Poor old Weber. Our wretched weather accelerated his death here from TB, aged 39, during his lengthy and ill-fated stay in London composing and premiering Oberon in 1826, since when he’s been poorly served by the very theatre he died working for, Covent Garden. None of his early pieces – Peter Schmoll, Silvana and Abu Hassan, amongst others – has ever been given there: and neither Euryanthe nor Oberon has been seen locally in nigh-on 200 years. Even his best-known – and certainly most stage-worthy – work, Der Freischütz, hasn’t been performed in Bow Street since 1989, when Götz Friedrich’s wonderfully detailed 1977 staging in Schneider-Siemssen’s exquisitely (and creepily) evocative sets was last seen (there’s a new one scheduled for December next year, though given that it’s in the hands of Kasper Holten and set, naturally, not in period but at the time of the work’s composition, I’m not holding out any hope on that front).
Latterly, we’ve had to content ourselves with a series of concert performances of the piece. John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique forces gave it at the 2011 Proms; and the following year the LSO performed it at the Barbican, the very last concerts given there by the band’s erstwhile chief, Sir Colin Davis, before his death in 2013. Now, tonight, in celebration of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 30th birthday, we get another one, this time at the Royal Festival Hall. It so happens that the original-instrument performance given by Gardner’s forces in the Royal Albert Hall was like emptying a pint of milk into a bathtub, whilst the almost grotesquely overblown Davis one – conceived, played and sung at Wagnerian strength, with nearly 200 performers on the platform – suffered from acoustic overload and unidiomatic bloat. So it’s at times like this that one realises with renewed force what a relatively good deed the RFH is in London’s wicked acoustic world, clear as a bell and with enough sonic space to allow works to unfold properly.
Even so, I confess to having approached this event with trepidation, partly because I knew well in advance that yet again the work’s German dialogue was being jettisoned in favour of a narration in English – as happened at the Barbican – a procedure of which I strenuously disapprove both on principle and in practice; and partly because, as I only discovered yesterday, said narration was being entrusted to John Tomlinson, already in the cast as both the Hermit and Samiel, and whose body-contorting bellowings as Tirésias in Enescu’s Oedipe over the river at the ROH currently sound like a moose with its balls caught in a bear-trap. And given that the narration – and accompanying semi-staging – are the work of David Pountney, no stranger to, shall we say, “interpretative editorialising”, I was pretty much expecting the worst. Instead of which I have to report that this was easily one of the two best semi-stagings I’ve ever seen of anything – the other is Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs. Kong, also in the RFH – and a complete success on its own terms. Tomlinson, dressed from the outset as the Hermit, sat at a prie-dieu-cum-writing-desk in front of the (antiphonally-placed) second violins, surrounded by seven rocks that would come into their own in Act Two scene ii, the Wolfsschluchtszene. All the other characters were appropriately costumed – except, perhaps, Max, who looked less like a huntsman than one of J.P. Morgan’s dress-down Fridays’ desk-jockeys – and made full use of the hall’s wide platform both at the front and back (which of course signifies that there wasn’t a music stand in sight for any of the singers).
Tomlinson, wisely disdaining the kind of discreetly disembodied amplification that all-but ruined the Barbican’s recent “semi-staging” (it was no such thing) of Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, effortlessly projected his dark and warm speaking voice into every corner of the auditorium, setting the story up and summarising those dialogue passages of plotty exposition and character interaction with artless charm and effortless command. And Pountney’s narration was a model of its kind, true to the text, and wholly avoiding the appalling tendency so many such have – step forwards, Jeremy Sams – to be both clever and snotty at the work’s expense. The only problem came, inevitably, with those few sequences where he was paraphrasing what characters had said to each other who happened to be on stage at the time, as if the poor loves were incapable of human speech themselves: that, and the entirely dialogue-conducted Act Three scene i, which therefore effectively vanishes altogether, though at least the jaunty little opening entr’acte yielded here to some narration, rather than suddenly dove-tailing into the opening of scene ii, a bizarre musical non-sequitur which disfigured the LSO/Davis account of the score. Tomlinson and Pountney even made sense of the former’s double casting as Samiel – a purely spoken role – for which the Hermit donned a black cloak and roared like the crack of doom up at the back of the stage. These elements were so successful that I will only note with en passant regret that, as the Hermit at the very end, he had to sing at all, not least because I once heard Kurt Moll in the role. Enough said.
Rachel Willis-Sørenson, who would do well to rid herself of a noisy female claque, sang Agathe. The voice is the right size and timbre, but – as with her Figaro Countess at the ROH a couple of years ago – the line is not firmly enough drawn, and there are to my ears definite signs of technical weakness, such as a tendency for the (in any case) very fluttery vibrato both to obtrude unduly in the rare attempts at soft singing, and to vary in rapidity depending on just where in the voice the pitch is, suggestive of uneven emission. “Leise, leise, fromme Weise” went reasonably well: but I thought “Und ob die Wolke” undermined by an inability to float a genuine pianissimo, virtually the whole piece emerging at a far too corporeal mf throughout. For about an octave in the higher middle and at full volume, it’s a lovely sound: but the tonal quality and technical control doesn’t extend across the full range of the voice, and it needs to.
