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.
09 Mar 2012
Byrd: The Englishman
In this stimulating and uplifting performance, The Cardinall’s Musick, led by director Andrew Carwood, continued their comprehensive project to examine the works of one of England’s greatest composers — William Byrd (c.1540—1623).
Following their highly praised recording of
Byrd’s complete Latin church music, they have now embarked upon a
nine-month tour that will take them to venues spread across the width and
breath of the UK, beginning with this assured recital at London’s Wigmore
Byrd’s Great Service — the most substantial of his compositions
for the English rites — belongs to the early-English Great Service
tradition established by John Shepherd, Robert Parsons and William Mundy, being
neither ‘full’ not ‘verse’ in a conventional sense but
calling for soloists and full choir. Despite Archbishop Cranmer’s
ecclesiastical injunction, intended to ‘simplify’ church music
during the English Reformation, that compositions for the church should be
“not full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a
note”, Byrd did not resist the temptation to musically expand the words
at will, to reflect the glorious texts.
The Cardinall’s Musick communicated with unfailing emotional
directness; the singers made it clear that the extension of the text is a
perfect expression of its sentiment and feeling, as in the Benedictus where
they relished the splendidly rich development of “all the days of our
life” which depicts the sincerity of man’s eternal devotion.
The Service predominantly employs five-part polyphony but divides into six,
seven and eight parts — even 10 on one occasion. This is demanding music,
both intellectually and musically, and this performance was characterised by
remarkable textural lucidity, as the voices intricately dovetailed and
interweaved. The singers skilfully painted colour and underscored contrasts,
never in a mannered fashion, but revealing an intimate understanding of the way
Byrd combines a myriad of different vocal registers and groupings. Individual
voices rose from the seamless whole and melted effortlessly back into the
blend; but there’s is no homogenous, emotionally restrained timbre
— rather the individual voices have a vivid immediacy and distinctive
The group brought vigour and energy to the wide range of harmonic and
melodic rhythms employed by Byrd. Phrasing was uniformly beautiful, but there
was also much freedom and elasticity in the melodic lines, with the
introduction of compound rhythmic groupings within simple time signatures. Such versatility — the union of strength and suppleness
— was entrancing.
Similarly the surprisingly complex rhythmic combinations of the Benedictus,
“To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of
death”, were both magical and awe-inspiring, as the singers observed the
idiosyncratic accents in individual vocal parts. Much charm resulted also from
thoughtful emphases of chromatic and harmonic nuances; in the Benedictus, the
flattening of the tenor’s line, “Through the tender mercy of our
God”, combined with the delicate decoration of “tender” by
the second alto II was deeply affecting. Throughout the singers confident
embraced Byrd’s harmonic boldness, particularly at the end of the
Most striking was the power of the full choir entries, and the elaborate
developments and repetitions; in the Te Deum, “Let me never be
confounded” was majestically assertive, an arresting contrast with the
poignant tenderness of the Magnificat’s depiction of the Virgin,
“the lowliness of His handmaiden”. The latter movement also offered
the most exciting passages, “He have scattered the proud” —
in which the rhythmic motifs literally scattered the words dynamically across
the score — and the eight-part, “He hath put down the mighty from
their seat”, in which voice after voice leaps down in a sequence of
dramatic descending intervals.
Interspersed between the movements of the service were anthems dating from
both the beginning and end of Byrd’s compositional career. Of particular
note was ‘Prevent us, O Lord’, in which the singers controlled the
tightly compressed imitative texture, two- and three-voice units merging
seamlessly with dense homophonic passages in the lower register in a flexible
fashion. And, whatever Queen Elizabeth I’s awareness of Byrd’s
instinctive religious sentiments, she would surely not have failed to be moved
by this performance of ‘O Lord make thy servant’, in which the very
close imitation at “give her her heart’s desire” conveyed the
composer’s love and loyalty. For the final ‘Amen’, the
soprano serenely sustained the tonic while movement in the lower parts built
through a moving crescendo before receding to a calmer resolution.
Given the usual ecclesiastical context of this repertoire, one might have
misgivings about performances in secular venues. However, the Wigmore Hall
surely comes close to the intimate rooms — private chapels or the Chapel
Royal in St James’s Palace — in which Byrd intended such music to
be experienced. As the singers arranged themselves antiphonally beneath the
Hall’s half-cupola, I anticipated an air of reverence despite the lack of
ecclesiastical resonance and expanse. The architectural grandeur and variety of
the ‘Amens’ might alone craft a devout mood. Indeed, the
singers’ resonant tone was never arid. And, the amazing seven-part Amen
to the Benedictus, with its precipitate entries and grandiose upwards sweeping
scales, one following another, was breath-taking.
However, the performance never quite achieved the elevating spiritual level
for which one might have hoped. The insertion of the anthems interrupted the
accumulating spiritual force of the unfolding movements of the service. And,
this was exacerbated by Carwood’s spoken introductions before various
stages of the service — pleasant and informative they may have been but
were they really necessary given that the concert was preceded by a
pre-performance talk? Together with the audience’s applause, which
Carwood himself ‘permitted’ in his opening welcome, these elements
somewhat disturbed the reverential ambience.
One more minor quibble: Byrd’s rhythms present an effortlessly natural
accentuation of the English language and it was disappointing that at times
that the text was not always distinctly enunciated. But, what was never in
doubt was the musical intelligence and deep expressivity of The
Cardinall’s Musick. The concert certainly achieved Carwood’s aim to
“take Byrd around the country, to showcase his passion and to place him
in context as the most important musician of the Tudor age”.
Venite from The Great Service
O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen
Te Deum from The Great Service
Prevent us, O Lord
Benedictus from The Great Service
Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles
Magnificat from The Great Service
Turn our captivity, O Lord
Sing ye to our Lord
Come, let us rejoice unto our Lord
Nunc dimittis from The Great Service
Click here for information regarding the William Byrd Edition by Cardinall’s Musick.