Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

Richard Jones's Boris Godunov returns to Covent Garden

There are never any real surprises with a Richard Jones production and Covent Garden’s Boris Godunov, first seen in 2016, is typical of Jones’s approach: it’s boxy, it’s ascetic, it’s over-bright, with minimalism turned a touch psychedelic in the visuals.

An enchanting Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Theatre

If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And, it will be no picnic! For, deep in the broomstick forest that director Timothy Sheader and designer Peter McKintosh have planted on the revolving stage at Regent’s Park Theatre is a veritable Witches’ Training School.

First staged production of Offenbach's Fantasio at Garsington

Offenbach's Fantasio is one of the works where, replacing the mad-cap satire of his earlier operettas with a more romantic melancholy, he paved the way for Les contes d'Hoffmann. Unpopular during his lifetime, Fantasio disappeared and only work by the musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck brought the score together again.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Jason and Medea
18 Jun 2007

Leipzig Bachfest explores early opera

When opera is the subject, there’s an uneasy embarrassment at Leipzig’s annual 10-day Bach Festival, for opera is a genre that the city’s most famous musical son never embraced.

Above: Scene from Jason and Medea

Photo of Emma Kirky copyright Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes.
All other photos copyright by Andreas Birkigt [Emilienstraße 11a 04107 Liepizg Tel. 0341 – 960 9625, Bayerische Vereinsbank Leipzig (BLZ 86020086 Kto.-Nr. 4500792)]

 

True, in the St. Matthew Passion Bach composed one of the great music dramas of all time, but the opera house itself was an arena alien to him. In Bach’s Baroque age opera was largely a courtly concern, and the Saxon court was down the road in Dresden. Leipzig, mercantile, middle class and Lutheran laced had neither time nor taste for the excesses of entertainment staged in the Catholic capital.

Bachfest 2007, which brought 50,000 Bach fans to Leipzig, corrected this oversimplification of music history.“From Monteverdi to Bach,” the theme of the season, brought a new view of the situation — and with it new music — to light. Indeed, Leipzig had — or had had — an opera, but it folded in 1720, three years before Johann Sebastian Bach arrived as Thomaskantor, the man responsible for music not only at historic St. Thomas Church, but at other churches in the city as well. That opera, nourished at its outset by talent “imported” from Dresden, was founded in 1693 and soon became a venue for young composers who had come to Leipzig to study.

Foremost among them was George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who, born four years before Bach, outlived him by another 17. And, as the world well knows, it was only because the then more popular Telemann turned down the job at St. Thomas that Bach was hired. Although Telemann made written reference to 20 operas in his catalogue, until recently only half a dozen arias documented his efforts in the field.

Now, however, an ambitious Michael Maul has proven that some 40 arias in a Frankfurt archive were from Telemann’s “Germanicus,” which was given its modern premiere at the Bachfest ‘07 on June 11 by Gotthold Schwarz and the Saxon Baroque Orchestra. Written in 1704 and revised six years later, “Germanicus” is a tale of love, lust and political intrigue based very loosely on events during the first-century occupation of Teutonic territory by the Romans. Since only arias survive, for recitatives Maul substituted a tongue-in-cheek narrative wittily delivered by actor Dieter Bellmann. Through facial expression and a minimum of gesture a youthful cast made a strong case for the quality of Telemann’s youthful opus. Unusual for that day, librettist for “Germanicus” was Christine Dorothea Lachs, a woman with close connections to musical circles.

Leipzig is the heart of a region rich in music history, and to take advantage of that the Bach Festival stages outings, several of which include recitals on organs from Bach’s day. The season’s focus on Monteverdi took visitors to the tiny 1803 theater in near-by Bad Lauchstädt, designed in part of Goethe and recently restored to his designs for its interior.

On June 12 it was the setting for Monteverdi’s 1640 “Return of Ulysses to his Fatherland” staged by Christophe Rousset, who conducted his early-music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques from the harpsichord. As Penelope and Ulysses Hilary Sommers and Jan Kobow headed a cast of almost 20 amazing singers, who left one wondering how after this highly dramatic achievement Handel could have abandoned himself so completely to routine da capo arias. Rousset founded Les Talens Lyriques in Paris in 1991.

