Sunday, 25 December 2011

Don Giovanni alla Scala

Booking Christmas holiday travel a couple of months ago, I decided to make a stopover in Milan to catch La Scala’s new Don Giovanni. There’s a long tale of ticketing woe (you don’t want to know) that ended – very luckily – in a Regiekarte. This cost $$$ that I didn’t pay so I shouldn’t complain, but six boxes away from the stage you miss stage right entrances/exits by a whisker, and as far as I could make out (I only watched the first half of the ARTE broadcast), some of Leporello’s antics. And the angle of the sightline isn’t great. I did however get to see and follow facial expressions in a way that’s tricky with opera glasses and the sound was excellent, so it wasn’t all bad.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

L'Orfeo as transfigured by Claus Guth

The last production I saw of L’Orfeo explored the idea of music as a manipulative force, suggesting disturbing consequences to the docility it can engender. Director Claus Guth is less concerned with Orfeo the musician, and makes minimal acknowledgement of the work’s pastoral and mythic elements. He focuses instead on the consequences of Orfeo’s union with Euridice, suggesting that it is so powerful that their individuality has been subject to irreversible change. With Orfeo’s subjectivity half-demolished by the union, life after the death of Euridice ceases to be possible, and much of this production is devoted to Orfeo coming to terms with the reasons for his fate.

Click here to read more of my review. I don't have anything to add, but if you click through there are some cast details and many more images from the production.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Thibaudet lends grace and depth to Liszt

Musikverein, 15/12/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Fabio Luisi, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20
Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major, S. 125
Brahms: Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 73

This concert saw some transcendental Liszt sandwiched between two disappointments. After Dudamel and the Phil I was ready – and expecting – to hear a more persuasive Don Juan. The Symphoniker’s was the better played by a whisker, and while Luisi’s single-minded determination to keep things tidy and transparent was something I could go along with (good, after the other week, to hear things like the flute really leading the modulation into the G major idyll), it gradually dawned that a visualization of the study score was occupying my thoughts more than the music. And with that at the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t help but compare Dudamel’s Heldenthema, which pointed the way to a rondo despite distorted tempi elsewhere, with the slipperiness of Luisi’s theme. Is the formal elusiveness of the work (sonata, rondo, a combination, or sui generis are the hotly debated options) really better met with evasion than examination? Odd expressive touches and the glow of the strings notwithstanding, a sense of interpretative blankness sapped the clarity of interest.

Luisi’s preoccupation with matters of balance – not quite opera conducting, but close – worked to greater effect in the Liszt. Jean-Yves Thibaudet couldn’t have asked for more support and didn’t once have to force the sound as he did with the Concertgebouw a few weeks ago. There was much more clarity in the bass, and the passagework saw less all-purpose sparkling tone and more seamless legato, with the contrast of a slightly padded touch giving way at astutely judged moments to notes that glistened only as much as they needed to (very characterful and somewhat of a Thibaudet signature). And for all Barenboim’s insight and experience as a chamber musician, I do not recall him, in his June performance of this concerto (with Boulez, also Musikverein), complementing the horn and cello solos half as sensitively as Thibaudet did, or elevating the pivoting of underlying harmonies to something of transformational significance. The playing may have sounded more like Chopin, but there was some powerful Liszt advocacy going on in this performance. My orchestral musician companion also noted that with Thibaudet paying close attention to the musicians to pick up his cues, he’s rarely seen such an orchestra-friendly pianist.

The Symphoniker’s Brahms 2 was only good for prompting the familiar question of why is it that pedestrian Brahms performances are so much worse than merely bad ones? The orchestra was on autopilot for the first three movements, and Luisi’s only contribution was to keep things moving fairly briskly (though that this is no silver bullet for avoiding monotony was all too evident). Things picked up a little with the final movement, but the middle sagged as much as what had gone before. Brass at the end were excellent even if the effort made was too little too late.

Image credit: Kasskara / Decca

Friday, 16 December 2011

Wiener Festwochen 2012 announced

Austria may have given Edward Bernays to the world but the basics of promoting a cultural event entirely eluded this Festwochen press conference. I wasn’t at the Café Prückel but heard as much as I could take on the radio, including some stupefying scripted remarks by Stéphane Lissner, who has lost all interest in the Festwochen and turns up nowadays just for his sizeable retainer. All that is left is to helplessly nod at Franz Welser-Möst’s assessment of his contribution as ‘meagre’. One might have expected Luc Bondy to make a more credible go of the spin, but there was nothing in his remarks to suggest that the programme, with the honourable exception of the theatre section, might rally to confound his drawn-out Viennese twilight, or recapture at least some of the iconoclastic spark of his Festwochen salad days.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Peter Konwitschny makes an offer you can't refuse

Wiener Staatsoper, 11/12/2011

Janáček: From the House of the Dead (new production)

Sorin Coliban | Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov
Misha Didyk | Luka Kuzmič
Herbert Lippert | Skuratov
Christopher Maltman | Šiškov
Gergely Németi | Aljeja
Alexandru Moisiuc | Prison Governor

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Peter Konwitschny | Director

Take a critically acclaimed production of this opera like, I don’t know... (I kid). But Chéreau is as good an example as any for being intelligently sympathetic (and I choose a good production deliberately). We see, among other things, suffering, injustice and isolation. Peter Konwitschny sees ‘sparks of God’ who are getting too much of a free pass and a campfire solidarity which is profoundly unrealistic.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dudamel does OK and nichts mehr

Musikverein, 10/12/2011

Wiener Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Matthias Schorn

Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20
Herbert Willi: egó eimí - Concerto for clarinet and orchestra
Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 3 in A minor, op. 56

My expectations were low, but this wasn’t a bad concert. Dudamel had rehearsed the Phil well and seemed quite measured on the podium. This begs the question of what is it like when he’s not being self-indulgent? Considering that this orchestra has played much worse but is capable of much better, pretty average.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Luisi’s Symphoniker Abschied begins

Musikverein, 04/12/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Fabio Luisi, Martin Haselböck

Hindemith: Concerto for organ and orchestra (1962)
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, op. 62

