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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..
18 Jun 2009
Aldeburgh Festival — New Buildings, New Birtwistle Operas
Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s early opera, Punch and Judy, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968. Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out. Now Birtwistle is himself the pre-eminent British composer, whose work has long since become part of the Aldeburgh tradition. This year’s Festival opened with two Birtwistle premieres, The Corridor and Semper Dowland, simper dolens.
Like Britten himself, Birtwistle is fascinated by early English music. So his new music grows on ancient roots, much like the new buildings at Snape rising from the remains of granaries that occupied the site in Victorian times. The new Britten Studio is a minimalist structure, with open beams in the roof and rough hewn brick walls. Architecture as abstract art. It was a perfect setting for the austerity of Birtwistle’s two new works.
Semper Dowland, simper dolens takes its cue from John Dowland's Seven Teares figured in seven passionate Pavanes. To Birtwistle, the Dowland sequence is "unique in the history of music". The basic unit is a song Lacrimae, which is set in seven versions, with the same chord sequence, each only a slight variation on the former, so the whole flows endlessly like the tears in the text. "It's like making music into a three dimensional object", says Birtwistle, "like seeing something in different facets".
In a musical puzzle piece like this, simplicity is of the essence. Dowland played the lute and sang it himself to small audiences. Mark Padmore sings, accompanied by austere yet limpid harp, a lute writ large with deeper sonorities. At critical moments, low voiced murmurs from bass clarinet, viola and alto flute, then sudden lyrical flights on piccolo.
The Corridor is Birtwistle's latest exploration of the Orpheus myth. Again, it springs from a simple idea, a freeze frame focus on a single, fleeting moment in the saga, when Orpheus, leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, suddenly looks back. In an instant, he loses her and she's swept back into eternity. So Birtwistle makes the split second extend into a half hour meditation on past, present and future. He layers mood on mood, infinitely extending the moment, which once past cannot be retrieved. So don't expect a storyline or development. This is a different concept of time in music.
The text is by David Harsent, whose poetry is poignant because it's direct and seemingly simple. He wrote the libretto for Birtwistle's The Minotaur where the Minotaur's fierce exterior hides his innocent, childlike soul. An even better comparison with The Corridor is The Woman and the Hare, a 15 minute jewel Harsent and Birtwistle wrote some several years ago. Birtwistle has come a long way from Punch and Judy. His more introspective work is delicate and intricately constructed - like his fascination with clockwork and mazes.
Indeed, Harsent's text in The Corridor is particularly elegaic and beautiful, Birtwistle hardly has to "set" it as such, for the phrases and words flow melodically. Elizabeth Atherton's was nicely warm blooded and lusty, making her fate all the more distressing. You could "hear" the vibrant young woman who dies on her wedding day. I wasn't so sure about the film projections and dancing, though I can see why the spartan staging might need elaboration to keep an audience happy. London audiences will get a chance to see a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6th and 7th July.
But again, the best writing is for the male voice. As the poem goes:
"...there's only one word dark enough, one word as bleak, as cruel....to tear the heart, a word to blacken rain....to bring to ruin all joy or gift or courage...."
Orpheus cannot bring himself to say the word. Padmore sings the name instead, Eurydice, over and over, each time differently, as if reluctant to lose hold of the moment.