In Which there’s a Corner of England that is Forever Bayreuth. Don’s Trip to Longborough

Post 30

Don has never been to Bayreuth, As much as he is drawn, for obvious reasons, to the Holy of Holies of the Wagner world, the long historic shadow of Hitler standing at the window, saluting the adoring SS speckled audience below, means he’s in no great rush. One day.

Meantime, Don was off to the UK’s own country house Wagner fest, deep in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside; Longborough Festival Opera.  For it was that most evocative of operas, Tristan and Isolde. A lone traveller, as Mrs Don was in Edinburgh with one of the Don Daughters, checking out the Uni.

Tristan and Isolde reaching out to each other in Don’s garden.IMG_2599

 

It was the first time Don had seen Tristan live. He was very tempted by the Anish Kapoor designed spectacular at ENO last year (Melton/Skelton) but felt his first Tristan should be in German. Good decision and worth the wait.

Longborough is delightful and pretty quaint. The house is, by Don Towers standards, a gargantuan mansion but say in comparison to Glyndebourne, it’s compact and in the nicest sense, slightly shabby chic. But one soon realises that intimacy and informality is part of the charm that keeps the Wagner Friends returning year after year. And Lizzie and Martin Graham have built a fine tradition of opera in the Cotswolds; far from simply Wagner but it looks like at least one Wagner production every summer for several years now. It can’t be easy putting on top class opera in a local setting and they are to be congratulated.

It was 8th June 2017. Opening night and an auspicious night. Storm clouds gathered throughout a day in which blinding sunshine alternated with driving rain, rainbows and all. It was also the night when the exit polls would point to a sea change in British politics from which, who knows when we shall recover; creating ructions every bit as dramatic as on-stage events. Blow wind, blow. That was for later. For now, the beautiful ladies and penguin clad gents ambled around the grounds, seemingly intoxicated by the sheer beauty and comfortable in the knowledge that whatever lay in the future, the next few hours would transfix and transcend; not to mention transfigure.

IMG_2575

The auditorium is sufficiently intimate that opera glasses are otiose and from the middle of the stalls, Don enjoyed a view he hadn’t savoured at ROH for many a year.

The stage was sparse; bare in the first Act bar a bench (on a ship). In the second a small wall from which jutted a lit torch and in the third, Tristan’s rock. We didn’t need scenery; the real action takes place inside heads and in the tantalising erotic tension between Tristan and Isolde. Mood or occasional scene change was superbly achieved by the subtle lighting. Designer Kimie Nakano and Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod take the plaudits. The latter in fine Wieland Wagner tradition. And lighting of course is crucially important to this opera. “Das Licht!, Das Licht!” exclaims Tristan.

So, with the caveat that Don has two ears but no musical training and is generally idiotic, let’s get into it.

From the Tristan chord, the overture proceeded with confidence and a light touch, under the sure-footed guidance of Musical Director and Bayreuth veteran, Anthony Negus. Light touch and sure footed? Whatever. It sets the scene, anticipates ardour but equally warns of trouble ahead. Generally as intended,  it unnerves.

The off stage sailor tells us our ship is heading east and all is well. Blow wind, blow. But Isolde (Lee Bisset) re-asserts our nagging concern. We are left in no doubt that despite her maid’s assurances, this feisty Irish princess will be not be dragged off anywhere she doesn’t want to be dragged. And England, the conquering enemy, is the worst place of all.

Don first encountered Lee as Sieglinde in Opera North’s 2016 Ring Cycle and was delighted to see she was reviving the Longborough Isolde from 2015. He had high expectations but she exceeded them. Bisset doesn’t just sing the part, she lives and dies the part. And in Don’s humble opinion, that’s the only way to play it. As well as singing with clarity and confidence, every gut wrenching emotion was etched on her face.

Don is most familiar with Waltraud Meier’s 2007 La Scala Isolde (Barenboim/Chereau) and considers (bless him) that Lee has potential to hold her own even in that exulted company, or at least have the great Waltraud in her sights. Both unbelievable performers.

Don is not as familiar with Peter Wedd but he too was excellent. One wondered if he would be a little overwhelmed by Bisset but no, he held his own and his psychological suffering was palpable in Acts 2 and 3.

Don’s previous (non-live) Tristans are the Meier/Storey performance mentioned above and also the fantastic Trelinski production with Nina Stemme/Stuart Skelton at the Met last year. That was amazing, though maybe a little over ambitious delving into Tristan’s parental neurosis as much as it did and whilst complex staging perhaps obscured, Don loved some of the visuals in that; for example the ship radar emphasised aspects of watching, waiting and longing.

But neither of those fine performances were as erotically charged as this. It defined this production and why not? The long pause in Act 2 as Brangäne warns of the approaching dawn needs to be filled and the  lovers’ gentle caresses seemed natural and fitting.

