Archive for Alban Berg

Breaking Free

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been enjoy a series of fascinating programmes about music from the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern) on BBC Radio 3 this week gathered under the umbrella title of Breaking Free. In the period from roughly 1903 to 1925 these composers finally abandoned the traditional forms of tonality that late Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler had struggled with in their later work. Aside from its obvious emotional intensity, one of the reasons I find music from this period absolutely absorbing because it was written in a period of highly turbulent transition; you get such a strong sense of new possibilities being opened up when you listen to some of the pioneering works. Some of them are also extremely beautiful. I often hear people say that they they think atonal music sounds ugly, but I disagree. The same people would probably agree that birdsong is beautiful, and most of that is entirely atonal..

The only problem is that I’ve now got a very long list of recordings to buy, as I don’t have any CDs or downloads of some very important pieces. I’m going to be a but poorer financially as a consequence of this educational experience, but hopefully enriched in a cultural sense.

The “breaking free” in this period wasn’t confined to music – revolutionary change was underway in other artistic fields, including painting. Last night I was listening to one of the programmes in the Breaking Free series and it inspired me to have a look in some of my art books for something appropriate to post from the time (if not the location) of the 2nd Viennese School. I decided on this, wan abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky called Composition VII which was painted in 1913.

composition-vii-1913

Lulu at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 18, 2013 by telescoper

Time for a quick post about Saturday night at the Opera while I have my sandwich lunch. I have reviewed Lulu by Alban Berg before but David Pountney’s production for Welsh National Opera was quite different to the Covent Garden version I saw a few years ago.

Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds  serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful with a constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big  nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and disjointed. It’s easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, and there are whole sections that sound like they come from the soundtrack of a Hammer Horror film.

So what about the Opera itself? The plot revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty and working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is losing her looks, as a result of illness and ageing. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point her decline is inexorable and death inevitable. It’s also no coincidence that her murderer is played by the same actor who plays her first lover, Dr Schön.

This production looks very different to the Covent Garden production, but rather than describe it in words it’s probably easier to look at the promotional video made by WNO.

It’s a very vivid and imaginative staging based on a stark framework made of metal that dominates the stage.  A particularly effective and disturbing idea is to have the corpses of Lulu’s ex-lovers winched up into this structure on meat hooks after they’re dead and left to dangle there for the rest of the performance. Although the principal element of the set remains in place throughout, changes of mood and location are represented with dramatic changes of lighting and colour; Victorian London is memorably evoked with fog and a plethora of raised umbrellas. It’s all quite different from how I would have imagined the piece, but none the worse for that.

Marie Arnet was an excellent Lulu, giving a delicately nuanced portrayal of a complex central character who is as manipulated as she is manipulating. She is in turns cold-hearted and vulnerable, seductive and exploited. She bares all in this production, first in Act II, and is again naked when she is killed at the end of Act III. Neither scene is done gratuitously. Although her death scene is very shocking and horrific, it is not done in a titillating way. The rest of the cast was very good too, and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under Lothar Koenigs played the extraordinary music with clarity and energy. The saxophones and vibraphone, included to lend a bit of jazz-age decadence to the piece, were very prominent.

Before seeing this production I saw that the first night got a rave review and five stars  in the Guardian. I wasn’t sure what to make of that as I rarely agree with published reviews. In fact I agree with much of Andrew Clements said, but wouldn’t have given it five stars. I’d probably give it four, if I did stars…

In Berg’s score the singers are sometimes called upon to use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This can be extremely effective from a dramatic point of view when done well. In this production I was perturbed that the short pieces of the libretto intended to be performed in this way were in fact delivered by disembodied recorded voices. I thought that was peculiar when I first noticed it, and as it recurred throughout the performance it started to irritate me quite considerably. I couldn’t tell which character was meant to be speaking, and in any case the recorded voices sounded nothing like those of any of the characters on stage. This device was probably used because some of the parts were played by people in animal masks, but other than that I couldn’t see the point of it.

That was an unfortunate blot on an otherwise excellent production, but there was still much to enjoy and I’m very glad I went back to Cardiff to see it.

