25 Nov 2011
Saul, Barbican Hall
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
Charles Jennens compilation, based on biblical sources, created a powerful structure which enabled Handel to create a work which became the first of his English music dramas. The work was performed at the Barbican on Tuesday 21st November by The Sixteen under conductor Harry Christophers, in a concert performance which brought out the essential drama of the piece.
The title role is a remarkable portrait of a conflicted personality, and Handel emphasised this by reducing the characters arias and concentrating on recitative (both secco and accompanied). This means that it can be tricky role to bring off, fatally easy to under play in a concert performance. Peter Purves brought both Handelian bravura and drama to the role, no only acting but reacting, his performance continuing when others were performing, so that Purves showed Saul’s furious reaction to the Israelites praise for David. Purves is perhaps not the tidiest Handelian singer and he did have a tendency to distort the vocal line for expressive purposes. But this was a performance where music and drama went grippingly hand in hand.
The role of David was written for a woman to sing, but in recent years there has been a tendency for it to be sung by counter-tenors. Sarah Connolly demonstrated that in the right hands, the richness, depth and flexibility of a female mezzo-soprano voice can work wonders in the role. Though known for her Handel roles, Connolly’s voice has developed into quite a big instrument. Here she gave a finely moulded, intelligent performance of great beauty.
Robert Murray made an affable Jonathan, with a nicely turned phrase but not quite the purity of line that I would have liked. More importantly, I didn’t feel that there was much drama in the relationship between Murray’s Jonathan and Connolly’s David, though Murray’s individual contributions were finely done.
The drama isn’t perfect, Jennens libretto spends a little too much time on Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal. Elizabeth Atherton as Merab didn’t display quite such a firm line as I would have liked; but the role is a gift for an actress and Atherton displayed a nice line in temperament as the haughty Merab. Joelle Harvey was sweet as Michal, but the role doesn’t really call for much more. Harvey and Connolly duetted delightfully, but even they couldn’t quite convince that two duets in Act 2 is one duet too many.
But Act 2 closed in dramatic fashion with Purves’s powerful delivery of Saul’s accompagnato and a strong closing chorus, ‘O fatal consequence’. The drama continued to be vividly played in the final act, with Christophers encouraging the orchestra to bring out the rawness of Handel’s wonderful scene with the Witch of Endor. All closing with a strongly felt final Elegy.
The smaller roles (of which there are quite a few) were all taken by members of the Sixteen choir, with Jeremy Budd as an edgy, mysterious Witch of Endor, Mark Dobell as the High Priest, Stuart Young as an eerie Ghost of Samuel, Ben Davies as Does, Eamonn Dougan as a strongly characterised Abner and Tom Raskin as the unfortunate Amelkite killed by David at the end. All were strong and more than a credit to the group. Dobell did not always manage to make the rather prosy part of the High Priest interesting, but he was certainly had a good go.
The work was not strictly staged, and everyone sang from scores, but some thought had been put into elements of staging, entrances and exits so that the results contributed immensely to the feeling of drama. Though we had the libretto, diction was uniformly excellent and you hardly needed the words.
The 18 person choir (male altos, female sopranos) brought conviction and enthusiasm to their usually polished delivery. The chorus is called on to sometimes embody the Israelite people and sometimes simply comment; in whichever role the Sixteen was dramatically involved.
Handel’s orchestra is quite a large one, he uses trumpets, trombones and kettledrums. The work has a number of symphonies, describing off-stage action such as battles and funeral corteges so that Handel gives the orchestra a number of solo moments, with some lovely playing from harpist Frances Kelly; Handel also used a Carillon/Glockenspiel to great effect. The Sixteen Orchestra was clearly enthused by the work and by Christophers direction as they played with infection conviction. Christophers went for a rather rich continuo sound, using harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ as part of the continuo group, which is understandable given the breadth of Handel’s orchestration in the piece. It was performed in Anthony Hicks’s edition.
Christophers ran each act without breaks, so that we had chance to feel how the drama flowed. He encouraged both cast and orchestra to produce vividly dramatic performances and the results were immensely engaging. There is a recording coming out next year and I look forward to it.