Recently in Performances
I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
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.
22 Dec 2011
Jonathan McGovern, Wigmore Hall
2011 has been a good year for baritone Jonathan McGovern: 2nd prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, the Karaviotis Prise at the Les Azuriales Ozone Young Artists Competition, and the John Meikle Duo Prize at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition are just some of the awards he has garnered.
Indeed, with such an illustrious ‘trophy cabinet’, it’s hard to
believe that McGovern only graduated from the Royal Academy of Music this year
(with a distinction and the ‘Queen’s Commendation for Excellence’).
He certainly brought youthful vigour and ebullience to the Wigmore Hall,
bounding onto the platform to perform the seven Schubert lieder which opened
this Kirckman Concert Society recital. ‘Die Einsame’ (‘The solitary
man’) was suitably light and untroubled in spirit; in typical Romantic
fashion, the protagonist finds solace in the natural world, delighting in his
‘quiet rusticity’ as the chirps of the cricket break the silence. Pianist
James Cheung’s buoyant bass motifs captured the mood of cheerful ease, while
McGovern’s baritone rang out strong and clear, conveying the unflustered
confidence of the evening dreamer. ‘Der Strom’ (‘The river’) brought a
sudden change: rapid figuration in the piano, shifting harmonies and a
plunging, low vocal line suggesting the turbulence and yearning unfulfilment of
both the surging river and the poetic imagination. McGovern found it harder, in
this lower register, to match the shifting colours of the accompaniment’s
tones and shades; while his bass notes have focus and pleasing warmth, the
upper range of his voice has greater flexibility and variety of tone.
The simplicity and directness of ‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘An
den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), suited him better, the strophic form and the
earnest, uncomplicated sentiments drawing forth an open, sincere sound and
excellent pronunciation of the texts. Cheung made much of the dancing left hand
rhythms of ‘An Sylvia’ (‘To Sylvia’), while in ‘Nachtviolen’
(‘Night violets’) he delicately crafted an intimate air for McGovern’s
rapturous homage to the velvet flower’s “sublime and melancholy rays”.
The sequence closed with ‘Bei dir allein’ (‘With you alone’); here
McGovern certainly brought youthful zeal to the energetic, expanding vocal
lines as the protagonist declares that “a youthful spirit swells within me/
[that] a joyful world/ surges through me”. Indeed, bursting impetuously back
onto the stage to receive his applause, the beaming baritone seemed fully
invigorated by the song’s elated sentiments.
A more sober, but no less charged and committed, performance of Benjamin
Britten’s String Quartet No.1 followed. The three upper strings of the
Barbirolli Quartet serenely placed the thrillingly high chord clusters which
commence the opening movement, beneath which cellist Ashok Klouda’s
beautifully shaped and resonant pizzicato fragments rang out richly.
The quartet created a satisfying drama of opposition — of tonality, texture
and tempo; dynamic rhythmic episodes interjected between moments of harmonic
stillness. The scherzo (marked by Britten ‘con slancio’ — literally
‘with a dash’) was fittingly reckless and spontaneous, the rhythmic
articulation and attack crisp and incisive. In the slow movement, a free
variation form in 5/4 time, viola player Alexandros Koustas projected a
exquisitely poignant high melodic line above the euphonious, still thirds of
the accompaniment. The dynamic counterpoint which launches the final movement
was a true dialogue between equals. The sense of overall form was superb, both
within and between movements, with the finale skilfully integrating and
developing previous heard motifs. This was an accomplished and extremely mature
performance of Britten’s youthful composition.
The second half of the programme brought baritone and quartet together in a
performance of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, a setting of Matthew
Arnold’s lament for the loss of Victorian certainty in the face of modern
doubt and despair. McGovern established a more sombre presence now, imbuing the
lyrical, unfolding vocal lines with emotional depth and sensitivity, while the
quartet conjured the lapping, eddying movements and fluctuating hues of the
sea. McGovern’s commitment to the text was sustained and intense, as he
sought to do justice to the composer’s detailed word painting, without
over-emphasis or undue theatricality.
Songs by Brahms and Wolf concluded the recital. Brahms’ brief ‘Es
schauen die Blumen’ (‘All flowers look up’) established a melancholy
which was deepened powerfully in ‘Verzangen’ (‘Despairing’), where
Cheung’s tumultuous figuration complemented and enhanced the confusion of the
protagonist’s heart. The piano also introduced the basic motif in ‘Über
die Heide’ (‘Over the Moors’), commencing with three detached rising bass
octaves, then a leaping descent, punctuated by low right hand chords -
dramatically evoking the echoing footsteps which resound across the moor as the
protagonist undertakes an autumnal journey into his memories.
‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Solitude in an open field’) was a high point of
the sequence, the beautiful and extraordinary second stanza depicting the
thoughts of the dreamer lying in the grass, mood of transcendence and peace:
“Mir ist, also ob ich längst gestorben bin/ Und ziehe selig mit durch
ew’ge Räume.” (“I feel as if I had died long ago/ and I drift blissfully
with them through eternal space.”). McGovern maintained a quiet intensity
throughout, with only the briefest sweet swelling before the extended cadence
at the end of each strophe. The performers crafted a controlled but troubling
narrative of rootless nocturnal wandering in ‘Wie raffft ich mich’. (‘O
how I sprang up’). The final landscape of these Brahms’ lieder was the
graveyard scene of ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (‘In the cemetery’): in the
final stanza the ‘Gewesen’ (‘departed’) on every grave was wonderfully
transformed into ‘Genesen’ (‘redeemed’). As the major tonality
‘reconciled’ the former minor mode, McGovern retained the poetic ambiguity:
are the dead ‘healed’ because they have been granted eternal life, or
because they no longer must suffer mortal life?
In four songs from Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder, Cheung painted a
tapestry of many colours: first the piano’s crisp, high trills evoked the
weightless flight of the bee in ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein’ (‘The boy and
the little bee’), then deep tremolos sweeping upwards to high resonant chords
underpinned the lover’s upwards gaze in the final verse of ‘An die
Geliebte’ (‘To the beloved’) as he turns his eyes heavenward to witness
the stars that smile upon him and kneels to absorb their ‘song of light’.
McGovern achieved a rapt intensity here, the silvery tone of his upper range
wonderfully capturing the shimmer of the glistening nocturnal sky. The aptly
titled ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’) is the last of the Mörike
Lieder and the high-spirited, waltz-like account of the unanticipated
arrival and hasty departure of an over-eager critic restored the mood of
celebration and joy with which the evening began.