Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Billy Budd, ENO

It's difficult to know what ENO's new Billy Budd is really trying to achieve. This confusion - perhaps 'mist' is a more apposite word - is not helped by a good, solid, clean reading from a company working well under a newly honoured music director (Edward Gardner's OBE was announced at the weekend).

David Alden's production is a large-scale curiosity, notably through his designer Paul Steinberg. A non-specific updating might be taking us to the high-watermark of industrial merchant sea-going. Certainly the officers' costuming suggests early twentieth century. Yet the interior of the ship despite being dutifully holy-stoned at the curtain to the opera proper bears no overt suggestion of sea-going. It might as well be the Nostromo, Ridley Scott's merchant space-ship from Alien. The aesthetic may be focused on class divison - until we finally get to Vere's cabin, a half-pipe of 2001: A Space Odyssey cleanliness. I think one of this production's aims is to explore moral division, although it doesn't seem necessary to superimpose that on an opera whose principal purpose is to explore a moral drama in the first place.

Talking of doubling-up on reading, one of my out-and-out criticisms of this production would be the subversion of many key dramatic moments. Billy's first stammer, Claggart tripping over a cabin boy after having praised Billy's tackling of the feckless Sqeak all both concealed in a swirl of stage crossing. Such incidents cannot possibly be mistakes. I wonder whether they are the director's 'added-value' versions of formal dramatic interventions, coitus interruptions such as Claggart's first approach to Vere or the attempted shot failing to reach the French ship. Self-evidently this is unnecessary, so I'm left confused.

Billy Budd has the potential to be a good opera, since about many things without being anything in particular. It might be about war but it's more about the general pity of the moral traps through which all men wade during conflict. It's a well-balanced piece about the relationships between men, but not composed in order to investigate homosexuality - rather the honesty of the relationships between the men allow clear articulation of the moral problems. The vernacular is quite well-rendered, all the more confusing then for a non-specific updating.

At the centre of this production is a truly revelatory creation from Matthew Rose. This Claggart is not the Stygian, oak-voiced thug that imposing himself on the ship but an exquistely sung cipher of both the castrated Klingsor and the conflicted Kundry. Bringing him up out of a trapdoor in the centre of the ship is a commendably consistent coup in the production design. Having Dan Norman's brilliant-if-brief Sqeak as a perverted Ariel to this Prospero and some of the best singing coming from the already downtrodden (Nicky Spence's Novice and Marcus Farnsworth's Novice's Friend) is also consistent with the idea of Vere's internal monologue. Kim Begley is less well-served by the his rather didactic designs but the dessication of the prologue and epilogue are deeply affecting.

There's a lot to think about, I just wish I didn't have to do it because I felt something wasn't right. This may be a fault of the opera which, between moments of brilliance, is formally a little pre-packed but would benefit from support in a production rather than further conceptual stratification.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono, Stockhausen and Light

Tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Serpentine Gallery. To The Light is part of the series of events that constitute the London 2012 Festival. As it happens, the exhibition's inclusion in that portfolio of events was not the reason I had been thinking about Yoko Ono's work in the same synapse-span as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose opera Mittwoch aus Licht is being performed in Birmingham under the same umbrella. Neither had I twigged that Yoko Ono's exhibition bears the same name, Light, as Stockhausen's cycle of operas.

Instead, as a musician involved in the performances of Stockhausen's opera, I was trying to think about how one approaches the piece. For me personally - this is a blog and as such reflects my own opinion alone - the greatest challenge in performing this music by one of the previous century's most celebrated modernists is not to do with reproducing the notes of the printed music, difficult though it is. Rather, the challenge is one of understanding the aesthetic of the work: what it means and how the music tries to achieve that. That Yoko Ono is both a contemporary of a similar aesthetic stable and, in passing, a former collaborator of Stockhausen makes her history and work of particular interest.

My route to a better understanding of Mittwoch's position has been to try to learn something about Stockhausen's approach to composition and, consequently, his philosophy - the two are integrated. I have also tried to find out about the circumstances of the conception of Licht. All roads lead to a significant week in May 1968, when, during a personal crisis, Stockhausen turned to texts on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. The immediate compositional consequence was Aus dem sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). The relevance of this work is both in the philosophy of the Brahmin which permeates the Vedic-Christian concepts at play in Licht as well as the symbolic parallel of seven days (Licht is comprised of seven operas, one for each day of the week). This and the use of material from The Urantia Book which Stockhausen acquired in 1971 and which triggered the impulse to write the cycle, demand further investigation but probably in a separate blog post.

Above all, Aus dem sieben Tagen is a composition that is rendered entirely in text instructions. In pursuit of getting the performers to act purely on impulse, the score doesn't prescribe an object in notation. This approach is similar to that of the Event Scores of the Fluxus movement, of which Yoko Ono is probably the most famous practitioner. A post-Dada (or neo-Dada) import from Germany, Fluxus initially coincided with the chance compositional aesthetic of John Cage - a figure whom Stockhausen seems to have had a sketchy, equivocal relationship - before really establishing itself as a literary, visual and performance art movement, convened in New York in the early 1960s. Stockhausen joined the movement for various performances during this period, where he would have met Yoko Ono.

