14 Sep 2008
The Second to Last Night of the Proms – Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
The Last Night of the Proms is notorious because it’s an excuse for jingoistic excess.
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.
The Last Night of the Proms is notorious because it’s an excuse for jingoistic excess.
Wear a silly hat, wave a flag and maybe the cameras will spot you. Then Mom will see you on TV 10,000 miles away. The Second-to-Last Night though, is the “real” Last Night for music lovers and it’s traditionally observed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Justly so, for there is no music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder !” All men shall be brothers. No wonder it’s the theme song of the European Community. In these troubled times, Schiller’s message is even more relevant. Since this Prom is broadcast worldwide and available online, it will reach wherever technology permits – a universal experience that crosses boundaries, bringing people together for a moment of communal celebration.
A pity then that the performance was so lacklustre. If ever there was an opportunity to let a performance rip open with exhilaration this would have been it ! The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus are so well versed they managed to create a frisson, but the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, under their chief conductor Giannandrea Noseda were rather laboured and sedate. The pressure of being so high profile must be intimidating, but this music is so vivid that it hardly matters whether it’s note perfect, as long as it conveys the sense of joyous, enthusiasm. One of the most interesting performances I’ve heard was by the West-East Divan Orchestra, some of whom are as young as ten years old. Technically they weren’t brilliant, but they understood the radical message of Schiller’s text and why Beethoven set it with such affirmation. The baritone Iain Patterson, was impressive, which is was good for his part dominates the other soloists despite the aesthetic that shapes the ensemble. His voice filled the stadium-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with ease. Still, the Choral Symphony never fails to pack a punch and the atmosphere was so charged with a sense of occasion that when the capacity audience of 7500 people roared approval, it was quite an experience.
Wagner’s Prelude from Parsifal can create an aura, like dawn, before a large programme, but here it was too studied to create any sense of anticipation. This might be fatal in an opera performance, but at this Prom, it was followed by two true relative rarities, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, segued without a break into Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang.. Yet again, it was the music that made an impact, rather than the way it was realised. Noseda’s right and left hands rarely diverge, favouring slow, imprecise gestures that emphasise the stretch of lines rather than the structure. This worked rather well with the Penderecki piece with its prolonged low humming and circular “wind” themes, sounds that are eerie because they are mechanical and unrelenting. If the horror in the piece was lost, merging it with Beethoven’s lament “Sanft wie du lebtest hast du vollendet.” gave a rationale to the muted treatment. But surely no-one can possibly suggest that being blown up at Hiroshima was “a gentle ending” ?