Emma_Kirkby_Leipzig.pngJune 16,the penultimate evening of Bachfest ‘07, brought the Yorkshire Bach Choir and Baroque Soloists to the Michaeliskirche for a performance of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” with veteran soprano Emma Kirkby as the tragic heroine. Kirkby, a major presence in early music since her debut in 1973, has a voice magically beyond the reach of time. Her Dido remains of adolescent tenderness and touching innocence. (And, by the way, it is now Dame Emma.)

Bass Stephen Varcoe was — even if a cad — a noble Aeneas, and Helen Neeves a devoted Belinda.

Conductor Peter Seymour, founder of the Yorkshire ensembles, included on the program Daniel Purcell’s “Again the welcome morn we sing” and “Mark how the Lark and Linnet sing” by John Blow, making this concert a generous sampling of English opera in Bach’s day. The above — concert performances all — were accompanied by period-instrument ensembles that documented both the quantity and quality of such players in Europe today.

Most unusual staging of the season was Steffan Schleiermacher’s updated version of “The Combat of Tancred and Clorinda,” Monteverdi’s setting for solo voice of a key scene from Tasso’s “Jerusalem Liberated.” Composer-pianist-conductor Schleiermacher, an outstanding figure on Germany’s crossover music scene, is a man well versed in early music, and his “Mackie Messer” approach to this dramatic confrontation, played on the second stage of the Leipzig Opera, was gripping.

While baritone narrator Christopher Jung told the story amid modern instruments — the accordion dominated — the ill-fated lovers were portrayed by dancers who appeared as if marionettes on strings. Schleiermacher paired the brief work with Peter Maxwell Davies’ single-soprano “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggott” under the title “Lost Battles of Love.”

1263_Jason_et_Medee_1.HP_05.pngTo further underscore the dramatic impulse brought to the arts by the Baroque the Leipzig Opera staged the first-ever German performance of Jean Georges Noverre’s 1763 ballet “Jason and Medea.” Danced by the opera’s superb ballet ensemble and directed in Leipzig by Jean Paul Gravier and Claude Agrafeil, the production, which premiered on June 9, was a revival of a 1992 Strasbourg staging by Sweden’s grand old man of the dance, Ivo Cramer.

Jean Joseph Rodolphe’s original score was arranged by England’s Charles Farncombe. In the title roles Martin Chaix and Kiyoko Kimura stressed the grace of dance before ballet went on its toes, and in the fire and fury of Medea’s dance of revenge Kimura made this blood-curdling story the direct antecedent of Samuel Barber’s score on the subject written almost 300 years later.

All Leipzig Opera performances are distinguished by the playing of its pit band, the esteemed Gewandhaus Orchestra. For this performance on 9 July youthful Vincent de Cort conducted with vigor. “You are a Prometheus!” Voltaire once wrote to Noverre. “You form humans and breathe life into them.” In like manner this recreation was a truly Titanic achievement.

Increasingly aware of the importance of outreach programs, the Bachfest this year devoted an entire day to events for children and families. High point of the day was a one-hour reduction of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” by Taschenoper Lübeck. The “pocket opera” production featured a mere six musicians, some of them doubling as vocalists and instrumentalists.

Jiri Bartovanec, Laura SiegmundFounded in 2005 by students at the Lübeck Conservatory and dedicated to “big opera for little people,” the talented ensemble brought kids on stage as extras and stage hands, and the entire audience was rehearsed to appeal to Pluto for the release of Euridice. (Moved by their apprentice musicianship Pluto pulled out a handkerchief and wept openly in response.)

While the “this-isn’t-going-to-hurt” approach that often puts classical music on a par with a visit to the dentist at American kiddie concerts, there was here no talking down to the audience — six is the stated minimum age for admission — nor was there any slapstick. Yet the kids that packed the small Schille – Theaterhaus just minutes from St. Thomas Church were mesmerized by the simple staging that depended on the music — not on carnival-of-the-animals gimmicks — for its magic. Indeed, so fine are these young singers that adults in the audience would have welcomed a complete “Orfeo” by the troupe, whose enthusiasm held listeners in its spell.

The production marked the 400th anniversary of “Orfeo,” the oldest opera in the extant repertory. This impressive cross-section of early opera documented the spectrum of musical expression in the early Baroque, while other performances stressed Bach’s role in bringing the age to its fullest musical flower. And having suggested that the composer’s St. Matthew Passion qualifies as music theater, an “extra” of Bachfest ‘07 was a master class, in which Peter Schreier worked with four young tenors on the role of the Evangelist in the score. Schreier, now 72, was the world’s top performer in this role during the final decades of the 20th century.

Wes Blomster

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):