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

A newly discovered song by Alma Mahler

It is well known that in addition to the fourteen songs by Alma Mahler published in her lifetime, several dozen more - perhaps as many as one hundred - were written and have been lost or destroyed.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

Glyndebourne Opera Cup 2018: semi-finalists announced

The semi-finalists for the first Glyndebourne Opera Cup have been announced. Following a worldwide search that attracted nearly 200 entries, and preliminary rounds in Berlin, London and Philadelphia, 23 singers aged 21-28 have been chosen to compete in the semi-final at Glyndebourne on 22 March.

ENO announces Studio Live casts and three new Harewood Artists

English National Opera (ENO) has announced the casts for Acis and Galatea and Paul Bunyan, 2018’s two ENO Studio Live productions. ENO Studio Live forms part of ENO Outside which takes ENO’s work to arts-engaged audiences that may not have considered opera before, presenting the immense power of opera in more intimate studio and theatre environments.

Handel in London: 2018 London Handel Festival

The 2018 London Handel Festival explores Handel’s relationship with the city. Running from 17 March to 16 April 2018, the Festival offers four weeks of concerts, talks, walks & film screenings explore masterpieces by Handel, from semi-staged operas to grand oratorio and lunchtime recitals.

Dartington International Summer School & Festival: 70th anniversary programme

Internationally-renowned Dartington Summer School & Festival has released the course programme for its 70th Anniversary Summer School and Festival, curated by the pianist Joanna MacGregor, that will run from 28th July to 25th of August 2018.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.

Riveting Maria de San Diego

As part of its continuing, adventurous “Detour” series, San Diego Opera mounted a deliciously moody, proudly pulsating, wholly evocative presentation of Astor Piazzolla’s “nuevo tango” opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.

La Walkyrie in Toulouse

The Nicolas Joel 1999 production of Die Walküre seen just now in Toulouse well upholds the Airbus city’s fame as Bayreuth-su-Garonne (the river that passes through this quite beautiful, rich city).

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at Covent Garden

Carmen is dead. Long live Carmen. In a sense, both Bizet’s opera and his gypsy diva have been ‘done to death’, but in this new production at the ROH (first seen at Frankfurt in 2016) Barrie Kosky attempts to find ways to breathe new life into the show and resurrect, quite literally, the eponymous temptress.

Candide at Arizona Opera

On Friday February 2, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Although all the music was Bernstein’s, the text was written and re-written by numerous authors including Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, as well as the composer.

Satyagraha at English National Opera

The second of Philip Glass’s so-called 'profile' operas, Satyagraha is magnificent in ENO’s acclaimed staging, with a largely new cast and conductor bringing something very special to this seminal work.

Mahler Symphony no 8—Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality. For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem. Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.

Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday—Angelika Kirchschlager

At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series. The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde. Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.

A Splendid Italian Spoken-Dialogue Opera: De Giosa’s Don Checco

Never heard of Nicola De Giosa (1819-85), a composer who was born in Bari (a town on the Adriatic, near the heel of Italy), but who spent most of his career in Naples? Me, neither!

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

02 Aug 2012

Tippett : A Child of Our Time BBC Prom 25

In November 1938 a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynsban, driven to desperation and despair by the Nazi persecution of his mother, shot a minor German diplomat in Paris. The Nazis retaliated with one of the most savage, vicious pogroms experienced up to that time. A Child of our Time, composed during 1938-41, was Michael Tippett’s musical response to this contemporary tragedy and his attempt to comprehend its universal and eternal relevance.

Charles Ives : The Unanswered Question, Samule Barber : Adagio for Strings op 24, Bernd Alois Zimmermann : Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Michael Tippett : A Child of Our Time

Håkan Hardenberger: trumpet, Sally Matthews: soprano, Sarah Connolly: mezzo soprano, Paul Groves: tenor, Jubilant Sykes :baritone, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Simon Halsey :chorus-master, BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson: conductor.

