19 Apr 2012
Folk songs that aren’t folk songs
The Wigmore Hall Dvořák series culminated in a concert by Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
The Wigmore Hall Dvořák series culminated in a concert by Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles.
Fink is the foremost Dvořák mezzo around. Her recordings (some with Roger Vignoles) are benchmarks. So it was a surprise that the Wigmore Hall wasn’t packed out. Maybe it was the Friday 13th factor, maybe it was Easter when people are out of London. Perhaps, ironically, it was the simple fact that Fink’s Dvořák and Brahms are so well known; audiences forget how live performance is nothing like recording. Fink is a natural recitalist (not all singers are, even if they’re good). She smiled graciously and sang as if she was singing for a private gathering of friends. That’s aplomb! Dvořák and Brahms songs aren’t meant for flashy display. Bernarda Fink makes them feel personal, as natural as one-to-one conversation.
The recital was preceded by a talk by Professor Jan Smaczny. Talks and programme notes these days are often inept filler, but Smaczny is in an altogether different league. He’s a genuine scholar with first hand, original knowledge. He speaks about Dvořák’s manuscripts with the authority of someone who knows them well. “Dvořák used them like a diary, noting daily events in the margins”. Many Czech specialists don’t communicate well in English, so our perceptions are shaped by anglocentrism. Smaczny understands the context of Czech culture and Dvořák’s part in the evolution of Czech music. We don’t hear Smaczny often enough in London but should. This is the sort of quality the Wigmore Hall should embrace.
Dvořák’s orchestral music is permeated by his affinity for song. As Smaczny says, songs “were pivotal to his developing musical style, and frequently gave notice of important changes of direction in his expressive language”. Thius it was good to hear Fink and Vignoles start with Dvořák’s Six Songs From the Queen’s Court Manuscript op 7 (1872). The texts were based on what were believed to be authentic medieval sources, but were modern invention. No matter, for they inspired awareness of Czech national identity. The poems are pastoral, like imitation folk song. Gentle, rolling piano creating a pleasant background to the sharp sibilants in the words. The warmth in Fink’s voice complements the images of summer and youth, yet she catches the undertones of sorrow. Sensucht, one might say if the songs were German.
Yet in the last song, “Jahody” (Strawberries) Dvořák becomes much more adventurous. Fink captures the strange unresolved tension in the first strophe. A girl has been gathering strawberries but a thorn has cut her foot and it’s infected. She can’t walk and her lover is angry. The piano part describes his impatience and the sound of his horse galloping off, taking the lovers to another place where they snatch a few moments of love, before dashing home again. With its sudden changes of pace and mood, the song is unsettling, almost a miniature opera. Fink expresses the urgency and fear that makes the song dramatic, without overdoing the “voices” or excess histrionics.
Brahms’s Deutsche Volkslieder (publ 1894), are similarly art song masquerading as folk song, so Fink and Vignoles performed four songs, a sample of Brahms’s two large collections of Volkslieder that aren’t actually Volkslieder. Mature Brahms and early Dvořák don’t really compare, but Fink and Vignoles followed these with five of the ten Dvořák Biblical Songs from op 99 (1894) (no.s 1, 2, 3, 8 and 10) to even the score. One instinctively thinks of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (op 121 1897) which of course was written for low baritone, That’s an idea, programme them together with different singers.
Bernarda Fink has made Dvořák Five Biblical Songs one of her trademarks. She sang it at the high profile Dvořák anniversary concert in Prague Castle in 1991. (read more here and listen to a clip). She’s sung these songs many times at the Wigmore Hall, so if her performance on this occasion wasn’t as compelling as usual, it evoked many good memories.
It was good to hear how Slovenian contemporaries of Brahms and Dvořák approached song in their own language. From what we heard this evening, Benjmin Ipavec (1829-1908) and Anton Lajovic (1878-1960) wrote pleasant though undistinguished Biedermeyer. Lucilan Škerjanc (1900-1973) though, is more cosmopiltan and original. In “Evening Impression”, Fink’s sensitive phrasing and upward soaring lines created emotion and shape. The poem, by Igo Gruden is lovely, even in translation. Fink and Vignoles make a case for it as mainstream repertoire. To hear more, there’s a recording by Fink and her brother Marcos ( a bass baritone), both native speakers, on Harmonia Mundi.
Fink and Vignoles performed another set of Brahms songs, including the wonderful Von ewiger Liebe (op 43/1 1894) before returning to Dvořák In Folk tone (op 73, 1886). Perhaps Fink had been waiting for them, since her singing now moved from attractive to truly inspired. These songs are sophisticated in the best sense. Moods change swiftly, hinting at submerged meaning, tantalizing the listener. Fink’s keening legato gave the first song, a lullaby, a searching edge that made one realize it wasn’t about a baby. The piano part, too, is unashamedly sensual. In the second song, a girl is scything and sees her forner lover. The piano sounds bright and optimistic, but the vocal part breaks into strident staccato “Šuhaj, šuhaj z druhej strany”. She taunts him fiercely, but inside her heart is breaking. Fink repeats the final line “už si v mojom srdci riastla” wistfully, with great tenderness. Simiarly, the lilting piano in the third song sounds happy, but the firm deliberation in Fink’s voice suggests that this steel has been forged through fire. More defiance still, in the final song where the piano prances like the swift pony. Fink’s voice dances along too, but Dvořák uses the sharp Czech sibilants to suggest the “arrow” which cuts through the lover’s heart.