Recently in Performances
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos
this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark
streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It
is that exclusive—you can’t even find the
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic
concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus
tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra
from the depths of her soul.
24 Apr 2011
It has long been my belief that the problems of the planet would be resolved
(or move on to their next stage) if only the folk of every ethnicity (nation,
faith, historic minority, tribe) would devote their energy to creating
opera—and perhaps theater or dance—out of its musical and mythical
That would certainly calm a lot of people down at any rate. The
Arabs, for example. They’ve grown understandably restive about the way
their societies have been run lately, and with their capacity for narration
(1001 Nights, anybody?) and distinctive musical heritage, opera ought
to be a natural for them. The more cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world have
developed a rich theatrical scene in the last century, and their films and
music-videos imply the cultural jump would not be an awkward one. There’s
a kebab-and-hookah restaurant near me that shows Egyptian music-videos from the
early Nasser years, or so I infer by the length of the ladies’ skirts.
But we’ll have to be quick before Arab culture is swamped (as youtube is
already swamped) with Bollywood-style Arabic videos, of which Lebanon already
produces quite a trove.
Mohammed Fairouz, who is 26 and was educated in London (his biography in the
program is cagey about where exactly he was born), has already prowled much of
the planet, studying instruments from the oud to the didgeridoo, though the
Mimesis Orchestra that played the premiere of his opera, Sumeida’s
Song, in the hall of the Ethical Culture Society last week was made up of
traditional Western instruments with some enhanced percussion. The use to which
Fairouz put this orchestra demonstrates an impressive control of the varied
textures it can produce. He was careful—perhaps unduly so—to avoid
the trap of relying on “Middle Eastern” motifs in
“Western” orchestration, which could have sounded like
Hollywood’s scores for Arabian Nights movies of the fifties, but he
introduced a phrase or two of Middle Eastern-style drumbeat or oboe riff into a
manner more typical of spiky modern borderline tonalities. Middle Eastern-isms
have been explored in considerably greater detail in John Corigliano’s
wind concerti, but that is the very sentimentality that Fairouz evades.
The character of the score across three brief acts (about eighty minutes)
gave every section of the orchestra something interesting to do. Percussion, as
is true with so many modernist works, was full of interest, but the beats were
not for dancing: Rather, they illustrated references in the text to winds, to
vendetta, to railroads. Woodwinds did not mimic Arabian lament but underlined
phrases in the drama. Thunderous low brasses accompanied deadly events in an
international manner. Yet this very avoidance of anything specifically
“Arabian” may have been a mistake: The most affecting moment of the
score, for me, was the last wail of an implacable mother: The soprano’s
voice, shifting through semitones, seemed to imply a mixture of traditional
keening with an uncertainty about her bloodthirst and its consequences that
went well with the fading, uneasy tremolos of the last bars of the opera and
encapsulates the moral of the story.
All this expert orchestration was, unfortunately, not matched by any gift
for libretto-writing. The story, taken without alteration from a classic play by the modern
Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, concerns the widowed Asakir, whom we find
awaiting her son’s return from the big city. When his father was murdered
by a rival clan, she smuggled the boy to Cairo, hoping he’d apprentice to
a butcher—in order to learn to use a knife properly. Instead, he went to
college and realized how his rural people have been oppressed. He is 19 now, a
modern man who refuses to consider vendetta—he’d rather organize
the people to improve their dreary lives. His mother, outraged, taunts one of
his cousins into killing her disgrace of a son. The cousin is Sumeida, whose
song, sung twice, signifies first Alwan’s return, then his death.
There are possibilities here, for a librettist of genius, but in the
unaltered play that constitutes the libretto it is rather ploddingly told. It is difficult not to recall such
similarly brutal and elemental stories as those of Cavalleria
Rusticana or Tosca, and how cleverly their librettists slid
back-story into dramatic event. In Sumeida’s Song, everything
is explained at the moment it is said, and none of the music carries us, holds
us melodically, or builds to a satisfying explosion. In eschewing melodramatic
music in a melodramatic tale, Fairouz, like most modern composers, really has
nowhere to turn. His intriguing orchestration is accompaniment, whereas in
opera the music should share the dramatic propulsion. It is not good being told
(as the libretto told us, at several moments) that someone is performing an
aria; either we feel it as an aria, as a statement, as an expression of inner
feeling, or we do not. These arias were indistinguishable from the explicatory
Fairouz’s vocal writing seemed either ungrateful, exploring the
extremes of his prima donna’s range in both directions, or else Jo Ellen
Miller as the murderous Asakir simply wasn’t up to it. Inaudible in the
first act, she pulled some dignified phrases out at as the drama proceeded.
None of the other singers had a fully-formed character to portray, and all were
easily drowned out when the orchestra roused itself, though the composer
politely restrained them whenever some special lyrical message needed to be
Fairouz demonstrated genuine ability and achievement as an orchestral
technician, and he may well have more to offer singers with a more focused text
(he has composed ten song cycles), but nothing about Sumeida’s
Song suggested a mature affinity for opera.