Recently in Performances
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).
16 Dec 2011
Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall
Combining innate musicianship and superb technique, Anne Schwanewilms showed once again that she can run the emotional gamut from light-hearted joy to deep anguish in this flawless performance with pianist, Charles Spencer.
The songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn offered
Schwanewilms the opportunity to demonstrate a great range of characterisation
and dramatic situation, embracing intimacy and exuberance. She garnered a
surprising and delightful drollery in the opening ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig
zu machen’ (‘How to make naughty children behave’), her insouciant
‘cu-cuckoo’ ringing clear as a bell. Charles Spencer delivered the
accompaniment’s piquant chromatic inflections with a deft touch. The simple
folk-like ambience was sustained in the bucolic ‘Verlorne Müh’ (‘Wasted
effort’), as the shepherdess attempts to lure her mate, offering first to go
walking, then a ‘morsel’ from her basket and finally her heart. A glossy
tone and seamless, bel canto legato prevailed. I wondered whether that
this effortlessly fluency at times affected the clarity of diction; but the
German speaker accompanying me reassured me that Schwanewilms’ use of the
text was subtle but clear, and undoubtedly idiomatic.
In ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ (‘The changing of the summer guard’), the
cuckoo returned, this time evoked by the piano whose perpetuum mobile
signifies the evolutionary progression of the seasons — as the cuckoo sings
himself ‘to death’ and the nightingale assumes the mantle of summer’s
song-bearer. Both here and in the following ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I
walked joyfully’), Schwanewilms’ breath control was superb, enabling her to
shape extended rhapsodic lines; her velvet tone is a cloth of many colours, and
she captured the myriad hues of the natural world - the verdant softness of
the ‘green wood’, the silky sheen of the moon’s’ charming, sweet
Liszt’s setting of Hugo’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ permitted a brief
excursion into the French language, and Schwanewilms expressively and
convincingly responded to the text, before returning to her native tongue for
lieder from Schiler’s Wilhelm Tell, songs in which Liszt evokes the
Alpine landscape with grandeur and passion. The grassy lake in ‘Der
Fischerknabe’ (‘The fisherboy’) shimmered stilly, but as the waters lap
around his breast and call from the depth, increasingly impetuous scalic runs
in the piano conveyed the potency of his ‘bliss of delight’. ‘Horn
calls’ discreetly underpinned the beautifully resonant vocal line in ‘Der
Hirt’ (‘The shepherd’), and the juxtapositions of major and minor
tonalities enhanced the warm, tender ache in the voice. The more tempestuous
‘Der Alpenjäger’ (‘The alpine hunstman’), in which thunderous
tremblings accumulate, climaxed with a striking piano postlude. An intense and
impassioned setting of Heine’s ‘Loreley’ brought the Lisztian sequence to
a close, and enabled Schwanewilms once again to demonstrate her consummately
controlled delivery of narrative.
Four more songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn followed after the
interval. ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ (‘Farewell and Parting’) presents a
broader emotional and dramatic canvas; the first stanza depicts the breathless,
theatrical departure of three horsemen who gallop through the gate beneath the
beloved’s watchful gaze, while second strikes a more poignant note, exploring
the pain and finality of departure and death. The power and precision of
Schwanewilms’s climactic high notes in the first part contrasted with the
final farewells, 'Ade! Ade!’, which she delivered in a loving, almost
The cuckoo and nightingale both returned for ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’
(‘In praise of high intellect’), this time competing to be the prize
songster in a musical contest adjudicated by a donkey. Schwanewilms relished
the individual ‘voices’ given to each ‘character’, and concluded with
an alarmingly realistic ass’s bray! After the gentle ‘Rheinlegendechen’
(‘Little Rhine Legend’), in which the atmospheric rocking of the piano
accompaniment perfectly captured the lapping waters as they flow timelessly to
the ocean, in the final song from the sequence, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten
blasen’(‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’) Schwanewilms displayed her
lustrous, rich tone to full effect, signifying a transition from the whimsical
naivety of Mahler’s early songs to the complex emotional profundities of the
composer’s five Rückert Lieder.
Here, Schwanewilms and her accompanist rose to majestic heights of
musicianship. The contemplative intimacy of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’
(‘If you love for beauty’) was particularly stunning. Schwanewilms can
produce an effortless, floating line, spinning out a high thread of sound,
endlessly and ethereally until, almost weightlessly, the thrillingly tender
pianissimo disperses into the air. She balances eloquence and grace
with deep affective insight, as was supremely apparent in a spell-binding
rendition of ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’). Here, the sustained
focus of her lower range was in evidence, the controlled and crafted phrases
indicating the valiant endurance of the protagonist. The final song, ‘Ich bin
der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) probed expressive
depths, closing with a spine-chilling piano coda; the long silence which
subsequently embraced performers and audience alike was a testament to the epic
scale of the emotions evoked and communicated.
Schwanewilms seem to have it all: unfailingly precise intonation, a
polished, gleaming sound, almost superhuman breath control. She also has
considerable stage presence and self-assurance: utterly in command of the voice
and the material, she revealed a profound understanding of these songs while
retaining a sense of freshness and spontaneity. The communication between
singer and pianist, and with the audience, was sincere and generous. No wonder
the applause was rapturous.
Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Um schlimme Kinder artig zu
machen; Verlorne Müh; Ablösung im Sommer; Ich ging mit Lust.
Liszt — Oh! quand je dors; Lieder aus Schillers ‘Wilhelm Tell’; Die
Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Scheiden und Meiden; Lob des
hohen Verstandes; Rheinlegendchen; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. Five