Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Sweeney Todd at the San Francisco Opera

Did the iconic “off-beat” and “serious” American musical hold the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? The excited audience (standees three deep) thought so and roared their appreciation.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Santa Fe’s Celebratory Jester

Santa Fe Opera noted a landmark two-thousandth performance in their distinguished history with a stylish new production of Rigoletto.



Die Familie Schönberg by Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) [Source: Wikipedia]
14 Aug 2012

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder — BBC Proms 2012

Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder is conceived as cosmic panorama. King Waldemar curses God and is himself cursed, doomed to ride the skies forever, inspiring awe and horror.

Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Angela Denoke, soprano; Simon O'Neill, tenor (Waldemar); Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano (Wood-Dove); Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, tenor (Klaus the Fool); Neal Davies, bass-baritone (Peasant); Wolfgang Schöne, speaker. BBC Singers. BBC Symphony Chorus. Crouch End Festival Chorus. New London Chamber Choir. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor.

Royal Albert Hall, London, 12th August 2012

Above: Die Familie Schönberg by Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) [Source: Wikipedia]


This is an audacious work of theatre for orchestra and voices. No costumes needed, nor staging, though seeing it in a performance space as inherently dramatic as the Royal Albert Hall intensifies its impact. No live Gurrelieder will ever be dull.

Gurrelieder has featured in seven BBC Proms. Pierre Boulez conducted it in 1973, in an astounding performance that is still one of the best recordings available. Andrew Davis opened the 1994 Proms with a Gurrelieder where Hans Hotter gave an outstanding performance as speaker, so remarkable that it’s lived in my memory ever since. Jukka-Pekka Saraste and his musicians have a lot to live up to, but their 2012 Proms performance did not disappoint. Every performance has its merits, and from each we learn.

Wagner’s influence was so pervasive that Schoenberg, like Mahler and Hugo Wolf before him, needed to find forms other than opera through which to develop his musical persona. Saraste emphasizes the “Wagnerisms” in Gurrelieder so forcefully that you keep hearing echoes from Tristan und Isolde in the interaction between Waldemar and Tove. here’s even an echo of the Shepherd’s tune in the woodwind passages. King Waldemar’s men sound like Gunther’s Gibichungs, and the Waldtraube plays as pivotal a role as the Waldvogel. It’s relevant that Simon O’Neill, who sang Waldemar, specializes in lower-range Wagnerian roles like Siegmund. Angela Denoke was a reasonable Tove, and Katarina Karnéus sang a beautifully rounded Wood Dove.

Saraste’s emphasis so dominates that the differences betwen Parts 1 and 3 in Gurrelieder are minimized, particularly as Part 1 was conducted more loosely than Part 3. It’s a valid approach, and certainly makes the piece approachable. Yet it’s not an interpretation that brings out the Schoenberg in Gurrelieder, which is far more original and challenging.

Between the time Schoenberg began Gurrelieder and the time he completed it, he went through trauma in his personal life. The picture above shows Schoenberg and his wife Mathilde Zemlinsky, with their two children. It’s a summer afternoon, they’re in the Austrian countryside. But the faces are pools of blood. Mathilde and the artist Richard Gerstl had an affair but when it ended, Gerstl killed himself. The following year, Schoenberg (himself a painter) wrote Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten and Ewartung (op 17, 1909). He was now able to resolve the impasse with Gurrelieder.

In Part 2 of Gurrelieder, Waldemar responds to the loss of Tove with “Herrgott, Herrgott, wiesst du was du tatest” . The notes that are later sung as “Herrgott” appear right at the beginning of the whole piece, but are now transformed. Simon O’Neill doesn’t have the most lyrically beautiful voice, but it’s right for Waldemar, consumed as he is with cosmic rage. O’Neill uses the idiosyncrasies of his voice intelligently. This Waldemar is maddened by suffering and turns on God. “Lasst mich, Herr, die Kappe deines Hofnarr’n tragen!”, he snaps. (Let me wear your jester’s cap). As Klaus Narr tells us, Waldemar isn’t a nice man, which is perhaps why he’s so overwhelmed when Tove loves him. O’Neill seems to have understood the part in context of the whole work, rather than just singing his own part regardless as some of the smaller parts are often done. This I respect more than a “lovely” voice, Roman Trekel had an even more metallic burr, but sang parts that worked for him. Philip Langridge (a good Klaus Narr) had an even more awkward instrument, but used it to create character better than most.

As the ghost of Waldemar rides through the skies, the terrified Peasant (Neal Davies) hides and puts his faith in formulaic prayers. So it’s significant that Schoenberg makes so much of Klaus Narr. He’s a jester and plays the fool, but it’s his job ito say things to kings (and Gods) that they don’t want to hear. Like Waldemar and his hunters, the jester is dead, too, a haunted spirit forced to walk in endless circles, going nowhere. It’s not a good thing and he knows it. His music is unsettling, as it should be, despite the mock bucolic text. The joke is on the jester, who must ride with his master in death. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang correctly but could have expressed more savage irony. From this point, a change is coming, overturning the “Wagnerian” forces that prevailed before. In the orchestra, Saraste lets small instruments like piccolo and xylophone be heard over the big brass and overwhelming strings.

Superlative choruses sang the demonic huntsmen, extremely well-parted so their song moved with the wildness you’d expect from ghosts riding on the wind. As they fade into “Versinkt! Versinkt”, an eerie chill seems to sink in, even in the overheated Royal Albert Hall.

The “Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind” sweeps away all that’s gone before. But Waldemar’s curse is not resolved. Instead, Schoenberg uses his music and Sprechstimme to herald something completely new. Haunted as I am by Hans Hotter’s Speaker I probably expect miracles. This is a part for baritones who retain their musical instincts even when their voices bloom no more, which adds to the meaning of this strange part. As dawn breaks, the ghosts fade, and nature, in its glory, awakes. Wolfgang Schöne still has a voice, and intones the tricky rhythms nicely. But we’re definitely not in Wagner territory now. The Speaker addresses “Herr Gänsefuß, Frau Gänsekraut” (Lord Goosefoot, Lady Amaranth), a reference to the “Herrgott” heard earlier. It’s also a reference to Waldemar and Tove and their status in the scheme of worldly things. But Goosefoot and Amaranth are tall weeds cut down by wind. This Wind blows the past away, to welcome new growth.

“Seht die Sonne!” the chorus sang with tumultous vigor, the orchestra resurgent in glorious splendour. “Läßt von lichter Stirne fliegen Strahlenlockenpracht” (and from the sun’s glowing brow flies “the spendour of his locks of light” as the translation by Donna Hewitt puts that last, lovely and very Germanic noun).

Anne Ozorio

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):