Sunday 9 August 2020

A Life On-Line: Elektra from Salzburg, Alceste from Munich, Russian song from Thomas Humphreys

Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte - Salzburg Festival (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte - Salzburg Festival (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Having seen the Italian version of Gluck's Alceste recently from La Fenice in Venice, it was fascinating to follow it with the French version of the opera performed by Bavarian State Opera and available on Arte TV. This 2019 production was directed by the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with his Antwerp-based Eastman Dance Company, along with soloists Dorothea Röschmann (Alceste), Charles Castronovo (Admète), and Michael Nagy (le Grand Prêtre d'Apollon, Hercule), conducted by Antonello Manacorda. Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography was very striking, but he could not quite avoid the suspicion of the dance happening around the singers, rather than the two coalescing into a whole and I had wondered whether they should have gone the whole hog and given a fully danced version. 

Still, it was in many ways a powerful performance, though the choreographer/director seemed not to know what to do with the chorus and instead of forming a distinct character in the action they were usually left on the sidelines. Röschmann made a moving Alceste, though you suspect the role lies a little low for her, whilst Castronovo floated admirably through Admète's high-lying line. The orchestra under Manacorda did not produce quite the sort of historically informed performance that we expect from major opera houses, fine though the playing was.

Still on Arte TV, we caught the opening event of this year's Salzburg Festival, Richard Strauss' Elektra in a production directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. Ausrine Stundyte was Elektra, Asmik Grigorian was Chrysothemis and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was Klytemnestra. Warlikowski took full advantage of the huge space of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule, with sets by Małgorzata Szczęśniak. There were projections above the stage of some of the action, and the production was very much about opening the work up. 

We prefixed things with a powerful speech from Baumgartner's Klytemnestra, a justification immediately after her killing of Agamemnon. Things never quite lived up to this strong opening. Warlikowski gave us a lot of the action happening off-stage, and we even had the ghost of Agamemnon wandering about. The result was to dilute the closed box claustrophobia of the piece. In the opera, Baumgartner's Klytemnestra seemed to straight out of a 1980s soap opera, and Ausrine Stundyt's lighter voiced Elektra was wonderfully neurotic and nervy without ever quite catching the character's dark intensity.  Asmik Grigorian made a strong Chrysothemis, and Derek Welton was a wonderfully traumatised Oreste.

With the lack of live performances and venues, many performers are becoming pro-active and organising performances themselves, though the financial investment can be significant.

Baritone Thomas Humphreys and pianist Pavel Timofeyevsky gave a fine live-streamed recital from the 1901 Arts Club in Sunday [YouTube]. We heard a group of six romances by Tchaikovsky (Why, Serenade, I open the window, No Reply, Pimpinelle, The Love of a Dead Man) and six by Rachmaninov (He has taken all from me, She is a fair as midday, Dream, Oh no forsake me not, Morning, The Christ is Risen), with two of Rachmaninov's Opus 10 piano pieces, Barcarolle and Humoresque in the middle. This is clearly repertoire that means a lot to both performers, and the songs suited Humphreys' resonant yet flexible voice, bringing out the elements of classicism in the Tchaikovsky and the richer romantic palate in the Rachmaninov. Yet it was fascinating to hear how much the two had in common, though perhaps partly this was the approach to the Russian language, and Humphreys certainly made the most of this. There was one final number, Tchaikovsky's Amid the din of the ball. The recital was organised by the artists themselves, an admirable and enterprising undertaking, supported by crowdfunding and there is still time to support it.

Contralto Jess Dandy and pianist Dylan Perez have been broadcasting three live recitals on YouTube (available for a limited period on Jess Dandy's YouTube channel). The first one was an evening of German song (Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Wagner) entitled Out of mingled air and sparkle, which really caught my attention. The recitals are free but the artists have started a crowdfunder for their first album together, exploring lesser known works for contralto and commissioning a new song from Alex Mills.

Podcasts continue coming thick and fast. One fascinating new one comes from Sir John Eliot Gardiner who is going to be considering Monteverdi and his circle, arguing Monteverdi to be seen as a significant ‘star’ in a constellation of innovative talent that also included Galileo, Rubens, Caravaggio, Kepler, Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. The podcast is available on Libsyn. Over at St John's Smith Square, Jon Jacob, Richard Heason (the hall's director) and Owain Park (director of the Gesualdo Six) talked about the new series of test events for socially distanced audiences [AudioBoom]. And you can also catch the first event, a recital from the Gesualdo Six [YouTube]

Longborough Opera's planned 2020 production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen was celebrated again in another video, this time a delightful animated film which involved the talents of Longborough's orchestra and soloists along with the Longborough Youth Chorus and the children of Longborough primary school who contributed visual images as well as singing! [YouTube] Opera North has been encouraging everyone to sing with its Couch to Chorus project [see my article], and to encourage the participants the members of Opera North's chorus released a video of the opening chorus of Smetana's The Bartered Bride [Twitter].

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Nicholson (also a member of the BBC Singers) and pianist Anyssa Neumann got together digitally to perform 'The Desire for Hermitage' from Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, with words very appropriate for the current climate 'Ah! To be all alone in a little cell with nobody near me; beloved that pilgrimage before the last pilgrimage to Death.' [YouTube]

The Oxford Philharmonic's Oxford Piano Festival is happening digitally this year, and you can catch all the recitals on their YouTube channel, each given by an alumnus of the festival. The second was Kausikan Rajeshkumar in Chopin, Liszt, Schubert arranged by Liszt and Saint-Saens arranged by Godowsky. [YouTube]

Thursday was the 90th anniversary of Veljo Tormis' birth, and the Estonian choir Kammerkoor Collegium Musicale, conductor Endrik Üksvärav, released a video of Tormis' The Curse upon Iron [YouTube]

Live events are starting to trickle in, particularly from Europe. You can catch a fine performance of Tartini's The Devils Trill Sonata from violinist Mikhail Pochekin and pianist Christian Bremback in a church in Eichenau, with a socially distanced audience [Facebook]

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