Classical music and opera - including contemporary forms - from London and beyond.
It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study.
In spite of being based broadly on Euripides’ character, Charpentier’s Medea is curiously modern, and at times her modernity emerges into the music, with harsh discords that strain against baroque formality.
Peter Konwitschny has cut the piece back to its simple lines: boy meets dying girl; they fall in love but society tears them apart; he comes back to her but she dies. Played straight through, with no interval, it runs under two hours.
Sometimes the dancers function as symbols or sylphs, for example appearing as birds to comfort the lonely Queen or as fawning girls to dote and climb adoringly all over Caesar. At other times they serve to paint a character’s emotion more vividly or convey a sense of overall musical mood.
Martinu’s vocal lines have a lightness of touch that makes room for comedy as well as romance and jeopardy. The vocal echo is a recurring motif, adding to the sense of unreality and disorientation. Beauty runs through, among the witty instrumentation and dramatic crescendo
The experience was enveloping and immersive, very much assisted by the chapel’s booming acoustic, which the musicians played into with glee (memorably, the machine-gun clatter of two snare drums grew into a deafening roar).
The music takes its temper and tempo from the sea, with its growling timpani thunder and the swirling chromatic whirlpools of strings. The sea also represents both the site of the Dutchman’s fateful aspiration and his current prison and jailer.
The complexity and stretch of Sondheim’s score is breathtaking. Not a second, or a voice or a single utterance is left to float free from the music. Instead, every ‘yum’, as Mrs Lovett’s customers dig into their fleshy pies, is thread into the music. Every swoon is a note. Every scream becomes a chord.
There are, though, moments of directorial wit as well, and their characterisation of Rusalka – adorably played by Camilla Nylund – is delightful, as she struggles in her high-heels and gets her wedding outfit wrong. Up until the rape bit, the giant cat’s a laugh too.
As a contemporary work, it expresses a dilemma of our time. Do I take sides, or do I invite everyone in to have their say? Do I tell the story my way, or present the audience with fragments and let them make up their own narrative?
If you wanted to take Rosenkavalier at face value as a tale of young love you could, just about, with eyes half shut. But with eyes wide open the tragedy of the Marschallin, engineering the very abandonment she foretold, adds depth to the story.
If we subscribe to the belief that the symphony is the ultimate symbol of classical music generally, the highest, purest classical form, it follows pretty quickly that the best of classical music is firmly confined to the past. Pushing so hard to expand the cultural reach of mainstream symphonic tradition is ultimately a deeply conservative thing to do.
I thought I knew the piece when, some years ago now, Thomas Guthrie asked me to accompany his version with three-quarter life-size puppet and animation. And the dramatic focus provided by the puppet transformed the experience for me. I found new things to enjoy – things I could take back into puppet-less performances with other singers.