Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Semiramide at the Rossini Opera Festival

The pleasures (immense) and pain of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide (Venice, 1823). Uncut.

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

23 Jan 2012

Five Boroughs Songbook

What does it say about New York that, in the songs of the city commissioned by the Five Boroughs Music Festival and given performances in Brooklyn, Queens and, now, Manhattan, the poets (often the composers themselves) rarely refer to life in that central part of the city, Rodgers and Hart’s “isle of joy”?

Five Boroughs Songbook

“The Five Boroughs Songbook.” Martha Guth (soprano), Jamie Van Eyck (mezzo-soprano), Alex Richardson (tenor), David McFerrin (baritone), Harumi Rhodes (violin), Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck (piano). Manhattan premiere; Baruch Performing Arts Center, January 12.

 

These twenty songs by as many composers are largely concerned with the city as an abstraction, a beloved object, a universal core, or else they address the outer boroughs. Composers, poets, songwriters can no longer afford Manhattan perhaps. They live in Brooklyn’s lovely and not-so-lovely neighborhoods, or in the recuperating Bronx, or even Staten Island. They no longer even dream about Manhattan. Larry Hart wouldn’t recognize the place. Greenwich Village was not mentioned all evening—nor Chinatown, nor Harlem, nor even Inwood. Times Square, in Richard Pearson Thomas’s “The Center of the Universe,” was invoked to “remember the bad old days.” It is no use asking (though I do ask) how much longer New York will be “the center of the country, the world, the universe,” when none of the young, the adventurous, the energetic and creative immigrants can afford to live closer in than Bushwick or Newark.

This has an understandable effect on song output. In the gaudy days of Tin Pan Alley, songwriters stumped for inspiration could look out the window and come up with “Lullaby of Broadway” or “Way Out West on West End Avenue” or “When Love Beckoned on Fifty-Second Street.” But there is no Tin Pan Alley any more. Musically, there’s barely a Broadway. Few of the twenty composers on this program write that kind of theater (at least four of them have composed operas), but on this occasion they often seemed to channel the wisecracking New York wit and the nostalgic art largely missing from Broadway for the last generation. Requested by the Five Boroughs Music Festival to write about some aspect of New York, they have not been parochial in their choice of subject or text—some were old, some were modern, some were the composers themselves. Two of the songs were poems by the ever-exultant Walt Whitman, who retired in New Jersey but drew his universal point of view from his Brooklyn youth.

A lot of numbers in the Songbook boasted rumbling piano accompaniments to symbolize the constant basso continuo throb of the city. There were jazz inflections and dance rhythms, passing in and out of a song as if overheard while ambling by in the darkness. There were songs made up of fragments—fragments of overheard conversations, fragments of overheard melody (Harold Arlen, Giuseppe Verdi), fragments of dying or undying love affairs, fragmentary impressions of Brooklyn on a summer night or the odor of the garbage dumps on Staten Island, fragments of gnomic subway announcements.

_MG_1828.gifVan Eyck, Guth, Richardson, McFerrin, Bagwell, Dueck and Rhodes

There seemed to be quite a lot of songs about the subway. Glen Roven’s “F from DUMBO” seemed to consist of glances at the crowds by a numbly daydreaming straphanger. Gilda Lyons’ “rapid transit” invoked and celebrated the whole crazy system, its changeable schedules and half-audible warnings. Tom Cipullo’s “G is for Grimy: An Ode to the G Train” celebrated (and trashed) the one line in the system that never enters Manhattan at all. John Glover’s “8:46 AM, Five Years Later” unsensationally presented memories of being caught on the N train beneath the city on the morning of 9/11. There had to be one such song, just one, and this was one’s felt unforced and meaningful.

Yotam Haber’s exquisite setting of “On Leaving Brooklyn” made the very syllables of Julia Kasdorf’s revision of Psalm 137 into musical tones, “borough” and “Babylon” and “Jerusalem” becoming harmonized values and nostalgic wisps of melody. Scott Wheeler’s “At Home in Staten Island,” from an old poem by Charles Mackay, became a parlor ballad concealing its ache in an old-fashioned tune. Mohammed Fairouz’s ambitious “Refugee Blues” (which describes a more general situation rather than one specific to New York), builds on W.H. Auden’s use of a repetitive, folk song-like refrain, to achieve a gathering power. Jorge Martin set Whitman’s “City of Orgies, Walks and Joys!” to an irresistible boogie-woogie rich with the delight of simply romping about the town, while a solo violin gave the fantasy a piquant turn by chiming in just “off” the harmonies we had been led to expect.

Harumi Rhodes was the violinist. The pianists, Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck, were both fine, but Rhodes played with almost vocal inflections of intricate participation rather than accompaniment: the violin as lieder singer. This speaks well of the composers who provided for her as well as her own poetic technique.

The songs were arranged for four contrasting voices, and the program varied and balanced their duties. Soprano Martha Guth and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck partnered well in the deadpan wit of “rapid transit.” Guth, having plumbed near-alto depths earlier, suddenly became a high, keening opera soprano for the melancholy of “At Home In Staten Island,” mated here with Rhodes’s violin, and (on the other side of that large borough) deplored the air of Christina Courtin’s “Fresh Kills.” Van Eyck brought drama to the mourning, accusing “Refugee Blues” and wistfulness to Renée Favand-See’s “Looking West on a Humid Summer Evening,” and lightly aired the brittle wit of Gabriel Kahane’s “Coney Island Avenue.” Tenor Alex Richardson was the yearning, regretting lover of Russell Platt’s “The Avenue” and Christopher Berg’s “OuLiPo in the Bronx.” David McFerrin’s grainy baritone gave us Martin Hennessy’s love song to the mothering city itself, “The City’s Love,” partnered Guth in Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Whitman’s invocation, “City of Ships,” and quietly made the point of “8:46 AM.” Texts were provided but the diction of all four was impeccable in the intimate confines of the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

The Songbook was recorded at an earlier performance with different singers, and the two-CD set is available from GPR Records on the Five Boroughs Music Festival web site.

John Yohalem

Click here to purchase the CD.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):