13 Apr 2011
Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall
A Frenchman, three Germans and a Venezuelan-born French national: musical responses to Venice.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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