Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of artist]
04 Apr 2011

Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

In this intriguing and unpredictable recital, American countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo, and his accompanist, Simon Lepper, presented a dynamic sequence of American song from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor; Simon Lepper piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 29 March 2011

Above: Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of artist]

 

Both performers may be alumni of King’s College Cambridge, but there was little of the English cathedral tradition in either the selected repertoire or the performance itself. Indeed, in a recent interview, Zazzo declared his intention to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels”.

Zazzo has received immense praise for his recent operatic portrayals — in Xerxes and Radamisto at ENO and in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest at Covent Garden, where he created the role of Trinculo — and there was certainly an air of excitement as the performers bounded onto the stage and launched precipitously into the Charles Ives’ ‘Memories’, commencing even before the welcoming applause had ceased.

Divided into two parts, ‘A) Very pleasant’ and ‘B) Rather sad’, ‘Memories’ is one of Ives’ most famous comic songs. Bursting with energy, Zazzo captured the breathless excitement of the young protagonist who eagerly awaits the rise of the curtain at the opera house. The song is a witty parody of G&S patter, and Zazzo enjoyed the flamboyant exaggerations of the song. However, here and in the quieter, more melancholy ‘Rather sad’, the qualities which were to mar what was at times an impressive and striking performance were immediately present. For Zazzo’s countertenor is a rather cold, hard instrument — suitable perhaps for Ives’ sharp satire, but less appealing at more reflective moments. Moreover, the text was almost unintelligible, here and throughout the recital, as Zazzo continually elongated the vowels and swallowed or ignored the consonants; this created the impression of a lack of emotional involvement with the text, as verbal nuances were not distinguishable, an effect exacerbated by a rather inflexible approach to the delivery and shaping of the melodic phrase.

The performers certainly shared an innate feeling for Ives’ varied idioms. ‘Songs my mother taught me’ possessed a controlled simplicity; in ‘Walking’ Lepper vigorously conjured up the sounds and rhythms of everyday urban life, church bells, a jazz dance, surging traffic. Most successful of these opening songs was ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’: here the strumming piano chords conveyed the many colours and translucency of the ‘cloudy willow and the plumy elm’ beside the ‘dreamy realm’ of the ‘contented river’. As the Housatonic River meandered its way through the landscape, the power and penetration of Zazzo’s focused tone was apparent, although a tendency to crescendo rather too forcefully through particular syllables at times revealed a slight graininess.

Samuel Barber’s ten Hermit Songs of 1952 are scarcely, if ever, performed by a countertenor. The texts, as Barber explained are “settings of anonymous, Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were copying or illuminating — perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors”. And, the songs are principally declamatory in nature; indeed, the composer eschews time signatures in order to allow the singer to declaim the rhythmic irregularities of the poetry. The archaisms of the texts are underlined by sparse textures and frequent bare fourths and fifths in the accompaniment — as in ‘The Crucifixion’, where the driving intensity of the painful image of suffering, ‘Ah sore was the suffering borne/ By the body of Mary’s Son’, is counterbalanced by a quiet piano postlude whose high register and bare fifths evoke the poignancy of the grief, ‘Which for His sake/ Came upon His Mother’.

Zazzo’s intonation was well-centred throughout these songs, and at times he responded very effectively to textual details — delivering a whirling glissando to convey the sound of the bell struck ‘on a windy night’ in ‘Church bell at night’, and emphasising the dynamic melismas in ‘Sea-snatch’ to imitate the apocalyptic wind which as ‘consumed us, swallowed us’, culminating in a piercing cry to ‘O King of the starbright Kingdom of Heaven’. In the enigmatic, ephemeral ‘Promiscuity’, he revealed a more subtle and varied palette; while at the climax of ‘St. Ita’s vision’ Zazzo’s astonishing range, and his ability to control his voice across the registers, was unveiled. Throughout these songs, Lepper exploited contrasts of register and brought vitality to the rhythmic irregularities. Zazzo, a natural stage performer relished the dramatic quality of the songs, readily adopting different personae, and bringing the characters and lives from the medieval past into the present, revealing the on-going relevance of the texts’ sentiments in the modern world.

The second half of the recital began with Ned Rorem’s War Scenes of 1969, settings of Walt Whitman’s diary of the Civil War, ‘Specimen Days’. In these recitative-like declamations Zazzo’s imprecise diction was a more serious problem, although some songs were more successful in this regard than others. In ‘Specimen Case’, steady piano chords punctuated a clearer account of the war-shock suffered by a ‘poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse shining hair’, and here Zazzo established a mood of pathos and regret. Similarly, the unaccompanied opening of ‘The real war will never get in books’ (which Rorem gives the unusual marking, ‘flexible, declamatory, slower than speech, but rich and full, supple and grand’) was deeply moving. Humming through closed mouth for the final phrase, allowing his voice to dissolve as we pondered on ‘how much, and of importance, has already been, buried in the grave’, Zazzo showed that he is not afraid to take risks and experiment with colour — here to touching effect. And, in ‘A night battle’ the shout, ‘Charge men charge?...’ was extravagantly delivered. Rorem’s accompaniments do much to convey the drama of the prose, and at the start of this song Lepper sensitively interweaved the right hand line with the voice, while an ethereal concluding flourish evoked the silvery radiance of the moon at dusk. The grotesque fury of the postlude to the jazz inflected ‘Inauguration ball’ was startling.

Zazzo concluded this all-American programme which a new song-cycle by Andrew Gerle, ‘Drink Well and Sing’, based on poems by, and inspired by, Anacreon of Teos. It concerns a poet at the end of his life, as he reflects on his lost youth and consoles himself with thoughts of wine, women and song. Gerle is best known, and highly acclaimed, for his music theatre work — the composer of six highly praised musicals, he is a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award, three Richard Rodgers Awards, and was the first composer selected to receive the Burton Lane Composer's Fellowship from the Theatre Hall of Fame. And, there were plenty of Broadway touches here, not least in the boisterous ‘Bring me the winebowl, in which Zazzo enjoyed the extravagant rhetoricism, relishing the strident semitonal dissonances between piano and voice. Affective ‘blue notes’ coloured ‘Once again’, a lament for lost love and passing years: ‘And she tells me that my hair is white,/ And say oh!/ She loves another’. As in the Rorem songs, the piano does much to relay the narrative. In ‘You’ve snipped the perfect blossoms off’, Lepper expertly controlled the momentum, manipulating colour, dynamics and rhythm, interweaving sensitively with the vocal melody. The staccato stabbings of prancing horses, added much wry irony to the miniature, ‘The Mysians’: ‘The Mysians first mated/ Horse-mounting asses with mares/ Inventing the half-assed mule.’ The gentle lilting accompaniment of ‘Before I depart’ brought the cycle to a restful close, as the poet-speaker longs to ‘make a bed of soft myrtles and lotus plants,/ And drink to my friends’.

This was an intriguing and entertaining evening of song; Zazzo demonstrated an admirable seriousness and considerable musical intelligence in committing so much complex material — music and text — to memory, especially in the second part of the performance. However, these cycles are particularly dependent on clear enunciation of the text for their full impact to be felt, and in this regard there is still some work to do.

Claire Seymour

Programme:

Ives: Memories; Songs my mother taught me; Walking; The Housatonic at Stockbridge.
Barber: Hermit Songs Op. 29.
Rorem: War Scenes.
Gerle: Drink Well and Sing.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):