I liked Christopher Ventris’ Max pretty much unreservedly, a couple of minor croaks notwithstanding, and am only utterly amazed that such an excellently schooled, firmly centred and easily produced middling heroic tenor with a real house-filling sound should sing here so little. I’ve heard him at the ROH in Katya Kabanova back in the 90s, as Sergei in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in two different runs, as Manolios (the lead role) in Martinu’s The Greek Passion, and as Parsifal in the last outing of the stuffed-shark-and-garden-gnomes staging by Klaus Michael Grüber (unmourned, to a pauper’s grave) which is the last time Ventris sang there to date. That was 9 years ago. Truly, it never pays to be a prophet in your own land, and the loss is entirely ours, not least when one considers the other tenors who we’ve had to listen to in Wagner repertory in the interim (which, please note, hasn’t included Kaufmann either. Are they really just deaf in Bow Street? Or does no-one try? Or even care?).
Sarah Tynan made something positive out of Ännchen, though given that the role was played regularly at the ROH in the old Friedrich staging by the incomparable Lucia Popp, I’d say that Ms. Tynan still has some work to do by way of strengthening the tone, which I might have caught well enough tonight in Row J, but which I’m told by several others never made it to Row BB. Conversely however, I should imagine they could hear Simon Bailey’s quite superb Kaspar on the other side of the river. I’d never heard him before last year, when he sang a gloriously full-bodied and secure Leporello at Covent Garden at the end of a run where his predecessor in the role had made no impression whatsoever (Alex Exposito, grisly). He seems to have made his career primarily in Frankfurt thus far; but it’s high time he – like Ventris – came home (ever assuming he wants to, of course) not least because he has the dramatic chops to be as frightening in this as he was funny in the Mozart, and can sing properly too. More, please.
Marcus Farnsworth sang Kilian under Sir Colin at the Barbican. Four years on and in the same role, there’s smidge less hair, but the voice remains firm and evenly-produced, with a nicely chocolaty quality to the sound. Like Messrs. Ventris and Bailey, I’d be perfectly content to hear him in a much wider range of his repertory than we’re currently vouchsafed. And William Dazeley, as the be-ribonned and be-medalled Prince, handled his brief contribution to Act III nicely (though I can’t banish the memory of Donald McIntyre, then otherwise the ROH’s resident Wotan, all done up in velvet knee-breeches and silks, absolutely aghast at the sight – and smell – of his peasant subjects Breugheling away, until he found one stacked lad he liked the look of and cheered up no end thereafter).
Mark Elder conducted well enough, though his platform manner is becoming increasingly seigneurial, walking in a sort of other-wordly slow-motion, all minutely studied graciousness and open-mouthed wonder. He certainly lacks Sir Colin’s innate, Berlioz-derived, feel for the sheer originality and rusticity of the idiom (or Rafael Kubelik’s, for that matter, whose still-available Decca recording, though effortfully sung by a Brünnhilde and Siegfried on their day off – and indeed, off-day – is quite magnificently realised through the orchestra and chorus alone. Not to mention the Carlos Kleiber recording, perfectly sung, amazingly conducted). Tonight’s slow introduction to the overture – surely opera’s first prefatory tone-poem: Beethoven’s Leonores II and III never actually ended up in front of what became Fidelio – was surely too slow for the period, and certainly didn’t help the OAE’s valveless horns either avoid blubs or keep together. And fielding a string band of 45 against only ten winds needs better balancing than was evident here, where the latter went largely unheard all night except when soloistically spotlit, losing some delicious detail in the process. But if most of the major lyrical utterances in the shape of arias were left to maunder somewhat dozily, all the genre elements of peasant music – marches, dances, choruses – had a fine swagger, expertly realised by the band. And what did emerge clearly enough throughout is the simply stupendous quality of the work itself, its power of invention and imaginative innovation, which happily exists independently of the means, or even quality, of its realisation.
The LPO’s chorus moonlighted from the parent band, although at 100-strong it might be thought to be pushing your luck in a performance that was effectively conceived to celebrate the OAE’s 30 years’ of Aufführungspraxis in a work first staged in 1821. But they made a splendid sound, whether sniggering at Max’s humiliating failure in the opening shooting contest, or hooting like massed owls in the Wolf’s Glen. Rather less acceptable was the strange decision to field ten females as Agathe’s bridal chorus in Act III – my score says eight – and then give each of the four verse repetitions to an eleventh soprano who sang the lot, rather than four of the chorus singing one each. Odd. As I’ve suggested above, Pountney’s semi-staging was a whole-hearted success – why didn’t he take a call at the end? – and his written narration unimpeachable, so despite some variabilities in the singing, and a sense (for me, at least) that Gardiner or the shades of Colin Davis and Mackerras would have been preferable on the podium – or indeed Rattle: what would he make of it, I wonder? – this was a thoroughly well-prepared and enjoyable account of the score, rousingly delivered. Happy birthday, OAE!