Recently in Performances
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos
this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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.
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.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
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.
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
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.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic
concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
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.
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus
tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra
from the depths of her soul.
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’.
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.