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

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s <em>Vie des femmes célèbres</em>, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France.
17 May 2009

Athalia — Lincoln Center Great Performers Series

You won’t get much argument nowadays — you won’t get any from me — if you call Handel’s dramatic oratorios operas in all but name.

G. F. Handel: Athalia

Athalia: Simone Kermes; Josabeth: Sarah Fox; Joas: Johannette Zomer; Joad: Iestyn Davies; Mathan: James Gilchrist; Abner: Neal Davies. Balthasar Neumann Choir, Concerto Köln, conducted by Ivor Bolton. Lincoln Center Great Performers Series, Alice Tully Hall, May 16.

 

Many of them can be staged, and are; I have seen stagings of Susanna, Samson and Belshazzar, among the “sacred” oratorios — not to mention the famous video of Peter Sellars’ Theodora and stagings of the “secular” oratorios, Semele and Hercules. Several of the sacred oratorios — notably Esther and Athalia, from Racine, and Hercules, from Sophocles — are based to varying degrees on actual stage plays. Too, Handel had written some two dozen operas before he turned to oratorio, propelled as much by poor management decisions in managing his Italian singers as by the English demand for musical entertainment in English — much as he missed the scenery and special effects, he saw no reason not to exploit his gifts for characterization and high drama, and much to add in the use of a chorus, which became affordable when he gave up scenery, costumes and ballet.

Athalia, his third sacred oratorio and the one, critics agree, where he broke stride into greatness, is the melodramatic tale of one of the Old Testament’s most unusual figures, the queen who usurped the throne of Judea, massacred the royal family (including her own children and grandchildren), and restored the worship of Baal to Jerusalem. After seven years, she was overthrown and slain by the one grandson who escaped the massacre. Although her reputation has been obscured by that of her mother, Jezebel, it’s a heck of a story, and Racine (modeling his tale on Greek tragedy) summed it up in one extraordinary day, as does Handel. (Sukkoth, apparently — the celebrations in the Temple are of a harvest festival.)

As presented at the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall by the Concerto Köln, Athalia was almost restive in its concert chains, straining to get out and be a drama at every twist and turn. All the fine singers were acting, and Concerto Köln made the most of Handel’s various accompaniments: the slashing strings (one section after another), for example, as the renegade priest Mathan reflected on what was in store for him now that God had defeated Baal, or the recorders that attempted to console the restless, guilt-ridden Athalia. Rhythms were crisp and danceable, and the tension of the story never relaxed.

It takes some skill to chew scenery when there is no scenery, and Simone Kermes, as Athalia, had it down — you wouldn’t want to get in her way. She was in character the moment she walked in: hair dyed red to match her flouncy orange and yellow gown and gold platform pumps, eyes starting from her head, every movement expressing a woman of emotional extremes. She underlined every extravagant syllable with voice and gesture (words like “gore” and “horror” got special attention), and her fruity, Germanic vibrato shook the hall. She looked and sounded not of the same world as the other singers — unlike her, mostly British — as was only proper for this alien, sympathetic-repulsive figure, tragic in her resolve to face the collapse of all her schemes.

The contrast this made with Sarah Fox as the confident (but not untroubled) Josabeth, Athalia’s daughter who has secretly preserved the last prince of the royal house, could hardly have been greater. Fox has a huge, bright, vibrato-free, clarion sound with perfect attention to every little turn and grace note, the perfect instrument for Josabeth’s passionate convictions — she could be a young Sutherland, except that her diction is outstanding. Josabeth is Handel’s voice of the idealist who will triumph — his librettist omitted the prophecies of Judaea’s decadence in Racine, which didn’t suit the mood in Oxford in 1733. Johannette Zomer was charming in the small trouser (well, knicker) role of Prince Joas, given to a boy in Handel’s day.

The men were not quite so exciting, so involved, as the women. James Gilchrist sang a thoughtful Mathan, humanizing the turncoat’s obsequiousness and despair just as Handel does. Iestyn Davies sang the role of the high priest, Joad, with confidence and lovely floating head tones, very much in the rather undemonstrative English countertenor tradition. Neal Davies sang Abner, one of Handel’s bass generals, such a joy, amid trumpets and drums, in the right throat — but though he hit all the notes, I found the notes themselves hollow, ill-supported, unresonant. His was the only second rate performance of the occasion, and he the only performer I would not be eager to hear again.

Two dozen is the maximum number I ever care to hear in a Handel chorus, no matter the size of the hall. The Balthasar Neumann Choir number twenty-five, but I forgive them, on account of the precision of their music-making and the subtle phrasing they impart to choruses of triumph, of prayer, of seductive luxury (when priests of Baal), of nuance to words like “groan” and “wound” — when Handel gets a word like that, he makes the music feel it, and the Neumann Choir made us feel it too.

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):