Recently in Performances
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.