Recently in Performances
‘[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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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