Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Dark Mirror: Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican ☆☆☆

Ian Bostridge in The Dark Mirror ©Hugo Glendinning

First, I must admit that I am more familiar with Schubert's Wintereisse through the voice of Ian Bostridge, but sung 'straight' with nothing else but a piano to accompany the tenor. Last year, I was completely absorbed by Bostridge and international pianist, Thomas Adès’s intimate concert at the Barbican (click here for review), when it was performed to coincide with Bostridge's book, Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. Bostridge’s take on this landmark piece encapsulates the literary movement, Romanticism, which also inspired many cultural icons including Samuel Beckett.
Wintereisse is regarded as one of the greatest song-cycles ever written. The emotional impact, the sense of longing and loss, which also influenced German poet, Wilhelm Müller who was known by his contemporaries as the 'German Bryon.' Schubert’s music and German poetry stirs and captivates audiences, and gets them to ask, 'who is this young man in despair? Why does he depart and wander into the cold? And why does he lament lost love? Schubert - who died at the young age of 32 - has written a work that hones in on the darker reflections of man, the meaning of existence and the human condition.
Now, we are back again at the Barbican, a year later, to hear the same delightful voice, but not to the tone or source of Schubert, but Hans Zender in a multimedia staging directed and designed by Netia Jones.
The Britten Sinfonia, robustly conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, are located on the right side of the stage and begin with scratching, blowing, wind-like sounds. It doesn't get straight into the first piece 'Gute Nacht', but has you lingering for a while as it builds to a formidable crescendo, subtly and elegantly ceased by violinist Thomas Gould with the beginning bars of our much-loved first piece. Zender's music distorts, echoes, re-records, and stretches - you simply don't know what to expect. With more than twenty musicians of the Britten Sinfonia performing, ranging from a guitarist, harpist and accordion player, the work is unusual and full-on experimental. Though there are many moments where the impressive music sends you off, drifting to a cold and empty place.
Ian Bostridge in The Dark Mirror ©Hugo Glendinning
First performed in 1993, Zender's re-laying of the work exemplifies the loneliness and depression of our protagonist, providing a different interpretation to the Winter's journey for a modern audience. This interpretation being far more distant and harsher, and, at times, uncomfortable through Jones's visual projections, bold lights and moving imagery. Bostridge had performed Schubert's cycle for a TV film, under the direction of David Alden, which was first broadcasted in 1997, and there in the background are huge projections of Bostridge's younger self, singing the same words as his current 51-year-old self.
This somber imagery is mesmerising - Bostridge is confronted face-to-face with his youth. One side of the screen is a side profile of himself while the other is his former self looking back at him. It is a pinnacle moment - audiences' will reflect on their youth in a split second. The use of black and white, even gray, instill Winter hues and allude to memory and recollection. The monochrome display and use of film also suggest various genres from film noir, black and white film and Weimar cabaret.
Jones's multimedia moves us into freezing temperatures, murky shadows, fields and landscapes of snow, rain storms and oceanic waves. The camera, also known as a 'dark mirror', is a powerful source of presenting another version of reality, which rings true for many film-makers. Yet Jones's vision, although ambitious and unique, can be distracting and overwhelming. Sometimes, it felt like I was watching a cheap karaoke film, except we, the audience, aren't allowed to sing along.
However, Bostridge did not disappoint. His tenor voice sung with deep sorrow, which is spellbinding for an audience, which would most likely be filled with many of his fans. My favourite pieces - Der Lindenbaum (the Linden Tree), Der Leiermann (the Hurdgy-Gurdy man), Die Post (the Post), Die Krähe (the Crow) - were just as eloquently and vividly sung. In summary, I prefer my Winterreise 'straight', not shaken, but any Bostridge devotee would be silly to miss out.
This event took place from 12 - 14th May 2016. For more information about the event, or events at Barbican, please click here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Magic Flute: Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer ☆☆☆☆

