Recently in Performances
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman
theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or
amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators
or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in
other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard
Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014
by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine
Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
26 Jul 2011
Verdi’s Requiem, BBC Proms
Not only did Verdi’s Requiem make its debut, rather remarkably, in the church of San Marco in Milan but the performance was as a liturgical one; Verdi’s intentions were quite firmly to provide a memorial mass for the Italian patriot, Manzoni.
But following this sacred premiere, the work went on
to have 3 further performances at La Scala and Verdi then took it on tour round
theatrical venues in Europe. So from the word go, the piece has been poised
between the sacred and the secular. It is this which gives the piece some of
its fascination and difficulty. Verdi’s writing mixes operatic elements with
some which are more sacred. For soloists he calls for 4 experienced Verdians,
but then he writes unaccompanied ensemble passages for them which are some way
from what he would have written in an opera.
At the BBC Proms on Sunday 24th July, Semyon Bychkov conducted BBC forces in
a very large scale performance. There were 3 choirs (BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC
National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir) with the BBC
Symphony Orchestra and a quartet of soloists all with strong Verdian
credentials (Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja and Ferrucio
Furlanetto). The three choirs numbered around 450 singers and the orchestra was
similarly large scale, complete with a cimbasso on the brass bass line (instead
of the modern tuba or euphonium)
This issue of size is an interesting one, which can also be traced back to
Verdi’s original performances. Though the 1874 performances at La Scala used
a choir of 120, when Verdi took the work on tour round Europe his attitude
seems to have been flexible. So that whilst he performed the piece in Paris at
the Opéra-Comique (not a large theatre), in London it was performed at the
Royal Albert Hall in 1875 with huge forces. Clearly Verdi was not dogmatic
about the forces involved, so we should not be either. Instead we can sit back
and revel in the sheer sound that Bychkov conjured from his Proms forces.
The opening demonstrated what a wonderful sound can be created by a
disciplined large choir singing in hushed tones. Though big in scale, this
wasn’t a driven or a bombastic performance, Bychkov drew some beautifully
quiet and detailed singing from his choristers. The difficulty of combining 450
singers in such a space should not be underestimated and it is to the three
choirs’ credit that their choristers combined in such a powerful and
All was not quiet, of course. Come the ‘Dies Irae’ then all hell was let
loose in appropriate fashion. Here we were able to take stock of Bychkov’s
flexible tempi. He did not drive the piece forward manically, but let
it expand at a rate suitable for the Albert Hall’s problematic acoustic. The
‘Dies Irae’ was not the fastest performance that I have experienced, but
even when letting the music breathe Bychkov kept up the power and momentum in
an impressive fashion.
The chorus’s big solo moment, of course, comes in the ‘Sanctus’ where
they perform without the soloists. Here we got some beautifully detailed
singing, and fine dancing tone.
The soloists were an interesting bunch, each with a distinctive and
particular voice. Mezzo-soprano Pentcheva was a last-minute replacement for
Sonia Ganassi. Pentcheva has proven Verdi credentials; her voice combines a
distinctive dark hued lower register with a flexible upper, capable of some
lovely quiet singing. She has a strong vibrato which might not be to
everyone’s taste. She proved tasteful and flexible in her singing and brought
some great beauty to her quiet moments, along with vivid projection of
Calleja sang the tenor part with full tone and a fine sense of line; he
brought a fine sense of quiet rapture to the ‘Hostias’. Perhaps he missed
the more bravura elements of the part, but he was a fine ensemble singer
contributing intelligently to the many concerted solo moments. Ferrucio
Furlanetto brought a world-weary grandeur to the bass part; lacking the
ultimate in power, he showed commitment and discipline along with a fine sense
Finally, of course, we come to the soprano; whilst all the soloists have
their moments, Verdi’s use of the soprano in the final ‘Libera me’
ensures that it is the soprano who we remember best. Poplavskaya brought her
familiar plangent tones and beautifully expressive line to the role, singing
with a commitment which suggested she was living the part rather than just
singing a soprano solo. She floated some supremely lovely lines during the
piece, but these were always intelligently placed and not just vocalism for its
own sake. In the ‘Libera me’ she took the drama to the point where she was
in danger of becoming manner, but the ‘Requiem’ section where she sang just
accompanied by the unaccompanied choir was simply beautiful. Though I must
admit to having a slight reservation, Poplavskaya’s quiet plangency
threatened to push the notes below pitch, but this was a small point in what
was a very fine performance.
The soloists are more than just 4 individuals, Verdi asks them to sing in
ensemble rather a lot and to do so unaccompanied. Poplavskaya, Pentcheva,
Calleja and Furlanetto patently listened to each other and though their voices
were very different, created a real ensemble. Most people who have heard the
Requiem quite a few times have stories about the intonation problems
in these ensemble passages. But not here. And in the ‘Agnus Dei
‘Poplavskaya and Pentcheva sang in octaves in a way which, whilst not quite
of one voice, came pretty close.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra provided sterling support and some brilliant
playing. Granted their string tone does not approach the vibrancy of the best
bands in this music, but they brought commitment, intelligence and delicacy.
Bychkov controlled all in a way which allowed the detail of the work to be
felt without compromising the big moments. This was certainly a performance of
contrasts. Inevitably some detail gets lost in the Albert Hall, but Bychkov
brought out much that was finely wrought, then contrasted it with some
spectacularly loud moments. The ‘Dies Irae’ and the ‘Tuba Mirum’ are
not the be all and end all of a performance of Verdi’s Requiem; here
these big moments were big indeed but contrasted with some moments of nicely