Music review: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra | Opera de Lyon
From Pathétique to the ridiculous – Tchaikovsky was sublime but Fidelio on Segways was a fascinating folly, writes Sarah Urwin-Jones
[Fidelio - picture: Bertrand Stofleth]
There might be hidden musical treasure in the Fringe, but for large-scale classical clout, it has to be the International Festival. And you don’t get much more oomph than the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall, visiting from Munich under their chief conductor, the estimable Latvian, Mariss Jansons. They are, quite simply, one of the great modern orchestral combinations.
Jansons’ first offering in this two concert series paired Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major with Tchaikovsky’s dark Symphony No 6, the Pathétique. No need for programmatic complexity when what you’re offering is this revelatory.
Mitsuko Uchida was the soloist in the Beethoven, a concerto whose weight and gossamer lightness was beautifully underscored by her superbly articulated playing. Behind her, too, the Bavarians were majestic, Jansons bringing brutally aggressive counterpoint to her gentle ministrations in the Andante, before giving way to the almost dream-like development.
Better yet was Jansons’ interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s dark range of emotions, and he emphasized them all in an expressive, expansive performance that made the composer’s work seem fresh. This was intensity of the most thrilling kind, from the near military vigour with which Jansons controlled the triumphalism of the third movement’s march to the devastating majesty of the fourth movement’s despair. Thoroughly brilliant.
It was back to Beethoven the following night in the Festival Theatre for Opera de Lyon’s misfiring sci-fi Fidelio, as the Festival segued – or Segway’d, in this case – from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Beethoven’s cross-dressing saga of the woman (Leonore) who disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) to free political prisoner husband Florestan caused the composer considerable strife – it took him ten years to alight on a definitive version after its premiere in 1804. But modern directors seem to have as much trouble.
Set on a doomed space-ship hurtling towards oblivion, the opera was helmed by seminal 1970s video artist Gary Hill in his first outing as director, decking the hull with endlessly regenerating animation in shades of grey. Hill, like many before him, rewrote Beethoven’s troublesome spoken words, principally by peppering the opera, somewhat haphazardly, with narrative from Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s epic 1950s sci-fi poem Aniara. The effect is rather as if an intergalactic parasitic being has attached itself to the opera’s hull. Ambitious and grandiose, yes, but under the surface, Beethoven’s opera, much like the imprisoned Florestan, is in worryingly poor shape.
Hill puts all the dynamic into visuals, leaving his onstage cast static and marooned, despite mounting them on hands-free Segways which the singers manoeuvre with fascinating dexterity. There are some impressive visual tropes – and Marzelline’s geometric hedgehog outfit wins out in the costume department – but Hill’s monochrome visuals quickly become tedious. It was a bit like watching opera through a massive screensaver.
Down in the pit, conductor Kazushi Ono did his best with Lyon’s occasionally floundering orchestra. But amongst a slew of off-key voices above, the low point was Florestan’s Act II aria, Gott! Welch Dunkel Hier! sung so poorly by Nikolai Schukoff, I momentarily wondered how this confused production got on the International stage in the first place. Ah well, you can’t win them all.
Originally published in The Scotland on Sunday