Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Recordings

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

Donizetti: Les Martyrs

As the editor of Opera magazine, John Allison, notes in his editorial in the June issue, Donizetti fans are currently spoilt for choice, enjoying a ‘Donizetti revival’ with productions of several of the composer’s lesser known works cropping up in houses around the world.

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine

Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France

A worthy tribute for a vocal seductress of the ancient régime

Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.

Schubert’s Winterreise by Matthias Goerne

This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice

This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail @ Hangar-7

We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Bernarda Fink Sings Mahler Lieder

Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.

Gergiev’s Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

Hänsel und Gretel

This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.

Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing

Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Amore e Tormento

Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’ 

Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.

In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi. 

Verdi at the Old MET

With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.

Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re

In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions. 



James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
28 Nov 2005

MACMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross

The compositions of John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and Henryk Górecki have accustomed us to the degree that religious spirituality has found serious musical voice in the late twentieth century. In their works, a profound language of musical mysticism is wed to various liturgical evocations, creating compositions that seem both authentic in their expression and unusually personal in their genesis.

James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

Polyphony; the Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton (cond.)

Hyperion CDA67460 [CD]


In the next generation, the Scottish composer James MacMillan has emerged as a strong heir to this tradition, and in the present recording his “Seven last Words from the Cross,” “On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,” and “Te Deum” are striking examples of the ways in which this is so.

“The Seven Last Words” is a large-scale work, commissioned by the BBC in 1994. Its overall power and control of scale may remind one of Pärt’s Passio, but where Pärt is intensely minimalistic, MacMillan employs strong contrasts and juxtapositon to address the drama of the Crucifixion. Often haunting, the score takes one into the reflective inner depths that surround the words of Jesus on the cross, while at the same time immersing one in the dramatic progression of events on Golgotha. The dynamic interplay of dramatic progression and inner reflection is, of course, familiar from works like the Bach Passions, but there it is a textual division of duty—alternating prose narrative and poetic reflection—that elicits and brings order to the interplay; MacMillan’s texts, on the other hand, are the scriptural words from the cross with various liturgical texts from Holy Week (mostly Good Friday), and their weave is generally a smooth one: the interplay is unitive and organic—not bi-modal. Chant-like formulas, voluminous climaxes, medieval evocations of early counterpoint, English pastoral string writing, angular aggression—all of these are employed by MacMillan in a way that animates both the drama and the reflection in a powerfully integrated composition, with voice and orchestra sharing equal portions of the expressive burden.

I was struck by this same sense of integration in the setting of the Te Deum, as well. The opening (“We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord . . .”) juxtaposes slow-moving, low, male chordal declamations—reminiscent of Russian liturgical music—with a rhapsodic soprano line. The chordal texture seems to describe and narrate—“we praise”—while the soprano lyricism enacts the praise.

The choir Polyphony is admirably well suited to the demands of MacMillan’s challenging scores. Their leanness of tone and pliancy of sound position them to bring a high degree of control to their singing, and while their softness is perhaps most notable, the powerful, free resonance of their loud passages is memorable indeed. This is music-making of a very high order, and MacMillan’s extraordinary vision surely deserves nothing less.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):