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

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
03 Dec 2010

Die Entführung aus den Serail, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With its tricky ‘orientalist’ connotations, Singspiel-originating spoken dialogue, not to mention the problem of finding five outstanding singers who can cope with the considerable demands of the solo roles (and the commercial challenge presented by the need to pay a chorus who sing barely a few bars of music), Mozart’s Die Entführung aus den Serail does not receive as many stagings as it deserves.

W. A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus den Serail

Belmonte: Frédéric Antoun; Pedrillo: Tilman Lichdi; Constanze: Susan Gritton; Blonde: Malin Christensson; Osmin: Alastair Miles. Narrator: Simon Butteriss. The Joyful Company of Singers. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Bernard Labadie. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Wednesday, 24 November 2010.

Above: Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

In 1781, having finally shaken off his over-bearing father, Mozart found himself in Vienna, a city which had previously welcomed and feted him as a prodigious child performer but which had little knowledge of his early operatic successes; or, indeed, awareness of his operatic ambitions. When Gottleib Stephanie the Younger, a successful actor and dramatist who had recently taken charge of the National Singspiel in Vienna, happened to give the young composer a libretto to consider, Mozart’s interest was immediately stimulated, and he wrote enthusiastically to his father of about his new ‘Turkish’ project. The subject matter was ‘convenient’ for the intended occasion of the premiere was the state visit in September by Grand Duke Paul Petrovich of Russia and his wife, in order to devise a clandestine agreement that would allow Austria and Russia to begin dividing up the Ottoman Empire.

Although, in the event, Mozart’s opera was not completed in time for the diplomatic visit, its colonial, propagandistic overtones can sit uneasily with modern audiences. Add to this the idiosyncrasies of the singspiel genre, and it is perhaps not surprising that performances of this opera are relatively rare. However, it contains many delights, and this concert performance of a new translation and narration, commissioned from Simon Butteriss by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, tackled the potential problems bravely, and with striking wit and panache.

This may be opera seria, but Butteriss has adopted an altogether more ambiguous mode; his translation and narration are wry, self-referential, and self-knowing. This might have proved tiresome, but in the fairly intimate setting of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, among a musically knowledgeable audience, he struck just the right note.

Much of the credit for the success of this performance must go to conductor Bernard Labadie, who moved the action swiftly on, whipping up a dramatic momentum and comic immediacy from his performers. The overture was pacy, perhaps overly so, but Labadie managed the extraordinary integration of the overture and opening scene with aplomb, controlling the transition between the multi-section, multi-tempi overture and the first aria most skilfully and establishing a dramatic vitality which was sustained throughout the performance. Without undue exaggeration, Labadie drew striking contrasts from his orchestra: a piquant piccolo and oboe complemented the interesting, nuanced timbres of the trumpets and horns, and enthusiastic string playing provided a springy foundation for woodwind colourings. Moreover, Labadie maintained a good balance between instrumentalists and singers, particularly in the concertante-style numbers. In particular, in ‘Martern aller Arten’ — which is practically a sinfonia concertante for voice and instruments — Susan Gritton’s voice swelled magnificently, but the soloist remained only one of several solo instruments.

The young French-Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun displayed a beautifully smooth line, as the fervent Belmonte, and would undoubtedly have won the heart of Constanze with ease. After some initial wobbles of intonation, he settled effortlessly into the suavity of the role, his ardent tone adding weight and variety of colour. Dramatically relaxed throughout, Antoun’s aria, ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke’, was particularly impressive.

As Pedrillo, Tilman Lichdi demonstrated a sharp sense of wit (the risk of overkill was just about kept at bay), but his important serenade, ‘In Mohrenland gefangen war’, presented a welcome contrast and was expertly controlled and shaped.

Alastair Miles was a last-minute substitute for Timothy Mirfin in the role of Osmin, and this may explain his occasional air of overly serious concentration. While he used his face expressively, his need to read from the score did rather detach him from the relaxed immediacy of Lichdi’s and Antoun’s confident partnership. Miles gave a solid performance, and articulated the text well, but found the lower regions of the role quite challenging.

Susan Gritton, as Constanze, demonstrated the stunningly beautiful lyricism for which she is renowned and negotiated the intricacies with ease, although she didn’t always pay sufficient attention to the openings and endings of phrases. Faced with the comic capers of Pedrillo, Blonde and Osmin, Gritton effectively established the dignity of the role. She clutched a score, her thumb marking the page, throughout, although it remained closed; as Gritton has previously recorded this work it made one wonder why this was necessary as it was a little distracting. Moreover, her diction was rather careless. Denigrated as “hack work” by Mozart scholars such as William Mann, and disparaged by Edward Dent as the “very worst [libretto Mozart] ever set to music”, the text here was sung in German with English subtitles. Even if we allow that the verse may be execrable, it still would have been nice to have consistently heard the German enunciated clearly and crisply.

Malin Christensson had a battle to complement Gritton’s vocal weight, particularly in the ensembles where the latter projected powerfully and with poise; but as Blonde, Christensson gave a convincing, committed reading of the strong-minded servant and sang sweetly, with vivacious animation.

The Joyful Company of Singers waited patiently for their brief chorus at the end of Act 1; in the event, they were rather subdued, lacking the necessary lightness and energy — although this may have been a result of their positioning, at the rear of the stage, which made it difficult to project over the vibrant orchestral fanfares.

Butterriss’ obvious enthusiasm for this opera was contagious; his urbane narration, slickly sliding between comedy and seriousness, banished any sense of the potential discomforts or difficulties of the singspiel genre, and drew committed performances from his colleagues. Overall this was an enchanting evening, one which made one long for a full staging of this opera.

Claire Seymour

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):