17 Nov 2011
Tricks and Treats, New World Symphony
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
To this listener, Brewer deserves the designation of Mastersinger, a small group and curious breed that occasionally contains in it a top lieder singer.
Lied is, in all cultures where “high-art” literature is transmuted into compilations of songs, made for the interpreter, for storytellers. Singers enter the culture of lied knowing full well it demands total subservience to telling the tale. As it is with the best of lieder interpreters (Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Christa Ludwig come to mind), Christine Brewer has a knack for this music that is partly inborn.
Lied history takes more formal shape in the 19 th century with the works of German composers; most prolific in the style was Franz Schubert; working in the style through the turn of the 20 th century was Hugo Wolf. Composers often set their lieder to a theme in a series, or cycle. The lieder singer is faced with the test of becoming as much a part of the background as they can possibly muster, coming in and out of the foreground to serve the music as indicated and in setting the poetry in high relief. The lieder singer further sets the tone for the theme and carries it through the cycle.
Michael Tilson Thomas [Photo by Chris Wahlberg]
Brewer makes this look easy. No one can qualify the Illinois native’s German as anything but romantic. She gets right to vowels, hanging on ever so lightly, giving consonants that snap that settles on the ear. Brewer exercises a judicious mix of vibrato treatments over a warm stream of sound and a tonal quality similar to Jessye Norman’s, with a more forward placement. The lower register is remarkably secure and round, climbing as that one proverbial “column of sound,” a sound that was born to soar. She reaches high-note territory (E, F and G) with ease; yet she builds phrases with sincerity and depth, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline. This is what she does; and it makes Brewer all the more special.
Billed as an evening of “Tricks and Treats,” New World Symphony (NWS) and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas hosted Brewer at the Knight Concert Hall on October 29th. The vocal portion of the concert consisted of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, what amounts to a serenade the composer created to the poems of his muse at the time, Mathilde Wesendonck, who is described as “one of the most significant women in Wagner’s life” in the program notes.
Even when Christine Brewer could let loose through Wagner’s five lied, she drew out plaintive tones that were an integral part of the story, saving her considerable powers for the articulation of German. Such was the case for “Der Engel,” where vocal control goes a long way in conveying how the selflessness of angels fills the hollowness of human existence. Brewer sang phrases that left one breathless, literally and figuratively.
Internal suffering was in full effect in “Im Treibhaus — Studie zu Tristan und Isolde,” where Brewer, Tilson Thomas and orchestra teamed for a moment of otherworldly waves of music, with violins playing off of one another in a way rarely heard. Brewer held a certain musical line while drafting steamy tones over the phrase “Malet Zeichen in die Luft,” where Wagner speaks to the horticulture of supernatural dispositions, asking nature to disclose its wonders.
“Schmerzen” brings more opportunity for vocal muscle, right from the first notes of the vocal line. Here still, Brewer created tones that came across as gentle acceptance of nature’s abiding relationship between life and death.
A conducting “Golden Age” for these times surely comes in the presence of Michael Tilson Thomas. He deserves the appellation Musikmeister. In NWS — America’s only full-time orchestral academy — he has a splendidly boundless and stimulating canvas with which to put to use and to share his inestimable experience and multitudinous skills. Michael Tilson Thomas and Christine Brewer are, individually, artists that bring a certain magic to everything they do. Together, Tilson Thomas and Brewer cause all aspects of a musical show to come into phase.
Tilson Thomas’ dancing with the New World Symphony is unison personified. In “Schmerzen,” where the descending scale of forte strings and winds calls for sudden passion and intra-instrument matching, the sound entered as if warmed up from a few bars back. The NWS conductor carries instrumentalists along with him — wrist rolls move bows and sway woodwinds; he revved up the baton to urge tempi, and brought horn players to the balls of their feet. It all happened at once. Tilson Thomas steps in the direction of a section, calling on them to build sound space, gesturing directions with his left hand, and pointing to have players attend to specific features. Thomas’ communication with Brewer was intense. He sought out her inflections and movements signaling different moods and changes in musical design.
The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and ended, after the Wagner lied, with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Strauss’ tone poem is an excellent vehicle to show off NWS. Its light beginning and exposed horn and long staccato violin stretches — all the way through the build up and Strauss’ playful winds and wide use of the percussion family — were played with nice contrasts, zinging accuracy and stamina to spare.
NWS showed versatility, power and pathos beyond their years in Merry Pranks and especially in the Brahms. The second movement was guided by Tilson Thomas as a soft hymn with hanging phrases of elegance and downward spins taken with care for keeping a joined soundscape. Improbable as it is, instrumentalists managed the most organic playing in the most demanding of Brahms’ orchestral drawings, the final movement. NWS took its shifts from driving chords to lush orchestral effects, creating a tightly held story right through to the ceremonial finish.
“Golden Age” or no, any night like this — pairing starry singer and starry conductor with a very hungry group of instrumentalists — ranks up there with any of the most vaunted classical musical moments, anywhere, anytime.
For more information about New World Symphony check www.nws.edu