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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
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.