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

San Jose’s Bohemian Rhapsody

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.

Fine Traviata Completes SDO Season

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.

The Exterminating Angel: compulsive repetitions and re-enactments

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!”

Dutch National Opera revives deliciously dark satire A Dog’s Heart

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.

Opera Rara: new recording of Bellini's Adelson e Salvini

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

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.

Garsington Opera For All

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).

María José Moreno lights up the Israeli Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor

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.

Cinderella Enchants Phoenix

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.

LA Opera’s Young Artist Program Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

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.

Gerhaher and Bartoli take over Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus

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 Symphony no 8 : Jurowski, LPO, Royal Festival Hall, London

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.

Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques: a charming French-UK collaboration at the RCM

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.

The Royal Opera House announces its 2017/18 season

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.”

St Matthew Passion: Armonico Consort and Ian Bostridge

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.

Pop Art with Abdellah Lasri in Berliner Staatsoper’s marvelous La bohème

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.

New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

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 less-than-tragic plight.

Two rarities from the Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall

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.

The "Lost" Songs of Morfydd Owen

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.

Enchanting Tales at L A Opera

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.

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):