Friday, 9 December 2016


A quick round-up of the new operas being presented by major houses in the year ahead. Some fascinating projects here. I’ll do my best to get to the British ones, and look forward to reading reviews of the others. If I’ve missed anything important, please post a link in the comments. Thanks.

Scartazzini: Edward II. Deutsche Oper Berlin
Librettist Thomas Jonigk has adapted Marlowe’s Edward II for Swiss composer Andrea Scartazzini, and the result is an exploration of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality, in the 14th century and today. Expect atmospheric, minimalist stagecraft from director Christof Loy and brisk, dynamic musical direction from conductor Thomas Søndergard. 

 (image: Ruth Tromboukis)

Wigglesworth: The Winter’s Tale. English National Opera
Given the company’s recent woes, it is great to see that ENO is continuing its composer-in-residence scheme, the present incumbent an occasional conductor there too, Ryan Wigglesworth. The Winter’s Tale sounds like an excellent company piece, directed by Shakespeare specialist Rory Kinnear and starring a host of ENO regulars: Iain Paterson,
Sophie Bevan, Leigh Melrose and Susan Bickley. Let’s just hope he’s written something substantial for the chorus too.

Bolcom: Dinner at Eight. Minnesota Opera 
Good to hear that William Bolcom, now in his late 70s, is still going strong. Dinner at Eight is a 30s-era social comedy, the libretto by Mark Cambell based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Bolcom promises a score that mixes musical theatre with opera – an ideal project for his eclectic talents. Laura Claycomb leads the cast.

Paterson: The 8th Door. Scottish Opera
This collaboration between composer Lliam Paterson and director Matthew Lenton is a prequel to Bluebeard’s Castle, a clever idea given the problems of programming Bartók’s one-acter. It will have to cope with the inevitable comparisons, but the two creators assure us it will be ‘equally groundbreaking’, so presumably no falling back on pastiche.

Dorman: Wahnfried. Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe
An interesting twist in the ongoing saga of Wagner’s music in Israel. Wahnfried, by Israeli (though U.S.-based) composer Anver Dorman, tells of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his relationship with the Wagner family, consolidating the composer’s anti-Semitic image in the early years of the 20th century. It’s the sort of material more often covered in Regie Ring cycles, so it will be interesting to find out what a dedicated opera can do with it. Seasoned Wagnerian Keith Warner directs.  

Brett Dean: Hamlet. Glyndebourne
Commissioned for Glyndebourne’s Shakespeare anniversary celebrations, and delayed by only a year (not bad for contemporary opera), Brett Dean’s Hamlet promises much. The composer has already put out a few teasers, his Second String Quartet is subtitled “And Once I played Ophelia” and draws on the Ophelia character in the opera. From this, it is clear that Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto strays a good way from the original, with plenty of self-referential postmodern additions. The first production (of many, no doubt) is directed by Neil Armfield, who also directed the premiere of Dean’s Bliss, and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, a welcome return for the company’s inspiring former Music Director.

R. Panufnik: Silver Birch. Garsington
Garsington are describing their new commission as a ‘people’s opera’, and performances will involve six professional singers and a cast of 150 local people. The libretto is by Jessica Duchen and is based on the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, a regular visitor to Garsington Manor.

Bates: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Santa Fe Opera
This new opera from Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell will apparently ‘illuminate a side of Steve Jobs that we’ve never seen before’, namely his quest for spiritual enlightenment though Buddhism. To that end, the score involves Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs, heard in concert with electronic samples from early Macs. Intriguing.

Sallinen: The Castle in the Water. Savonlinna Opera Festival
Composer Aulis Sallinen’s relationship with the Savonlinna Opera Festival goes back to The Horsemen in 1975. This new opera celebrates the centenary of Finland’s independence and sets poetry by Lassi Nummi about the Olavinlinna Castle, where the festival takes place.

Bjarnason: Brødre (Brothers). Den Jyske Opera, Aarhus
One of three film-to-stage projects to mark the Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017, this is Kaspar Holten’s first directing job since leaving the Royal Opera. The libretto, by Kerstin Perski, is based on the 2004 film directed by Susanne Bier, about a Danish soldier struggling to cope with his experiences in Afghanistan. Holten promises an ‘intense, unique experience for the audience’, in Daníel Bjarnason’s ‘innovative and funky musical universe’.

