Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

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.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

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.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

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: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘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.

Nabucco at Orange

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: Notturno

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.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

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.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

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.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

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.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

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?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

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.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘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.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

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).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

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 : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

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.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

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..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
26 Jan 2009

Pfitzner's Palestrina at Bavarian State Opera

Writer Jens F. Laurson reports from Munich, where a new staging of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina opened Jan. 19 at the National Theater. The rarely-performed 1917 three-act opera stars Christopher Ventris in the title role.

Hans Pfitzner: Palestrina

Christopher Ventris (Palestrina), Christian Stückl (Regie). Bayerische Staatsoper, Simone Young (cond.)

Above: Christopher Ventris as Palestrina

All photos by Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bavarian State Opera.

 

By Jens F. Laurson, Playbill Arts, 23 January 2009

The composer Hans Pfitzner, born 140 years ago, remains a controversial figure even 60 years after his death. Not his music - an uncontroversially beautiful, high-romantic blend of Schumann and Wagner occasionally reminiscent of Humperdinck, Schoeck, Schreker, and Schmidt - but the political persona.

Somewhere between stubborn, naïve and ignorant, he uttered unambiguously racist phrases, was apologetic of Hitler and blamed everyone but Germany for World War II. He parroted anti-Semitic thoughts yet he went to great lengths to help and save “good Jews” (as he thought of them) like director Otto Ehrhardt, Felix Wolfes (a student of his) and his friend Paul Crossmann for whom he rang up Reinhard Heydrich to save (in vain).

Pope_Ventris.pngPeter Rose, as Pope Pius IV with Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
He tried to ingratiate himself with the Nazi regime but was inconsistent about it and offended more with his arrogance than he pleased with his favors. The composer ended up ignored, if not shunned, by the officialdom of the Third Reich. He dedicated works to Jewish artists like Bruno Walter, Arthur Eloesser and Alma Mahler, yet was capable of writing a cantata to Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland.

Thomas Mann, who admired his opera Palestrina (which he attended at its Munich premiere in 1917), thought him an “anti-democratic nationalist,” Hitler spoke of him derisively as a “Jewish rabbi,” and friend Bruno Walter stopped communicating with him when Pfitzner showed himself unrepentant after the war.

We gather that he was difficult to like. Bruno Walter probably said it best when he wrote to his publisher, after Pfitzner’s death: “Have we not found in [Pfitzner’s] personality the strangest mix of true greatness and intolerance that has ever made the life of a musician of such a rank so problematic?”

But the music of Pfitzner is too good to ignore, and in this anniversary year, three German Opera companies staged Pfitzner. Chemnitz tackled the largely forgotten, largely forgettable Die Rose vom Liebesgarten in a very professional staging. The Frankfurt and Munich Operas work on a different scale, of course, and they tackle Pfitzner’s Magnum Opus, Palestrina.


The subject is the 16th century composer Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina who prevents music being banned from church service at the council of Trent through his ingenious mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, written under distress, angelic influence and breaking his writer’s block. A sub-plot has his student Silla decide that the old master’s traditional ways are not suited to his creative endeavors and plans to move to that secular sin-city of free roaming artists: Florence.

Ventris2.pngChristopher Ventris as Palestrina

This would be a fine opportunity to stage the conflict of art and politics and the tension of traditional and modern art in times of renewal. That potential was undoubtedly what fascinated Thomas Mann and Bruno Walter at the premiere. And indeed, it could be terrific sujet, but Pfitzner wastes more opportunities than he takes, and Stückl’s superficial production misses those that are left.

For a theatre director being in charge, there is surprisingly little coordination of the singers’ acting. The monochromatic stage and costumes - black, white, hot pink, and absinthe green - by Stefan Hageneier, are visually appealing at first, but they simplify unduly and become gimmicky by the time the three-and-a-half hours of music conclude.

Stückl, who by his own admission doesn’t much like Palestrina and loathes the libretto in particular, treats the religious subject matter and the Council of Trent - a-historical as Pfitzner may have put it together - as a farce. That tends to compound, not solve, the opera’s inherent weaknesses.

One of the problems of Palestrina is that there is too much text for the music and too little action for the text. The first act, 100 minutes, is overlong and its drama moves tediously. The next act sounds and reads like a secular second coming of Die Meistersinger. Instead of zooming in on the conflict of arts and politics, it is 70 minutes of clerical Barnum & Bailey in robes… at least in this particular staging. The third act, with strong shades of Parsifal, is most satisfying musically and a refreshing thirty minutes long.

Musically, matters are in solid hands with Simone Young, decisively navigating the Bavarian State Orchestra through two acts before losing focus in the third. But one can not help but wonder what might have come had the company managed to make this truly a Munich affair and lure Christian Thielemann - to whom Pfitzner’s idiom speaks so well - into the pit. Troubled operas need all the help they can get and Pfitzner’s music needs great performances to appear great. Merely competent outings smother its potential.

Some singers are outstanding in the otherwise evenly-good Munich cast, most notably the Bernardo Novagerio of John Daszak, whose controlled and comfortable tenor rings with clarity throughout. Christiane Kart brings a much-needed high voice to this opera without female characters, and her Ighino, the son of Palestrina, is bright and strong, with a young and tightly-luscious vibrato anywhere above her weaker low register.

There are many better operas more severely neglected and many worse operas performed more often. It’s good to have Palestrina back in Munich, but Pfitzner ultimately needs a more sympathetic and concentrated treatment to convince those who don’t already believe in the work’s flawed greatness.

[This review originally appeared in Playbill Arts. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Playbill Arts.]

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):