Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force. These days, though, there are young people among the regulars : a sign that appreciation of Lieder excellence is most certainly alive and well at the Wigmore Hall. .

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

In the first half of the 19th century, Spontini’s La Vestale was a hit. Empress Josephine sponsored its premiere, Parisians heard it hundreds of times, Berlioz raved about it and Wagner conducted it.

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

An intelligent updating and outstanding performance of the title role lead to a shattering climax in Puccini's Japanese opera



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):