John Adams: Girls of the Golden West. San Francisco Opera
John Adams teams up again with Peter Sellars, who is both librettist and director for this new opera about the California gold rush. It’s based on actual events, drawing on the letters of ‘Dame Shirley’, a doctor’s wife who spent 18 months in a mining camp in the Sierra Nevada in the 1850s. Mark Twain and original gold rush songs feature in the libretto too. Just don’t mention Puccini. The opera is a co-commission with Dallas Opera, Dutch National Opera and La Fenice:

The Royal Opera has two highly anticipated commissions in the works for 2018, an as yet unnamed new opera from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, and a sequel to Unsuk Chin’s popular Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, Kurtág’s much-delayed Endgame looks set for Salzburg in 2018. It’s ‘confidently expected’, apparently, and should be worth the wait. And on the subject of long waits, Osvaldo Golijov’s Euripides opera for the Met has now been cancelled, giving the more reliable Nico Muhly a chance to stand in with his Hitchcock-themed Marnie.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Raskatov Green Mass London Philharmonic Jurowski

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6
Raskatov: Green Mass (world premiere)

Elena Vassilieva soprano
Iestyn Davies countertenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Nikolay Didenko bass
Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Alexander Raskatov (pictured above, image M.F. Plissart) is best known in the UK for his opera A Dog’s Heart, staged at ENO in 2010. The music there is anarchic, stylistically diverse and bleakly comical at every turn. But there is another side to the composer, a spiritual depth that informs his religious music, especially his choral works. The style there is unified and focussed, still distinctive, but refined in a way that his more overtly dramatic orchestral works are not.
Those two sides come together in Raskatov’s Green Mass, premiered this evening by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. It’s a huge work, 80 minutes of music for large orchestra, choir and four soloists. The piece explores two ideas, a setting of the Mass ordinary for these huge forces, and a celebration of nature, as expressed in poems by Blake, Georg Trakl, Velimir Khlebnikov, Apollinaire and Francis of Assisi, interspersed between the Mass movements. Raskatov is often accused of incoherency, so there is a clear danger here of the piece sounding like two separate works spliced together. In fact, it is impressively coherent. Raskatov’s trademark eclecticism is apparent throughout, and in every moment it feels like he is reaching out to find a new effect or musical device to deploy across the performing forces. But by doing this as much in the Mass movements as the poem settings, an uneasy, and paradoxical, continuity emerges.
Even so, the work also gives the impression that it is based on a more simple Mass setting, subsumed within the more complex orchestral and choral textures, and periodically rising to the surface to offer spiritual guidance amongst the chaos. The Kyrie opens with a simple three-note figure in the choir, each note held by the orchestra to create a simple dissonance: the two aspects of the work seem to start from a single source, and as the movement continues, the choir maintains the simplicity, while the orchestra increases the complexity and uncertainly beneath.
Blake’s “The Wild Flower’s Song” is set here for countertenor, the ever dependable Iestyn Davies. Here, for the first and last time, Raskatov indulges in pastoral tone painting, with the woodwinds singing birdcalls and fluttering in the breeze. The Gloria remains upbeat, the tone, if not the style, approaching Carmina Burana. Mark Padmore then sings Traktl’s “Lebensalter”, his German pronunciation a better match for the text than the rhythms of Raskatov’s setting.
“Clotilde” by Apollinaire is sung by soprano Elena Vassilieva. She is also the composer’s wife, and Raskatov regularly writes for her astonishing vocal abilities. She is a modern-music soprano in the Pierrot lunaire mould, and this movement displays her extraordinary vocal acrobatics in the upper register. Vassilieva must be well into her 60s, but it is difficult to imagine any other singer, whatever their age, matching this. The final song “Preghiera” of St. Francis is set for the four soloists, accompanied only by a collection of wind chimes, set in continuous motion by electric fans pointing upwards from beneath. It’s an eerie and magical effect, evoking nature, but in an abstract way ideal for the context.
In the final two Mass movements, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, the fog lifts and a more straightforward, consonant style emerges, especially in the choir, which was often supported by radiant chorales in the brass. What is Raskatov trying to tell us here? That the religious dimension of the work redeems all? It is difficult to see how this fits into the environmental theme. But then, the two ideas, the liturgical and the natural, are so closely interconnected throughout the work, that, in this optimistic ending, it feels like there are no losers.
The London Philharmonic gave an excellent performance. Despite the huge orchestra, filled with unusual instruments, balances were always finely judged.  Vocally, the performance was less secure. The four soloists made for a curious ensemble, Vassilieva’s coloratura sitting uneasily with the purer tone of Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and bass Nikolay Didenko. But this was in the spirit of the piece, just another stylistic juxtaposition for Raskatov to work with. The composer stymied a proposed second performance of the work, by an American orchestra, on the grounds that they could not provide a professional choir, so it was surprising to see the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge singing this evening. The young choristers handled the unusual techniques and textures well, although it sometimes seemed that the composer had a more bottom-heavy, Russian sound in mind. All of the vocalists were in the choir stalls, the soloists there presumably because the huge orchestra left no room for them at the front of the stage, and all were amplified. This seemed like a last minute solution to a balance problem, one that would have taken a larger stage and a large choir to resolve otherwise.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, an obvious choice, but one that in retrospect only went to demonstrate the pastoral tone painting that Raskatov largely avoids. A pared-down London Philharmonic performed with a large tone, but with Jurowski maintaining disciplined tempos throughout. A mix-and-match approach to instrumentation saw the otherwise modern band accompanied by natural trumpets and period timpani in the storm, the former elegantly crisp, but the latter somewhat tubby. A competent performance of the Beethoven, but one that seemed to acknowledge that it was there mainly as a support act.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


