Showing posts with label Sir Antonio Pappano. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Antonio Pappano. Show all posts

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dragons take over Covent Garden

The powerful and uncompromising Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones sings Walther von Stolzing in the Royal Opera House’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, alongside his fellow countryman Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. I went backstage to meet him…


Hughes Jones (left) and Terfel (right) in the rehearsal room
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

Jessica Duchen: Gwyn, can you tell us about Kasper Holten’s new production, without giving the game away?

Gwyn Hughes Jones: No! Haha… I think people already know that it’s set in a club, a sort of music club. It reflects that idea of the application of rules to art and expression and how, if they’re not applied conscientiously, they hamstring the expressive sense of spontaneity, that creative evolution in art. We have to have rules in art because human beings have to have structure. Two plus two has to make four: we do need some kind of balance in nature and in the world. We can’t help ourselves. But it’s when rules take over and exist for their own sake that there’s trouble. I think this works for the piece: it doesn’t compromise it in any way. It’s always interesting to see the path directors take in their concepts of how to make a piece relevant to today. I’m sure that, as always, some people will like it and some people will not. We’ll see…




JD: You sang Walther at English National Opera not so long ago, in English, so this is your second Walther, but your first in German. What’s it like to make that change?

GHJ:  In a way, you start all over again. You can’t take anything for granted. The structure of the language is different, the inflection of the stresses are different, the way the language is used is slightly different too, so you have to be mindful of those things in preparation and delivery. I think singing these pieces in English is incredibly useful because you end up with a really broad palette of colour choice. Instead of having maybe one to three colours for a word, you have six or seven. Of course you still have to choose the right ones. But as someone who works in, if you like, the discipline of sound-painting, to have that choice of palette is always a very important weapon.

JD: Walther is a notoriously difficult role. What are the biggest challenges?

GHJ: It’s long. It’s high in some places. It’s not written in a friendly way. Nevertheless, you can look at some works of Puccini and Verdi and you see they, too, are writing for the kind of singer they have a right to expect. They don’t think we arrive without having had any kind of vocal education. These pieces play a part in stretching singers and not compromising them. I think the bel canto style was a hugely important influence on Wagner and this is reflected in all his works to some extent, but particularly in this piece. So it’s about having that elegance, it’s having the youthfulness – and one of the biggest challenges is remaining fresh to the very end.

One difficulty is this paradox that characters like Walther are young, but in real life you have to wait until you’re a fair bit older, a mature singer and a very physically strong and sophisticated singer, to be able to sing these roles to their potential. There is no other way. You will not find a 20-year old-who will sing Walther to its potential. So one of the challenges in this kind of repertoire is to keep the voice young, fresh and vibrant, so that when you come to your potential you can fulfil it for as long as possible. That’s why singers like Gigli, Björling and Pavarotti could keep that youthfulness and vibrancy in their voices for a very long time and that’s what made them convincing exponents.

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther with Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva in the new Meistersinger.
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda

JD: Do you have a regime for looking after your voice?

GHJ: It’s a lot to do with choosing the right kind of repertoire and I think the root of it goes to the beginning of my learning about singing. You have to be fortunate enough to work with good teachers, you need to work with people who know what they’re talking about and you need to be incredibly patient in your development. By all means, have targets along the way, have a long journey, but also work hard within a sense of context. You need to be sensible about repertoire choices and understand that if you do aspire to sing Wagner, if you aspire to sing the Verdi and Puccini spinto roles, then in the same way Wagner was inspired by Bellini, you have to sing that repertoire too: you have to immerse yourself in the bel canto style. You have to sing everything, but it is a process of building by small bricks. You build a very solid foundation, then build on that. You don’t just wake up one morning and find you’re a Heldentenor. It doesn’t work like that – and if people do do that, they don’t last very long.

JD: So it takes 30 years to be an overnight success…

GHJ: Yes, and to remain an overnight success, that’s the thing. It’s not about that initial splash. Spotting potential is the easiest thing in the world; allowing it to develop is something totally different. The onus is on us as individuals, but on the people we work with as well. So it is very challenging and you have to be incredibly patient too.

