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Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … 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.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“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!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

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.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

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.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

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.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

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.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

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.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

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.

English National Opera: Tosca

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.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

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).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“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.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

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.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

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.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

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.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

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.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

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.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Franz Schreker (1912)
02 Aug 2010

Der Ferne Klang, Bard College

Franz Schreker, born in 1878, was a youth in the age in which psychoanalysis first bloomed. In music, far from coincidentally, it was the post-Wagnerian era when western tonality had been liberated from traditional rules but was uncertain which new path to take.

Franz Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound)

Grete/Greta/Tini: Yamina Maamar; Fritz: Mathias Schulz; An Old Woman/Madam/Waitress: Susan Marie Pierson; Dr. Vigelius: Marc Embree; Count/Rudolf: Corey McKern; Dubious Character: Jud Perry; Hack Actor: Peter Van Derick. Production by Thaddeus Strassberger. Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. Performance of July 30.

Above: Franz Schreker (1912)


Schreker’s operas, most of them set to his own libretti, explore these psychological and musical trends with a more embittered, less sentimental style of dramaturgy than that of many other post-Wagnerians yet a more easily accessible idiom than the atonalists chose. The characters of Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) do not find redemption, salvation or—at the last—even each other. They succumb to delusions and distractions, they connect only to be alienated anew. Love is a missed chance, art a deception.

Der Ferne Klang recalls the grander Italian operas of its day (premiere, 1912) in setting its awkward love story on a stage teaming with minor characters. But where other composers let the crowds fall away and bring the love story, happy or sad, to the fore, in Der Ferne Klang the distractions grow ever louder and more insistent and the love story cannot free itself from them. Franz, the ambitious composer, abandons his truelove, Grete, to seek the “distant sound” that inspires his art. By the time he encounters her again—joyously—in Act II, she has become the main attraction in a classy Venetian brothel. His memories win her back, but then he rejects her on when he understands her present situation. In Act III, Franz’s opera fails on its first night—in part because a strange woman has screamed in the balcony. It is Grete, of course, now a streetwalker, the one person deeply moved by Franz’s music. Franz repents his follies in an ecstatic duet with her that climaxes in his collapse. Only then does the real Grete enter to discover his body.

The blighting of all hope—love and art—God, of course, no longer enters the question—is the message of many Schreker operas. The musical texture is thick, polyphonic, late romantic with its own style of melodic flourish, occasionally savoring of Strauss or Mahler at their most neurotic. The orchestral forces required are large and their music complicated, the messages difficult to interpret as every motif hides behind conflicted souls and a pervasive unreality. Perhaps Schreker’s hopelessness, his scorn of dreamy ideals, had more than a little real connection with the era he lived in. When the Nazis came to power they resented his contempt for illusory ideals and resurrected his paternal Jewish ancestry—Schreker, a lifelong Catholic, had forgotten all about it—to expel his works from the stage, himself from his academic position. Broken, he died in 1936—sparing himself, perhaps , a more ghastly fate down the line.

Leon Botstein, champion of so many forgotten late romantic opera composers (Zemlinsky, Janacek, Dukas, Smyth, d’Indy …), has done a real service to American opera-lovers in giving us our first Der Ferne Klang, in concert in New York three years ago, and our first staged one at Bard College this summer. Much that was mysterious about the story in the concert performance became clear in the thrilling staging at Bard—in a theater it is far easier to grasp that what seemed disjointed and haphazard is intentional, the composer’s technique for telling the story he wants to tell and not the simpler fable we may anticipate.

In the cast at Bard, interesting singers were not always able to manage Schreker’s soaring lines over the hefty orchestra, deployed not only in the pit but in various strategic pockets of the stage. On the opening night performance, Yamina Maamar, who sings Kundry, Salome and Aida in Germany, took a while to warm to her tasks as Grete’s three avatars—her voice often failed to cut clearly through the orchestra. Only in her concluding ecstatic duet with Fritz did she seem a major voice with a voluptuous dramatic soprano tone color. Her acting was affecting throughout the performance.

Matthias Schulz struck lyrical notes in the higher reaches of Fritz’s music as if the top of his range was the distant sound he was after all along, but was less successful in his middle voice. He ably played a fish-out-of-water, an idealist in a society full of people with practical concerns. Veteran character baritone Marc Embree sang a persuasively ruminative Dr. Vigelius; Susan Marie Pierson an alluring/threatening Madam (partly behind the scrim of a silent movie); and the rest of an enthusiastic cast were at once alarming or funny doubling many roles. As with Les Huguenots last summer, Botstein seems to have little trouble casting operas that require a great many effective young singers.

Thaddeus Strassberger, whose staging of Les Huguenots last summer was inventive if not entirely convincing, contributed tremendously to audience excitement. His use of projections, filming shadows half-seen over half-curtains, mirrors, subtle lighting effects and (by the by) Aaron Blicks’s lighting and Mattie Ulrich’s splendid costumes held the attention of listeners who might have been bewildered by the multilayered score and the intricate story. An able young ensemble of chorus and dancers made the most of the fantasies recalling Weimar (and pre-Weimar) decadence.

Der Ferne Klang (and its sister opera, Schreker’s Der Gezeichneten) seems destined for a considerably wider showing in this country where, based on the response of the Bard audience, it demonstrates tremendous appeal to the same audiences who enjoy the operas of Strauss and Alban Berg. Botstein has done a great service in bringing it twice to our attention. Though there was a certain lack of coordination at the opening of Act II, Botstein’s forces (including a small band of balalaika players to accompany the cabaret in Act II) remained in good order all night and played many of the subtler touches audible in the opera’s quiet moments with particular grace.

John Yohalem

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