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LSO Live: The Rite of Spring, Mysteries of the Macabre, Three Fragments from Wozzeck, Six Pieces for Orchestra 

DVD Button Works by Webern, Berg, Ligeti and Stravinsky. Hannigan; London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle. Texts and translations. Director: Simonnet. LSO 3028 (Blu-ray and DVD), 85 mins., no subtitles

Recordings Hannigan Stravinsky lg 418
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE MADWOMAN has become an awkward operatic archetype; there’s something distasteful in the way we parade mental illness onstage, resurrecting outdated notions of female hysteria as we gawk at the coloratura ravings of Lucia or Ophelia. But on two new releases, Barbara Hannigan reclaims the madwoman as an emblem of the modern era. The Nova Scotian soprano has won recognition as a daring new-music diva with her eccentric interpretations of recent repertoire. For her 2015 appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra (recorded here on video) and her aptly titled new album Crazy Girl Crazy, Hannigan selected twentieth-century musical depictions of insanity that capture the fractured, chaotic character of our modern condition. 

Hannigan is one of the few singers today who can handle the stratospheric stuttering that comes with the role of Gepopo in György Ligeti’s 1974 mock-apocalyptic Grand Macabre, a cartoonish operatic caricature of nuclear-age anxiety. “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a concert medley of the character’s wackiest arias, has become Hannigan’s calling card, offering a compact summary of her vocal and comedic capabilities. The audience member who wolf-whistles at her provocative schoolgirl getup as she joins Simon Rattle and the LSO onstage has no idea what he’s in for: Hannigan launches into what resembles a genuine psychotic episode, nervously giggling one moment, stiffening with paranoia or teetering drunkenly on her stilettos the next, to match the score’s sporadic shifts in affect. But there’s some extreme musical discipline underpinning what looks like a spontaneous fit—Hannigan traces Ligeti’s zigzagging melismas with laser precision and manipulates her voice to achieve inhuman sound effects, including a hilarious ululation that resembles the braying of a donkey.

This absurdist virtuosity informs Hannigan’s performance of Luciano Berio’s unaccompanied solo Sequenza III, which opens Crazy Girl Crazy. Using the same schizophrenic collage form as Ligeti, Berio draws on a larger arsenal of extended techniques, inventing special notation for gasps, tongue clicks and coughs. Compared with Cathy Berberian on her benchmark 1967 recording, Hannigan exhibits more obsessive attention to musical detail, shaping her silvery top notes with such minute subtlety that a single pitch seems to contain a whole melodic phrase. She possesses a lighter, more flexible instrument than Berberian, transposing the work to a slightly higher key than her predecessor to achieve a giddy, twittering effect. She might, however, have emulated Berberian’s careful pronunciation of the scattered bits of text, which get lost amid the deranged babbling in Hannigan’s version.

The soprano balances these nutty antics with Berg’s grittier expression of madness and alienation in three Wozzeck fragments with the LSO. While many still consider this music harsh and unlistenable, Hannigan manages to endow it with unexpected beauty. For Marie’s pathetic tale of an orphaned child, she drifts dreamily in and out of Sprechgesang, as Rattle coaxes some luxurious sonorities from the string section. It’s an oddly sensuous atmosphere, enhanced by the seductive way in which Hannigan eases into each note as if it were a hot bath. But the spell is broken when she succumbs to a neurotic outburst, her voluptuous tone sharpening. In the space of a few short excerpts, we get the sense of a psychologically complex character; the sobbing quality with which she reads of biblical adulteresses and her desperate shrieks of “Herr Gott!” divulge a mind tormented by guilt. In the final fragment, it’s as if her character had developed multiple personalities: taking on the role of Marie’s bastard son, Hannigan stares out at the audience with wide, terrified eyes to sing breathy iterations of “Hopp, hopp!” 

Hannigan has something of a split professional personality; since taking up conducting in 2011, she has garnered praise for her readings of Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky. Her performances often involve extraordinary feats of multitasking, with the soprano half-turned to the orchestra to beat time while she sings. On Crazy Girl Crazy, Hannigan leads the Dutch orchestra collective Ludwig in suites from Berg’s 1937 Lulu and Gershwin’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy. The two works complement one another elegantly. In the former, Hannigan brings jazzy saxophone lines to the foreground and gets some meaty, big-band playing out of the brass. Vocally, she sidesteps the usual shrillness that comes with singing Berg’s femme fatale, indulging in velvety shading and bluesy, Billie Holiday scoops. For his sophisticated arrangement of three hits from Girl Crazy, Broadway’s Bill Elliott (the composer and orchestrator, not the ballet boy) inserts some clever references to the Berg, including a twelve-tone theme that is strikingly similar to “I Got Rhythm.” He may have pitched this song too high in Hannigan’s range; there are some piercing moments that feel out of place for a show tune, though her ascending glissando of two and a half octaves is impressive. She’s at her best in “Embraceable You”; the liner notes claim that she’s concerned not so much with “madness” here as with “the craziness of being in love,” and that comes through in the way she leans yearningly into each phrase, as if reaching out for a warm embrace. While I assumed the sultry-voiced backup singers on this number were some top-hatted chorus line, the accompanying documentary by French actor/filmmaker Mathieu Amalric reveals that it’s the orchestra members who do the crooning. Hannigan’s musical multiple-personality disorder must be spreading.  —Joe Cadagin 



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