JD: How did you start to sing?

GHJ: My parents were not academically musical, but they loved opera, my father loved singing and there was always plenty of music in the house. Also coming from Wales there was always plenty of great culture around, so I was never far away from great literature and great poetry in English and in Welsh, and great music too. It was a very common thing for me to hear operatic arias when I was very young, sung by schoolteachers or farmers. In Eisteddfods these are competition arias, so you’d turn up to an Eisteddfod competition and there’d be people singing the ‘Prize Song’ and ‘Vissi d’arte'... So there’s a sense that, yes, they’re great, great art, but also that it wasn’t an elitist thing by any means: they were extremely reachable. You saw people who were having a singing lesson once a week or once a month, singing these arias as well as they’d be sung at some of the greatest opera houses in the world. That always for me was an example to say, ‘Yes, why not?’. 

As someone who comes from Anglesey, whose father is an engineer, whose mother is a housewife, some people would say I have no business whatsoever doing this. And yet all these influences I had in my upbringing gave me the privilege and the opportunity to be able to pick these things, experience them, enjoy them and find a path.

JD: People always think there’s a mystique about the Welsh and singing, but is it perhaps more down to this musical tradition that is very egalitarian?

GHJ: I think it’s a big part of it. Our historical, cultural tradition involves hundreds of thousands of years of storytelling. In this culture before the Romans came to Britain, we didn’t write. And that oral tradition has always been incredibly strong – the old tales in Welsh are thousands of years old and he oldest piece of poetry in the Welsh language comes from the 6th century. As a nation that struggled for its existence, you keep these things very close to you and they’re the things that keep you believing, keep you defending your culture and your language. They are incredbily important to us along with the sense of struggle and telling the story of the struggle. We love our heroes, yet we’re extremely melancholic too. There is that range of expressive colour in our culture that all goes to arm this huge weapon we have, called singing or storytelling.

As Walther in the new production.
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

JD: This is quite a Welsh dominated Meistersinger: you are Walther and the freshly-knighted Sir Bryn Terfel is Hans Sachs…

GHJ: I think it’s a great achievement for the background we come from: the Eistefodd tradition, the amateur tradition. It shows how incredibly rich that was. We both were given a kind of unofficial education outside school: we were being taught some of the most amazing ideas and shown some of the most amazing art and weren’t really aware that it was happening. That’s the most wonderful thing and it’s easy to take it for granted. But it’s not just the musical aspect, it’s the literary aspect too, it’s the poetry, the understanding of how people use words and why people choose certain words to describe something. Being immersed in that – this is the consequence! I think it’s something worth reinvesting in: not just keeping it alive but allowing it to go from strength to strength. And it’s difficult, because Wales is economically poor. So it needs as much support as it can get.

JD: Have you worked with Bryn much before?

GHJ: We did some concerts together in Wales years ago, and we did Falstaff together in Chicago, which was my American debut in 1999. But we haven’t sung together for a very long time. I could have had the chance to sing Walther with him as Sachs when Welsh National Opera did Meistersinger, but it so happened with that season that I was debuting two big Verdi operas and one Puccini within the six months previously and I didn’t think it was wise to take on the part. But then ENO asked me to take on the role and it came at just the right time. It’s about having the longer journey, seeing the bigger picture – you don’t compromise yourself. For every Meistersinger, you need to do a Tosca, a Butterfly, pieces that don’t put you out there to the same extent. It’s good sense.

JD: Do you see yourself doing more Wagner soon?

