Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Crimea - The Opera

St Petersburg Chamber Opera

Public life is changing fast in Russia, and like all other media, the arts are increasingly put to the service of unchecked nationalist propaganda. I was in St Petersburg last week and attended the press conference and dress rehearsal for a new opera production, Crimea. Both were quite chilling, not only for the extreme rightwing messages being put across, but also for the fact the whole enterprise was presented as if it were business as usual, with no hint of dissent (even from the press), and not even a suggestion that any other interpretation of the Crimea conflict could be possible.

Echoes of the Stalin era resonate through this production, but that’s entirely deliberate. It is based on Sevastopoltsy, written in 1946 by Marian Koval. The original is about the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-2. Clearly, the subject of the original opera serves the new production well, but so too does the Socialist Realist score, all patriotic marches and mass songs. In Koval’s opera, the Soviet stand against the Nazi aggressors is compared with similar events in the Crimea War (the Russians lost that one, of course, a fact this opera chooses to brush over).

For the new production, the opera has been renamed to the more apposite Crimea, and the libretto completely rewritten. The work now takes the two previous conflicts as models for the more recent one. Comparisons between1942 and 2014 are easily drawn. The Germans remain the aggressors, or among them at least. Angela Merkel is among the vilified politicians, and footage is shown of her on a screen that only a few minutes earlier showed Luftwaffe bombers. Comparisons between the Russian leaders of the three centuries are more problematic, but are overcome by the introduction of a sharp-suited modern-day narrator, Putin in all but name.
The production is being staged at the St Petersburg Chamber Opera, a small company based in a large town house near the Mariinsky. It is the brainchild of the company’s artistic director, Yuri Alexandrov. He held court at the press conference ahead of the dress rehearsal, and expounded at some length the motivations behind the project. There was a lot of political rhetoric here, all coming from a position of absolute certainty and conviction. Crimea belongs to Russia and always has, that was a given. The new Ukrainian administration didn’t get too much of a hard time. Russia’s quarrel is not with the Ukrainians, Alexandrov explained, it is with the Americans. And the Europeans? They are just blind. Despite the clear propaganda aims of this project, Alexandrov seemed convinced that he was merely presenting “the truth” and that there was no polemic dimension to it at all.

The Creative Team. Alexandrov second from the right.

The new work is described as an “opera-meeting”, and Alexandrov was keen to present it as a radical genre-busting enterprise, in which the audience play a crucial role in the performance. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The performance is staged in the round, bringing all the blood and gore closer to the audience than is comfortable. There is some Q&A, but it amounts to the audience shouting “da” or “net” on cue in response to political slogans. And for the mass song that forms the finale, a dozen or so cast members planted in the audience suddenly run on to join the chorus, as if to imply general consent on the part of all present.

Alexandrov clearly assumes his views are shared by everybody involved. Certainly, the cast and crew entered into the project with a rare enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera performance sung and acted with as much commitment and passion as this. There are many children in this production (used for emotional manipulation purposes of course) and Alexandrov explained that many of them had postponed their holidays to appear. They won’t be visiting the Crimea this summer, he mused, but their work here would ensure that they will always be able to do so in the future.

Considering the contentious views he was presenting in the press conference, Alexandrov got a very easy time in the questions afterwards. One journalist asked if references to Stalin in the original had been replaced directly with references to Putin, on the grounds that the syllable structure and rhyme could be retained. Alexandrov responded with approval to the idea (there aren’t any references to Stalin in the original so it wasn’t an option) and explained that this performance was intended as the just the first step. Hopefully, he said, the company would then take the show to Moscow. There is a point near the end that would be ideal for Putin to give an address as part of the performance. Then we could have a real conversation, he said, not just a theatrical one.   

The action takes place on a map of Crimea.

The modern-day narrator. Let’s call him “Putin”.

Nurses carrying bloodied bandages, and distributing them to the audience.

Things are good for the ethnic Russians, before the Turks/Germans/Ukrainians arrive.

War and pestilence.

The Soviet/Russian Navy restores order.

Refugees, on their way to Rastov probably.

Maidan protests, or riots rather.

The children implore “Putin” to help them.

This girl cries “Must we be forced to give up our native language?” then puts the microphone under the nose of an audience member for a response.

Don’t worry, “Putin” won’t let that happen.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. He’s the bad guy.

The Tartars. Life is easy for them now they are protected by the Russians.

Crimeans celebrate Russian takeover.

Grand Finale. “The uniforms of the Russian troops are like angels' wings protecting us.”

Front page of the Metro (Petersburg’s free commuter paper, state-owned of course) the next day. The article inside was headed with a quote from Alexandrov “Our position is clear: Crimea is ours”. http://www.metronews.ru/novosti/operu-pro-krym-pokazhut-v-peterburge/Tpongh---C7kwWLGRZPS/

