s plenty of room for interpretation.

Excellence from Munich is pretty much the norm. What’s “news” is the staging,. It’s controversial because it’s not simplistic, and can be unsettling. Lots of stylized symbolism and abstraction, but also a lot of detail to reward careful observation.  Plinths with key words like “Kunst” spell things out to make things clear.  Amidst the sterile orderliness, a glass case with squirming, indistinct objects, like trapped life forms.   Rocks are seen, from which gold can be extracted – a metaphor for Tannhäuser’s development as man and artist. The Minnesingers seen wrapped in white, like nuns and curtains like shrouds. This is by no means as strange as it seems, since they are a mystical order, vowed to purity and self denial.  To Wagner and to Tannhäuser, asceticism is living death, a rejection of creative growth.  The Minnesingers don’t know what they’re missing because they block out the world.  That’s why they’re so scared when Tannhäuser praises Venus.  Tannhäuser and Elisabeth sing to each other in front of tomb-like structures with the names “Klaus” and “Anja” carved thereon. An interesting if quirky way of reinforcing the idea that art is an act of creative imagination, made by living people. 

The director, Romeo Castellucci, is new to me. He seems to do a lot of theatre work, hence perhaps the formal, stylized abstraction of the designs, costumes and lighting.  Much more intriguing, though, is the thought that clearly went into the dramaturgy, by Piersandra Di Matteo and Malte Krasting. Opera is more than ear candy. Especially opera by Wagner, for whom ideas, drama and the human condition were inextricably linked.  These days the word “concept” is used as a swear word, but all it means is joined-up thinking, connecting different ideas, examining things from different perspectives. Di Matteo and Krasting understand how the music connects to ideas, and how this opera connects to Wagner’s other work and even extra-musical concepts like classical antiquity. The staging is a lot closer to the libretto than meets the eye.  Tannhäuser is allegory, a fantasy, a work of art about art.  How else does a medieval German hook up with a Greek Goddess? And as Tannhäuser discovered, an artist needs to create to live, to keep learning and keep developing.  He chose the more difficult path to Rome. The Pope didn’t understand, but too bad.  His loss, not Tannhäuser’s.

Original Source: Abendstern Tannhäuser – Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Music Interflow – Hong Kong Music Series SJSS

Starting the Hong Kong Music Series in London, Music Interflow- a Dialogue of Two Cultures at St John’s Smith Square. Presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council,  the series shows what Hong Kong has achieved, in a city with a thriving creative community.  This concert, organized by  Professor Lo King-man, demonstrated the varied influences which have gone into making Hong Kong a uniquely vibrant artistic force.  Hong Kong has a lot to be proud of! In Britain, people’s ideas about Hong Kong are shaped by western media, so this Hong Kong Music Series is important. The two major highlights are yet to come – Beyond the Senses,Chinese chamber music as music theatre (Read preview HERE) and Datong : the Chinese Utopia, an opera that examines the modernization of China through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Yu-wei and his feminist daughter.  British audiences owe it to themselves to pay attention.

Professor Lo King-man (pictured in the middle above) has been one of the great figures in the Hong Kong arts scene for five decades.  He was Director of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts,  the equivalent of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School put together.  Under his leadership, the Academy introduced degree programmes, and specialist schools including one for Film and Television, a major industry in Hong Kong and source of the New Wave in modern Chinese cinema.  He also set up the Centre for Chinese Traditional Theatre Studies  In Hong Kong, music education is part of the school system, and standards are extremely high.   Thus the Academy for Performing Arts is built on strong foundations.  Now retired from the Academy, Professor Lo is Artistic Director of Musica Viva, an organization supporting performance.

