12 May 2009
Verdi’s Requiem in Santa Fe
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
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.
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary the first week of May, the Santa Fe Symphony encountered unexpected drama in an attempt — ultimately successful — to present a festive performance of the Verdi Requiem.
First, soprano Kallen Esperian, after several days of rehearsal, came down with laryngitis and canceled Friday noon, with scheduled performances Saturday and Sunday.
Gregory W. Heltman, SFSO’s energetic founding director and manager, contacted General Director Charles MacKay at the Santa Fe Opera to see if his resources included a Verdi soprano on 24-hours’ notice. It so happened MacKay could help. He knew Christine Brewer, a veteran of many a Verdi Requiem, was at her home in suburban St. Louis recovering from a bad knee that kept her out of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Wagner’s Ring cycle. A quick telephone call, a fast favorable decision and the problem was solved. Almost.
Brewer’s plane from St. Louis Saturday morning was due at Albuquerque’s Sunport at 1:20 p.m., presumably allowing time enough to make the 60-mile drive to Santa Fe, check in the Eldorado Hotel, walk across the street to the Lensic Performing Arts Center for a few minutes of rehearsal before dressing for the 6 p.m. concert. But the plane, a victim of weather delays, did not put Brewer on the ground until 4:40, into the awaiting arms of the frantic symphony managers.
After a fast hour’s drive through the rain directly to the stage door of the Lensic in downtown Santa Fe, an intensely focused Brewer headed straight to her dressing room, unpacked her gown, accepted help with make-up, drank a liter of cool water, and was led on stage by conductor Stephen Smith, along with the three other soloists, at 6:40 pm. The audience was ready — they had been kept in place by a lecture and an award made to a venerable music educator.
Brewer looked composed and calm in a black silk gown with a colorful over-cape, and stood next to contralto Kathleen Clawson as if it were business-as-usual, which is about how it turned out, plus a little more. In January Brewer had sung, and recorded, Verdi’s great operatic requiem in England with Sir Colin Davis, and a month later repeated it with the St. Louis Symphony. She had it down cold, and her duets with Clawson were as well-honed as if she had been rehearsing all week. (“We listened to each other,” Clawson later said.) All the soloists’ ensemble work went beautifully, and the “Recordare” was radiant as the two women’s voices blended with rare elegance. Brewer’s fine-spun high tones, one of her great gifts, playing against Clawson’s mature, dark contralto provided an Aida moment, which is perhaps just what Verdi had in mind. Brewer was up to the dramatic requirements of the “Lachrymosa”, and triumphed in the “Libera me” with dramatic parlando outbursts, stunning fortes and ultimately a return to her trademark high pianissimi in the finale.
The last time SFSO essayed the Verdi Requiem was five years ago, the season of its twentieth anniversary, and at that time mezzo-soprano Clawson stood out as the predominant soloist. This year Brewer earned the honors, both for her last-minute effort to save the show, and her supremely refined and confident singing of the challenging soprano lines — pure opera, in effect, by the 19th C. Italian master of dramatic music theatre. Few sopranos I know combine Brewer’s strengths at present — exactly the qualities needed to make memorable this nameless operatic heroine. One has only to experience the “Libera me” as presented by a great dramatic singer to appreciate the generous measure of Brewer’s talent. This was Leonora or Amelia or Aida at her highest emotional pitch. Brewer’s unusually large physical size and a long-held preference for platform singing, will likely continue to keep her from performing staged Italian operatic repertory. Yet, her “Recordare” duet with the mellow Clawson left one yearning to hear these voices in Aida — a frequent point of reference for those who enjoy the Requiem.
Clawson showed a warm rather dark mezzo; if it did not project fully in the lowest register, her tone was plentiful and easy in the middle range and top. She was a worthy proponent of Verdi and partner to Brewer. The male side was a bit less impressive: Robert Bréault, whom I hear as a Britten-Vaughan Williams tenor, was a thorough professional even if his tonal qualities were not of Verdian stripe, and in the bass part Kevin Maynor was similarly earnest if lacking in thunder. Linda Rainey, who is ‘Ms. Choral Director’ of Northern New Mexico, had assembled various forces, the Santa Fe Men’s Camerata, Ken Knight, conductor, and her Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, which along with the Symphony’s volunteer chorus comprised a group of a hundred singers that was well rehearsed by Rainey and responsive, if not of especially distinguished tonal quality.
Steven Smith, for a decade music director and conductor of SFSO, presented a good standard performance of the Verdi score. Smith has a solid background with the Eastman School and Cleveland Orchestra, and still combines duties in Cleveland with his symphonic concerts each season at Santa Fe, as well as musical direction at the Brevard Festival. We are not talking about a Toscanini fire-and-brimstone Verdi Requiem, rather an affecting and touching reading of the score, well beyond what one might expect to find in a small mountain city in the lower Rockies.
Santa Fe continues to surprise.
J. A. Van Sant © 2009