Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Don Carlo in Marseille

First mounted in 2015 at the Opéra National de Bordeaux this splendid Don Carlo production took stage just now at the Opéra de Marseille with a completely different cast and conductor. This Marseille edition achieved an artistic stature rarely found hereabouts, or anywhere.

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

Unconventional to the last, Diamanda Galás tore through her Barbican concert on Monday evening with a torrential force that shattered the inertia and passivity of the modern song recital. This was operatic activism, pure and simple. Dressed in metallic, shimmering black she moved rather stately across the stage to her piano - but there was nothing stately about what unfolded during the next 90 minutes.

Schubert Wanderer Songs - Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two-year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point in the whole traverse. A well-planned programme of much-loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

La Bohème in San Francisco

In 2008 it was the electrifying conducting of Nicola Luisotti and the famed Mimì of Angela Gheorghiu, in 2014 it was the riveting portrayals of Michael Fabbiano’s Rodolfo and Alexey Markov’s Marcelo. Now, in 2017, it is the high Italian style of Erika Grimaldi’s Mimì — and just about everything else!

A heart-rending Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Janáček’s first mature opera, Jenůfa, is a good choice for Grange Park Opera’s first season at its new home, West Horsley Place. Revived by Robin Tebbutt, Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer’s 1930s urban setting emphasises the opera’s lack of sentimentality and subjectivism, and this stark realism is further enhanced by the narrow horseshoe design of architect Wasfi Kani’s ‘Theatre in the Woods’ whose towering walls and narrow width seem to add further to the weight of oppression which constricts the lives of the inhabitants.

Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera

“I am nearer to the greatest secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!” So despairs Golaud, enflamed by jealousy, suspicious of his mysterious wife Mélisande’s love for his half-brother Pelléas. Michael Boyd’s thought-provoking new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera certainly ponders plentiful secrets: of the conscience, of the subconscious, of the soul. But, with his designer Tom Piper, Boyd brings the opera’s dreams and mysteries into landscapes that are lit, symbolically and figuratively, with precision.

Carmen: The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival, artistic director Michael Chance, has opened at Northington Grange giving everyone a chance to see what changes have arisen from this change of festival at the old location. For our first visit we caught the opening night of Annabel Arden's new production of Bizet's Carmen on Sunday 11 June 2017. Conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the cast included Na'ama Goldman as Carmen, Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose, Shelley Jackson as Micaela and Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo. There were also two extra characters, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu as Commere and Compere. Designs were by Joanna Parker (costume co-designer Ilona Karas) with video by Dick Straker, lighting by Peter Mumford. Thankfully, the opera comique version of the opera was used, with dialogue by Meredith Oakes.

Don Giovanni in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera revved up its 2011 production of Don Giovanni with a new directorial team and a new conductor. And a blue-chip cast.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass.

Into the Wood: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Snape Maltings

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where Oxlips and the nodding Violet grows.’ In her new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Netia Jones takes us deep into the canopied groves of Oberon’s forest, luring us into the nocturnal embrace of the wood with a heady ‘physick’ of disorientating visual charms.

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Every once in a while a warhorse redefines itself. This happened last night in San Francisco when Rigoletto propelled itself into the ranks of the great masterpieces of opera as theater — the likes of Falstaff and Tristan and Rossini’s Otello.

My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In its spring musical production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady Lyric Opera of Chicago has put together an ensemble which does ample justice to the wit and lyrical beauty of the well-known score.

Henze: Elegie für junge Liebende

Hans Werner Henze’s compositions include ten fine symphonies, various large choral and religious works, fourteen ballets (among them one, Undine, that ranks the greatest of modern times), numerous prominent film scores, and hundreds of additional works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments or voice. Yet he considered himself, above all, a composer of opera.

Werther at Manitoba Opera

If opera ultimately is about bel canto, then one need not look any further than Manitoba Opera’s company premiere of Massenet’s Werther, its lushly scored portrait of an artist as a young man that also showcased a particularly strong cast of principal artists. Notably, all were also marking their own role debuts, as well as this production being the first Massenet opera staged by organization in its 44-year history.