Music Interflow began with six pieces by Hong Kong composers written for Chinese instruments. Tradition adapted for concert hall, capturing the sense of personal imagination that is so much a part of Chinese chamber music. Some pieces were for ensemble, some for soloists, Xu Lingzi’s Guzheng particularly impressive. Clarence Mak’s Meditation on Mount Jingling inspired a dizzying virtuoso display showing the potential traditional instruments can provide in terms of colour and expressiveness.  A strikingly original piece. Doming Lam is another great figure in Hong Kong music, his place in Hong Kong music represented by his Three Night Songs of Li Bai, an early work, where the piano line is western, but the vocal line is Chinese.  Read more about Doming Lam and Clarence Mak HERE.  Appositely, three Britten Songs, followed, arranged for two voices and piano. Britten was fascinated by non-western music while still in his thirties. Perhaps his awareness of norms beyond the western canon animated him as a composer: he represents a new. and highly individual thread in British Music.  Britten and Pears did spend time in Hong Kong but weren’t able to experience Chinese music in the community it came from. Things didn’t happen that way in 1956. Significantly, Doming Lam Three Night Songs of Li Bao dates from almost the same time, in 1957. Imagine the Music Interflow if society had been different.  Read my article Britten and Pears in Hong Kong. Also see Britten : The Prince of the Pagodas.

Equally eclectic was the second part of the programme. Six Miniatures of Yin and Yang (Meilina Tsui):  Western music but with a distinctive Chinese personality.  Yet more unusual perspectives: Holst’s Venus and Jupiter, from the The Planets, transcribed for two pianos.  “Yin” and “Yang” in an entirely western context! Just as the concert had begun with Chinese chamber ensemble, it ended with western chamber ensemble with Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet and Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto, with a setting of Shelley’s The Sunset in Italian.  Superb singing from Carol Lin (in sparkling gown in photo above). The piece is dramatic, like a miniature opera, where multiple moods are portrayed in the space of roughly 15 minutes. A tour de force. Lin floated the word “O” so it felt eternal, as it should, but even better was the elegant richness of her singing in the tender, lyrical passages that make this piece so moving.   

Performers featured : Mary Wu (piano), Nancy Loo (piano) Alexander Wong (piano), Xu Lingzi (guzheng), Carol Lin (mezzo), Colette Lam (soprano), Ho Siu-cheong (dizi), Chan Pik-sum (erhu), Zheng Yang (violin), Wei Ningyi (violin),  Chris Choi (viola) and Xu Ting (cello)

Composers featured: Tsui Wai-lam, Lui Man-shing, Chan Man-tat, Meilina Tsui, Doming Lam and Clarence Mak, Holst, Britten, Frank Bridge and Respighi

Please see my other pievces on Chinese music, Chinese movies, Chinese historyand on Hong Kong. This is one of the very few sites which covers Chinese culture and arts in English.  And I cover a lot on British music, especially Britten.

Original Source: Music Interflow – Hong Kong Music Series SJSS

7/7/37 – a world event unmarked in the west

7th July 1937 – 80 years since the  start of the Japanese invasion of China.  The “Marco Polo Bridge Incident or 七七事變 is a hugely important anniversary, prelude to the massacre of Nanjing, the conquest of Shanghai and the war in the Pacific.  Luguo Bridge (as it’s known in Chinese) was strategic because it’s so close to Beijing, the symbol capital, though the seat of government had been moved to Nanjing by the Nationalists just ten years before.  Manchuria  was invaded in 1931, but 7/7/37 was an attack on the core of the nation.  Chinese from all regions took part in the resistance in the North. Eventually, the war moved South, too, precipitating none of the largest mass population upheavals in world history. No-one in China remained unaffected.  Effectively 7/7/37 marked the start of a cataclysm that’s engulfed China for decades, its repercussions still being faced today. Mao and the Communist Party, for starters. To understand the present, it is absolutely essential to understand the past, and from the perspective of those who experienced it.  Nowadays it’s fashionable to think in simplistic terms. There are some who’d even deny the impact of the Opium Wars. Imagine the situation reversed.  But the present doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Identity is reshaped, distorted and revised, but the broader the perspective, the less likelihood of getting boxed into corners. Polarization is the enemy of truth.  Thus the more we learn, the better we can interpret.