GHJ: I think so... Ironically, the first opera I ever saw was the Patrice Chéreau production of the Ring cycle on TV, when I was nine or ten years old. It was Dame Gwyneth Jones and it was something amazing. Even on TV, you could tell how amazing it was. Those costumes! Those giants! It made a huge impression. Also, the first classical music tape I bought was 'Ten Tenors sing 20 Arias', which included plenty of Wagner. I enjoyed listening to it, but it didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as the Italian repertoire, Verdi and Puccini – that was what I really wanted to do and the kind of singer I wanted to be. So I didn’t really entertain the idea of being a Wagnerian singer. I started out as a baritone and when I became a tenor there’s an idea of the kind of colour you carry through from being a baritone: people immediately say, “Oh, you’ll sing Florestan, you’ll do Walther and Lohengrin…” But I was thinking about Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Chénier, all these pieces, and I didn’t see myself as being a Wagnerian singer.

As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly
I listened to snippets of Wagner over the years and it didn’t appeal to me. Also the way it was performed didn’t appeal to me, because it seemed that everything I believed in was being compromised. There’s no point working to make the voice as expressive and beautiful a communicative instrument as possible when you’re battling against an orchestra and a conductor who don’t acknowledge that actually they’re accompanying, And in some instances, too, you find that not necessarily the actual decibel volume, but the colour of the volume can be overwhelming to voices, so you have to be incredibly careful with the way that you accompany. Even when they’re expressing emotions that are not beautiful, there still has to be a sense of continuity in that character and that expression. You mustn’t compromise that in order to be heard, because then it totally defeats the purpose. You miss the potential of the work in the first place. So I was reluctant, from hearing the way people were singing Wagner’s music, to entertain the idea of doing that.

But then I found people were saying, “Well, Walther is a lyric part, it’s an Italianate part,” and your ears prick up because you realise it can be done that way and actually it should be done that way. If you go back and listen to people at the beginning of the 20th century, they sing this music in a lyrical, Italiante way – Walther, Lohengrin, they have line, beauty, harmony. You realise that somehow, in the last 50 years of performing this music, something has been allowed to fall into the shadows. And the idea that it can be, needs to be beautiful, it needs to be expressive in the right way, that made me incredibly interested in doing it. So when Welsh National Opera did put on Meistersinger in Cardiff, I went to see it and finally thought that, yes, I could see myself singing it. When the offer did come to sing Walther, I jumped at it, because it had come at the right time.

Now I’m going to be doing Lohengrin in about three years in the US. Parsifal and Siegmund are certainly roles I’d do as well. I do regard myself as an Italianate singer, though, so they’re not my main mission. There is so much to do... I’m not really interested in saying I have done 200 roles. I don’t think you achieve anything except marks on the post that way. The more you do a piece, the more you realise that you actually don’t know it and the more you discover about it. To do the iconic roles that are the mainstream in every opera house in the world, to work those pieces to their potential – not just getting through them but producing work that is significant – that interests me a lot more than tallying the numbers. I’m far more interested in doing 350-400 performances of Tosca than having 200 roles under my belt.

JD: How did you turn into a tenor from being a baritone?

GHJ: I think it’s about the colours you have in your voice. It’s funny – learning how to sing is like forgetting everything you learned between infancy and adulthood. You have to go back to that point where you find the voice works at its most efficient. One of the biggest traps that young singers fall into is that they try to create a voice colour well beyond their years. You have to allow the voice to develop into these colours. It’s OK to sound young, it’s OK to sound not ready – it’s part of that long journey. So in the pursuit of that idea, I sang as a baritone because baritone music was what suited my voice.

I wanted to sing Verdi and verismo baritones, but I always suspected I didn’t have that baritonal colour of all the singers I admired – people like Piero Cappuccilli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill had this beautiful round colour. Even at that age I wasn’t interested in being a lighter baritone singing Verdi’s music because I didn’t think it was honest. It wouldn’t have the gravitas, that noble colour, that these lines demanded.

I came to study in London at the Guildhall when I was 18, with David Pollard. He said to me, “I won’t tell you you’re a tenor or you’re a baritone, I have my suspicions of where you’ll go but what we have to do is work to the potential. We have to get you singing, we have to find out where your voice is most comfortable.” So I started singing as a baritone, because that was the music that fitted my voice. I sang a lot of song repertoire, so even though I didn’t have to make any cast-iron decisions about the kind of voice I was going to be, I was getting an incredibly rich and intense education in repertoire. I sang everything from the beginning, Verdi from the beginning, to get the vocal culture in place.

