Recently in Reviews
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
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.
03 Aug 2012
Bach Mass in B minor, BBC Prom 26
Bach probably never intended the full Mass in B Minor to be performed, so it is tricky to talk about what forces he meant it to be performed by. But the Kyrie and Gloria certainly were sent by Bach to the Royal Court at Dresden (which was Roman Catholic), and these movements could be used in the Lutheran Church as well.
So we are entitled to start postulating about what Bach intended. But performing the work in the Royal Albert Hall is entirely different again, a space far bigger than Bach could ever have conceived of being used for his work. So that whilst I was listening to the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on Thursday 2 August at the BBC Proms, given by the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket, inevitably I was thinking not only about the quality of performance, but about the decisions taken to realise the work in the space and how successful they were as well.
Now, I have to admit up front that I am a one-to-a-part man. There is good evidence for this, it was very much standard Lutheran practice (see Andrew Parrott’s book The Essential Bach Choir). Whilst Bach might have sent the work to Dresden, he was a Lutheran through and through. So though he would presumably have welcomed hearing the piece in Dresden performed by soli, choir and orchestra (in our modern manner), it would not have surprised him to hear with it with just five or six singers. To fill the Royal Albert Hall though, you need to boost your forces somewhat.
Bicket used an orchestra of 50 players, including four flutes, two oboes and two bassoons, with continuo provided by a chamber organ sitting on the platform. Perhaps as a gesture to balance, his wind and brass players (bassoons apart) stood up to play. His choir had over forty singers in it with female sopranos and a mixture of male and female altos. The soloists were sopranos Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ed Lyon and bass Matthew Rose.
For me, one of the tests of a good Mass in B Minor, irrespective of the forces used, is to listen to the first vocal/choral entries in the first fugal Kyrie. Everyone can get the massive opening chords right. But for the fugue that follows, which is started by the instruments and then continued by the voices, it is essential that voices and instruments are balanced in the right way. The instruments are not accompanying the voices, all parts are equal, so that when the voice parts enter it should be as part of the whole texture, not creating an entirely new one with the instruments relegated to the distant background.
This Bicket got right. His choir sang very smoothly, with a good line and though a little dominant were balanced nicely with the instrumental forces. More worryingly the performance lacked bounce and immediacy, Bicket kept the whole of the first Kyrie very much under wraps; small gestures from him being echoed by small vocal and instrumental gestures; nothing too big, but nothing too vivid; all a little bit too discreet and polite.
For the Christe, sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Joelle Harvey blended beautifully and sang with a fine sense of line, supported by a strong bass line. But with the second Kyrie I began to notice a problem. During the louder tutti passages it just wasn’t possible to hear the wind instruments properly, the volume and mass of the strings and voices was simply too much. Instead the wind texture would become apparent at moments when the strings and voices thinned. Now Bach’s orchestration isn’t generally about colour, it is about lines. In 19th century orchestration, if you can’t quite hear a particular instrument it is not essential because the single instrument is contributing colour to a full chord. But in Bach each instrument, or group of instruments, has a line, an important line. So from my seat in the central stalls, it sounded as if Bicket should have doubled his oboes and bassoons to keep the proportions right. This was something that I kept noticing throughout the performance, one of those nagging things which isn’t fatal, but which you wonder why it didn’t bother someone earlier.
Still on the subject of balance, I have to say a brief word about the organ. It probably did a sterling job supporting the singers but the instrument was simply too small and too discreet for the venue. Bach used his church organs for continuo, and whilst these instruments were far smaller and far different from the monster organ in the Royal Albert Hall, they did have a degree of poke and character which the chamber instrument lacked. (Paul McCreesh has made some interesting Bach recordings using small scale forces and with organs of the type Bach would have known).
What of the performance itself, niggles apart? Well, musically it was of a very high order. The choir of the English Concert were in fine voice and ranged from the fast brilliance of the "Cum Sancto Spirito" of the Gloria to the stunning vocal control of the "Et Incarnatus" and "Crucifixus" from the Credo. Whilst they could conjure up vocal substance in the large scale passages, they moved like a far smaller body in the fast moving ones.
Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson were both elegantly fluent as the soprano soloists. Iestyn Davies brought clarity and a fabulous sense of line to his solos, projecting the vocal line with ease without ever forcing. He finished with a performance of exquisite beauty in the Agnus Dei. Ed Lyon was a relaxed and beautifully lyric tenor, with a good freedom in the upper register but still plenty of character. Matthew Rose was impressive in his first aria but appeared to be having problems in his second.
The orchestra were on similar stunning form, providing a series of superb instrumental obbligatos as well as sympathetic and characterful tutti playing. They didn’t peck at the notes as some period bands do, giving the music a far greater sense of line and shape.
This was a performance full of good moments. But, in the final choral Dona Nobis pacem, Bicket ensured that the chorus returned to the same understated manner as the opening Kyrie and that made me realise that there was something that I had been missing. For me, there wasn’t a strong sense of the spiritual. The performances were highly musical, intelligent realisations of the individual movements, but the whole did not coalesce into the sort of spiritual journey which Bach intended. Friends sitting behind me thought otherwise and found the performance both beautiful and moving, so each takes different things from such an event.
Performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor in the Royal Albert Hall is inevitably going to mean that decisions have to be taken. But whilst I question some aspects of the performance from Bicket and the English Concert, there is no doubt that we witness music making of a very high order.