I doubt that Martin Haselböck’s performance of this Hindemith concerto will have convinced many of the composer’s merits as a writer of organ music. There was some effort to achieve the legato that Hindemith’s organ writing needs to give it line, but Haselböck has been a stranger to finger substitution for too long and to my relief, eventually gave up. Elsewhere the breeze-blocks-for-feet pedal technique and erratic hand coordination was almost as bad as when he unwisely attempted to play Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. at this instrument’s inauguration concert in March. More irritating for being preventable was the poorly chosen registration. Depending on your view, Hindemith took too little interest in this or intentionally left organists to figure out what works and what doesn’t – an example of that being Haselböck’s bizarre octave displacement of the cantus firmus line in the variations, with a 16’ bassoon (in right hand, not the pedals). How convenient, also, that this reedy, thick and loud stop drowned out some left hand passagework beyond Haselböck’s current technical abilities. For lazy organists like me that’s a time-old trick for getting through tricky bits of Duruflé. But it shouldn’t be happening at the Musikverein.

At least the Symphoniker proved competent. The opening was muddy, but they soon settled down and playing was generally accurate and textures clear. Fabio Luisi’s chances of conducting this work again in the near future are slim and perhaps that’s why he didn't seem to have spent much time with the score – Hindemith’s fascinating formal organization didn’t come across at all clearly. But he held things together well and tempi and balance were fine. It was more disappointing that Haselböck made both the score and instrument – soft targets enough – sound so unmusical, with playing that bore little resemblance to the decent recording of this work he made with the Symphoniker some years ago. Some enterprising soul has put that up on Youtube and it’s recommended for the thoughtful direction of the Symphoniker’s chief conductor at the time, the underrated Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Peter Konwitschny in hospital for the last six weeks

They couldn't keep it a secret for any longer, reports Bild. On Thursday it was disclosed that Peter Konwitschny has been an inpatient at Graz's Universitätsklinik for the last six weeks, suffering from exhaustion. Doctors let him out for his Queen of Spades dress rehearsal and premiere; it isn't known how long it will take for him to recover.

Assistant director Wolfgang Türks took over rehearsals for The Queen of Spades, which explains a few things. The Leipzig prima of Konwitschny's Macbeth on the 10th will go ahead without him and is being overseen by two assistants, one of whom, Heide Stock, worked on a Graz Macbeth directed by Konwitschny in 1999. Presumably similar arrangements have been made for the upcoming Wiener Staatsoper premiere of Konwitschny's From the House of the Dead, first seen in Zurich last June.

Monday, 28 November 2011

More on Graz

There are a couple more things I’ll be making the trip to Graz for this season, one of them already mentioned (the revival of Herheim’s 2006 Carmen in June). The other is Elektra, which premieres this coming January. Iris Vermillion as Klytämnestra will be worth seeing: hers, even more so than Claudia Barainsky's, was the standout performance at a Konzerthaus event held for Aribert Reimann’s 75th birthday last season; she also made an uncommonly memorable impression with that tiny alto part in the Glagolitic (Cornelius Meister and the RSO Wien, also last season). Regie for the Graz Elektra looks promising too: Johannes Erath directed their Doppelgänger Don Giovanni, a production Die Presse’s inimitable critic described as having ‘the most embarrassing gangbangs’ (‘Rudelbumsen’ in German, great word). But elsewhere that staging and Erath’s Lulu (also Graz) got some good reviews. Of all the things to do before crossing over into Regietheater, Erath studied the violin with the Wiener Philharmoniker’s chief concertmaster. In 2008 he won the Götz Friedrich Prize (a.k.a. the Eurotrash stars of tomorrow award).

And if you’re in Graz before February, make sure to visit the Ai Weiwei exhibition on at the Kunsthaus (the modern building on the river that looks like an upturned udder). It’s a damning study into the destruction of communities and cultural heritage in modern day China, presented with an array of striking images and videos.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Death holds the cards in Peter Konwitschny's Queen of Spades

Avgust Amonov & Nazanin Ezazi
Oper Graz, 27/11/2011

Avgust Amonov | Hermann
Asmik Grigorian
 | Lisa
Fran Lubahn | The Countess
David McShane | Count Tomsky
Andrè Schuen | Prince Yeletsky
Manuel von Senden | Chekalinsky
Wilfried Zelinka | Surin
Juraj Hurny | Chaplitsky
Konstantin Sfiris | Narumov
Taylan Reinhard | Master of Ceremonies
Dshamilja Kaiser | Polina
Carolina Julia Astanei | Governess
Nazanin Ezazi | Masha

Tecwyn Evans | Conductor
Peter Konwitschny | Director

Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester. Chor, Extrachor und Singschul' der Oper Graz.

When phoning to book tickets for this opera about six weeks ago, I was asked if I wouldn’t prefer to sit way over to the left in row 7 of the parterre. Now I understand the strange question. It might have been better phrased as ‘do you consider yourself a willing tool of oppressive capitalist forces? Because Peter Konwitschny needs some people to shame with a blinding spotlight.’ But Brechtian antics are only a tiny part of what goes on in this production, and by carving the opera up into carefully stylized and dizzyingly fast-moving sequences it’s as if Konwitschny is defying us to follow what’s going on, and indeed suggesting that there are broader points to be grasped if we can see past the mayhem. The mayhem is nevertheless highly entertaining and Konwitschny admits as much in his programme note, which I don’t translate as loosely as you might think: ‘these characters act crazily and the perception is that they are highly idiosyncratic individuals [wordplay with verrückt and ver-rückt]. In order to present this as a contrast, we need surreal shit to happen.’ As for broader points, well, that emphasis on contrast is mine and, despite Konwitschny’s mild wording, amplified in the production into statements on deviance and changeability which can be taken as épater le bourgeois or confronting some truths about the strange network of relationships in this opera. With this director we’re realistically talking both with an emphasis on the latter, but as penetrating as the observations sometimes are, they fall prey a few times too often to the same dysfunction which they target, and not in any perceivable metatheatrical way.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Butterfly’s day in the park with Stefan Herheim

Manon, Mimi, Tosca and Cio-Cio San. Why does Puccini send these women to such heartless deaths? It’s a question which musicologist Mosco Carner answered in the 1950s with a speculative Freudian reduction (the composer apparently had a debilitating mother complex). In this Volksoper production, director Stefan Herheim’s response is to point the finger at the audience: Butterfly quickly develops second thoughts about suicide and it is we who brutally stab her to death as she pleads for her life.
Click here to read more of my Bachtrack review. More thoughts after the jump.

