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

Elizabeth Llewellyn: Investec Opera Holland Park stages Puccini's La Rondine

It’s six or so years ago since soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn appeared as an exciting and highly acclaimed new voice on the UK operatic stage, with critics praising her ‘ravishing account’ (The Stage) of Mozart’s Countess in Investec Opera Holland Park’s 2011 Le nozze di Figaro in which ‘Porgi, amor’ was a ‘highlight of the evening’.

Sukanya: Ravi Shankar's posthumous opera

What links Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Brian Newbould and Anthony Payne? A hypothetical question for University Challenge contestants elicits the response that they all ‘completed’ composer’s last words: Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Symphony No.8 in B minor (the Unfinished) and Edward Elgar’s Third Symphony, respectively.

Cavalli's Hipermestra at Glyndebourne

‘Make war not love’, might be a fitting subtitle for Francesco Cavalli’s opera Hipermestra in which the eponymous princess chooses matrimonial loyalty over filial duty and so triggers a war which brings about the destruction of Argos and the deaths of its inhabitants.

Dougie Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera: in conversation

One year ago, tens of millions of Britons voted for isolation rather than for cooperation, but Douglas (Dougie) Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera, is an energetic one-man counterforce with a dynamic conviction that art and culture are strengthened by participation and collaboration; values which, alongside excellence and a spirit of adventure, have seen Garsington Opera acquire increasing renown and esteem on the international stage during his tenure, since 2012.

I Fagiolini's Orfeo: London Festival of Baroque Music

This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music is titled Baroque at the Edge and celebrates Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and the 250th anniversary of Telemann’s death. Monteverdi and Telemann do in some ways represent the ‘edges’ of the Baroque, their music signalling a transition from Renaissance to Baroque and from Baroque to Classical respectively, though as this performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble confirmed such boundaries are blurred and frequently broken.

The English Concert: a marvellous Ariodante at the Barbican Hall

I’ve been thinking about jealousy a lot of late, as I put the finishing touches to a programme article for Bampton Classical Opera’s summer production of Salieri’s La scuola de' gelosi. In placing the green-eyed monster centre-stage, Handel’s Ariodante surely rivals Shakespeare’s Othello in dramatic clarity and concision, as this terrifically animated and musically intense performance by The English Concert at the Barbican Hall confirmed.

Riel Deal in Toronto

With its new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, Canadian Opera Company has covered itself in resplendent glory.

Concert Introduces Fine Dramatic Tenor

On May 4, 2017, Los Angeles Opera presented a concert starring Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and her husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazev. Led by Italian conductor Jader Bignamini, members of the orchestra showed their abilities, too, with a variety of instrumental selections played between the singers’ arias and duets.

COC: Tosca’s Cautious Leap

Considering the high caliber of the amassed talent, Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca is a curiously muted affair.

Matthias Goerne - late Schumann songs, revealed

Matthias Goerne Schumann Lieder, with Markus Hinterhäuser, a new recording from Harmonia Mundi. Singers, especially baritones, often come into their prime as they approach 50, and Goerne, who has been a star since his 20's is now formidably impressive. The colours in his voice have matured, with even greater richness and depth than before.

Schubert's 'swan-song': Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

No song in this wonderful performance by Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall epitomised more powerfully, and astonishingly, what a remarkable lieder singer Bostridge is, than Schubert’s Rellstab setting, ‘In der Ferne’ (In the distance).

Baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé wins the 2017 Guildhall School Gold Medal

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has announced baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé as the winner of this year’s Gold Medal, the School’s most prestigious prize for outstanding soloists. The prize is awarded to singers and instrumentalists in alternate years and this year was the turn of the singers.

Stunning power and presence from Lise Davidsen

For Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen this has been an exciting season, one which has seen her make several role and house debuts in Europe and beyond, including Agathe (Der Freischutz) at Opernhaus Zürich, Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana) Norwegian National Opera and, just last month, Isabella (Liebesverbot) at Teatro Colón. This Rosenblatt Recital brought her to the Wigmore Hall for her UK recital debut and if the stunning power, shining colour and absolute ease that she demonstrated in a well-chosen programme of song and opera are anything to judge by, Glyndebourne audiences are in for a tremendous treat this summer, when Davidsen appears in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

LALO and COQUARD: La Jacquerie

La Jacquerie—here recorded for the first time—proves to be a wonderful opera, bringing delight upon delight.

Three Rossini Operas Serias

Rossini’s serious operas once dominated opera houses across the Western world. In their librettos, the great French author Stendahl—then a diplomat in Italy and the composer’s first biographer—saw a post-Napoleonic “martial vigor” that could spark a liberal revolution. In their vocal and instrumental innovations, he discerned a similar revolution in music.

Urania Remasters Marriage of Figaro

Good news for lovers of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: the famous Living Stereo recording, a co-production of RCA Victor and English Decca, is now available again, well remastered, on Urania.

Tosca: Stark Drama at the Chandler Pavilion

On Thursday evening April 27, 2017, Los Angeles Opera presented a revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 2013, director John Caird had given Angelinos a production that made Tosca a full-blooded, intense drama as well as a most popular aria-studded opera. His Floria was a dove among hawks.

Glyndebourne Festival 2018 programme announced

The UK’s first professional production of Samuel Barber’s Pulitzer prize-winning opera Vanessa takes place at Glyndebourne Festival 2018. One of the great American operas, Vanessa was hailed as a triumph at its premiere in 1958 but quickly fell out of the repertoire and has only been staged intermittently since.

Major new international singing competition launched by Glyndebourne

The Glyndebourne Opera Cup - the international competition for opera singers is designed to discover and spotlight the best young singers from around the world, offering a top prize of £15,000 and a platform for launching an international opera career.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, at the Wigmore Hall

The Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship Fund was founded in 1953 in memory of the much-loved contralto from Lancashire who died at the tragically young age of 41 and whose career as a singer lasted just 12 years. The purpose of the fund was to make an annual award to a young British singer sufficient to cover the cost of a year’s study and general support. The first competition was held in 1956 and it has continued to provide a few outstandingly talented young singers each year since then with the opportunity of making a start in what is a most difficult and demanding career.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]
18 Nov 2010

György Kurtág — Kafka Fragments, London

Can Haiku be improved by staging? György Kurtág's Kafka-Fragmente (op. 24), is a masterpiece of zen-like purity.

György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente for soprano and violin, op.24 (1985-7)

Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Geoff Nuttall, violin; Peter Sellars, director; David Michalek, photography; Anna Kiraly, costume design; James F. Ingalls, lighting design; Jenny Lazar, production stage manager; Diane J. Malecki producer.Barbican Hall, London, 11 November 2010.

Above: Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]

 

Although this music is well-known, this Barbican Hall, London performance —— entitled “Kafka Fragments” — was the first time Peter Sellars’ staging has been seen in Europe. What would Sellars’ staging add to such music?

The beauty of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments lies in its minimalist purity. Forty brief quotes from Kafka’s diaries appear, many barely more than a sentence long. Meaning is elusive. “Die Weissnäherinnen in den Regengüssen” (washerwomen in downpours), for example, which is the entire text of song 9. Kurtág sets the words so they slide up and down the scale in strange, disoriented cadence, the violin part edgily racing beside the voice. What does the image mean? Is Kurtág illustrating the image or is he purposefully using it to hint at something wholly intangible?

Kurtág deliberately chose fragments because they are incomplete, and because they are fragile. They are existentialist utterances, beyond explanation. Meaning is distilled, intensely condensed like a homeopathic substance with power to expand in your soul. Most of Kurtág’s music is like this, highly polished miniatures to be carefully savoured on an intuitive level. Very zen, exquisitely beautiful.

But does something so esoteric need to be confined by concrete staging? Sellars interprets the Fragments with heavy handed literalism, seizing on brief references of purity and dirt to create a soap opera of domestic banality. Dawn Upshaw is seen sweeping, ironing, changing light bulbs and in one memorable image, with a plastic basket over her head. When Kafka remarks on concealment, is he being silly? In his pre-performance talk, Sellars told the audience that cleaning a bathroom was a great source of contemplation. Perhaps to him, but not to all. In his recent staging of Tristan und Isolde, Sellars also used elaborate projections of a long cleansing ritual which bore little relevance to the opera. Wagner as spa? Perhaps it’s a Sellars’ thing. In this case, the photographic projections were not by Bill Viola but by David Michalek, and even more distracting.

