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I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
19 Apr 2010
Christoph Prégardien, London
‘Come sweet death … for I am weary of the world’: thus,
the opening lines of Bach’s aria, ‘Komm Süßer Tod’, from the
Schemelli Liederbuch, led us into the realms of the afterlife, and
encapsulated the central sentiment of this evening of songs meditating on, and
calling for, release from toilsome human cares.
In the programme notes, Christoph Prégardien calls for a more realistic and
trusting attitude towards death: “Today death has been pushed out of our
life almost completely … this is the reason we have compiled our
programme: so that people become a little more aware that death is always in
our midst. That we cannot ignore it, but have to accept it.” If one
feared that this programme — comprising a striking variety of styles and
attitudes — ranging from the baroque certainties of Bach to the dark
dreaming of the Romantics, from the hinteryears’ resignation of Brahms
and Mahler to the existential Gothic terrors of Loewe and Weber — would
be a melancholy and bleak affair, such concerns were allayed by Prégardien and
his pianist, Michael Gees, for their commitment, consistency and composure
throughout this recital was in itself consoling and reassuring. Through this
meticulously constructed sequence of lyric songs, narrative ballads and
operatic melodramas which ensued, the performers (who have spent two years
selecting the songs which best portray man’s ‘quest for the
infinite’) offered a unified and supremely controlled exploration of
contrasting psychologies, situations and dramas of human existence.
Prégardien immediately established a mood of confident certainty in
Bach’s aforementioned aria; his total control of line and nuance,
complemented by a warm, secure tone, perfectly conveying the unshakeable
convictions of the baroque age. The veiled quality of the second verse,
delicately ornamented by the piano, suggested the composer’s awe and love
in the face of the majesty of heaven; indeed, one of Prégardien’s most
absorbing qualities is the gentle warmth of his pianissimo utterances
— in particular, his tender but tangible mezza voce—which never stray
into affectation or whimsy.
The Romantics had a very different relationship with death: and following
such certainty of salvation came spiritual transcendence, in the form of
Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primordial Light’) from
Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and symbolised by the quiet clarity of
Prégardien’s pianissimo floating octave arcs which suggest the
desire for heavenly rest, where God ‘will light my way to eternal blessed
For the wanderers who populate the songs of Schumann and Schubert, death is
often not a welcome meeting with one’s God, but rather a blessed release
from the unrequited torments of earthly love. Schubert’s
‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’) allowed us to appreciate
the rich baritonal range of Prégardien’s voice, while
‘Auflösung’ (‘Dissolution’) offered Gees the
opportunity to explore turbulent realms in disturbing, deep arpeggio sweeps,
underpinning the earnest colourings in the vocal line with which the tenor
emphasised the ‘fires of rapture’ and bitter disappointment of the
protagonist. ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ (‘Die,
love and joy!’) by Robert Schumann, tells of a young man’s anguish
as his loved one chooses the hand of Christ over his own mortal hand; here
Prégardien and Gees impressively inhabited the speaker’s spirit: the
flowing regularity of the accompaniment disrupted by surprising modulations;
the destruction of dreams conveyed by poignant contrasts between upper and
lower registers; rubatos and syncopations revealing the painful yearning and
despair of the speaker.
In contrast, Brahms’s ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Alone in
the Fields’) presents a more soothing acceptance of human mortality.
However, the same composer’s’ ‘Wie rafft ich mich auf in der
Nacht’ (‘How I leapt up in the night’) reminds us that such
tranquillity is the preserve of those who are unburdened by guilt — and
here the piano and voice were true partners in the drama, for although
Prégardien tenderly reassured us with a vision of the white clouds serenely
passing across the ‘deep blue, like lovely silent dreams’
(‘Durchs tiefe Blau, wie schöne stille Träume’), Gees’s
between-verse paraphrases powerfully conveyed the torment of the troubled soul.
The enlarged dramatic canvas in this song initiated a passionate sequence which
closed the first half, in which the sheer terror and ‘nothingness’
present in Loewe’s ‘Edward’ and Max’s recitative and
aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz, which followed on without a
breath, brutally swept aside the certitudes of salvation with which we had
begun. Gees relished the challenge of capturing the orchestral sound-scape,
producing a kaleidoscope of textures and timbres; and while Prégardien
powerfully conveyed the tense anger of the protagonists, the more focused
context, and his own intense concentrated delivery, prevented these Gothic
dramas from straying into melodrama or bombast.
In the second half of the recital the figure of Death itself stepped onto
the stage, summoned perhaps by the piano’s tolling invitation in the
introduction to Hugo Wolf’s ‘Denk es, I Seele!’ (‘O
soul, remember!). At first, all was calm and reassuring; Gees describes
Wolf’s setting of Goethe, ‘Anakreon’s Grab’
(‘Anacreon’s Grave’) as ‘the heavy made light, in the
simplicity of a serenade’ — and indeed, his gentle piano postlude
echoed the touching sweetness of Prégardien’s evocation of the
‘turtle-dove calls, where the cricket rejoices’. Similarly, in
‘Der Jüngling under der Tod’ (‘The youth and death’)
and ‘Das Tod und das Mädchen’ (‘Death and the Maiden’),
Schubert envisages Death as an authoritative but gentle presence; but here the
deep baritonal monotone of Prégardien’s enticement, ‘Give me your
hand, you lovely, tender creature’’ inferred the ominous gravity of
the invitation, and perhaps suggested the repressed violence which was abruptly
released in Loewe’s ‘Erlkönig’ (‘The Erlking’).
In Loewe’s dark, disturbing song, the performers enacted a truly Gothic
visitation by a malevolent force which snatches life from its powerless victim:
the final lines, describing the swift homeward journey of a bereaved father,
his child ‘dead in his arms’, were simultaneously emotively nuanced
in detail and chillingly dispassionate in stance.
Another dramatic triptych closed the second half. An impassioned rendering
of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin was followed by
Schubert’s ‘Kreiger’s Ahnung’ (‘Warrior’s
foreboding’). The emotional tension of the latter was poignantly
revealed: for while the dead warrior yearns for the imagined comfort of his
lover’s arms—his earnest conviction ably conveyed by the deep
resonances of Prégardien’s lower range — Gees, hesitantly
manipulating the cadences, tellingly emphasising the final ponderous rhythms,
intimated the ambiguity which underlies the apparent certitudes of the
text’s conclusion. It was Mahler who was allotted the final word:
‘Revelge’ (‘Reveille’) from Des Knaben
Wunderhorn presents a desperate charge to an end which brings no
redemption, transcendence or consolation — in the words of Gees,
‘This is real death, when no one recognises you any more’.
Twenty-two visions of death might seem a dispiriting and emotionally
exhausting concept. But the masterful control of pace and mood, colour and
nuance exhibited here by Prégardien and Gees, made this an evening to rejoice
in human creativity and artistry, not to despair at its transience.