Appeasement at the Opera

Mozart falls victim to fear of Muslim rage — By Roger Kimball
About the only thing less pleasing than having to sit through Hans Neuenfels’s production of Mozart’s 1781 opera “Idomeneo” is the news that Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, citing an “incalculable” security risk from enraged Muslims, has decided to cancel its scheduled showing of the piece.

Don’t get me wrong. I am certain that the production, which premiered in 2003, is a horror. In Mozart’s version, the opera, set on Crete in the aftermath of the Trojan War, is a play about sacrifice and reconciliation. The opera ends with King Idomeneo issuing a “last command. I announce peace,” before ceding power to his son. Mr. Neuenfels’s version is Modern German — i.e., gratuitously offensive. It is more Neuenfels than Mozart. Instead of appearing as the harbinger of peace, Idomeneo ends the opera parading the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. How do you spell “anachronistic balderdash”?

Poor Mozart. Mr. Neuenfels is one of those directors more interested in nurturing his own pathologies than in offering a faithful presentation of the geniuses with whose work he has been entrusted.

The rest of Roger Kimball’s excellent article in the Wall Street Journal goes on to deal with the rights and wrongs of Deutsche Oper’s decision to cancel their production of Mozart’s Idomeneo because of security concerns. While I agree absolutely with the thrust of his argument, I’ve provided that quote from the beginning of his piece because of something else I agree with (pace, Ron) — the increasingly nonsensical lengths which self-indulgent opera producers go to these days to get their message across at the expense of the composer’s intentions or the musical integrity of the opera in question.

Does anyone know what reaction Mr Neuenfels’s work got from Deutsche Oper audiences? Dermot?

Thomas Stewart RIP


Thomas Stewart, the American baritone who was renowned for his portrayals of Wotan, Amfortas and other central Wagnerian roles and who was heard frequently at Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera, died on Sunday in Rockville, Maryland, USA. He was 78. The soprano Evelyn Lear, Mr. Stewart’s wife and frequent recital partner in a long shared career, said Mr. Stewart had a heart attack while playing golf near their home in Rockville. The New York Times offers this obituary.

Opera canceled, security cited

From Bloomberg News
Berlin’s Deutsche Oper canceled four planned November performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo out of concern that the production’s reference to world religions, including Islam, raises an ‘incalculable security risk.’ “To avoid endangering its audience and employees, the management has decided against repeating Idomeneo in November 2006,” the opera house said in a press release. The Idomeneo production, directed by Hans Neuenfels, shows King Idomeneo staggering on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. German press agency DPA said Berlin police have so far recorded no direct threat to the opera house.

Well, whatever we may say about the relative merits of operatic producers, and however we may disagree about ‘traditional’ as opposed to ‘experimental’ approaches, this must be the first time that a producer’s crazy ideas have led to calcellation for fear of retribution or civil disturbance. What a mad, mad world we live in!

The fat lady slims

Guardian Unlimited Arts | Arts features | The fat lady slims
Yes, opera divas are often on the large side, but when the 25-stone soprano Deborah Voigt was sacked for being too fat, there was a furore. Now, after radical stomach surgery, the slimmed-down singer is taking on new roles. She talks for the first time to Charlotte Higgins about her extraordinary transformation

Quite apart from the inspired title, this article from the good old Guardian is well worth a read (I visit their web site so often that I’m almost tempted to buy the physical newspaper!).

I’d already read that Deborah Voigt was scheduled to re-appear in Covent Garden, back again after being sacked for being too fat, but this is the first time I’d got all the details of her fight against flab. ‘Radical’ is the word used in the article, but that almost sounds inadequate for the invasive surgery she opted for.

Malcolm Arnold RIP

Dermot drew my attention to a long obituary in the London Independent, so I checked it out. It does the man proud, and is well worth reading.

Some quotes:

The death of Malcolm Arnold will strike sadness into the hearts of musicians everywhere, and of wind-players in particular. There can scarcely be a single one who has not encountered at some time or another that quintessential Arnold work, his Three Shanties, and rejoiced over it. Charming, melodious, graceful, witty; cheeky, even. But it takes skill, hard work, a fine ear and lots of practice to write pieces even as innocent-sounding as these shanties – and they date from the very earliest years of his long composing career.

Arnold was so outstanding at the trumpet that he could easily have done that for life and made a good living. Orchestras were falling over themselves to employ him even before he had finished his studies with that great teacher Ernest Hall. But he was also lured by jazz; he even ran away from the Royal College once and played in a dance band in Plymouth. And there was the Second World War; Arnold was torn between his music or joining up or becoming a conscientious objector. He ended up with what was for him the worst of all possible worlds, playing the cornet in a military band. He felt so useless in that role that he inflicted a wound on himself in order to be discharged. That surely offers a clue to a more turbulent character underneath the cheerful façade.

Malcolm Arnold was always, in the public mind, the musical humorist par excellence. He loved jokes in real life, verbal jokes, practical jokes. Laughter was part of his character. And it was there in his music too, in many forms. There is the dry wit of his arrangements of sea-shanties. There are the rumbustious rhythms of some of his orchestral dances. There are the affectionate take-offs of other styles, such as jazz, as in the ragtime finale of his Second Clarinet Concerto. He loved bizarre effects, as in the Toy Symphony of 1957, which includes parts for instruments imitating two birds, the quail and the cuckoo.

