25 Mar 2009
Venice's Variable “War Requiem”
I had been looking forward to it for weeks — really, for years.
Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
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.