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

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Maria Callas: Tosca 1964: A film by Holger Preusse

When I reviewed Tosca at Covent Garden in January this year for Opera Today, Maria Callas’s 1964 Royal Opera House performance was still fresh in my mind. This is a recording I have grown up with and which, despite its flaws, is one of the greatest operatic statements - a glorious production which Zeffirelli finally agreed to staging, etched in gothic black and white film (albeit just Act II), with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, if not always as vocally commanding as they once were, acting out their roles like no one has before, or since.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

Hubert Parry and the birth of English Song

British music would not be where it is today without the influence of Charles Hubert Parry. His large choral and orchestral works are well known, and his Jerusalem is almost the national anthem. But in the centenary of his death, we can re-appraise his role in the birth of modern British song.

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.

Camille Saint-Saens: Mélodies avec orchestra

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Markus Poschner.

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.)

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):