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.
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.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.
Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.
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.