Recently in Reviews
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments:
“I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
24 Oct 2005
King Arthur - the first musical?
Reviewing this DVD recording of Purcell’s music-drama “King Arthur” from the 2004 Salzburg Festival was both a pleasure and a pain. The pleasure came from the intense, contagious sense of sheer fun that illuminates this production by Jurgen Flimm and Nikolaus Harnoncourt from start to finish.
Flimm’s magical and creative stage direction seldom flags, and Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien drives the whole mad, not to say occasionally maddening, pantechnicon along at a great pace and with admirable musical sensibility.
The pain came with equal regularity however. An interesting point about these last great flowerings of young Henry Purcell’s genius, so soon to be snuffed out, is that they were almost an anachronism when they first reached the stage of the Queens Theatre, Dorset Garden, London in 1691. Italian opera was approaching as if on a flood tide. Today it is difficult for an audience raised on either that later opera seria or mainstream romantic opera to grasp either the idiom of English music theatre in the 1690s or accept its artistic context - such as might be gleaned from a quote in the Gentleman’s Journal of 1692 “…experience hath taught us that our English genius will not relish that perpetual Singing,” Those said Gentlemen preferred what we might call today “mixed media” with plots that were not only true to life but sported humour, slapstick and sensational effects. And this Salzburg production, in the final analysis, whilst trying to achieve relevance and an understandable context by updating this template from the 1690’s, is let down by artistic incoherence and muddle. The fun, the spirit and the comedy of what Harnoncourt has described as the “first musical in history” doesn’t quite make up for some pretty dire interpretative decisions.
So if not an “opera” at all, then or now, what is it? It’s a play, with words by Dryden, which has musical tableaux which intersperse the main blocks of story-telling dialogue. The drama, acted and spoken by professional actors, tells the story of enemy kings Arthur and Oswald, fighting for English power and the heart of a princess, Emmeline, who happens to be blind. Each is supported by their own “magical helpers” - Merlin (a slightly ineffectual English dandy) and Grimbald (a most unpleasant piece of work) - and accompanying spirits. There is no doubt who are the “goodies” and “baddies” and which side this jingoistic libretto takes. It also just so happens that the music that was written to accompany the piece at the theatre was some of the best truly indigenous English song writing ever to bloom on a London stage, even to this day. And as in Purcell’s time, both the actors and singers are on stage together and often “duplicate” each other with matching costumes - an idea that one soon assimilates without too much trouble, although the camera close ups of the DVD obviously make this deliberate deceit entirely transparent.
The story is a gift for any creative director with the full panoply of 21st century stage effects at his disposal, and Flimm makes admirable use of the unique setting: the Summer Riding School in Salzburg, with its baroque form and intriguing balustraded arcades, built in 1693. The excellent orchestra is housed in a sunken area around which the stage continues, allowing the actors and singers to occasionally encompass the musicians and, from time to time, even draw them and their conductor into proceedings. This allows nice little comic business: the rather august head of Nikolaus Harnoncourt being carefully wrapped in a woolly bobble cap against the cold of the Frost Scene; a terrified fairy seeks shelter amongst the bassoons… and so on. Video screens in the “sky”, flying lines for the fairy spirits, trap-doors for the almost Wagnerian evil-doers on the Saxon side - it’s all there, and you’d have to be a very miserable person not to respond with a smile, at least once per scene.
However, as was reported at the time of the stage premier, the successes must be weighed against some unfortunate decisions. Dryden’s story may not be exactly great drama - it’s been described as “tub-thumpingly patriotic” and you’d be hard pushed to deny that. But, and it’s a big but, the language he used to do the tub-thumping was elegant, witty and often beautiful. Here, presumably for the sake of Salzburg success, all the English drama is translated into German, with almost entirely German or Austrian actors. What was wit with a lighter touch becomes heavily obvious; what was English seaside-style slapstick becomes Bavarian bier-keller. Vowel-curdling diction in mock-mittel-european-horror-flick style does Dryden no favours, and it is with huge relief that one hears the first melodic lines of English when the singers (excellent in name, if uneven in performance on this showing) take the stage.
One is reminded of a kind of “beauty and the beast” scenario. On the DVD, of course, one has the convenience of subtitles - so at least the viewer at home can have the story explained in English, or whichever language is preferred. Not that this helps particularly with all the local in-jokes and modern Austro/German political references which attempt to make relevant some of the original humour - always high risk for an internationally-released production.
Yet, happily, it is the music of Purcell that saves the day every time - tune after tune delights the ear and kindles memories from a hundred earlier hearings in different, incomplete contexts: “First Act Tune”, “How blest are shepherds”, the “Chaconne”, “’Tis Love” and “Trumpet Tune”, the list goes on and on. To at last hear them in the way that London audiences did in 1691 is a treat indeed.
The voices are certainly starry: Barbara Bonney, Michael Shade, Isabel Rey, Oliver Widmer and Birgit Remmert and you have to applaud the way they throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the story even if some are hard pressed to produce their best sounds in some difficult situations and eccentric costumes. The sight of a well-built Michael Shade throwing himself around the stage, stand- mic clasped to mouth, legs akimbo, in a hilarious spoof on an ageing rocker howling out “Your hay, it’s mowed” in the form of a torch song to his adoring fans, won’t be easily forgotten.
Less successful was Bonney’s rendition of the lovely, seraphic “Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling” towards the end of the performance - not approaching the silvery perfection of her CD recording and somewhat rushed and uncomfortable in execution. The famous “Frost Scene” was played for humour with a chorus of neatly-choreographed penguins (what else?) in support, even if Oliver Widmer’s rather clunky baritone made heavy arctic weather of the famously-extreme stuttering notes.
Yet, despite this and an overall problem with maintaining all the disparate threads of action, chorus, music, song, video and stage machinery, “King Arthur” is still a brave attempt to re-vivify the largely lost art form of English Restoration music-drama in something like its original concept - and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the music of Purcell, as long as they have a capacity to forgive as well as to applaud.
© Sue Loder 2005