Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Bettina Smith, Norwegian Mezzo, in Songs by Fauré and Debussy

Here are five complete song sets by two of the greatest masters of French song. The performers are highly competent. I should have known, given the rave reviews that their 2015 recording of modern Norwegian songs received.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

A New Anna Moffo?: The Debut Disc of Aida Garifullina

Here is the latest CD from a major label promoting a major new soprano. Aida Garifullina is utterly remarkable: a lyric soprano who also can handle coloratura with ease. Her tone has a constant shimmer, with a touch of quick, narrow vibrato even on short notes.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017 - Winner Announced

Bampton Classical Opera is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2017 Young Singers’ Competition is mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard and the runner-up is tenor Wagner Moreira. The winner of the accompanists’ prize, a new category this year, is Keval Shah.

Il sogno di Scipione: a new recording from Classical Opera

With this recording of Mozart’s 1771 opera, Il sogno di Scipione (Sicpio’s Dream), Classical Opera continue their progress through the adolescent composer’s precocious achievements and take another step towards the fulfilment of their complete Mozart opera series for Signum Classics.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

Garsington Opera’s Silver Birch on BBC Arts Digital

Audiences will have the chance to feel part of a new opera inspired by Siegfried Sassoon’s poems with an innovative 360-degree simulated experience of Garsington Opera’s Silver Birch on BBC Arts Digital from midday, Wednesday 8th November.

Mozart’s Requiem: Pierre-Henri Dutron Edition

The stories surrounding Mozart’s Requiem are well-known. Dominated by the work in the final days of his life, Mozart claimed that he composed the Requiem for himself (Landon, 153), rather than for the wealthy Count Walsegg’s wife, the man who had commissioned it in July 1791.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Hans Werner Henze
18 Jan 2010

Phaedra at the Barbican

Most musical of mourners, weep anew!
Not all to that bright station dared to climb
And happier they their happiness who knew
Whose tapers yet burn through that night of time

Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra

Phaedra: Maria Riccarda Wesseling; Aphrodite: Marlis Petersen; Minotaur: Lauri Vasar; Artemis: Axel Köhler; Hippolytus: John Mark Ainsley. Ensemble Modern. Conductor: Michael Boder. Libretto: Christian Lehnert.

 

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He has awakened from the dream of life

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely…

(P.B. Shelley, “Adonais”)

Oh, those androgynously desirable hunter-heroes, shattered to death by their own horses, gored on a Boar’s tusks or eaten by their own hounds… what right could they do, trying to appease horny step-mothers and adoring goddesses all at once? Henze’s latest opera (his fourteenth) feels like a story that just had to be set to music like this, the first part telling the tale of the death of Hippolytus as related by Euripides, and the second based around the Ovidian myth of the god reborn as a part of the Universe.

Those of us who grew up with The Golden Bough are in our element here, the setting of Henze’s work dealing respectively with ancient Greece and the area of Italy around Nemi (close to the composer’s home) associated with the cult of Virbius, the ‘twice man’ who is restored to life at the behest of the goddess Artemis. The merely delightful L’Upupa was going to be Henze’s last opera - ‘I think that (13) is enough’ but in 2005 he was inspired to create a new piece on the subject of the love and death of Phaedra and her stepson Hippolytus, finishing the first act before a near-fatal illness brought about an hiatus during which his partner nursed him back to health, then himself died at only 63. Henze then went on to compose the life-affirming second act, in which Hippolytus is not dead but has ‘awakened from the dream of life.’

You can’t escape the autobiographical element - Henze lost his near-lifetime’s companion soon after almost dying himself (‘The coffin was ordered, the death notices printed’) so a Romantic work concerning the links between desire and love, between art and nature and between the living and the dead, was a natural outcome. For me, hearing Phaedra took me back to the Five Neapolitan Songs and the cantata Whispers from Heavenly Death; - these are much earlier works but they seem to inhabit the same area of the psyche, and deal with similar existential concerns, the setting of ‘Darest thou now, O Soul / Walk out with me toward the unknown region’ from the latter work very much springing to mind during the third part of the second act of Phaedra.

The music is above all spare yet Romantic, minimal in resources (only 23 players) yet often colossal in impact, and makes wonderful use of extraneous sound devices, especially in the scene depicting the earthquake - in fact you could hardly ask for more of that sense which Beethoven describes as uniquely Handelian, ‘of achieving great effects through little means.’ The techniques asked of the singers range from outright speech through Sprechgesang to coloratura, always in the service of the text. Lehnert’s libretto ideally partners the other-worldly sense of the music, and even when the sung voice is absent the orchestra still seems to be singing, as when the flutes and horns announce the naming of Virbius in phrases which seem full of ‘Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth.’

Ainsley_Phaedra--001.gifJohn Mark Ainsley as Hippolytus and Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Phaedra in the original Berlin production.

The performances are, as you would expect, world-class: this is after all the original cast and instrumental ensemble, and under Michael Boder’s direction they give as authoritative an account of the music as one could wish for, and which must have delighted the composer, who was present for the occasion. Maria Riccarda Wesseling was a gripping, sensual, passionate Phaedra, conveying not only her character’s cruelty and self-absorption but also her overwhelming vitality - when she was taunting Hippolytus you could almost feel the energy crackling around her.

The role of Hippolyt was written for John Mark Ainsley, and he inhabits it with absolute mastery, in sovereign voice throughout, his authority in the first act as commanding as his vulnerability in the second is touching. ‘Ich bin hier in meinem Anfang’ sings Hippolyt / Virbius after his rebirth, and the sense of both fragility and awe was superbly conveyed. This was as complete an assumption of an operatic role as you are likely to see on any stage.

Axel Köhler’s Artemis displayed similar commitment, in music written to test the counter-tenor range to its limits - it’s typical of Henze that this character should be set for this voice type, since doing so both confounds expectations and neatly links the music to Henze’s influences in the Baroque. Marlis Peterson was a fluent, statuesque Aphrodite, her avowal of vengeance with Phaedra one of the high points of the evening, and Lauri Vasar’s silky baritone was the ideal vehicle for the Minotaur’s sonorous reflections.

Will Phaedra become a staple of the repertoire? As a ‘Chamber Opera’ it requires fairly minimal forces, but its demands are such that those forces must be of the very best - indeed it is difficult to imagine the work being sung by anyone other than these artists. Its timing makes it problematic to programme, although one could envisage a performance alongside Britten’s cantata on the same subject - however it is staged, it is a beautiful, delicate work whose ambiguities may not have wide appeal. Henze is apparently working on a new piece at the moment, so we can hope that Phaedra may well not be his swan song.

In keeping with the sense of looking forward, this evening was not only the culmination of the Barbican’s Henze weekend, but it also represented the first instalment of the 2010 ‘Present Voices’ series, which showcases contemporary operas. The series continues on March 26th with the UK premiere of Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America (based on the play by Tony Kushner), and ends on May 15th with the UK premiere of After Life by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, a work which, like Henze’s, presents us with characters who are at a point between Earth and Heaven.

Melanie Eskenazi

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):