01 Jun 2011
Brahms Liebesliederwalzer, Wigmore Hall, London
Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.
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.
Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.
They aren’t performed live as often as they should be because they need four singers, two pianists and plenty of flair.
At this recital in London’s Wigmore Hall, the singers were Bernarda Fink, Sylvia Schwartz, Michael Schade and Robert Holl. The pianists were Malcolm Martineau and Justus Zeyen.
Appropriately, the evening began with Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder op 138 (1849) for they use the same forces as Brahms was to use in his two Liebeslieder Walzer op 52 and 65. Although Schumann’s song are set to Emanuel Giebell’s translations of Spanish and Portuguese texts, they’re not overtly Iberian. These charming songs would have been performed quite happily by talented amateur ensembles. This is sociable music, ideal for discreet flirations, perhaps. Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen, the men sing in mock alarm, in a song about an angry girl rushing off in a huff to the mountains. Then Fink sings Hoch, hoch sind die Berge about a girl upset because her lover’s headed for the hills. Joyful repartee, perfectly in order.
Brahms would have known the Schumann songs well, but, as Richard Stokes writes in his programme notes, they are not a “prototype” for the songs Brahms was to write twenty and twenty five years later. Brahms takes the concept of part song to an altogether more sophisticated level. Solo voices alternate with full ensemble, or divide into pairs. Voices sing in harmony, then suddenly revert to polyphony. Intervals and rhythms change. Sometimes the singers sing rounds, sometimes they weave intricate patterns around each other. In really good performances, the singing seems to almost levitate with energy. Significantly, Brahms called these songs Walzer, not Gesänge. They’re waltzes for the voice.
Moods change from the gruff, mock bucolic humour of O die Frauen to the elegant, arched lines of Wie des Abends where the female voices throw the words. “Einem, einem” and “Sonder, Ende, Wonne, sprühn” as if the vowels were garlands. Notice how Brahms pairs songs as partners to one another, and creates long cotillions, where songs move in formation, without a break between them.
Brahms doesn’t merely paint text, he works meaning into form itself. In Die grüne Hopfenranke, the four voices trill and entwine like the tendrils of the vine they’re singing about.
In this repertoire, Bernarda Fink was superlative. Her voice dances brightly, like the belle of the ball. When she needs depth, her voice darkens expressively. In Wahre, wahre, deinen Sohn, her voice becomes the witch/seductress who’ll kill if she can’t get her man. It’s an important song, for its adds menace to what on the surface seems a light hearted, lilting series of songs.
Robert Holl, too, was superb. Although he’s no longer in the first flush of youth, his technique is so good that he can bring agility to his voice which is rich and veers towards the darker range of his fach. He uses it well for dramatic effect, but here he moderated himself at times to blend in unison. That’s a sign of his artistic integrity. A lesser man might want to shine at the expense of the group. Holl knows that it’s ensemble that counts in these songs, not showmanship per se. He was a last minute substitute for Thomas Quasthoff, who was unwell, but Holl’s so experienced and so impressive, that it was no loss.
Some of the finest songs in both Brahms sets are written to showcase the tenor, and Michael Schade delivered well. Since the programme was devised around Quasthoff (the main pianist, Justus Zeyen, is Quasthoff’s regular partner), a Schreier or Prégardien would distract from the baritone part. Schade is good, though, providing a nice balance with Holl’s almost basso resonance.
The soprano was Sylvia Schwartz, a new name to me. She’s been in ensemble at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin where her roles have included Zerlina. She doesn’t quite have the experience as the others and at times sounded pinched and exposed. It was heartening, though, to hear how Fink shielded Schwartz, giving her room so she could build confidence. Another sign of an artist who puts music before ego. Indeed, this is why part-songs like these are so enjoyable. Just as in a string quartet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Robert Schumann: Spanische Liebeslieder op 138
Johannes Brahms: Liebeslieder Walzer op 52, An die Heimat, Der Abend, O schöne Nacht, Abendlied Neue Liebeslieder Walzer op 65,