Original Source: 7/7/37 – a world event unmarked in the west

Before and After the Fall, Music Heals

As I sit under a webcam mounted on a 7 foot tripod, I have an uneasy feeling that the cam will dislodge, reviving the nightmare of my head injury, sustained in a backwards fall on June 29th. What made things worse for my noggin was a jagged incline that caused brute force contact with the concrete. I didn’t know what hit me as my limp body was lifted up by paramedics, placed on a stretcher, and shuttled off to the Emergency room. (Thankfully, a C-T scan showed NO intracranial bleeding and I was “conscious” despite the nasty impact.) Still, “concussion” that’s attached to such an injury, is a scary diagnosis with all its possible ramification and complications, so I’ve been been treading lightly with ice-packed rest periods round the clock.

Prior to the slam, I’d stashed away some lesson footage that I’d intended to embed within two separate blogs, but they remained on hold until today when I decided to post them as a form of self-applied “Music Therapy.” (My framed NYU Master’s Degree in this field of endeavor had been collecting silverfish over decades, so it was the right moment to enlist the spirit of this particular journey that celebrates music’s healing properties.)

The two videos below certainly have a common thread as phrasing, harmonic rhythm, technique, choreography (rotation, arm weight variations, supple wrists, etc), the “singing” pulse, vocal modeling, all belong to an artistically nuanced musical endeavor.

The first lesson extract is with an adult student, followed by the second, with a child of 9 years old who’s been studying piano since mid-February, 2016, with a few interspersed breaks.


Without doubt, music blessedly soothes during challenging times like these.

Original Source: Before and After the Fall, Music Heals

Saint-Saëns Le timbre d’argent, Paris F X Roth

Camille Saint-Saëns Le timbre d’argent from l’Opéra-Comique, Paris, a joint production with the Palazetto Bru-Zane. A performance so vibrant and vivid that it should bring Saint-Saëns’s operas back into the mainstream.  Saint-Saëns was just  30 when he completed it, quite an achievement for a young composer who had hitherto written a few works for chamber ensemble.  Le timbre d’argent (The silver bell) is an ambitious piece, in the extravagant tradition of Grand Opéra   It has all the elements of French operatic style – a spectacular plot enlivened by fantasy and the supernatural, showpieces for singers and chorus, lively interludes for dance and unusually imaginative orchestration. Heard here in the 1913 full  edition prepared by the composer, the opera straddles 19th and 20th century French music theatre.  The plot is based on Faust, and clearly inspired by Berlioz and Gounod with whom Saint-Saëns  was connected.  The stylish vivacity in the orchestration is wonderfully realized by the Orchestre Les Siècles  conducted by François-Xavier Roth, The choir is Accentus, no less, and soloists include Edgaras Montvidas and  Hélène Guillmette.

It’s Christmas and the choir are singing jolly songs  “Noël ! Noël !”  Hélène (Hélène Guillmette) and her maid Rosa (Jodie Devos) are singing, too.  But Conrad (Edgaras Montidas) moans about his miseries. Perhaps it’s a wry hoke on the composer’s part to set the part for a tenor with a heroic timbre who can’t really be as sick as he thinks he is.  A chill sets in, the violins trembling, chords breaking off in fear. Again we hear the merry choir “Tra la la” but the dance turns to death march.  Spoky winds, swirling figures but Conrad keeps singing”I am cursed!  Worse is yet to come.  The strings buzz madly then diminish.  An alphorn (?) calls and angels sing in the choir.  An apparition appears out of the brume. “Flee, flee, J’ai peur ” sings Conrad. Is it Conrad’s doctor Spiridion (Tassis Christoyannis)?  Or Mefistofele ?  Conrad’s fevered mind can’t tell. Spiridion gives Conrad am magic bell to soothe his spirit.  Thus, the pure clean ring of a silver bell. and a scream.  ,Dums roll, violins spin dizzying patterns., the brass calls, the choir sings alarm.

