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Ian Bostridge up a blind alley [Jun. 15th, 2009|11:59 am]
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It sounded a neat idea, as Ian Bostridge outlined it in the Guardian. The Threepenny Opera’s perennial relevance - particularly marked, as capitalist binge leads to universal bust - makes it worth looking at anew: singing Lieder with Dorothea Roschmann and Angelika Kirchschlager prompted him to wonder "how wonderful it would be" to hear them tackling Brecht-Weill. Why not stand the usual tradition on its head, and replace singing actors by acting singers? "There’s room for both grit and cantilena" argued Bostridge: the Lieder-singers’ commitment to the words made them particularly suited to this challenge.

Thus it was that we gathered at the Barbican to hear this theory put into practice, with the aid of the versatile Klangforum Wien led by that arch-funster HK Gruber, who would both conduct and sing Peachum in his inimitable chansonnier style; as this was a concert performance, there would also be a narrator. And what an intriguing line-up: Roschmann as Polly, Kirchschlager as Jenny, Bostridge as MacHeath, plus three Austrian/German singers. Would they be as wonderful as promised?

The show seemed discombobulated from the start. The German narrator was stuck out in the distance, and stumbled over his words, while Gruber’s dry beat didn’t swing. Then Bostridge, who had been desperately mugging to convey the right sort of loucheness, opened his mouth. With hair slicked back, Tarantino shades, and his skeletal form encased in a sharp gangster suit, he’d done what he could to transcend the etiolated persona in which he sings Schubert and Britten, but the results were painful both to hear and watch. When he went down low, his voice disappeared: what was the mysterious "sound engineer" in the cast-list doing? Capriciously turning a mike on and off? When audible, alas, Bostridge’s sound was a mere wispy parody of the roughness which is a sine qua non for this part.

On the other hand, Roschmann gave Polly wonderful oomph, while Hanna Schwartz and Florian Boesch hit the button brilliantly as Celia and Tiger Brown; Gruber’s singing was nicely in character too. Kirchschlager projected raunchiness with her body, but seemed vocally constrained just as Bostridge was, if not to the same degree. Were they both instinctively protecting their voices, as all classical singers must, from the damage which unbridled raucousness would do? This is why, for example, the Handelian mezzo Sarah Connolly - initially an accomplished jazz singer - now doesn’t dare sing jazz. "It’s just too dangerous," she tells me. I think Bostridge may belatedly have discovered this too. Stick to Britten, Schubert, and Mozart, Ian: this is a blind alley.
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