Recently in Reviews
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark
streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It
is that exclusive—you can’t even find the
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic
concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus
tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra
from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
25 Mar 2010
Eva Marton in Puccini and Strauss
At one point in her career, Eva Marton appeared poised to be the true inheritor of Birgit Nilsson’s legacy roles: Wagner and Strauss’s most dramatic heroines, as well as key Italian roles (Puccini in particular).
Ultimately the Marton career — which continues to this day — will not rival that of Nilsson’s. The two DVDs reviewed here give evidence of the power that Marton possessed at her best and of the weakness that kept her from truly assuming the Nilsson legacy.
Recorded at the Vienna State Opera house in 1989, this staging of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is one of the glories of live opera on film, deserving of eternal availability. The DVD picture has great clarity, despite the darkness of Hans Schavernoch’s set design. Other than the cliché of a huge statue head, toppled on its side, the set manages to be suitably representative of a decaying palace as well as an imposing, theatrical space, dominated by the mammoth body of the statue from which the head apparently dropped, draped with the ropes that seem to have enabled the decapitation. Sooner or later most of the characters cling to and twist around those ropes, an apt stage metaphor for the remorseless repercussions from the murder of Agammenon by his unfaithful wife Klytämnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus. Reinhard Heinrich’s costumes capture a distant era while sustaining a creepily modern look — part Goth, part homeless, part Spa-wear.
Director Harry Kupfer does brilliant work with the cast. Here Marton seems like a major stage performer. Her Elektra boils inside with hatred and disgust, but she can’t let it show. Marton’s impassive mask draws attention to the steely coldness of her eyes. When she recognizes her brother, Orestes, and knows that her wish will soon be fulfilled, she won’t allow herself conventional jubilation. Instead, she sinks back upon her brother and lets the fire die out of her eyes. Her dance of mortal joy at the end finds her wrapping herself in those ropes trailing from her father’s statue — she lived and died for him; there is no escape. Those who know Marton from her later years will be astounded by the firmness of her delivery — never wobbly, never shrieky. If we evaluate a performer by his or her best, Marton proves herself a great singer here.
Cheryl Studer finds a fire, too, in her Chrysothemis. Neither Kupfer or Brigitte Fassbaender will go for any ghoulish caricature for Klytämnestra, which makes her scarier. James King brings more of his heroic tone that one might expect at this stage of his career to the weaselly Aegisthus. Franz Grundheber is in fine form as Orestes, and Kupfer’s inclusion of Orestes at the end, covered in blood and both triumphant and aghast, ensures a shattering conclusion. Claudio Abbado gets a paradoxical performance out of the Vienna State Opera forces — both brutal and refined.
Five years later in San Francisco, Marton is just not the same singer as Turandot. She relies on conventional soprano diva mannerisms, but more damagingly, the voice has deteriorated. High sections are half-hooted, half-screamed, and extended notes flutter from semi-tone to semi-tone. Truthfully, a lot of Turandots sound like this, and many sound worse. Marton herself had established the measure of her abilities with the earlier Elektra; this is simply at a lower level.
The chief attraction here is as a recorded testament to the beauty and ingenuity of David Hockney’s sets. This classic production still gets trotted out (I saw it in San Francisco and San Diego in the early 2000s). However, film doesn’t capture its beauty and charm well. The stage picture is too dark, and frequent close-ups dim the theatrical effect.
Michael Sylvester seemed poised for a notable career at this point, and his Calaf has force as necessary and yet some sweetness of tone. Ian Falconer’s costume doesn’t flatter the tenor, who has a barrel chest and spindly legs. My sister and I had a debate as to whether Mr. Sylvester’s eyes cross at the high note of “Nessun dorma,” but only the wickedly curious will want to get this set to make their own judgment on that. The rest of the cast tends to the pedestrian — Lucia Mazzaria a forgettable Liu, Kevin Langan a prosaic Timur, and the singers of Ping, Pang, and Pong making their scene feel dreadfully long. Donald Runnicles seems to want the evening over fast, with many tempos just a bit too fast.
It is the classic Elektra for which Eva Marton should be remembered.