Almeida Opera – The Sound of Colour: Kandinsky and Schoenberg 1911-1912

Der Traurige Mönch
Elégie No.1
Herzgewächse, Op.20
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21

Sally Burgess (mezzo-soprano)
Eileen Hulse (soprano)
Richard Angas (reciter)

Almeida Ensemble
Richard Bernas

Mike Ashman – Director
Conor Murphy – Designer
Paul Keogan – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 July, 2006
Venue: Almeida Theatre, Islington, London

To complement the Tate Modern’s exhibition, “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction”, conductor Richard Bernas had devised the present evening as an illustration (vindication, even?) of the coming together of sound and image as a ‘total’ artwork: a concept, that having its origin in Wagner’s theories as to the systematic combining (thus synthesis) of music and drama, found true fulfilment in the collision of both art-forms and aesthetics that marks out the heady first decade of the twentieth century.

The preludial first half set the scene with one of Liszt’s rarely-performed melodramas. Setting verse by Nikolaus Lenau that reads almost as a byword for Gothic imagery at its most over-wrought, “Der Traurige Mönch” (1860) is worth reviving for its subtly insidious harmonies and evocative rhythms – and, with Richard Angas reciting the text with ominous restraint, the result was appreciably removed from the parody into which such melodrama can all too easily fall.

Much of Liszt’s most valuable later music is to be found in the concentrated piano pieces composed over his final two decades: the first Elégie (1874) is not among the finest, but it has a certain interest in his own transcription for cello, harmonium, harp and piano – the latter two instruments often combining to create sparkling timbral effects that more than compensate for the repetition of the cello’s main theme.

From here to the setting of Stefan George’s “Herzgewächse” that Schoenberg contributed to the “Blue Rider Almanac” in 1911 is much less than a generation in time: celesta, harp and harmonium the translucent underpinning for a coolly-detached soprano line of truly stratospheric reach: Eileen Hulse may have faltered on occasion, but the poise with which she shaped the vocal writing made handsome amends.

The salon-like presentation of this sequence – curtain drawn at the rear of the stage, lighting dimmed and intimate – was a perfect foil for the staging of “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912) that followed the interval. ‘Staging’ has to used advisedly: apart from a chair stage-left, there were no props as such, and the white screens that separated the soloist from the ensemble had its central panel kept ajar – as if to introduce a degree of ‘alienation’ into proceedings, and hence point up the division between the real and the imagined.

But the lighting – as designed by Paul Keogan – was of stunning immediacy for all the directness of its alternating tones and dynamics, while Conor Murphy’s costume gave Sally Burgess the appearance as much of Petrushka as of Pierrot. Mike Ashman’s direction ensured these ‘three-times-seven melodramas’ unfolded with a constant and thus cumulative sense of where Albert Giraud’s fanciful verse is headed. Thus we proceeded from the moonlit imagery of Part One, with its recurring themes of latent desire – via the emotional volatility of Part Two, with recurring obsessions of death and desecration – to the regaining of equilibrium and hint at a final resignation of Part Three.

Burgess was an imaginative guide throughout – her handling of the voice part eschewing extremes of singing and acting, while using the pitches indicated by Schoenberg as the springboard for recitation as supple and intense as required by the individual numbers. The result was as enticing a presentation of this still-problematic work as can have been seen in London for many years – ably complemented by the Almeida Ensemble, the musicians’ contribution emerged with real clarity from behind that screen ‘breach’.

Schoenberg himself would surely have been impressed at the enterprising nature of liberties taken.

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