Recently in Performances
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
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.
13 Jul 2008
Grant Park Music Festival: “20th-Century Masters.”
The concert “20th-Century Masters,” presented by the Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago on 27 and 28 June 2008 featured several pieces performed for the first time under the auspices of the Festival.
The first half of the
program was devoted to those very works new to this venue: The Fantasia
on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams was
followed by Les Illuminations by Benjamin Britten, here sung by
Karina Gauvin with accompanying string orchestra. Both works were given
thoughtful and well-focused performances under the direction of Carlos
Kalmar, Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. After
intermission Béla Bártok’s Concerto for Orchestra added yet
another dimension to the variety encompassed in this program of innovative
works composed during the first five decades of the past century.
The soft beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia indicated,
from the start, a controlled and sensitive performance by the string sections
under Kalmar’s leadership. The clarity of playing by individualized
segments emphasized the effect of groups within a larger composition. In the
first part of the piece the alternations between smaller string groups and
full orchestra were seamless. As an ensemble, the players succeeded in
emphasizing the harmonic complexity of Vaughan Williams’s own variations
balanced against the theme derived from Tallis. During the middle section of
the Fantasia the solo playing, especially by the lead violist and
principal violinist, achieved a thematic counterpoint and repetition as
echoed by other players with successive support from the whole orchestra.
Just as individual lines were varied leading into the final segment, one
could sense Kalmar’s shaping of the gradual descent into a distended
conclusion. A final flourish of melodic repeat by soloists as well as the
full orchestra moved with great effect toward the inexorable and fittingly
The following work in the program, Britten’s Les Illuminations,
was noteworthy for its committed performances by both vocal soloist and
accompanying players. From the first declaration of the repeated verse
“J’ai seul la clef de cette parade” (“I alone have the key to this
parade”) Karina Gauvin established a tone of authority and privileged
vision of the world about which she sang. Set to a selection of texts derived
from two poetic cycles by Arthur Rimbaud, Britten chose poems which move in
tone from that of an ecstatic visionary to a mood of dejected resignation.
Gauvin used her secure vocal range to stunning effect in order both to
comment with the ironic distance of an observer’s voice and to fill out
individual roles or types portrayed in the vision she narrated. After the
introductory “Fanfare,” distinguished by Gauvin’s memorable phrasing
and the violin’s solo, the extended section “Villes” (“Towns”)
depicted humanity caught up in both progress and decay as a symbol of the
contemporary city. As she intoned here the litany of contrasts between the
ancient and the modern, Gauvin accelerated in tempo to catch the near
breathless depiction of lyrical complexity. While hovering above society in
the poem “Phrase” (“Strophe”), the soprano’s quiet introductory
tones were capped by the impeccable high notes of the concluding “et je
danse” (“and now I dance”). Gauvin adapts her voice to the spirit of
each piece, so that she gave an, at times, bell-like rendition to the poem
“Antique” (“Antiquity”), whereas softer, more lyrical phrasing was
evident in “Royauté” (“Royalty”). The movements of a boat’s prow
rising and falling in “Marine” (“Seascape”) were effectively matched
by Gauvin’s effortless scales and runs, the piece ending with a single,
emphatic note on the last vowel of “tourbillons de lumière”
(“whirlpools of light”). The struggles between elemental nature and human
efforts, foolish and tawdry, come to a resolution in the final two poems,
“Parade” and “Départ” (“Departure”). In the first of these
pieces Gauvin’s communication of emotion through song was illustrated
repeatedly. Her skill at acting was also clear in a phrase such as “la
grimace enragée” (“the furious grimace”), in which rage seemed to
suffuse her glance. The song ended with Kalmar’s especially sensitive
direction of the strings supporting Gauvin in the last repetition of the
“key to this parade.” The concluding poem “Départ” gave the singer
yet further opportunity to display lyrical differentiation as tempos slowed
gradually toward a resigned statement of weariness in the phrase “Assez
connu” (“Enough known”). It should be noted here that Gauvin sang the
text of the entire work from memory.
The final piece of the evening, Bártok’s Concerto for
Orchestra, was given a masterful interpretation under Kalmar’s
direction. After a subdued start in the opening Andante, individual
sections of the orchestra blended effectively without sounding overly
controlled. The string section was brought to a shimmer before the dramatic
ending of the first movement. In the second movement, Allegretto
scherzando, the paired instruments played in skillful duets, the
bassoons standing out here especially. The final three movements, each shaped
in keeping with Bártoks’s markings, showcased individual groups of
instruments as punctuated by sweeping phrases from contrasting sections of
the orchestra. The intensification of the final movement was not only
credible, it also brought the individual sections back to a unified
orchestral force. The performance was a fitting conclusion to the evening as