29 Apr 2011
Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall
For the second time in a matter of just a few weeks, the Wigmore Hall audience were treated to an evening of seventeenth-century song and dance.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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 Threshold”.
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.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
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.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
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.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
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’.
For the second time in a matter of just a few weeks, the Wigmore Hall audience were treated to an evening of seventeenth-century song and dance.
After the exuberant, high-spirited performance of Magdelena Kožená and Private Musicke in March, Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by Cappella Mediterranea, presented a more restrained account, delivering a powerful, controlled expression of love and grief.
We began with a sequence of numbers from Monteverdi’s tale of faithful endurance, Il ritorno d’Ulisse. The dark, resonant bass registers of the opening Sinfonia, as the members of the Cappella, led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón at the organ, skilfully improvised on what the score presents as a simple minor chord, aptly conveying Penelope’s distress and anguish as she waits languidly for the return of the eponymous hero. Von Otter remained seated at the commencement of ‘Di misera regina’ (‘The queen’s misery’), her grief subdued, the soft-focused, flexible melodic line revealing her weariness and quiet despair. Rising to stand for the more declamatory text, as the queen angrily accuses Ulisse of neglect, even betrayal, von Otter injected a bitterness into the recitative, complemented by the astringent tone of Gustavo Gargiulo’s cornett. The heavy, portentous organ suggested that Penelope may be right in her fears that her fate shall ‘never alter’; here, and throughout the recital, Alarcón was eager to give every textual nuance a musical shade, although I found the organ timbre a little too grave and sombre, and welcomed the light fleetness of the final section, ‘Torna il tranquillo al mare’ (‘Calm returns the sea’) during which the organ was silent.
Von Otter’s Italian was crystal clear, but the Camerata proved just as adept at communicating textual meaning. For, the sequence concluded with an instrumental interpretation of the returning sailors’ Act 1 song, in which they celebrate man’s power and freedom in the face of the indifference of the gods. The players’ ornaments and figurations responded expertly to the text, conveying energy and swiftness, driving forward through an exciting sequence of rising modulations.
In Barbara Strozzi’s ‘Che si può fare’ (‘What can one do’), von Otter was once again surprisingly restrained, remaining seated for this monumental lament, but she demonstrated an effortlessly lyrical beauty in the tender melismas, delicately and poignantly contrasting with some startling harmonic dissonances. A deeply intense sentiment was conveyed, enhanced by a spirited dialogue between the two violins and the marvellous realisation – expressive, intricate but never overwhelming – of the repeating ground bass by theorbo player, Daniel Zapico.
‘Sí dolce è’l tormento’ (‘So sweet is the anguish’) by Monteverdi followed, revealing the rich, burnished quality of von Otter’s lower range. She ventured a daringly hushed pianissimo and rubato in the closing lines, conveying the paradoxical ‘sweetness’ of her anguish: ‘Su, su prendi arco e faretra,/ Casto amore, e ‘l cor mi spetra’ (‘quickly, take your bow and quiver,/ chaste love, and melt my heart’).
Francesco Provenzale was one of the leading figures in the musical life of Naples during the seventeenth century. ‘Squarciato appena havea’, conventionally attributed to him, is a lament-cantata in the Roman style with seven popular songs breaking in at unusual points in the sequence of sections in a recitative style. It is a satire of Luigi Rossi’s famous cantata, ‘Un ferito cavaliero’, which tells the story of the death of Gustavus Aldophus, husband of Queen Christina of Sweden in Lünzen in 1632. The Queen seems to die at the end of each strophe, and the purpose of inserting popular songs which interrupt the lamenting recitative, seems to be to create paradoxical contrast; for the songs are children’s ditties and lullabies, well-known repertory for voice and guitar from the seventeenth-century. Von Otter relished the ironies, exaggerating the emotions – at times introducing a rough grain to her voice to contrast with more lyrical outbursts, elsewhere emphasising the remarkable chromatic inflections. Her rhetoricism and theatricality was complemented by the musicians, a melodramatic organ tremolo underpinning the Queen’s grief-stricken exclamation, ‘Il mio Gustavo è morto?’ (‘Is my Gustavus dead?’). Zapico’s ornamentation of the phrase, ‘Onde morta ed esangue la Regina’ (‘When the Queen is dead and lifeless’) was masterful, evoking a remarkable still languor. Von Otter even turned instrumentalist herself, shaking and striking a tambourine, stamping and clapping energetically to the sprung, syncopated rhythms.
While there was no doubting the sincerity of the musicians, and their delight in the material, or Von Otter’s expressive involvement, the first half of this recital did not quite tap the spirit of joie de vivre and impassioned emotion that these songs embody. She certainly inhabited the dramatic personae of the lyrics, but von Otter did not seem entirely at ease. Despite the swaying and clapping, a certain sense of freedom, even recklessness, which is elemental in these songs was absent – her invitation to the audience to join her in her percussive accompaniment to the final song was not heeded. In the instrumental numbers, von Otter stayed seated centre-stage, the focus of the audience’s eye, and perhaps this inhibited the musical brio of the performers. At times Alarcón’s vigorous direction of the ensemble seemed a little too effortful. Moreover, even allowing for the instability of these authentic instruments, there was an awful lot of tuning and re-tuning, at the start of each half of the recital, and between numbers, and this (together with an extremely long interval) hindered the creation of musical momentum and over-arching dramatic shape.
In the second half we moved gradually from Italy, through France, to England. Over the same chaconne bass previously heard in Strozzi’s aria, the instrumentalists interpreted the text of ‘Mio ben, teco il tomento’ (‘My beloved’) by Rossi, which led into Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s ‘Quel prix de mon amour’ from Médée. This is a beautiful account of the pain wrought by infidelity, and von Otter expertly conveyed Medea’s anguish, exploiting the poignant cadential appoggiaturas and fluctuating tempo to powerful expressive effect.
Some superb cornett and violin playing in an instrumental rendering of Ariel’s ‘Dry those eyes’ from The Tempest, by John Weldon, was followed by the vocal flourishes of Henry Purcell’s short recitative ‘Hark! how all things’ (from The Fairy Queen) and the diverse colours, textures and tempi of ‘From silent shades’, in which the distracted snatches of the songs of ‘Bess of Bedlam’ are presented in a mixture of popular and classical idioms. As in Provenzale’s cantata, von Otter enjoyed the dramatic and unconventional aspects of this song, playfully delivering the occasionally unaccompanied text: the juxtaposition of the painful chromaticism of Bess’s self-pity, ‘Cold and hungry am I grown’, with a headlong, joyful carelessness, ‘Ambrosia will I feed upon’, forcefully conveyed the protagonist’s instability and insanity.
Two arias by Handel, separated by an instrumental passacaglia, brought the recital to a close. In ‘Where’er you walk’ from Semele and ‘Ogni vento’ from Agrippina, von Otter showed her mastery of the opera seria idiom, wonderfully shaping the melodic line during the first statement of the text, subtly ornamenting and elaborating on its return. The audience response was ecstatic. But, despite the unquestionable technical and musical talents on display, I felt that at times during the evening the performance lacked the natural exuberance and unrestrained liberty that this music requires and inspires.