Friday, 25 November 2011

RIP Sena Jurinac

While driving home from St. Pölten last night I caught most of this on Ö1. It’s a touching tribute with some good selections, but the recommendations on this Parterre thread are also worth checking out. Those Four Last Songs, just incredible (Ö1 only played Im Abendrot). Always wonderful to hear Jurinac’s Komponist as well, though I’m sure they could have made space for her Marie.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Andris Nelsons brings the Concertgebouw to Vienna

Musikverein, 20/11/2011

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Chaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major, op. 103
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

Judging by exposure alone, it seems that the Musikverein’s golden wagon is now well and truly hitched to the rising star of Andris Nelsons. I missed his Symphoniker concerts the other week because of Wien Modern but will make it to the CBSO & Kaufmann in March and the BRSO & Grimaud in April. Sternstunden indeed (this is me admitting I like Grimaud, well some of the time anyway). But wait, there’s more! On Sunday Nelsons conducted his mentor’s other orchestra, and the playing was every bit as refined as you’d expect.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Vienna's Thielemann Ring: Siegfried

Stephen Gould & Linda Watson

Wiener Staatsoper, 09/11/2011

Stephen Gould | Siegfried
Linda Watson | Brünnhilde
Albert Dohmen | The Wanderer
Tomasz Koniczny | Alberich
Anna Larsson | Erda
Wolfgang Schmidt | Mime
Ain Anger | Fafner
Chen Reiss | Waldvogel

Christian Thielemann | Conductor
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Director

The rapturous reception received by Christian Thielemann notwithstanding, this performance didn’t pan out too differently from April, and for that I can direct you to my good friend Zerbinetta’s on-the-money report.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Lera Auerbach's Gogol premieres at the Theater an der Wien

On Tuesday I went to the world premiere of Gogol, a new opera by Russian-born composer, writer, poet, visual artist and pianist Lera Auerbach, who in her spare time enjoys... (I kid). Here’s some of what I wrote for Bachtrack:
Before writing a note of Gogol, composer Lera Auerbach immersed herself in the writer’s complete works and over twenty books written about him. It would take similar efforts to begin to understand this opera: taking us inside the fevered mind of its title character, Gogol is less a biographical narrative set to music than a phantasmagorical psychological investigation. Given a virtuosic staging by director Christine Mielitz, it is also an overwhelming theatrical experience.
Click here to read the full review. There are just a few things to add.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Mariss Jansons conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker

Musikverein, 13/11/2011

Wiener Philharmoniker, Mariss Jansons, Rudolf Buchbinder

Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, op. 45

Mariss Jansons is one of those conductors the Wiener Philharmoniker say they get on with. I sensed some readiness to collaborate in this concert, but like my Radio Stephansdom signal when driving, it sort of came and went.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Volksoper lifts the veil on its new Salome

Volksoper, 08/11/2011
Morenike Fadayomi | Salome
Sebastian Holecek | Jochanaan
Andreas Conrad | Herod
Irmgard Vilsmaier | Herodias
Vincent Schirrmacher | Narraboth
Lysianne Tremblay | Page to Herodias
Roland Böer | Conductor
Marguerite Borie | Director

It’s a hundred years since Richard Strauss made his Volksoper conducting debut with Salome, an anniversary which is being commemorated with the first new staging in Vienna for almost forty years. Well not quite so new, as Marguerite Borie’s production has already been seen in Liège and Monte Carlos, where it garnered mixed reviews. But for a Konzept based on just the one idea I think it actually works rather well.

Vienna's Thielemann Ring: Die Walküre

Wiener Staatsoper, 06/11/2011

Christopher Ventris | Siegmund
Eric Halfvarson | Hunding
Albert Dohmen | Wotan
Waltraud Meier | Sieglinde
Katarina Dalayman | Brünnhilde
Janina Baechle | Fricka
Donna Ellen | Helmwige
Ildikó Raimondi | Gerhilde
Alexandra Reinprecht | Ortlinde
Aura Twarowska | Waltraute
Ulrike Helzel | Siegrune
Monika Bohinec | Grimgerde
Zoryana Kushpler | Schwertleite
Juliette Mars | Roßweiße

Christian Thielemann | Conductor
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Director

Of all the understatements to make about conditions at the Vienna State Opera, ‘it’s not at all easy to bring this Ring to life’ is hard to best. That was Christian Thielemann in Sunday’s Kurier, who by ‘zum Klingen bringen’ certainly didn’t mean muddling through without too many mishaps – the most flattering thing that could be said about Das Rheingold.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Franz Welser-Möst und seine Clevelander

Musikverein, 04/11/2011

Weber: Overture to Euryanthe, op. 81
John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony
Chaikovsky: Symphony no. 4 in F minor, op. 36

What with the Thielemann Ring and Wien Modern, I only made it to one of the four Cleveland concerts on at the Musikverein this week. It was a good one, but despite a promising start I soon recognised what critic Don Rosenberg got ousted from his beat for saying – outstanding playing, directionless conducting.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Vienna's Thielemann Ring: Das Rheingold

Wiener Staatsoper, 01/11/2011

Albert Dohmen | Wotan
Adrian Eröd | Loge
Tomasz Konieczny | Alberich
Wolfgang Schmidt | Mime
Janina Baechle | Fricka
Anna Larsson | Erda
Markus Eiche | Donner
Herbert Lippert | Froh
Alexandra Reinprecht | Freia
Wolfgang Schmidt | Mime
Lars Woldt | Fasolt
Ain Anger | Fafner
Ileana Tonca | Woglinde
Ulrike Helzel | Wellgunde
Zoryana Kushpler | Flosshilde

Christian Thielemann | Conductor
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Director

Christian Thielemann’s first Vienna Ring has been hyped to the heavens. It’s unclear why the Staatsoper's press office – hardly a hive of activity – went to such promotional lengths, considering that the cycle sold out on the first day of sale and the Viennese critics aren’t much more neutral than the hordes of Thielemann loyalists in the audience (referred to by non-groupies here, curiously, as the ‘T-Freaks’). But despite the thunderous ovation which greeted Thielemann's curtain call, I don’t think this performance will go down as one of his better Rheingolds (and from the microphones in the pit it appears there may well be audio and possibly video evidence in the offing).