Then I won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1992, as a baritone, and people started asking if I was interested in working on contract at various companies. The repertoire I was offered, though, was far too challenging. It was understudy work, but it’s one thing to learn a role and quite another to go on stage and perform it, which as an understudy you would have to do, and it wasn’t a good idea.

Meanwhile with my teacher we were starting to look at excerpts of very iconic tenor music – the third act of La Bohème, the first duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca, part of Manon Lescaut, parts that could show unequivocally whether I was a tenor for that sort of repertoire. One day David sent me to William McAlpine down the corridor, a very brilliant Scottish tenor who was also a teacher at Guildhall, to see what he would say. I sang him one aria and he said: “Yep, no doubt!”

But as I’d won the Ferrier as a baritone, a lot of people refused to accept that it was a good idea. I’d also won a lot of scholarships to allow me to study and those were as a baritone as well. But the way I saw it, I was awarded them because of the singer I was, not because of the voice type I was. That’s the point: you have to be allowed to discover and develop. People will always have opinions about the kind of singer you are, but in the end you have to decide where you want to go. And David said, “You have to make a decision: you can be a very, very good baritone, or you can be a better tenor. It’s up to you.” For me there was no question: this was the time to study, to make those decisions, as opposed to waiting another ten years when I might be already established in my career. 

As Cavaradossi in WNO's Tosca. Photo: Robert Workman

JD: And you’ve never looked back...

GHJ: No – there’s too much to look forward to! But you do look back, of course, because this is a career that requires absolute discipline: it requires you to be able to work right at the coalface, work in detail at things and not shirk those challenges. It’s correcting those weaknesses that allow you to build. You don’t want to take a step forward and then realise that the very thing your house is built on isn’t sturdy. So you have to work in that way, while at the same tine being able to step back and see how far you’ve come, and never lose sight of that. It’s difficult to strike that balance. We’re trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s always exciting.

JD: Is Wales still home?

GHJ: Yes indeed. It is my home and I’m obligated as a Welsh professional to work for Welsh National Opera. It’s a fantastic company. You have the potential to produce world-class opera there – you have a great orchestra, world class technical staff, a fantastic 2000 seat theatre, the opportunity to work with Carlo Rizzi, you have the opportunity to work with people who are at the best opera houses in the world and are regarded as the best in their field in the world.

JD: What’s next after Walther?

GHJ: Next I have some concerts between now and the summer at the National Eisteddfod – there are some works I’ve commissioned and as a Welsh artist I think it’s incredibly important to stimulate new compositions in Wales. In the autumn I do my first Radames in Aida and then the new year brings Forza. Next year is heavy on the Verdi and the Puccini, and then I come back to Lohengrin. You have to find a balance between the stuff that stretches and stimulates you and the stuff that stimulates you, but allows you to rest.

JD: I should let you rest too... Thank you very much for talking to us, Gwyn, and we’re looking forward to opening night. 


Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 11 March. Kasper Holten directs, Sir Antonio Pappano conducts and besides Hughes Jones and Terfel the cast includes Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Rachel Willis-Søresnsen as Eva and Allan Clayton as David. Details and booking here.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome to Kaufmann Central!



He's back. Presented the other day with the Special 'Victoires de la mystique classique' Award in France, Jonas Kaufmann sang Rota's 'Parla più piano' (aka The Godfather) at the ceremony. This was it.

Now is the winter when my discount tent is pitched on the concrete outside the Barbican Centre. In these grim times we need something to look forward to, and if you happen to be a "Kaufmaniac" the ultimate thing to look forward to is about to happen, right here in sunny London.

Jonas Kaufmann is presented with the Special 'Victories de la musique classique' award in Paris. Photo: Edouard Brane

'Der Jonas' is coming to town for The Kaufmann Residency at the Barbican Centre. Between tomorrow (4 Feb) and Monday week (13th) he is giving three concerts and an open interview. Some of his fans here have been nail-biting a little over the past months while he has been off, recovering from what was apparently a hematoma on a vocal cord. The pessimists among us wondered if the residency would actually go ahead.

