08 Dec 2008
Elektra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
Strauss, world-famous, by 1907, for his orchestra-straining tone poems and, furthermore, the arch-hero-villain of the opera stage for his Salome, was looking for something still more monstrous, more gut-wrenching and soul-stopping and blood-chilling for a sequel — and having, in Elektra, explored ancient history’s most dysfunctional family, drew back from the pandemoniac abyss for the remainder of his long, largely placid career.
Elektra is extreme opera-going, its single act of an adamantine intensity and focus. And if opera companies can distract you by doing something grand or monstrous with the sets or the costumes or the final matricidal dance of triumph by the shattered, emotionally eviscerated heroine, to give the thing in concert, with nothing between you and the musical shock but a titling machine (which, if anything, enhances the horror of the story, the everyday terms of hate and vengeance), calls for a cast, an orchestra, a conductor willing to submit to the demands of horror to produce art.
The four performances of Elektra given by the New York Philharmonic this month achieved that horror, that intensity, that focus, that elevating shock. It was a performance to send chills up the spine. And, though concert it was, it was in a sense staged, for there was a bit of playing area around the conductor (and a ledge stage left for the serving maids and other walk-on parts — each with its brief but extreme demands), and the singers clearly had acted these roles before and gave us thrilling, fully acted performances (the final dance aside) of their ghastly roles.
Loren Maazel was the hero of the hour, a man in total control of his material and his instrument (hundred-headed, like the primeval giants mastered by Zeus). Each taut rhythm, each gristly underlying motif had its crisp, proper place, and yet each one sounded wild, impulsive, impromptu when it came; each bark or bleat or snarl of untamed animal concealed within the score (I’d never noticed before how many there are): dogs baying, wolves howling, cows pleading as they are rushed to slaughter, carrion birds exulting, snakes twining, horses screaming (they are said to have torn Orestes apart), to say nothing of the nameless horrors that fill Clytemnestra’s dreams (described by her in succulent, gruesome detail, as if confided not to a daughter but a psychoanalyst with an unfortunate agenda) and furies of every variety filling the air with contagious hysteria. Each accent of the stage action, illustrated by the score, fell into place with the implacable precision of one’s secret terrors. The orchestra played like gods of our inner underworlds, knowing just where to stretch and threaten and pretend to console.
Deborah Polaski, who has sung most of the more haggard ladies of the heroic repertory, from Kundry to Brunnhilde, knows where the dramatic hysteria lies in the title role and where it can relax. Her looks of scorn, of pretend sympathy, of self-pity when the return of Orestes recalls her to the innocent girl she once was enhanced her vocal portrayal of these facets of character. Her voice is still in fine shape, only the whispers of the duet with Orestes betraying a certain wear and tear. Never before had I noticed how very similar the sexless Elektra is to her artistic sister, Salome — another innocent who takes vengeance on the world for too terrible, too abrupt a knowledge of the evil lurking in a mother’s soul, a stepfather’s lust, a cruel, selfish society.
Anne Schwanewilms, who has made a name for herself singing Strauss and his contemporaries in such European capitals as Berlin, London and Chicago, sang Chrysothemis. It was especially enjoyable to note the interaction between her and Polaski, the latter’s contempt, the former’s exasperation and “must-she-go-on-like-this?” glances to heaven and earth to save her from her manic sister. She is a tall, handsome woman with a clear but light soprano, not an instrument (I would guess) to hold its own with the orchestra-combating extremes of Wagner or Verdi or even Strauss (Ariadne, say) but very right for Strauss’s soaring, less earthy roles: the Marschallin, Arabella, Aithra, Daphne. Chrysothemis’s yearning for simple life, her horror of the mythic emotions of the rest of her family, are intended to set those emotions in proper context, and she sang them with the feeling of a woman who knows she is trapped: she has mythologized the ordinary, and she lets us feel the pleasure of not being stuck in an epic ourselves.
Jane Henschel sang Clytemnestra. The role — a woman slowly being driven mad by guilt and apprehension — is often performed with an eldritch wreck of a voice, but Henschel, who has a beautiful low mezzo of heroic size (her Met debut was as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten), reminded us of the lady’s past as a queen and a woman of passion; she did not wallow in sickly torment but projected her fear, her confusion, her tragedy in graceful, phrases that lost nothing in shock value by being beautiful. Elektra can see only evil in her mother, but Strauss saw something else, something once noble and womanly, the woman who gave birth to beautiful daughters, and Henschel gave us that woman as no Clytemnestra of my experience has done since Christa Ludwig.
The lesser roles were cast with care. Julian Tovey, making his New York debut, sings with a cool glamour but did not quite equal the ominous alarm awakened by the brasses at Orestes’s appearance, and Richard Margison sang ably but somewhat missed the comical quality that James King brought to the part in his final New York appearance, as Aegisthus in a concert Elektra at Carnegie Hall — a comedy the more troubling because we know he will be murdered the moment he leaves the stage. Among the many small parts, I especially enjoyed Matt Boehler as Orestes’s nervous tutor and Linda Pavelka’s surging phrases among the usually too-anonymous maidservants.
This concert will be repeated on Tuesday and Saturday, and broadcast on WQXR on December 18.