02 Feb 2011
Jurowski conducts Zemlinsky
This looked an enticing programme before Vladimir Jurowski, in conversation with the Southbank Centre’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, divulged its secrets.
On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
This looked an enticing programme before Vladimir Jurowski, in conversation with the Southbank Centre’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, divulged its secrets.
It was, Jurowski told us, to be considered as part of a larger programme in conjunction with the London Philharmonic’s Saturday concert (Ligeti’s Lontano, Bartók’s First Violin Concerto, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied). Anniversary boys Liszt and Mahler would be celebrated and contextualised. One might make too much of that; Jurowski mentioned the extraordinary late works of Liszt, but the Second Piano Concerto is not among them. (Most are for piano solo, in any case.) Likewise, though he lamented the neglect of so much of Liszt’s œuvre, as opposed to Mahler’s, we heard neither a choral work nor a symphonic poem, but a relatively mainstream piece, albeit one I was hearing for the first time in concert. Nevertheless, the sense of Liszt, Mahler, and three Hungarian composers sharing a continuum into which it would not be so very difficult also to fit Zemlinsky, offered much to think about. It was a pity that the planned repeat performances in Budapest had to be cancelled in light of economic circumstances, but at the very least Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union could be celebrated.
That conversation took place between the first and second works, since Péter Eötvös’s Shadows (1996) required an unusual seating arrangement, necessitating considerable rearrangement for the Liszt concerto. Shadows, for flute, amplified clarinet, and ensemble or orchestra, here received the first British performance of its orchestral performance. On a first hearing, it did not overstay its welcome, though I am not sure that it proved a revelation either. It seemed well performed, not least by the two soloists, flautist Sue Thomas and clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. They held centre stage, along with Jurowski, two percussionists and celeste player, Catherine Edwards. Two groups of wind instruments, backs to the audience, acted as ‘shadows’ to the soloists, whilst two groups of strings, sparingly deployed, made up the rear (facing forwards). In three movements, the work opens with dance-music: so far, so typically or stereotypically ‘Hungarian’. Contrast between regularity and irregularity caught the ear. Neo-Bartókian string and percussion sonorities proved attractive in the second part, at least two mobile telephones less so. The arabesque dialogue between flute and clarinet, with which the third movement opens, also brought Bartók, this time his ‘night music’, to mind, the prominent part for celesta doing nothing to dispel — and why should it? — that association. Space and time are clearly preoccupations here, though Boulez and Stockhausen, for instance, would seem to have gone further, earlier. I may well, however, have missed the point.
Alexander Markovich joined the orchestra for the Liszt work. This was not to be a flawless performance — there were a few occasions on which soloist and orchestra fell out of sync — but its spirit impressed. The white heat of Sviatoslav Richter’s astounding recording with the equally astounding LSO and Kirill Kondrashin — a Liszt Desert Island disc, especially coupled with the B minor Sonata — may not have been felt, but this was arguably a more exploratory performance, doubtless aided by Jurowski’s conception of the work as more a symphonic poem with piano than a typical concerto. (He referred to its single movement and monothematicism.) The LPO players responded with verve and subtlety — yes, you read that word correctly. They ensured, for instance, that the all-important woodwind opening struck just the right, neo-Mozartian serenading note. To that, Markovich could respond with due delicacy, rapture even, all performers making clear the unorthodox nature of what could so easily resemble a mere virtuoso showpiece. The fluidity of the pianist’s response to the score was especially noteworthy, though all players were careful to ensure that this never descended into formlessness. Virtuosity was present, of course, for instance in Markovich’s thundering octave passages, but always, it seemed, at the music’s service. Sharply profiled rhythmically where necessary, the performance never became hard-driven; indeed, there was always plenty of light and shade. Lower strings impressed with depth of tone in the lead up to the beautiful duet between piano and cello (Kristine Blaumane). Liszt’s chamber music, like Wagner’s, tended to form part of other works, but it is no less chamber music for that. The march transformation, which some puritans have condemned as ‘vulgar’, sounded nothing of the sort; instead, it was dramatically stirring — and, more important, clear in its thematic derivation. Liszt suffers terribly from poor or mediocre performances; he did not here. As a sparkling encore, virtuosic in every sense, Markovich offered a transcription of the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ from Les patineurs. I assume that it was Liszt’s, but not having heard it before, cannot be sure.
Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which I have long thought close to a masterpiece, formed the second half to the concert. It is not so long since the Royal Festival Hall heard what remains a relative rarity; Esa-Pekka Salonen led a truly outstanding performance from the Philharmonia in March 2009. If ultimately Jurowski’s reading did not quite convince me as Salonen’s had, it was interestingly different and proved in many respects complementary. The opening drum rolls resounded magnificently, but I felt much of the first movement unsettled in the wrong way, Jurowski’s direction rendering the bar lines all too audible, however fine the orchestral contribution in itself. Even in this movement, however, the music settled down, and many instrumental details proved sharply etched, not least the crucial flute lines. (The flute is as important to Rabindranath Tagore’s verse as it is to Das Lied von der Erde, a dangerous comparison, which often obscures as much as it reveals, yet which retains some validity when drawn with care.) Moreover, Jurowski proved alert to the teeming of those lines in combination, a combination that edged towards Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was by no means a merely backward-looking composer in 1923.
What of the baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson? Response would largely, I suspect, be a matter of taste. There could be no doubting the intelligence of his verbal response, nor the quality of his diction. (The latter left no one in doubt that he had, in the fifth movement, substituted ‘diesem Zauber’ for ‘deinem Zauber’.) However, for those for whom this is more important, there could be no doubting the vanished lustre of his voice as a voice. The contrast is not quite so simple as that, for sometimes — the final movement was a particularly notable example — the voice had gained a pronounced beat; moreover, pitch could sometimes be more hinted at than centred. Nevertheless, Hampson’s sincerity remained a palpable constant.
Melanie Diener, likewise, did not impress in terms of vocal beauty. However, her performance, in tandem with Jurowski’s, hinted at an operatic quality, perhaps frustrated, to Zemlinsky’s inspiration. It is certainly not the only way to perform the work, and sometimes lessened the importance of song and symphony, but at its best, it revealed aspects one might not have suspected. For instance, the fourth movement, ‘Sprich zu mir, Geliebter!’, was taken daringly slowly, yet it soon became apparent that its reimagination almost as an operatic scene could draw attention to the dark malevolence (Die Frau ohne Schatten?) of Zemlinsky’s writing. As for much of the performance, Jurowski highlighted modernistic timbres, where Salonen had emphasised the work’s sometimes overwhelming — and undoubtedly sincere — late-Romanticism. Flutes glanced towards Pierrot lunaire, perhaps even to Le marteau sans maître. (Now there is a thought: Boulez conducts Zemlinsky? Probably not, though he has recently been performing Szymanowski.) The dialogue between solo violin (leader, Pieter Schoeman) and cello (Blaumane again), which introduces the fourth movement, not only granted an opportunity, well taken, for soloists to shine, but was musically captured as a dissonant yet still tonal turning point.
There was drama, too, quite in keeping with, indeed necessary to, the operatic conception. The interlude following the young girl’s song (no.2), in which she laments to her mother the passing of the young prince’s carriage and its crushing of her ruby chain, displayed real anger, putting this listener in mind of passages and attitudes from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And yet, for all the tugging away from a symphonic conception, when the voices fell silent, the final movement’s coda proved integrative in properly symphonic fashion: thematic and dramatic concerns now sounded as one. If I did not quite feel convinced that the different approaches always cohered, there was much to admire and much to consider.
The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1 February. Readers may therefore make up their own minds, and are warmly encouraged to do so.