21 Sep 2011
Schiller: Ein Leben in Liedern, Wigmore Hall
While the music industry seems to be spiralling dementedly downmarket, the Wigmore Hall keeps standards extremely high.
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. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,
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.
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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.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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 performance!
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.
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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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
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’.
While the music industry seems to be spiralling dementedly downmarket, the Wigmore Hall keeps standards extremely high.
This Opening Concert of the 2011/2 season was devoted to songs to texts by Friedrich von Schiller.
Goethe gets more musical settings more than any other poet because his idiom lends itself naturally to song. Schiller, on the other hand, wrote texts that read well on the page but don’t necessarily “sing”.
This concert, “Friedrich von Schiller — Ein Leben in Liedern”, was organized on very short notice. Soile Isokoski had originally been scheduled to sing and to judge the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, but she was indisposed. The programme was very far from Isokoski’s usual repertoire, but so well put together that it was satisfying compensation. It bears the hallmark of Graham Johnson, whose experience in designing good programmes is legendary.
Johnson’s knowledge of this repertoire is equalled by few (Richard Stokes and Richard Wigmore are in this league too). Go to the Hyperion Records website and read Johnson’s programme notes for the 37 disc set of Schubert songs. This is what programme note writing should be, stimulating an erudite audience like that at the Wigmore Hall. Indeed, audiences completely new to the genre are even more badly served by superficial, clichéd work, devoid of the analysis and contextual connections that make programme notes worth reading in the first place. The Wigmore Hall gives medals for services to Lieder. Why not Graham Johnson?
How daring to place not one but several long strophic ballads together! Schiller’s poetry isn’t often lyrical in the way that Goethe’s is, so musical settings tend towards declamatory and need to be livened up by good performance or they can descend into dull. Luckily many good singers rise to the challenge. Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerne, Wolfgang Holzmair and Christoph Prégardien had/have them in their repertoire. There were two stunning Die Bürgschaft D246 at the Wigmore Hall (Holzmair and Prégardien) a while back, about a year apart, both performed so vividly the whole song became a dramatic monologue. Quite an achievement for a 20 minute song where the “characters” as such are fairly stylized Classical Heroes.
Fortunately Christopher Maltman has these songs in his repertoire too and has worked so often with Graham Johnson. These Schiller songs suit Maltman’s voice and style, for they benefit from rich-toned gravitas. In Der Kampf D594 Maltman declaims dramatically, so the song sounds like a vignette from a much larger theatrical piece. Very Schiller, more unusual for Schubert. Maltman carefully negotiates the tricky “Bewundert still mein heldenmütiges Entsagen, und grossmutvoll beschliesst sie meinen Lohn ”. If strain appears later in the next strophe, Maltman had already earned his reward.
Tellingly, Johnson quotes Carlyle in his programme notes. Schiller, said Thomas Carlyle, was “too elevated, too regular and sustained in his elevation to be altogether natural”. Hence Johnson adds a few songs which lend themselves to earthly lyricism. An den Frühling (D587), Das Geheimnis (D793) and Dithyrambe (D801) bring out the gentler Schiller, and give Maltman a chance to exercise softer, warmer colours. These more “Schubertian” songs allow Johnson to play with great, expressive verve.
Schumann set very little Schiller, but it was interesting that Johnson included Schumann’s Der Handschuh op 87 (1850). This is interesting because it dates from the period when Schumann was experimenting with theatrical music, like Genoveva op 81 and Scenes from Goethe’s Faust(WoO 3). Schiller’s poem presents a scene of striking dramatic possibilities. Like a Roman Emperor, King Francis 1 is entertaining his court to a gory spectacle where lions, tigers and leopards rip each other apart. A lady drops her glove into the fray to taunt her lover. He gets the glove back but realizes what the lady really is like, and leaves her. The drama is in the situation, rather than in the personalities, so Schumann sets it as a decorative story, which Maltman and Johnson tell without too much savagery.
An interesting sub-theme flows through this programme: the unsentimental breaking of bonds. The protagonist in Der Kampf has pledged to some heinous crime by the one he loves. The hero in Der Handschuh learns that his lover wants him dead. In Die Bürgschaft, a man called Moro tries to assassinate the king although he’s due to marry his sister off the following day, Oddly enough the King lets him go home, but Moro’s friend must be crucified if Moro doesn’t come back in time. Cue for glorious dramatic effects in the text, storms, floods, brigands, all of which Moro defeats, arriving just as his friend is about to die. Even more oddly, the king decides that all three should henceforth be friends. Will Moros suddenly embrace the tyrant? Why schedule an assasination with a wedding? Logic doesn’t count in melodrama. This time, “meaning” in Lieder means meta-meaning, so as long as twenty steady strophes are delivered with panache, the ballad works.
All this summer, we’ve had Proms, operas and orchestral performances influenced by Alpine imagery and the freedom and danger mountains evoke. Our debt to Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell is far reaching. Johnson and Maltman performed Schumann’s Des Buben Schützenlied together with three settings by Franz Liszt, Der Fischerknabe, Der Hirt and Der Alpenjäger. Johnson makes a good point about Schiller’s political views and Schubert’s friend Johann Senn who was exiled from Vienna. The Metternich police state had no hold on Schumann and Liszt (or on Rossini or Catalani), so they can indulge in songs of lyrical grace, untroubled by the darker side of what Tell symbolized. At times the tessitura is high for Maltman (“im Paradies” in Der Fischerknabe) but this enhanced to the sense of danger that runs through Schiller’s play. Johnson played so evocatively in the Liszt songs that at times I thought of Edvard Grieg.