Monday, 31 October 2011

Fidelio at the Wiener Staatsoper: o schwere Prüfung

Wiener Staatsoper, 27/11/2011

Robert Dean Smith | Florestan
Waltraud Meier | Leonore
Albert Dohmen | Don Pizarro
Markus Marquardt | Don Fernando
Lars Woldt | Rocco
Anita Hartig | Marzelline
Benjamin Bruns | Jaquino

Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Otto Schenk | Director

The one word to sum up this Schenk Fidelio is vacuity. Some would argue that the term applies equally well to all his productions, but this staging is lacking in more than just ideas. Take the blocking: has Schenk ever been more static than this? It’s a good nine-tenths park and bark for the singing and there’s astonishingly little movement to accompany the spoken action. Stage entrances/exits, the digging of the grave (though not the actual grave-digging duet), and some wincingly awful high-fiving of the prisoners at the end is about it. To cap off the snoozefest there’s no variety in the sets and costumes beyond brown, beige and grey.

Arcadi Volodos at the Musikverein

Musikverein, 24/10/2011

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Brahms: Drei Intermezzi, op. 117

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Has Arcadi Volodos decided yet what kind of pianist he wants to be when he grows up? His playing was never without its depths, but has steadily been acquiring greater introspection as of late, and he’s now inclined to dismiss the flashy 1997 debut recording which launched his career. That’s all very well, but in this recital I thought he struggled to reconcile his growing seriousness of purpose with the vestiges of virtuosity that have yet to be shaken off if he ever decides to go the full Lupu.  

I mention Lupu because at times this felt like a tribute act, with Volodos reclining into his straight-backed chair, his centre of gravity removed from the keyboard and everything coming from the fingertips. A considerable deftness to the touch ensued: at turns, Volodos draped the sound in velvet, made his melodic lines glisten and sing, and pulled off the most improbable of sudden decrescendi with apparent ease. If that wasn’t always exploited to compelling musical ends it’s because he was too concerned with shaping the phrase at hand to contemplate larger expressive plans. The opening of Brahms’s op. 117 no. 2 wasn’t played so haltingly, but the self-containment of those initial statements came close. The five-bar phrases of no. 3 flowed more convincingly, the problem here more the weak regulation of tempi and rubato, with the return of the opening material sounded rather more overwrought than what had come before.

It was, oddly, the Schubert, rather than the Liszt, where the bravura failed to mesh with Volodos’s more deliberative side. The quietly determined focus of the first two movements at first seemed to underpin the insistence of the triplets in the third, but the contrary-motion arpeggios were insufferably glib and octaves at the end rattled off like a Czerny study, their impact as a closing gesture lost.

The Liszt was a strong account, if not one for the ages. I’m inclined to overlook the odd moments of crashing and banging as it was only the four repeated quavers, hammered until metallic, which seemed truly desensitised. The transformation of that theme didn’t work out too persuasively either. Tone in the bass got a bit muddy at times but was generally robust; expression and complexity of touch was, as in the Brahms, left to the right hand. How much sense he made of the work’s mystifying form is debatable, but it wasn’t too linear and proportions didn’t seem so off.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Michail Jurowski and the Tonkünstler

Musikverein, 23/10/2011

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Michail Jurowski, Boris Berezovsky

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30
Chaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture
Prokofiev: Orchestral Suite from Romeo and Juliet

A few months ago I swore never to see Jurowski Sr. again, after hearing him bulldoze his way through some music that never did him any harm. I didn’t count on the Tonkünstler holding out one of my favourite Russian pianists as bait, because there I was at the Musikverein last Sunday nursing this fantasy of listening to Boris Berezovsky and blocking out the rest. The obviously foreseeable put paid to that idea even sooner than expected. Whatever Berezovsky was trying to set up with his opening theme – not too pointed and curiously inscrutable for a tonic-dominant pivot – was ruined by an extravagant cello entry. The rest of the strings followed suit with wide vibrato and self-indulgent phrasing, their massed sound making more impact than Berezovsky’s crashing chords, even after he resorted to banging (which isn’t like him at all). The unusual development sections of the second and third movements were incoherent on the orchestral side, with Jurowski typically oblivious to Berezovsky’s more searching efforts. The cadenzas provided the only unobstructed glimpses of thoughtful pianism, and were brought off with effortless facility and supple touch as long, flowing paragraphs.

The Chaikovsky wasn’t quite as crass as I’d feared, but only because of technical mishaps. The cor anglais sounded like a duck with laryngitis and strings were far from smooth throughout the love theme section. Climaxes were deafening, with a migraine-inducing timpani roll at the end. The Prokofiev was played more capably, but excessive volume remained a problem and any one of the published versions would have been better than Jurowski’s mismatched selections. Montagues and Capulets was competently belligerent, so no different to how it’s routinely played and the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances. Tempi elsewhere were driven and tone washed-out. How awful Jurowski’s Shostakovich must sound hardly bears thinking about.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Cornelius Meister and the RSO Wien

Musikverein, 16/10/2011

RSO Wien, Cornelius Meister, Baiba Skride

Klaus Lang: Siebzehn Stufen (world premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 9 in E flat major, op. 70

The highlight of this concert was the premiere of Klaus Lang’s Siebzehn Stufen, which is fairly close in concept to the Unanswered Question, only eight minutes longer and great deal more intricate. The detail had been meticulously rehearsed and needed little nudging for clarity from Cornelius Meister, who focused on giving the work’s slow-moving transitions structural definition. The two surges towards the end (echoes of La Mer?) followed logically from what came before, but weren't signposted too obviously, which seemed both the composer’s intention and the best musical outcome. The Unanswered Question’s woodwind layer was given over to the percussion, of which there was more than at a Martin Grubinger concert, although the antiphonal rustling of plastic bags – heard in its proper musical context, an effect considerably less banal than the action sounds – was ruined by the zipping open of handbags and beeping of digital cameras. The unwelcome audience participation was a shame, as Klaus Lang toils away in relative obscurity in Styria and doesn’t get as nearly much attention, let alone performances, as Vienna-based composers.