Generally, Carmen Jakobi’s direction was spot on. It didn’t compel the audience to face up to some of the challenges in the Met production; by and large she played it pretty straight and I feel that’s the right move. There’s an abundance of complexity in the intrinsic material for even the demanding audience. From Jungian inner turmoil to Wagner’s unique twist on Schopenhauer (Sex denying the Will, rather than Sex affirming the Will), there’s more than enough to cope with, without  getting into whether Tristan is a manic-depressive and Isolde, bi-polar. Love denied is dramatic enough. Throw in the suspicion, even seething resentment Isolde has for her would be lover and the dialogue in Act 2 makes increasing sense. “Doch” she persistently prods; stress testing his excuses for apparently seducing her for another. But ultimately the white heat of their love wins through. It cannot be constrained; at least not within this life.

King Marke (Geoffrey Moses) cut a spectral figure; his lovely bass filled the hall with sadness as he lamented not only the loss of his friend but also loss of friendship and loyalty. The supporting cast, supported admirably and one can tell from their impressive bios that we shall see and hear a lot more of them in the future.

So we come to the denouement. In the programme notes, Jakobi writes of the low chord marking Isolde’s realisation that Tristan’s life force is spent and she is alone. All she wanted was to be with him in life or death and both had long realised it could only be death. She then moves to the transfiguration scene and the famous liebestod, majestically delivered by Bisset. Jakobi I think hints that from that low chord, maybe Isolde’s spark has gone too and she is on some form of automotive function, a mere bodily husk, until she too physically expires. I like this idea. In this production, Isolde lovingly lays upon the dead Tristan as the orchestra plays out. I think I prefer Waltraud Meier’s La Scala collapse which plays into this same idea that the body continues briefly after the brain has died and the soul departed.

And we were done. After countless Blu-ray and CD experiences, Don had seen the real thing. Tristan and Isolde is raw; physically and emotionally and needs to be seen in the flesh. All the better close up and intimate and where better than at Longborough?

It was a magnificent production and an experience and journey never to be forgotten.

Though we weren’t done. Blow wind, blow. It certainly did. An election  hurricane ripped through our political pre-conceived notions and turned them inside out. In other circumstances, maybe a good thing but for the present Brexit negotiations….well Don is safer sticking to West Ham and Wagner.

Post 30 completed. Don embarked on a journey a year or so back to discover from a standing start, what he could about Wagner. No musical training, simply curiosity. Yet here we are reviewing Tristan, of all things. Blimey!  Its been fascinating and we look forward to continued meanderings down some road or other. Do join him.

If you have been, thanks for listening.

COYI! 

©DonnertheHammer.com 2017

 

In Which Wagner Plays Wembley and the Fat Lady Sings

Post 28

Someone once said Fat is a Four Letter Word. Not sure why, when or where but it probably wasn’t en route to the spelling bee. It may have been on the way back, suitably humiliated. Prat, Twat, Knob. These are words that utterly revel in the finest traditions of four letters and quite aptly describe any proponent of the aforementioned hypothesis.

Anyway, when Don ponders where any of this may be going, he may consider the common (as muck) usage of a Fat Lady Singing, as being the hi-jacking of a dubious operatic cliché; to mean something is drawing to a close. And my friends, when it comes to West Ham’s inaugural season at the Olympic/London/Mahindra/Vodafone/YourNameHere Stadium, the end can’t come soon enough.

FatLadySings-1.gif[credit and apologies to copyright owner]

Lets face it, it’s been a right royal fuck up of a season. From our Uefa Cup exit back when we were still nursing sunburn, through glorious four or five goal home defeats at the hands of clubs too numerous to mention, including Watford. Yes I said Watford for Pete’s sake. To a squad more depleted than a Corbyn shadow cabinet and above all, fondly remembered for a complete and utter absence of anyone capable of sticking the ball in the back of the fecking net. Don had to miss the Palace game which means for an entire season of home league games he never saw us win by anything other than 1-0. Just let the paucity of that statement sink in but not for too long or you may lose the will to live.

Talking of losing the will to live, Don has recently paid two visits to the opera house at Covent Garden. Don’t think we’re finished with West Ham, not by a long chalk but Don is all over the shop today; that’s the way he rolls.  Earlier this week a pretty creditable performance of Don Carlo; suitably dramatic and lovely music, though (and I may be a little biased) I swear there is more decent music in a single Act of Die Meistersinger than the whole of Don Carlo. That whole Verdi/Wagner thing. Lets not go there.

