In its ongoing celebration of Verdi’s centennial year, the Los Angeles Opera offered a new production of Falstaff, the composer’s last and most brilliant opera — brilliant in every scintillating, sparkling sense of the word.
German tenor Werner Güra, who has made a speciality of the German lieder repertoire, opened this recital at the Wigmore Hall with Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, the composer’s only song cycle and the first significant example of the form.
Richard Wagner wrote: "The voyage through the Norwegian reefs made a wonderful impression on my imagination; the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which the sailors verified, took on a distinctive, strange coloring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”
On Remembrance Sunday, Semyon Bychkov conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall with Roderick Williams, Allan Clayton, Sabrina Cvilak, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and choristers of Westminster Abbey.
The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.
One year since the launch of their project to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals, vocal ensemble Exaudi returned to the Wigmore Hall to present an intermingling of old and new madrigals which was typically inventive, virtuosic and compelling.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.
There might not be much ‘Serenissima’ about Yoshi Oida’s 2007 production of Death in Venice — it’s more Japanese minimalism than Venetian splendour — but there is still plenty to admire, as this excellent revival by Opera North as part of its centennial celebration, Festival of Britten, underlines.
The lustreless white tiles of the laboratory which forms the set of Keith Warner’s pitiless staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck offer little respite — cold, hard, rigid and severe, they are a material embodiment of the bleakness and barrenness of the tragic events which will be played out within the workshop walls (sets by Stefanos Lazaridis).
At the heart of this Wigmore Hall recital were two sacred vocal works for solo countertenor and small instrumental forces, recently recorded by Florilegium and Robin Blaze to considerable critical acclaim: J.S. Bach’s cantata ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’.
MacMillan is a major Scottish composer who specializes in music with spiritual sensitivity. Since it was the day of Preparation sets the final section of St John’s Gospel from the removal of Jesus’ body from the cross to the end of John’s account, covering the period from Easter Eve until Pentecost. The work is for a small group of singers and a small group of musicians, together with male soloist, baritone is in the original scoring but here the role was ably sung by the low operatic bass, Brindley Sheratt.
Episodes of recitative for different vocal groupings, are interleaved with ‘interludes’ an extended cadenza for each instrument in turn and with other ‘interludes’ for the quintet as an ensemble (theorbo, cello, clarinet, horn and harp). These could in fact be used in excerpt and would stand on their own, either as short works showcasing each instrument, or collectively.
There are long passages for tenor (Andrew Busher) — who opens the entire work — and high baritone (Tom Bullard), not a bass, as described slightly confusingly in the programme, but very good, with a warm sweet tone. Both are very good, and the excellent acoustic meant every word was clearly audible, even at the back of the performance space. Against this are placed periodically Latin liturgical texts, mainly from the Renaissance. The musical, liturgical and dramatic climax of the whole work comes early in the second act, when a piercing peal of sound from the clarinet symbolises the discovery of the empty tomb.
The clarinet is an instrument for which MacMillan has written well, and here his writing for it is at its finest. This vocal section, ‘The Empty Tomb’ is followed by an Interlude for that same instrument, perhaps pre-eminent amongst these and very ably played by Yann Ghiro, whose contribution to this performance was one of its highlights. The clarinet also features prominently in the ensemble interlude between the first two acts, which separates the burial scene from the discovery of the empty tomb ; after quiet, dignified understated playing in the lower register by the other instruments, it enters to take the lead in a skirl-like dance which fades into a keening wail of mourning, being joined by the cello playing high in its register — a piece reminiscent of MacMillan's Tuireadh.
The difficulty of performing the role of Christ has been addressed before. MacMillan creates a feeling of distance and other worldliness by setting the soloists further back from the rest of the singers, and in this performance the use of the low bass voice added gravitas to the role. Brindley Sherratt’s singing created an absolutely spine-tingling effect, further enhanced by the continuous use of bells whilst Christ’s words were sung, recalling the effect of bells being used in the eucharistic prayers during a mass.
Another of James MacMillman’s religious works formed one of the programme items in Sunday’s recital from the festival series at St Michael’s Church. Kiss on Wood, for violin and cello, is also drawn from liturgy for Holy Week, this time an anthem for devotions on Good Friday. A small but powerful piece, it was ably and enjoyably performed there by Monika Geibel (violin) and Olja Buco (piano) — who also gave an excellent account of Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor, Op 82 (both works influenced by wood as a material, as well as for a wooden instrument).
The Edinburgh Festival will be presenting more of of MacMillan’s work next week in the shape of his Opera Clemency, one of a series of chamber operas commissioned by Scottish Opera and performed in turn on a nightly basis. Again a religious work, this time from the Old Testament rather than the New. I’ll be reporting further for Opera Today.
Since it was the day of Preparation will be performed again in London during the autumn season this year. Last night’s performers are also recording this work, to be released next Spring. The Hebrides Ensemble can be heard again on tonight’s Late Junction on BBC Radio 3, and at the Lammermuir Festival in east Lothian next month. Synergy Vocals will be returning to the Edinburgh Festival next year to perform Berio’s Sinfonietta with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Brindley Sheratt will be appearing in a new production of Medea at the ENO.