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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..
07 Jul 2009
Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was. . .
With its’ title taken from the composer’s Suite of English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, Tony Palmer’s film Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was
is a solid documentary assembled from interviews, rehearsal clips, photographs and other audio-visual materials to create a vivid portrait of the composer.
A Time There Was
is refreshingly straightforward, without artifice to alter the emphasis implicit in the documentation itself. The comments of family members are touchingly revealing. Some of the details are remarkably pithy about the environment in which Britten grew up, and Palmer is good not to editorialize. Details take shape within the context of the film. For example, Britten’s cousin Elsie’s comment about the composer’s prescience might sound out of place, but Palmer’s inclusion of it underscores some of Leonard Bernstein’s remarks about Britten’s music, and touches like these are entirely characteristic of the film.
Originally released in 1979, just three years after Britten’s death, this issue on DVD makes the film available to new audiences. (A comprehensive filmography is available at www.tonypalmer.org.) More than that, the release demonstrates the strength of Palmer’s film, which holds up well after three decades. While some of the footage in A Time There Was
has a grainy look, that quality contributes to the overall feel of Palmer’s film in bringing forward firsthand materials to document his subject. In terms of the concept and sense of the whole, A Time There Was
remains a fine, convincing portrait in film. Unlike some more recent film biographies, it lacks some of the aspects of the biopic by remaining close to the subject. The narrative is implicit in the images and pacing Palmer brings to the screen. The director is present in the presentations, not as a rear of a head asking questions in interviews or contributing a narrative to hold the images together. The images lead one to the other, and the narrative is found within the careful editing of the source material.
In addition the rehearsal clips give a sense of Britten working on his music in ways that others could not convey as effectively. In addition, the judicious selection of musical examples helps to anchor the film nicely in the sonic world Britten created. Not everyone would choose the same examples, but Palmer achieved a representative variety, which not only gives those unfamiliar with Britten’s music a useful introduction, but also serves to remind those who know the repertoire to return with renewed interest. For example, Britten’s contributions to film may not be the entire basis for his reputation, but the fact that he worked in this idiom is useful information. More than that, his efforts are not without interest, especially in the clip which Palmer used from the film The Way to the Sea.
At the same time, the treatment of the relationship between Britten and Peter Pears is sensitive and balanced. It is neither condescending nor apologetic, and that is as it should be. As appropriate as it now seems, such a balanced approach seems to be remarkable for its time, and the result stands well, decades after Palmer originally released the documentary.
While a fine body of primary and secondary materials exist in print to document Britten’s life and works, this documentary brings certain aspects of his career to life in ways that film does best. To Palmer’s credit, his films on Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Igor Stravinsky, and others have earned his praise, and the release on DVD of the present documentary about Benjamin Britten stands well with the others. A solid film when it was first issue, this newly issued DVD continues to make available an important and engaging resource on Britten.
James L. Zychowicz