Last night saw the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra and its characterful conductor, Iván Fischer present The Magic Flute at the Royal Festival Hall. The evening was an enjoyable one, and the 'staged concert', the maestro had called it, brought to light what can – really - be recreated at the Royal Festival Hall. Most operas and concerts at the Royal Festival Hall involve soloists with scores read from a music stand and the orchestra behind them, yet this event was a special one - a proper stage for Mozart's action to take place, with the orchestra delightfully performing below in the pit.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra, known as one of the top orchestras in the world and winner of various accolades (including New York Magazine's 2013 list of the city's top classical music events and numerous Gramophone Awards for their orchestral albums), is currently on an international tour amid funding cuts decided by its city's General Assembly - cuts from 260 million forints (US$938,000) to 60 million forints (US$217,000). That being said, the performance last night proved how solid and defiant the orchestra and its maestro were at such a crucial time; only last Saturday they protested in Vörösmarty Square, central Budapest.

Last night, Fischer displayed his inner child as both conductor and director of the production, with singspiel successfully presented by English actors, (though I must admit, I wasn’t privy to this and thought Mr. Fischer actually needed real audience members to play a role in the opera. Damn it!) Originally performed in German as Mozart’s librettist Emanuel Schikaneder wrote it in the 18th century, Fischer had adults, teenagers, and children enjoy an evening of German singing and English dialogue, with large visual projections of pages plucked out of a children’s storybook.

This crafty technique meant fewer issues with moving around props or set designs, which hardly happens at the Royal Festival Hall, and, therefore, more visual stimulation and absorbing imagery for the audience. Actors and singers worked in sync with one another – Scott Brooksbank would translate the words and feelings of Tamino just before Bernard Richter projected Tamino’s deeper emotions and love for Pamina with his beautiful voice. The same can be said for actor, Bart Van Der Schaaf who’d bring the English crowd back to London, out of the dream-like fantasy, as lonely bird-catcher, Papageno. He released some light humour here and there, which was tidied up by bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s impressive voice.

The conceptual and creative imagery deserve attention too. Much scholarship has been invested into the hidden meanings in Mozart’s ‘grand opera’, most of which has alluded to the overtly Masonic nature of the piece, coinciding with 18th century Enlightenment, and in this production images of the sun and moon were prominent throughout. Though the opera is perfectly accessible for children, there are elements of opera-seria cleverly implemented with the symbolism of the Queen of Night, which was performed by Mandy Fredrich last night. Her voice hit the royal high-Fs but, from my rear stalls, it would have been nice to hear her sing a little louder, otherwise she gave a good enough performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’, which kept the younger audiences happy. Particularly memorable was Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as the captured princess, Pamina. She has a distinctive colouring and sung with particular control and composure, which made her voice shine in ‘Ach Ich fühl’s’.

Krisztián Cser, Norma Nahoun and Rodolphe Briand gave confident and reassuring performances as Sarastro, Papagena and Monostatos. The three ladies in purple and blue wigs, sung by Eleonore Marguerre, Olivia Vermeulen, Barbara Kozelj also gave brilliant performances. And not forgetting the three boys, also dressed up as little lions, from The Hungarian State Opera Children’s Choir. They were squeaky clean on stage, and a delight to see and hear.

There were some unique moments to remember including an English speaking, and older version of, Papagena attempting to communicate with a German speaking Papageno, desperately trying to wake up his English counterpart. And towards the very end, when Papagena and Papageno come together to sing their duet, ‘Pa Pa Pa Pa, their puppy love is expressed by mushy imagery of children sprouting in the background. Yet mushy pantomime aside, Fischer seemed excited and pleased to be performing this night. The Budapest Festival Orchestra performed with flair yet they weren’t on fire - they honed in their enthusiasm enough to perform the opera in a light-hearted and leisurely pace. That’s not to say the opera was slow, but indeed, a playful and fun production, safe enough for children. Yet, it would have been nice had Papageno been a little bit wittier with his jokes - nevertheless a fun night at the staged concert. 

For information on classical events at the Southbank, click here

For more about the Budapest Festival Orchestra, click here