12 Oct 2011
Britten’s War Requiem, London
‘Requiescant in pace. Amen.’
One of the initiatives for the community at the Lucerne Festival is the ‘40 min’ series. A free concert given before the evening’s main event that ranges from chamber music to orchestral rehearsals.
The mysteries and myths surrounding Mozart’s Requiem Mass - left unfinished at his death and completed by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr - abide, reinvigorated and prolonged by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as directed on film by Miloš Forman. The origins of the work’s commission and composition remain unknown but in our collective cultural and musical consciousness the Requiem has come to assume an autobiographical role: as if Mozart was composing a mass for his own presaged death.
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Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
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Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.
‘Requiescant in pace. Amen.’
The final words of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem are words of peace and hope, but recent and on-going conflicts in Rwanda, Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya suggest that although almost fifty years have passed since the work was first performed, to celebrate the rebuilding and re-consecration in May 1962 of the bomb-blasted Coventry Cathedral, the sentiments of Wilfred Owen, voiced in the epigraph, have lost none of their impact or relevance: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.”
Much of the power of the work lies in its innate contrasts. Owen’s dark, distressing war poems form a counterpoint to the consolations of the requiem mass, and the interweaving of secular and sacred, vernacular and Vulgate, is often challenging, surprising and deeply ironic. A resonant, full orchestral clamour contrasts with delicate, finely fashioned chamber sonorities; soloists and chorus intertwine and counterpoise. Brightness interrupts the darkness, and is then once more overwhelmed by horror and terror.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, deputising for the indisposed Sir Colin Davis, was ever alert to such contrasts. Thus, in the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’, the lustre of high trebles of Eltham College Choir – placed distantly, as Britten requested, in the gallery – thrillingly broke through the solemn, funereal tolling of the orchestral accompaniment; similarly, the gentle phrasing of the women’s voices in the choral ‘Recordare’ was abruptly and dramatically superseded by the energetic, bellicose assertions of the men’s ‘Confutatis maledictis’. Elsewhere, the very quietness was itself imbued with ominous, discomforting resonances: the whispered conclusion to the fugal ‘Quam olim Abrahae’, following the terror of the lines, ‘the old man would not so, but slew his son, – And half the seed of Europe one by one’, was spine-chilling. Throughout the London Symphony Chorus were on fine form, enunciating the text clearly and attentive to all the significance musical details.
A cast of impressive soloists had been assembled. Ian Bostridge may have more than fifty performances of the War Requiem behind him but he is clearly not about to let any element of routine enter into his interpretation. In a recent interview he asked, “Which war, whose Requiem?” and his intense engagement with this question underpinned a remarkably committed performance, one which judiciously conveyed every nuance and inflection of the text. Never afraid to use the grain and catches of the voice to highlight the bitterness and ugliness expressed by Owen, Bostridge is totally attuned to the musical and poetic expression, uniting the power of both in his delivery. He produced a disturbing vehemence in ‘What passing bells for these who die as cattle?’ but created an exquisite, poised stillness in the ‘Agnus Dei’.
Baritone Simon Keenlyside was less overtly dramatic but he provided an effective base or grounding for the more extrovert tenor. Singing with sincerity and considerable beauty of tone, Keenlyside communicated authoritatively, especially in ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long back arm’. In their duet passages, as the men sing with ironic cheerfulness of death, or chillingly relate the story of Abraham and Isaac, both singers displayed an admirable feeling for the text. Every word pulsed with meaning and import, especially in the final extract from Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’.
The solo soprano is separated from the two male soloists, musically and textually, and here Slovenian Sabina Cvilak was spatially distanced too, placed in the choir. Singing the Latin text, ‘Liber scriptus’, which sets out day of judgement, Cvilak was perhaps a little too placid, not making full use of her undoubted rich tone, although the declamatory phrases of the ‘Sanctus’ were well-shaped and she displayed a pure tone and a well-supported pianissimo.
The players of the London Symphony Orchestra were on tremendous form, guided skilfully by Noseda who illuminated all the details of the score. Noseda’s control of the musico-dramatic form was exemplary and his galvanising of his forces in the big moments superb: thus the chilling distant fanfares which herald the outbreak of violent combat at the start of the ‘Dies Irae’ built to an explosive force. The full fury of the orchestral forces were sparingly employed and the turbulent outbursts perfectly judged, as in the frighteningly precipitous ‘Libera me’ in which the stifled percussion eventually detonated in a terrifying climax with the entry of the organ. In contrast, Noseda paced the more grave moments with controlled deliberation. The chamber ensemble which virtuosically accompanies the songs sensitively supported the intimate drama and dialogue of Owen’s verses.
In a recent essay in the Guardian newspaper, Bostridge wrote that, “The War Requiem is a masterpiece of the deepest emotional and moral depth. It is also an enormous contraption of musical ingenuity”. This was a purposeful and impressively crafted performance, one which powerfully expounded the human truths and elemental emotions exposed by Britten and by Owen; time does not lessen their importance or impact.