Astonishing performance of complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet music, plus a Schumann allusion

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Schumann: Carnaval (four scenes arranged by Ravel)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – complete ballet score

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 August, 7:30 pm

Orchestra Wellington continued its 2017 series theme that focuses on the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the genius behind the Ballets Russes which changed the face of ballet before the First World War, and also impacted on most of the other arts. For he employed the most gifted choreographers, composers, dancers and designers, of the age, and inspired them to produce work that would radically enrich and rejuvenate, even revolutionise the arts generally. One of the greatest ballets inspired by Diaghilev was Daphnis et Chloé; and the orchestra must have faced the necessity of performing it with trepidation.

But we began with an arrangement of Schumann’s Carnaval. What’s the link with Diaghilev?

Carnaval is a bit of an oddity, for it was first used, at Fokine’s initiative, in a collaborative orchestration by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Lyadov, and Tcherepnin for the Ballets Russes in 1910. So it is curious that in 1914 Nijinsky asked Ravel to do another arrangement of Carnaval, this time for a London season; a Ravel arrangement was inspired no doubt by the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, the year before Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps.  Most of Ravel’s score is lost and only four parts are extant: Preamble – German waltz – Paganini – March of the ‘Davidsbündler’ against the Philistines. So it was a minor work in the Ballets Russes story, but it acted as a sort of overture to this concert.

It is hard for me to adopt an objective feeling towards an orchestration of music that seems so utterly, quintessentially for the piano and which I’ve loved in that form for hundreds of years. Clearly, the orchestra decided to include it, as Marc Taddei explained, because Schumann’s piano concerto was scheduled in the first half, and the idea of some kind of link was attractive.

So, it’s essentially a scrap, a remnant in which there is not enough time to become much engaged by the sort of delightful, eccentric magic that a performance of the entire 20 pieces of the original creates, making emotional and artistic sense of the complete score.

I couldn’t avoid the feeling that it presented the orchestra with an insuperable task, to ingest the music, firstly to overcome resistance to sounds not from a piano, and to be persuaded that Ravel himself was convinced by it. Though whimsy, children’s make-believe, a chimerical world, the exotic, are common to both Schumann and Ravel, I have the feeling that they imagined them in quite different ways.

So I was not surprised to find in the scoring little that I’d have ascribed to Ravel in a blind-fold test.

Schumann Piano Concerto
The Piano Concerto was an entirely different matter: it was among my first LP purchases as a Schumann-enraptured teenager; but it’s a long time since I’ve heard a live performance. Adding the visual element to the music, I found myself noting aspects of the score that spoke of a composer not as much at ease with an orchestra as with his piano (a very familiar view which I decided was unhelpful). My attention nevertheless, was largely on the beautifully lyrical piano writing and the sympathetic, unostentatious playing by Stephen de Pledge which (in spite of blemishes here and there) soon took my attention away from the rather traditional orchestral score. Though very different in character, the reputation of Schumann’s concerto a little like that of Chopin’s two concertos: one disparages the orchestration. However, De Pledge’s playing, and particularly his cadenza that was musical rather than flashy, were enough to draw applause at the end of the first movement; that might also have indicated large numbers of the audience fairly new to classical music – one of the positive achievements of Orchestra Wellington’s policies.

The little encore was, appropriately, from CarnavalChiarina, a portrait of Schumann’s fiancée and future wife, Clara Wieck.

Daphnis et Chloé
The main purpose of the evening was the rare performance of, not the more familiar suites that Ravel himself took from the work, but the whole nearly hour-long ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, complete with chorus.

The huge array of instrumentalists (over 80) and the 100-strong Orpheus Choir could not been a more striking contrast to the music before the interval. These 70 years had led to music that was as different as Matisse and Braque are from Ingres and Delacroix.

Though it is in three parts or Tableaux – not, formally speaking or conspicuously in ‘Acts’, one does not notice the sort of contrasted movements that characterise traditional classical music.  The overwhelming impression is of organic growth, through a series of evolutionary mood changes and a story that moves to and fro, in and out of focus. Thus there is no point in trying to point to particular episodes as ‘effective’ or ‘unfocused’ or ‘particularly arresting’, in the way a critic often feels obliged to do. What do tend to stand out, to sound familiar, are naturally enough the parts that form the two suites that Ravel compiled, which include the Nocturne, Interlude and Danse-guerrière; and Lever de jour, Pantomime, and Danse générale, mostly from Tableau III.

Even though the impact on the listener is so overwhelming that there’s little chance to attend to details of thematic evolution, of the use and significance of contrasting keys, one has to take as read the fact that its success in maintaining rapt attention, and perhaps a longing for it to continue for another half hour, is due to those inconspicuous compositional secrets.

Though there’s no question about the singular brilliance and emotional power of the ballet, as music, there is an old-fashioned idea that the best test of the real depth of music’s originality and genius, lies in its likely impact if it could be heard without the trappings, regalia, colours and jewellery that adorns it. Would the music, stripped of its gaudy, overwhelming orchestration, reveal weakness in invention, in structure, in the unfolding of a musical narrative; would it remain engrossing if reduced to a piano score? Might it emerge featureless and drab? Who knows?