The other week, though, Kaufmann made a triumphant return to the stage in Paris as Lohengrin, and there's no sign of fading ambition. A new recording is coming out shortly (UK release in April), in which he sings the whole of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And in case you haven't heard, news is out that a concert performance of Tristan Act II is planned for New York in April 2018. One hopes that may indicate the ultimate Wagner tenor role sidling gently into the repertoire...

He gave an interview to Paris Match talking about his return to the stage, saying that everything is going rather well.

Vous dites avoir eu encore des soucis de santé. Comment allez-vous ?
Je vais très bien maintenant, ma voix aussi. On a déjà fait des répétitions, tout est impeccable, grâce au temps de repos imposé. Mais ça a été un moment difficile à passer pour moi, d’autant que je ne suis pas quelqu’un de très patient. J’aime vraiment agir, prendre tout en main. Et j’étais là à attendre, sans avoir la possibilité d’accélérer les choses. Personne ne pouvait me dire si ça durerait deux semaines, un mois, deux mois… En quatre mois, l’hématome s’est résorbé. Tout est redevenu normal, les conditions sont donc idéales. Ce n’était pas mon premier choix de recommencer avec “Lohengrin”, même si j’ai déjà tenu le rôle plusieurs fois. Je connais cette production que j’aime beaucoup. Avec cette orchestration de Philippe [Jordan], j’étais sûr qu’il n’y aurait pas de risque. Donc, je suis très content.

Anyway, back to London. Here's what's happening. Everything is sold out, but do try for returns.

4 Feb: Recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch

Schumann Kerner Lieder, Op 35
Duparc
‘L´invitation au voyage’ 
‘Phidylé’ 
‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’ 
‘Chanson triste’ 
‘La vie antérieure’
Britten Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22


8 Feb: Wagner

Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Wesendock 
Lieder
Act I from Die WalküreJonas Kaufmann tenor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano 
conductor
Karita Mattila soprano
Eric Halfvarson bass


10 Feb, 2pm, Milton Court: In Conversation

Jonas Kaufmann in conversation with young singers at Milton Court. 

Jonas Kaufmann talks to and works with aspiring singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: an unprecedented chance to witness a master-musician discussing the practicalities and fundamentals of his craft in the informal atmosphere of Milton Court.


13 Feb: Strauss, Elgar, Korngold

The Four Last Songs. Yes, they're originally for soprano. Yes, that's just fine. And yes, the programme opens with Korngold's Schuaspiel Overture, which I have never before heard live and certainly not in London, and this requires its own pre-breakfast celebratory somersault.

Korngold Schauspiel OvertureStrauss Symphonic Interlude from Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin
Strauss
‘Ruhe meine Seele’
‘Freundliche Vision’ 
‘Befreit’ 
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’
Elgar In the SouthStrauss Four Last SongsJonas Kaufmann tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I am intending to go to the whole lot. For the duration, JDCMB is becoming KAUFMANN CENTRAL. I'll be reviewing the performances, reporting on the conversation and keeping the Kaufmaniacs up to speed on how it's all going. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, I need that and so do a lot of us.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tears, fears and healing at BBC Music Magazine Awards

The most touching moment of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, held last night at Kings Place, was when the Instrumental Award winner took the platform. Cellist David Watkin received his prize for his CD of the Bach Cello Suites from the hand of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in some of whose orchestras David was lead cellist for around 20 years.

What was left unsaid was that this immensely-praised CD has had to be his last; in summer 2015 an autoimmune condition called scleroderma forced his retirement from the instrument. He continues to blaze across the early music skies, though, as conductor and devoted teacher.

In his acceptance speech he made the powerful point that if our field of music is to continue at all, we have to educate as many people as possible about it; and he gave his own children a special thank you. Storytelling, he said, is the single best preparation for giving a good musical performance, especially reading aloud to kids. His two have been treated to his rendition of the whole of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. "If you want to prepare, find some children and read to them. And do the voices!" he advised.

