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 Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
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.