Love and power
Georg Frideric Handel: Serse
Anne Sofie von Otter (Serse), Lawrence Zazzo (Arsamene), Silvia Tro Santafé (Amastre), Giovanni Furlanetto (Ariodate), Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz (Romilda), Sandrine Piau (Atalanta), Antonio Abete (Elviro)
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (conductor)
11/25/03 and 29 November 2003
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Liane Keegan (First Norn), Leah-Marian Jones (Second Norn), Franzita Whelan (Third Norn), Kathleen Broderick (Brühilde), Richard Berkeley-Steele (Siegfried), Robert Poulton (Gunther), Gidon Saks (Hagen), Claire Weston (Gutrune), Sara Fulgoni (Waltraute), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Linda Richardson (Woglinde), Stephanie Marshall (Wellgunde), Ethna Robinson (Flosshilde)
ENO Chorus and Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor)
The Barbican Hall has seen its share of outstanding operas in concert, as a stop on recording tours, as the home hall of the LSO and BBCSO, and as the temporary home of the ENO while they've got the builders in. Les Arts Florissants have delivered some of the best operas in concert ever, most recently the wonderful Ritorno di Ulisse in early 2002, while the ENO's season has been uneven. Yet this time, Les Arts Flo in Serse delivered style without substance, though with a Big Star, while Paul Daniel and the ENO crew came close to justifying the existence of all but a few minutes of Götterdämmerung.
Both works are fiendishly difficult to perform, for contrasting reasons. In Serse, Handel in his music moved away from the grand dramatic rhetoric of all but his earliest London operas and closer to the short-breathed fluidity of the ballad operas that were swiftly putting him out of business as an opera composer. The libretto of Serse, as set by Cavalli, was originally a decidedly Shakespearean can of worms, with comic servants everywhere convoluting the plot, and Handel kept much of the low theatricality in a somewhat simplified plot. Far more than in Handel's earlier operas, the performers must add theatrical value if their roles are not to fade into musical charm -- it was Nicholas Hynter's exuberant RSC-style 1985 production for the ENO that first showed that Serse was performable today.
This is especially true of Elviro, the castrato comedian turned buffo baritone, with his high notes intact as the old woman selling flowers, and of Atalanta, the wicked sister driven purely by comic erotic obsession. Fortunately, these roles were both taken by singers with the right theatrical skills. Antonio Abete as Elviro didn't quite know his place (he implausibly had his eye on Atalanta throughout), but he showed a broad comic sense and seemed to relish his falsetto parts. Sandrine Piau as Atalanta gave the outstanding performance of the evening, integrating edgily beautiful singing and comic, but slightly disturbing, mental derangement in a complete character. She even had the right bad haircut for the role.
Lawrence Zazzo was charming and sang delightfully as Arsamene, though he was short of emotional depth, and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz was spunky enough as Romilda but lacked vocal glamour and a sense of drama in the music. Silvia Tro Santafé as Amastre showed a magnificent mezzo voice and a suitable mix of swagger and despair. Giovanni Furlanetto sounded glorious as Ariodate, but was far too young and good looking and didn't start to be the requisite old codger.
In the title role, Anne-Sophie von Otter had star quality, but her Serse was gently screwy and puppy-dog excited, not quite a tyrant who uses his power to force everyone and everything into the shape of his desires. The lack of armed supers probably didn't help, but there was no sense of why Romilda, after two hours of steadfast and principled resistance, finally said she would obey him and marry him. Von Otter's singing was beautiful, again a little short of edge and even energy.
William Christie, as always, directed the music with exquisite style, but somehow this time it was moments and phrases that grasped the attention rather than the drama of love under threat from power.
The following evening, the second concert performance of Götterdämmerung was a completely different matter. It had a few rough edges in the detail, but the five hours or more was an engrossing musical drama. As in the ENO's previous concert versions of the Ring operas, Mark Walling's "kabuki" staging, with each singers mostly facing forward in a personal space at the front to the stage, concentrated attention on the individual characters, whose interactions became a form of ritual. Until Brühilde's embrace of the dead Siegfried, the most intimate engagement was between Hagen and Alberich, when they shared the same space, presumably because Alberich is in Hagen's dream rather than in the world. This works well with the opera's comic book quality, where individuals are iconic and the action is a sequence of symbolic gestures that (in something like a ghastly parody of the gospels) happen because a myth requires them. But the overall narrative grew compellingly to a climax that was both stirring and moving, rising above the potential speciousness of the musical build-up.
Although it seems almost impossible to take any of Wagner's work seriously as drama, and especially the Ring, this performance (a preliminary to a cycle directed by Deborah Warner at the Coliseum in 2004 and 2004) showed how much the right performers can do with it. There were no traditional Wagnerian voices, except perhaps Gidon Saks' sinister Hagen, but everyone knew who they were and what they were doing, both musically and dramatically. The Norns were miserable, as they should be, but strikingly in different ways; the Rhine daughters were slightly batty elementals, as skittish in trying to restore order as in losing their grip on it. Gunther was a straight dullard, worried about his standing in the world but shy of engaging in it, Gutrune was a romantic young woman who didn't know any better until Siegfried's death, and Hagen was close to being a mythical monster as well as a corporate thug.
The catalyst for the success of this performance, though, might have been the casting of Andrew Shore as Alberich. More of a baritone than is traditional, he created a sense of fluid, manipulative evil that showed the moving force behind Hagen's actions, and by extension the mechanism of the corruption brought about by both power and the quest for power. There is a fair chance that Alberich is going to steal this Ring. Shore is reported to be down to perform the role at Bayreuth as well.
The rest of the singers were similarly committed to the drama. Kathleen Broderick's Brühilde sounded glorious, looked great in leather, and gained depth as her world shattered. Sara Fulgoni was a sympathetic, lush-voiced Waltraute, and Claire Weston a lyrical Gutrune. Robert Poulton as Gunther was almost heroically hapless. Gidon Saks, announced as having a cold, sounded rough-edged, but he seemed to sing with effortless force, brutality even. Richard Berkeley-Steele was a plausible, pushy Siegfried who had strange echoes of von Otter's Serse. He never quite achieved heroic vocal force or beauty, but he sang the music with ease and energy.
The ENO orchestra, few of whom can have been around for the last Coliseum Ring, are clearly getting the hang of the music. Paul Daniel managed to combine clarity in the many complex melodic interplays with the atmospheric and emotional big picture. It may well be worth risking the world to get tickets for the full cycle.