Sir John Eliot Gardiner Brings Monteverdi Operas to the Berlin Musikfest

05/09/2017

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Musikfest Berlin [1] – Monteverdi, L’Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 2.9.2017. (MB)

L’Orfeo

Orfeo – Krystian Adam
La Musica/Euridice – Hana Blažiková
Messenger – Lucile Richardot
Proserpina – Francesca Boncompagni
Caronte/Plutone – Gianluca Buratto
Speranza – Kangmin Justin Kim
Apollo – Furio Zanasi
First Shepherd – Francisco Fernández-Rueda
Second Shepherd/First Spirit/Echo – Gareth Treseder
Third Shepherd – Michał Czerniawski
Fourth Shepherd/Third Spirit – John Taylor Ward
Second Spirit – Zachary Wilder
Nymph – Anna Dennis

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Ulisse – Furio Zanasi
Penelope – Lucile Richardot
Minerva/Fortuna – Hana Blažiková
Telemaco – Krystian Adam
Eumete – Francisco Fernández-Rueda
Iro – Robert Burt
Eurimaco – Zachary Wilder
Melanto – Anna Dennis
Giove – John Taylor Ward
Giunone – Francesca Boncompagni
Ericlea – Francesca Biliotti
Amore – Silvia Frigato
Umana fragilità – Carlo Vistoli
Tempo, Neptune, Antinoo – Gianluca Buratto
Pisandro – Michał Czerniawski
Anfinomo – Gareth Treseder

Rick Fisher (lighting)
Isabella Gardiner, Patricia Hofstede (costumes)
Elsa Rooke, John Eliot Gardiner (directors)

I am delighted, for the first time to be able to attend – and indeed to report from – the Berliner Festspiele and, in particular, from the Musikfest Berlin. How I rued having neither the time nor the money to be here for its Schoenberg year in 2015. Still, Monteverdi is the focus, if not quite so strongly so, in this, his anniversary year, so how could I resist? (One of the things that first drew me to the music of Alexander Goehr was his twin reverence for Schoenberg and Monteverdi; at last, I had found someone – I now know there are many more of us – for whom the two could stand as equal gods.) And so, although not quite the opening of the festival, the opening of my festival came with the first two of the three surviving operas of Monteverdi, L’Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. L’incoronazione di Poppea will also be given; that I heard in a rather different setting and realisation, at the Komische Oper earlier this year.

John Eliot Gardiner has, of course, for several decades been a byword for English ‘authenticity’ – or whatever it is called now. (Somehow I doubt he childishly defines as ‘HIP’, which certainly reflects well upon him, but who knows?) But has he really? The curious thing about much of what I heard here was how curiously dated it sounded. I am the last person to complain about that in some ways; so far as I am concerned, there are many ways to perform great music well. Yet, if claims to ‘authenticity’ – and yes, I use the word in slightly baiting fashion – have always been dubious, to say the least, here we seemed to have entered a strange twilight world in which, certain yet only certain aspects of instrumental ‘hardware’ aside, any authenticity was to a world of ‘1970s Early Music’. Fair enough, if that is your thing – it certainly seemed to be, for many people in an enthusiastic audience – yet perhaps not quite what was said or implied ‘on the tin’.

What struck me about much of the singing – especially, yet not only, from the Monteverdi Choir as choir – was that it sounded very ‘English choral scholar’, even when it was not. In some ways, I sympathise with a degree of resistance to an all-purpose ‘Mediterranean’ approach to this music, which has no more to do with Monteverdi than any other of the phantasms of ‘correctness’ that have haunted performances of his music over the years. There is something troubling about the claim that Italian – in what meaningful sense was or is Monteverdi ‘Italian’? – musicians will always know best here, or still worse, have the music ‘in their blood’. We all need to go beyond petty nationalism here. On the other hand, the whiteness of tone here really tended too much, at least for me, towards the bland. It was all very well-drilled – arguably too much so – yet sounded for all the world, and despite the presence of female voices, more like something one might have expected from David Willcocks and King’s College Choir than an operatic performance, ancient or modern. I’m not aiming for anything fundamentally different,’ Gardiner claims, quite truthfully, one might say, ‘than I was back in 1964.’ That seems to me rather a sad way to approach performance, be it of Monteverdi or Stockhausen. Gardiner’s strange habit of conducting all the recitatives seemed to attest to a control-freakery that is perhaps not the best claim to ‘authenticity’, or more important, towards drama.

