02 Nov 2008
Wagner Duets: Nilsson and Hotter, Polaski and Botha
A few years ago EMI released a recording of Wagner duets with Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
A few years ago EMI released a recording of Wagner duets with Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt.
Perhaps it won’t be too long before EMI decides that release belongs in their “Great Recordings of the Century” series, but for now, their Wagner duet collection under that sobriquet comes from 1957, with the legendary Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson. Another disc of Wagner duets out recently, from the small Oehms label, features Deborah Polaski and Johan Botha in the major scenes for Tristan und Isolde. Both discs feature an established veteran caught somewhat late, and a rising star in the repertoire - but with the genders reversed.
Hans Hotter had been singing Wotan and the Dutchman for a couple decades when Walter Legge decided to pair him with the up-and-coming Birgit Nilsson (although she was near 40 at the time of the sessions). Nillson also sings Senta’s solo number, as well as those of the Tannäuser Elisabeth, the Lohengrin Elsa, and Isolde’s “Liebestod” (on a bonus second disc). The brief booklet note by Mike Ashman depicts the EMI release as a by-product of Legge’s frustrated desire to record a complete Ring cycle. The last 40 minutes of Die Walküre’s act three present a Wotan of depleted but still potent authority, with Hotter’s bass at times shaky and short-breathed, yet still commanding respect. Nilsson is in fine voice, but the characterization of Brünnhilde would grow as her career continued. It’s intriguing to hear the great soprano hold back her power to get into the characters of Elisabeth and Elsa. However, at times, her intonation suffers a bit. The voice in full cry has more impact, and both her Senta solo scene and the duet with Hotter’s Dutchman show her off well.
The conducting of Leopold Ludwig is more serviceable than distinguished, while the Philharmonia Orchestra sounds very good. The sound has some tape hiss, easily adjusted to.
Oehms offers a “super-audio” CD of Tristan und Isolde highlights, with very clean, crisp sound. Bertrand de Billy may not have built his reputation on Wagner, but he leads a warm, intimately scaled reading with the RSO Wien. The strongest attraction of this disc is the beautiful yet masculine performance of Johan Botha as Tristan. Here is a lover and a warrior, soaring high with total security. Botha has yet to sing the role on stage, and if he can be directed to be a livelier stage presence than he has shown himself to be in the past, he should present a formidable Tristan. Deborah Polaski, on the other hand, has sung Isolde for over two decades. On the plus side, she has developed a full-scale interpretation of a woman of barely controllable temperament, almost as fearsome in her passion as in her act one rage. On the not so plus side - the voice simply does not record well. She sounds quite a bit older than her Tristan, and the top tends to spread.
To stick to its chosen framework of “The Duet Scenes,” Oehms allows for some abrupt edits, especially at the end of the love duet. There’s no time for King Marke, either, or anything from act three. So those frustrated by the selections might want to look for another Oehms disc of Isolde’s other music, which presumably contains Polaski’s version of the Liebestod. Perhaps better yet, switch over to the Nilsson/Hotter disc for Birgit’s exalted “Mild und leise.”