The Sibelius was a little disappointing. The power and projection behind Baiba Skride’s mellow, viola-like tone was impressive considering how little she forced the sound. Unfortunately there was also much old school portamento, which had me stumped for a comparison until I remembered Elgar’s recording of Nimrod, in which the violins see fit to play much of the theme with just the one finger (needs to be heard to be believed). The playing was also dogged by intonation difficulties, particularly in the final movement. Meister didn’t make this score sound as fresh as some of the other warhorses I’ve heard him conduct, but the playing was strong and struck a good balance between dominating and merely accompanying. Tempi were more expansive than usual, but, as with Meister’s Glagolitic last season, the elasticity was too much of an end in itself.

Aside from a small piccolo fluff the RSO didn’t put a foot wrong in the Shostakovich. There’s work yet to be done, but performances as secure and responsive as this bear little resemblance to the way they were playing this time last year. Again, Meister could have done more with the score, but there was no haranguing or getting stuck in motoric ruts (not that the 9th is so bad for that, but there are moments when it can happen). The Moderato was the best movement, with sinewy string playing and a gentle fluidity to the phrasing in the woodwind solos.

For a Meister concert this wasn’t quite as special as I’ve come to expect. But with playing this solid, the RSO Wien is fast establishing itself as the most consistent of the three major Viennese orchestras.

Lothar Zagrosek steps in for Fabio Luisi

Musikverein, 14/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Lothar Zagrosek, Jasminka Stancul

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 24 in C major, KV 467
Mahler: Symphony no. 7

So a star conductor gets poached by the Met, leaving a Viennese musical institution in the lurch. It’s a familiar tale in these parts, and Fabio Luisi’s may yet become as embellished in the telling as Mahler’s, if Thomas Angyan’s comments to the New York Times are anything to go by. For an orchestra in serious need of artistic leadership – Chefdirigent designate Philippe Jordan isn’t due to pick up the pieces until 2014 – the Wiener Symphoniker have taken things rather more stoically, and while it’s nice to be spared a public falling out I do hope there’s some whinging going on behind closed doors. Luisi’s last-minute cancellations have led to some crummy guest conducting, and this concert was the worst so far (Christian Arming’s dull Mahler 3 in June doesn’t seem nearly so bad now). His Symphoniker engagements this season include a further three programmes at the Musikverein and two at the Konzerthaus, split between December, which seems safe enough, and May, when he may or may not end up conducting the Met’s Ring. Luisi trained in Austria and is doubtless aware of how seriously Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln – an immovable feast on the Musikverein calendar – is taken here. Perhaps he might make his excuses a bit earlier for that one.

Lothar Zagrosek, of Decca/Entartete Musik renown, was supposed to be at his Italian holiday home, learning Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. But even with an Einspringer stepping in as late as this to conduct Mahler’s least-played symphony there’s only so much sloppiness I’m inclined to overlook: woodwind intonation throughout was foul, no brass top note went unblared or timpani note unthumped, and entries were shockingly clumsy – most disappointingly in the first movement, when the recapitulation of the second subject was cued well after the harp glissando had reached its top B. Anything marked mf or above was played with deafening volume, including the ugly snarl of the tenor horn solo, but the mandolin, guitar and anything else less than mp was inaudible – the Bernstein doctrine of Mahler dynamics, taken to extremes that surely even Lenny himself would find ludicrous. And with distended Luftpausen to rival Gatti and all the affectation of Rattle at his worst, Zagrosek’s reading of the work, if we must call it that, was a travesty from beginning to end. Were it not for a brisk finale the performance would have exceeded Klemperer in length; the first movement only expired, along with much of the audience, after a draining thirty-five minutes.

The Mozart was better: just the one moment of dodgy woodwind tuning, and the orchestra together for most of the time, if on the heavy side. Jasminka Stancul’s playing was assured and clean, but allergic to risk – with the expressivity of her phrasing crossing the line from carefully considered to canned. It was good to finally hear a Fazioli at the Musikverein, but for all Stancul’s calculation she failed to get a handle on the much smaller difference in decay between octaves C4 and C5, and the melodic line in the Andante was bumpy. The lightness of her touch worked most effectively in the Allegro vivace, but musically it was only a touch less hemmed in than the first two movements.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Wien Modern begins early at the Konzerthaus

Konzerthaus (Berio Saal), 11/10/2011

Hsin-Huei Huang, piano
Claudia Doderer, installation & light

Salvatore Sciarrino: Notturno no. 1 (1998), Notturno no. 3 (1999-2000)
Tristan Murail: La Mandragore (1993)
Beat Furrer: Drei Klavierstücke (2004)
Iannis Xenakis: Mists (1981)

The consistency of events like Wien Modern and ensembles like the Klangforum and Arnold Schoenberg Chor means that postwar music of middling to high difficulty rarely gets subjected to a bad performance in Vienna. Even venues and ensembles with more limited resources – like, respectively, the Alte Schmiede and the Pierrot Lunaire – don’t often disappoint. As this concert wore on I thought the playing reached the level of a respectable Alte Schmiede event, but judged as an engagement at the Konzerthaus it fell somewhat short. Hsin-Huei Huang is a capable pianist with a number of contemporary music credentials on her résumé, but there was the sense in this concert of full pianistic potential already reached, with many moments where she seemed simply overwhelmed by the demands of the music.