Of course, that’s as nonsensical as looking at a Turner or a Monet and asking that it be judged in a black and white reproduction. So the flamboyant and luxurious orchestration was an essential element, a major attraction, achieved through an orchestra of Mahlerian or Straussian size, and a great choir. And to think that a merely part-time orchestra, though overflowing with experienced professional musicians, both permanent and as frequent guests, had the temerity to take on one of the most famous, most challenging, sometimes acknowledged as the greatest, orchestral masterpieces of the 20th century. Not only were the wind sections enhanced with relatively infrequent instruments like bass clarinet, E flat clarinet, alto flute, but there were two harps and nine players lined up behind timpani and percussion, more than I can recall at any previous concert. Just for the record, percussion (taken from details in Wikipedia) were snare drum, bass drum, field drum, tambourine, castanets, crotales, cymbals, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, wind machine, tam-tam and triangle.

Then there’s the wordless choral element, present throughout most of its length: music that to some extent, is rather like what I described above: dense in complex harmony but sonically uniform. Learning the choral parts was probably more challenging than it would have been with conventional word setting where memory of words and music are inter-dependent and mutually supportive; and the choir’s performance sounded as near faultless as I imagine it gets (particularly conspicuous in the impressive passage without accompaniment). If diction was never an issue, the sheer energy and incisiveness of the singing, and the incessant demands on singers spoke of thorough rehearsal and dedication under their conductor, Brent Stewart (who was not named in the programme but singled out at the end).

This was the most courageous and momentous enterprise of Orchestra Wellington’s entire 2017 season, and perhaps one of the orchestra’s all time finest hours; it was mainly a tribute to conductor Marc Taddei, for its conception, inspiration and leadership that carried it through to a performance of astonishing dramatic and musical subtlety, insight and sheer splendour.


Eternity Opera’s “Figaro” produces the goods at Welllington’s Hannah Playhouse

Eternity Opera Company presents:
MOZART – The Marriage of Figaro (sung in English)

Cast: Figaro – Jamie Henare / Susannah – Emily Mwila
Marcellina – Marian Hawke / Dr.Bartolo – Roger Wilson
Cherubino – Elisabeth Harris / Count Almaviva – Orene Tiai
Don Basilio – Mark Bobb / Countess Almaviva – Kate Lineham
Antonio – Nino Raphael / Barbarina – Shayna Tweed
Chorus – William McElwee / Pasquale Orchard / Laura Loach
Richard Dean / Olivia Sheat / William King
Peter King / Hannah Catrin Jones / Minto Fung
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby / India Loveday
Dancer – Jessica Short

Conductor: Simon Romanos
Director: Alex Galvin
Producer: Emma Beale

Orchestra: Douglas Beilman (Concertmaster)
Malavika Gopal, Alix van Schultze (violins)
Victoria Janecke, Brian Shilito (violas)
Lucy Gijsbers (‘cello), Lesley Hooson (d-bass)
Tim Jenkin (flute), Calvin Scott (oboe)
Mark Cookson (clarinet), Leni Mackle (bassoon)
Greg Hill, Shadley van Wyk, Dominic Groom (horns)
Christopher Hill (Spanish guitar continuo)

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Saturday 5th August, 2017 (until 12th August)

Having so very much enjoyed Eternity Opera’s “Don Giovanni” here in Wellington a year ago, I was looking forward to some replication of the experience with this new production of another Mozart masterpiece, “Le Nozze di Figaro” – or, to put it in the performance’s English-language context “The Marriage of Figaro”. A large part of the attraction of both productions for me was the intimacy of the Hannah Playhouse venue, enabling what seemed like for we audience members the chance in this case to “eavesdrop” on the goings-on in the household of Count Almaviva. Not only did the stage seem to “grow all around and about us”, but the reduced-in-size orchestra also appeared to be playing in the same room (rather than relegated to a submerged space (aptly-named “the pit” in most opera-houses!), the players and their sounds suddenly seeming part of the cut-and-thrust of the action.

Any thought that this close-up aspect might magnify the performance’s shortcomings and spoil the experience was effectively countered by the quality of the work done by singers and players alike. For this was, by and large, a splendidly-sung and expertly-played rendition of the great work, whose characteristics played nicely into the context of domestic intimacy and subtefuge highlighted by the venue’s settings. Risks of exposure were taken and squared up to rather than avoided, making the presentation all the more real and red-blooded.

To begin with, the Overture gave us orchestral playing of poise, energy and variation, with every section affording the ear great delight. Conductor Simon Romanos allowed plenty of ambient space for the players to sufficiently clad their phrases with tones that enabled Mozart’s phrases and melodies to both sparkle and sing – and the balances afforded by the reduced numbers allowed so much exquisite detail to figure throughout in a fresh and disarming way. Mention must be made especially of Christopher Hill’s wondrously-realised guitar-continuo-playing, which I thought added a most atmospheric dimension to the opera’s general ambience.

