Royal Opera House, London Barrie Kosky’s take on Shostakovich’s satire is imaginative and brilliant but it sacrifices the opera’s deeper meaning
Shostakovich’s First Symphony and his first opera, The Nose, point in the modernist direction his later music might have taken, had he not so spectacularly fallen foul of the Soviet regime. But the talent so brilliantly announced in the symphony always seems less controlled and focused in The Nose. Gogol’s surreal, sardonic short story about the bureaucrat Kovalov and his increasingly desperate efforts to be reunited with his errant organ may have been a perfect match to Shostakovich’s precocious brilliance, but the breathless energy in the score – with its manic gallops and insidious ostinatos, winding chorales and dissonant outbursts – sometimes betrays a composer in his early 20s trying a bit too hard to make his name.
Related: Rehearsals for The Nose at the Royal Opera – in pictures
St David’s Hall, Cardiff Tomáš Hanus marshalled his forces – including a stellar Karen Cargill – for a performance that seized the audience from the outset
Tomáš Hanus has recently taken over as music director of Welsh National Opera, but this was only his second public appearance with his new company – the first being the occasion that effectively secured the appointment, so immediate was the rapport. In this performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection, there was indeed chemistry between Hanus and his forces, and it could hardly have augured better. The conductor combined dramatic intensity with moments of great tenderness, suggesting an instinctive feel for Mahler, who was one of the great opera conductors of his time.
Europe’s musical heart nurtured Beethoven, Schubert and the Strausses, but its second school changed music forever, and today, innovation sits alongside traditionalism
I lazily plumped for Vienna as the latest stopping-off point on our tour of musical cities, thinking the sheer multiplicity of classical composers who have lived and worked there would make it easy. In fact, of course, it makes choosing which music to focus on very difficult. As the centre of Europe’s musical life for more two centuries, thanks to its status of capital of the Habsburg empire, many of the greats – notably Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – gravitated to Vienna, and Schubert was born in the city.
The trusty @abkquan suggests choosing “pieces that describe the city and evoke its atmosphere rather than great pieces written by Viennese composers”. He offers the nature-loving Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a work we take for granted but which, if you listen to it afresh, is little short of miraculous.
L’Amico Fritz | Beloved Friend: The Tchaikovsky Project | St John Passion | Jane Eyre | Herculanum
The first in Scottish Opera’s winter series of operatic collectors’ items is Mascagni’s second opera. Stuart Stratford conducts this sparky comedy, with Peter Auty as Fritz.
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Bychkov(Decca)
Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project spans two continents and three orchestras. The London leg is a series of three concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra this month at the Barbican in London; a similar series follows with the New York Philharmonic in January. In parallel with the live performances, Bychkov is recording some of the same repertoire with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague, of which this is the first disc.
The running order puts the Pathétique Symphony before the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy, so that the strengths and weakness of Bychkov’s approach are writ large from the start. There are passages in both works that are undeniably thrilling – the great climaxes in both the first movement of the symphony and in the overture are irresistible, with the Czech orchestra, its brass especially, on top form. But set against those are too many sections when tempi seem indulgently slow and phrasing self-consciously mannered, moulded as if it had been squeezed out of a tube. Even the placing of individual chords is sometimes so deliberate the effect is deadening, and the moments of genuine excitement don’t come close to outweighing such contrivances.
Meredith Monk & Ensemble (ECM)
“I work in between the cracks,” says vocalist/composer/performance artist Meredith Monk, “where the voice starts dancing, the body starts singing, the theatre becomes cinema.” In a way, everything she does is about ecology – that interconnectedness; those wild vocal noises – and On Behalf of Nature is a treatise without text, an outcry without words. She wants the work: “to expand our awareness of what we are in danger of losing”, and she does that by making music that sounds as if it comes from the earth, feet planted in the mud, voices erupting and gusting and keening. As a live show its physical gestures were a bit stilted and obscure; for me it’s more articulate as music alone. And though Monk’s incredible technical range is going, the softer stuff is still enthrallingly playful and ritualistic. Sometimes it feels weird being a bystander to her music: this kind of elemental rite should involve us all.
Isabelle Faust/Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini(Harmonia Mundi)
Mozart was 19 when he wrote his violin concertos, a cocky teenage genius. The music is astoundingly elegant, but it also prances and preens, and I had wondered what Isabelle Faust – most refined and intellectually scrutinising of today’s violinists – would do with all that cheek and bravado. Turns out she makes it fly where it counts, and always on her own terms. This is the kind of recording whose booklet notes list the instrument pedegree of every single member of Il Giardino Armonico, which might seem precious if the ensemble playing wasn’t so fresh and buoyant, and if it didn’t sound like every player was an alert and integral part of the whole. Giovanni Antonini conducts, but the music seems to be led from everywhere. Meanwhile, Faust’s touch is light, finespun, pristine – often her bow hardly glosses the strings, but there’s proper robustness to balance in the chunky, sparky cadenzas.
Dunedin Consort/Butt (Linn)
Way-too-early seasonal content (sorry), but this latest release from the Dunedin Consort is too good to wait. It’s surely one of the finest accounts now available of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The approach of scholar/conductor John Butt is never authenticity-or-die, but full of historical investigation without purporting to recreate what Bach might have done. (Which would be tough, given that the original 1734 vocal soloists probably doubled on instruments.) The singers here are Dunedin regulars including Joanne Lunn, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy, all excellent, with Mary Bevan as a standout newcomer. The choral sound is pert, sinewy, unforced; the instrumental playing is punchy, broad and charismatic. Butt’s navigation of the sprawling six cantatas is tremendously enjoyable – it’s not just how he handles tempo and gait to make us feel the character of individual movements, but how he turns corners and paces the big picture.
Shostakovich’s surreal satire tells of a missing nose that causes chaos in St Petersburg. Director Barrie Kosky makes his Covent Garden debut with the new production that opens on 20 October. The Guardian’s Tristram Kenton had exclusive access to the final week of rehearsals
Coliseum, LondonPenny Woolcock’s staging of Bizet’s opera – revived here for the second time – is visually striking but not strong enough musically
This second revival of Penny Woolcock’s 2010 production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers for English National Opera made a strong visual impression but left much else to be desired. Its opening tableau of pearl divers in action is striking – and gorgeously lit, in Jennifer Schriever’s designs. Dick Bird’s sets conjure an exotic backdrop of quaintly dilapidated shacks and creaking boats. Kevin Pollard’s costumes have the women in saris and the men in a sartorial mishmash: suits for managerial fishermen, harem pants or priest smocks for the rest. The dreadlocks, headscarves and face paint might once have been described as “tribal”.
In the production’s only real show of self-consciousness about its own reheated Orientalism, act one’s shantytown sports a large billboard, riffing on the cliches of mid-market perfume ads to promote the location’s “inspiration from the deep”. There wasn’t, alas, much of that in evidence in this performance.
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