I wonder about Vladimir Jurowski. True, he’s got form in this kind of undertaking. In his time as the London Philharmonic’s “Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor” he’s already given us concert performances of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane and Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie, as well as a personally concocted digest of excerpts from Die Frau ohne Schatten. This much is all to the good. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show any sign of learning from the calamitous mistakes made in the process. Thus tonight, as before, he largely elects to confine the singers to the emptied-out choir stalls behind the band, which someone should have the courage to inform him doesn’t work acoustically in the RFH: and to reposition the orchestra entirely on the flat (and preposterously lowered) platform, dispensing completely with the otherwise invariable steep risers which do actually help to bring the wind and brass into better visual – and consequently acoustic – focus from the audience’s point of view. Without a note played you know the balance is going to be shot to buggery: and so it proved, yet again. And with regard to his skill in filleting full-length operas into a half-a-concert sized continuous chunk, I’d say that his efforts in the Strauss were such as to make the composer’s own 1947 Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten – made purely for the money at a time of desperate need and a truly sorry bit of hackwork indeed – sound like a towering masterpiece in comparison. As for tonight’s Wagner…..

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When this concert was originally announced, and for many months thereafter, the Das Rheingold excerpts were listed as being purely “orchestral”. But somewhere along the line, it sprouted an Alberich, a Loge, all three Rhine Maidens and a Wotan, no less. And in the event – though sloppily uncredited in the programme – there was also a Donner and a Froh. Since we even had ten percussionists on hand to bash the anvils in and out of Nibelheim and all six harps required for the Entry into Valhalla, all that was lacking for a complete performance was a Mime, the giants and the two goddesses, the latter of whom could surely have been impersonated by the off-duty Rheintöchter. As it is, we got a 50’ boil-down that started at the beginning, gave the whole first scene complete with orchestral transition to Valhalla, which then cut straight to the descent to Nibelheim, itself dovetailed into the re-ascent (thereby omitting every sung word of both scenes two and three) which was very abruptly jammed onto the postlude after Alberich’s curse and exit – though we had an Alberich on hand to sing it – via a few bars suggestive of the giants’ approach, straight into Donner’s disquisition on the state of the weather (Heda! etc.) followed by Froh’s apostrophe to the Rainbow Bridge, and the whole of the closing scene from Wotan’s “Abendlich strahlt” onwards, Loge’s asides and all, but omitting Fricka’s intervening “Was deutet der Name? Nie, dünkt mich, hört’ ich ihn nennen” during which the Wotan just stood there up at the back of the Choir looking brain-dead before answering her unasked question. Bizarre, arbitrary, and thoroughly unsatisfactory. Why couldn’t Harriet Williams, the fruity-toned Flosshilde, have sung Fricka’s missing fourteen notes? Why, given that Sergei Leiferkus had sung the whole opening scene as Alberich, could he not have delivered the curse? (because it’s now too high-lying and declamatory for him comes the answer, though that’s no excuse).

We even had a semi-staging, of sorts, by Annabel Arden, in a blacked-out house, the band playing rather roughly from desk-lights, and with hideously unreadable surtitles in blood red (which, of course, as any self-respecting art historian could, and is indeed going to, tell you, is hopeless in subdued lighting due to the inexorable physics of the Purkinje effect, whereby red wavelengths recede whilst blue ones advance). All to no avail, I’m afraid. This was a pig’s breakfast from start to finish aesthetically, with an astonishing wretched Wotan (Maxim Mikhailov, who reappeared, properly cast as the largely silent old servant in the Rachmaninov after the interval), a pitch-free Loge (Vsevelod Grivnov, who similarly resurfaced, but to much better effect) and a very blowsy-sounding Rhine trio, one of whom I’d pay good money never to have to hear again.

So, having mangled a masterpiece, how did Jurowski fare with a failure, Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight? He’s done it before, of course, at Glyndebourne – where it was preposterously paired with Gianni Schicchi when it should really be given as a companion piece to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, another opera about obsessive hoarding – and so at least he knows how it “goes” (no sign of which illuminated the Wagner, I may add). The work was written for Chaliapin in 1904 and premiered (without him) in 1906 – dates which the programme note managed to omit, together with any proper plot synopsis, not to mention confusing two principal characters in its penultimate sentence – and is based closely on one of Pushkin’s short closet dramas very similar in theme to Pique Dame (i.e. the destructive power of the obsession with gain, which Jurowski reasonably sees as the thematic link back to Rheingold, except that, despite what the conductor says in his prefatory note, Alberich doesn’t “perish as a result”. He should read Wagner’s ambiguous text more carefully).

The real problem with the piece isn’t its music – which is darkly-brooding and often very powerful – but its lopsided dramaturgy, inherited from Pushkin, which opens with an expository and relatively uninteresting set-up scene occupying half the entire opera’s 60’ length, yet which confines its potentially powerful dramatic confrontation of miser-father and impoverished son at the end to two yelled lines and a peremptory close as the old man drops dead (Ghermann and the trikarti this is not, believe me). These scenes frame a central monologue for the titular miser locked up in his cellar contemplating his six chests of gold (cue, for no discernible reason, to have the Rhine maidens return and engage in some slow-motion formation loitering up in the Choir stalls, both distracting and profoundly silly to have to watch: since this was La Arden’s major directorial “insight” all night long, we’d have all been better off if she’d stayed at home).

Sergei Leiferkus – whose German remains not so much exotically-accented as simply outrageous – is far more at home in this kind of Russian repertoire: and his actual singing was rather more firmly centred than I’ve heard from him in some while, with very little of the flapping spread of tone higher up evident. Even so, it was disappointing to find him, in a role he’s done on stage, quite so score-bound (this led to the ridiculous “stage-picture” at the end whereby he dies during the confrontation in the Duke’s castle (up in the choir stalls) where he’s been summoned to account for his son’s desultory state, except he actually did so at his own desk as utilised in the “cellar scene” (at the back of the orchestral platform) for no better reason than that was where his score was surreptitiously stashed). The impoverished son Albert, a whiny, layabout anti-Semite – I lost count of his references to dirty money-lending Jews – was well sung by Grivnov, who I last heard back in 2009 as Vakula in the ROH’s oddly-unrevived Cherevichki. Happily, he retains his reedy, quite clarion “ping” in what is basically a one-note ranting role, and exhibited much better pitch than he did as Loge in the first half (does he even know the role, I wonder?)

Peter Bronder, the first half’s Froh, made a hall-filling but not ideally steady meal of Solomon the Moneylender, thoughtfully given a yarmulke to wear by the director just in case we missed the text’s thousandth abusive reference to his religion (though to mitigate any stirrings of sympathy we might be feeling on that account, his suggestion is for the son to poison his father and even offers to act as intermediary with an obliging chemist friend). The suave-toned Donner, Albert Shagidullin, reappeared as the Duke to excellent effect (indeed, I can’t imagine why he rather than Mikhailov didn’t sing Wotan, to which his tone and demeanour is much more evidently suited). All this Jurowski conducted with a sure, if as usual far too self-consciously elegant, hand, and the orchestra responded far more securely and idiomatically than they had for the woeful Wagner. But next time you read elsewhere the usual gushing guff about Jurowski’s adventurous programming, blah blah blah, pause to reflect that, as often as not, this is how it ends up.

2.5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photo of Vladimir Jurowski taken from the IMG Artists’ website)

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