Funeral fun with Franui at the Holland Festival

Florian Boesch/Franui: Mahler/Schubert/Schumann et al.

Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, 21st June 2017

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Innervillgraten, East Tyrol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A concert hall is the wrong venue for Franui. The “musicbanda” from East Tyrol belongs on a bandstand in a park or on a breezy pier. Their audience should be eating ice-cream and drinking beer instead of sitting quietly in the dark. Franui’s bittersweet folk arrangements of German art songs, with elements of jazz and klezmer, call up village fêtes, weddings and, especially, funerals.

Full review on Bachtrack.

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Beautiful role debut for Malin Byström in Amsterdam Salome

Strauss: Salome

Dutch National Opera, 9th June 2017

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Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1861) by Jan Adam Kruseman at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

While the audience cheered at the end of the new Salome at Dutch National Opera, Malin Byström punched the air triumphantly with her fist. With good reason, because this was a wonderful role debut.

Full review on Bachtrack.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

Monteverdi: Marian Vespers

Gashouder, Amsterdam, 3rd June 2017

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The “Nappy Madonna” by Bernardino Luini (circa 1481-1532)

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass. Then, for close to two hours, a spellbinding ritual unfolds. This was not a wake for a Catholic notable, but Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine…

Full review on Opera Today.

Stenz conducts an impressive Babylon at the Holland Festival

Widmann: Babylon

Concertgebouw, 3rd June 2017

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The Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

According to the programme, at one point composer Jörg Widmann requires the chorus in his opera Babylon to split into 94 parts. I hope this is a misprint, but Babylon is a fearlessly ambitious composition. This impressive performance at the Holland Festival, led by the intrepid Markus Stenz, was deservedly cheered at length.

Full review on Backtrack.

Pulsating new Andriessen with prosaic libretto at the Holland Festival

Andriessen: Theatre of the World

Royal Carré Theatre, 11th June 2016

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Design for Sunflower Clock from Magnes, sive De Arte Magnetica by Athanasius Kircher (c. 1643)

“Abandon all hope of comprehension, ye who enter here”, to paraphrase Dante. The elliptical libretto of Theatre of the World, Louis Andriessen’s fifth full-length opera, directed by Pierre Audi, should come with this warning, though not Andriessen’s masterly score.

Full review on Bachtrack.

Ten-minute homework for the Herheim

QueenOfSpades.jpegWhen mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato laid down her edict to stop dumbing down opera, she was probably thinking of apologetic marketing such as: “You should see Wagner’s Ring because it is like Lord of the Rings“. Or: “Puccini’s Bohemians are just like Friends.” Opera should be marketed on the strength of its differences compared to other forms of art and entertainment, not its similarities. Fans love opera because there’s nothing else like it. Sometimes you need to do a little homework before a performance, beyond reading the plot synopsis. But what’s ten minutes of investment when you get rewarded with an experience such as Pique Dame at this year’s Holland Festival, which opened yesterday?

Director Stefan Herheim and his team have created a handsome production that is both clever and moving. (They have done loads of homework.) The idea is that the characters in this story of love and obsession are expressions of the composer’s desire and suffering. The struggle with his homosexuality and his longing to conform to the norm are central to the staging. Baritone Vladimir Stoyanov plays Tchaikovsky (as well as Prince Yeletsky), as does pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven (who also plays the piano in the drawing room scene). Before the overture we see the composer winding up a pair of mechanical caged birds. The music box plays Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, referenced in the score during a Mozart-like diversion called “The Faithful Shepherdess”.  The caged birds, a symbol of repressed feelings thrashing to be released through composition, reappear during “The Faithful Shepherdess” and are neatly linked to Tomsky’s mildly lewd song about the birds and the boughs. That’s just one strand in the rich weave of this production, where the characters externalise Tchaikovsky’s inner life. Tomsky’s confident macho officer, flanked by his bullying cronies, represents everything that the composer would like to be. Visually, the character most strongly identified with Tchaikovsky is Prince Yeletsky, whose declaration of love to Liza  becomes the composer’s hopes for his catastrophic marriage to Antonina Miliukova. But both Liza and the Old Countess are also Tchaikovsky at various points. Liza’s sister Polina is dressed as a young man. She could be the young Tchaikovsky, or one of the objects of his passion, such as his nephew Vladimir Davydov. This sounds complicated, but isn’t, because the links are crystal-clear. Many of the costumes are variations on the composer’s grey suit, which flowers into a bustle in one of its feminine versions. It’s up to the spectator to decide why his white shirt is repeatedly streaked with a red trailing cravat. Hermann’s obsession with gambling stands for Tchaikovsky’s unwanted homosexual passions and he literally wrestles with this part of himself. The way Herheim has the chorus voicing social mockery and menace, as well as the composer’s self-loathing, makes your blood run cold. After all, as recently as 2013 the Russian Minister of Culture felt the need to declare that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

So what do you need to know before going to this terrific show?

  1. If you’re not familiar with the opera, read the synopsis.
  2. Then read a bit about Tchaikovsky’s life. If you like extra homework, read about the theories surrounding the composer’s death.
  3. Keep in mind these key concepts: self-loathing, longing to conform, catastrophic marriage, drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, possible suicide.

Then go and be swept away by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Tchaikovsky master Mariss Jansons, and the fascinating storm of emotions raging onstage. If you need any further convincing, here’s Bachtrack’s 5-star review.

Pique Dame runs at Dutch National Opera until the 3rd of July, 2016.

Savage and noble: Wozzeck at the Concertgebouw

Berg: Wozzeck

Concertgebouw, 4th June 2016

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Johann Christian Woyzeck’s beheading in Leipzig

Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck is a perfect amalgam of music and text and, as such, cries out for a worthy staging to maximise its theatrical impact. Although neither Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck nor Berg’s setting of fifteen of its scenes can be given a single-genre sticker, one way to describe them is as psychological thrillers. Even without stage direction, this concert performance played out like a thriller, with shudders aplenty.

Full review on Bachtrack.