Recently in Performances
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement,
but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment
“is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga
Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
09 Nov 2011
Tales of Hoffmann, Chicago
For its first production of the new season, Jacques Offenbach’s
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled a
distinguished roster of soloists with the Lyric Opera Orchestra under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume.
Those characters populating the stage from
start to finish include an incarnation of the writer Hoffmann and his Muse, the
latter figure appearing also as the confidante Niklausse. Hoffmann’s
recurring nemeses, or the villains of individual acts, add of course to the
sense of continuity throughout the piece. The lead roles in this production are
strongly cast with Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann, Emily Fons as the Muse/
Niklausse, and James Morris assuming the personae of Hoffmann’s
Alyson Cambridge as Giulietta and Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann
As in comparable productions of Offenbach’s late opera the prologue
and first act are performed together. At the start of the prologue in this
conception pantomimic gestures show the inebriated Hoffmann being helped from
the stage by his Muse, just as Councillor Lindorf assumes his position before a
backdrop at the center. Lindorf’s rivalry with Hoffmann is now focused on
the diva Stella who currently sings in a local production of Mozart’s
Don Giovanni. As Lindorf bribes the diva’s servant to surrender
a communication intended for Hoffmann, the Councillor assures that he has the
advantage of a devilish spirit with an extended pitch on ”diable.”
In opposition to the “poète” Morris concludes his self-declaration
with an effectively declaimed “je suis vif.” This scene is
effective not only as a motivation for Hoffmann’s relating his amorous
adventures but also as a key to the opera’s conclusion when Stella indeed
leaves the stage accompanied by Lindorf.
During the remainder of the prologue the scene takes place in Luther’s
tavern. The collected male students, portrayed in a large tableau by the Lyric
Opera Chorus, are clearly inspired during intermission at the neighboring opera
and raise toasts to Stella. Once Hoffmann and Niklausse appear at the tavern,
the repartee with the students leads to Hoffmann’s well-known chanson
about the dwarf Kleinzach. As Hoffmann describes in his ballad the face of
Kleinzach his mind wanders to focus on his love for Stella. In this mixture of
musical styles and the subsequent veneration of Stella, Polenzani interspersed
a clear sense of legato with lyrical outbursts sung forte
(“figure,” “trois âmes dans une seule âme”) and showing
exquisite control of pitch. In his final cresting declaration before the close
of the prologue Polenzani introduces vocally Hoffmann’s emotional state
in preparation for the narratives of the following acts. (“Du bon
Emily Fons as Nicklausse and Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann
In each of these subsequent acts an amorous entanglement leads to hope and
disappointment. The female objects of Hoffmann’s infatuation, Olympia,
Antonia, and Giulietta, are sung in this production by Anna Christy, Erin Wall,
and Alyson Cambridge. As Hoffmann first steals a glance at the mechanical doll
Olympia in Act I, Polenzani’s lyrical technique bloomed yet further
beyond his singing in the prologue. He sang at times piano with an
effective use of diminuendo as he described his devotion to the study
of physics primarily as a means to approaching the professor’s daughter
Olympia. These lines became even more credible for the persona of Hoffmann as
Polenzani’s characterization was delineated with effortless top notes.
Before the doll sings her famous aria Niklausse arrives and comments on
Hoffmann’s delusion and emotional distraction. Here Ms. Fons sang her
first solo piece with lyrical ease and presented an amusing caricature of the
doll as she mimicked it both vocally and with her own physically lithe
gestures. Hoffmann refuses to heed common sense and listens enraptured to the
doll Olympia’s voice. In this role Ms. Christy excelled at combining a
bright upper register in her melodic line with skillful coloratura decoration.
At the same time she sang in the spirit of the character so that her voice took
on the mechanical quality which her body communicated through gestures, as she
performed fixed in a rotating movable base. In his response to Olympia’s
movements and speech Polenzani depicts Hoffmann lost in his passion while he
casts off volleys of lyrical devotion. As Olympia’s identity is finally
revealed Polenzani concluded the act together with the chorus in alternating
cries of “Un automate” sung forte and with absolute control of
In Act II the characters Antonia, her father Crespel, and the voice of her
deceased mother contribute to Hoffmann’s second involvement. Erin Wall
sang a touching rendition of Antonia’s wistful opening romance,
“Elle a fui” [“She has flown away”]. Ms. Wall varied
her approach so that her softest notes blended fittingly with more dramatic and
fully voiced lines. In the role of Crespel bass-baritone Christian Van Horn
made a strong impression as Antonia’s protective father. As he implored
his weakened child to sing no longer, even the simple phrase “Je
t’en prie” [“I beg of you”] was infused by Mr. Van Horn
with memorable resonance. When Hoffmann and Niklausse enter on this scene, the
servant Frantz — sung her by Rodell Rosel with comic delight — is
alone, having just finished a pantominic dance. Hoffmann begs to be admitted to
his beloved Antonia’s presence, a meeting which Frantz has been forbidden
to allow. In the following series of set pieces the characters reflect on both
the role of love and on their own emotions. As one of the highlights of this
productions Ms. Fons sang the second aria for Niklausse while she tries to
persuade Hoffmann to devote himself to love as art (“Vois sous
l’archet frémissant” [“See beneath the quivering
bow”]). Fons used her voice with its secure low notes to great effect in
expressing the dominant spirit of “l’amour vainqueur,” just
as she concluded the aria by drawing on the exciting upper extension of her
range. Niklausse makes himself scarce at the reappearance of Antonia who now
finally sings together with Hoffmann. In their duet Wall and Polenzani showed
refined passagework, their voices moving apart and, again, in unison with
emotional commitment. At the entrance of Dr. Miracle, sung by Morris, Crespel
expresses great concern for his daughter’s well-being. Ultimately Antonia
succumbs to the persuasions of Dr. Miracle and to the voice of her dead mother,
sung here with resonance and authority by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in her
debut at Lyric Opera. When Hoffmann attempts to summon help, his beloved
Antonia has already died.
Erin Wall as Antonia and James Morris as Dr Miracle
The final involvement in the protagonist’s series of adventures
carries him to Giulietta’s palazzo in Venice. At the start of the final
act she and Niklausse sing the famous barcarolle; in this performance both
voices were distinctly audible as though both were woven into the melody. The
signature bass aria, “Scintille, diamante,” sung by Dapertutto to
tempt Giulietta, was sung by Morris with an attentive sense of line. Ms.
Cambridge fulfills well the vocal and dramatic challenges of her role, yet at
times her use of vibrato can lead to stylization.
In the epilogue to the opera Hoffmann has finished the narration of his
tales and is found, inebriated, together with the Muse. Even though Stella from
the prologue now appears for the assignation and leaves in the company of a
triumphant Lindorf, the audience presumes that Hoffmann will awaken in the
confident realm of Poetry.