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 Reviews

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

Early Swedish opera - Stenhammer world premiere

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]
13 Aug 2012

Berlioz’s Requiem (Grande messe des morts) — BBC Prom 39

The massed forces of the 600+ singers and players assembled for this exciting performance of Berlioz’s gargantuan Requiem (Grande messe des morts) made for an impressive visual spectacle in the vast high Victorian Royal Albert Hall.

Hector Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts

Toby Spence: tenor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus , Conductor: Thierry Fischer

Royal Albert Hall, London, 11th August 2012

Above: Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]

 

Who would not feel a frisson of anticipation when presented with an ocean of string players, as many as 8 bassoonists, 12 horn players, 4 additional brass ensembles, and a veritable football team of percussionists, seated before a choral multitude, all ready to join together in what is one of the most thrilling and dramatic of choral works?

The aural result was similarly imposing, with the magnificence and might of the ensemble complemented by the solemn sobriety and tender sweetness of individual lines.

Berlioz requested that his colossal forces be spatially separated, and one might think that the vast arena of the Albert Hall, with its many tiers and galleries, would be an ideal venue in which to perform and experience this work. However, Thierry Fischer’s decision to place the ‘off-stage’ brass ensembles together, behind the orchestra produced mixed results.

One the one hand, the sound was focused and intense: the impact of the monumental entry of the brass bands in ‘Dies Irae’ evoked the apocalyptic power of the natural world: a tremendous tidal wave of sound, perfectly fulfilling Berlioz’s ambitions, revealed in his Memoirs, that “this awesome musical cataclysm, so carefully prepared, where exceptional and tremendous means are used in proportions and combinations never attempted before or since, this picture of the Last Judgement, which [will], I hope, live on as a great landmark in our art”.

On the other hand, some of the antiphonal effects and the sense of dialogue between the groups was occasionally lost by this placement, as, for example, in the successive entries of the brass ensembles which follow their first collective fanfare, each a third higher than the previous one.

Perhaps Fischer was concerned with the practical problem of co-ordinating multiple ensembles scattered far and wide in a cavernous barn; indeed, Berlioz himself was aware that there was a danger of “an enormous and dreadful cacophony” without skilful conducting. [Berlioz subsequently reported that the work’s first conductor, Habeneck had, at the very moment of the problematic tempo change at the start of the ‘Tuba mirum’ “lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved.”]

Whether the choral forces were an equal match for the brass eruption, probably depended upon where in the vast hall you were seated. Certainly there was some outstanding choral singing; and in any case, despite its Napoleonic scale and celebratory, even aggrandizing air, the Requiem is a work of both spectacle and subtlety. The thunderous passages may be the most well-known, even notorious, but they are short-lived, and much of the score is restrained, Berlioz’s fine ear for instrumental colour always in evidence - even the 10 pairs of cymbals are employed softly en masse.

Fischer did much to elucidate the timbral variety, in particular drawing out the distinct reedy blend of the woodwind groupings, so creating an effectively austere contrast to the more flamboyant theatrical moments of the score. Of particular note was the opening of the brief ‘Quid sum miser’, depicting after Judgement Day, where there was some superb cor anglais and bassoon playing, complemented by dark, brooding ’celli and double basses.

Similarly, in the furiously paced ‘Rex tremendae’ Fischer delineated the contrasts and juxtapositions, the choir both commanding, “Rex tremendae majestatis”, and imploring, “Salve me”.

After such intense passion, the soft men’s entry at the start of the a cappella ‘Quaerens me’ was striking. And, in the ‘Offertorium’ the choral restatements of “Domine Jesu Christe” interweaved stylishly with the orchestral motifs, the fragmented utterances establishing a mournful, plaintive mood.

Tenor Toby Spence, the lone soloist before these colossal forces, has clearly not fully recovered his voice, following the serious throat condition which he recently suffered. However, in the ‘Sanctus’ there were still signs of the sweet lyrical tenor for which he is justly renowned. And, although he could not always sustain a clean tone, becoming a little hoarse and unfocussed at times and relying on a quasi-falsetto for some of the higher range, this was a brave performance; indeed, together with the delicate high strings and flute, Spence’s slight vulnerability complemented the pathos of text which so often reflects upon the fragility of man in a desolate universe.

Although the tempo of the ‘Lacrimosa’ was a little fast for my liking - the melody can sound rather trite if rushed - overall Fischer judged the structure of the whole effectively, bringing out both the grandeur and intimacy of the work. The long-held woodwind and string chords in the ‘Agnus Dei’ brought calm and, as melodies from previous movements were reprised, a sense of peace, a movement from judgement to redemption.

As David Cairns explains in his programme essay, the Requiem belongs to the tradition of ceremonial, Revolutionary works which represented “the idea of the Nation, the entire people of France, assembled for a solemn act of prayer and thanksgiving”. Although the performers in the Albert Hall probably did not quite reach the decibel-level of the full-throated, 14-minute roar which accompanied Mo Farah’s run into the Olympic history books at the other end of London that night, they certainly conveyed Berlioz’s fervent vision of the astonishing power of both faith and humanity.

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):