Like the village, the production is model
Sunday 23 March 1997
One of the best features of Graham Vick's award-winning production, which has just been revived at Covent Garden, is the way it treats that art/life issue. This is Kunstlerdrama territory and prey to sermonising stage directors. But Vick doesn't preach. He lets you find the issue for yourself, in beautifully conceived and fleshed-out character portrayals, and in Richard Hudson's cleverly ambivalent designs. What looks like a (theatrically) real urban landscape of 16th-century Nuremberg turns out to be a model village of apprentice-pieces (which the apprentices come on and polish, to make the point). What seems to be the sky turns out to be a nest of trapdoors from which bodies tumble in the end-of-Act II rumpus, transforming the whole set into an after-Breughel Advent calendar. Wagnerian Wahn - that untranslatable idea of mad illusion, sung about by Sachs - has rarely been more eloquently staged.
The cast is largely as before and, dramatically at least, a joy. Thomas Allen and Beckmesser are gifts from heaven to each other: sharp with flawless comedy and looks so withering they'd be a credit to a critic. John Tomlinson leaves no doubt that Sachs is the key role in the opera, and delivers it with the same magnificent dimension as before but more perspective (subtler, not so bullish) in the singing. Nancy Gustafson's Eva is white of tone, but an entrancing presence on stage. And if Gosta Winbergh's Walther is a mite awkward, well, that's the role. "Am stillen Herd" rings hard and true; and in Act III I'm glad to see he's lost the dreadful feather hat he had before.
The slight disappointments on the first night were that Tomlinson and Winbergh tired so audibly in Act III; that the new David and Magdalene (Herbert Lippert, Catherine Wyn-Rogers) scored so low in love-interest; and that the sense of ensemble wasn't stronger - especially in the preliminaries to the big quintet, which didn't rise to the occasion. But broadly speaking it was still a triumph, thanks to Bernard Haitink. His virtues as a thinking man's Wagner conductor should be no surprise by now, and yet they do surprise - with the sheer, unforced freshness of sound that he coaxes from the orchestra. You don't get fireworks or much feeling of risk; but you do sense a structure which is so securely anchored that the inner detail can take care of itself and speak with near-improvisatory freedom.
Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers is another German Kunstlerdrama in which art invades life; but not, this time, with the composer's approval. Written in 1961, it played last week in Birmingham and London as part of the CBSO/London Sinfonietta Millennium Series, and it tells the story of a manipulative master-poet who conscripts everyone and everything around him into the service of his creativity - including the lovers of the title, whose lives are literally sacrificed for his verse. The libretto is by WH Auden, collaborating with Chester Kallman as he did for Stravinsky's Rake's Progress; as a master-poet himself, it was a brave, perhaps confessional subject for him to have taken up - although any confessions are veiled in a return to the symbolism of his 1930s playscripts for the Mercury Theatre. A salon-synthesis of the arcane, the arch, the mischievously down-beat, it's the sort of text that needs to be declaimed through cigarette smoke. Preferably Sobranie. But it works, and inspired one of Henze's most fascinating scores. Act I is indebted to Stravinsky, Acts II and III to Britten; but the resourcefulness with which Henze mixes and matches colours from a modest chamber orchestra is entirely his own. The textures glisten, cold and bright, to paint in sound the story's alpine setting. And certain instruments "speak" for certain characters, with a soloistic virtuosity the London Sinfonietta, playing these performances, took on with relish. Markus Stenz, young but an established champion of Henze's music, conducted with authority and style. The voices were good, with Quentin Hayes standing firm as the poet and Louisa Kennedy-Richardson coasting nicely through extremes of mad- scene coloratura as Frau Mack. The only things you could have asked for were a proper staging (it was done in concert) and a bigger audience. This was an Event: it should have sold. That it didn't says nothing for the curiosity of London concert-goers.
Instead, they flocked to the revival of Madam Butterfly at ENO where the opening night picked up well after a ragged start, and Susan Bullock's glacial magnificence of voice compensated yet again for her matronly and dangerously close-to-Dawn-French stage appearance. Julian Gavin, ENO's new principal tenor, seemed nervous but with promise. And after eight (!) revivals, the dark, colonial-conscience production (Graham Vick - what isn't these days?) begins to look a classic - even if its idea of Butterfly as a mad mother who can't tell the colour of her child's hair doesn't do our heroine's stature any favours.
Period performance rules OK, now, through most of the music world, but you still find pockets of resistance where life proceeds as though John Eliot Gardiner were a man who comes to mow the lawn, and one of them is the annual St Matthew Passion done with sturdy English-language grandeur by the Bach Choir under David Willcocks. I went last Sunday (it repeats today: Festival Hall, 11am if you're awake) and was bemused by the enormous forces, the choice of soloists (Willard White's Christus sounding more Old Testament than New), and the odd electric continuo-keyboard which metamorphosed at the flick of a switch from cheesy chamber organ into spiky harpsichord. Laugh if you dare - the Bach Choir's Matthew Passion is formidably devotional. The programme book forbids applause. It also carries a surreal erratum slip, apologising for the fact that Christ dies on the wrong page.
But whatever its stylistic problems, the performance was sincere and moving, and the choir sang with extraordinary finesse. Genteel they may be, but the old-school ways of David Willcocks get results. Within the choral world he has a legendary stature. When he leaves the Bach Choir, as is planned soon, he'll be missed.
'Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Mon. 'Madam Butterfly': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed & Sat.
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