27 Feb 2007
Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall
This wasn’t an “easy” program for dilettantes.
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.
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 town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
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.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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