Wozzeck

Posted in Opera with tags , , on October 3, 2009 by telescoper

It was a late decision for me to go to see Welsh National Opera‘s production of Wozzeck last night (Friday 2nd October) at the Wales Milennium Centre. It has been a busy week and I’m travelling at the weekend too, so I wasn’t sure I could fit it in. In the end, I am really glad I did because it was by far the best of the three operas WNO are presenting in the current season; you can read about the other two here and here.

Stylistically, Wozzeck (composed by Alban Berg) is a far cry from Madam Butterfly and La Traviata but it is also a tragedy of some sort. The principal character – Wozzeck himself –  is one of life’s losers. The Opera opens with him establishing his servile nature by shaving a character called the Captain in order to supplement his salary. The original story has a military setting, but in this production it is moved to a factory producing tins of baked beans.

Wozzeck has fathered a child out of wedlock with Marie and is doing everything he can to earn money for her and their son. Later on we find out that he is also trying to earn cash by helping another character, the Doctor, in a medical experiment the main element of which seems to involve eating a large quantity of the baked beans produced in the factory.

Perhaps caused by his peculiar diet as well as the stress of his personal situation, Wozzeck is clearly losing his marbles. He suffers from hallucinations. Then Marie has an affair with another character, the Drum Major  we know he’s a bad guy because he likes golf and wears nasty white shoes. The Doctor and the Captain see the Drum Major and Marie in flagrante delicto and subsequently taunt Wozzeck with his lover’s infidelity. Wozzeck goes berserk, challenges the Drum Major to a fight and gets himself badly beaten up for his trouble. He takes  out his frustration on Marie, luring her outside and then killing her by cutting her throat with an opened baked bean tin. He doesn’t have the sense to wash the blood from his hands and when this is spotted he returns to the scene and tries to find the murder weapon. In the original story Wozzeck had thrown the weapon (a knife) into a lake: trying to get it back in order to hide it in a better place he falls in and drowns. In this production he had thrown the tin can into a huge hopper full of similar tins. He falls into this and dies among the rubbish. In the final scene, his young son is told of the death of his mother and father but it doesn’t really sink in. He sings a childish song and opens a tin of baked beans. Like father, like son.

The stark industrialised scenery and drably austere clothing  serve to reinforce the steady dehumanisation of Wozzeck and accentuate his descent into madness.  The subtext is about the exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged; the message is that those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. Wozzeck’s actions are not condoned, but we know from the start that he’s a man in trouble and if only someone had helped him rather than everyone tormenting him, things might have turned out for the better. Shades of Peter Grimes.

Peter Hoare was a creepily comical Captain and Cliver Bailey an appropriately ghoulish Doctor. Marie was sung beautifully by Wioletta Chodowicz. But even these were somewhat eclipsed by Christopher Purves’ wonderful and deeply moving performance as the tortured Wozzeck. His singing and acting raised the level of this to truly world-class. One of the best I’ve ever seen.

The real star of the show for me, though, was Berg’s amazing music, which managed to be both sumptious and edgy at the same time. This is an atonal piece, and I know some people are pretty much allergic to music that doesn’t rest on a tonal framework. But the orchestral colours Berg achieves have a remarkable effect in combination with the action on stage and some of the more lyrical passages are intensely beautiful.

Actually, it’s a remarkable opera altogether. For a start it’s exceptionally compact. Three Acts each of five Scenes but the overall running time is about 90 minutes (with no interval). The music for each act is constructed like a concert work. The three Acts are marked Five Character Pieces, Symphony in Five Movements and Six Inventions (five of the latter accompany the scenes, the sixth is an orchestral interlude before the final scene). There are leitmotifs, unusual vocal techniques such as Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme, innovative rhythmic explorations with strange uses of percussion, and so on. Berg packs so much into this work that it is definitely one to listen to over and over again.

I and the rest of the audience responded very enthusiastically both to the performers on stage and  to the Orchestra of WNO who did full justice to a 20th Century masterpiece. Bravo!

Lulu

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , on June 6, 2009 by telescoper

On Thursday (4th June) I went to the first night of the Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu, an Opera by Alban Berg. I was planning to blog about this yesterday but after the Opera my birthday celebrations descended into drunken chaos and I ended up getting back very late to Cardiff yesterday; I had to catch up a number of things so I didn’t have time. After the performance and dinner in a nearby restaurant we sat out on Joao’s roofgarden in Notting Hill drinking until the sun started to come up. That part is a bit of blur, but judging by the scale of my hangover yesterday it must have been good. Anyway, I’ve now recovered enough write something about the Opera.

