Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.

Götterdämmerung in Palermo

There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

Samuel Barber: Choral Music

This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Decorated archway, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, New York.
23 Dec 2008

The Play of Daniel — A Medieval Music Drama from Beauvais

Can we call The Play of Daniel an opera, or “music drama” (as this performance put it), when such terms did not exist, and would not exist for centuries to come when the piece was devised, around 1200, by the cathedral chapter of Beauvais?

The Play of Daniel— A Medieval Music Drama from Beauvais

Daniel: James Ruff; King Balthasar/Abacuc: Peter Walker; King Darius: José Lemos; Queen/Abacuc’s Angel: Sarah Pillow. Staged by Drew Minter. Mary Anne Ballard, music director. Presented by the Cloisters Museum concert series. Performance of December 21.

Above: Decorated archway, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, New York.

 

No professional theater culture existed at the time and we do not know what conception the medieval era had of theater, though we can be pretty sure solemn dramas had a religious basis (as they do in every indigenous theater culture) and that music was involved somehow (ditto).

The Play of Daniel, however it was presented in the reign of Philip Augustus (the surviving manuscript does not apportion voices or instruments, much less stage directions), was an early landmark in the work of Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica Antiqua, one of the earliest organizations to delve into early music and perform it with something like scholarly fidelity but also modern theatricality. Their Daniel had its premiere at the Cloisters in 1958, and was later filmed for television. That televised version, shown each year at Christmastime, was a joy of my childhood, when the Cloisters represented, for me, something of a dream palace. The staging, which based costume, movement, attitude, and primitive but graceful special effects on medieval illustration, was also magical – and besides, it was my first exposure to Early Music. The annual showing ended, alas, around 1969, when Channel 13 began to broadcast in color and assumed no one would want to watch a black and white film (they were so wrong!), and that film evidently survives only in a damaged kinescope – it’s not even on Youtube.

The Early Music revival has been one of the triumphs of recent times (its history is a grand book idea, if some author out there is looking for one). Today there are dozens of groups of every size touring the world with once-forgotten repertory and style, and Early Music concerts sell out from Moscow to Seattle. Once obliged to depend on academic day jobs, musicians can now make careers performing the work of once-forgotten eras. Yet the sophistication, the musicality, the wit of Greenberg’s troupe have seldom been surpassed.

Accordingly, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that first staging, the Gotham Early Music Series (GEMS) has given four performances of Daniel as part of a series of concerts presented through the year by the Cloisters Museum in the intimate acoustic of its Fuentidueña Chapel. No less illustrious a figure than Russell Oberlin, a founder of the modern countertenor tradition and a star of the 1958 production, sat, silver-haired and regal, right in front of me, and prefaced the show with some enthusiastic words about the treat in store for us. Another great countertenor of the recent past, Drew Minter, was the stage director, and hewed to the faux-naïve medieval look, in movement, attitude, costume, image, proper to the piece.

I loved the way the chorus, singing the explanatory introduction as they marched in procession down the aisle, gravely performed simple, book-of-hours-style dances, and the nasal whine of the king’s groveling counselors, and the flashy lions set to devour Daniel who, at a touch from the Angel, began to mew and fawn to be petted instead. I have no idea how the Writing on the Wall was done in 1958, but just projecting it up there did not have the magical effect of a bodyless hand actually writing that I recall from the film. (Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, is also nostalgic for that moment. How many people did that film introduce to Early Music?) The small playing space no doubt forced many compromises on the company – in the film, of course, the entire huge building could be used, and was – I remember King Balthazar fleeing from assassins, who caught and strangled him on the terrace, and the ominous invasion of what seemed a vast Persian army, and there seemed, in my recollection, more room for dance. Today, those who attend the Cloisters’ concert series must content themselves with an hour or two imbibing atmosphere from the museum’s impressive collection of objects and architectural elements, a fine way to wind up to or down after a concert.

Perhaps the greatest departure in this revival from the original was to eliminate the brief explanatory verses by W.H. Auden (no less), recited by a monkish compère figure (Alvin Epstein back then – who is still around, and recently played King Lear downtown), which kept us abreast of the story, scene by scene, in the happy days before surtitles. Minter saw no reason for surtitles – and he was right, although Daniel’s is, in a sense, the first story about surtitles, the Writing on the Wall. But the story is simple and pretty well known (I have seen Minter himself sing the title role in Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar). But I missed the breathing space between numbers that the verses provided, and the slower pace of the singing, and there were attendees around me who studied the libretto rather than watching the clear, simple action in front of them. Like the medieval artists whose handiwork was all around us, the creators of Daniel, both the ancient and the modern ones, did everything they could to make the story and its lessons clear; a child of six would have had no trouble following the action, but some adults evidently did.

All you need, really, is a bunch of singers trained to the demands of medieval a cappella style but able as well (as church singers need not be) to move well and to act. James Ruff made a stiff Daniel, but sang with a fine vibrato-free baritone. Much more fun was had by Peter Walker as doomed King Balthazar (sic, in this version) and, later, a reluctant prophet Abacuc (Habakkuk), dragged in by his ear to foretell a messiah, by José Lemos, a splendid alto countertenor, as the triumphant Darius, by the three whiny counselors and the two prancing lions. It was no surprise to see the names of two dozen well-known early music groups mentioned in the musicians’ biographies. Psaltery, rebec, shawms – the simple orchestration contained the usual suspects, except for the intrusion, during the concluding Te Deum, of modern toned chimes. The processions of singers in and out of the chapel and off into the echoing distance made wise use of the building and added medieval atmosphere to the occasion.

I hope Daniel becomes, once more, a seasonal tradition. It will undoubtedly draw new children of all ages to this marvelous repertory, and, at 53 minutes, it’s a lot shorter than Handel’s Messiah.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):