Tuesday, 3 February 2009


7/1/09, Barbican.

2hrs 20min. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Willard White and a young Russian mezzo, Elena Zhidkova, deputising for the advertised Katarina Dalayman. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

The orchestra (as well as Gergiev and White) were in full fig, white tie and tails. Inappropriate for the Stravinsky -- a product of the 20th century machine age; much more appropriate for the Bartok, with its melodrama and voluptuous orchestrations and its aristocratic milieu. The Stravinsky needs a big band: I counted 106, including six percussion (two sets of kettle drums, two big bass drums -- which made some very loud noises) and 40 woodwind and brass. It shrank to 86 for the Bartok, though that included two harps and a celesta and at one point eight more brass sidled on from the side door to provide additional welly in what for me was the high point of the Bartok.

Ms Zhidkova almost looked the part in that she was young, attractive, had masses of hair cascading down her back and wore a very tight slinky pink number. As she sashayed from the stage at the end both A and D said they thought she looked like a mermaid. She kept flicking her hair clear of her face, which was distracting; and the text calls for a pale raven-haired beauty, and she was spectacularly blonde. Otherwise I have few complaints. She was required to play a woman who is both sensual and innocent and rather arrogant -- and whose combination of innocence and arrogance eventually proves her downfall.

Sir Willard was an even better piece of casting. He has immense presence, is the right age to play a man with three former wives trying to repress the memory of a lifetime drenched in blood, and convincingly embodied the mixture of hope and wariness -- developing into despair -- of a man who believes his new bride may help him put his tortured past behind him. He doesn't in fact have a lot to do (or to sing) for much of the opera but play a straight bat to Judith's constant demands to open another of the shut doors in his castle (otherwise his psyche).

White also turns out to have a sonorous speaking voice: he delivered the spoken prologue which establishes that what we are about to see is in reality happening inside the protagonist's head, presumably a necessary explanation for an audience in 1911 who might be unfamiliar with psychoanalysis. (The prologue is in English -- the opera was sung in Hungarian with surtitles borrowed from Covent Garden.)

Those surtitles were handy, because the singers were sometimes drowned by the orchestra. Would a younger Willard White have held his own better?

Is this the first psychoanatical opera? The doors open to reveal aspects of Bluebeard's life... his torture chamber, his garden and so on, all stained in some way with blood. The musical high point is the glorious triumphant music which accompanies the opening of the door revealing his "vast and beautiful domains".

After that it's downhill for poor Judith, who insists almost petulantly, certainly self-destructively, and against Bluebeard's passionate urgings not to, on opening two further, darker doors, which reveal first a lake of tears and then Bluebeard's three mute former wives, who she duly joins in some sort of captive not-life.

A bag of laughs it ain't, but certainly stirring.

Of the music itself I can remember virtually nothing, thanks to a failure to write down impressions within a couple of hours. I can tell you that the Stravinsky was driving, noisy, energetic and exciting -- but not if it was any good, though I was disappointed by the opening bassoon solo. It seemed insufficiently sinuous. But there was much grimacing and putting in and taking out of reeds on the soloist's part, so perhaps all was not well.

I can tell you that the Bartok was surprisingly accessible and that the "vast and beautiful domains" section was glorious. But again, how good or bad the performance was I have no idea. Compare this, by a blogger who clearly thinks he does know enough about music to make a judgement:


Contrast this, however:


The reality is that, ignorant as I am of music and unable to remember anything but the most familiar tunes, I treat concerts as a form of theatre. My enjoyment is greatly enhanced if the presentation is visually interesting, the performers look the part and everyone involved gives an impression of involvement and interest rather than just going through the motions.
How many others, I wonder, go to concerts in the same frame of mind?

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