But it wasn’t life threatening. No, that was the week before at the performance of The Exterminating Angel. Based on the iconic Spanish film from the early 1960’s, the premise is intriguing. Dinner party guests at the end of the evening, find they can’t go home. No-one is obviously compelling them to stay but as much as they want to go, they somehow just don’t. Evening turns into night and then the following morning. Still there they are; and increasingly anxious about the situation, to boot. What is happening? We don’t know, they don’t know. Do we care? Well yes, I actually did.

It’s a new opera and conducted by the composer Thomas Adès. That’s exciting! When it becomes the next Tosca we were there when the composer conducted. Alas not. Don likes to think he is open to new, even strange ideas. He’s even grappled with Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica but he found this too much. Naturally when the material is a surrealist psychological drama which makes no sense, the music is not going to be all Mimi and Rodolfo but the dissonance and no doubt clever technical appreciation required, was way, way too much for Don as well as various ladies of certain sensibility. The notes just came at you like random daggers. Several weaker souls flung themselves off of the Sir Donald Gordon Grand Tier onto unsuspecting but grateful guests in the stalls below.

exterminating-angel.jpg[copyright Evening Standard – would be lovely if George could find it in his heart not to be offended]

They may have been stuck in a dinner party on stage but off-stage, Don ran for his life at the first interval. It’s a truly terrible thing to trample on another’s creativity and Don isn’t proud. And he would have liked to have known what happened. Nevertheless there it is. The night was younger than expected, there was time for a pint, a good length of Subway’s finest and be home in time for Mrs Don’s repeat viewing of Housewives of Downtown Benghazi or somewhere so actually, whilst Don was curious as to the Spanish dinner party, the night turned out pretty well.

Back to the Hammers. If we must. Well it’s a West Ham blog; admittedly not one read by anybody but still; standards. How do we know that tree fell in the woods? Well look, there’s a bloody tree on the floor.

One more game; Burnley away. A dead rubber if ever there was one. We are literally playing for money and nothing else. Corinthians it ain’t. Turns out there’s several squillion pounds per place in the Premier League and the difference between our finishing 16th or twelfth may mean we buy that young unproven Spanish forward as opposed to the 35-year-old British has-been. So a lot riding on it. Most of the first team squad is in hospital having operations whether they are needed or not. Apparently its a sponsor requirement. The Club feel on balance the season has gone pretty well; ticket sales for the Player of the Year event (£350 each) went ok and now if they can have a final push on those season ticket renewals that meeting with the bank should be a doddle. Come on You Irons.

As to lesser on the field events, that Liverpool game was a joy. Capitulation on a scale not seen since the Battle of Little Big Horn (ok I saw the film – I’m not actually 150 years old – and actually that might have been the opposite of capitulation but hey.). Some wally had the nerve to tweet about fickle fans leaving before the end. He (for I make that sexist assumption), needs to learn some respect. Don was there in ’69 for the 0-4 home defeat to Man City; he saw live and in cold blood, all 9 goals against us v same opponents in the Cup semi-final 3 or 4 years ago. He even forced his kid to watch all nine;

“No, Daddy no! Don’t make me!”

“Its character forming son. One day, when life seems really tough, the spectre of a rain drenched Roger Johnson will appear, and your petty problems wont seem so bad.”

Little Don still resents. 

Not to mention bearing witness to most horrific defeats in between and since. So re Liverpool the other day, if Don wants to leave at 0-4 with 15 to go, he bloody well will!

Right. Well! That cleared the air.

Wagner playing Wembley eh? Who would have thought?  It’s a hot ticket so be ready to pay over the odds. Its live and will be a debut performance. Tristan? Götterdämmerung? Which will it be? Will Barenboim conduct? Stemme? Meier?   Ok Ok, its David Wagner manager of Don’s new favourite team, Huddersfield Town AFC. If you want fickle my twittering friend, I’ll give you fickle. I’m changing to Huddersfield fucking Town AFC. They’re managed by a Wagner so that’s good enough for Don. Come on you Terriers!

It’s all gone a bit low brow this month. Way too much swearing, barely a breath of Parsifal et al. Not sure Wagner News will be tapping the resource, this week. This is what The Exterminating Angel and that Liverpool game can do to you. If it wasn’t for Housewives of Downtown Benghazi, the week would have been a right cultural right off.

Could it be election fever has got to Don? Lets keep politics out of this and just say, after careful analysis of the various leaked manifestos (manifesti ?) (just what is the etiquette for several manifestos?), Don has decided the only dignified move is the spoilt ballot. It falls a little way short of pithy, tries to sound clever and is ultimately utterly pointless. So in the fine tradition of this blog.

If you have been, thanks for listening.

COYI! (and/or you Terriers depending if you get promotion – conditions apply and weather permitting)

©DonnertheHammer.com 2017

In Which Don is Back, is at the Ring Cycle and is a Tad Disappointed

Post 14

Season’s finished, dust settled, bits of Boleyn going to highest bidder before the gates are finally locked. The removal men have packed up the old house and to continue the metaphor, we (all 60,000 of us), are waiting in the van outside the new place as its not ready for us to move in. From the outside looks lovely but can we make it home?

