On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below:

Arcana at the opera: Pelléas et Mélisande @ Symphony Hall

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Saturday 23rd June, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Pelléas – Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Mélisande – Katja Stuber (soprano), Golaud – Roland Wood (bass-baritone), Arkel – Matthew Best (bass), Geneviève – Dame Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano), Doctor – Renaud Delaigue (bass), Yniold – Freddie Jemison (treble)

Members of CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Graźinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, London
Saturday 23 June 2018

It might not have been on the scale of the two weekends with which the City of Birmingham Symphony marked the centenary of Debussy’s death in March, though this evening’s concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande provided a fitting climax to this year’s commemorations.

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama a highpoint of musical impressionism. It was this blend of aesthetics that the present account brought out in full measure, so confirming Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla’s authority and the CBSO’s conviction in French repertoire as extends back almost a half-century to Louis Frémaux’s tenure. Obscure as the opera’s narrative can appear, there was nothing equivocal about tonight’s performance.

Vocally it was cast from strength and not least in the title-roles – Jacques Imbrailo’s eloquent and imploring assumption finely complemented by that from Katja Stuber, whose poise and limpidity betrayed no hint of coyness. Between them they amply conveyed a sense of people drawn together despite themselves and prevailing circumstances; the serenity characterizing their relationship gradually eroded as the net of fate closes around them. Golaud unwittingly plays the defining part in this, such as Roland Wood recognized with singing of great force but equally an emotional fragility which undermined every exchange with his wife and half-brother. Dramatic tension generated in the third and fourth acts is as tangible as in any opera of the period, and there was no doubting its presence as this account reached a fateful climax.

This is not to decry the other vocal contributions. In particular, Matthew Best was riveting as Arkel – ruler of a decaying kingdom (and dysfunctional dynasty) whose haunted demeanour was allied to a pathos and compassion that commanded the platform at his every appearance. Nor was there anything undersold about Felicity Palmer’s Geneviève – which, limited as this role may be, conjured the requisite foreboding in the face of inevitability that sets the course for all that follows. Renaud Delaigue was sympathetic if a little over-insistent as the Doctor, while Freddie Jemison was ideally cast as Yniold – his exchanges in Act Three with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted. It may enjoy the most incidental of roles, but the CBSO Chorus duly acquitted its brief (and here offstage) contribution with great subtlety.

Otherwise, and for all its radical take on French prosody, this is an opera where the orchestra plays a pivotal (and arguably determining) role, such as Graźinytė-Tyla recognized in the way she steered the emotional ebb and flow of the music with calm assurance. Momentum during the first two acts seemed a touch fitful, but that across the two which follow was unerringly gauged – so leaving the fifth act to unfold as a distanced while undeniably poignant epilogue which ultimately evaporates as if to underline the dream-like aura of much that has occurred.

This performance was enhanced by Jonathan Burton’s idiomatic surtitles and an absence of concert presentation or ‘scenic treatment’ as might have impeded the musical impact. A pity it does not seem to have been recorded, as this reading would have been worth hearing again.

For Arcana’s coverage of the two Debussy weekends in Symphony Hall, click here for the first weekend and here for the second

Arcana at the opera: Coraline @ Barbican Theatre

Mark-Anthony Turnage Coraline

Opera in Two Acts – Music by Mark-Anthony Turnage; Libretto by Rory Mullarkey, after the novella by Neil Gaiman; Sung in English (no surtitles)

Barbican Theatre, London

Thursday 29th March, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Coraline – Mary Bevan (soprano); Mother/Other Mother – Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); Father/Other Father – Alexander Robin Baker (baritone); Miss Spink/First Ghost Child – Gillian Keith (soprano); Miss Forcible – Francis McCafferty (mezzo-soprano); Mr Bobo/Second Ghost Child – Harry Nicoll (tenor); Third Ghost Child – Dominic Sedgewick (baritone)

Aletta Collins, designer; Giles Cadle, set designer; Gabrielle Dalton, costume designer; Matt Haskins, lighting designer

Britten Sinfonia / Sian Edwards

Barbican Theatre, London
Thursday 29th March 2018

From the streetwise allegory of Greek, through the traumas of war in The Silver Tassie and tawdry decadence of Anna Nicole: Mark-Anthony Turnage has always been unequivocal in his choice of topics for dramatic treatment, and Coraline ultimately proves no exception.

Its libretto is expertly derived by Rory Mullarky from a novella by fashionable author Neil Gaiman, but what really makes this opera succeed as a theatrical concept is the equilibrium secured between those real and imaginary worlds being traversed by the eponymous heroine in terms of their narrative symmetry and of musical evolution. In these respects, the piece is something of a breakthrough for Turnage – enhanced with an undemonstrative effectiveness of staging which makes up for in scenic integration what it might lack in visual immediacy.