A long orchestral interlude represents Conrad’s journey through space and time   He is fixated by the vision of an dancer, who symbolizes, the epitome of beauty.  The dancer dances, but doesnt sing. In an opera full of singing, that’s a telling note.  The music zings, but with an unnatural glow  angular, crazy rhythms, hurtling forward, brass and strings pumping along. Spiridion’s lines are long and curving, like a serpent. He’s tempting Conrad, an innocent in Eden.  The musical,writing is almost cinematic. A wailing solo violin suggests a village musician. Or the Devil, who has the best tunes. Thus Hélène’s showpiece aria.  “Le bonheur est chose légère”, is haunted.   But the harps, strings and choir suggest  that all is not yet lost.  There are comic moments, like an aria for baritone (Spiridion) mocking marriage, deliciously vulgar, almost music hall.  Another wonderful orchestral entr’acte, whizzing strings  punctuated by ebullient percussion. The choir sings a raucuous song : the punctuations suggest glasses being raised, or high kicking dance.   The libretto includes references to dancers playing roles in the action, but I only know the audio.  The mood changes to horror. “Maudit, maudit” sings Conrad, as he realizes the price that must be paid fir his quick fix cure. Some innocent soul dies when he profits.

More musical, adventures in the Third Act, portrayed through orchestration : suggestions of folk song, almost, like bagpipes. The choir sings a jolly chorus “Bonjour! Bonjour!”.  But Conrad’s song , though lyrical , is pensive.  He’s thinking of  Hélène.  She joins him in a duet, their voices fluttering around each other like the butterflies in the text.

Several more opportunities for dancing.  Exotic “oriental” music, vaguely arabic, before the orchestra explodes in a climax that might be a storm. From the tumult whizzing figures arise from the strings, flying figures perhaps suggesting winds of change.  Music as scenic as this stimulates the imagination, its pictorialism exists in the mind, not in reality.  A fanfare of brass announces another chorius “Tra-lala”, so vigorous that you’re drawn in.  Again, the music is punctuated by fierce outburts, “Un deux, trois, quartre” , sings Conrad, while the orchestra beats time behind him. More ominous percussion, but the mood is broken by the voice of Hélèn, singing a melody so pure and lovely that her voice suggests what the true timbre d’argent might be: not Spiridion/s silver object, but Hélène herself.  Spridion resurfaces.  Hi song, though sinister, is oddlymoving.

Another orchestral interlude, marked by melancholy violin.  Conrad’s torn between Spiridion and  v. The bell rings in the orchestra, tolling like a church bell.  The orchestra joins in withnfulsome melody. Hélène calls.  Conrad responds.  Thunder strikes, but from the tempest in the orchestra, we hear the sound of haiyrps, and the solo violin again, its melody now firm and clear. The line rises upwards then descends, and the orchestra sings a gentle song, not quite lullaby.  The female voices in the choir sing of love.  has the crisis passed ? In the distance the choir sings a hymn.  Possibly, it’s still Christmas.  “Mon coeur!” Conrad cries.  The bell theme returns, quietly.  Conrad and Hélène unite at last, in duet, surrounded, haloed by the orchestra. The choir sings “Alleluja!”  With a final. affirmative crash, the opera ends.  Conrad’s saved, by love.  Listen to the broadcast here. 

François-Xavier Roth, has a thing for Saint-Saëns. He’s conducting Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 5 in F major, ‘Egyptian’ at the Proms at on 16th August, together with the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns. Samson et Dalila. which Philippe Jordan conducted at the Opéra National de Paris last year (Read more here).  The Palazetto Bru-Zane, which organized this production of this  Le timbre d’argent, also presented Saint-Saëns Prospérine last year ith Véronique Gens, conducted by Ulf Schirmer.

