Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

A disappointing Prom from Nathalie Stutzmann and BBCNOW

Nathalie Stutzmann really is an impressive conductor. The sheer elegance she brings to her formidable technique, the effortless drive towards making much of the music she conducts sound so passionate and the ability to shock us into hearing something quite new in music we think we know is really rather refreshing. Why then did this Prom sometimes feel weary, even disappointing at times?

Sandrine Piau: Si j’ai aimé

Sandrine Piau and Le Concert de la Loge (Julien Chauvin), Si j’ai aimé, an eclectic collection of mélodies demonstrating the riches of French orchestral song. Berlioz, Duparc and Massenet are included, but also Saint-Saëns, Charles Bordes, Gabriel Pierné, Théodore Dubois, Louis Vierne and Benjamin Godard.

Merola’s Striking If I Were You

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer have become an indispensable presence in the contemporary opera world, and their latest premiere, If I Were You, found the duo at the very top of their game.

The Thirteenth Child: When She Was Good…

Santa Fe Opera continues its remarkable record for producing World (and American) Premieres with The Thirteenth Child, music by Poul Ruders, libretto by Becky and David Starobin.

The Sopranos at Tanglewood

Among classical music lovers, Wagner inspires equal measures of devotion and disdain. Some travel far and sit for hours to hear his operas live. Others eschew them completely.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]
12 Nov 2009

Hindemith’s Das Marienleben — Soile Isokoski

Hindemith’s Das Marienleben has a formidable reputation, but is rarely heard. Soile Isokoski could change all that. This cycle is a tour de force, but tours de force need singers capable of achieving them.

Paul Hindemith: Das Marienleben

Soile Isokoski (soprano), Marita Viitasalo (piano), Wigmore Hall, London.

Above: Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]

 

Das Marienleben needs an absolutely top-notch singer to do it justice. Glenn Gould championed the work but in many ways also stymied its reception because he underestimated the vocal pert. Soile Isokoski is the first really big-name singer to make it part of her regular repertoire, and to record it since Gundula Janowitz 20 years ago. She sings with such fervent sincerity, that the cycle becomes a statement of the soul, as well as a great work of art.

Sensucht lies heavily on Das Marienleben: Instead of writing about Jesus, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems focused on Mary. Her life may have been lived in the background,but her presence was crucial to the narrative of momentous events in the New Testament. Rilke’s poems bring out the human behind the divine, and are all the more moving for that. At the Wigmore Hall, Isokoski performed the 1948 version, in which Hindemith invested much time and effort. He was inspired by the Stuppach Madonna, painted by Martin Grünewald around 1518, when Europe was on the threshold of the upheaval of the Reformation. When Hindemith himself was forced into exile, the irony may not have been missed. He invested a great deal of time and effort in the 1948 revision, partly because of music theory, but also because he cared about the work. So much for the idea that musical “objectivity” precludes deep emotion.

This emotional commitment was the secret of Isokoski’s performance. She believes in it sincerely and communicates her love for the work and the ideas it represents. Hers is one of the loveliest voices around. She’s exquisite in Mozart and Strauss. She’ll be singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in December. Despite her megastar status, Isokoski has always sung music she cares about, even if it’s not commercially viable, which is more than can be said about some of her rivals in opera! Obviously she sings Sibelius perfectly, but it was she who showed how interesting other Finnish composers, like Sallinen, Madetoja, and Merikanto can be. She created the market. Her recordings of Finnish hymns weren’t made for glamour, but because they’re dear to her heart.

Das Marienleben is much like Messiaen’s Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, not simply because of the subject, but because it unfolds contemplatively. The very first song, Geburt Mariã, was inspired by a passacaglia by Biber about the Resurrection, so the whole cycle is, in a sense, built around it. The beautiful first notes on the piano flow through the cycle, reminding us of the ultimate purpose of Maria’s life. The piano is reverential, but the voice soars with suppressed excitement at the miracle to come. Rilke’s texts are lovely, but wordy, so there’s no chance for easy strophic setting. Instead Hindemith makes a virtue of the long, flowing lines, often using breaks within the written line, rather than at the end, to create a sense of fluid movement.

Mariae Verkündigung describes the Annunciation. It starts with the same reverential pace that began the cycle, but grows to a crescendo of agitation when Maria realizes what the angel means. Then the calm figures return, and Isokoski blooms with confidence, “Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie”.

The more distinctive songs aren’t the obvious ones like Geburt Christi but those where Maria faces challenges, as in Rast auf der Flucht in Ägyptien, Vor der Passion and Pietà. Theologically, these are key moments, but Isokoski also makes them feel intimate and human. Her voice is naturally pure and lucid, but she colours her words with genuine emotion, to express the depths of Maria’s personality.When Jesus turns water into wine, Maria rejoices, but her tears of joy will soon turn to blood. Isokoski illustrated the words “Blut geworden war mit deisem Wein” sensitively, “geworden” curling on itself, “diesem” and “Wein” stretching outwards towards what is to come.

The pain of Vor der Passion and Pietà gives way to tender reconciliation when Maria meets the Risen Christ. Now, her destiny is fulfilled, so the three final songs form a sort of inner trilogy which rounds out the cycle. Some wonderful moments here, when Maria, alone, faces “O Ursprung namenloser Tränen-Bäche”. These vowels were sung with huge, open-hearted affirmation.

When Maria dies, Rilke describes her passing “wie ein Lavenderlkissen eine Weile da hineingeliegt,” (like a lavender pillow that leaves its scent even when it’s taken away). Hence the confident, bright key of the final song, Vom Tode Mariä III, and the adamant ostinato in the piano at the end. “Mann, knie ihn, und sie mir nachund sing!”. Maria’s body is dead but her soul triumphs.

Because Das Marienleben isn’t famiiar, most of the Wigmore Hall audience had their noses buried in the text, rather than listening. But as my friend commented, “it’s not like we don’t know the story”. Isokoski’s German is excellent, and easy to follow although the way the words are set on the page in Wigmore Hall format, it wasn’t easy to find your place in the middle of lines if you’d been listening and needed to look back. Also it’s a long cycle, and some of the songs are six or seven minutes. It was a good idea to pause after the birth of Jesus, and to darken the hall between his death and resurrection, because it gave helpful structure, to the performance, which reflects the structure in the music. Nonetheless the audience wasn’t as attentive as they could have been, which quite spoiled the mood of hushed mystery. Performance is interactive, and Isokoski may have picked up on the lack of attention.

Isokoski and Viitasalo have recorded Das Marienleben for Ondine Records. It’s magnificent, even better than the live recital, and will become the benchmark as it’s so far ahead of any competition. Unfortunately the translation used in the CD booklet was made in 1923, and is horribly mawkish. The translation used at the Wigmore Hall was by Richard Stokes, much more lucid and closer to Rilke’s style.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):