09 Nov 2009
Philip Langridge at Wigmore Hall
As an interpreter of Benjamin Britten, Philip Langridge has long been esteemed as the natural successor to Peter Pears;
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
As an interpreter of Benjamin Britten, Philip Langridge has long been esteemed as the natural successor to Peter Pears;
his long-standing commitment to the work of Harrison Birtwistle has served the composer admirably; and as a sensitive, skilful communicator of the nuances of narrative through music and words, Langridge’s performances of Vaughan Williams and Schubert are justly revered. This carefully chosen programme clearly had great personal meaning to Langridge; and the Wigmore Hall was a fitting venue to celebrate both his 70th birthday and the achievements and joy of a life in music.
Framing the recital with Schubert — excerpts from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise — was a brave decision; as ever, Langridge’s diction was superb, but while he embraced the German language with ease and assurance, his voice no longer has the depth of tone and secure focus of old. Lyricism was exchanged for emotional intensity: the dynamics fluctuated rather wildly, as the tenor frequently resorted to a wispy head voice in the upper registers, an overly dramatic effect perhaps for these intimate songs. A few cracked high notes revealed the strain but, although the voice perhaps now lacks the bright flexibility of youth, there was no doubting Langridge’s emotional and dramatic engagement with the songs’ mournful narrative. Most successful were the sentimental, more restrained songs: in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the Brook’) pianist David Owen Norris’s delicate but assertive rippling motif literally conjured the natural world and metaphorically tormented the young miller with its ambiguous murmurings. Owen Norris was a thoughtful, responsive partner throughout this recital, ever alert to subtle nuances, enhancing — through dynamic gradations, rubati and ever-changing textures and articulation — the melodic narrative. Occasionally the dynamic contrasts may have been a little too sudden or exaggerated, the sforzandi a touch strident, but the accompaniment matched the drama of Langridge’s delivery. Fittingly, a haunting delivery of ‘Der Leiermann’ brought the recital to a close; here, the subtle variations of tempi produced a tension between the rigidity of the piano’s droning, bare fifths, the coiling right-hand and the plaintive melancholy of the voice.
Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge found Langridge in more comfortable and relaxed mode. This was a bracing interpretation perfectly suited to the folksong derivation and ambience of Vaughan Williams’ striking Housman settings. Tempi were perfectly judged. The brisk eponymous opening song was propelled by the string tremolos and dynamic, rocking piano motif which launches the cycle, and this momentum was sustained in ‘From far, from eve and morning’. Alternations of instrumentation — first voice and piano, now strings, then full ensemble — introduced a note of poignancy into the third song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’, most apt for a song that reflects with gentle nostalgia on loss and love. The members of the Doric Quartet enjoyed the narrative role played by the instrumental lines, the elongated triplets of the inner strings enhancing the mood of yearning tinged with resignation. ‘Bredon Hill’ is the emotional centre of the work: with crystal clear intonation, the strings’ slowly rocking, divisi chords created a remarkable, icy serenity, capturing the stillness and transparency of the bleached landscape as piano bells echoed through the emptiness. The ensemble gradually built up to a frightening intensity and Langridge, bitterly defying the tolling bells, spat out the final words of the closing verse, ‘I hear you, I will come’. This was superb ensemble playing, as Owen Norris and the Doric Quartet magnificently supported and complemented Langridge’s varied palette of colours.
Langridge has a long association with Birtwistle’s music: in 1986 he created the title role the opera The Mask of Orpheus and also starred in the 2008 premiere of Minotaur. ‘From Vanitas’ was specially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall; a miniature for voice and piano, Birtwistle’s sparse, delicately crafted score follows the long, drawn-out lines and accumulating images of the text by David Harsent, his long-term librettist. Langridge’s sensitivity to the sinuous, unfolding poetic lines was superlative; voice and piano intricately interweave, as a rocking figure played by the piano grows ever more urgent, reaching a tempestuous climax before sinking to a deathly silence: ‘the window a mirror perhaps, the room a wilderness.’
Britten’s Who are these children? demonstrated why Langridge is considered a master of English song. The riddling rhymes of William Soutar’s poems, with their Scots dialect and angular rhythms, are not inherently ‘musical’ but Langridge brought melody and coherence to these lines. He doesn’t project the text at the expense of the musical line — there are no ugly exaggerations or distracting mannerisms; rather, a relaxed unfolding in which musical and dramatic narratives are truly one.
The deeply appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall were not likely to let Langridge go without some ‘extras’. The first encore was a brief mock-tragedy, delivered with mischievous insouciance; this was followed by a boisterous rendering of a ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia Limited’, oozing ease and charm and demonstrating why Langridge is such a natural on the operatic stage. Both performers clearly enjoyed themselves. This concert may have celebrated the passing years, but Langridge possesses the energy and spirit of a young man, and such musicianship and generosity was justly cherished by the warm, admiring audience.
Schubert — Die schöne Müllerin (selection)
Vaughan Williams — On Wenlock Edge
Birtwistle — From Vanitas (world premiere)
Britten — Who are these Children?
Schubert — Winterreise (selection)