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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
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.
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.