Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Richard Wagner
27 Sep 2010

Tristan und Isolde at Royal Festival Hall

Almost irrespective of the results, it was quite a statement to open the Philharmonia’s London concert season with a performance of Nietzsche’s ‘opus metaphysicum of all true art,’ Tristan und Isolde.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Gary Lehman; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Brangäne: Anne Sofie von Otter; King Marke: Matthew Best; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Stephen Gadd; Shepherd/Young Sailor: Joshua Ellicott; Steersman: Darren Jeffery. Visual Artist: Bill Viola; Artistic Collaborator: Peter Sellars. Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver); Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 26 September 2010.

 

Billed as a concert performance, it was not really, though I could not help wishing that it had been. Peter Sellars’s direction, or ‘artistic collaboration’, is restrained: generally a good thing in Tristan, which needs very little ‘doing’, though that very little can make all the difference. Would that Bill Viola showed such or indeed any restraint with his ‘video art’.

I saw his projections first at the Opéra national de Paris, two years ago. Then I was irritated and distracted, though there was a little more in the way of staging. Here, there was slightly less staging, which worked at least as well. The Royal Festival Hall was used imaginatively, singing from boxes providing, for instance, a nice impression of the ship: it actually put me in mind of the use of the same space for Nono’s Prometeo in 2008. However, I discovered on returning home that my distraction and the rest of my response tallied precisely with what I had written about the Paris performance, so my hopes for further understanding or at least ability to set Viola on one side were dashed. The Southbank Centre’s publicity read: ‘This concert performance will be set against the stunning backdrop of Bill Viola's film projections, further exploring the emotional subtexts of the work.’ Rarely, however, did these projections begin truly to engage with the work, let alone to explore texts or subtexts.

Distraction remains greatest during the first act. ‘Act I,’ to quote Viola, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ We are in the world of Orientalism — or ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. One wonders whether Viola has ever read Edward Said; he certainly seems blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of evoking ‘the East’ in such a way. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. The first act represents anything but purification; it is instead a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. As I commented last time, the death that approaches is not sacrificial, but the selfish bidding of Schopenhauer’s Will. (Schopenhauer’s Orientalism might have been well worth pursuing: no such luck.) As the act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem merely disconnected rather than daringly contradictory; worst of all, they make it difficult to concentrate on the surging musical drama. Some images later on work better: that across the sea at the beginning of the third act, for example, and the magical reverse drowning of the conclusion. But for the most part, this is a display of superimposed self-indulgent Californianism. Candles are lit, of course, since candles show ‘spirituality’. Indeed, throughout, the imagery evokes the tedium of New Age self-fulfilment, which could hardly be further from Wagner’s vision — and which is not sufficient of a counterpoint to evoke true contrast either.

The musical performances were of course a different matter — and it was a sad thing that they were sometimes overwhelmed. Esa-Pekka Salonen steered a sure course through the work, though the miraculous opening prelude began with excessive ponderousness. Though JPE Harper-Scott’s programme note made a powerful case for Tristan as an avowedly tonal drama — I shall return to this at the end — Salonen tended to stress the presentiments of late Mahler and Schoenberg rather than the Romanticism of Wagner’s score. Tristan’s delirious monologue responded especially well to this approach: I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so clearly as a male Erwartung. But to return to Nietzsche’s description of this as art’s opus metaphysicum, it was the metaphysical that was really lacking. Furtwängler, whose recording with this orchestra, remains the first choice any sane — and perhaps even insane — listener, could not have been more distant. The Philharmonia played extremely well, the strings sounding more German than I have heard them in a while. It was all a little too clinical, though, too well-drilled. Often, I found myself asking: yes, but what does this mean?

Violeta Urmana’s approach was rather different, not in the sense of metaphysics but in assimilating her role to nineteenth-century grand opera. She sang very well and made as dramatic an impression as one could reasonably hope for, but this was Isolde as diva. Her concerns again seemed resolutely of this world, the possibilities of the Schopenhauerian noumenal failing to register. On the more earthbound level, a little Nilsson-like sarcasm or irony would have helped too. Gary Lehman marshalled his resources well as Tristan. His was not a large-scale portrayal, but he did much more than get through the role, which is in itself a rare achievement. The delirium of the third act was perhaps a little too Lieder-like, but it was conveyed, albeit without those metaphysical implications expanding its horizons yet further. Matthew Best’s vibrato was somewhat intrusive as King Marke, especially during the second act, but his third-act forgiveness was humanly credible. I found the vowels of Jukka Rasilainen a little too much in a tradition that seems to mark Finnish singers in German — it must be something to do with the language — but otherwise he did fair enough service, if without scaling the heights or the depths. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Brangäne, however, was impressive in its detailed response. If hers is not the sort of voice I immediately think of for the role, one should retain an open mind in such matters. Her way with the poem was second to none, and her relative coolness, suggestively different from the typical Brangäne, fitted well with Salonen’s approach. I was especially impressed by Joshua Ellicott’s Shepherd: quite heart-rending, as moving a rendition as I can recall.

To return, briefly, to the matter of tonal or atonal (to steal from Schoenberg’s Three Satires), this performance made me reconsider my position somewhat. I am broadly in agreement, or at least I was, with Harper-Scott and others, for instance Roger Scruton, who insist upon the tonal underpinning of Wagner’s score. I now worry a little more, however, that such a reading, tracing its roots ultimately to Heinrich Schenker’s analytical approach, carries with it the danger of underselling what happens in between the opening Prelude and Isolde’s transfiguration. We do not, I hope, simply sit waiting for the end, for that final cadence. Indeed, the generative association of Wagner’s motivic web as well as his harmony carry with them important seeds of the serial constructivism that could lead twentieth-century composers to expansive, open-ended new universes of sound. There is a strong tendency towards the totality in Wagner’s work, of course, but there is also resistance within the material. Salonen’s intimations of Schoenberg heightened this sense — which rethinking, whatever my reservations, is testament to a successful performance.

Mark Berry

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):