The two Sciarrino pieces, practically unperformable in the dry acoustic of the Berio Saal, were given a hesitant and technically unsteady performance. The descending chords of no. 1 were placed awkwardly, with little sense of line, and tempi were considerably slower than my recording (Nicolas Hodges, highly recommended). The Murail was played more fluently and pedalled better. Huang seemed to understand that the recurring notes – C sharp, and later D sharp – have a special significance in this piece, though little sense was made of the concluding section, which ended abruptly. Beat Furrer’s Drei Klavierstücke are three very different but not so unusual pieces; the second similar to the second movement of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, the third full of ironic tonal passages interrupted by a right hand ostinato which Huang managed capably. Claudia Doderer’s art installation – a white sail and a small heap of stones – finally acquired some relevance in the Xenakis. It’s hard to say exactly what a couple of interesting lighting changes added to the music, but it was imaginatively choreographed and here Doderer (an Achim Freyer student and long-standing Klaus Lang collaborator) seemed to understand the music she was working with. Huang’s scales had good clarity and sense of direction, but the ‘mists’ sounded random and lacking in expression (as strangely interesting as it was to hear such apparent disregard for the rigour of Xenakis’s internal logic).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

La Traviata at the Wiener Staatsoper

Wiener Staatsoper, 09/11/2011

La traviata (new production)

Natalie Dessay | Violetta Valéry
Charles Castronovo | Alfredo Germont
Fabio Capitanucci | Giorgio Germont
Zoryana Kushpler | Flora Bervoix
Donna Ellen | Annina
Carlos Osuna | Gastone
Clemens Unterreiner | Barone Douphol
Il Hong | Marchese d'Obigny
Dan Paul Dumitrescu | Dottore Grenvil

Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Jean-François Sivadier | Director

Jean-François Sivadier is, relatively speaking, the most technically competent French director Dominique Meyer has inflicted on the Staatsoper over the last twelve months. He fills a bare stage with action from beginning to end and it’s not unremittingly exasperating to watch or choreographically inept. That isn’t to say his efforts beyond this are any good – they generally aren’t – but there’s enough flexibility for a Violetta with initiative to dispense with the distractions and salvage some of the human drama, which is to say, disappointedly, that the best hope for this production is for the action to hew more closely to the text. Natalie Dessay, despite her reputation as a singing actress, is not that Violetta.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Radu Lupu and the Wiener Symphoniker

Konzerthaus, 07/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Heinrich Schiff, Radu Lupu
Weber: Overture to Oberon, J. 306
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73, 'Emperor'

Heinrich Schiff has never distinguished himself as a conductor and his true calling remains being a cellist as well as one of Europe’s most highly respected cello teachers. He got a decent response from that instrument in the Weber, the few bars of viola and cello divisi in the introduction played with a burnished, horn-like sound. But one moment does not a concert make, particularly when the direction of anything else you care to name is so incompetent.

I know the Hindemith well from my student orchestra days, and dare say we sounded more coherent when note-bashing our way through it for the second or third time than the Symphoniker did on Friday. With no indication from Schiff that any voice should be prominent except, astonishingly, for the horns, the first movement was a cacophonous mess. The Scherzo’s incremental build-up in momentum was cocked up with an early crescendo and the D major rupturing of the ostinato sounded oddly inconsequential. The less said about the jazz-inflected counterpoint the better. There was some evidence of coordination in the Andantino but Schiff couldn’t settle on a tempo, and the fourth movement was the same blustery racket as the first. Our conductor’s laboured exhortations in the final movement, either ignored or simply too unintelligible to be followed, pointed towards Star Wars brass from which we were thankfully if only serendipitously spared. This is a straightforward work which practically conducts itself, but poor playing in every instrumental department is perhaps an indication that not all the blame for this travesty should be piled at Schiff’s door.

The Beethoven saw some improvement, though tempi were dangerously unstable and I do not exaggerate when I report that the performance would have fallen apart had it not been for Radu Lupu’s stealth conducting, something he is often mistakenly fingered for doing but was beyond doubt here. The slight raising of the left hand before resting it on the keys was subtle enough the first time and became, before long, a blatant upbeat-downbeat motion. In a rare moment of alertness Schiff caught wind of this and there was a passive-aggressive body language exchange before the second movement which Lupu stopped from escalating with a nonchalant shrug. Naturally the first thing he does after the wretched thing is over is leap up and give Schiff a long warm hug. Aside from him being a mensch I don’t really know what to make of that.

On the orchestral side it may have been an incoherent Emperor, but it was worth hearing for Lupu’s exceptional control and anti-struggle for the heart and soul of modern-day pianism. Like most pianists Lupu is aware he will hit a wrong note just as it is too late to correct it and unlike most pianists he adjusts the force he will strike the note with so rapidly that you barely notice the error. Weight is applied from the fingers and rarely distributed uniformly, though never, with touch this commanding, just because he can. He has long been the wise old man of voicing, but the perception here was of a different order to his usual cautiously considered manner; something more acute upon which hung the defining aesthetic questions of what it means to play the piano in this day and age, only for him to reveal, much like Michelangeli, at once how inescapable and irrelevant those questions are. In this performance we saw, however tamed, much of his once barnstorming technique intact, and yet reconciled and even intimately attuned with the poetic character works under his hands so often take on, as if they were always meant to be played that way. The Fourth may seem the more obvious Lupu vehicle because we are used to looking at works like the Emperor in a certain way, and as belonging to a certain kind of pianist. Lupu never really bothers to argue otherwise in his typically eloquent fashion, though with the dialectic present in his playing on this occasion the indirect indictment could not have been more damning.

His encore was, of course, the E flat Intermezzo from op. 117. There is always his widely acclaimed recording of these Brahms piano works to fall back on and the style has not changed appreciably, but in the treatment of musical line I sensed something quite different, with at the considerable risk of misinterpretation, with Schenkerian underpinnings. To write about such playing in the seemingly prosaic terms of analytical technique is regarded in certain quarters as heresy, though it might equally be said that eschewing the role such formal matters play in our aesthetic satisfaction is to embrace crackpots such as Hanslick and theories of conveniently indefinable autonomous beauty. In any case, Lupu has lived with these pieces for half a lifetime and would not be able to perform them the way he does without understanding their inner relationships, but to project, through voicing alone, a middleground rich in musical possibility while maintaining the op. 117 illusion  that only the simplest of means is used – is a feat which shows his touch and insight to be truly singular.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Tonkünstler

Musikverein, 02/10/2011

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Sharon Kam

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1, op. 11
Iván Eröd: Konzert für Klarinette und Orchester (premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, op. 67

