Recently in Reviews
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.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
12 Dec 2008
Der Fliegende Holländer — London Lyric Opera, Barbican Hall
Much has been promised of London Lyric Opera. The newest company on the capital’s opera scene, it will collaborate with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to specialise in full-scale concert performances with high-profile soloists.
Plans are afoot for a Fidelio at Cadogan Hall in February
2009, and after that, Die Fledermaus and Der Freischütz.
It is unclear whether there might be an intention in the more distant
future to broaden the company’s scope beyond the German language, but perhaps
there shouldn’t be. Although LLO is selecting well-known operas, it is also
actively seeking out unusual and historically-valid performance editions. The
UK is virtually flooded with companies doing the same for Baroque opera, and
for Italian bel canto rarities, but there hasn’t really been anybody around
to take an equivalent interest in the core German repertoire — until
The company’s founder and mastermind is the Australian baritone James
Hancock, and this inaugural concert was the fulfilment of his long-held
desire to perform the title role. Hancock used to be a tenor, and his voice
remains higher-lying than the role demands; more worryingly, his voice simply
dried out as the evening went on, and by the end of Act 2 there was really no
‘juice’ left. Though it is the fashion these days to preserve the dramatic
flow of the opera by going straight through without intervals (as Wagner had
intended at the outset), the two breaks in this performance were a practical
necessity. Karl Huml seemed somewhat too high for Daland, too, and I couldn't
help wondering whether he would have fared better in the title role.
The performance’s unquestionable highlight was the British soprano,
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, making her role début as Senta. Lyrical and muscular of
tone, with an assured stage presence and innate sense of drama, she captured
the supreme emotional focus of Wagner’s early heroine in her desperation to
break out of her downtrodden existence. This ‘authentic’ performance edition
has the Ballad in its original A minor, a tone higher than the familiar key,
and it fit Jeffers’s athletic soprano like a glove.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is neither a natural Wagnerian nor a natural love
interest, but his psychologically intense and highly-charged Erik was a
fitting foil for Jeffers’s Senta. Their pairing was a highly intelligent
piece of casting, and their scenes together were in a different league to the
rest of the opera. If only there had been such chemistry between Senta and
Tenor Richard Roberts’s dopey characterisation of the Steersman was
engaging, though his opening song was something of a struggle; he was quite
plainly suffering from a cold, though no announcement was made.
The soft lyrical passage at the end of Senta’s ballad defeated the ladies
of the Philharmonia Chorus, but their male colleagues were a strong and lusty
Norwegian crew; I’m sure there was nothing wrong with those who supplied the
voices of the ghostly Dutch crew, but there was some nasty distortion on the
amplification system which piped their rousing chorus through from offstage.
Veteran conductor Lionel Friend — who was responsible for the research
into the performing edition — made some strange tempo choices, but the
RPO generally sounded full and energetic, a few cracked brass notes aside.
All in all, the performance would have benefited from better-balanced
casting; Jeffers was just so good that she showed everybody else up. And
better marketing would help ticket sales and thus financial viability; the
Barbican Hall’s stalls were quite full, but there was plenty of space in the
Circle and they didn’t even bother to open the Balcony. If they can sort
these things out, London Lyric Opera could be an enduring success.
Ruth Elleson © 2008