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 Reviews

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

English Touring Opera are delighted to announce a season of lyric monodramas to tour nationally from October to December. The season features music for solo singer and piano by Argento, Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich with a bold and inventive approach to making opera during social distancing.

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

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):