800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Adapting an extended literary work for the stage remains a challenge today
and was no less so in the baroque era. Ariosto’s enormously long poem
Orlando Furioso was extremely popular and inevitably his highly
coloured characters found their way onto the operatic stage.
Antonio Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso (concert performance)
first encounter with Orlando was in 1713 when he mounted Ristori’s
Orlando Furioso and his own Orlando Finto Pazzo in Venice;
the Ristori was a success, his opera less so. In 1727 Vivaldi returned to the
subject, this time setting the same libretto that Ristori had used. Not long
afterwards, in the 1730’s, Handel would use the same episodes to created
two of his greatest operas, Alcina and Orlando.
But whereas Handel created two operas, Vivaldi crammed both plots into a
single breathless romp. Handel’s operas are works of great depth and
sophistication, whereas Vivaldi’s aim seemed to be to entertain; the
drama runs at high speed, the arias are short and lively, the plot mixes magic
and humour with occasional shades of drama.
Having given us Handel’s Alcina in December, the
Barbican’s Great Performers season on Saturday 26th March brought us
Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Malthus in Vivaldi’s Orlando
Furioso. The performance originated at the Theatre des Champs Elysee, but
as is the way of these things illness forced some cast changes so that Daniela
Pini and Franziska Gottwald joined the cast at short notice. This meant that
Pini and Gottwald sang from the score whereas the remainder of the cast were
off the book.
By combining Alcina and Orlando, Vivaldi ended up with a large number of
characters, 7 in all, even though Alcina’s sister is mentioned but never
appears and the character of Dorinda (present in Handel’s
Orlando) is entirely absent. Vivaldi asks a lot of his singers, his
arias though generally short in length are very much in the style of his
instrumental concerti. Each singer was presented with an opening aria which
used a series of variations on the theme of bravura up-tempo
virtuosity; each toe-tapping in its way, with brilliant string accompaniment,
but fatally lacking in extremes of variety or emotion. It was only when we were
two thirds of the way through act 1 that the tempo changed and Philippe
Jaroussky’s Ruggiero entered with an aria of haunting lyrical beauty.
Act 1 involved a great deal of introduction and explanation. It was in Act 2
that the real drama started, when Victoria Cangemi’s beautifully lyrical,
if scheming, Angelica united with Daniela Pini’s nicely hesitant Medoro.
Having been pursued by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Orlando, Angelica has led
Orlando on and tricked him. Needless to say Orlando goes mad.
Vivaldi’s way the drama here was less sure than Handel’s. When
Angelica pretended to respond to Orlando’s attentions Vivaldi gave her an
aria of great lyrical beauty, finely sung by Victoria Cangemi; but entirely
lacking in an iota of irony or a feeling that Angelica doesn’t actually
mean what she says. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a one woman tour de force
as the hero Orlando, a series of bravura arias tremendously sung led
to Orlando’s mad scene which closed act 2.
Parallel to this Alcina, played with charm and amused detachment by
Franziska Gottwald, was busy captivating Jaroussky’s lyrical and slightly
wimp-ish Ruggiero, in turn pursued with amazonic charm by Kristina
Hammarstrom’s Bradamante (Ruggiero’s beloved, disguised as a
The libretto left the singers little time to create a three dimensional
character, they were only able to provide a sketch, usually accompanied by some
brilliant singing. Gottwald was notable for the way she suggested
Alcina’s charm and the loneliness behind, a woman able to get any man she
wanted but unable to form a real relationship. It was her aria towards the end
of act, movingly sung by Gottwald, where we first got some real depth of
In act 3, the two plots collided as Orlando in his madness destroyed the
temple holding the key to Alcina’s power; (a strange confusion of
operatic plots rather as if Lucia di Lammermoor suddenly appeared and killed
Macbeth). Spinosi encouraged Lemieux to move from bravura to over the
top in Orlando’s act 3 mad scenes, the style veering towards the 19th
century mad scene and even, fatally, G&S’s Mad Margaret. This was an
occasion when less might have been more.
Throughout proceedings Gottwald’s Alcina kept her poise and left us in
an aura of sadness rather than heart rending grief. Interestingly Angelica was
taken to task for the way she had toyed with Orlando’s affections and led
him on; a moralising not often found in baroque opera.
The rather protracted tidying up of loose ends in act 3 made me rather
admire the way Handel and his librettists often took the blue pencil to final
acts and speeded things up; that certainly needed doing here.
Christian Senn was the only lower voice, another knight charmed by Alcina;
he seemed at times the only voice of reason.
Though Vivaldi did use trumpets, horns and oboes in the orchestra, he did so
extremely sparingly so that the predominant orchestral colour was the strings.
Spinosi and his ensemble, quite a large group numbering 28 strings, did full
justice to Vivaldi’s brilliant orchestra accompaniments and
The opera was presented in what has become the standard for this style of
concert performance, with singers at the side of the stage, making generally
correct entrances and exits, all the women playing men were helpfully in
trousers. It certainly helped the drama that most of them were singing off the
book. But more importantly we had singing of such a high order that when
Vivaldi did use the music to create drama, we felt the benefit of it. In terms
of sheer vocal quality this was an evening hardly to be faulted and the
enthusiasm of both singers and ensemble seemed infectious.
Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso is a long opera; we had over 3
hours of music with a single 20 minute interval in the middle of act 2. As the
evening started at 6.30 and finished at 10.10pm, I could not help thinking that
Vivaldi’s act structure could have been respected and the piece performed
with 2 intervals.
Vivaldi’s opera succeeds on its own terms, that is it entertains; in
fact it does so royally. We might wish for Handel’s greater depth, but
Vivaldi’s romp is fun especially when presented with such skill as it was