Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Re-booting the Avant Garde

Karlheinz Stockhausen, an emblematic figure of post-war avant garde music
A leading article in this Sunday's Guardian/Observer has piqued interest across the Twittersphere. Vanessa Thorpe's piece (primarily about theatre) reports on the conflict between the custodians of the tradition of the avant garde and those who think it is now an anachronism.

The avant garde is often associated with the 20th century, rather than the progressiveness in art in previous periods, as one associates it with Modernism. If Modernism itself has a characteristic it is its explosion of the envelope of what constitutes art. Film brought a whole new wing of art, coinciding with the immersive, multi-dimensional pinnacle of the development of opera. In contrary motion to the ostensibly documentary-like properties of film came visual art's move away from literal, figurative representation to abstraction. Theatre straddled the fourth wall with work that begged more questions than for which it provided narrative, and for answers invoked responses in its audience rather providing information. All of this, naturally, coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, the investigation of the outside superceded by investigation of the inside.

The avant garde then represents an extreme development to one end of the scale where the consumer - to use a modern term - feels involved in the art rather than at the other end, as an existentially separate entity, assessing it in isolation. The avant garde may be said to represent the Heisenberg end of the experience, where it is impossible to examine the worth or even viability of the art on its own terms, so wed is it to the experience of the viewer.

The natural development of this Modernist-inwardness is the biggest threat to the tradition (such as there is one) of the avant garde. Modernism's single most influential message is that the personal response is the basic arbiter of aesthetic and so moral validity. There has been an total, three-dimensional explosion of the consensus, which no longer exists. For every aesthetic opinion, the opposite may also be held, and there is no way of testing who is right. The extrapolated upshot is that someone may deny having an affronted response to art that is, in consensual terms, immoral - aesthetically impoverished - and there is not only no way of testing that response. In doing so it also dissolves the claim of the art to be avant garde. Post-Modernism is the awareness of the Modernist phenomenon and the viability of the consumer to manipulate that awareness to once again assert an existential separation from the art whilst simultaneously engaging with it.

The 'having your cake and eating it' mechanics of post-modernism means that the avant garde has little purchase. If the experience of the consumer can be effectively categorised as inauthentic via post-modernist double-think then the act that rendered the experience is coupled with that. The logical algorithm goes: Shocked? I can see why I was shocked. I didn't mean to be. It's not really meant to be shocking. It's not shocking.

My current experience of theatre is that if it can't join them it might just try and beat them, for example with pre-emptive intermediaries. Recent productions of Turandot, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tales of Hoffmann at English National Opera as well as the current Stephen Medcalf production of Aida for Raymond Gubbay all use an additional, mute character wandering the stage as a consumer figure that the director can control and manipulate to show the audience how he intends their responses directed.

Naturally, this post-modernist dissolution of the bathwater of the avant garde throws out the baby of something more worthwhile. And just as directors try to pre-empt the audience with proxies such as that suggested above, so others produce art that pre-empts the director with art predicated on market research. This is the art that is commonplace in the West End at the moment, anodyne, consumer-predicated art that plays to a market majority in the absence of an aesthetic objectivity. The irony is that this is not only the sort of uncontroversial art that is anathema - target, even - of the avant garde but, seen at arms length, is the cyclical opposite of it.

Cyclical? How will the avant garde return then? Post-modernism cannot simply be uninvented. Instead those who would see the return of the avant garde might have to try and re-establish some sort of aesthetic framework - some aesthetic objectivity  - whose bonds they can subsequently assault afresh.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Aida, Raymond Gubbay at Royal Albert Hall

The Albert Hall is a friendly place. It's just as well, as the circular construction means that there is a natural, low level sense of drama surrounding the central space. Even during the Proms, when the performers are corralled at one end of the building, there is a drifting focus onto the standing area and the hardy folk who have paid for the best 'seats' with cramp. There's no mortal hand-to-hand combat in the Albert Hall these days but that's the echo of the design.