Kurtág needs staging, he added. To loosely paraphrase Sellars, “If you associate a song with a visual image, you can follow it”. Yet Kafka-Fragmente is only an hour long, less than many symphonies. Each fragment is so distinct that it’s really not hard to follow if you listen attentively. The danger is worrying too much about consuming what you see on the page, rather than absorbing the whole by listening on a more profound, oblique level.

All performances involve interpretation. Even reading a score means personal input. But too literal a layer of expression obliterates without adding insight. Like haiku, Kurtág’s music is magical because it’s both elusive and utterly lucid at the same time, but treating it too literally defeats the whole purpose. This perhaps is why Sellars’ staging was so disappointing.

Kurtag.gifGyörgy Kurtág

There were good moments where his images matched the music, such as the swaying movements in the first song, like the ticking of a clock. “Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt....die Tänze der Zeit” (The Good march in step...the Dances of Time). Yet many of these fragments are evocative because they defy easy stereotypes. Forcing them into a narrative diminishes their power. When Kafka writes of pain, he doesn’t simply mean a woman pressing a hot iron into her face.

In principle, there’s nothing inherently wrong about staging music, particularly vocal music. Otherwise we wouldn’t have opera or ballet. But Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente work because they are beyond definition, their meaning deliberately open-ended and mysterious. It’s this freedom that makes aphoristic music so liberating. Kurtág explicitly connects to Anton Webern through the dedication to Pierre Boulez, Webern’s great champion. “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended” “Stolzen zu machen, als begangen zu werden”. (making you stumble rather than easily walk) Obliqueness, again, and contradiction. Very haiku. For Sellars the rope seems to imply suicide. Whether that’s valid or not, it means something different to Kurtág.

The Barbican Centre in London should be commended because it does innovative, daring work for contemporary music and opera. Last year they did Eötvös’s Angels in America, and Michael van der Aa’s After Life. The Barbican has also staged several of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, for which Peter Sellars did excellent semi-stagings. These were successful because they encapsulated the essential drama in Saariaho’s diffuse, chromatic reveries. With Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente the opposite happens. In his pre-performance talk, Sellars gave many different explanations for his choices, a kitchen sink approach, perhaps in the hope that some of the ideas might work. If only he had absorbed the inner essence of Kurtág’s ethos, that less is more and that muzak isn’t music.

The benchmark recording of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente is easily the one with Juliane Banse and András Keller, on ECM (2006). It is the keynote, as Keller has worked with Kurtág for many years and performed most of his work for violin. Indeed, the composer was involved in making the recording. High standards indeed, so it’s to Dawn Upshaw’s credit that her singing was up to the mark. She’s possibly the most experienced American singer in contemporary repertoire, and it showed in the way she negotiated Kurtág’s quirky lines and silences. Technically, Upshaw’s voice is more lustrous than Banse’s but the setting let her down.

The violinist here was Geoff Nuttall of the St Lawrence Quartet of Stanford, who has performed this piece with Upshaw and Sellars in the United States. He’s quoted as saying the piece is “almost unplayable” though Keller shows what’s possible. Nuttall was at an unfair advantage because Sellars’ staging nullified the tight, knife-edge balance between voice and violin which is fundamental to the piece. Upshaw was wonderful, but in many ways, the Kafka Fragments aren’t really a song cycle so much as intensely concentrated chamber music.

The Kafka-Fragmente have been around for 25 years. György Kurtág, his wife Marta and other musicians closely associated with them appear in person in London fairly frequently. Indeed, some in the audience at the Barbican were long time friends. Perhaps Sellars’ staging might have impressed audiences that don’t know the music, or put them off entirely. But for me it felt like seeing some great classic of European or Japanese art cinema remade for daytime TV.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for the programme of Kafka Fragments.

Click here for programme details.

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):