Contrasts in London

“Opera Shots” in the small experimental arena of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden is a real find. Two mini-operas, very diverse, both rather exciting, each in its own way. “Home” by Graham Fink, a contemporary English composer who works with music, electronics, modern dance and video projections, was staged in a fascinating production, narrating the temporary transience of a loving twosome in their secure home. It opens with the two lovers celebrating their love and their joy dancing in swinging movements in a small, confined, white room. Time and again, a mysterious white-dressed woman appears, somehow encouraging and disturbing the lovers. While the music gains in dramatic bursts (the small band plays invisibly behind the room) the white lady doubles up, and begins to tear down the idyllic scene. The room’s walls are of paper which are being ripped. Initially they are still turned (video) into budding spring twigs and blossoms, but when the couple attempts to leave the room and opens the door, wind and trumpet blasts sweep large numbers of fall leaves into the room and prevent the flight. Increasingly, the walls of the rooms are being torn, the musicians appear in the cracks and ramp up the noise and the music, and eventually tear down the walls and create chaos around the completely desparate lovers. Choreography, staging and music all joined in the deserved acclamation of this fascinating endeavour.

The (intended?) contrast was in the second piece, “Sevastopol” by the singer, writer and composer Neil Hannon. It is based on the young Leo Tolstoj’s experiences in the Crimean War. In 8 stations Tolostoj’s progress from the naïve young lyricist to the experience-hardened warrior and cannonier is portrayed by the absolutely fantastic singer/composer himself. The music is much more “conventional” than in the “Home” piece, but also quite riveting in describing the progress of the naïve poet/officer on the front, seeing cynical drunk soldiers, makeshift hospitals where limbs are amputated, the horror of victims becoming shell-shocked and crazy from the fear of bombardments, bombardments themselves and – finally – himself firing shots: in the meantime, his identity as a poet gets lost more and more by the events of the war. In the end, he is no poet any longer, but the miserable human being all intent on protecting his life. Hannon gives an impressive singing and acting performance; the staging is rather minimalistic, but fitting and the whole production very convincing. But – compared with “Home” – a slight let-down.

A special contrast to this interesting opera evening was provided by Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the grandiose Councertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Chorus. H. brings out the minutest contrast in this disturbing work: very little in this rendition is soothing, the Miserere brings out the deprecations of wretched humanity for help; the Gloria is all staccato glorification, in the Sanctus the sweet violin solo reconciles mankind with its fate to give thanks to God. Great soloists, especially Marlis Petersen (Soprano) and Elisabeth Kulman (Mezzo), as well as Werner Gura (Tenor, a bit weak) and the formidable Gerald Finley (Baritone). Harnoncourt makes each of them audible, even above the fantastic choir and the great orchestra. I have rarely heard such dramatic church music! Finally, a very emotional moment and standing ovations, as Harnoncourt was awarded the Royal philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, an award which since 1870 has been awarded only 100 times, to such luminaries (selection) as Brahms, Britten, Elgar, Rattle. In his brief response H. made clear that a conductor is only part of an important value chain; that he needs both the composer and the performing artists, without whom he would only be a speck of dust. It was a memorable evening of rare quality.


And then, Wolfgang Rihm’s 1978 opera Jakob Lenz in the new, beautiful Hampstead Theatre.  This is the extremely disturbing story of a German 19th century psychic and emotional downfall and his eventual destruction, fashioned after Georg Büchner’s play. An amazing production, the whole play taking place at the edge of a swamp which draws the protagonist (superbly portrayed and sung by Andrew Shore) time and again towards submerging and drowning himself. The disturbed poet somehow spends 2 weeks with the good pastor Johann Oberlin to steady his deteriorating mental situation, but is unable to stay inside the house and instead sits by and jumps into the swamp, gets haunted by images of his former girlfriend and images of drowning her as a child, get pursued and attacked by local farmers, receives the visit of his foppish friend Kaufmann, but in the end – as all attempts to steady him go to naught – is abandoned by everybody, to be left restrained in a horse collar (straight jacket) to his own, howling misery. This is a gorgeous production, with the reeds around the pond playing an important visual role; Shore submerges himself totally in water several times, semi-drowns other people, while in the background excellent lighting portrays the serenity of the pastor’s home, but also the frightening tightness and intolerance of the village people towards the outsider. Rihm’s music soars to dramatic heights, thumps rhythmically along the frightening delusionary images in Lenz’s head and make the distant longing for peace of mind audible. Here the production and the amazing singing and acting of the protagonist trumped the music.



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