“To take a stand regarding Schoenberg?”
So Boulez began the famous diatribe against his predecessor, written soon enough after his death to add a calculated sense of disrespect. Now Boulez himself has left us, and, just as in 1951, the event feels like the ending of an era: Whatever the manifold achievements of the two men, their greatest historical legacy is to have defined their times.
But the difference in attitude is revealing. If we write “To take a stand regarding Boulez” no question mark is necessary. He made it his life’s work to define a polemic in which you were either with him or against him. His attitudes may have seemed to soften in later years, particularly with the increasing breadth of his conducting repertoire, but he kept his corner, and nothing in his later work could give rise to the accusations of regression that formed the main point of attack in his essay on Schoenberg.
By then, the Modernists had found a new figurehead, Anton Webern, whose aesthetic trajectory seemed to move in the opposite direction to Schoenberg’s, and who therefore was a better fit for the dialectical/progressive model for musical history that Boulez and his contemporaries attempted to foster. And for all his achievements as a composer, conductor and electronic music pioneer, it is the staggering success of that project that made him the defining figure of his times. Serialism, in its purest form, became not only an ideal but a necessity. As he famously said in 1952, “I … assert that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but in all exactness, experienced – the necessity for serialism is useless.” And if you were on the wrong side of this debate, you were on the wrong side of history, something else that could only be stated in extremes, as when Boulez’ colleague René Leibowitz in 1955 described Sibelius as “the world’s worst composer.”
How times change. What would either of these statements sound like if uttered today? Petulant, certainly, but also indicative of the marginal status, and even irrelevance, of the speaker. For these are no longer times of aesthetic polarity. The culture that Boulez fostered (along with many other composers of his generation, though most others in action rather than word) of new music as us against them, right vs wrong, and all based on purely aesthetic criteria, already seems like a distant memory. Modernist music of the sort Boulez championed is still with us – its progress continues – but its insularity has evaporated, and with it any sense of authority or higher moral purpose.
Boulez leaves us much: an impressive and unique catalogue of works, an enviable discography – and let’s not forget IRCAM. Yet his musical ideology has predeceased him by several decades. Just as the post-war generation could take the repertoire they had inherited but had to find a new framework in which to affirm its relevance, so Boulez’ successors must argue the case for his music in an environment already broadly hostile to its underlying assumptions.
Therefore, I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy: