12 Oct 2011
Britten’s War Requiem, London
‘Requiescant in pace. Amen.’
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.
‘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.