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”.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
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.
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.