This sense of drama is antiquarian, especially in this building, a Victorian reconstruction of the Coliseum held in such esteem in that latter period. Stephen Medcalf's admirably poised production of Aida for Raymond Gubbay simply places itself amongst the ley lines offered by the space. A permanent set that looks like the ruins of an Egyptian archaeological site abnegates the need for more built-up stage furniture. A small corps of non-singing performers take on the role of a team of archaeological explorers, including a single woman, described in the programme as the novelist and historian Amelia Edwards. This addition follows the fashion familiar from ENO for a pertinent if extraneous character to wander the action as a foil to the fantasy. The whole inter-period dumbshow also acts as punctuation between acts and scenes. A screen covering the organ at the south end of the building expands the intent of actions on the floor and provides backdrop for the scenes as they occur with a series of projections. It's intelligent and discreet. Here's one of a series of videos from the production process:



With pop-up ideas from both the flies and beneath the floor as well as some precise lighting the space remains lively for all its stasis. Into this is poured the spectacle that one expects from not only a production bearing the company's name but also from this opera. A sizeable, well-choreographed chorus has no need of camels and the like in the triumphant march of the second act (and the upshot is that the focus remains on the performers, no parenthetic circus here). The drama, which is  half driven by the Egyptian-Ethiopian antagonism is worked into the floor-show; surtitles on LED boards around the hall are available but by no means essential for an uninitiated. The action is sufficient.

One might imagine that this is an ideal situation in which the principal cast might play out the drama. A certain groping of the imagination is indeed necessary as despite the best (i.e. most expedient) efforts at resolving the issue of performing in the round, and additionally in such a large hall, it really is impossible to get in touch with the singing. Using individual mics, the principals not only sound as if they might be coming from any one of a half dozen directions but the selective pickup of the technology, not to mention the necessary level adjustment to which each is subject, leaves voices physically adrift. It's like being asked to asses the effectiveness of a car whilst it's skidding and aqua-planing across a wet road. However, it must be said that the facility to amplify gave real dramatic weight to Radames' (offstage) trial in the vault, along with a typically simple idea for the staging with steam pouring up out of subterranean vents.

Despite this - and the other tricky issue in the round, that of ensemble, largely conquered - there is clearly super singing at hand. The cast I saw on this opening night was Marc Heller as Radames, Tiziana Carraro as Amneris, Stanislav Shvets as a wonderful, copper-bottomed Ramfis and Daniel Lewis Williams as The King. Above all I would have loved to have heard Indra Thomas' Aida au naturel, as the sound gave the impression of being rather special but the technology conspires to separate out the overtones in the voices before they can blend in the auditorium. Strangely though, David Kempster's magnificent, punchy Amonasro needs no further qualification. Catrin Aur's Priestess was as High as described, uncoiling beautifully from the gallery and offering the chance to hear the excellent women of the chorus at closer quarters. Andrew Greenwood's conducting was of a part with the staging of the drama, lean and to the point but not without colour. A surprising, rich production.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Opera's Future is Miniature

English National Opera today have announced their intention to get out and find interesting new talent for creating opera. The venture is called Mini Operas. They're going to do it online, with a competitive edge, asking for submissions from 'the three disciplines'. Though one might make the assumption that these are writing the music, writing the text and directing, the final discipline is in fact given as film making (a reasonable distinction from directing, given that the completed operatics will be uploaded for video view).

So yes, despite the finished work not being acoustic, doing everything online is a perfectly reasonable idea. It means the reach is large, people who want to work together will have the competition as a forum for finding one another, and the entries will necessarily be shorter than the typical two hour opus (both for practicalities of uploading and judging, one expects).

Moreover, Mini Operas streamlines nicely with the current vogue for producing scaled-back work. The stuttering success of OperaUpClose, the magazine-style festivals of new work in Tête à Tête and Grimeborn and the Exposure and Opera Shots showcasing at the Royal Opera House are all making an effort to put on new work, often in chunks that are not only manageable for the (modern, shorter attention-span) audience but also for the company's increasingly finite resources.

It should be noted that Tête à Tête are market-leading here. The Exposure evening I attended recently at the Royal Opera House was essentially a franchise of Tête à Tête work, and a series of new opera to be shown at the Royal College Of Music in May, Great Expectations, is also in conjunction with this company.

All this interest follows in the community-marketing opportunities that social media and media sharing foster. The likes of the Mark Ravenhill/YouTube/Guardian film short competition or Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir performance of one of his works bears testament to its effectiveness at convening enthusiasm, at least. One also bears in mind that the content overlaps too - Nico Muhly's recent co-production with ENO, Two Boys, is partially set in the social networking hinterland and the production itself had spectacaular video effects projected onto the set. Muhly will be assessing entries to the project (alongside Will Self and Terry Gilliam).