The Tonkünstler have a fairly regular Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening slot during the Musikverein season and though demand isn’t as high as for the Vienna-based orchestras, they are capable of outplaying the Symphoniker (generally considered Austria’s second orchestra). Their young chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada owes his big break to them and can usually be relied on to elicit commitment and intensity beyond the call of Sunday afternoon duty. I mention this because their season didn’t get off to a great start last weekend and I have to tell it like it was. But normally I’m rooting for these guys.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Andrey Boreyko and the Wiener Symphoniker

Musikverein, 1/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Andrey Boreyko
Iwona Sobotka, soprano
Jadwiga Rappé, alto
Artur Ruciński, baritone
Brahms: Nänie, op. 82
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, op. 53
Ives: The Unanswered Question (revised version from 1930-35)
Schubert: Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D. 759
I hadn’t heard of conductor Andrey Boreyko before this concert. A cursory Google search revealed that he failed to deliver after promising the world to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but has won critics prizes in Germany for his non-conventional programming. Nänie and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater bear out the latter and I can only imagine that Winnipeg must have been more about personality or politics than musicianship, because this was the Symphoniker concert of the season to beat. Naturally not a single Viennese critic bothered to show up.

It was good to hear Nänie at the Musikverein. I find it the more inspired of the two late choral works and there’s an interesting historical connection with the hall.Boreyko began things worryingly, looking like a sped up video of someone measuring for curtains and subdividing like crazy. I struggle to fathom what message he was trying to communicate, but the singing and playing didn’t sound at all chopped up or indeed like the German Requiem (a tempting default for the Singverein) and that works for me. There was no sense of the music sounding obsessed with its inner workings either, which happens so easily with Brahms. The chorus was really great here: just a small moment of tenor strain, which passed quickly enough, and some impressively pp high soprano entries.

The understatement of the Brahms carried over well into the Szymanowski. His rapid arm movement all but gone, Boreyko handled this delicately, with no trace of blurring where there might have been muddy swathes of sound. All three soloists were curiously unaffected by the ‘ferne Klang’ singer’s curse of the Musikverein and their performances felt like a thoughtful, collective effort to do well by this underrated work. There was a clarity to Iwona Sobotka's Barainsky-like soprano which worked well in that moment with the oboe solo and alongside Jadwiga Rappé's dark, thick alto, despite the contrast in colour. Soloists for choral and orchestral works at the Musikverein don't often mesh like this.

The strings in the Ives sounded uncannily like a certain American symphony orchestra, which is unusual as the three major Vienna string sections don’t often shed their spots. Woodwind interjections weren’t as punchy as the norm, but sounded a great deal less contrived for it. Boreyko segued directly into the Schubert, a stunt I wouldn’t care for too often, but it wasn’t at all attention-grabbing and if a conductor is going to concatenate two works, there are worse choices. The first movement was strong, if never much more than respectably so. Boreyko was bolder in the Andante, which was more memorable even if the ideas weren’t always convincing. One of these was the emphasis placed on the dominant in all the V-I cadences (a case of reading and strongly disagreeing with Susan McClary?). The oboist who had done so well in the Szymanowski had a bit of a dodgy entry, coming in flat on the C sharp of the second theme. Boreyko dropped what he was doing to pick up the pieces and ended up making something special of the phrase that possibly wouldn't have happened otherwise. With no newspaper reviews and a tepid ovation, it's up to the orchestra to decide if we see more of him with them in the future. I hope that happens.

*Webern had a fondness for Brahms's more obscure choral and orchestral output, and conducted Nänie at the Musikverein more than once in his capacity as musical director of the Singverein der sozialdemokratischen Kunststelle, a semi-professional chorus run by the Austrian Social Democrats. In a move that makes this programme look timid, he once followed the Gesang der Parzen with Eisler’s Solidaritätslied.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Claudio Abbado's HIP Prius

Musikverein, 28/09/2011

Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Rossini: Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri
Mozart: Symphony No. 35, ‘Haffner’
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’
Rossini: Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (encore)

The Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart is somewhere between the third and sixth ensemble Claudio Abbado has founded, depending on how you define founding. It is also one of only three orchestras which Abbado has committed to performing with for the indefinite future, together with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Lucerne Festival Orchestra. There’s no cause for concern if you’re thinking that of these three the Orchestra Mozart is the one he’s most likely to tour with – and not because Abbado has a habit of changing his mind. Their playing under his direction is immaculate, light as a feather, and fresh. Tempi are lively and focus is for the most part on phrases rather than lines, but Abbado has them play on modern instruments and motivic underscoring seems very much structurally directed.

The Haffner had all of this, but proportions were a little off. The second subject of the Andante was sufficiently rushed to make the movement seem episodic. The opening of the Presto was held back to tension-deflating effect, presumably the opposite of Abbado’s intention. After a very strong first movement, these little things bothered me.

I had fewer reservations about the Mendelssohn. The opening phrase sprang into life with remarkable spontaneity, and the balance between reproducing carefully rehearsed phrasing and letting go was sustained throughout the movement. The last movement felt similar but could have been taken at a slightly steadier pace for the sake of the woodwind filigree. An old school Romantic approach to the Andante can make its textures sound like organ music (pesante bass always a giveaway), as does the HIP treatment, I think, in its own way. Light vibrato and a more sustained, expressive melodic line isn’t enough, as Abbado seems to have realised; inner voices sounded carefully shaped and checked more than once for balance. What can I say? It’s very rare that this movement doesn’t make me think of Mendelssohn’s sixth organ sonata.

The familiar may not have always sounded so new in this concert, but Abbado’s classical style is about reconciling the polar opposites of performance practice in imaginative and well-grounded ways and it’s worth hearing him conduct the Orchestra Mozart just for that.

