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

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

John Joubert's Jane Eyre

Librettists have long mined the literature shelves for narratives that are ripe for musico-dramatic embodiment. On the whole, it’s the short stories and poems - The Turn of the Screw, Eugene Onegin or Death in Venice, for example - that best lend themselves to operatic adaptation.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Through Life and Love: Louise Alder sings Strauss

Soprano Louise Alder has had an eventful few months. Declared ‘Young Singer of the Year’ at the 2017 International Opera Awards in May, the following month she won the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

A Master Baritone in Recital: Sesto Bruscantini, 1981

This is the only disc ever devoted to the art of Sesto Bruscantini (1919–2003). Record collectors value his performance of major baritone roles, especially comic but also serious ones, on many complete opera recordings, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia (with Victoria de los Angeles). He continued to perform at major houses until at least 1985 and even recorded Mozart's Don Alfonso in 1991, when he was 72.

Emalie Savoy: A Portrait

Since 1952, the ARD—the organization of German radio stations—has run an annual competition for young musicians. Winners have included Jessye Norman, Maurice André, Heinz Holliger, and Mitsuko Uchida. Starting in 2015, the CD firm GENUIN has offered, as a separate award, the chance for one of the prize winners to make a CD that can serve as a kind of calling card to the larger musical and music-loving world. In 2016, the second such CD award was given to the Aris Quartett (second-prize winner in the “string quartet” category).

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

Discovering Gounod’s Cinq Mars: Another Rarity Success for Oper Leipzig

Oper Leipzig usually receives less international attention than its Dresden, Munich or Berlin counterparts; however, with its fabulous Gewandhaus Orchestra, and its penchant for opera rarities (and a new Ring Cycle), this quality hotspot will be attracting more and more opera lovers. Leipzig’s new production of Gounod’s Cinq Mars continues this high quality tradition.

Detlev Glanert : Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch should be a huge hit. Just as Carl Orff's Carmina Burana appeals to audiences who don't listen to early music (or even to much classical music), Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch has all the elements for instant popular success.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Gustav Mahler
18 Jul 2010

Mahler’s 8th at Royal Albert Hall

A performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony could only ever be relatively underwhelming; even a car crash of a performance would impress in some sense, indeed most likely in quite a few.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

Mardi Byers (soprano, Magna Peccatrix); Twyla Robinson (soprano, Una Poenitentium); Malin Christensson (soprano, Mater Gloriosa); Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana); Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptica); Stefan Vinke (tenor, Doctor Marianus); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone, Pater Ecstaticus); Tomasz Konieczny (bass, Pater Profundus). Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral (chorus-master: Andrew Carwood); Choristers of Westminster Abbey (chorus-master: James O’Donnell); Choristers of Westminster Cathedral (chorus-master: Martin Baker); BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Stephen Jackson); Crouch End Festival Chorus (chorus-master: David Temple); Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (chorus-master: Brett Weymark); BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jiři Bělohlávek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 16 July 2010.

Above: Gustav Mahler

 

Yet this First Night of the Proms underwhelmed to an extent that surprised, a state of affairs for which responsibility lay squarely at the door of the conductor, Jiři Bělohlávek. Whatever the strengths of the present Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra may be, they always seemed unlikely to lie in Mahler, and so it proved. Should a performance of this work turn out to be merely a pleasant enough experience, something has clearly gone awry. It was not even wrong-headed enough to interest in the sense that, say, Sir Georg Solti’s relentlessly hard-driven, unabashedly operatic recording might, although, almost paradoxically, in its soft-grained way, it perhaps stood closer to such a reading than to probing renditions by the likes of Jascha Horenstein, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, or Michael Gielen.

My first impression was favourable, Bělohlávek rendering Mahler’s counterpoint surprisingly clear, apparently placing the work in the tradition of the composer’s fifth symphony. Doubts soon set in, however. The first ‘slower’ section set the pace, or lack of it, for its successors. Mahler writes, following his a tempo indication, ‘Etwas (aber unmerklich) gemäßigter; immer sehr fließend.’ Instead of relative moderation and care always to flow, the music almost ground to a halt. This is not simply a matter of tempo, of course; vitality was lacking. Returning to the comparison with Solti, the solo quintet sounded too ‘operatic’, in an almost Italianate sense: Mahler for those who prefer Verdi, albeit without fire. Bělohlávek guided a clear enough course through the first movement, but the reading was very four-square, lacking in dynamism, and ultimately quite debilitating in terms of its sectional approach. The work’s structure needs to be brought out, but just as important to that is the unity of the movement and indeed of the symphony as a whole. And so, the ‘Accende…’ music, exciting in itself, did not seem to come from anywhere. Moreover, the orchestra was underpowered — indeed, surprisingly small: just sixteen first violins down to eight double basses. The strings, especially during the first part, often sounded scrawny and there were uncomfortably shrill moments from the woodwind. There was, however, some splendid duo work towards the end of the movement from the kettledrums, and the presence of the Royal Albert Hall organ (Malcolm Hicks) was throughout impressive, almost violently so at times. Choral singing was here and elsewhere very fine indeed, undoubtedly the saving grace of the performance. Applause marred the conclusion of this first part.

The opening of the second part flowed but lacked mystery — at least until the sounding of beautifully grave horns, followed by shimmering violins: a passage to savour. The brass section was resplendent, yet it was impossible to overlook the general lack of depth to string tone. Mahler’s music needs to resound as if hailing from the bowels of the earth, not as if it were a thin layer of turf lain on the surface. Matters improved, however, once the chorus re-entered, and the echo effect was unusually impressive: not easy, with these forces. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a typically thoughtful, beautiful-toned Pater Ecstaticus, and Tomasz Konieczny more or less followed suit, if hardly de profundis, as Pater Profundus. Stephanie Blythe stood out amongst the female soloists: a mezzo, but with hints of an earth-mother contralto. Stefan Vinke was a very late substitute for the indisposed Nikolai Schukoff as Doctor Marianus. He sounded a little nervous to start with, but grew into the part, though without the virility that so impressed me when I saw him in Leipzig as Lohengrin and Parsifal. (Doubtless the size of the hall has something to do with it too, but if ever there were a Royal Albert Hall work, it must be this.) Twyla Robinson improved dramatically as Una Poenitentium, the words of her first stanza indistinct, diction much superior thereafter, and with a glorious tone in conclusion: ‘Vergönne mir, ihn zu belehren, noch blendet ihn der neue Tag!’ Choral singing was once again of a very high standard; I was especially taken by the lovely tone of the Chorus of Blessed Boys as they circled (at least in one’s imagination).

The conductor, however, continued to let the side down. Thematic links with the first part were clearly brought out, but that was one of the interpretation’s few virtues. (In any case, the connections are pretty difficult to miss!) Orchestral heft was simply lacking; for much of the time, Bělohlávek sounded as though he would have been more at home with Mendelssohn or, at a push, Schumann. The latter’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust might have responded better to such treatment, though I fear that that work would have lacked fire too. Slow passages dragged and accelerations sounded arbitrary. There were some beautiful instrumental moments, for instance the sound of strings, harps, and harmonium as Mater Gloriosa floated into view, but again this was too much of a slow section in itself, preceded by an inordinately distended and downright sentimentalised ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne…’ from Doctor Marianus and chorus. It was again the latter that shone in the final Chorus Mysticus: beautifully sung, but that is not nearly enough. A performance of this work that fails to grab one by the scruff of one’s neck is barely a performance at all.

Mark Berry

Click here to listen to this performance.

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):