Utilizing the ostensibly inflexible space of Barbican Theatre, Aletta Collins has fashioned a production which underlines the scenario’s uneasy pivoting between fairy-tale and allegory; enabling both characters and settings to appear unexceptionally human while indicative of something ‘beyond’. Her achieving this has been abetted by the engaging and never unduly tricksy designs of Giles Cadle, functional yet never utilitarian costumes by Gabrielle Dalton and effective while unfussy lighting from Matt Haskins. It might be argued the Other House into which Coraline ventures is insufficiently distinct (eye-buttons aside!) from the real one, but such visual consistency serves to unify dramatic action across and between acts; and so ensure an equivocation between environs as points up the underlying moral more explicitly.

These visual qualities are complemented by vocal ones. It might not call for virtuoso singing per se, but Coraline does require tightness of ensemble such as the present cast has in spades. Mary Bevan makes a sympathetic though never cutesy impression in the title-role, gaining in expressive conviction as the drama unfolds, while Kitty Whatley arguably steals the show in her assumption of the mothers. That of the fathers may be more simply drawn, but Alexander Robin Baker is likable and engaging; no less than Harry Nicoll as hapless inventor Mr Bobo. Gillian Keith and Francis McCafferty complement each other ideally as faded thespians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible; the former giving a whimsical cameo as the First Ghost Child, with her companions represented in equally touching fashion by Nicoll and Dominic Sedgewick.

Concerning Turnage’s music, it might easily be dismissed as effective in underpinning stage-action while lacking the memorability and individuality of his best scores. That said, there are numerous stylistic traits consistently in evidence – not least the pungent rhythmic unisons and harmonic astringency such as this composer has made his own. It helps that the score is given with such audible conviction by Britten Sinfonia, increasingly familiar in the opera-pit, and is conducted by Sian Edwards with an appropriate amalgam of incisiveness and dramatic focus.

Whatever else, Coraline secured an evidently appreciative response from adults and children alike, for whom this drama’s more traditional aspects seemed not to inhibit their enjoyment. Not a mesmeric or revelatory night at the opera, perhaps, but an enjoyable and appealing one.

Further performances of Coraline take place at the Barbican Theatre on April 3, 4, 5 & 7 at 7pm and April 7 at 2pm. For more details visit the Barbican and Royal Opera House websites

Arcana at the opera: Madama Butterfly @ ROH

Puccini Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London

Saturday 22nd April, 2017

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Productions of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera are notable for their longevity. That by Robert Helpmann held the stage over three decades until 1983, while the current production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier has now reached its fifth revival in barely 14 years.

Notions of the balance between Japanese tradition and American imperialism have inevitably changed much since Puccini’s day (though aren’t the music’s frequent allusions to The Star-Spangled Banner more than a little ironic?), but this Leiser/Caurier production continues to strike a plausible balance between social comment and an archetypal Japanoise which skirts without descending to cliché. Enhanced by Christian Fenouillat’s plain though unfussy sets, Agostino Cavalca’s unexceptional if appropriate costumes and Christophe Forey’s subdued yet pertinent lighting (the silhouette strategy paying dividends in Act Three), it makes for a presentation which avoids subversion while also underlining those provocative elements in Puccini’s music too often sacrificed when his score is rendered as a sentimental tear-jerker.

Vocally this ‘second cast’ is anything but second rate. Reprising the role from 2015, Ana María Martínez brings ardour and eloquence aplenty to Cio-Cio San; besides an edginess to her sending-up of Yamadori’s pretensions in Act Two then a deft pivoting between elation and desolation, before the fateful denouement, which only adds to the range of a character made wise beyond her years. With notable Royal Opera roles in Mozart and Verdi already behind her, Martínez is clearly an artist as versatile vocally as she is arresting dramatically.

As also is Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai, previously heard as Rodolfo at the ROH and here harnessing his natural richness and resonance of tone to a portrayal of Pinkerton that, if not making him exactly sympathetic, contextualizes his shortcomings to a degree that avoids the callous or mean-spirited. His plangent Act Three aria is the more affecting for its absence of false emoting, while his vocal elegance elsewhere works admirably in those numerous duets which throw into relief his shortcomings – resulting in a striking and resourceful assumption.

The secondary roles are hardly less successful, not least Scott Hendricks as Sharpless whose desire to do the right thing is always outdone by his inability – even unwillingness – to alter the course of events. Elizabeth DeShong exudes warmth and compassion as Suzuki, and her masterly acting makes appreciably more of this part on-stage than is evident from the score alone. Carlo Bosi is a cunning and deceitful Goro, Jeremy White summons all his vocal and dramatic presence for a riveting cameo as the Bonze, while Yuriy Yurchuk brings the right sardonic touch to that of Yamadori. Emily Edmonds does what she can with the overly brief role of Kate Pinkerton, while Gyula Nagy is a properly portentous Imperial Commissioner. The roles of Butterfly’s family seem as well-contrasted in vocal as they are in visual terms.

A further plus is Renato Balsadonna’s conducting, superbly geared to this opera’s emotional contrasts and dramatic pacing while securing a committed response from the ROH orchestra. It sets the seal on this revival of a production by no means at the end of its natural life-span.

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood