27 Feb 2007
Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall
This wasn’t an “easy” program for dilettantes.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
Time was when many felt compelled to ‘make allowances’ for ‘smaller’ companies. Now, more often than not, the contrary seems to be the case, instead apologising for their elder and/or larger siblings: ‘But of course, it is far more difficult for House X, given the conservatism of its moneyed audience,’ as if House X might not actually attract a different, more intellectually curious audience by programming more interesting works.
This wasn’t an “easy” program for dilettantes.
Audiences in the Wigmore Hall are formidably erudite and can appreciate a well-chosen programme of lesser known Schubert. Even if you didn’t know the repertoire, a mere glance at the texts made it clear that these were philosophic songs about cosmic anguish. Songs about Greek heroes pondering fate aren’t supposed to be cute and fluffy.
A friend who hears some 60 high level Lieder concerts a year, has heard all the greats in his lifetime. Yet even he said this was one of his most memorable experiences. Goerne turns 40 this year, and still hasn’t reached his prime but the depth and colour in his singing was astounding. “Schöne Welt, wo bist du ?”, he opens with passionate force, then almost immediately softens his voice to evoke the delicate “springtime of nature”, which lives on only in the “Feenland der Lieder”. The transit is seamless, and the myriad shadings of color in each phrase are achieved with effortless technique, so deeply assimilated that it comes as naturally as instinct. Several of these songs are rarities which Goerne only added to his repertoire for these two concerts, the second of which I attended, but you would never have guessed.
When Goerne sings, he intuitively inhabits the world of his songs. It’s as if he becomes a conduit for the music. Because we’re used to performers as stars with “persona”, it’s not so easy to adjust to performers for whom image is utterly secondary. It does make careful listening more important, because you can’t rely on non-musical clues like the performer’s “noble mien”. But what rewards careful listening repays ! Mayrhofer’s poems are comparatively straightforward but Goerne gives them the dignity Schubert heard in them. For example, “Der entsühnte Orest” resounds with rounded vowel sounds which Schubert reflects in his setting. The pattern isn’t obvious in a superficial reading of the poem, but Goerne curves the words to emphasise their roundness. Suddenly the “heimatliches Meer” becomes a vivid presence. Then when it starts to “softly murmur Triumph ! Triumph !” its role in the song is enhanced. The poem may dwell on worldly success, but in the final strophe we know that Orestes (or rather Mayerhofer, the poet who later drowned himself), will find peace in what the sea represents.
In “Meeres Stille”, Goerne evoked the endless depths of the water with exquisitely resonant deep tones, shaped so carefully that they seemed to pulsate. Holding and floating the notes like this vividly captured the image of the “deep silence” that “weighs on the water…..a glassy surface all round”. The pauses in this song are subtle, but important to the meaning. Goerne incorporates this “todesstille fürchterlich” by extending the line so it seems to hover in the memory while nothing is in fact being sung out loud. This song is famous and often performed, but never quite with the profoundity heard here.
Similar subtlety marked “Der Kreuzzug, where a monk watches knights in their splendour marching off to the Crusades. Goerne’s voice wraps sensually round words like “Seide” (silk), contrasting the image with the austerity of the monks cell. Then he sings the monk’s words with quiet dignity. “I am a pilgrim, just like you”. Then the intensity of the final verse wells up with dramatic intensity. “”Life’s journey through treacherous waves….is after all, a crusade too….”.
Through the recital I was struck by the way Goerne nuanced his singing, by varying depth and well as light and colour. As if he were painting in oils, he can create multiple shadings in a single stroke, blending and intensifying as needed. Oils are pliable, shaped by texture as well as colour : Goerne’s subtle adjustments from deep timbres to lyrical light add depth as well as colour. In comparison, so many other performances have come across like crayon drawings ! Masterpieces may not have the same immediate impact, but they reward deeper appreciation.
The pianist here was no less than Ingo Metzmacher, the conductor. A sympathetic pianist makes a huge difference, and Metzmacher’s contribution here was superlative. His playing was powerful and uncompromising. He was infinitely more inspiring than the milder Elisabeth Leonskaya who accompanied Goerne in a similarly difficult Schubert program in the Wigmore Hall at the beginning of the season. Sometimes a pianist needs to support and nurture : Metzmacher knows that this is a singer who can be challenged. And such results ! His firmness in “Philoktet” created a pulsing undercurrent, underpinning the voice. In “Das Heimweh”, he emphasised the “yodelling” in the piano part. It’s extremely important because it evokes the song of the milkmaid echoing across the mountains. Schubert knew no male voice could get the same effect, so he put it into the piano. Metzmacher’s interests lie very much in modern music, so it was particularly interesting to hear what he does with Schubert Lieder. He played the extended 11 note sequence ending “Abschied”, colouring each note distinctly, capturing the varying pauses. It beautifully confirmed the solemn, contemplative mood of the song, while still reflecting the prayer-like vocal line, to Goerne’s reverential “Lebt wohl, klingt klagevoll”.
This concert was a historic occasion, more so than the first night, because it ended with the presentation of the first ever Wigmore Hall Medal for exceptional service to song. This isn’t going to be a regular award, simply because such contributions are not routine, by any means. As John Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore Hall said, it was being “dedicated with great affection” to Goerne who, in his 14 years of association with the venue has shown his belief in “all that the Wigmore Hall stands for”. Since the Wigmore Hall aims for the highest possible standards, and has done so for a hundred years, that is praise indeed. Excellence is never going to have populist appeal, but that’s not the point. It’s fundamentally more important to create goals to aim for in the first place.
Goerne beamed as he received the medal, but in his typical self-effacing way, chose to thank the audience by singing instead of making a speech. Never has “An die Musik” come over as sincerely and more heartfelt. I was quite overcome and didn’t realise until later that I was in tears.
© Anne Ozorio 2007