Recently in Reviews
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..
23 Aug 2009
The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière
Although the cutesy title sounds like something conjured up by a community
college marketing intern working for a mid-sized city orchestra’s ticket
office—where every concert featuring Wagner and Brahms gets the sobriquet
“Teutonic Titans”—don’t be put off by the moniker. This film is a brilliant adaptation of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals that is totally faithful to the composer’s music.
The development of opera in Italy is largely unthinkable without the
madrigal. Although the madrigal was a highly sophisticated musico-poetic form
featuring advanced harmonies and subtle texts of great literary value, it was,
after all, a choral form meant for unstaged performance. Yet the dramatic power
of the madrigal was such that monody—an early form of recitative--would
eventually evolve from it. What director John la Bouchardière and the members
of I Fagiolini have done is to demonstrate in a staged version the dramatic and
rhetorical power of Monteverdi’s madrigals.
The Fourth Book of Madrigals for 6 voices (1603) is perhaps
Monteverdi’s most famous book of madrigals because they were used by the
composer to adumbrate the principles of the seconda prattica, that is,
madrigals in which the composition of the music followed the lead of the
rhetoric of the poetry. The Fourth Book is also notable for the high quality of
the texts, consisting of poems by Giovanni Guarini (Il pastor fido)
and Torquato Tasso among others. The 19 madrigals of the book share an
emotional intensity expressive of the ebb and flow of a profound love. What the
creators of this film have done is to pair each of the six singers with an
actor and then to stage the performance as though it were six couples who
coincidentally are having dinner at a contemporary restaurant. This allows each
of the singers to have a dramatic foil, a person who is the object of the
subjective text. This is a brilliant conceit and it works spectacularly well.
What is even more remarkable is that this movie is a studio filming of the work
that was originally performed live on stage. It is hard to imagine the
concentration involved in performing highly chromatic madrigals with the
performers not being in close proximity, and at time not even facing one
The film introduces a personalization of the intense emotional drama,
alternating its focus among the various couples and even allowing for visual
flashbacks as the music unfolds. Thus, we can be given the “back
story” visually (for example, a past argument) as the couple in question
grieves for a split up that is about to take place. Although they have no words
to say, the task for the six actors is especially daunting as they must express
the rhetorical and dramatic power of the madrigals utilizing only facial cues
and body gestures and avoiding the overly melodramatic style of silent film
Another aspect of this film that I found particularly satisfying is that a
number of the madrigals are performed attacca. The elision of the performances
of the madrigals heightens their poetic and dramatic unity, even when the texts
of the madrigals are by different authors.
Madrigals of this sort were considered to be musica reservata, that is,
music of extraordinary complexity and subtlety that was meant to be appreciated
primarily by a highly educated and relatively small elite. As such, seconda
prattica madrigals are often a tough go for the uninitiated and especially
so for the typical college music appreciation student. This film makes explicit
the drama that is inherent in the music and poetry and can, therefore, do a
great deal to promote appreciation of Monteverdi’s madrigals.
The members of I Fagiolini sing with tremendous expressivity, flawless
intonation, and amazing vocal technique. So convincing was their performance
that it was not difficult at all to suspend disbelief at watching 21st century
couples in a restaurant sing Italian madrigals while breaking up before the
first course. This is a highly recommended DVD that should prove attractive to
both opera lovers and early music devotees.
William E. Grim