Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.