Original Source: Saint-Saëns Le timbre d’argent, Paris F X Roth

Lieder on a battlefield – Schubert Körner Schlegel Wigmore Hall

Liederabend on the battlefield! Not Schubert at the piano, but Theodor Körner, poet and freedom fighter.  On the night of 26th August 1813, Körner played the piano and sang for his comrades into the early hours. The next day, astride his horse, and dressed in black Lützower Freikorps uniform, he was shot, and died, aged only 21.  The Lützower volunteers fought a heroic resistance against the forces of Napoleon. Many of them were intellectuals, but as soldiers they lived rough, often camped in dense forests, living amid nature, sometimes aided by peasants. All the elements of the Romantic spirit ! Romanticism and the very idea of German identity was thus forged through steel.  Literally Schwertlied, (the song of the sword) the patriotic poem Körner wrote for that final Liederabend depicted above. “Hurra, du Eisenbraut! Hurra!”   Körner’s mystique was that, even in battle, he was an artist, and had a death wish, another Romantic meme.  One can imagine the impression Körner made on Schubert, a geeky kid from a poor background.

Thus the background to this recital in the Wigmore Hall’s Complete Schubert Songs series. Here Schubert’s settings of Körner were presented with settings of Friedrich von Matthisson, Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August.  The Körner songs chosen, however, were more light hearted than heroic.  Sängers Morgenlied I  D163 and II D165 follow the same text, the first setting somewhat tentative, the second more developed.  These were written within the same few months in 1815, when Schubert also wrote Liebesrausch I D164, and II D179, the first a fragment, the second with palpitating figures in the piano part, suggesting the fervent heart in the text.  Also from this period but more individual were Liebeständelei D 206 and Das gestörte Glück D309, two songs of coy flirtation.  When Markus Schäfer, the singer at this Wigmore Hall concert, recorded these songs with Ulrich Eisenlohr some years ago, his voice was light and agile. It’s still charming, though he has to push the lines a little more.

Schubert’s settings of Friedrich von Mathisson are more varied.  Entzükung D413 (1816) and Stimme der Liebe D418 (1816) are somewhat impersonal declarations of love, one lit by bright sunlight, the other by sunset. The rhyming couplets in Liebenslied D508 (1816) don’t inspire Schubert to great  heights. Interestingly, Mahler, drawing his text from folklore, wrote a rather livelier Scheiden und meiden.  Skolie D507 (1816), however, is a drinking song. For a moment we were back to the youthful vigour of Körner and Burschenschaft societies. Vollendung D579a and Die Erde D579b were discovered in the 1960’s. D number apart they bear no resemblance to the well-known Der Knabe in der Weige D579.

Friedrich Schlegel as a young man

Just as Schubert was inspired by  the ideaism of Theodor Körner, he was inspired by the idealism of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), another, though older, contemporary.  Schlegel’s cycle of poems, Abendröte“Alles scheuint dem Dichter redend, denn er hat den Sinn gefunden, und das Allein einzig Chor manches Lied aus einem Munde”.  The Gods of classical antiquity fade and Nature itself takes precedence.  The poems are vignettes : mountains, rivers, bushes, stars, a small boy and a butterfly, described in naturalistic terms.  Schubert wrote the songs in random order, from 1819 to 1823, the most prominent,  Die Abendröte.D690, last of all, though it forms the first part of the group on Schubert’s manuscript. Its undulating piano lines suggesting the downward movement of the sun and the awakening of sensuality. “Berge, himmelan geschwungen” in every sense.  

Whatever Schubert’s intentions may have been, the group of 7 of the 11 settings when performed together in this order has a certain logic. In Die Berge D614 (1819), the vocal line rises upwards, “Sieht uns der Blick gehoben”, the middle section of the last word suddenly rising to a peak.  The piano part is confident, almost swaggering and upbeat.  In the middle strophe the pace quickens, strong single chords for emphasis.  With Der Knabe D692 (1820), we’re down to earth once more, the high tessitura suggesting youth and fragility.  Der Fluß D693 (1820), is one of Schubert’s most famous songs, its sensuous curving line flowing like a river. The vocal part soars and dips : there are parallels between this song and Schubert’s last great masterpiece Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (D965) (read more here).  Perhaps the protagonist is a young shepherd looking down from a mountain to the river below. creating a nice connection with the other songs in this group.  With Der Schmetterling D633 (1819) we return to brisk, sunlight physicality, the piano part suggesting flapping wings. Die Sterne D684 (1820) recaps the mood of nocturnal repose in  Der Fluß  while the text of Die Gebüsche D646 (1819) reiterates the mood of the first song, Abendröte.: “Durch alle Töne tönet im bunten Erdentraume.ein leiser Ton gezogen Für den, der heimlich lauschet“. 

