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

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

Fantasy in Philadelphia: The Wake World

Composer and librettist David Hertzberg’s magical mystery tour that is The Wake World opened to a cheering sold out audience that was clearly enraptured with its magnificent artistic achievement.

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, at the start of my conversation with Mark Padmore, that I had not previously been aware of the annual music festival held in the small Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which was founded in 2002 and to which Padmore will return later this month to perform a recital of lieder by Schubert and Schumann with pianist Till Fellner.

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Giovanni Simon Mayr: Medea in Corinto

The Bavarian-born Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845) trained and made his career in Italy and thus ended up calling himself Giovanni Simone Mayr, or simply G. S. Mayr. He is best known for having been composition teacher to Giuseppe Donizetti.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

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):