Enough West Ham. Don left pensive mood back in London, for he was in a state of near febrile excitement. Here was sun drenched Nottingham ready for Opera North’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Don had seen it at the Proms in 2013 but that was an Albert Hall token version of events, albeit with a stellar line -up; Stemme, Terfel, Barenboim, O’Neil, Meier among many, not to mention the Staatskapelle Berlin.

But this was different; this was the real thing…or so Don thought. Last night was Das Rhinegold and today we really get going with Die Valkure, followed in Bayreuth rhythm, by Siegfried on Thursday and Gotterdammerung on Saturday.

Its Don’s own fault really. Whilst it seems years ago that tickets were booked and it was not then billed as semi-staged, his pre-event research left a lot to be desired. Naive too. It was being held in a concert hall and the price for the four operas would have bought one half decent seat at Covent Garden, so the signs were there. But only reading the pre-event programme, did Don realise they were making a virtue of “visually showcasing the orchestra-the central “character” of the Ring.”

So there it was – a concert with singing. But who can beat a week off work in Nottingham so lets make the best of it and get into the detail.

The Opera North Orchestra looked resplendent and sounded great under the guiding hand of the superb Richard Farnes. Seasoned readers will know, that unlike 95% of last night’s audience, Don is in no position to technically judge the music. To his untrained ear it sounded big and exciting from the first (and most important) pre-historic stirrings of the Rhine, to the tumultuous finale. No complaints there.

But Wagner takes a lot of orchestra and if it is on stage, it leaves a depth about the length of Wotan’s (absent) spear for the cast to do their stuff. They can either make the best of that or stand there like dummies and I’m afraid last night, in the main, I think we got the latter.

Lets start with the Rheinmaidens. They are supposed to be naively promiscuous. Teasingly slutty. This is essential to the plot; when they playfully encourage Alberich with sexual innuendo and then each in turn, reject him, it puts him in a position to renounce love which is one of the vital pillars of the whole Cycle. That tone is set in the first 10 minutes of the 18 hours. Last night they barely looked at him; instead stood there and and sang the song.

How would he know they were delightfully slippery? They didn’t come within ten feet of him, barely gave him a glance. Yes the smiles turned to concern when he nicked the gold but come on girls, you’ve been guarding this stuff since before time. It was your only job. The bottom has just fallen out of your world. You need to be wailing in anguish not perfectly maintaining poise and tone.

Then there’s Wotan, the main guy. Michael Druiett, who from not too far back in the stalls, looked oddly like a well fed Richard Wagner. The budget didn’t extend to an eye patch and a hat? And give him an effing spear! You can’t do Wotan without a spear, I don’t care how small the space. The spear represents the rule of law, it gets thudded when we need reminding how important the rule of law is to Wotan and the Cycle. If that point is not conveyed to the audience, there really is no point in the performance. Are we going to get Siegmund and Siegfried with no sword? But he didn’t help himself. He may have been a lovely singer but he was wooden and expressionless. Its hard to convey in one line the importance of his preference to go to Neibelung via the sulphurous pit rather than along the Rhine but he made no effort. Then there is the “unspoken” announcement of his big idea in the last scene; a pivotal point in the tetralogy. Of course the announcement is made and well made by the orchestra but Wotan could have let on that at least he knew (after all it was his idea!), even if the other gods were clueless.

Which brings me to the orchestra. Richard Farnes is right to refer to it as Wagner’s central character. It is for Wagner, the chorus in Greek tragedy, conversing with the audience, subtly playing tricks above and beyond the comprehension of some or even all players on stage. Really good it was too. But the Maestro would have recoiled at seeing it on stage. It stands for everything he railed against. Gesamtkunstwerk it is not and that means for Wagner, it doesn’t work. At Bayreuth, we don’t need reminding, the orchestra is hidden from view altogether.

As for the other Gods, I’m afraid generally the same applies, with the possible exception of Freia who at least had the good grace to run on in panic and actually make physical contact with another member of the cast.

All in all however, Opera North deserves the plaudits it will no doubt receive. I realise now it must be impossible to put on a fully staged festival anywhere beyond Bayreuth. The choice is a poorer version or a different version. Opera North have gone different. I was at a concert not an opera, let alone musik-drama.

So most of the disappointment is with myself for not realising what it would have to be. However, I think my criticism of the woodenness of the cast is fair. You maybe can get away with it in the Prologue which is a lot of narrative. Emotion takes centre stage from tonight onward and I want to see it etched on their faces, starting notoriously, with the first line.

COYI!

©DonnertheHammer.com 2016