August von Schlegel

Augmenting the settings of Friedrich von Schlegel, four settings of poems by his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) less successful in a material sense, but also influential, and cosmopolitan.  Lob der Tränen D711 1818, Die gefangenen Sänger D712 (1821), Wiedersehn D855 (1825) and Abdendlied für die Entferne D856 (1825) plus one of Schlegel’s translations of Shakespeare, Ständchen D889 (1826) “Horch, horch, die Lerch!”   Ace programme planning!  Markus Schäfer with pianist Piers Lane gave an earnest performance, but the choice of songs was so erudite that it was well worth enduring the horrendous traffic jams in central London before and after the show.  Hyde Park was mayhem, roads blocked for 50,000 fans and Justin Bieber.  Meanwhile, at the Wigmore Hall, our minds were focussed on philosophic ideals.

This review also appears in Opera Today 

Original Source: Lieder on a battlefield – Schubert Körner Schlegel Wigmore Hall

Schreker Die Gezeichneten – Metzmacher Warlikowski

Franz Schreker Die Gezeichneten from the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, easily the most rewarding performance ever. Metzmacher gets Schreker revealing his modernity and originality.   There are many kinds of “modern”. The idea that 20th century music can only be atonal/tonal or , dissonant /romantic is nonsense, a notion compounded by audiences who ton’t actually listen, but think through preconception. Schreker was a highly original composer, very much a man attuned to the creative ferment of his time, fuelled as it was by new ideas and social change.  Die Gezeichneten flows from the same Zeitgeist that produced Freud, Expressionism, modern art and literature.  In the libretto, Schreker makes a wry dig at Puccini and Strauss, meaning, I think Johann rather than Richard, for Die Gezeichneten has a lot in common with Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Both operas, written at the same time and premiered within a year of each other, explore the nature of creative art through a lens of morbid psychology, which is a theme which runs through much of Schreker’s work.  Directed by Kryzsztof Warlikowski, this production is musically sensitive and well informed, and also connects the opera to other currents in art and society in its time. This Die Gezeichneten goes a long way to restoring Schreker’s true status in cultural history.

The Vorspeil zu einem drama is well known, but, shorn of context, doesn’t really reflect the full opera. Metzmacher conducts the introduction so the surging pulse heaves, as if propelled by  ocean tides.  Salvago’s Elysium is and island, as isolated as the man himself, surrounded by currents beyond his control.  The moon controls tides. The image of the moon appears in the libretto, intensified by musical figures that describe darkness and flickering light.  To the Greeks, the moon symbolized Athena, the goddess of art.  For Goethe, the moon symbolized chastity, inspired by his patroness, the Duchess of Weimar.  As the Vorspeil proceeds,  we see Salvago (John Daszak) , his head covered by a bag, looking towards an orb of white light that dominates the darkened stage.  Later, when Carlotta (Catherine Nagelstad) is seduced, the orb turns red (as described in the text).

Complex dichotomies operate throughout this opera, reflecting conflicts that can never be reconciled.  Ugliness and beauty, creativity and destruction, purity and corruption : thus the churning tensions in the music.  Metzmacher isn’t afraid to emphasize the contrast between lush orchestration and the savage undercurrents.  Luxury is deception. Like the grotto, beauty is delusion.  Women are violated. Lust is joyless, motivated by power, money, and something even more sinister. Carlotta succumbs, as graphically described in the text and music. Wisely, Warlikowski doesn’t depict the scene, concentrating on Tamare’s braggadocio and the music around it. Salvago isn’t as upset by the idea of Carlotta being raped as by the realization that she might have had a part min proceedings.  We see her dressed in white, her dress back to front.  The ensemble that follows isn’t a trio, because all ,three characters are singing at cross purposes.  No dissonance but no harmony, either.  Wonderfully astute writing on Schreker’s part and well executed in performance.

