Thursday, 16 March 2017

Carolyn Sampson: in song and on stage

As regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know, there are certain artists I try to champion whenever possible on this blog. And in some cases, it can be agonising to miss an opportunity to do so, through not being able to make a particular run of performances, or catch a local enough gig. So it was sheer pleasure to have the chance to see and hear one of my favourite singers, Carolyn Sampson, not once, but twice in a single week - in very different contexts - and be reminded all over again of both her brilliance and versatility.

We begin on a gratuitous Monday off work, at the Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert. Accompanying CS was lutenist Matthew Wadsworth. They are longtime recital partners, and to my shame I'd only come across MW's playing previously on a Wigmore live disc the duo had released some time ago. The programme for this concert was a lovely exercise in balance: to begin with, it presented the artists very much as equals, with MW performing several instrumental pieces solo. It also mixed old - 'usual suspects' Dowland and Purcell bookended the gig - and new. Brand new, in fact, as MW gave the world premiere of a charming new suite of pieces for theorbo, 'The Miller's Tale', composed by Stephen Goss. (For those unfamiliar, the theorbo is the giraffe of the string instrument family - lute-like body, but with a long neck rising well above the player's shoulder: extra strings to provide more bass.)

Bridging ancient and modern, at the centre of the recital, were three of Britten's folk song settings. Just as Stephen Goss tuned his guitar like a theorbo to compose the new pieces, Britten's arrangements are more often heard on the modern instrument, but here were rendered beautifully on MW's theorbo, eliding two eras seamlessly, as if we were suspended in a unique time and space just for that hour in the auditorium.

CS is absolutely in her element with this material. While the pristine beauty of the voice is in evidence throughout, her ability to communicate the spirit of each song makes her superb to watch as well as listen to. Thanks to her sensitive but never over-serious approach, it's a thrill-ride to be transported from a tender heartbreaker to one of the more cheerful and somewhat bawdier choices - performed with a customary flirtatious brio that hopefully didn't accelerate too many pacemakers in the Wigmore or Radio 3 audiences!

I was in two minds about mentioning this - in terms of his performance, it should be irrelevant - but I'll go ahead. MW is blind. While this makes me admire his abilities all the more (for example, my mind boggles at the effort that must be involved receiving and learning a new premiere score), it also illuminates the generosity and attentiveness they must both possess to work as a duo. So often, the singer is seen as 'leader' and the accompanist tends to be the one visibly 'following' - but here, the exchange seems far more mutual, even telepathic, with MW clearly listening for breathing and movement at a level I could no doubt barely imagine, and CS watching his every move. I actually felt privileged to watch: what might have been an 'obstacle', something to be overcome, in fact results in a next-level partnership, something to aspire to.

Fast forward to the end of the week, to an event I had been looking forward to for months. CS was singing Melisande in Scottish Opera's production of Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande' - and we had decided to treat ourselves and make a special trip to see it in Edinburgh (where Mrs Specs also has People, conveniently enough). The pilgrimage was made even more worthwhile by the opportunity to hear the marvellous bass Alastair Miles again, after seeing his extraordinary performance as Claggart in Opera North's 'Billy Budd' last year.

[Slight spoiler alert: the run of 'P&M' has now finished, so I will be mentioning below some features of the staging, simply so I can talk about how haunting and clever I found it. You have been warned!]

As one might expect from a story that attracted Debussy, 'P&M' is an elusive, mysterious tale. I won't try to summarise every detail, but in brief: Prince Golaud - grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde - loses his bearings while hunting, and stumbles upon a lost young woman, Mélisande. She shows signs of escaping abuse from her former life (initially she won't let Golaud near her), but he is besotted and takes her with him. They marry. However, Golaud's half-brother, Pelléas is also staying at the castle, as his father is ill. Pelléas and Mélisande spend time together and become close. While Pelléas seems to fall more openly in love - arranging 'final' meetings of great import and making overtures to Mélisande beneath her window - she seems to reciprocate but holds something of herself in reserve. Meanwhile, Golaud's jealousy intensifies from spying to violent rage (dragging the pregnant Mélisande across the floor). Interrupting the tryst where Mélisande finally admits her love for Pelléas, Golaud kills his half-brother. Shortly after giving birth, Mélisande also dies (even though she is barely injured), with Golaud still torn between believing her faithful and pressing her to admit her guilt.

Trying to outline the plot in this way inevitably means passing over the opera's rich symbolism and ethereal approach to storytelling and 'reality'. Its events feel cumulative - we're aware of time passing and unseen exchanges between, and sometimes during, the acts - and we build our overall picture from what can feel like impressionistic scenes. This sense of 'disconnect' allows the characters to remain unpredictable throughout, their feelings and motives sometimes shifting, never letting us fully second-guess their intentions.