He accepted the award, too, on behalf of all undersung continuo cellists, those beings who often find themselves standing in the rain after playing every note of a long oratorio while a soloist who's sung for ten minutes of it swooshes by in a limo, splashing them as they go...

Just one highlight, there, of a terrific line-up to celebrate the best and most honest music-making on CD. Other winners included conductor Sakari Oramo, two of whose discs were nominated in Orchestral, and who won for his Nielsen Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque for their Vivaldi L'Estro Armonico; and the splendid young Schumann Quartet were there to perform a piece of Ives from the disc that scooped the Newcomer of the Year award.

Rosalind Plowright accepted the DVD award for Dialogue des Carmélites from Paris, directed by Olivier Py; she remarked that she was the only British cast member in a line-up of leading French singers as the doomed nuns, and had been asked to audition for the role to make sure her French was up to it. "I got the job," she declared. Record of the Year was the winner in the Opera category: Aida, starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. The fabulous baritone Ludovic Tézier stepped up as the cast's representative to collect the prize.

A special plaudit to the choir Tenebrae, who won for a disc of Brahms and Bruckner motets that was recorded in support of Macmillan Cancer Care. They were there and sang Bruckner's 'Christus Factus Est', and very gorgeous it was. We should all buy that CD.

You can see the full list of award winners and hear extracts from the discs here.

Many of the guest award presenters - including Ed Balls, Clemency Burton-Hill and James Naughtie - reflected on how playing the piano in public had proved far more frightening than standing at the dispatch box or broadcasting to three million people on the radio. But one award was presented by "Dr Christian" - the medical presenter of such popular-health TV programmes as Supersize Versus Superskinny - who made an impassioned speech about how important music is to him, and to so many of his patients as a veritable medicine for healing. Indeed, he thanked the music profession from the medical profession.

A beautiful evening, all in all, and one that left a tug at the heart. You realise the impermanence of things. You realise the dedication, effort, time, vocation and sacrifice that goes into the making of music and the vital nature of its support for our souls. It takes so long to build up that expertise and the structures that support its existence. It can all be swept away in the stroke of someone's pen. We can't let that happen if we want future generations to experience the joy and life-enhancing beauty we've been lucky enough to have ourselves. In Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just earmarked nearly $1.9bn for culture and the arts. Here, though, music education is fighting for its life and entire communities stand to be deprived of it and of the performing arts due to local authority cuts. And meanwhile, this is happening... Let's get a grip now, once and for all. Factory reset of human values, please!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Smells like opera?

Scented on the horizon: a new Cav & Pag at the ROH, opening on 3 December complete with passion, murder, incense and...baking?! My piece is in the Indy today.

Damiano Michieletto rehearses Paglicacci. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
This was a lot of fun to write and I am only sorry to have missed recently a cookery opera (Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit) in which mezzo-soprano Emma Curtis baked a gluten-free chocolate cake on stage and the audience could eat it afterwards. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Down the King's head with Karol, Tony and Kasper

(NB: contains spoilers. If you haven't seen the ROH Król Roger yet, and you're going to, and you don't want to know what they do with it, look away now and come back afterwards...)

There's a live streaming tonight of Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger (King Roger) from the Royal Opera House. Highly recommended. A gift of an excuse to do this opera has appeared - namely the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, of big, oak-dark tone and native ability with the language - and in Tony Pappano's hands the score doesn't only seduce, but blisters and burns. I went in last week (reviewing for The JC) expecting honey and rosewater, but found neat chilli vodka instead. You can see the streaming on the brand-new Opera Europa platform - 15 of Europe's leading opera houses clubbing together to stream productions free to all - or on the ROH's own Youtube channel. It will be available on demand for 6 months afterwards.

Kasper Holten's production is, first, clever, and second, clear. The score and the action - inspired by Euripides, but written by the composer's cousin and travelling companion, the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz - are sensual and heady for a good reason; the composer's inner conflicts, as a gay Catholic in the early 20th century, are given full rein to express themselves, as is the musical lure of the exotic near east and north Africa, where matters at the time were less repressive. Holten takes us inside the King's head, and I don't mean that Islington pub.