Friday, 30 September 2011

No Exit from the Wiener Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni


Adam Plachetka | Don Giovanni
Myrtò Papatanasiu | Donna Anna
Pavol Breslik | Don Ottavio
Dinara Alieva | Donna Elvira
Alex Esposito | Leporello
Albert Dohmen | Commendatore
Tae Joong Yang | Masetto
Anita Hartig | Zerlina

Patrick Lange | Conductor
Jean-Louis Martinoty | Director

Marked improvement would be putting it too strongly, but over the last month Staatsoper rep nights have been more consistent in quality than is generally the case. Ian Storey’s Bacchus has been the only casting disaster and the orchestra is sounding a lot more focused than usual. Even some Viennese critics known for checking in their ears at the Garderobe have at times been reliable witnesses.

Plachetka publicity shot with
um, monogrammed shirt cuffs
While I was braced for all this to come crashing down to earth at some point or other, it was hard to endure the awfulness of Sunday’s Don Giovanni. Youthful Einspringer Adam Plachetka (replacing Bo Skovhus as the Don) was the only singer who didn’t contribute to the Schlamperei pile-up. His aggressive take on the role is watchable enough if lacking in insights, though should they come I imagine his will be a Don worth watching out for in the not so distant future. ‘Là ci darem’ was never going to sound tender and expressive with a bass-baritone this intense and dark, but control was impressive and he kept up admirably with Patrick Lange’s punishing tempo in the champagne aria.

It goes swiftly downhill from here. Pavol Breslik: what the hell happened in ‘Dalla sua pace’? The tempo was brisk enough that he shouldn’t have repeatedly run out of breath towards the ends of phrases, the tone sounding strangled and thin. Myrtò Papatanasiu’s robust soprano and wide vibrato harangued too forcefully; top notes were disturbingly sharp and phrases got flattened. Dinara Alieva’s Elvira sounded constrained and her reading of ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ one of the driest I’ve heard. Albert Dohmen’s Commendatore projected much better this time around (he was in the premiere cast last year), but shame about the mangled Italian on incipits as elementary, not to mention famous, as ‘a cenar teco m’invitasti’. Anita Hartig and Tae Joong Yang gave competent but undistinguished performances. Alex Esposito was trying too hard as Leporello: his catalogue aria had a lot of strange vocal inflections and acting was insufferably stagy.

None of this was helped by Jean-Louis Martinoty’s production, which has revived appallingly. Its dramaturgical pretensions long withered away, all that remains is a string of inanities that doesn’t even compare favourably with what the Austrians call Bauerntheater, or incompetent am dram staged in a barn. During the dinner scene Leporello prances around the stage wearing the Don’s pheasant as a codpiece, his hips bobbing like a pigeon. Masetto’s response to Zerlina’s ‘where does it hurt?’ is to point to his groin. It seems more of a saving grace that these two moments could be reconstructed from the Regiebuch when you see the crap acting elsewhere: Donna Anna throwing her umbrella to the ground, the Commendatore kicking the Don, Masetto’s hair-pulling in ‘Batti, batti’.

But I'm sure the orchestra was all right, I hear you ask. Not really. There was some decent playing, but they didn't adjust well to Patrick Lange’s tempi and ensemble never felt secure. Pit and singers were often not together, and balance was poorly-judged (the mandolin in ‘Deh, vieni’ was inaudible). For all the blame that can be placed at Lange’s door, the Staatsopernorchester ought to know this score well enough to compensate.

Image credit Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Falstaff: a play extempore

Wiener Staatsoper, 24/09/2011

Ambrogio Maestri | Falstaff
Marco Caria | Ford
Ho-yoon Chung | Fenton
Ildikó Raimondi | Alice Ford
Sylvia Schwartz | Nannetta
Marie-Nicole Lemieux | Mrs. Quickly
Michael Roider | Dr. Cajus
Herwig Pecoraro | Bardolfo
Janusz Monarcha | Pistola
Nadia Krasteva | Meg Page

Alain Altinoglu | Conductor
Marco Arturo Marelli | Director

This Falstaff isn’t much different from the other harmlessly superficial Marelli productions I’ve seen – four or five of those being enough to observe how effectively his fitfully amusing brand of charm can cover up ideas thrown together on a whim. A huge sewage pipe runs into the Garter Inn, to take just one example that shouldn’t be interrogated too closely for signs of critique  it’s only there for the wry smile that comes when Ambrogio Maestri, arms outstretched and grinning like an ass, stands in it to proclaim ‘Quest'è il mio regno’ (this is my kingdom). 

Bryn Terfel, this production's first Falstaff
When the Inn is lowered below stage its planked roof becomes a bare set for Ford’s house scenes (played as a lively comedy of errors) and Falstaff’s humbling at Windsor Park (relocated to a Scandinavian fir forest with visiting KKK delegation). The Klan look faintly ridiculous as they rattle kitchen knives and barbecue forks, which is perhaps for the best, if not Marelli’s intention. I can live without seeing Falstaff poked and prodded, but something more imaginative could have been done than having him amble lamely around the stage, tied up in fibre-optic tubing. The final scene is staged as a riotous party with the cast holding up coloured letters that spell out, predictably, ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (all the world's a joke).

Those looking for a darker Falstaff would not be satisfied with Ambrogio Maestri’s lovable rogue, but his character acting is solid and the sense of an Epicurean good life settled into without regrets communicated with deft touches. His baritone lacks lustre but cuts through the orchestra clearly enough, and in the upper reaches the tone is surprisingly resonant. Of the women, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Quickly stole the show, the ‘Reverenza’ gag in the music always a pleasure to hear in her burnished contralto. Ildikó Raimondi’s sharp-witted Alice didn’t find much of a match in Marco Caria, whose delivery of ‘È sogno o realtà’ was so stiff that his upstaging by the stage elevator reveal of Falstaff’s Malvolian seduction costume came as a blessed relief. Sylvia Schwartz doesn’t have a big voice, but paired with Ho-yoon Chung’s light tenor she sounded fine.

Ensemble posed some problems: Bardolfo and Pistola’s mock-contrapuntal Amen was a mess and it was hard to get a handle on the notes being sung in the garbled quartets, quintets and final fugue. Rising star Alain Altinoglu kept much better control of the orchestra, which sounded crisp and buoyant. But he could have done more. The pit was half-Philharmoniker (Altinoglu = Dominique Meyer’s BFF?) and unusually willing to co-operate. If Franz Welser-Möst can make the most of that opportunity, is there an excuse for anyone else not to?