Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
18 Dec 2007
Belfast welcomes a first-rate Messiah
If Belfast in Northern Ireland isn’t a city that immediately springs to mind as a centre of musical excellence then it’s not for want of talent, initiative and professionalism within its cultural community.
It is also a
city busy re-inventing itself after decades of internecine strife and is now
buzzing with the optimism and investment that is part of the “peace
dividend”. At a time of year when many cities in the UK and USA are
churning out moderate and sometimes frankly embarrassing renditions of
Handel’s great work it was a delight to see last Saturday night that the
Ulster Orchestra, under the forward-thinking guidance of Chief Executive
David Byers, had invited a top flight international conductor with excellent
baroque credentials to meld the undoubted talents of its musicians and chorus
with some world class soloists.
Martin Haselböck holds the titles of Vienna Court Organist (shades of
Hapsburg splendour there) and Professor of Organ at the University of Vienna,
but it is his work throughout Europe and the USA (he’s recently been
appointed Music Director of the baroque “Musica Angelica” in Los Angeles)
as a conductor of baroque opera and orchestras that he is best known perhaps.
With just a couple of days of rehearsal with a slimmed-down Ulster Orchestra
and Belfast Philharmonic Choir under Christopher Bell, he obviously gelled
most satisfactorily with both, as on both nights before full houses there was
evidence of like minds working together to produce a nimble, but supremely
eloquent rendition of this iconic work. The modern instrument orchestra
played with great Handelian style and flourish without ever over-doing the
baroque gesture, whilst the choir was almost immaculate in both intonation
and ensemble, with special mention going to the alto section for a
particularly creamy tone. No fuzzy diction in the faster passages, crisp
enunciation throughout, and a sense of true pleasure in singing came though
loud and clear. Messiah is a wonderful platform for solo excellence, but it
stands or falls by the quality of its less starry musicians, and Ulster has
every reason to be proud of its achievements here – they stand comparison
with many higher-profile European ensembles.
With this sort of solid musicianship behind them, it was inevitable that
the soloists would have to shine and really live up to their individual
billings and we were not disappointed, although on the second night there was
perhaps a slightly less ebullient start to proceedings.
Young British tenor Benjamin Hulett is, like his colleagues Deborah York
and David DQ Lee, now based in Germany and his warm, agile voice has been
noticed there in a range of baroque and classical repertoire. At the
Waterfront Hall last night his ease of production was particularly noticeable
in the Part Two recitatives and arias such as “Behold and see if there be
any sorrow” with some lovely unforced high notes being balanced by darker
The one singer in the group who might be termed non-specialist in the
baroque was the American baritone Randall Scarlata. However, he had no
trouble in fitting into this sound world and indeed demonstrated a similar
degree of agility in the coloratura as his colleagues, plus showing some
impressive colouring and expression in the more passionate arias, “Why do
the nations so furiously rage together” being a prime example.
With the first alto aria “But who may abide” the Belfast crowd got
their first taste of the highly promising young countertenor David DQ Lee,
who made such an impression this year in the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the
World competition. Just a couple of weeks previously they had enjoyed the
more mature talents of Germany’s Andreas Scholl, and in the young
Canadian-Korean’s voice local informed opinion found a fascinating
comparison to enjoy. Lee’s instrument is more in the modern American
tradition of countertenor vocal production, with a warmer, more full-blooded
sound than the English/Germanic one, and his operatic experience to date
appears to colour his interpretations of these classic alto/mezzo arias,
although always with good taste and refinement of line and ornament. Some
elegant phrasing and soft, exquisitely-held cadential notes in “He was
despised” were particularly impressive.
Deborah York’s Handelian credentials are well known and respected
worldwide and if we have heard her less frequently in the UK recently, it is
more due to her present residence in Berlin than any lack of demand within in
these shores. Her bell-like, almost vibrato-free, soprano is not particularly
large, but it has the ability to ping to the farthest corners of a big house,
and the 1800 seats of the Waterfront held no terrors for her. She sang “I
know that my redeemer liveth” with a particularly glistening tone and was
an intriguing contrast to Lee’s more vibrant one in the duet “He shall
feed his flock”.
With music and singing of this standard, Belfast and the Ulster Orchestra
are up there with the best in Europe and America and Handel was well-served
Sue Loder © December 2007