12 May 2009
Verdi’s Requiem in Santa Fe
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
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.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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