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The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
02 Aug 2012
Santa Fe Opera, Karol Szymanowski : King Roger
The gifted Polish composer Karol Szymanowski wrote his three-act King Roger, in the 1920's. It is an allegorical tale of honor vs. pleasure set to quite beautiful music, especially in the orchestral writing, which Santa Fe chose to play in the same season as the Rossini in a wide tip of the hat to unknown but worthy repertory.
While King Roger is rarely heard, I happen to have experienced it in 1980 when the St. Louis Symphony presented two performances in concert form under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, who was an advocate for Szymanowski’s music. It made very little impression at that time, but heightened my appreciation of the Santa Fe production, whose theatrical qualities much enhanced the somewhat tepid tale of the Sicilian king, if one set within an unusually rich musical tapestry. A colorful and dramatic production of a static opera can make the effort seem worthwhile, and King Roger’s treatment by Santa Fe could hardly have been more beneficial. (Santa Fe played the opera in one 90-minute act that enhanced continuity.)
First of all the music: Wide swathes of Debussy-influenced tone painting abound, forming an impressionistic atmosphere, often punctuated and disputed by sharp polytonal accents and chromatic arguments in the full orchestra, illustrating Roger’s unhappy moods. The King is torn between his conventional church-approved duties as Monarch, versus the upsetting proposals of a charismatic Shepherd that appeared from nowhere, and much beguiled not only Roger’s subjects but also his wife, Roxana, with tempting ideas about sensual and erotic pleasures. Roger himself is tempted but also dismayed by the Shepherd whose call he hears all too well. In the end the King restores order, at least in his own mind, and assumes the royal robes of convention, but not without having been marked by life’s Dionysian distractions. With lots of talk, lots of posturing and agonizing and a rather ho-hum plot, King Roger is saved by the elegant and original music emanating from the orchestra. The vocal writing is mainly declamatory or conversational, with few if any memorable set pieces, aside from Roxanna’s song, a haunting vocalise that accompanies her fall to Dionysius.
Special appreciation must go to Evan Rogister, the young American conductor, who was a leading hand in making the show work. The singers were all competent, and sometimes more than that, but it is an ensemble opera without the need for star turns. As the King, young Polish lyric baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was authoritative and convincing, perhaps more in the King’s suffering than otherwise, but his is a lyric voice, so fine in Mozart, sometimes taxed in Szymanowski’s bigger moments. His Roxana was handsomely sung by the soprano Erin Morley who brought silvery beauty to her aria. The Shepherd is a hard role to cast and no doubt a difficult one to perform, but ingratiating tenor William Burden rose to the occasion, even if sometimes his top tones turned a bit pale and hard to hear. Raymond Aceto lent his distinguished baritone voice to the role of the Archbishop, with Dennis Peterson and Laura Wilde serving well in secondary parts.
The effectively played stage action was conceived by highly regarded director Stephen Wadsworth whose ideas were strong and clarifying, and were assisted by the ingenious if spare set designs of Thomas Lynch. The unusually fine costumes were by Ann Hould-Ward. Her designs, detailed and impressive, especially in Act I, immediately established a feeling of style and quality that set the right tone and engaged the viewer; strong input by Ms Hould-Ward who first worked at Santa Fe in 1992. I must particularly acknowledge the accomplishment of chorus master Susanne Sheston, whose Santa Fe Opera apprentice singers, augmented by twenty-four professional voices from the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, gave a superior account of Szymanowski’s sumptuous choral writing, one of the most noteworthy beauties of the score. I hope to meet King Roger again some day. His is an enchanting and musically rewarding illusion.
© J.A. Van Sant, 2012