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

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
22 May 2012

History Repeating

Iestyn Davies’ Wigmore Hall recital, ‘History Repeating’, may have explored various composers’ engagement with, and reinterpretation and reinvigoration of, music of the past, but Davies himself is very much the countertenor of the moment, and undoubtedly an exciting and fulfilling future lies ahead.

History Repeating

Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 7th May 2012.

Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

The capacity audience at the Wigmore Hall was expectant, alert and palpably animated as they awaited the opening item: three of Benjamin Britten’s characterful if idiosyncratic realisations of Henry Purcell. From the early 1940s, Britten and Pears had introduced these realisations into their recital programmes; Britten would later declare that he had not appreciated “before I first met Purcell, that words could be set with such ingenuity, with such colour”. These realisations are energetic and restless, if not always idiomatic. But Davies made them sound natural and fluent, the frequent sparseness of Britten’s textures resulting in no loss of expressivity as Davies’ easy, fluid declamation of the text, particularly in the recitative-like passages, delineated the emotional situation directly and truthfully. ‘In the Black Dungeon of Despair’ was particularly transfixing, the chromatic declamations wonderfully shaped, while ‘Sweeter Them Roses’ demonstrated the countertenor’s deftness and agility. Overall it was the small details that were made to tell so affectingly: such as the subtle diminuendo on the closing ‘Hallelujah’ of ‘Lord, what is man’, or the poignant dissonances which draw out the dark sensuality of ‘Sweeter than roses’.

Recently Davies gave the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Four Traditional Songs — comprising settings of ‘A brisk young lad’, ‘Searching for lambs’, ‘The cruel mother’ and ‘The bitter withy’ — a work which was jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall. Muhly perfectly understands the need to allow space for the text to speak in these folk ballad arrangements, and his minimalist style creates an appropriately reflective, introverted, and at times mysterious, ambience. He also appreciates the wide range of register and colour which Davies’ voice can encompass — from a muscular, strong lower voice to a penetrating yet poignantly sweet high range — and the way that this can be used in the service of story-telling.

Davies knows how to spin an intimate narrative, almost like a confession, drawing the audience ever closer; by the final song the audience was collectively holding its breath, hardly daring to exhale and break the spell. The precision and control were deceptively effortless: it takes enormous skill and discipline to shape such expansive phrases, colouring individual words and subtly altering the dynamics, while maintaining narrative continuity. The vocal line was penetrating but never shrill; incisive and haunting, and at times unsettling, but always beautiful and warm. Pianist Malcolm Martineau complemented the voice economically but expressively - Muhly has described the piano accompaniment as "highly stylized but understated". Indeed, these songs may be sparse but they are also deeply eloquent and touching.

Michael Tippett did not allow Britten a monopoly of song arrangements and editions of early music, including Purcell, and Tippett’s Songs for Ariel which closed the first half of the recital, reveal his own Purcellian inheritance. In ‘Come into these yellow sands’ and ‘Full fathom five’, pianist and countertenor made much of the evolving counterpoint which energises Tippett’s idiom. A bright joyful timbre characterised ‘Where the bee sucks’, Davies nonchalantly evoking Ariel’s freedom of spirit and blissful release.

The second half commenced in more reflective, sombre fashion with Britten’s realisations of J.S. Bach’s Five Spiritual Songs. Here the elegance of Davies’ phrasing, as well as his full rich tone, conveyed both the disturbing and consoling moments in the texts with equal affective power. Again, it was the remarkable yet inconspicuous attention to small nuances which proved so moving: the careful placement of the words, ‘Es ist gnug, Herr’ in ‘Liebster Herr Jesus’, each isolated by the most miniscule of separations, was spine-chilling.

