25 Mar 2009
Venice's Variable “War Requiem”
I had been looking forward to it for weeks — really, for years.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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.