25 Mar 2009
Venice's Variable “War Requiem”
I had been looking forward to it for weeks — really, for years.
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..
I had been looking forward to it for weeks — really, for years.
At last I had a chance to hear Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem live, and experience up close and personal not only the splashy dramatic fire, but also the immediacy and subtlety of the chamber aspects of this infrequently performed masterpiece. And. . .to hear it all under acclaimed maestro Bruno Bartoletti leading the reliably excellent orchestra and chorus of Venice’s renowned Teatro La Fenice.
And really, so far so good. No. . .make that “great.” The amassed forces were impeccably prepared. Starting with the flawless chorus, this was music-making of highest order, characterized by clean diction, awesome ensemble, crackling dramatic outbursts, and heart-breaking melancholy as required. Director Claudio Marino Moretti wrung every bit of drama out of his choristers, and did it without sacrificing accuracy of line or smoothness of blend. First among equals, the alto section particularly sported the richest tone I believe I have ever heard in a choral group.
The Piccoli Cantori Veneziani youth chorus under Diana D’Alessio was also highly affecting with its spot-on, other-worldly, off-stage interjections.
The orchestra, too, had a memorable night. The virtuosic challenges of the colossal score held absolutely no terror for them. Signor Bartoletti shepherded the huge core group of musicians placed on the stage, while Marco Paladin ably led the chamber orchestra in the pit. The thoroughness of the musical preparation was on display at the score’s every page turn with the complementary maestri tag-teaming seamlessly and weaving their disparate bands into a satisfying unified whole.
The stage was outfitted with a big handsome wooden box complete with Le Fenice logo, which only enhanced the lively acoustics. The lower voices did not always have quite the same snarl as the upper voices, but they always had finesse and fullness. Indeed, the complete palette of instrumental solo work had personality, the tutti segments had passion, and the group numbers drawn from the standard Requiem Mass that provide the work’s solid framework, were cause for rejoicing.
However, the heart of the piece belongs to the soloists, especially the two men who present Britten’s pacifist philosophy in the form of musicalized (glorious) poems by Wilfrid Owen.
Soprano Kristin Lewis was quite a “discovery” to me. Her ample, slightly steely dramatic voice seemed a little large at first for the work required. This all-out approach resulted in a couple of unwieldy phrases in the angularity of the “Lachrymosa,” for example. But later, when fire power was truly called for, Ms. Lewis hurled thrilling, pointed, full-throated tone at us, ringing out over the orchestra and chorus in full Geschrei. Just recalling the effect gives me chills all over again. Thrilling. Extra-musical-observation: our soprano was decked out in a socko black and silver sequined gown that dazzled without upstaging.
Tenor Marlin Miller seems to have the goods for the demands of this work. His rather full, lyric tenor is well schooled, his musicianship is quite fine, and his enunciation of the all-important text was clear as a bell. So why was his presentation so unpersuasive? He seemed to be singing “correctly,” cautiously, as if indisposed (although no announcement was made). I would like to think this good singer is perhaps capable of a more committed, more abandoned performance than was on display this evening.
And what to say about the soft-grained gifts of baritone Stephan Genz? I had quite enjoyed his gentle performance in Die tote Stadt at this very theatre some weeks prior. But truth to tell, Mr. Genz had neither the heft of tone, the gravitas, nor the diction to serve the War Requiem. “Bugles Sang,” his first utterance, came out “Boo-Ghells-Seng.” And it repeated. “Booooo-ghells.” “Seng.” And repeated again. It was all “down hill” from there. Or more correctly, “duh-ooon. . heel. . .”
Would any singer who is a native English speaker be tolerated singing Italian or French or German phonetically with a fiercely incorrect accent? (That was rhetorical: No.) We needed an idiomatic vocalist with the burnished tone and communicative gifts of Simon Keenlyside or Nathan Gunn or Gerald Finley. What we got was a Guglielmo in need of Berlitz. For a foreign audience perhaps that was enough. (To his credit, Stephan was intelligent, well-prepared, and worked mighty hard to put his solos across, but he was sadly over-parted.)
For me, the excellence of the chorus and orchestra, beautifully shaped under a seasoned Maestro, almost, but not quite, compensated for the missing poetry of the chamber songs. The thrilling live War Requiem reading I sought seems to still be in my future.