Recently in Reviews
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus
tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra
from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement,
but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment
“is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga
Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
25 Sep 2005
GLINKA: Ruslan and Lyudmila
Based on a tongue-in-cheek poem by young Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Glinka’s second opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) is an epic adventure tale, in which three rival Russian knights roam the land in search of a Kievan princess kidnapped by a sorcerer.
The opera, known to most Western listeners primarily through its showpiece overture, is one of the most brilliant creations of 19th-century Russian music. In five acts with a prolog, it is enormous and difficult, requiring high virtuosity from both singers and instrumentalists; the score also presents a host of problems for stage directors as it defies all attempts at realistic staging. Meanwhile, conductors face numerous textological conundrums caused by the divergences in the existing sources and the lack of an authorial manuscript, believed to have perished in a fire.
A new Bolshoi Theater recording of the opera, made live in 2003 and recently released by PentaTone Classics, may help to solve some mysteries of Glinka’s masterpiece. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov claims that his production represents “the original version” of the work recreated from the newly found authoritative copies of the lost manuscript. Fans of the opera should not expect major revelations, however: while there are several discrepancies in pitch and rhythm throughout the score, the sequence and content of the material is essentially intact. Indeed, if some music on this recording proves unrecognizable, it is the unfortunate consequence of the performance quality of the new production.
To start with the singers, the ladies generally did better than the men. Alexandra Durseneva’s voice is a deep, rich contralto, a little heavy for my taste, but just sexy enough for the Middle-Eastern exotica of her character, prince Ratmir. Maria Gavrilova is a lovely Gorislava; she is by far the best singer in the lineup, which makes one wish that the composer had given her more than a cameo role. Ekaterina Morozova as Lyudmila is more disappointing: her coloratura is clean and precise, but is suitable more for the Queen of the Night (her signature part) than for a warm-blooded Russian princess; this is particularly noticeable in her Act 4 aria. Still more disappointing is Lyudmila’s beloved, Ruslan; the voice of Taras Shtonda, particularly in the barely perceptible low register, is thoroughly uninspiring. Valery Gilmanov appears to have given up on the whirlwind tempi of Farlaf’s buffo part: the Vivace assai of the famously Rossini-esque Act 2 rondo barely qualifies as a Moderato, completely destroying the hilarious effects of the scene. Maxim Paster’s ringing tenor with steady yet sweet upper register is perfect for Bayan; Vitaly Panfilov’s Finn, however, while technically flawless, is painfully devoid of color. Indeed, several singers on the recording seem to have sacrificed both richness of timbre and richness of interpretation to the goal of precisely rendering the notes of the carefully restored score. One wonders if such an approach would win any converts to Glinka’s genius.
It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous importance of the chorus in Glinka’s epic. According to Vedernikov, the emphasis placed in his production on the chorus as an ever-present commentator led him to abandon the realistic costume drama for an oratorio-like “mystery” (the one with a more contemporary look, as evident from the CD cover art). Unfortunately, as I have already commented in an earlier review for this site, the Bolshoi Theater’s chorus is weak, and has trouble keeping both the pitch and the beat. The introduction and finale – scenes that require more volume than precision – are less affected by this, but the quality is disastrous, for instance, in the Act 2 scene of Ruslan with the giant Head – the character represented by the unison male choir that must be perfectly in sync to achieve the desired effect.
Last but not least, Glinka’s opera lives and dies by its orchestration: as Vedernikov points out, apart from the complex, delicate accompaniment, there are more than 40 minutes of purely instrumental music in Ruslan. The fiendishly difficult score presents an evidently insurmountable challenge to the Bolshoi orchestra, the weakest spot of that theater’s productions over the past few years. As a result, Glinka’s sparkling orchestra comes across as dull, colorless, heavy, and more than occasionally out of tune. The tempo of the brilliant overture is sluggish at best, and even in that tempo the musicians are struggling.
Overall, the new Ruslan and Lyudmila recording is of value for a performer in need of consulting an authoritative version of Glinka’s score without visiting the notoriously mysterious Moscow archives. The rest of us may be better off staying faithful to the Mariinsky recording, or even the vintage 1978 Bolshoi production with Nesterenko, which Melodiya recently re-released on CD. After all, as the conductor tells us, this work is first and foremost a musical masterpiece; it should be approached as such.
University of Missouri—Columbia