Claus von Below Opera
Of the three performing arts, indeed of all the arts, music is the one that brings us closest to the unknowable, to the transcendental. Of course this must be the intrinsic aim of all the arts, and our powers of perception and of educated reasoning will assist us in our enjoyment and understanding of a poem or of a painting. But only music can stimulate secretions of those cerebral endorphins, those drops of hallucinogenics like none other. Having rashly made this absolutist claim for music I must immediately retract it or at least qualify it. There is indeed a medical condition known as Stendhal’s Syndrome, a feverish condition, a state of exhaustion, caused by over-exposure to aesthetic sensations, in Stendhal’s case a promenade around Renaissance Italy while absenting himself from his consular duties. Female beauty has been known to stimulate the expeditious processing of visa applications in all ages. As we approach Easter it is therefore interesting to compare three great musical performances that London audiences have been privileged to hear this month, where each of them explicitly deals with the transcendental. Die Walküre with Wagner’s Nordic gods; Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, with Sarastro the High Priest of Isis and Osiris, the deities of ancient Egypt; and Bach’s great Christian work, St Matthew’s Passion. I have listed these works in the historical sequence of the religious cultures they deal with. But they were sadly composed in reverse order: first Bach’s great Christian Oratorio in 1727, then Mozart’s delightfully frivolous cruise up the Nile and into Freemasonry in 1790, and finally Wagner’s epic masterpiece in 1870, leading on to a century of ear-splitting gunfire so loud that succeeding generations can only listen to performers of heavy metal.
The Royal Opera’s revival of David McVicar’s production of Die Zauberflöte was directed by Lee Blakeley, and was well worth another visit (and indeed the price of the tickets!). Charles Mckerras’s conducting is more rapid, and therefore arguably more authentically Mozartian than Colin Davis’s and there can be no better Papageno than Simon Keelyside. He is not the lovable clown, and the stage décor by John Macfarlane is suitably dark and sinister, and quite unlike the visually enchanting nursery story in Jonathan Miller’s ENO production. Mozart’s Magic Flute is, like his Marriage of Figaro, a political libretto from the Age of Reason, a curtain-raiser to another world.
As indeed is Die Walküre, the second instalment in Covent Garden’s new Ring Cycle. Keith Warner’s direction and Stefanos Lazaridis’s stage designs have of course found the usual critics, who did not care for their Rheingold either. Personally I am so grateful for any production of Wagner’s great work which is sensitive enough to refrain from putting a lavatory centre stage (as did the ENO) or engaging in anti-capitalist propaganda (Bayreuth). The great shiny encycling metal sculpture in this production is not only suitably symbolic of a ring, but serves conveniently as a receptacle for the sword Nothung and later for the immolating fire protecting Brunnhilde’s virtue. My copy of Hall’s Dictionary of Symbolism In Art does not reveal why there are chandeliers and a ceiling fan in Hunding’s forest hut. However, I can see why the anachronistic chaise longue came in useful for all the female deities during a five and a half hour performance. They were all splendid, Sieglinde (Katarina Dalayman), Brunnhilde (Lisa Gasteeen) and the quite formidably uxorial Fricka (Rosalind Plowright). Antonio Pappano’s conducting was both sensitive and energetic, but the evening was Bryn Terfel’s, his great voice, even in the recitatives in Act Two, reaching to his native Welsh mountains. And why, since the Prime Minister is so EU-friendly, do we not start baptising our daughters after the Walkyries, like for instance, Schwertleite Waltraute, or Rossweisse?
At least the costume designer, Marie-Jeanne Lecca, had anticipated the cold weather: the entire cast was swathed in silverfox pelts, suitable for a posh outing with the Beaufort Hunt.
I have allowed myself too little space for praising a superb and deeply moving performance of St Matthew’s Passion. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who is now launching his own record label, conducted the Monteverdi Choir and Trinity Boys Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists (including Mark Padmore and Dietrich Henschel) in two performances at the Cardigan Hall. There could have been no better introduction to a Christian Easter. If you missed it then buy the recordings.