07 Nov 2010
Angelika Kirchschlager, German Lieder 1830-40 Wigmore Hall
Angelika Kirchschlager and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall showed what real Lieder singing should be.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
Angelika Kirchschlager and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall showed what real Lieder singing should be.
Of course Lieder can be enjoyed on a superficial level as pure sound, but it’s infinitely more rewarding when intelligent interpretation brings out true depth.
There are celebrities of whom it’s said that opera fans think they’re Lieder singers, and Lieder fans think they’re opera singers. But not of Kirchschlager, who is superlative in both genres.
This was an unusual programme, far more difficult to carry off than might seem in theory. Instead of going for surefire hit material, Kirchschlager and Martineau chose material that showed how fertile German song writing was in the decade 1830-40. These are most certainly not “Victorian parlour songs” as they were written for sophisticated and intellectual audiences who knew the composers and poets well. Fanny Mendelssohn gave regular recitals at home, which were attended by the best minds in Berlin, and were so popular that the house was extended to cope with guests. Salons like these were the way artistic people converged. The Schubertiades were by no means unique.
Felix Mendelssohn’s songs about Spring are gloriously ecstatic, “Frühlingstrunknen Blumen”, (spring-intoxicated flowers) are not merely decorative but a metaphor for new life after hard times. Kirchschlager’s voice rises lithely, then dips sensuously round words like “Nun muss sich alles, alles wenden” (All things must change) Winter will return, but Mendelssohn embraces the moment of energy. Kirchschlager’s perception brought out the link between the Spring songs and the second set of Mendelssohn songs. Auf Flügeln des Gesanges(op 34/2), for example, is sensual. Then a real stroke of good programme planning. In Neue Liebe(op 19a/4), the queen of the elves appears and smiles enigmatically. Is it new love, or death?
This reinforces the meaning of Franz Paul Lachner’s Die badende Elfe. Most people have heard of Lachner in connection with Richard Wagner, who ousted him from Munich. Lachner’s song cycle Sängerfahrt op 33 dates from 1831-2 when he still lived in Vienna. While he was influenced by Schubert, whom he knew personally, Lachner’s songs evoke earlier traditions, for example the songs of Carl Zelter, who introduced Goethe to young Felix Mendelssohn.
There are some wonderful songs in Lachner’s Sängerfahrt, though Kirchschlager sang only four, probably wisely as some don’t suit female voice. But how she made a case for them ! Die badende Elfe came vividly to life, Martineau playing arpeggiations that sparkled as delicately as water and light. Kirchschlager’s timbre was clear, bright, almost trembling with excitement. A man spies a water nymph bathing in the moonlight. Since the poem is by Heine, expect deeper meanings. Kirchschlager shapes the phrase “Arm und Nacken, weiss und lieblich” sensually. What’s turning the poet on is implicit, especially since Lachner wrote the songs for his bride-to-be. Pure, chaste,but erotic.
it’s hard to forget Schumann’s Dichterliebe settings of Im Mai and Eine Liebe, but Kirchschlager did Lachner more than justice. I’ve heard three versions of these songs and thought I knew them well, but Kirchschlager’s a revelation. Her lucidity eclipses all else. Martineau’s playing, too, convinced me that modern piano isn’t necessarily a bar to freeing the energy in these songs. The explicitly Schubertian elements in Die einsame Träne might sound derivative, but Kirchschlager sings with conviction. The “falling tears” in the piano part work well because Martineau is light of hand and pedal.
Three of the Fanny Mendelssohn songs heard here come from her Op 1. They’re not early works, but the first published, which was a daring act for a woman of her status at that time. She was a pianist rather than a singer, so her songs give Martineau a chance to bring out their best qualities. In Schwanenlied,(op 1/1) for example, slow, graceful movement, and the ending dissolves mysteriously. The poet’s Heine, whom Fanny met and disliked, but the song captures the foreboding behind the shining surface. On the other hand, in Warum sind denn, die Rosen so blass, (op1/3) she replaces Heine’s “Leichenduft”(stink of a rotting corpse) with the word “Blümenduft”. (scent of flowers).
Kirchschlager and Martineau also chose Carl Loewe’s op 60 setting of the Chamisso poems Schumann made immortal in Frauenliebe und Leben. Here, Kirchschlager filled lines like “die Quelle der Freudigkeit” with such warmth that even the most fervent feminist could not doubt its sincerity. Martineau made much of the almost Brahmsian richness in the piano part, particularly lovely in An meinen Herzen. Since Brahms was at the time only three years old, it’s an indication of how significant Loewe was, and why the music of this decade, 1830-40 needs further assessment.
Loewe’s songs are vivid and imaginative. Two songs from his Vier Fabbelieder op 64 (1837) gave Kirchschlager a chance to show what a vivid character singer she can be, combining her opera experience with true Lieder singing. Der Kuckkuck uses the same Wunderhorn text that Mahler would set fifty years later. Thanks to Kirchschlager, Loewe’s cuckoo is funnier, even if the donkey cry, “Ija ! Ija!” isn’t quite so obvious. More of a challenge was the long strophic ballad, Der verliebte Maikäfer (Glow worm in Love). A foppish glow worm courts a fly but is too vain to see she can’t stand him. Nice growling sounds to create the lumpen bug, light sharp sounds for the fly. The punchline comes at the end, when the story changes - two (human) lovers are about to fool around at night. The story’s complicated, but Kirchschlager’s diction is so clear that meaning comes through even if you don’t know German. This is where her experience shows. She acts through her voice, expressively, never losing the sharp wit beneath the charm.
This concert was being recorded for future broadcast. If it’s released on CD, it will be a must for anyone seriously interested in Lieder.