I noticed only one mishap which momentarily stranded both Figaro and Susannah during their opening scene, though things were quickly gotten back onto the rails in true professional style (though, was it this, I wondered, which led to the performers by-passing the duet “If by chance Madame should call you at night” (Se a caso Madama la notte te chiama) which I realised later hadn’t happened?).

The honour of opening the season’s onstage activites went to singers Jamie Henare and Emily Mwila, as Figaro and Susannah, respectively, each understandably taking a little time to “warm up” (the process of what comedian Michael Flanders once called “getting the pitch of the hall”), but conveying to us both the shared excitement and individual purpose of preparing for their oncoming marriage. Particularly vibrant, both vocally and dramatically, was Emily Mwila’s Susannah, the quicksilver nature of much of Mozart’s writing for her voice deftly and exquisitely realised, both in partnership (her duetting with Kate Lineham’s Countess brought forth some gorgeous passages, including an uncanny forerunner of Leo Delibes’ “Flower Duet” at one moment during Act Three!) and when singing solo (her teasing of a jealous Figaro with a beautiful and disarming “Come now, lovely joy” (Deh vieni non tadar), ostensibly to lure the Count to her side in the garden). Even in an “ensemble opera” like “Figaro”, moments such as those almost stole the show.

Jamie Henare’s Figaro took longer to emerge as a character, though his voice certainly had the heft and agility required by the role, as was evident as early as his famous “If you would dance, my pretty Count” (Sei vuol ballare). His was a somewhat “stiff-upper-lip” portrayal, which at first didn’t readily emote, though in Act Four he seemed to finally break out of his emotional constraints with a vigorous and impassioned “Open your eyes for a moment” (Aprite un po’quegl’occhi), enjoining all men to regard women as deceivers. His portrayal needed more of that kind of out-going expression much earlier in the piece.

Susannah’s and Figaro’s aristocratic equivalents were, of course, the Count and Countess Almaviva, each imposingly presented on stage by Orene Tiai and Kate Lineham. As the Count, Orene Tiai looked every inch an aristocrat, his dignified portrayal lacking, I thought, only that mixture of a certain hauteur of manner and self-confident swagger in both his movements and his singing to convey the requisite “born-to-rule” aspect which goes hand-in-glove with the character. By contrast, Kate Lineham’s Countess seemed to me to achieve just the right amalgam of self-assurance and vulnerability needed to bring to life her character’s essential tragic nobility. Only in the treacherously taxing Act Three “Where are the golden moments” (Dove sono) did her line occasionally show signs of strain (Mozart here both kind and cruel), and these moments were offset by her beautifully-modulated sequences in duet with Susannah, and her finely-crafted and achingly moving words of forgiveness to her husband right at the opera’s end.

As the amorous page-boy, Cherubino, Elisabeth Harris, I thought, completely “owned” her character, taking risks, both dramatically and vocally, in pursuit of love, and triumphing with a flesh-and-blood realisation that, to my way of thinking, won everybody’s heart. She captured that testosterone-laden “out-of-control” feeling almost to perfection, while credibly maintaining both theatrical and musical viability – I can’t recall seeing a Cherubino on stage more whole-hearted and lovable. She (he) was nicely-partnered by Shanya Tweed’s truly, and brightly-sung Barbarina, her “lost pin” aria touchingly voiced, and her overall character generating something of a matching physical and emotional impulsiveness to that of “the page”, able at the end to put the love-struck boy in his (her) place.

Artfully and engagingly complicating the plot’s machinations in different ways was the trio of Marcellina, Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio, each presenting here as a delightfully formidable character. I thought Marian Hawke’s Marcellina vocally and dramatically splendid, her almost Katisha-like resolve to marry with Figaro in her sights making the situation’s Act Three denoument all the more deliciously poignant! Her sidekick was Roger Wilson’s waspish Dr. Bartolo, still smarting over the loss of his ward Rosina (who has become the Countess) and swearing revenge – a wonderfully spiteful aria “I’ll have vengeance” (La Vendetta) – for Figaro’s part in the affair (all in the previous Beaumarchais play, The Barber of Seville). His character’s delightfully rueful reaction to the same unexpected turn of events in Act Three added greatly to the comic poignancy of the scene.

The odd one out was Don Basilio, convincingly played here with sly wit and unctuous tones by Mark Bobb, his extremely mobile face putting various expressions to good use in pursuit of his master the Count’s favours, while using his voice in remarkaly varied ways – Oscar Wilde would have undoubtedly characterised him as the archetypal cynic. By contrast, Nino Raphael’s “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” portrayal of Antonio the gardener amusingly presented humanity at its most basic, tipsy for most of the time, and when sober, with a rustic’s eye for the main chance.

The chorus for each performance consists of the “other ” cast in alternation – as well as being a nice idea, one which would also enhance the feeling of a company or ensemble really “involved” with a show. Here, the chorus’s singing and dancing had plenty of properly rustic enthusiasm, and the various groupings adroitly enhanced the stage action. Alex Galvin’s direction made the most of the spaces and saw to it that the action’s main points were delivered in a clear and often delightfully whimsical way. A great success, I think – and I shall read my colleague Lindis Taylor’s review of the follwing evening’s performance by the “second” cast with interest and plenty of vicarious enjoyment!