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Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

During this exploration of music from the Austro-German Baroque, Florilegium were joined by the baritone Roderick Williams in a programme of music which placed the music and career of J.S. Bach in the context of three older contemporaries: Franz Tunder (1614-67), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1701) and Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The work of these three composers may be less familiar to listeners, but Florilegium revealed the musical sophistication - under the increasing influence of the Italian style - and emotional range of this music which was composed during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Leoncavallo: Zazà - Opera Rara

Charismatic charm, vivacious insouciance, fervent passion, dejected self-pity, blazing anger and stoic selflessness: Zazà - a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights - is a walking compendium of emotions. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s eponymous opera lives by its heroine. Tackling this exhausting, and perilous, role at the Barbican Hall, The Albanaian soprano Ermonela Jaho gave an absolutely fabulous performance, her range, warmth and total commitment ensuring that the hooker’s heart of gold shone winningly.

L'ospedale - an anonymous opera rediscovered

‘Stay away from doctors; they are bad for your health.’ This seems to be the central message of L’Ospedale - a one-hour opera by an unknown seventeenth-century composer, with a libretto by Antonio Abati which presents a satirical critique of the medical profession of the day and those who had the misfortune to need curative treatment for their physical and mental ills.

Šimon Voseček : Biedermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force. These days, though, there are young people among the regulars : a sign that appreciation of Lieder excellence is most certainly alive and well at the Wigmore Hall. .

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.



(Gustave Doré, lithographie de Barbe Bleue)
05 Nov 2011

Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall

Bartók’s only opera, a masterpiece to rank with other sole works in the genre such as Fidelio and Pelléas et Mélisande, was chosen for the climax of the Philharmonia’s year-long series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’.

Claude Debussy — Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Béla Bartók — Piano Concerto no.3; éla Bartók — Bluebeard’s Castle (semi-staged)

Yefim Bronfman (piano); Judit: Michelle DeYoung; Bluebeard: Sir John Tomlinson; Juliet Stevenson (narrator). Director: Nick Hillel (director); Staging: David Edwards; Set designs: Adam Wiltshire; Lighting: David Holmes. Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 3 November 2011.

Above: Lithograph of Bluebeard by Gustave Doré


It was the obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still earlier guise than the composer of Pelléas, and the third of Bartók’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is pretty much universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate, but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely — Prélude à l’après-midi received a fine performance. Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen; he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to later Debussy and to a number of works by Bartók and other composers of his generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of Debussy’s — and Bartók’s — foremost interpreters. Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance of this great work.

Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a concerto that does not always show Bartók at his best — was piquant and lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to the serried ranks of coughers.

Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version, directed by Nick Hillel. Bartók’s opera is a strange case, in that in many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority, as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections, and lighting all worked as they should.

Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually Pelléas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative: some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly, the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which, Bartók’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention. Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with Schoenberg’s contemporary Die glückliche Hand. On the other hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on and showing a few clouds on the move.

I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet, matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to the work, but might better have been discarded.

Mark Berry

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