Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
23 Aug 2005
CHRISTINE BREWER — The ‘Anti-Fleming’
As everyone knows, the art of the song recital is in decline. When you and I were young Maggie, Columbia Concerts and Community Concerts regularly sent vocal and other musical artists all around America providing a never fading rainbow of wonderful music, as great classical music performers educated and thrilled us with their art. For example, As a youth I once heard Leonard Warren give a recital in a high school auditorium in Webster Groves, Missouri, price of admission $5. I still have the ticket stub - and the memories. Kathleen Ferrier, Robert Casadesus Jennie Tourel and Guiomar Novaes performed in my town when I was a kid.
Now the rainbow has faded and only a few festivals and occasional venues in the largest cities offer such vocal and instrumental recitals. Happily, one of these is the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which presented the elegant soprano Christine Brewer in a concert of American art songs August 9, in the 400-seat St Francis Auditorium, part of the Museum of New Mexico in downtown Santa Fe. La Brewer sang to an audience of musical cognoscenti, alas in a half-filled hall. Her co-equal at the piano was Craig Rutenberg, and together they gave a 90-minute program that was the stuff of legend it was so beautifully achieved. In her unaffected naturalness as a singer, it seems apt to call Brewer 'the anti-Fleming.' Both sopranos are gifted artists, but Brewer's artistic integrity and naturalness make her an ideal recitalist compared to the over-contrivance and mannerisms of a Fleming. Bottom line: Brewer is there for the music, nothing else gets in the way.
As is becoming known, Brewer's large, wide-ranging soprano voice is one of the most beautiful before the public today. She is singing Isolde in Edinburgh as I write this, and will be San Francisco's Isolde next season, and no doubt will be heard in other Wagnerian roles over years to come. One of my favorite comments read recently about Brewer is, "she may be in her late 40s, but the voice sounds 35!" This is true; her tone is rich and steady; she is the mistress of color and nuance; her musical instincts are true and dramatically valid; her diction is clear (as St Louis heard in June with her Queen Elizabeth in Britten's Gloriana), and her command of dynamic shading is breathtaking. She has everything that Helen Traubel had, plus the three top soprano notes, and everything Eileen Farrell had plus the ability to sing a haunting piano and spinning pianissimo tone. If this sounds like I am overstating things, go hear for yourself.
The program of art songs, as they used to be called, was well chosen and smartly paced. Works of John Carter and Richard Hundley, along with an operatic sounding mini-cycle by J. C. Menotti dominated the first half. This music seemed not well known to the audience, which received it warmly. Better known were songs of Charles Ives and Harold Arlen, and a set of four songs regularly sung by Kirsten Flagstad on her American recital tours, by Sam Barber, Edwin McArthur, Walter Kramer and Mildred Lund Tyson. Kramer's was an impressionistic song "Now Like a Lantern," from 1919 based on a James Joyce poem; it was fascinating. For her first encore, the intrepid soprano took on the music critics with a song by Celius Dougherty, "Review" that parodied a critique of a vocal recital. This derring-do paid off with its gentle but pointed chiding of cliched review writing; the audience was much amused by the singer's comic abilities. Brewer ended with a surprise, "If I Could Tell You," the long-forgotten theme song of The Voice of Firestone, a song that once swept America every week on radio and television, written by none other than Idabelle Smith Firestone, wife of rubber magnate. The moment Craig Rutenberg played the intro much of the audience stirred in recognition of the sentimental ballad, and after the soprano's radiant performance gave her a standing ovation. Mrs. Firestone never had it so good. [The song can be heard on a number of VHS video tape issues of The Voice of Firestone, performed by a wide variety of singers, none finer than the youthful golden soprano of Eleanor Steber.]
J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico