Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
27 Aug 2011
Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals at Grant Park
In keeping with the festival nature of the piece, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, along with guest soloists and a guest chorus director, gave two performances of Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln on recent weekend evenings.
Carlos Kalmar conducted his forces with the intensity needed
to retain the devotional focus and tension throughout the lengthy work. In the
extended and demanding role of Saint John the tenor Robert Künzli gave a
riveting performance of vocal and dramatic strengths. Participating in various
solo and ensemble parts the well chosen cast was made up of soprano Edith
Lienbacher, mezzo soprano Christa Ratzenböck, tenor Alexander Kaimbacher, and
bass Albert Pesendorfer.
The orchestral prelude to Schmidt’s composition returns, as
appropriate, at the close in one of several musical gestures underlining the
cyclical nature of the work. In much the same way, the vocal declamations and
variations on these are performed in complementary passages near the start and
at the end of the work. In the role of both introducing and concluding the
piece Künzli’s unflagging Saint John called upon his listeners to recall
the sacrifice of Christ. Further, he announced that revelations concerning the
end of the world would truly come to pass. Künzli’s approach was at times
dramatic and ringing in delivery, whereas at others he used a lighter tone on
softer intonation (e.g., the word “gewaschen”
[“washed”] in “Der uns geliebet hat und gewaschen von den
Sünden” [“He who loved us and washed us from our sins”]). In
the role of the Lord’s voice Pesendorfer gave a consistently strong
impression in vocal flexibility. His extended mid-range notes on “Ich bin
das A und das O” were followed by exhortations to approach the heavenly
throne with well projected articulation on low bass notes. After this
declaration from above Saint John described the heavenly throne with Künzli
achieving specific emphasis on the dramatic “Donner und Stimmen”
(“thunder and voices”). As he concluded this description with rapid
tempos on “einem fliegenden Adler” (“a flying eagle”),
the remaining “Wesen” or “beasts” were enumerated in
their positions surrounding the heavenly throne. At this point the additional
soloists are first heard as part of a quartet in the parts of the beasts. The
soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor were joined by Pesendorfer in the quartet as
Kaimbacher’s emotive tenor called memorably the holiness of the Lord. For
the remaining portions of the prologue the Chorus and Saint John, alternating
with the other soloists, introduced the substance of the Book with its seals,
the concept of sacrifice, and the preparations to open the Book and announce
its revealed wisdom.
Just as the first mention of the Book in the Prologue was heralded by the
accompaniment of the organ, Part I and Part II of Schmidt’s work are both
introduced by extended organ solos. As each of the first six seals of the Book
is opened in Part I, a symbolic figure occurs together with descriptive events
on the earth. The Grant Park Chorus, first as a whole and then divided into
groups, communicated in their well-rehearsed performance the fate of
individuals as the firs two seals released the white and red horses of the
apocalypse. Male and female groups of the Chorus conveyed the violent ravages
and the intense suffering as a result of war and its devastations.
Künzli’s moving summary that “Hölle folgte ihm nach”
(“Hell followed after him”) brought a transition to the third seal
or the black horseman of hunger. Pesendorfer’s solo in this role
introduced a duet for mother and daughter. Ms. Lienbacher and Ms. Ratzenböck
sang here with especially effective, merging vocal lines, so that the pain and
desperation of human needs were touchingly communicated. After Saint John
declared the fourth seal opened, and the pale horse of death was announced, the
two male survivors sang that in death they are brothers. Kaimbacher and
Pesendorfer performed with fervor their individual parts of the complementary
duet which coalesced in a Biblical quote that found both voices perfectly
matched. For the earthquake associated with opening the sixth seal toward the
close of Part I both Chorus and orchestra swelled into a crescendo ending on
“O wer kann da bestehen?” (“O who will be able to
The organ solo at the start of Part II has a more ominous tone than in Part
I with, as played here, somewhat more pointed individual notes. In the
introduction to Saint John’s announcement of the seventh and final seal
being opened Künzli lavished emotional effects on his long monologue detailing
the original battle between angels and dragon. Orchestral effects were
carefully matched to vocal lines so that trumpet and percussion led to a
message of judgment. The solo quartet “Wehe euch! Das vierte Wehe”
(“Woe! The fourth sorrow”), as introduced by the bass and
integrating the other voices skillfully, warns of the celestial lights being
extinguished in preparation for the time of judgment. From here to the
conclusion of Schmidt’s work the Chorus shares the sung pronouncements
with Saint John and with the voice of the Lord. Saint John declares now that a
second Book was brought forth, the “Buch des Lebens” or Book of
Life, in which are listed those who will be saved. As Künzli reiterated this
line with emotional emphasis on “Leben,” the series of repetitions
commences which echo the start of the work. His further, emphatic treatment of
the prophecy of “Worte” (“words”), as here most
appropriate, led to a resolution with the Chorus on the word
“Amen!” Chicagoans are fortunate to have heard performances of such
commitment of Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals. These concerts by
distinguished soloists and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus under Kalmar
will surely rank among the finest presentations of this masterpiece.