Salvago creates Elysium to please his friends, as if by creating art he can compensate for his physical ugliness. How far is he culpable when his friends misuse his grotto for evil ?  Carlotta falls in love with him partly because she can see good in him, but also because she sees the potential for artistic creation of her own.  In some ways, the second act is the heart of the whole opera. Carlotta’s friend paints only hands, but the hands she paints are so expressive that they can portray whole stories. Art is invention, but can reveal deeper truths.  Thus Carlotta, an artist, sees  more  in Salvago than meets the eye.  Thus scene is brilliantly depicted, with imagination and sensitivity.  A second stage appears behind the singers. At first we see what appears to be a dragonfly, which turns out to be a young girl. She has the head of a mouse.  Her family are around her, too, sometimes interacting. Humans with mouse heads. We are in Die Frau ohne Schatten territory, or rather the world of surreal symbolism that fascinated a generation familiar with Classical antiquity, discovering psychology and Jungian archetypes. Clips of silent movies appear  behind the action. Scenes from Der Golem, and Frankenstein, where a “monster” shows tenderness to a little girl, then scenes from The Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu where the “monster” isn’t benign.  Thus Warlikowski makes connections between Die Gezeichneten and other Schreker operas, with other cultural memes which confront sexuality and fear. .
Warlikowski doesn’t need to show Carlotta with paintbrush and easel.  Her painting exists in her soul.  Does she love her creation more than reality ?  Why does he pull back, paralyzed with inhibition, when his wildest dreams come true as she declares her live ? Why does she, too, pull back on the eve of their wedding ? Does she intuit that their relationship will be sterile due to his inhibitions ? Does she respond to Tamaro because he’s sexual, or because he has the courage Salvago lacks ?  Christopher Maltman, as Tamaro, is a hunk. Salvago lives in his head, while Tamaro lives in his body. He doesn’t like mirrors because they make him face himself.  But can he escape ? Warlikowski’s staging (sets by Malgorzala Szczesniak) hints as what is not said.  Mirrors, often distorted, appear now and again, sometimes as physical mirrors, sometimes as subsidiary characters like Mattuccia (Heike Grotzinger) and Pietro (Dean Power), usually roles so small they don’t get attention, but which exist for a reason. Salvago isn’t the only person trapped in games in the guise of service to others.  A wonderful touch – Metzmacher himself is glimpsed on stage from time to time, reflected in the mirrors.
In this production, Salvago’s spoken monologue is included, which makes a difference  since it shows how he reflects on his own condition though he can’t breakout of it.  Though he  didn’t rape women, he is morally culpable by making the violence possible,. Extremely moving, especially since Daszak delivered it with great dignity.

Schreker writes an angelus into the music before the party.  Angels appear on stage, but angels dressed in nude suits.  They (male and female) are supposed to resemble showgirls but they dance so deftly en pointe that they’re clearly ballet dancers with great technique.  The wedding gusts are prissy : they don’t like nakedness but sex is all around.  Later a voluptuous stripper bumps and grinds beside Salvago, who doesn’t notice.  Either he’s too uptight or he can’t see the beauty beneath her poundage.  Eventually, like so many others before her in this production, she ends up inert, in a display case, unused.

At the end, Tamare sings about a village fiddler gone mad because  the girl he loved found another man. This is a reference to a medieval legend, which pops up often in German literature and song.  Salvago asks for his cap and bells. Has he gone mad, or are he and Tamare re-enacting an old saga ?? There are so many levels in Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, skilfully blended together,  Warlowski’s silent movie clips and business suits extend what is already in the opera, though  few productions come as close to its true spirit.  Altogether, the finest Die Gezeichneten that I can imagine, full of detail and sensitive to music and meaning.

Please see my other articles on Schreker, Braunfels and others (including Strauss), and on silent film and Weimar.

Original Source: Schreker Die Gezeichneten – Metzmacher Warlikowski