Prom 51, Royal Albert Hall, London
Tête à Tête Festival, Riverside Studios, London
Così fan tutte, Village Underground, London
The Swedish Chamber Orchestra's programme of Berlioz, Schumann and Schnelzer made for an evening of clever contrasts
Sunday 29 August 2010
Gothic sensibility permeated the Royal Albert Hall on Monday evening: euphoric, melancholic, sun-dazzled and moon-drunk.
It must have been an exhausting business being a composer in the 1840s, with the sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich mocking music's descriptive aspirations, French poets seducing the impressionable with their thick-perfumed, fevered, opiate laments, and the wraiths of ruined Germanic virgins sweeping through Europe like an occupying army in muslin nightdresses.
The quicksilver strings, gleaming horns and grassy woodwind of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra plunged the audience at Prom 51 into a whirlwind of overstimulation and hypersensitivity in conductor Thomas Dausgaard's cleverly contrasted programme of Berlioz, Schumann and Schnelzer. Classical and Romantic styles blurred disconcertingly in the Moderato-Allegro of Schumann's Zwickau Symphony (one of only two movements to survive), its orchestration treacherously top-heavy, an Alpine climb made while wearing velvet slippers. His Second Symphony was infused with light, a great gasp of Alpine air, any fraying at the edges of articulation the result of enthusiasm rather than torpor. Dausgaard conducted a vivacious, mercurial Scherzo filled with Beethovenian vigour and Schubertian fizz, while the shimmering trills and radiant arcs of the Adagio unfolded over a blissful, lilting accompaniment.
The most conventional and technically secure orchestration of the evening was heard in Schnelzer's 2007 conceit of skeletal trills, playful pauses and cartoonishly grimacing brass. Perhaps the lonely oboe represented Schnelzer himself, who clearly has an unfashionable interest in tunes of all colours. Perhaps, too, there is a limit to how many ways you can depict the macabre? If Haydn can be heard in A Freak in Burbank, so can Danny Elfmann, whose scores accompany Tim Burton's films. But this is a smart, likeable showpiece from a talented composer.
Undeterred by Nina Stemme's muffled French and glossed phrasing – no exclamation marks, few commas, little relish for the decadent mouth-feel of Théophile Gautier's poetry – the SCO scampered merrily through the verdant landscape of the first song of Les nuits d'été, easing in to the blanched, baleful, stalker's lullaby of "Le spectre de la rose", the gamba-like cello and musky bassoon figures of "Sur les lagunes" and the tortured temperament of "Absence", its woodwind chords as precariously disposed as in the Schumann.
However sensitive the accompaniment, however painterly their playing, this was a disappointing performance from the Swedish soprano, book-bound and error-prone, her implacable tone only fleetingly compatible with Berlioz's silken soundworld in the bitter low F sharp of "Sur les lagunes" and in the long, white curves of "Au cimitière".
Tête à Tête's annual festival closed with a flurry of recent, new and still-developing works; from Sawn-off Opera's awkward triptych of hotel-room scenas for a life-coach, a bespoke tailor, his wealthy client's proxy and a shoe-fetishist female MP, to Will Todd's sour-breathed, true-crime musical, The Screams of Kitty Genovese, Julian Grant's tart, giggly harp- and flute-accompanied skit for Sarah Palin (Charmian Bedford) and Nicolas Sarkozy (Danny Broad), and the first fragment of Michael Zev Gordon's forthcoming opera, Icarus.
Of the two musicals, both indebted to Sondheim in their contrapuntal ensembles, I warmed more to Fergal O'Mahony's buzzy romcom Gutter Press – partly because of James Richards' witty rhyming schemes, partly because of the variety of textures in O'Mahony's instrumentation. Todd's forensic examination of collective self-interest on the night of Kitty Genovese's murder may be a more finished product, with a powerful cast led by Sophie Tehrani and Darren Charles, but its synthesiser and electric guitar accompaniment is bludgeoning.
For the rest, the most stimulating and refined work was neither an opera nor a musical but Michael Zev Gordon's A Pebble in the Pond – too subtle a work to fit the genre of melodrama, narrated here by Richard Suart, with blurred or sharp memories of klezmer, Bach, Chopin and café music conjured in the sheerest aphorisms for piano, clarinet, accordion, double bass and violin.
Put together on goodwill and good connections, with a colour-scheme borrowed from Godard's Le Mèpris, and a polaroid camera for period detail, Andy Staples's flighty, flirty 1960s production of Così fan tutte opened in Seillans, France before moving, for two nights only, to Shoreditch. An orchestra of single strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn brought Mozart's details into crisp focus, while conductor and fortepianist Graham Ross put some cute gags into the continuo recitative.
Staples kept the comedy fleet and sharp, albeit at the expense of pathos. Rhona McKail's heavy-drinking Fiordiligi and Martha Jones's saucy Dorabella were easy targets for Richard Latham's pettish, pouting Don Alfonso (here a hotel magnate), and his boyish puppets Ferrando (Tyler Clarke) and Guglielmo (Sam Evans). The victim here was Mary Bevan's Despina, bruised in love but brimming with sparkle, already a sophisticated comedienne and an elegant Mozartian.
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