29 Oct 2009
Ned Rorem premiere at Oxford Lieder Festival
Ned Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen received its European premiere at the Oxford Lieder Festival.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
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.’
Ned Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen received its European premiere at the Oxford Lieder Festival.
It’s strange that Rorem is relatively unknown outside the US, because there have been so many excellent recordings. There’s no excuse, Perhaps though this Oxford performance, by the Princes Consort, will put things right.
Evidence of Things Not Seen is a collection of 36 songs that flow together to form a whole greater than its parts. The first group of songs are optimistic, open ended. Rorem calls them “Beginnings”. “From whence cometh song?” is the very first line. The same questioning reappears throughout the cycle, expressed in Rorem’s characteristic rising and falling cadences.
“Middles” (the middle section) explores ideas more deeply, rather like development in symphonic form. There are some very strong songs here, such as ..I saw a mass, from John Woolman’s Journal. Woolman was a Quaker, and Quaker values infuse the whole 80 minute sequence. Indeed, the the title Evidence of Things Not Seen comes from William Penn. Rorem’s cadences are light quiet breathing, the way Quakers think things through in silent contemplation. Two songs to poems by Stephen Crane, The Candid Man and A Learned Man, provide counterpoint. The candid man blusters, using violence to impose his will.
Rorem chooses his texts carefully. Middles ends with a song to an 18th century hymn text by Thomas Ken which leads into Julien Green’s He thinks upon his Death. W H Auden jostles with Robert Frost, Colette with A E Housman. Mark Doty and Paul Monette write poems referring to AIDS. Jane Kenyon’s The Sick Wife poignantly describes a woman lost , still young, to some illness that keep her alive but barely sensate. In its own simple, direct way it connects to the final song, in which Penn reflects on the Bible. “For Death is no more than the Turning of us over from Time to Eternity”. Whatever the Evidence of Things Not Seen may be, following the journey in a performance as good as this is a moving experience.
The Oxford Lieder Festival often introduces performers and repertoire before they become mainstream. That’s why, for a small festival, it’s cutting edge, and one of the best ways to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in song.
The Prince Consort
The Prince Consort are something of an Oxford Lieder discovery, although they have also appeared at the Wigmore Hall. This is a lively, flexible ensemble which brings together some of the most exciting young singers around. Many are already quite high profile — some have been heard at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. They were represented tonight by the founder, the pianist Alisdair Hogarth, and the singers Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Nicholas Mulroy and Jacques Imbrailo (a former Jette Parker artist).
Their fresh, vivacious approach suits Rorem’s music well. The Prince Consort have just released a recording of Rorem’s On an Echoing Road. on the audiophile label Linn. It’s good. That cycle includes many songs showing the influence of English composers like Ralph Vaughn Williams and Roger Quilter, so it’s a good choice for the English market. The audience at Oxford was sparse, perhaps because those who don’t know Rorem assume that if he’s modern and American they might not like him. But Rorem is steeped in the European tradition and was associated with poets like W H Auden. Perhaps now England will be aware how Rorem has rejuvenated the genre of English song.
[Note: The recording Ned Rorem - On an echoing road by Prince Consort is available for download here.]