The basic idea concerned emancipating art from the formal straight-jacket of performance convention, space and prescription - i.e. notation. Interestingly, one of the more notable events in the history of the Fluxus movement saw the picketing of a performance of a work by Stockhausen, Originale, in September 1964. This performance, in fact:

Remarkably, hardline Fluxus members saw Stockhausen's intermittently careful scoring of the otherwise random events of Originale as contrary to the basic philosophy of Fluxus. One can identify certain technical consistencies extending from such a piece right through to Mittwoch; our music (Michaelion, the fourth scene of the opera) oscillates between being meticulously scored to being marked 'IRR', or irregular, demanding aleatoricism. Where the Fluxus with which Yoko Ono is associated is totally open to the circumstances of location and the involvement of others, the composition of a work like Mittwoch would seem to have an overarching formality.

Ultimately, both Mittwoch and the work of Yoko Ono (especially in the Smile project with which the Serpentine exhibition is concerned) have the same thematic umbrella, that of peace. The opera's narrative is one of conciliation and Yoko Ono's association and work with peace movements both formal and informal is well known, probably the chief reason for her high profile. Of course this was a powerful idea for change in the mid 1960s. The challenge is whether, for all the perennial value of wishing for universal peace and harmony, the counter-cultural message and artistic medium have any similar currency today. I'm sure a visit to the Serpentine exhibition may offer some answers to that.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Daisy Chain, Gestalt Arts, LSO Soundhub Showcase

Ahead of a full-length production at this year's Tete-A-Tete: The Opera Festival, I had an opportunity to hear an excerpt of The Daisy Chain at one of the LSO's intermittent Soundhub Showcases. This is a similar sort of event to the Panufnik Young Composers workshop I attended earlier in the year, also with members of the LSO. Then as now, I should mention first that there were two other interesting pieces on the programme: Darren Bloom's experimental Chaconne for Violin, Piano and sampled sounds (including Gamelan) and Elo Masing's Planes for string quartet and dancer, both works making conspicuous use of dynamic extremity. The Cagean opening of Elo's quartet (the loudest sound in the room were arms being crossed or the squeak of the dancer's foot on the floor) was probably not intentional although the (consequent?) demands on the audience to acclimatise to the unusual string sounds, there being much sul pont, harmonics, etc. meticulously indicated in graphic score, certainly were.

Toby Young's opera The Daisy Chain (to a text by Thomas Conroy) is a reworking of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin. The postmodern adaptation involves a counsellor trying to help characters from the original as the action oscillates between these meetings and a version of the fable itself. It's not really possible to say much about the drama of the opera at this stage. much like ROH2's Exposure evenings, we only get a snapshot of an aesthetic rather than a cogent dramatic stretch. However, in the rudimentary staging offered at this concert it's clear that the conceit is intended to be as fun as it is serious.

The music is also a mix. Toby was given a ten piece orchestra for which to prepare this segment of the score, string quintet with wind and keyboards. The opening, a short self-contained overture, has the pianist on a celesta, adding fairytale chimes to a sound that is at once neo-classical and American-folksy. The faint modality and open intervals of Anglo-American folk are the consistently identifiable constituents of the score. The music is mobile with internal rhythms - and snatches of nursery rhyme quotation - around which it is wound. This one in fact, albeit not on a space ship.

The singing lines play to the strength of the voice parts (not always the case with new operatic writing). We heard mezzo-soprano Clara Kanter as the marriage counsellor, also speaking an introduction to the scenario after the overture, an effective decision for the piece's texture. The three 'fictional' characters were sung with clarity and character by Christina Sampson (Daisy), Nicholas Scott (Miller) and Roderick Morris (Prince) of whom, as I understand it, only the latter is likely to perform in the complete production in August. The LSO ensemble played quite brilliantly for Mark Gotham, an ongoing highlight of these events.

postscript - this is an interesting adjunct about what the LSO Soundhub offers composers

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Salome, Royal Opera

Played out in a 1920s upstairs-downstairs establishment, David McVicar's Salome for the Royal Opera amplifies all the moral polarities in Wilde's play and Strauss equally schizophrenic score. The cistern in which John the Baptist is kept is a truly deep-n-dark pit, given that the main stage is the basement of Herod's house. The bizarre characters that populate the main area range from the expected soldiers and lackeys to whores and a remarkable, solid character with a machete - the executioner. The side of pork hanging in the background is not a fact of the kitchen but more Bacon-like decoration. This is not just a foul place but a dangerous one, not only to inhabit but look upon. The big coup of the evening (for me) was the treatment of the formal dance, which takes place in an almost 2-d plane after the permanent set has been exploded. Salome dances through a sequence of rooms in which she is seen to grow up in body but little else. It's a fine, economical conceit, in keeping with the opera and benefiting from well-worked transition.

It takes some doing then to relate that the big impact of the evening is from Andris Nelsons in the pit. It's a glorious score, whirling to face the exotic, the horrible and the elysian and we get it all from the company's Orchestra. I found myself so tuned into the music that I realised I hadn't heard the texture of the pre-Psycho cello notes as the executioner goes to find the condemned prophet. Not so much stabs as dull glints of the sword in the gloom (Salome hears the sword clatter to the floor after the act, which is not reflected in the score - such is the imaginary half-consciousness of the music at this stage) it's music that has some sort of realism in its horror.

The only drawback is that, partly due to the singers and partly because of the nature of the work, the balance just didn't quite work. Nelsons was forced to hold the band back from the all-out hammer blow at climaxes so that characters on stage could be heard. Angela Denoke produced her best singing in still, intimate soliloquy, the best reflection of the child-woman contradiction that the show has to offer and the band faithfully tried to ally with that. Rosalind Plowright's Herodias was flawlessly executed, Will Hartmann's Narraboth a beautiful, lyric start to the opera and the Jewish lobby well sung and acted.