20 Jun 2009
Bach's St. Matthew Passion at BAM
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
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..
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
He does not seem to have had any interest in the operatic form and, too, he never lived in a major court city (such as Dresden or Berlin), where an opera company would have been part of any composer’s focus — much less an urban center with its own opera tradition, such as Hamburg, Venice or London. Why, then, would we want to have one of his grander compositions — in this case, the St. Matthew Passion — enacted on stage, with the singers playing parts, when Bach seems to have intended the music and the message to reach our ears without benefit of stage pictures at all?
Handel’s oratorios are sometimes based on stage plays (Esther, Athalia, Hercules), and the laws against staging Bible stories in England were only withdrawn in the twentieth century — the arguments for presenting them fully staged are clear and often convincing, as are staged productions. Besides, Handel had plenty of stage experience and knew how to run the machine as well as anybody. Bach never got that experience.
What has been achieved in Jonathan Miller’s long-celebrated staging of St. Matthew, recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is an emphasis on the story to vie with the music, an urgency to the unfolding drama, an intensification of the (perhaps obscure) message of the crucifixion. The singers are acting, and they are catching our eyes, and they are putting a force behind the meaning of the music that is rare in even the most intense concert or church performance — they are underlining the theatricality of ritual, the ritual nature of theater — they are pulling us into an event of two thousand years ago with the intent of obliging us to think about it, take it seriously, of not permitting us to pass it off, whether we agree with Bach’s (and St. Matthew’s) interpretation or not. Further to bring it home to an Anglophone audience, the work is sung not in Bach’s German but in Robert Shaw’s singable English translation.
Since the singers are in street clothes of our era (who ever thought of Jesus as a rather pudgy fellow in a red sweatshirt? — the dignified Curtis Streetman), the result is to make the story very “lived,” very immediate, to highlight the emotions of which Bach’s melodies sing. My date, a Christian lady of a certain age, said it added to her appreciation of the story that so many of the chorales were hymns she is used to singing in church. I associate them with concerts of Bach — but perhaps this ties us to something like the feelings of the audience for the original classical tragedies, when the Aeschylean chorus interrupts the action to sing of some relevant myth or other. We were getting an active story, portrayed by modern-dress “actors,” while the chorus gave us their asides as well as their active participation in the drama’s many small roles. But this theatricality was intentionally undercut, not only by costume but by positioning — the players, orchestra and singers, sat in the center of the stage, and audience members were seated around them, indistinguishable — except they were the ones with programs. We were asked to see this as a tale of the people, of ourselves, being told among ourselves, by performers who were also ourselves. Theater and ritual alike were deemphasized.
We could imagine that we were in Jerusalem that holy week, seeing these things as they happened — as Bach perhaps wished us to imagine ourselves. This called for singers (chorus as well as soloists) capable of acting out the story as well as singing it, and the self-deception allowing us to imagine we could sing as well as Rufus Müller (the Evangelist), Suzie LeBlanc and Daniel Taylor. I mention LeBlanc and Taylor particularly, because I am familiar with their work in various early music venues, and because both of them were exceptionally fine in their arias in St. Matthew: clear, focused voices so clear and full of belief as to give the illusion they were singing at no more than conversational volume.
For believers, I imagine, this approach would pack a thrilling punch. For those of any faith who believe in Bach and in the expressive possibilities of the voice, it was a joy to be part of so powerful a performance.