Seattle: A seamlessly symphonic L’enfant

Seattle Symphony’s “semi-staged” presentation of L’enfant et les sortilèges was my third encounter with Ravel’s 1925 one-act “opera.” It was incomparably the most theatrical, though the least elaborate by far.

Der Rosenkavalier: Welsh National Opera in Cardiff

Olivia Fuchs' new production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. The production debuted in Magdeburg last year and now Welsh National Opera is presenting the production as part of its Summer season, the company's first Der Rosenkavalier since 1990 (when the cast included Rita Cullis as the Marschallin and Amanda Roocroft making her role debut as Sophie).

Don Giovanni takes to the waves at Investec Opera Holland Park

There’s no reason why Oliver Platt’s imaginative ‘concept’ for this new production of Don Giovanni at Investec Opera Holland Park shouldn’t work very well. Designer Neil Irish has reconstructed a deck of RMS Queen Mary - the Cunard-White Star Line’s flag-ship cruiser during the 1930s, that golden age of trans-Atlantic cruising. Spanning the entire width of the OHP stage, the deck is lined with port-holed cabin doors - perfect hideaways for one of the Don’s hasty romantic dalliances.

"Recreated" Figaro at Garsington delights

After the preceding evening’s presentation of Annilese Miskimmon’s sparkling production of Handel’s Semele - an account of marital infidelity in immortal realms - the second opera of Garsington Opera’s 2017 season brought us down to earth for more mundane disloyalties and deceptions amongst the moneyed aristocracy of the eighteenth-century, as presented by John Cox in his 2005 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Semele: star-dust and sparkle at Garsington Opera

To open the 2017 season at Garsington Opera, director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw offer a visually beautifully new production of Handel's Semele in which comic ribaldry and celestial feuding converge and are transfigured into star-dust.

La rondine at Investec Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park's 2017 season opened on 1 June 2017 with Martin Lloyd-Evans's new production of Puccini's La Rondine, designed by takis, with lighting by Mark Howland and choreography by Steve Elias. Elizabeth Llewellyn was Magda with Matteo Lippi as Ruggero, Tereza Gevorgyan as Lisette, Stephen Aviss as Prunier and David Stephenson as Rambaldo, Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]
16 Apr 2012

The Dream of Gerontius, Barbican Hall

Edward Elgar was given a copy of Cardinal Newman’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ — a 900-line poem depicting the journey of an old man’s soul after death — as a wedding present in 1889.

Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; James Rutherford,

Above: Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

He later said that ideas for a setting had been “soaking in my mind for at least eight years” when he set about preparing a libretto for a new work to be performed at the 1900 Birmingham Festival. At the end of the score Elgar inscribed words from Ruskin: “this is the best of me”. Unfortunately, technical deficiencies and inadequate rehearsal resulted in a less than satisfactory first performance, leading the composer to despair, “I always said God was against art … I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever”. A little melodramatic perhaps … but a sign of Elgar’s complex and at times troubled faith, and of the work’s importance to him.

Preparations for this performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were not entirely smooth either, with both conductor, Andris Nilson (owing to a family illness), and tenor Toby Spence forced to withdraw in the preceding days. However, under the baton of the CBSO’s principal guest conductor, Edward Gardner, and with Robert Murray stepping into Gerontius’ shoes, there was certainly no danger of a repeat of the chaotic premiere. In lesser hands, this intricate, mysterious work can become muddy and messy; Gardner summoned from his performers a controlled piece of musical drama that captured both the work’s theatricality and its poetry.

Robert Murray has the vocal resources to meet the considerable demands of the role; his voice pleasingly balanced restraint and passion, and he was consistently attentive to the dynamic markings, though never slavishly so, bringing genuine expressivity to moments of power and poignancy. Although a little diffident at the start, Murray had the confidence to trust his introspective reading, and not to indulge in excessively showy operatics. His upper range possesses emotive impact; he has the power to carry above even the most surging orchestral passages without undue strain, but also the poise to float the quietest pianissimo. He conveyed the old man’s restless anxiety in Part 1 when facing death, and displayed rhetorical vigour in his heroic prayer for God’s strength “Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus”. And a sonorous intensity marked the Soul’s climactic cry, “Take me away, and in the lowest depth there let me be”.

