Recently in Performances
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
16 Jan 2011
The Art of the Countertenor
Since he first came to notice a few years ago — in Messiah in this very hall, as Creonte at Covent Garden, and as Arsace in Partenope at New York City Opera, to name by a few recently acclaimed performances — many a starry accolade has been heaped upon young Welsh countertenor, Iestyn Davies: “achingly beautiful tone”,“unforgettable focus and poignancy” and “compelling sense of rhetoric” are typical of the bountiful superlatives.
This recital of gems
from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undoubtedly confirmed why Davies
deserves such acclamations. Moreover, a concert of two distinct halves, it
demonstrated the extraordinary range of his technical accomplishments, musical
insights and dramatic embodiments. Unaffected and assured, he does not seek to
impose himself upon the music; rather, his easeful stage presence and innate
appreciation of the requirements of each particular musical medium allows the
music itself to rise to the fore. The voice never distracts; it is only at the
final cadence that one realises how supremely the song has been served.
We began in the seventeenth century with an exquisitely compiled and
meticulously researched programme. Not only were the names unfamiliar but works
were chosen to demonstrate idiosyncratic, and often unusual, qualities.
Benedetto Ferrari’s triple-time, ‘Voglio di vita uscir’
(‘I want to depart this life’) introduced us to the Italian court
musician, librettist and theorbo player’s penchant for the chaconne bass.
Davies’ fresh, unaffected voice moved effortlessly between registers,
particularly in the expressive recitative with which the song closes.
In ‘Figlio dormi’ (‘Sleep son’) by Giovanni Girolami
Kapsberger — a celebrated virtuoso on the lute and theorbo —
accompanist Richard Egarr’s gentle introduction and delicate instrumental
episodes summoned to mind the affectionate, tender strumming of the lute.
Embellishments were relished by both performers, and perfectly judged. This
traditional ‘Ninna la nanna’ lullaby charmed and calmed; in
contrast, the continuous, oscillating, two-note motif which underpins Tarquinio
Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’ bewitched
and disconcerted, before the consoling serenity of the final major key
Listening to Richard Egarr’s accompaniments was the aural equivalent
of watching a painter at work. Relaxed and confident, instinctively attuned to
the ‘colours’ of each song, Egarr selected just the right tints and
shades from an extraordinarily rich palette of tones and textures. The ground
bass in Ferrari’s devotional cantata, ‘Quest pungenti spine’
was superbly realised; the surprising dissonances between voice and harpsichord
were piquantly emphasised but never exaggerated. Davies’ breath control
is extraordinary and was on display in a variety of contexts: in the
extravagant vocal gymnastics of the more elaborate coloratura episodes of
cantatas by Porpora and Vivaldi; in Antonio’s Cesti’s intricate,
freely exploratory lines in ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ (‘Gape
open, ye abysses’); and also here in Ferrari’s long-held, tender
opening notes. From the initial lyrical tranquillity, the countertenor found
just the right sentiment of yearning and ‘sweet torment’, building
as the lines become more florid and impassioned, to an ecstatic conclusion:
“my Lord and God;/ they are the divine arrows/ that, softened and
tempered/ by heaven’s fire/ attract and delight — ”. The
chaconne bass is interrupted four times by recitative refrains, and the
performers’ mastery of the formal structure more than matched their
command of musical detail — and their delight in the harmonic
The second half saw us on the more familiar terrain of the eighteenth
century. In Porpora’s cantata, ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
(‘Ah, if only my heart’), Davies revealed his dramatic poise,
moving effortlessly between the moods of the successive recitatives and arias.
Vivaldi’s ‘Pianti, sospiri’ (‘Weeping, sighing’)
drew forth the peaks of Davies’ technical armoury — his projection,
pacing, ornamental invention and virtuosic elasticity quite simply took
one’s breath away. However complicated the line, the voice remained
unhindered and light.
In between the vocal treasures, Egarr offered readings of
Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’ and ‘Capriccio
sopra Ut re mi fa sol la’, and Handel’s Suite in D (HMV428),
exploiting texture to create a remarkable ‘dynamic’ variety; the
pianissimo passages were particularly beautiful. Expertly shaping
harmonic sequences and cadences, Egarr assembled the architectural forms of
Handel’s Suite like a master builder.
The encores — an athletic showcase from Partenope and the
lovely Irish folksong, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ —
demonstrated the performers’ unpretentious, genuine and infectious joy in
the music and its performance. This recital celebrated Director John
Gilhooly’s 10 years at Wigmore Hall. He could not have wished for a more
glorious musical tribute.
Ferrari‘Voglio di vita uscir’
Kapsberger ‘Figlio dormi’
Frescobaldi Toccata Settima from Il secondo libro (solo harpsichord)
Frescobaldi ‘Se l’aura spira’
Ferrari ‘Queste pungenti spine’
Frescobaldi ‘Capriccio sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (solo
Cesti Selino’s Lament: ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ from
Merula ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’
Porpora Cantata: ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
Handel Suite No.3 in D minor HWV428 (solo harpsichord)
Vivaldi Cantata: Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede