13 Apr 2011
Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall
A Frenchman, three Germans and a Venezuelan-born French national: musical responses to Venice.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
A Frenchman, three Germans and a Venezuelan-born French national: musical responses to Venice.
So the first half of Christopher Maltman and Malcolm Martineau’s recital to a crowded Wigmore Hall audience might have been sub-titled.
The sounds and sights of lagoons and piazzas; the glint of the moon on gliding gondolas; lilting barcarolles and strumming mandolins: all were conjured by a varied assortment of songs which threw up some interesting similarities and contrasts.
Fauré’s Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ of 1891 are elegant settings of texts by Paul Verlaine; effectively Fauré’s first song-cycle, they are ordered to form a loose narrative and further unified by motivic and harmonic cross-references. Maltman’s relaxed lyricism in the opening ‘Mandoline’ was complemented by Martineau’s lightness of touch as, with remarkable clarity of texture, he mimicked the gentle strains of the plucked mandolin, ‘[jangling] in the shivering breeze’, wonderfully supporting the chromatic meanderings of the vocal line. ‘En sourdine’ (‘Muted’) allowed Maltman to demonstrate both the rich darkness of his low baritone and his masterfully controlled, delicate head voice in the closing lines, when ‘the voice of our despair/ the nightingale shall sing’. After the more urgent, breathless ‘Green’, with its images of a tumultuous beating heart within a verdant, fresh landscape, ‘A Clymène’ opened up more mysterious, ethereal worlds. The ‘mystic barcarolle’ mentioned in the first phrase of the single-sentence text, encouraged Fauré to incorporate a characteristic rocking motif, and the interleaving dialogue between voice and accompaniment was expertly shaped. Maltman achieved a breath-taking beauty, floating the image of ‘Nimbes d’anges défunts,/ Tons et parfums’ (‘haloes of departed angels/ sounds and scents’) before settling into the sweet consonance of the final stanza above soft rippling arpeggios. The final song, ‘C’est l’extase’ (‘It is rapture’) was ardent and impassioned, retreating at the close with the image of a ‘humble hymn/ On this warm evening, soft and low’, the easeful rest conveyed by tenderly oscillating fifths in the piano bass.
Although Schumann’s complementary pair of gondola songs from the Myrthen cycle do not employ the 6/8 meter typically associated with the barcarolle, the dotted, dancing rhythms create a light spirit and energy, which the performers enhanced by moving without a break between the two songs. Maltman seemed more at home with this idiom, carefully shaping the contrasts and drawing out the yearning sections of the texts, with particular effect at the close of ‘Lied II’, elongating the phrases to convey the lover’s desire to ‘flee, my love,/ across the lagoons’, the joyful sentiments of the verse emphasised by the insouciant piano after-phrase. Schubert’s ‘Gondelfahrer’ (‘The Gondolier’) is more earnest, the rich chordal texture, resonant bass melody in octaves with the vocal line, and generally low accompaniment register suggestive of the dark stillness of the deep waters. Setting the same Ferdinand Freiligrath translation of Thomas Moore that Schumann tackled in his ‘Lied II’, Mendelssohn introduced a harmonic richness to convey the burning passion of the eloping lover which Maltman’s fervent vocal colours more than matched.
Reynaldo Hahn’s 1901 cycle, Venezia: Six chansons en dialecte vénitien, brought the Venetian sojourn to an affectionate and blithe close. Settings of simple dialect verse, these songs were first performed by the composer, accompanying himself, propelled across the lagoon by two gondoliers, to the delight of the local passers-by. Joyfully embracing the characteristic meters and figures of the barcarolle, the songs stay just the right side of kitsch or parody. The performers expertly controlled the tempo within and between the songs, pushing on at the close of ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ (‘Asleep on the water’) as the poet-speaker reflects ‘Ridiadesso e fa l’amor!’ (‘now is the time for laughter and love!’), holding back in the vocalise melismas which conclude the verses of ‘La barcheta’ (‘The little boat’). In these gentle reveries, Maltman revealed a delightful flexibility and delicacy. The more operatic ‘L’avertimento’ (‘The warning’) was followed by erotically charged ‘La Blondina in gondoleta’ (‘The blonde girl in the gondola’). Maltman serenely communicated the tranquil beauty of the scene as ‘Una solo bavesela/ Sventola va I so’ caveli’ (‘Just the suspicion of a breeze/ gently played with her hair’) before the more urgent ecstasies of the final verse: ‘No, mai più tanto beato/ Ai mii zorni no son stà’ (‘Never again was I to be so/ happy in all my life!’). An unfortunate slip at the opening of ironically titled ‘Che pecà!’ (‘What a shame’), did not unsettle Maltman, and he swept rhetorically through this drama of matrimonial disillusionment, the sentiments of the text aptly enhanced by the asymmetrical accents in the piano accompaniment. The final song, ‘La primavera’ (‘Spring’), concluded in a warm blaze of joy.
After the interval, Maltman returned to more familiar territory, although the opening Schubert songs diverted the journey from the Schubertiade’s intimate salons to the public domain of the Italian opera companies that were so popular and successful in Vienna at this time. Composed for the leading bass singer, Luigi Lablanche, the three settings of Pietro Metastasio are far from predictable. ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ (‘The magic of eyes’) drew forth a range of colours and sentiments, from earnest sincerity to impudent playfulness. ‘Il traditor deluso’ (‘The deluded traitor’) places an energetic aria after a rather perfunctory recitative, and Maltman and Martineau successfully created dramatic momentum which climaxed in pulsing octave leaps to convey the melodramatic ‘raging terror’ in the breast of the eponymous anti-hero. ‘Il modo di prender moglie’ (‘How to choose a wife’) displays a surprising Rossinian satirical wit, greatly enjoyed by performers and audience alike.
Although not the most esteemed German Romantic poet, Rückert inspired many of the finest nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers, including Schumann, Richard Strauss, and of course Mahler. Schubert was the first to find the poet congenial, and ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (‘You are repose’) is one of his finest songs: Maltman’s poignant evocation of a quietude troubled by inner pain was deeply moving, and Martineau’s wonderfully judged melodic ornaments enhanced the affecting pathos. The performers relished the challenge of ‘Sei mir gegrußt’ (‘I greet you’) with its recurring refrain, injecting variety and contrast into the repetitions, and maintaining a controlled poise.
With Mahler’s Rückert settings, the evening reached its emotional and musical climax. Maltman utilised all the resources of his diverse baritone, from the airy utterance of the opening phrase of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’), to the honest directness of imploring command, ‘Love the sun, she has golden hair’ in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’), to the sombre depths of ‘Am Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’). Martineau’s alertness, his ability to simultaneously accompany, support, lead and engage with the voice, was superbly demonstrated in these songs. The sparseness of ‘Am Mitternacht’ was enriched by variation of idiom: recitative-like declamation gives way to melismatic outburst, controlled chordal alternations erupt in the final bars to convey the force of the poet-speaker’s declaration of spiritual love.
According to the programme notes, Mahler explained that ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) was inspired by “the feeling that tills one and rises to the tip of one’s tongue but goes no further”, and the restrained self-possession of this intelligent, emotive performance perfectly captured these sentiments.
A Verdian encore revealed that, despite the rich variety offered to a resoundingly appreciative audience, Maltman has many more musical, theatrical and emotional resources to draw upon.
Fauré: Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’; Four Gondoliers’
Robert Schumann: Two Venetian songs from Myrthen
Franz Schubert: Gondelfahrer
Felix Mendelssohn: Venetianesches Gondellied
Reynaldo Hahn: Venezia — Six chansons en dialecte vénitien
Franz Schubert: Three Lieder to texts by Metastasio; Three Lieder to texts by Rückert
Gustav Mahler: Five Lieder to texts by Rückert