On paper, the big attraction of Manchester Collective’s concert at the Royal Northern College of Music on Friday was a chance to hear the new English translation by David Pountney of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire of 1912.
In practice that was not the main point of the performance, as the words were barely audible. I don’t think that was entirely down to soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, who was clearly doing her best.
When Elizabeth Alker, with help (mainly) from conductor Tim Burke, was explaining the nature of the piece in the first part of the evening, she (and he, and others) used microphones, the better to be heard in the acoustically generous RNCM concert hall. When it came to the vocal role in the performance itself, which followed as part two, Lotte Betts-Dean was not mic’d. But ‘Sprechstimme’ (pitch-specified speaking voice) has surely got to be treated as speech in a situation where ordinary speech needs it, so I wondered why.
It might as well have been in German, really, but that didn’t defeat the object of the performance, which was to present the song cycle (21 of them) as a one-woman scena – directed by Polly Graham and with design by Nate Gibson (mainly a bed from which the soloist gets up, walks around and snuggles into, though the instrumentalists interact with her, too, from time to time). The concept was explained in advance, so the words didn’t matter more than in any other piece of Regietheater, and we were assured it was all based on the texts.
We’re seeing someone with an identity disorder, with manic and depressive episodes, projecting herself into imaginary characters, and finally seeking a kind of reconciliation of her own contrasting personality traits (all explained in the first, music-appreciation-class, part). That seems a pretty smart way of presenting a set of poems translated from the original French, with the overall title of ‘Moonstruck Pierrot’, that don’t make a lot of literal sense beyond telling us about an artist’s (ie a Pierrot’s) life and fantasies.
As every Bertie Wooster fan knows, going to a fancy dress party in a Pierrot costume was the height of boring conformism by around 10 years later. Entire concert parties would perform as Pierrots – so the idea of the sad clown had taken some root.
Here it was all highly accomplished musically, and credit should be given to each performer of the ensemble (led by Rakhi Singh, with unidentified colleagues) as well as Lotte Betts-Dean. And well done the Collective for putting considerable resources into an imaginative and theatrically presented realization of an iconic score.
What’s it iconic of? Well, Arnold Schoenberg, who (whatever else he did for music) should probably be credited with changing the craft of composer from being something in the practical arts continuum to that of the academic, is part of history now. I’m glad these performers thought he was someone you could laugh at, rather than being po-faced about.