Davies found himself in unfamiliar countertenor territory for the next item, Schubert’s lied, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. In fact, his timbre gave a song where voice type and manner are innately provocative, an added piquancy. For, the singer must embody two differently gendered roles: first, a maiden who pleas for death to pass her by, and then Death himself, who reassures that it is rest not terror that he brings. The shift from the maiden’s high register to Death’s lower realms is further complicated by the countertenor timbre — one might describe the effect as a serious version of more familiar comic, en travesti subversions. Davies’ lower range is muscular, even tenorial, which made the sepulchral descent through a D Minor scale and the chilly repeated Ds to which Death’s melody repeatedly returns, deadening and bleak. Although there was little of the emotive vocal strain at the close that is inevitable when the song is sung by a woman, Davies was able to convincingly convey both the agitation of the maiden in the first stanza and Death’s knelling reply, making the intermingling of personae even more unsettling. Martineau’s funereal piano prelude was transformed into a hymn-like postlude, further highlighting the ambiguities of the text.

Brahms’ Fünf Gesänge Op.72 is the last of four sets of songs composed during 1875-77. The first song, ‘Alte Liebe’, has a text by Candidus which speaks of the memories of young love — sentiments which undoubtedly resonated personally for Brahms. Martineau proved himself a sensitive and intelligent accompanist in these songs, in which the vocal line and accompaniment textures are intricately interwoven. Davies’ slow vocal phrases unfolded expressively over Martineau’s gentle, low register arpeggios, but harmonic intensification rapidly injected restless passion, before subsiding to a resigned close, with falling fifths resounding emptily in the piano accompaniment.

Translated as ‘Invincible’, ‘Unüberwindlich’, the fifth of the Op.72 set, is Goethe's drinking song, comparing women to wine. Both pianist and singer displayed a sharp wit and light spirit, making much of the humorous word-painting and ironic musical quotation (a motif from Domenico Scarlatti's harpsichord Sonata in D (Longo 214). The performers enjoyed the drawn out octaves between the voice and piano which mark the several oaths sworn during the song, and the conclusion was suitably uproarious.

Herbert Howells, nostalgic song, O My Deir Hert, was performed with particular sweetness, Davies’ luminous tone aptly conveying the faith and passion of the Luther-inspired text.

During his last months in America in the mid-1940s, Britten assuaged his homesickness by producing many arrangements of folk songs of the British Isles, which he and Pears performed as encores. Britten noted at the time that they created a “’wow’ wherever they have been performed so far!”, and Davies kept up this tradition! The relaxed joyfulness of ‘That yongë child’ was followed by an exquisitely crafted rendering of ‘The Ash Grove’, the vocal melody enhanced by Martineau’s delicate accompaniment, commencing high above the voice, then sinking deep below before rising to ethereal heights once again for the close. ‘Oliver Cromwell’, a setting of a traditional Suffolk nursery rhyme, places a comically malicious text over a smirking piano accompaniment, in a vibrant folk style. The final lines are: “If you want any more, you can sing it yourself, Hee-haw, sing it yourself.” The audience undoubtedly wanted much more, but Davies’ artistry rendered any other contributions unthinkable!

Davies seems to have it all. His tone is pure and centred, unfailingly beautiful across all registers, never ceasing to make an expressive or dramatic impact. Intonation is near perfect, technical demands are effortlessly despatched, and Davies communicates directly with his audience, confident and direct in a range of styles and forms. There is no undue fussiness but subtle details are perceived, considered and strikingly conveyed. Such innate musicality and unassuming mastery are rare, and to be treasured; as are the apparent joy and delight both experienced and shared — which the exultant Wigmore Hall clientele clearly understood.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Henry Purcell: ‘Lord, what is man’ (realised by Britten); ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’; ‘Sweeter than roses’
Nico Muhly: Four Traditional Songs (UK premiere)
Michael Tippett: Songs for Ariel
J.S. Bach: Five Spiritual Songs (Geistliche Lieder)
Franz Schubert: ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
Johannes Brahms: ‘Alte Liebe’; ‘Unüberwindlich’
Herbert Howells: ‘O my deir hert’
Benjamin Britten: ‘That yongë child’; ‘The ash grove’; ‘Oliver Cromwell’

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):