Peter Sellars’ Bizarre Janáček Production Steals Attention from the Excellent Performance

13/10/2017

Janáček – The Cunning Little Vixen: Soloists, ‘Vocal Heroes’ Children’s Chorus from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme, Vocalconsort Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 12.10.2017. (MB)

Cast:
Forester – Gerald Finley
Forester’s Wife – Paulina Malefane
Schoolmaster, Mosquito, Rooster – Burkhard Ulrich
Priest, Badger – Willard White
Hárašta – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Vixen Sharp-Ears – Lucy Crowe
Fox, Crested Hen – Angela Denoke
Pásek – Friedemann Büttner
Mrs Pásková, Lapák the dog – Anna Lapkovskaja
Jay – Lotta Jultmark
Child soloists (in various of the smaller roles) – Anna Damiano, Ève Davillers, Victoria Florczak,
Anton Hoppe, Artina Kapreljan, Raphael Küster, Johanna Mielisch, Luise Mielisch, Paul Mielisch, Johann von der Nahmer, Gabriel Pappalardo, Jonas Rattle

Production:
Peter Sellars (director)
Ben Zamorsa (lighting)
Nick Hillel (video)
The best news, and i

Indeed the most important news, is that this performance of The Cunning Little Vixen had clearly proved an invaluable experience for the children on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme. It was not simply a matter of having participated in rehearsals and performance, but of a longer, deeper creative project, ‘MusikPLUS Fabelwesen; (‘Creatures from Fables,’ literally, which in this case probably works better than the more common ‘Mythological Creatures’), which had run from the middle of September until now. Under the artistic guidance of Berlin Philharmonic trombonist, Thomas Leyendecker, singer Judith Kamphues, and pianist Daniel Grote, children from St Paul’s School in Moabit had explored themes, musical and conceptual, from Janáček’s opera, in all manner of ways: music, movement, and so on. They had learned a good deal, it seems, about language too – given their multifarious backgrounds and the Czech of the performance. Splendid stuff then!

There was much to enjoy musically in the performance as well, not least the excellent contribution of the children, whether chorally or as soloists. Mention should be made here of the work of Snezana Nena Brzakovic and Tobias Walenciak in rehearsing the child soloists and children’s chorus respectively. Otherwise, amongst the adults, I felt – not speaking Czech, I can say no more than ‘felt’ – a certain lack of idiom and intrinsic command at times and in certain cases, but nothing too grave. Willard White’s casting seemed odd; his voice is now, sadly, quite hollowed out. Angela Denoke, though, whose performances have proved vocally variable for quite a while, seemed at home in the role of the Fox; her dramatic commitment has never, of course, been in doubt. Lucy Crowe gave a spirited and vocally attentive account of Vixen Sharp-Ears herself. Gerald Finley proved typically thoughtful – if more than usually hamstrung by Peter Sellars’s bizarre collection of production clichés – in his performance as the Forester: more physical, indeed tortured, than Thomas Allen, say, but none the worse for that. As the Forester’s Wife, Paulina Malefane offered a well-judged balance between the strict and the likeable. Burkhard Ulrich, a justly esteemed Loge and Mime, emerged with great credit in each of his different roles: quite a test in itself.

The Berlin Philharmonic proved more than adept at communicating the changing demands both of the score and of Simon Rattle’s conception of it. The precision and almost Stravinskian (for Rattle) obsessiveness of the opening were balanced, or perhaps better opposed, by a well-nigh Straussian opulence later on, especially at climaxes and the approach to them. Perhaps there was room for something more in the way of mediation between such extremes, but that would be almost to find fault for the sake of it. It was a bold, dramatic orchestral performance, born of longstanding acquaintance with the score on Rattle’s part. There is so much in Janáček’s – frankly – miraculous score: perhaps more than can ever be conveyed, or at least appreciated, in a single performance. No one would have been disappointed by this, though, and I suspect that most would have heard things they had not heard before. Rattle’s role not just as conductor in the traditional sense but as enabler of the activities of children and adults alike showed him at his best: certainly something London has good reason to look forward to.

You felt a ‘but’ coming, dear reader? Of course you did, for it was ‘trailed’ in the second paragraph. This was not Peter Sellars at his very worst: may ENO’s Indian Queen – shudder – retain that title forever. However, it seemed bizarre both in its incoherence and in its often wild inappropriateness for children. ‘Distracting’ is a word so loved of operatic reactionaries that one hesitates to use it at all. However, it seems difficult to avoid doing so, and not worth the effort, with respect to the video screens dotted around the hall. The film had its justification, I suppose, when it showed pictures of ‘real-life’ versions of the animals singing at the time – although might not some small degree of costume or other stage indication have done the job better? Other scenes from nature did no particular harm either, although they showed a tendency, an irrelevant one at that, towards the generic wildlife documentary. The opening video sequence was, shall we say, very school biology class. But what on earth was Sellars thinking of when introducing a confusing – merely confusing, not ‘edgy’, not ‘transgressive’, not ‘daring’ – staged sequence in which the Forester appeared to have taken the Vixen home to have sex with her, sleeping together until discovered by his Wife. The poor Forester – ‘poor’ in terms of what was done to the character, not in terms of his deeds! – appeared then to be permanently traumatised by the whole affair, although the Vixen seemed fine.

Once again then, whatever his intentions, Sellars managed to turn something into a therapy session for that most vulnerable, threatened of groups: white men. Weirdly, the Forester and his wife appeared to live in a modern apartment block, several floors up; at least that seemed to be the indication of repeated footage (from the outside) of said apartment block. Quite what that was supposed to add, save for confusion about where much of the rest of the action was taking place, was, to say the least, unclear. If Sellars were trying to say that everything was in the Forester’s imagination, and that it was all an anthropomorphic projection, that certainly did not come across – either to me or to anyone else I asked. I eventually gave up on what I was seeing, insofar as that were possible. A concert performance, or concert staging in which the children at least could still have run around and enjoyed themselves, would surely have been a much better idea.

Mark Berry

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