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Exposure, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera


'Snapshots of New Opera'. Hmm. Well, 'snapshots' meaning anything from a glimpse of an opera already slated for production to new sketches. It wasn't always easy to discern the purpose of the evening which was part opportunity to hear new work, part advert for future performances and even part sales pitch, with at least invitations for financial support.

In the end it was difficult to make the case for the evening being intended as entertainment. Even the standard opera scenes performance one might be familiar with from the conservatoires are intended as potted dramas, vaudevilles in size perhaps but nonetheless coherent and involving.

The numbers simply didn't lend themselves to this end for Exposure though. Orchestrations (such as there might have been any) were slimmed down to the piano reduction plus percussion; an additional violin (for the opening fragment) or staging-integral woodwind were the only exceptions.

We were also told, with peculiar pride, that the production team had only three days in which to prepare the show. Clearly this information was designed to turn an embarrassing lack of resources into a virtue. Of course, one of the other purposes of a comparable conservatoire opera scenes evening is that it is a showcase for the performers, meaning the singers. With only three days to prepare, irrespective of how long the singers had had their scores, it was never going to be about showcasing their talents, but relying on them - and their professionalism - as a vessel for the works.

With these significant qualifications laid out then, what was on offer? I enjoyed Michael Zev Gordon's Icarus, (right, click here for information about the 2011 Tete a Tete work-in-progress production) music somewhere in the orbit of both John Adams and Jonathan Dove with its economy and rhythmic drive, using small units of notes as well as the sudden shifts between meter. Gavin Wayte's The Neighbour had a good sense of dramatic temperament and Tom Armstrong's Do The Right Thing wasn't afraid of rhythmic complexity to assert shifting moral temperaments. I had particularly looked forward to celebrated tenor Tom Randle's excerpt, from his opera The Sculptor. Although denied any dramatic or narrative context (a natural pitfall of the evening's exercise,  reasonably requiring forebearance and imagination from the audience) the chief appeal of this was in the economy and deliberately limited palette of the music's colour. I would have liked to have heard an act. Conversely, Cafeteria was a self-contained sketch by Helen Porter (to Eleanor Knight's text, the only one of the evening that made its own impression on me) which, with its perky, briskly arrived-at point and clear ensemble writing was the perfect way to finish the first half.

In the second, a cross section of Samuel Hogarth's David And Goliath was nicely paced with a fine ear for the temperament of the drama not only in the differing music between characters but also the percussive, edgy music that was shown up so well at the piano. The evening closed with an extract from The Trial Of Jean Rhys, the snippet best suited to the cabaret feel of the staging of the evening's show (set in 1920s Montparnasse).

Inamongst these extracts peformed by the corps of ROH2, there were two clearly better-rehearsed productions. A Fetus [sic] In America features the mature voice of a formerly aborted foetus to mount a surreal, time-and-space suspended perspective narrative. Luke Styles' music is a Berio-like tumble of idiom and works hand-in-glove with Peter Cant's text to pinball through a witty repartee. The mezzo-soprano Jessica Walker (last seen here in the superb OperaUpClose Coronation Of Poppea) performed the monologue of the scene in the style of Annie Lennox doing burlesque and the tableau benefitted from properly prepared lighting, as well as the considerable charisma of a better-than-the-rest prepared Walker. Here's the extract in performance at the 2011 Tete a Tete Festival, again with Walker:



Preparation was also the advantage of the interpolated extract in the second half, a scene from Stephen McNeff's take on Giles Foden's The Last King Of Scotland. A well-drilled group of students from Trinity Laban provided the support for a similarly charismatic turn from Rodney Clarke as Idi Amin, maniacally dismissing food in a fit of pique before demanding it returned, as the naive doctor Nicholas (Michael McLaughlin) shows him basic physical care. McNeff's music has the fresh bucolic tonality familiar from Lennox Berkeley but also the rhythmic DNA of jazz giving the music an attractive, suave character, rather like the dictator himself.

Respect is due the entire performing corps for undertaking the three-night run with insufficient preparation. It seems pointless to talk about individual performers, with one exception. The evening was musically directed from the piano by Lindy Tennent-Brown in an exemplary feat of idiom hopping, highly accurate playing and conducting, minor crisis management and, frankly, stamina.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Wagner in A Dangerous Method

Do you like Wagner?
Yes.
What is your favourite opera?
Das Rhiengold.
This is the first overt conversation about the music of Richard Wagner in David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method. It takes place between pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung and his patient - and subsequently mistress - Sabine Spielrein, appropriately enough on a boat (Das Rheingold begins on the bank of the river of the opera's name, the Rhine).