Here the performers really came into their own. CS was a revelation (I had never seen her in a fully-staged opera before). Her ability to convey lightning mood changes and complexities of character - so useful in song recitals when a protagonist's fortunes vary wildly from verse to verse! - made her an ideal Mélisande. It felt like we could simultaneously read her mind, yet never truly know her. She was especially hypnotic to watch during the scene, when - during a lighter-hearted exchange with Pelléas - Mélisande loses her wedding ring in a well. As you'd expect, we saw shock and regret, but also a half-smile as if the loss could fleetingly represent a release or escape. CS also gave us a Mélisande who could really move: sliding and balancing across beds or benches in the early scenes with an agile grace, she seemed of nature, of the forest - which I'll come back to shortly. And whatever the physical demands of the role - including leaning upside down from a window having her hair pulled - her singing never left perfection-level.

(A stunning Scottish Opera production photo, credit Richard Campbell.)

The rest of the cast also shone. Like CS, whose purity of voice can also carry a hint of more earthly, sensual sparkle when needed, each singer was a skilfully-cast tonal match for their role. I've already mentioned Alastair Miles, his warm bass emphasising Arkel's sympathy and stability amid the slow-motion chaos around him. Again, he gave a lower-key, but intensely physical performance. Arkel's literal blindness constrained AM's gestures but he was able to demonstrate the irony that, while the old man must gently lean on others for actual support, he is the one who so often provides it. Andrei Bondarenko fleshed out Pelléas admirably, his flexible baritone capturing the character's mix of assumed gravitas, blurred motives and sometimes perplexing diffidence. And Roland Wood gave a searing performance as Golaud, knotted up with relentless anguish, directing his rage inward as much as out towards his wife and half-brother.

The uniformly fine performances extended to Scottish Opera's Orchestra, conducted by their music director Stuart Stratford. In their hands, Debussy's score - which I am probably the 6,275th person to describe as 'ravishing' - waxed and waned like a kind of ceaseless, shimmering mélodie, somehow finding a way of dramatising constant change: not just the trademark water, but beneath human surfaces, shifting emotions and loyalties.

This brings me on to the staging - directed by Sir David McVicar, who must share a great deal of the credit with Rae Smith (design) and Paule Constable (lighting). The essential appearance of the background and characters takes its cue from the paintings of Danish artist Hammershoi. From the very start, we see both trees - to the left - with walls / panels centre and right, as if somehow the forest and castle are already merging. Golaud stands with his sword, a little distance from a bed where Mélisande lies. However, he - the interior in turmoil - is lost on the forest side, while she - apparently 'of' the forest, is already seemingly trapped, attached to the furniture. As the action progresses, nature starts to gain the upper hand - more and more trees 'grow' across the stage, and the caves, pools and wells spring up within the rooms.

I found this fascinating on several levels. The extraordinary lighting and set design placed the characters in a constant shadow world, whether light or dark, mirroring their emotional repression. As each scene ended, the curtains closed in from left, right and above, heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere. The overlap between interior and exterior seemed a carefully thought-through and - appropriately enough - watertight metaphor for what can be said and acted upon, and what can't. Mélisande, who once might have been a literal 'free spirit', has clearly suffered in the past, and the clearest symbol of that unrestrained nature, her hair, becomes a tool for abuse - not just from Golaud, who grabs it to drag her across the floor, but from Pelléas, who in his love seeks to entrap and control her, binding her tresses not only to himself, but to the tree by her window.

The production ends on a truly breathtaking coup de théâtre: as Mélisande fades away on her deathbed, surrounded by doctor and servants in a room full of trees, the folk onstage recede and some of the trunks lift off gently into the air. Mélisande has brought nature, the outside world, into the castle, and it will leave with her. However, stage left, Golaud's young son hands him his sword, and leaves. We realise that the two are left alone onstage, exactly as we first saw them: Golaud in identical pose by the few remaining trees, and Mélisande in the same bed. So many thoughts crowded my head as I reeled from this - it felt at once like a heart-rending reminder of the cycle of abuse that men can visit upon women; it seemed to symbolise our ongoing violence against nature (personified by Mélisande), that whenever we come into contact with it, we try to overpower, crush and ultimately ruin it... let alone the fact that it was simply a glorious visual idea, alive with intelligence and imagination, a refresh and repeat for the eyes that matched the motifs and patterns already bewitching our ears.


So often I have to write about past glories on the blog, but as long as you can access BBC's iPlayer Radio, you can hear both of these performances. For the Wigmore Hall concert, go to this link - at the time of writing, there are 25 days left to listen.

'Pelléas et Mélisande' was recorded during the Glasgow run and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 25 March. After that, it will live for another 30 days on iPlayer Radio. Don't miss!

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