Murray’s Part 2 duet with the Angel, sung by Sarah Connolly, took a little while to get into its stride, but was moving and convincing. As the Angel guides Gerontius’ soul, Connolly’s rich, burnished mezzo combined strength and tenderness, expressing profound sentiment but never sentimental. She has a strong lower range, and the text was thoughtfully nuanced. The Angel’s farewell blessing at the close of Part 2 was truly beautiful — open, warm and full of hope and promise. And, after the work’s emotional storms, the composure of Connolly’s full-toned final lullaby, “Soft and gentle, dearly ransomed Soul” brought a satisfying equanimity.

Fittingly dramatic interventions were made by James Rutherford, first in his stirring invocation as the Priest at the close of Part 1, “Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”, as Gardner drove forward with a thrilling accelerando, and later as the Angel of Agony at the corresponding conclusion to Part 2. Rutherford’s weight of tone and long-breathed phrasing added much liturgical authority and gravity.

All three soloists displayed a sure appreciation of Elgar’s declamatory, arioso style, allowing the musical phrases to breathe while retaining a naturalistic accentuation of text.

Gardner was totally in command of the work’s motivic complexities, tonal ambiguities and flexible formal qualities. From the hushed beginnings of the Prologue, he crafted a seamless orchestral tapestry: as clarinets, bassoons and violas introduced the plaintive opening theme, initially unaccompanied and then supported by pensive double basses and low woodwind, the symphonic seeds from which the work unfolds were made evident. Gardner never allowed the orchestral forces to overwhelm the singers but ensured too that that his players did not take second place, that the instrumental voices were equal partners in the musical conversation, involved in the expressive drama and commentating on the action. On a few occasions — in the Prelude and building to the climactic “Take me away” - the tempi seemed a little on slow side, but Gardner did successfully build momentum in the climactic passages. He is at home with the theatricality of the work but, while he did not miss a single gesture or intimation in detailed score, he was never melodramatic.

Elgar makes huge demands upon the chorus, and the CBSO Chorus assuredly rose to the challenge, mastering the contrapuntal complexities, displaying depth of tone and rhythmic vitality, and articulating the words with clarity. They convincingly adopted a variety of roles and explored a range of colours: as Gerontius' ‘Assistants’ praying earnestly by his bedside in a burial chorus, their appeals to God to “Rescue him … in this his evil hour” were vibrant and energised; in contrast, the sopranos’ closing invocation in Part 1, “And may thy place today be found in peace … through the Same, through Christ Our Lord” was shimmering and translucent. A pure, centred tone characterised the Part 2 Chorus of Angelicals, “Praise to the Holiest in his height”, beautifully shaped phrases enhanced by the gentle harp accompaniment.

The Demons’ Chorus was a tour de force: powerful unisons above whirling strings and flashing piccolo shrieks made great impact, as during a vigorously exchange with the orchestra, Gardner crafted impressive motivic coherence. Here, as throughout, vividness was never achieved at the expense of clarity and accuracy.

This performance attained rich emotional depths. Religiosity was balanced with humanity, as in moments such as the Assistants’ imploring appeal, “Be merciful, be gracious, spare him, Lord”, where the strained timbre of the violins’ high G-strings possessed both an eloquent power and intimations of human frailty.

The most electrifying moment in the work comes as the Soul finally departs, to be “Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God”. Here Gardner conjured a thrilling crescendo, building to an awe-inspiring climactic discord from the full orchestra complemented with organ and percussion. The moment of insight is brief — a dazzling but momentary glimpse of truth — followed by stillness, as the sforzando eruption gives way instantly to a tremulous pianissimo. In this blinding moment, simultaneous conveying both faith and doubt, Gardner and his performers fully captured the universality of Elgar’s message.

Claire Seymour

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):