Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
23 Apr 2010
Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall, London
The abiding elegance and beauty of Christopher Maltman’s baritone,
complemented by the interpretative wisdom and experience of Graham Johnson, one
of the finest vocal accompanists of recent times, made this an evening of
assured musicianship and expressive poise.
The fourteen songs which comprise Schwanengesang (‘Swan
Song’) were composed by Schubert in the year of his death, 1828. They do
not form a unified sequence: there is no continuous narrative or singular mood.
But, that is in many ways the strength of the ‘cycle’; for it is
the variety of emotions and situations, often juxtaposed in surprising
sequences, which accounts for the unsettling power of these lieder,
many of which are themselves characterised by striking inner contrasts. Dark
despair is followed by hesitant optimism; cynical irony by tentative hope.
Maltman and Johnson did not always distinguish the full range of subtle
emotional tones and shades contained herein, but their control of form —
crafted melodic lines, flexible rhythms and well-judged tempi - coupled with
impressive technical assurance, more than compensated for an occasionally
limited dramatic palette. Opting principally for either a veiled, hesitant
pianissimo or a bitter angry forte, Maltman’s reading
of these songs was one of disquiet and despair.
Maltman’s tone is particularly beautiful in the upper ranges, and his
focused, sweet lyricism was immediately evident in the opening song,
‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’). Words were
breathed rather than intoned, vigour and passion reserved for a sudden surge of
emotion as the protagonist recollects the ‘crimson glow’ of the
beloved’s roses. The baritone’s large range was immediately
revealed in the following song, an authoritative reading of ‘Kriegers
Ahnung’ (Warrior’s Foreboding’), where Maltman plumbed rich
vocal depths to convey the horror of the death-laden battlefield.
Johnson’s appreciation of musical drama was also revealed: the flowing
ardour of the rippling brook of the opening song was here replaced by a tense,
sprung, rhythmic dynamism, subtle rubati and acceleration highlighting
the modulations between major and minor tonality which enhance the poignant and
ironic contrast between celebrations of earthly love and recognition of
Similar masterly control of pace was evident in ‘Frühlings
Sehnsucht’ (‘Spring Longing’), where the stanzas’
culminating questions - ‘But where?’, ‘But why?’ -
unsettled the calm assurance of the preceding romantic visions of the natural
world. A highlight of the Rellstab settings which form the first half of the
sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (‘Far away’), where the
piano’s haunting introduction and subsequent echoes of the vocal line
suggested an isolation and alienation which cannot be alleviated by the
poem’s somewhat convention romantic imagery. ‘Abschied’ ends
the Rellstab sequence, a surprisingly light-hearted ‘farewell’ to
the protagonist’s home town as he sets out on his quest; the emotive
inferences of Johnson’s between-verse phrases and, once again, the
contrast of major and minor modes, undermined the spirit of optimism and
prepared for the subsequent Heine settings, with their greater psychological
complexity and unease.
In ‘Der Atlas’ (Atlas) the lonely bitterness of rejection was
forcefully conveyed by the imposing strength of Maltman’s tone, laden
with massive despair, and the frustrated undercurrents in the piano’s
introduction and postlude. After such turbulence, ‘Ihr Bild’
(‘Her likeness’) presented a contrasting moment of oppressive
stillness, although melancholy and loss remained paramount: sparse unison
textures evoked the poet-speaker’s self-tormenting ‘dark
dreams’, oscillating with the warm richer harmonies as the
‘wonderful smile played about her lips’. Such consolation was
however tinged with woe and proved transient. Here Maltman’s control of
the text was superb: the words floated into the ether, revealing the fragility
of his hopes and visions. The light, barcarolle-like ‘Das
Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden’) offered only a short-lived
respite before the gothic hallucinations of ‘Die Stadt’ (‘The
town’) and the sorrowful seascape of ‘Am Meer’ (‘By the
sea’) engulfed us once again. Most impressive in these bleak,
through-composed dramas was Maltman’s alertness to Schubert’s power
of suggestion, and the performers’ recognition of an inferred narrative
in Heine’s sequence; for instance, the harmonic progression which
connects the bare low C at the close of ‘Die Stadt’ to the harmonic
transition at the start of ‘Am Meer’ was skilfully controlled. The
‘narrative’ culminates in the extraordinary, harrowing song,
‘Der Doppelgänger’ where Johnson’s ominous repeating bass
line and startling modulations provided an eerie bed for Maltman’s
agonized free declamations, as the poet-speaker is forced to face the
embodiment of his own misery and anguish.
The light-weight joviality of Seidl’s ‘Taubenpost’
(‘Pigeon-Post’), appended to the sequence by Schubert’s
Viennese publisher, the enterprising Tobias Haslinger, makes for an odd
conclusion; perhaps it was intended to provide symmetry — seven songs in
each ‘half’ — or to alleviate the distress of the despairing
‘Doppelgängeer’, much as ‘Abschied’ (with which it
shares rhythmic motifs and mood) lightened the distant shadows of ‘In der
Ferne’? Whatever the reason for its placement, Maltman found scant
genuine cheer and consolation in ‘Taubenpost’: clear in diction,
sweet in tone, but emotionally reticent, Maltman’s light baritone
suggested the insubstantiality of the protagonist’s certainty and
Maltman’s intelligent performance was technically immaculate. Striving
for extreme, unsettling contrasts, perhaps he and Johnson did not always
capture the full range of emotional nuance; but this was a masterly and