The first act finds the stage dominated by a giant head. In act two, the face turns to the back and we see its inner workings: three levels, connected by iron staircases. The superego at the top, somewhat underpopulated; the ego, strewn with piles of old books; the id, beneath, a mass of seething, writhing dancers, hemmed in, struggling to get out. In act III the question arises: what happens when they do? And who are they? And who, then, is the Shepherd?

Szymanowski's shepherd - sung here by the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, with a range of expression that carries him from rose velvet in the centre to knife-edge iron at the top when the drama demands - is (like Korngold's Stranger from Heliane, oddly enough premiered a year later) a newcomer in a repressed, traditional world. He arrives preaching love and hedonism; the Queen is enchanted by him; the King is filled with conflict, his adviser Edrisi warning him to be cautious and the church powers encouraging the stamping out of this unorthodox approach to life. Roger tries to condemn the stranger to death; Queen Roxana begs him not to.

But Roger is as mesmerised by this beautiful, tempting man as everyone else is. Szymanowski's music proves to us that the attraction is sexual; and in the drama, Roger's relationship with Roxana is clearly in trouble. But Holten remembers that Roger is a king and that his populace are all too keen to follow the newcomer instead. So who is this charismatic political upstart in his raw silk coat? A smouldering bonfire in the centre of the stage at the start of act III soon leaves us in little doubt as the populace bring out books to burn. This opera was premiered in 1926, and the costumes here are in the style of that time or shortly after.

Sometimes subverting an opera's intrinsic story is a mistake, on those occasions when you feel the solution is imposed on questions that were never there in the first place. But this is different. This is one of those lightbulb moments that you didn't necessarily see coming up, but that makes complete sense - and makes the production as vital an experience as the opera is in the first place.



I haven't written anything about the general election here because I simply don't know what to say other than "well, I didn't vote for them...". (Our local MP is a popular, independent-minded Tory, Zac Goldsmith, a vocal opponent to Heathrow expansion. Nobody else stood a chance round here.) I like the idea of the "northern powerhouse" and especially of faster trains thereto. But I dread the deepening of the already insane inequalities in our society; I dread what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country; and I fear an EU referendum that may leave us an isolated, powerless island on fantasy-fangled ideological grounds, even though the country's business leaders think we would be stark raving bonkers to take such a course. And I don't like to think what will happen to the arts. Last time round, a number of small companies and organisation either went under or had to find radical ways to reinvent themselves. This time, I think that may well start happening to bigger ones. And the BBC is going to face a huge upheaval next year when the licence fee arrangement is due for renewal or revision.

What's this got to do with King Roger (apart from another King Roger having abdicated from the Proms while the going was good)? This: it shows us what we don't have - specifically, a charismatic leader whose personal magnetism and honeyed promises can lead huge swathes of the population to follow him into dangerous paths. And if we don't have this, says the production, perhaps it's just as well. It's possible that one, of sorts, may emerge in due course - and it may not be who you think - but maybe we should count our blessings that no Szymanowskian shepherd of any one of those many political hues has yet walked through the gates of Westminster.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TONY PAPPANO: MORE POWER TO HIS ELBOW


I had an excellent chat with Tony Pappano recently about Manon Lescaut (which opens tonight), working with Jonas Kaufmann (who's singing Des Grieux), what it's like to be music director of the Royal Opera House, why conducting gave him tennis elbow and what he has to say to our government about cuts to the arts. Article is in today's Independent.

"I say to these guys: be careful. This place [the ROH] is one of several crown jewels in the UK; internationally speaking it's a fantastic representation of our grit and our taste. And I think funding decisions are made so quickly sometimes, and so recklessly. It's the same approach in music education, which is facing enormous cuts. This is ridiculous. It's not 'my opinion' that people who study music develop their brains better for the future – it's proven fact. Take that on board!"