Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.

Riveting Maria de San Diego

As part of its continuing, adventurous “Detour” series, San Diego Opera mounted a deliciously moody, proudly pulsating, wholly evocative presentation of Astor Piazzolla’s “nuevo tango” opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.

La Walkyrie in Toulouse

The Nicolas Joel 1999 production of Die Walküre seen just now in Toulouse well upholds the Airbus city’s fame as Bayreuth-su-Garonne (the river that passes through this quite beautiful, rich city).

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at Covent Garden

Carmen is dead. Long live Carmen. In a sense, both Bizet’s opera and his gypsy diva have been ‘done to death’, but in this new production at the ROH (first seen at Frankfurt in 2016) Barrie Kosky attempts to find ways to breathe new life into the show and resurrect, quite literally, the eponymous temptress.

Candide at Arizona Opera

On Friday February 2, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Although all the music was Bernstein’s, the text was written and re-written by numerous authors including Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, as well as the composer.

Satyagraha at English National Opera

The second of Philip Glass’s so-called 'profile' operas, Satyagraha is magnificent in ENO’s acclaimed staging, with a largely new cast and conductor bringing something very special to this seminal work.

Mahler Symphony no 8—Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality. For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem. Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.

Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday—Angelika Kirchschlager

At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series. The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde. Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.

Ilker Arcayürek at Wigmore Hall

The first thing that struck me in this Wigmore Hall recital was the palpable sincerity of Ilker Arcayürek’s artistry. Sincerity is not everything, of course; what we think of as such may even be carefully constructed artifice, although not, I think, here.

Lisette Oropesa sings at Tucson Desert Song Festival

On January 30, 2018, Arizona Opera and the Tucson Desert Song Festival presented a recital by lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa in the University of Arizona’s Holsclaw Hall. Looking like a high fashion model in her silver trimmed midnight-blue gown, the singer and pianist Michael Borowitz began their program with Pablo Luna’s Zarzuela aria, “De España Vengo.” (“I come from Spain”).

Schubert songs, part-songs and fragments: three young singers at the Wigmore Hall

Youth met experience for this penultimate instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s Schubert: The Complete Songs series, and the results were harmonious and happy. British soprano Harriet Burns, German tenor Ferdinand Keller and American baritone Harrison Hintzsche were supportively partnered by lieder ‘old-hand’, Graham Johnson, and we heard some well-known and less familiar songs in this warmly appreciated early-afternoon recital.

Brent Opera: Nabucco

Brent Opera’s Nabucco was a triumph in that it worked as a piece of music theatre against some odds, and was a good evening out.

LPO: Das Rheingold

It is, of course, quite an achievement in itself for a symphony orchestra to perform Das Rheingold or indeed any of the Ring dramas. It does not happen very often, not nearly so often as it should; for given Wagner’s crucial musico-historical position, this is music that should stand at the very centre of their repertoires – just as Beethoven should at the centre of opera orchestras’.

William Tell in Palermo

This was the infamous production that was booed to extinction at Covent Garden. Palermo’s Teatro Massimo now owns the production.

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):