13 Nov 2011
Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Cavaradossi
For some years now the opera world has reveled in the appearance of many fine lyric tenors, with Juan Diego Florez leading the charge.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
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 Threshold”.
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.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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 performance!
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.
For some years now the opera world has reveled in the appearance of many fine lyric tenors, with Juan Diego Florez leading the charge.
The sad corollary has been a feeling that the more heroic tenor sound — often called “spinto” — has gone lacking for fresh talent. Rolando Villazon tried to move from the light roles into the heavier, and a vocal crisis ensued. And just recently we lost to a tragic accident Salvatore Licitra, who a few years ago had seemed poised to attain true stardom in spinto roles.
Now comes Jonas Kaufmann, German by birth, and in his early 40s. He established himself on European stages and has gone on to make some notable appearances in the U.S. His is a strong, masculine sound, as handsome as the man himself. The vocal colors include deeper hues, as with Placido Domingo, but his top seems to be more reliable than Domingo’s often was. So far the greatest acclaim has come to Kaufman in Wagner, but he is by no means limiting himself to Lohengrin and Siegmund. His Don José for Covent Garden made it to DVD, and now Decca has released a Werther from Paris in 2010 and a 2009 Zürich Tosca with Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi. Both DVDs put on display a confident, poised tenor whose stardom obviously stems from a lot more than his good looks. For some he may never be a true spinto in Italian repertory, due to his nationality, but then those same fans (or their “ancestors”) felt the same about Jussi Bjorling. His is a different type of voice, larger and darker, but Kaufmann probably has no qualms in following the great Swedish tenor’s path.
Film director Benoît Jacquot’s Werther staging for Paris (although initially presented at Covent Garden) leaves wide open spaces for Kaufmann to fill with his stage presence, which the tenor has no problem doing. The set for the first half vaguely resembles a strand near a seashore on an overcast day, while the second half is staged in a vast study, dark and masculine in appearance. Director Jacquot uses these simple surroundings as platforms for emotional interaction, rather than symbolic display. Unfortunately, Jacquot, working with Louise Narboni, indulges in some odd camera angles as a video director, and he also makes use of backstage footage in a gambit that proves initially interesting but ultimately annoying.
Massenet’s opera respects the Goethe source material almost too much, as two hours with a dreary emotional wreck amounts to around 119 minutes more than most people would want to spend, even with such gorgeous music. Kaufmann’s Werther shines in his opening paean to nature, the character’s only few minutes in the opera not spent being a moody, lovesick drip. Even more impressive, though, is Kaufmann’s ability to draw the audience into Werther’s plight, so that the intolerable self-pity is muted by a sense of larger social forces oppressing the anti-hero. A big part of Kaufmann’s success lies with the sheer power and authority of his voice. There is no resorting to sobs or ostentatious drooping of the vocal line. Kaufmann lets the inherent pathos of Massenet’s score fill out the emotional picture.
As the object of Werther’s passion, Sophie Koch plays too much to Charlotte’s modest beauty, both in demeanor and voice — there must be some passion there to make us understand the depth of Werther’s attraction. Ludovic Tezier, on the other hand, is almost aggressively bland and prosaic as Albert, the man Charlotte must marry to fulfill a promise she had made. The veteran conductor Michel Plasson and the Paris musicians unfurl gorgeous swaths of color and texture in Massenet’s score. Decca’s two disc set has no bonus feature, though the booklet does have more original material than the usual DVD set booklet offers these days.
Robert Carsen’s Tosca for Zürich would make the NY audiences that bayed at Luc Bondy’s production for the Metropolitan howl and foam as if rabid. Carsen sees Puccini’s take on the Sardou play as anticipating the glory years of the American film studios, so the sets and costumes (by Anthony Ward) play upon the libretto’s settings to create a sort of mock film set, and at times a stage proscenium. Most of it works quite well, as Tosca and Scarpia are both inherently theatrical creatures, and Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi is more in line with the strong, though not so silent, type of leading man. A couple of bolder touches will not work well for all viewers — whether it’s having Cavardossi’s Madonna painting appear in Scarpia’s office during act two or having Scarpia attack it with a knife. Your reviewer got a big kick out of Tosca’s fatal leap taking place over the footlights at the edge of a stage, topped with Emily Magee taking her solo call in character. Others may not be amused. But the test of any Tosca is if it can find the emotional truth of the drama while breaking through the calcified stage directions that make the drama too clichéd to make any impact, and Carsen does so, with the invaluable assistance of his excellent leads.
Vocally, Kaufmann takes the prize. His solo pieces are gorgeous, and he can roar out a “Vittoria” with the best of them. Magee’s Tosca is best in the dramatic exchanges. Her large voice grows gritty and unpleasant in extended lines, and though Carsen has Thomas Hampson’s Scarpia applaud Magee’s “Vissi d’arte,” his sarcastic look is unfortunately understandable. Hampson’s take on Scarpia has freshness and edge, but it seems unlikely he will take on this role at any of the larger American houses. By the middle of act two, hoarseness scratches at the edge of his voice. Taken together, though, all three leads are successful enough to make this a very worthy competitor in the very crowded field of Tosca on DVD.
An unfamiliar name, conductor Paolo Carignani treats the score to a fresh approach, with expansive pacing and an expert selection of orchestral detail. The Zürich forces follow his lead beautifully. Decca’s single disc set has a basic essay and synopsis in the booklet and no on-disc bonus features.
Kaufmann will be in huge demand for years to come, and US audiences will have to wait their turn for his future appearances here. With two fine DVDs such as these, at least we have something of the tenor’s to watch while we wait.