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Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos
this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark
streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It
is that exclusive—you can’t even find the
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic
concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
22 Aug 2005
Any new recording of Handel under the baton of Rene Jacobs has to be greeted with both respect and interest, even if the absolute need for another recording of this well-represented oratorio is debatable. Perhaps some Handel scholars would argue with that and are still discussing the precedence of the current available recordings — the older Gardiner, the Neumann, or the more recent McCreesh for instance. So, one presumes, this recording of "Saul" on the Harmonia Mundi label must be intended to either trump those three or to at least offer a viable fourth choice for those who prefer their Handel oratorios as complete as possible. And a plus point is that the entire work is squeezed onto just 2 CDs with a total running time of 2 hrs 30 minutes, accompanied by some stimulating liner notes by Pierre Degott that are both informative and absorbing for the non-specialist consumer.
Does it succeed in surpassing the current competition? Instrumentally there's certainly a case for saying so. For instance, in the opening symphony we are treated to bright jewelled textures, with true Allegro tempi and some wonderful sound balancing work by the engineers in the Larghetto and Andante sections between the winds and strings where every instrument is faithfully reported. This level of playing and recording continues throughout. The 40-strong Concerto Koeln sound as good as one rightly expects of them under this director, with perhaps only the winds and brass shining a little brighter than the rest of this exemplary crew. There was one small detail that I especially enjoyed: the carillon is a delight in the opening of scene 3 where its crystalline notes contrast delightfully with the chorus's heavier wedges of sound. I also relished a relatively elevated and clear-textured "Dead March" — no lumpen morbidity here, rather a majestic and calm portrayal of inevitable death that leads inexorably into the chorus's smoothly-sung Elegy. Jacobs is somewhat renowned for taking a degree of liberty with some works, but here I found little that jarred (at least on the instrumental side) and indeed I heard a piece of music new to me in a recitative and accompagnato in Act 1, ably sung by the High Priest (Michael Slattery). Presumably this was one of those "pick and mix" elements that Mr. Handel was prone to add or delete depending on circumstances.
Vocally, I'm not so sure that this recording achieves to the same extent, but it certainly offers a rewarding alternative, and one's final choice of recording (if choice one must make) will surely rest on subjective preferences for certain voices, and certain elements of choral production. Indeed, my first reaction to the 36-strong RIAS-Kammerchor's opening lines was one of slight disappointment at the diction and the English ... a definite Germanic vowel sound is evident and it doesn't help a distinctly muddy delivery of the faster lines which continued right through to the final chorus of Act Three. I found myself straining to catch the words — and that was with the libretto to hand. No such problems with any of the soloists however: all eight are crisp and clear throughout.
If I had to give a "best in show" award to a soloist, it would have to be to Emma Bell as Saul's feisty daughter Merab. In her first character-defining aria "What abject thoughts....." she displays a wonderful mix of spot-on coloratura and warm incisive tone with some quite thrilling ornamentation which pins the listener to the seat and declares: this lady is not for trifling with. However, as her character softens, or at least expands, we can luxuriate in one of the most gorgeously expressive soprano voices singing today. She is simply superb in the quietly contemplative "Author of peace" where a feeling of controlled power is complemented by a rich long line and exquisite, minimal, decorations which illustrate perfectly her gradual change of heart.
Jeremy Ovenden sings the part of Jonathan with a no-nonsense, crisp characterisation which from the start tells us this man is no puppet prince, but one of honour and courage. As ever in this work, one wishes that he didn't disappear as early as he does. If Ovenden's more thoughtful passages lack a certain elegance of line perhaps better found in other recordings, this is still a very convincing performance. His dramatic sense is evident — one can hear this quite clearly in Act Two, for instance, in his resolute, if intimidated, confrontation with the bullying King Saul as he attempts to protect his friend and thus incurs the royal wrath.
The role of that friend, the young warrior David, is sung by Lawrence Zazzo. This American countertenor has been working extensively in Handel productions on the continent of Europe in the past few years so it's not difficult to see why Jacobs chose him for this recording. Vocally, he seems to occupy a place somewhere between the radically-different styles of the two recent starry "Davids" of note, Andreas Scholl on the Archiv recording with McCreesh and David Daniels' live portrayals in Edinburgh and Munich, but without their sheer class across the board, or quite yet establishing a truly personal sound of his own. He has a surprising tendency to shrillness in the faster, louder passages, as on the plus side his voice is warm and elegant in slower passages and very sweet in the highest registers. If he doesn't sound completely at ease with some of the ornaments he sings then maybe it's because some are definitely quirky, if not downright contentious: have a listen to the final repeats of the words "his wounded soul" from the aria "O Lord, whose mercies numberless" in Act 1, if you don't believe me. However, this is still a performance of merit, questionable ornamentation notwithstanding.
Having enjoyed her live performance in Munich so much, I was just a little disappointed in this Michal of Rosemary Joshua's — perhaps her lighter-hued voice is just ill-matched with that of Bell's and comes off worst in comparison. For all her undoubted technical mastery of the genre and supremely elegant singing, I felt this was not Joshua at her very best — something was lacking. Having said that, a slightly below-par Joshua is still a force to be reckoned with and she is still a Michal-of-choice for many Handelians. Just listen to the way she fashions her voice to reflect her resolute defence of David and defiance of Saul's death threats in "No, no let the guilty tremble" — regained determination, line, crisp diction and heartfelt emotion, all found from within the dancing rhythms of Handel's music and Jennen's text.
In the title role — always one dependent on strong recitative singing with so few actual airs to display one's gifts — Gidon Saks is a worthy choice and his obvious experience in making words count shines through, although I'm not sure he quite "carries" the true spirit of this unhappy king in an expressive sense. One gets the feeling of rage, and jealousy, but not so much of his decline into mental disorder in the face of the irrational powers driving him from within. He also tends to sing the music line by line, rather than making sense of the poetry — phrases just don't flow naturally and there are odd pauses between words where there should not be. Because of this tendency, I have to admit to preferring the Saul of, for instance, either Neal Davies or Alistair Miles.
Three impressive young singers shine brightly in the remaining lesser, but always dramatically important, six roles of High Priest and Witch (Michael Slattery), Doeg and Samuel (Henry Waddington), and the Amalekite and Abner (Finnur Bjarnason). Of the three, Michael Slattery makes the biggest impression, if only for the sheer dramatic range of his singing. Not all will approve of his almost pantomime-witch portrayal of Saul's medium to Samuel — his suave and robust tenor of the High Priest is contorted into a lisping, almost falsetto simpering sound which may be a step too far for some although it certainly worked in context for me. In contrast, the bass-baritone of Henry Waddington is steadily consistent and he sings Samuel's doom-laden air of retribution to the despairing king with appropriate gravitas and textual awareness. The deaths of Saul and his son are foretold with a gentle decrescendo, all the more chilling in its subtlety, on the final words "The Lord hath said it: He will make it good."
So, we have another excellent modern recording of Handel's "Saul" under the always intelligent and responsive direction of Rene Jacobs, even if it doesn't quite — by virtue of some variable vocal solo work — manage to establish a new benchmark for this most dramatic of oratorios.
© Sue Loder 2005