The Wagner theme is developed as Jung and Spielrein (now acting as his assistant) make notes on the reactions of patients to the paying of a recorded excerpt of music from Die Walküre or The Valkyrie (a different excerpt from the famous 'ride' which is the prelude to the third act).

This is, in fact, the end of the explicit references to the composer. Yet Wagner's music both in original versions and in arrangements, sometimes for piano by Howard Shore continue to permeate the film, bleeding right across into the credits. Why is this?

Obviously in the first instance, Wagner's music has been referenced and needs to be played diegetically. The extract from Die Walküre has a particular pertinence given the sexual complications of the protagonists. Sabine references the darkness of incest and the guilt she feels at feeling aroused at her father's (non-sexual) physical sanctions. Not only is the opening of Die Walküre frenzied, dramatic, even intoxicating music. It also shows the reunion of a brother and sister who copulate and conceive. It is surely for this reason Jung chooses to expose his subjects to it. Indeed Sabine brings up the subject of incest explicitly. Here's the end of the first act as the brother and sister get it on:



More generally though, Wagner's music - which by dint of his manifesto (his own version of Dogme 95, if you like) Gesamtkunstwerk, is tied organically to the drama it represents - may be said to represent a welter of psychological insights, or at least clues, as to the thoughts and motivations of the characters in his dramas. Indeed, Wagner's operas are referred to as psychodramas. Clearly the use of the music is meant to not only support the film's drama but refer to the emotional currents hidden beneath the surfaces of the characters who either repress them or simply deny them as clinically symptomatic.

Consequently the extract that one hears as the men arrive in New York for the first time is strangely inappropriate. 'Mark my words,' says Jung, 'this is the future' as the closing music of Götterdämmerung sings out, music which in the opera accompanies the destruction of a palatial castle, ruined by fire and sinking into the Rhine. This doesn't seem totally right for a first glimpse of the freshly constructed high-rises of Manhattan. Better suited would be the equally lush music of the end of Jung's favourite Das Rheingold, that sees the opera's protagonists taking their place in this self same city shortly after its construction.

It is particularly noteworthy that the most persistent extract that Shore uses is of the Siegfried Idyll - which is not an opera at all. This piece was a short piece of music that he wrote as a birthday present to his wife, and received its first performance on the staircase outside their bedroom that morning. It is a love-letter, without a dramatic narrative and its plasticity must be its chief appeal to Shore. Here's a clip of the original.



(This link takes you to the piano version and the rest of the OST).

Friday, 10 February 2012

Thelma, Surrey Opera, Fairfield Halls Croydon

In a strange climate reversal, last night Croydon saw Scandinavian snowfall outside its Ashcroft Theatre but a gulfstream of European melodic warmth on its nominally Norwegian stage. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's hitherto forgotten opera Thelma is a straightforward story of foul play between love rivals given some bizarre supernatural twists. Perhaps the most bizarre is outside the work altogether: that a young black composer who lived and worked in Victorian Croydon might choose an obscure Norse myth as an operatic subject. But then of course, Coleridge-Taylor, studying at the Royal College, had his music encouraged by Elgar and, naturally, there would be no escape from the influence of Richard Wagner. One could spend a fruitless evening trying to work out whether there's more of the first act of Lohengrin (with knights battling over the girl), Rheingold (with the retrieval of submarine gold as the dramatic motor) or even the clumsy interpolation of Parsifal-Christianity as an extra moral thread perpetrated by the Gudrun/Kundry character.

In fact, though the thematics are familiar the music is very much its own event. Like the whirlpool that claims the love rivals in the second act the music spins on its own axis, occasionally overbalancing into the Wagnerian penumbra - the lonely cor anglais following the pitiful Gudrun around is very much that of the coastal third act of Tristan - but also kicking up eddies of Verdi with the gull-flight acciaccaturas of Simon Boccanegra, as well as the choruses of the likes of Otello, and splashing along the pastoral axis of Elgar and Dvorak. It's music strong on melody, though not always in word-setting (the boxy text is unhelpful).

It's also rather set-piece dependent and it was something of an achievement for director Christopher Cowell that this didn't unduly freeze up the action. Bridget Kimak's eliptical permanent set, a cross between a long-abandoned ship's hull and a groyne, also gave the impression of the fateful whirlpool. A coracle provided almost the only stage furniture. I particularly liked the idea of simply inverting the small palm tree to indicate the underwater scene at the beginning of the third act. Christopher Corner's lighting, including some appropriately fluid projections, was a good complement to this. Cowell uses all this space and its permutations to get characters moving and give the chorus options for blocking.

The chorus itself were a rather impressive ensemble. No woollen effort for this amateur group but a healthy, well-projected and remarkably clean body of sound which actually showed Coleridge-Taylor's large set-pieces to be amongst the highlights of the opera. Neither was there any competition with the substantial orchestra that conductor Jonathan Butcher had assembled. The theatre takes the full dynamic range of the music and the voices on stage projected clearly and intact into the auditorium.

The knock-on effect of a competent chorus and orchestra is not to be taken lightly, providing structure and support for the principal roles. Joanna Weeks is a lovely fit for Thelma, her soprano of sufficient weight to carry easily across the general scale of the work, with an ease and sweetness - combined with her exemplary English text - that cuts through (more zart than blade). The final tableau of act 2 in which she reconciles herself to the scant possibility of hope for Eric's return, accompanied by the women of the chorus, is the loveliest of the work, equivalent to the optimistic ecstasy of the equivalent point in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel and a highlight of this performance.

The leading men are split, traditionally, with the tenor as hero and baritone as cad. Alberto Sousa's Eric and Håkan Vramsmo's Carl also have no problem reaching out through the texture: true to their characters Vramsmo barges his way through (it occured to me that the thuggish Carl is Hunding before getting married off to Seglinde) where Sousa calls out over the top. It was good to hear Sousa in a large space having heard him last year in the much closer quarters of The Rosemary Branch's Dinner Engagement. Rhonda Browne's luckless Gudrun squares off the lovers singing her plangent duet with cor anglais rather beautifully.

Of course, with early medieval mythology in play there is scope for all sorts of extraordinary goings on, even by operatic standards and it's no surprise to have not only a conch-wieldcing fairy godmother in the first act but also a malevolent genie pop up in the second. Patricia Robertson played the sea sprite (?) Trolla with a game commitment to the aquamarine movement - from which the credibility of the character actually gained, I might add. Causing trouble with a bag of snuff, Oliver Hunt's Djaevelen manages an unanswered Faustian pact with the thuggish Carl. Hunt sang with great clarity and brought some charisma to what is an ill-refined Mephistophelean role in the drama - I particularly liked the Kaiser Souze-nonchalant exit after the spell in act 2. Completing the palindromic characters are King Olaf and the Neck König of Tim Baldwin and Stephen Anthony Brown respectively.

I was not convinced that Thelma has a place in the normal repertory. However, it is a coherent, musically engaging fantasy, no less preposterous than any other 19th century opera and with a concomitantly sincere score. There is certainly a case for a recording, a case well made by the company in this nicely finessed production.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Jacobin, BBCSO, Behlolavek, Barbican

Photo: Clive Barda for the BBC
The pasty grey of snow-bearing clouds began to disgorge themselves over London late on this afternoon so it seemed the perfect escape to dive into the bunker that is the Barbican concert hall for a performance of Dvorak's romantic comedy The Jacobin. It's a most parochial piece with half-hearted nationalism displaced to the margins by the fun and fulsome romance. At first it looks as if it's going to be a Czech version of Meistersinger, with the overture running straight into an off-stage chorus - the choir in church - followed by a short zoom to a couple united outside. There's even a singing lesson interlude featuring another pair of lovers, overlapping some civic pageantry.

But where Wagner's grand fabric is woven from the top throughout, Dvorak's is a more patchy affair. Though individual characterisations in the music are pretty much on the money they sit proud of the piece, belonging to the Grand Opera tradition rather than any revolutionary Gesamtkunstwerk (that had had its final essay in Parsifal five years previously). I liked Benda's silly scene with the lovers Jiri and Terinka (also with the chorus) and the climactic, touching confrontation between Julie and the Count. Elsewhere melody comes and goes (with some expert modulation of pace by conductor Jiri Behlolavek) but there seems little to get a real grip on.

The team of soloists is much the same as that which put on The Bartered Bride last year - idiomatic Czech voice production, let alone in the snap and crackle of the language. The BBC Symphony Orchestra (Stephen Bryant leading with some fine playing) was augmented by the BBC Singers and a pair of children's choirs. Kenneth Richardson produced a nice simple stage arrangement. I left with a warm heart to take on the city cold.