Before Thursday I hadn’t seen Lulu in a live performance, although I do have it on DVD so I knew a bit about it. Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds  serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful: it’s constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big  nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and jagged. Sometimes there is no music at all and the singers use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This  is used only sparingly in Lulu, but it is wonderfully effective dramatically when it is.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano, were absolutely fantastic throughout the performance. I’m no musician but I reckon this music must be extremely difficult to play, especially in the brass section, but they played with great passion as well as flawless precision. They really brought Berg’s music to life, and invested it with a vitality that positively glowed throughout the performance. With playing like this, it was easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, for example.

So what about the Opera itself? The play revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is getting older and  losing her looks. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point on, her decline is inexorable and death inevitable.

The new production is quite unlike the recording I have on DVD in that the staging is resolutely minimal. There is no set, just an occasional translucent screen, the costumes are modern and colours are monochrome. Lulu is dressed at one point  in a black cocktail dress very like that worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This might have been a deliberate reference to the parallels between Lulu and Holly Golightly (at least in Truman Capote’s novella, which is a much darker concoction than the film based on it); soprano Agneta Eichenholz bears more than a passing resemblance to Audrey Hepburn too. Her slender build -unusual for an opera singer with such a powerful voice – allowed her to play Lulu’s vulnerable aspects very well.

Against a sparse backdrop  the characters emerge as series of grotesques, which – at least in principle – is not a bad way of  presenting this Opera. Set in such a way it appears as a piece of absurdist theatre which is definitely part of what it represents. There are two problems, however.

One is that the sets give very little clue as to the location of the drama: I wouldn’t have known that the last scene was meant to be Victorian London unless I’d seen it before, so Jack the Ripper’s appearance must have been very  confusing to those who hadn’t picked up on that. Lulu is also meant to be a lot older in the last Act, but no attempt is made to age her in this production.  The libretto makes repeated reference to a painting of her, and it serves at the end to remind her of her age, but no portrait ever appears; I found that a bizarre omission.

The other problem is that there are strong links between the story of Lulu and the Grand Guignol  genre of horror plays, with their  opulently macabre  stagings and exaggeratedly gory endings. Throwing all those connections  away robs the Opera of all of its schlock value and, with that, a great deal of the irony needed to make this blackest of black comedies work the way it should. The killing of Lulu in fact happens off stage in this production which makes the ending very tame. I wouldn’t want to go over-the-top in depicting the horror of Lulu’s death – I wanted to see an Opera, not a snuff movie – but the audience should be shocked by the brutality of her final moments; these are the key to what the Opera is about. Perhaps the director was concerned not to let the drama descend into mere titillation. There’s always a danger of crossing the line into vulgar pornography in depicting explicit sexuality and violence, but I think this production is too afraid of taking risks. This opera should feel more dangerous than this setting allows it to be. Ypu’re not meant to feel comfortable about this Opera.

Although limited by the stylized nature of the production, the principals were good. Agneta Eichenholz’s is a  desensitized creature, damaged by abuse and inhabiting a moral vacuum. Her detachment in the face of the death and destruction around her is perfectly judged. She sang beautifully for the most part but – possibly because of first night nerves – her voice came apart on a couple of high notes early on. Other characters worth mentioning are Michael Volle who was outstanding as Dr Schön and Philip Langridge in the dual role of the Prince and the Marquis.

This morning I read Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian which I thought was a bit harsh: only two stars doesn’t really do justice to a fascinating evening. I would have  given three stars for the quality of the music alone. Personally, I could have listened to the whole thing in a concert performance and still enjoyed it. But having decided to go for a full staging,  it seems to me a bit perverse to have stripped  it down so drastically. Clements claimed he was “bored” by what happened on stage. I certainly wasn’t, but I did find myself more perplexed by the production than by the moral ambivalence of the story itself, so I’d have to say it didn’t really do justice to an Opera which I still think of as masterpiece.