Another curious feature, especially in L’Orfeo, but also in quite a few sections of Ulisse, was quite how slow Gardiner’s speeds tended to be. Again, I am hardly someone to insist on breathless tempi, quite the contrary. Yet, in a performance of the first opera that lasted twenty minutes longer than had been advertised, I missed some expressive variation of tempo; ‘expression’ was conveyed rather more through somewhat arch dynamic contrasts. The orchestral forces used were large and somewhat ‘modern orchestral’ by today’s standards. Orfeo employed six violins, four violas, a cello, a viola da gamba/lirone, a double bass, two recorders, three cornetts/trumpets, five baroque trombones, dulcian, harp, harpsichord/organ, regal, and four chittarones/baroque guitars; Ulisse had more or less the same, minus the dulcian, the trombones, and one of the cornetts, and with a second harpsichord. The orchestral sound tended to be fuller – not only on account of instruments used – in Orfeo, but that is as much a matter of the nature of the work as anything else. And the playing of the English Baroque Soloists was excellent; too often in this music, what one hears is painfully out of tune. Not here: all was greatly assured throughout. I could not help but wonder, though: why not actually use a modern orchestra, given the general ‘smoothness’ of approach – the sort of thing Gardiner et al. would surely decry in, say, Karajan. Indeed, Gardiner decries in the programme the ‘indulgence of Raymond Leppard’. I should say this was a great deal more indulgent, and a great deal less dramatic – in any sense. The Philharmonie is a large hall; just imagine how wonderful it would be to hear in a more genuinely recreative approach, the Berio Orfeo or the Henze Ulisse, there. After all, what could be more ‘inauthentic’ than performing Monteverdi in a space such as that?

The semi-staging seemed of another, non-‘early’ era too. ‘It was not a matter of not fully staging the work, but that there seemed to be at the very least implied resistance towards a fuller acceptance of opera as staged, fuller drama – Regietheater, if you must, although the term remains problematical, at least to me. Pretty-ish costumes, especially in Orfeo, somewhat dated body language and contrived interaction: that was about it. Moreover, I had the strong impression that was all Gardiner, credited with co-direction, wanted. Drama, though? Perhaps not so much, and I say that as someone who has found concert performances of the Ring some of the most intensely dramatic experiences of all. Then, looking in the programme afterwards, I read: ‘I have a natural antipathy to the proscenium arch as the only way to present opera. It carries baggage with it, a certain preconception on the part of the audience that the eye should dominate over the ear, and that to me is limiting.’ Straw men, anyone? ‘I think,’ Gardiner continued a little later, ‘an audience’s imagination, once stimulated, is infinitely richer than anything a clever stage director can come up with.’ Maybe it is, but might one not say the same about anything a conductor, clever or otherwise, can come up with? In that case, should we not just all sit at home and read a score (of whatever edition)?

There was more to enjoy in the solo singing, although that tendency towards blandness was not entirely absent there either. Indeed, Orfeo in particular sounded more akin to an oratorio than an opera, of whatever age: the genres are far from distinct, of course, yet even so. There were two serious disappointments: an almost painfully out of tune countertenor, Kangmin Justin Kim, as Speranza in Orfeo, and a strangely miscast – or so it sounded – Lucile Richardot as Penelope. Not everyone can be Janet Baker, of course; indeed, no one else can be. Yet, Richardot seemed hardly to possess the higher notes required, sounding merely petulant –hardly Penelope’s thing – above a richer lower, yet highly restricted, range. Her Ulisse, Furio Zanasi, sounded somewhat old, even wooden, some of the time, yet had stronger, more expressive moments too. He made little impression, however, as Apollo, and again gave the impression of having been miscast. Encountering the tenor of Krystian Adam, though, was almost worth the price of admission alone. It is not a big voice, but nor did it need to be. Adam showed manifold clarity, agility, and tenderness in his performances as Orfeo and Telemaco. I certainly hope to hear more from him. Zachary Wilder and Anna Dennis imparted a greatly needed injection of ‘Mediterranean’ chemistry to Ulisse, as Eurimaco and Melanto. In both operas, Francisco Fernández-Ruedo stood out as a tenor not only mellifluous but musico-dramatically astute; his Eumete in particular often proved quite heart-rending. There was definitely a sense of the vocal performances as offering more than the sum of their parts; it was a pity, then, that the framework within which they had to operate was not more conducive to the modernity – and antiquity – of the composer.

Mark Berry

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