Philadelphia unsure about Christoph Eschenbach

Here’s a highly unusual situation: articles from to different contributors in the same newspaper, writing about the same thing and totally disagreeing with one another. The newspaper is The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the subject of these articles is the future of Christoph Eschenbach’s realtionship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. David Patrick Shearns wants him to stay:

Has any Philadelphia Orchestra music director’s tenure been more heavily scrutinized than Christoph Eschenbach’s? Maybe that’s the beginning of the perceived problem: Given how little turnover the orchestra has historically had, this not-atypical rocky beginning has been more acutely observed than the Kimmel Center’s acoustics. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that the orchestra should recognize what it has in Eschenbach and renew his contract. For me, the question is whether it’s worth Eschenbach’s trouble.

but Peter Dobrin would prefer if he left:

It’s without any tinge of shame that Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra should part ways. Like many an arranged marriage, sometimes these things just don’t work out. The question is when to call it quits. Eschenbach may have done wonders for the orchestra’s endowment, but he’s not creating a new sound for the ensemble, or even successfully layering his erratic interpretive thoughts on the orchestra’s vaunted plushness. No, what counts as success these days is Eschenbach and the orchestra reaching the last measure of a piece without getting lost along the way.

Both men are described as ‘Inquirer Music Critic’, so their widely divergent opinions neatly demonstrate the old adage about doctors differing and patients dying.

Having experienced the second half of the orchestra’s concert at this year’s Proms (their first concert was cancelled because of a fire in the Albert Hall) and having downloaded a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from the orchestra’s web site, I come down firmly on the side of Peter Dobrin.

I didn’t hear Eschenbach’s Proms performance of Beethoven Five (which formed the first half of a seriously-bad-value-for-money programme), but I did listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth which the orchestra played in the second half. I gave up half way through the second movement, totally frustrated by the conductor’s frustrating tendency to pull the tempo in all sorts of strange directions. I had concerns right from the very first phrase of the first movement because of Eschenbach’s funereal approach to the presentation of the great motto theme, but I persevered in hopes that he would somehow convince me that his interpretation was something more than mere self-indulgent quirkiness. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and the second movement just reinforced my impression that I was listening to a conductor whose ego was bigger than his respect for the composer or the music.

The downloaded performance of Beethoven Five suffers from the same nonsensical and unconvincing extremes of tempo. This is especially noticeable in the first movement, which almost comes to a stop in places. The rest is more sensible and certainly contains some beautiful oprchestral playing, but there’s nothing special about the performance at all, and it certainly doesn’t justify the enthusiastic reception it receives from the audience. If there were a campaign in Philadelphia I’d definitely join the Eschenbach Must Go camp.

Refurbished Salle Pleyel opens its doors


There’s been quite a bit in various spots on the internet about this happening in Paris. Almost all of the articles I’ve read refer to the fact that Paris, alone among major European capitals, until now had been without a dedicated hall which could be used as base for its orchestras and for the staging of orchestral concerts. That is now gloriously at an end thanks to a four-year-long, €30 million refurbishment of the renowned Salle Pleyel (or read this article about the re-opening from the New York Times). The hall has been changed in many ways, not least of these being a radical reduction in the number of seats and the addition of side balconies, all of which is aimed at improving the formerly notorious acoustics. It’s good to have this fine old hall (which in the past played host to such illustrious names as Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy) back in action after what looks like a great new makeover.

Sunday breakfast music?

So, I was sort of puttering around my kitchen throwing together for breakfast some yummy scraps of foodstuffs I’d rescued from the fridge just in time to prevent their being condemned as too meager in proportion to be worth keeping and consigned to the garbage pail, when I heard the strains of what sounded vaguely like the opening movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 waft in from the stereo speakers in the living room. I couldn’t be quite sure as kitchen noises obscured much of it, and I was only half listening in any case, but I stopped doing what I was doing for a few seconds just to have a more focused listen, and, yes, it was indeed what I thought it to be. Nice Sunday breakfast music, thought I, and went back to the business to hand.

Read in full

That’s the opening of a blog post from Sounds & Fury, a site I’ve referred to before. It’s from the pen of A.C. Douglas, whom I’ve already decsribed as ‘wonderfully opinionated’. He certainly lives up to that description in this instance. Please read to the end and savour the wonderful sting in the tail!

Kent Nagano’s first appearance as Charles Dutoit’s replacement in Montreal

Montreal Gazette Report: A New Day Dawns In Montreal
Kent Nagano has taken his first bows as music director of the long-beleagured Montreal Symphony, and Arthur Kaptainis says that there’s no question that the new boss has brought some big new ideas with him. “Textures were clear and rhythms distinct. It was as if we were reading the score with our ears.” But the most striking aspect of Nagano’s musical style may just be how seldom you notice him. “His podium style is so fluid and so naturally integrated with the sounds he creates that he seems less a conductor than a vessel for the music.”