Friday, 11 July 2014

Jurowski Conducts Britten’s “Gay Requiem” in Moscow

I was in Russia this week and heard about a remarkable concert earlier in the year, which doesn’t seem to have registered with the Western press. At the start of April, the London Philharmonic gave a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Moscow under Vladimir Jurowski, a very high profile civic event linked to the year of cultural collaboration between Britain and Russia, and attended by a good number of high level dignitaries.
It is customary in Russia to give an address before concerts, and on this occasion Jurowski himself introduced the work. One of the points he made, quite emphatically, is that the work is a celebration of love, and specifically of homosexual love. He talks about the fact that Britten and Pears’ relationship had been illegal under British law and about the evils of institutional homophobia.
Given the current political climate in Russia, this was an extraordinarily brave move. A friend of mine who was there says that the VIPs in the audience all sat ashen-faced as Jurowski elaborated his point. Clearly, Jurowski exaggerated the matter; under other circumstances he would probably be unlikely to characterise this as a gay requiem. But his motivations for doing so here are clear.
A review of the concert published soon after (read it here) discussed Jurowski’s opening remarks at length, which is very unusual as critics usually ignore these addresses. The critic, Sergei Medvedev writes:
“Vladimir Jurowski has once again demonstrated not only that he is a great conductor, but also that he refuses to conform. This sets him apart from other well-known Russian conductors and is so important now in our cold spring of 2014, in a country obsessed with searching out its enemies and in the grip of paranoid homophobia.”
I’ll happily second those views. The most distressing aspect of what is happening in Russia now is the fact that so few people are willing to make a public stand of defiance. But Jurowski has, and congratulations to him.
A video of Jurowski’s speech can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xYrg0m-QA4#t=13. The relevant section begins around 7:30. If anybody with a better grasp of Russian than me could translate this section, I’d be most grateful.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Philharmonia, Salonen, Batiashvili, Latry, RFH 26 June 2014

Saariaho: Maan varjot (UK premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Olivier Latry (organ)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Royal Festival Hall, 16 June 2014

Esa-Pekka Salonen hasn’t conducted much Sibelius in London. But given he’s (among many other things) a Finnish music specialist, audiences here could well have anticipated that he’d demonstrate a mastery of the music. This evening he did exactly that, showing not only that he’s learned well from his many Finnish predecessors, but that he also has his own distinctive vision.
The Violin Concerto and Second Symphony were presented in an all-Finnish programme that began with the UK premiere of a new work by Kaija Saariaho, Maan varjot, a co-commission with three other orchestras that was given its first performance in Montreal at the end of last month. Its presentation here marked one of the final stages of the “Pull Out all the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the RFH organ. True to form, Saariaho avoided the idea of the guest instrument being a concertante soloist, and the relationship between organ and orchestra was complex throughout. The score is filled with her trademark subtleties and complexities, the textures often involving all or most of the orchestra, but rarely loud. Tremolos or complex woven lines in the middle voices, the violas for example or the woodwinds, create a subtly textured bed upon which to rest longer lines in the upper and lower voices. The organ occasionally rises to a position of dominance, but more often supports the orchestral textures with inscrutable, complex harmonies in the upper register or pulsing bass notes from the pedals. The work is structured in three movements, the character of which suggest, at least tangentially, a concerto format. The slow second movement gave Saariaho the opportunity to explore more intimate relationships between sections of the orchestra and corresponding registrations in the organ. The last movement begins with a toccata flourish from the organ, but that’s Saariaho’s single concession to triumphalism, and the music soon returns to her more muted and complex textures. The piece was played well, by orchestra and soloist alike. The composer seemingly had little interest in showcasing the talents of the celebrity organist for whom it was written, Olivier Latry, or even the capabilities of the newly-restored organ, a shame on both counts. Still, this was a great demonstration of the benefits that the newly restored organ will bring to concert life here, making performances like this possible, and without stealing the show.
In the event, the show belonged to Lisa Batiashvili, whose Sibelius Violin Concerto was one of the standout performances of the season. Her casual mastery of what is considered by many the most difficult concerto in the repertoire seemed to be a given from the very first notes. But the style, poise, elegance, and carefully regulated drama she brought to the work put her into another league. Batiashvili has an utterly distinctive tone, which she maintains through even the knottiest of passagework. It is complex and warm, slightly nasal and in some ways introverted. But it’s very elegant and it has a singing quality to it. The only quality it lacks is the grand, strident character that Sibelius sometimes demands, especially in the finale. A constructive tension quickly emerged in this performance between soloist and conductor; Salonen gave a more opulent and symphonic reading, while Batiashvili maintained a more intimate tone. But it worked well. There were never any balance problems, and the orchestra’s responsiveness to the soloist held the performance together, even when their expressive aims diverged. Batiashvili’s understated mastery really came into its own in the last pages, where the music gets more and more flamboyant in its virtuosity, and yet she continually refuses to break her controlled demeanour. The crowd went wild, and rightly so, this was a very special performance.
It was followed by a short encore, a recent arrangement of a Ukrainian folksong by a Georgian composer (I didn’t catch the name), part of a work he describes as Requiem for Ukraine. Again, Batiashvili used her calm, focussed stage presence to impressively powerful effect, this time for more political ends. The political influence exerted by classical musicians is an issue of seemingly endless debate, but Batishvili demonstrated here that making your point with no great fuss or fanfare, using the direct line of communication that your talent permits, has far greater power and resonance than some of the more gratuitous stunts we have recently seen from other performers.
The Sebelius Second got a revisionist reading in some ways from Salonen, yet not to the point of antagonising more traditional tastes. Phrasing was often clipped, tempos were always provisional, and clarity of texture always took precedence over atmosphere. Yet, despite all this micromanagement, the bigger picture was never compromised, and the playing was suitably expansive when required. The orchestra was on top form, especially the strings, with all those pizzicatos in the cellos and basses given with absolute precision. Given that the concert opened with what must have been a very difficult new work, it was impressive that Salonen also found the time to rehearse, and rehearse well, the more familiar symphony. Once or twice his approach seemed a little too constricted. The build-up into the finale for example wasn’t so much a process of tension and release as just a carefully graded crescendo. But it was clear that Salonen always knew what he was doing. It turned out the reason he had underplayed that particular passage was so as not to pre-empt the similarly dramatic lead into the coda. And the ending was just magnificent. Like Batiashvili at the end of the concerto, Salonen gave us understated power here, with plenty of volume from the orchestra, but plenty of detail too. In the end, it turned out that Salonen had provided all the qualities that make a Sibelius performance great, the grandeur, the majesty, the expressive focus, but he’s done it in a distinctive way that was all his own.