12 May 2009
Kate Royal at Wigmore Hall
Soprano Kate Royal is reported to have said that singing at the Wigmore Hall is “like a religious experience”.
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’.
‘[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.’
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.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
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.
Soprano Kate Royal is reported to have said that singing at the Wigmore Hall is “like a religious experience”.
The stimulating programme presented on 7 May, a sequence of 25 songs by Schumann and Brahms devised by the pianist, Graham Johnson, certainly established a cerebral, even ‘spiritual’ mood — ‘serious’ music-making indeed. Regrettably, in the event Johnson was indisposed but, while it took him a little time to become accustomed to the Wigmore Hall acoustic, Christopher Glynn was in no way a ‘second-best’ replacement. His innate empathy with this repertoire was immediately apparent, and his alert responsiveness to the nuances of the texts was sustained throughout the performance.
As the 2004 winner of both the Kathleen Ferrier and John Christie awards, photogenic and market-friendly, 30-year-old Royal has caught the discerning listening public’s ear and eye during the past five years, with acclaimed performances at Covent Garden, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. And yet, while the warm beauty of Royal’s tone and the serious, focused application of an impressive musical intellect were much in evidence during this recital, the end result, while technically skilful and at times emotionally touching, was rather ‘underwhelming’.
On this occasion Royal seemed to take a long time to get into her stride; perhaps this is new repertoire which she has not fully mastered emotionally or dramatically. The opening fours songs by Schumann, selected from his Op.107 set, certainly demonstrated the dark creaminess of the lower range of Royal’s voice, and on the whole the rendering was musically accurate (excepting some wobbles of intonation during dynamic crescendos or peaks); but Royal did not fully convey the full expressive range of the texts.
There is much turbulence in these songs of sadness and loss, which were composed in 1851 - a time when Schumann’s health was deteriorating as the pressures on the newly appointed municipal director of music in Düsseldorf accumulated. The composer’s own psychological instability and subsequent suicide are foreshadowed and embodied; in ‘Herzeleid’, downwards spiralling semiquavers evoke the insanity and death of Ophelia, while the unrequited passion and emotional distress of an unappreciated, overlooked servant girl is conveyed by the dark, descending bass line in ‘Die Fensterscheiber’. Unfortunately, at the start of the recital Royal was rather overpowered by the accompaniment; perhaps she was insufficiently warmed up, but she seemed to lack genuine engagement with these mini-dramas. Glynn tenderly conjured the escalating grief of ‘Die Spinnerin’ and the unsentimental loneliness of ‘Im Wald’, but it was not until ‘Abendlied’ — in which the poet, Kinkel, pleas from his prison cell for a cessation of human fear and misery - that Royal fully realised the despair and anguish in Schumann’s melodic and harmonic gestures. Here, the duo effectively controlled the structure of the song, creating momentum and continuity.
One weakness of the performance was Royal’s diction; consonants were shabbily neglected and there was no real evidence of insight into the texts despite the soprano’s obvious musical intelligence; at times the result was a limited emotional range and a detachment from the emotional core of these lieder. Neither character nor dramatic situation were convincingly conveyed in the Brahms lieder - ‘Liebestreu’, ‘Im der Fremde’, ‘Lied’ (Op.3 Nos.1,5 and 6), ‘Parole’, ‘Anklänge’ (Op.7 Nos.2 and 3) — which concluded the first half; indeed, despite the apparent ease with which Royal surmounted the technical obstacles, it was not until the final song before the interval, ‘Juchhe!’ [‘Hurrah’!] that she got into her stride and began to complement the joyful playfulness and exuberance of the piano’s energetic accompaniment.
Royal seemed more in tune with the emotional sentiments of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ [‘Poems of Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Op.135)], with which she commenced the second half of this recital. The focused, warm tone of her lower register perfectly communicated the sincere outpourings of the condemned Queen. For this listener, the musical and dramatic peak was attained in ‘Abschied von der Weit’ [‘Farewell to the world’] and ‘Gebet’ [‘Prayer’], where Royal’s controlled lyricism, accompanied by a greater clarity of diction, captured both the sombreness and poignancy of the queen’s last moments. It was an original and striking programming choice to ‘interrupt’ this regal sequence with Brahms’ boisterous ‘Murrays Ermordung’ [Op.14 No.3, ‘The bonnie Earl o’Moray’], a setting of a folk poem in which a queen mourns her clandestine and illicit lover. Again, Royal’s technical assurance fully justified the juxtaposition, as the soprano proved herself able to convey heartfelt regret through a range of idioms.
In the concluding songs by Brahms, Royal finally discovered a dramatic energy and colour which until now had been lacking; ‘Nachtigallen schwingen’ [Op.6 No.6 ‘Nightingales flutter’], ‘Der Frühling’ [Op.6 No.2 ‘Spring’] and ‘Die Trauernde’ [Op.7 Np.5 ‘The sad maiden’] demonstrated that she can produce a myriad of colours to match and enhance the dramatic mood, the effortless melodic sweep and the sheer beauty of her timbre perfectly conveying the lyrical sensuality of these songs. For a singer accustomed to the operatic stage, however, Royal’s lack of physical movement — she scarcely moved her arms throughout these songs, preferring to place the expressive burden solely on the voice — was a little disconcerting. This rather short recital concluded with a single encore, the traditional song, ‘Early one morning’.
So, although there was much to admire, a convincing personal response was not always in evidence during this performance. Royal can without doubt pass the vocal trials but she is not always the mistress of the musico-dramatic challenges.