Saturday, August 19, 2017

Die Meistersinger von Bayreuth

Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline doesn't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele


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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

HAPPY AUGUST

Now that the Silver Birch excitement is behind us, it's time for a bit of a break. Back in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, you could...

...read some of the reviews: http://www.garsingtonopera.org/news/latest-reviews-0

...make a pledge to MEETING ODETTE, my new novel based (in a slightly off-the-wall way) on Swan Lakehttps://unbound.com/books/meeting-odette

...book tickets for one of our GHOST VARIATIONS concerts with David Le Page and Viv McLean:
• 23 October: Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus - 0207 734 4888
• 3 November: Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove
• 19 November: Burgh House, Hampstead
• 2 January: Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire
• 22 February: Leicester Lunchtime Concerts
(more booking details on the posters, left - click to enlarge)

...and/or ALICIA'S GIFT with Viv:
• 20 November: Barnes Music Society, The Old Sorting Office, London SW13 - email barnesmusicsoc@aol.com

...and support JDCMB's Year of Development, here: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb 

THANK YOU SO MUCH AND HAVE A WONDERFUL SUMMER!


Friday, July 28, 2017

Meet our composer: ROXANNA PANUFNIK SPEAKS OUT


And here she is: our SILVER BIRCH composer, the fabulous Roxanna Panufnik. You've heard a lot from me already about the words and the background, so I asked Rox some questions about how she wrote the music.

JD: How does Silver Birch differ from anything you’ve written before? 
RP: The sheer size and range of vocal forces involved is amazing - such a lot to hold at the front of my brain whilst composing! 
JD: How did you go about connecting with the subject and the story? I know I was way out of my comfort zone at first and wondered if you were too?  
RP: Completely. I first wondered how I could empathise with a young man going to war, but the more Sassoon I read and meeting our inspiration Jay Wheeler helped me hugely to relate to our subject. 

Rehearsing the battle scene...

JD: What have been a) the most challenging, b) the most rewarding things about writing it?  
RP: I’ve never been very hot on unpitched percussion and this piece has required a huge amount of it! But with the help of my ex-drummer brother Jem and Garsginton percussionist Cameron Sinclair I’ve conquered my fear! I think the most rewarding thing would be the wonderfully positive reactions to the piece from those taking part in it - professional and non-professional.

JD: You met most of the singers and worked with them in your shed - how did that affect what you wrote for them to sing?  
RP: For instance with Darren Jeffrey (estranged angry father, Simon) we looked at ways of injecting anger into the timbre of his voice without damaging it. With Sammy Furness (our hero, Jack), again, I needed his guidance with writing high up, at the peak of his range, when his brother Davey gets shot in battle. With the other singers it was a case of making sure that I wrote something that was comfortable enough in their voice that they could emote dramatically without worrying about the technical. 
JD: The vast majority of our performers are adult amateurs, young people and schoolchildren. How difficult is it to write the music you want to write while keeping the technical level appropriate for them?  
RP: It’s not at all difficult - I’m a terrible singer so I went by whether I could sing their parts or not! I also had a lot of support and guidance from Suzi Zumpe, who is responsible for training the non-professionals, and learnt hugely form her as I went along.

JD: I based some of the story on what really happened to Jay Wheeler, and he has been wonderfully helpful to me - I even used some of his words in the libretto, especially the “One chance” chorus and Jack’s “Got to look after my brother". Was it helpful for you to work with him too, and in what way?  
RP: It was fantastically helpful to be able to ring him up and ask him what kind of things he heard in the midst of battle (more shouting and screaming than anything else) and running across the desert at night (his own heartbeat). I was also hugely inspired (and moved) by the photos he showed us of him in Iraq with his soldier friends, the place where they slept and also of him and his brother as little boys.

JD: I’ve got the bug for writing operas now. How about you? Shall we do another? :)  
RP: Yes PLEASE!! 
And now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to our premiere!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A few things you need to know about Silver Birch before tomorrow

Sam Furness as Jack, in Iraq shirt; Bradley Travis as Siegfried in WWI uniform

We had the dress rehearsal yesterday. Today everybody gets a rest before tomorrow's opening night. (UPDATE: EXCEPT FOR ROXANNA PANUFNIK, WHO'S ON RADIO 3'S 'IN TUNE' LIVE THIS AFTERNOON.)

