26 Sep 2011
Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder audiences know him well. He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House last year, which was reviewed in Opera Today. Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram’s character. Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher’s Wolfram shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannhäuser. Think what Wagner meant by that.
Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed. It’s not simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an artist creates a character defined by plot and music. In Lieder, the character “is” the artist himself. In opera, a singer is expressing what the role represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning. No help from plot or orchestra. Opera singing is more extrospective. Lieder singing is more introspective.
The Schubert song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D795) and Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where landscape marks stages in the protagonists’ inner development. Gerhaher and Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it’s not actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert’s publisher after his death.
Die schöne Müllerin is interpretively more challenging because of its deliberate contradictions — cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations of love. But for whom, and by whom? The high tessitura is meant to suggest the miller’s naivety. It’s a complication that a light, airy baritone like Gerhaher doesn’t have to contend with, so the cycle is a good test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will be superseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively, and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in songs like “Des Müllers Blumen” which could be mistaken for a love song, out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging than the vocal range. In “Der Jäger”, the miller’s jealousy erupts into anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which is effective enough, but doesn’t have quite the emotional wildness that can make this song so troubling. Gerhaher’s miller isn’t menacing, even in “Die böse Farbe ”with its hints of what today we’d call stalking, but a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is chilling.
What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm Müller’s original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. “Das Mühlenleben” describes the girl at the mill, but comes between “Der Neugierige ”and “Ungeduld,” which rather breaks the mood. On the other hand placing it after “Am Feierabend” extends that mood too long. More effective is “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz” before “Der liebe Farbe” and “Blümlien Vergissmein ”after “Die böse Farbe”, for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher’s reading of “Blümlien Vergissmein” was lyrical, leading smoothly into “Trockne Blumen,” the poem enhancing the song.
In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text. That’s why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even greater. Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.
Those who’ve come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannhäuser will admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher’s singing. There’s plenty of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I’ve heard make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather than contemplates. Individual songs like “Frühlingstraum ”are beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we don’t know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversially, of resistance? Here, we’re admiring Gerhaher’s smooth technique, so for a change, it’s up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.