So, in no particular order...

1. Here is a beautiful article by Joanna Moorhead for The Guardian about Sister Jessica Gatty, Siegfried Sassoon's niece and god-daughter. I went to see Sister Jess thanks to her nephew in our chorus and her insights into Sassoon's personality and motivations were more than fascinating. They are not directly referenced in Silver Birch, but have informed both the story and Bradley Travis's portrayal of his spiritual presence at a deep level. Very pleased that Sister Jess's story has come to light too.
"I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.
Read the rest here.

2. BBC Arts has been filming us for a documentary that will be posted online on their website, plus some interviews for Facebook Live. Here's the first of the films:




UPDATE, 3.30pm: And here's another film. This time it's me and Roxanna.



3. The word "opera" means "work". Oh yes. If you've never seen an opera company rehearsing, you mightn't realise quite how appropriate that term is. That's partly the idea, of course.

4. Siegfried Sassoon's presence in a contemporary war story not only integrates some of his poetry, but makes the point that the impact of war is as devastating in human terms today as it was a hundred years ago. Jack, our hero, is inspired by Sassoon's poems and turns to his words for guidance.

5. Jay Wheeler, the Iraq war veteran whose story has fed strongly into Jack's, has given Sam Furness his army dog-tags and shirt to wear on stage. He has also lent the youth opera company some of his own army "blueys" (air letters) which they receive in the "Letters from home" chorus. We are very touched that he has embraced the opera with such enthusiasm. He says it has been therapeutic and he'll be with us at the performances.

A number of our performers also have military backgrounds, families or other connections. Here is an interview on the Garsington website with some of them about what Silver Birch means to them.


Roxanna at rehearsal, checking her score

6. A few things that a composer and librettist team need:
• Sympathy
• Empathy
• Chocolate

7. "Never work with children or animals..." This is nonsense. They are wonderful. Here are some thoughts from the Primary company, our youngest performers. 

8. The dog is called Poppy and she belongs to our lead tenor, Sam. This is her stage debut. Someone in our military company remarked that on a desert patrol they would always have a dog, often a black labrador; and another member of the chorus used to be an animal trainer for films and theatre, so she gave Poppy a quick coaching session. Still, resident canine often wags her tail when her owner starts to sing.

9. In the pit, alongside members of Garsington's usual orchestra, are 13 excellent young musicians chosen from local youth orchestras. Each has a professional mentor in the orchestra and plays alongside her/him. Roxanna has written simplified parts especially for them.

10. Our two boy trebles, alternating in the role of Leo, have never sung solo on stage before. They are adorable. Here is an interview with one of them, William Saint, on the Garsington website.

11. The beautiful animation of the moon is by VJ Mischa Ying. Watch out for snippets of Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting and also for what happens when Jack and Chloe say the password. Here is an interview with Mischa on the Garsington website.

12. The Foley team comes from Pinewood Studios and they, too, are working with some students. Look out for their contribution to the battle scene (you can't miss it, really...).

13. PRACTICALITIES for audience members:
• If you want to picnic, come early (the estate opens at 5pm) and eat before the opera. It starts at 7.30pm and there's no interval.
• Dress informal.
• If you're driving please leave PLENTY of time because it's the last weekend of July, it will be busy, and there are road closures in London because of a bicycle race, plus roadworks and speed restrictions on the various motorways. Garsington is very close to exit 5 of the M40.
• If you have sensitive ears, bring ear protectors for the battle scene. It's short, but loud.
• It can get chilly at Garsington Opera, so wrap up warm and bring a brolly.

14. It's totally sold out.

15. (UPDATE, 1.10pm) - Here are some thoughts from various participants in the company, available to read on the Garsington website at the links:
The Primary company 





Sunday, July 23, 2017

Silver Birch: sneak preview

Here's Garsington's introduction to Silver Birch, with director Karen Gillingham, conductor Douglas Boyd and choreographer Natasha Khamjani...

Five days until opening night!