1st August 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

Or so the story goes. In fact the origins of the work were probably less spontaneous and more complex. Previously Tippett had considered producing an opera based on the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, but he found the Jewish problem more immediate and troubling - perhaps not surprising for one who was later to be sentenced as a Conscientious Objector to three months’ imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. Tippett himself explained:

“The Jews were the particular scapegoats of everything, for every kind of standing outcast, whether in Russia or America or even in England. For these people I knew somehow I had to sing songs.”

Tippett’s masterstroke was to include within his universal reflections and specific narrative, five Negro spirituals: “I felt I had to express collective feelings and that could only be done by collective tunes such as Negro spirituals, for these tunes contain a deposit of generations of common experience.” (Tippett, ‘Poets in a barren age’, in Moving into Aquarius (London: Palladin, 1974), p.152.). But, it was also a decision which resulted in an inherent technical and aesthetic difficulty: how to successfully assimilate a sophisticated western classical idiom with the simple, pure language of the spiritual?

The problem of integrating opposing musical genres was not entirely overcome in this stirring and uplifting performance by the BBC Proms Youth Choir - the massed forces of several UK youth choirs who, having attended an intensive course in Birmingham, were brought together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Robertson.

Tippett produced both the score and the text - after T.S. Eliot had declined to write the libretto, professing that the composer would produce a more appropriate text himself. And, blending echoes of Wilfrid Owen’s war poetry with Jungian psychology, the text is relatively - and atypically for Tippett - simple and terse. The four soloists all enunciated their recitatives clearly and with excellent projection, with tenor Paul Groves employing a particularly sensitive declamation. Elegance, flexibility, and impassioned sentiment characterised Groves’ Part I solo ‘I have no money for my bread’; and he skilfully manoeuvred the more chromatic idiom of his second solo, ‘My dreams are all shattered in a ghastly reality’, in Part II, where ethereal high strings and some beautiful solo playing by flute and oboe enhanced the lyrical poignancy of the vocal melody.

Sarah Connelly, announcing the opening ‘Argument’ with poise and earnestness, sang throughout with rhetorical presence and clarity. Her Part III solo, ‘The soul of man’, was rhythmically alert and naturalistic, in animated counterpoint with a buoyant string line derived motivically from the spiritual.

In the role of ‘narrator’, baritone Jubilant Sykes, making his debut at the Proms, initially seemed a little nervous and restrained, but he grew in stature as the work progressed. Although his baritone perhaps lacks the necessary weighty resonance of a true bass, and at times he struggled to find sufficient impact and gravitas, Sykes shaped his recitatives and arias with thoughtfulness and care, building through his opening recitative to the inject drama and urgency in the final line, “And a great cry went up from the people”, and carefully colouring the text in Part III to reassure that “The simple-hearted shall exult in the end”. His Act 2 Scena with Connolly was particularly impressive, superbly conveying the escalating the menace of threat and fear, and leading effortlessly to the eruption of fugal violence in the choral ‘Terror’, “Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads!” Sykes’ subsequent grave utterances were perfectly paced, never exaggerated but each word placed for bitter impact. In the slowly paced Spiritual of Anger, ‘Go down, Moses’, chorus and bass suggested the innate power endowed by repression and injustice, and the baritone summoned up a momentous tone to convey the weight of collective history.

It was soprano Sally Matthews, stepping in to replace the indisposed Measha Brueggergosman, who was the star of the evening. From her first solo, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days’, her lines were unfailingly resonant of tone and rich with emotion, as she effortlessly soared in Tippett’s high melodic arches. With glimmering sheen, Matthews rode above the choral ensemble in the first spiritual, ‘Steal away’; in the penultimate ensemble with chorus, the translucence of her final ascents made the promised renewal seem undeniable.

Although Tippett adopted a traditional oratorio format of recitatives, arias and choruses, the subject matter does not lend itself naturally to this form. However, conductor David Robertson moved fluently through the various Parts and numbers forming a coherent narrative. Contrapuntal textures in the instrumental interludes were well delineated and characterised; and in the Part III sequence, from ‘The soul of man’ to the final spiritual, Robertson crafted an unstoppable contrapuntal and harmonic momentum, steady pulses from the ’celli and timpani, together with extended dominant pedals, creating an inexorable movement to resolution - the latter quietly achieved with a gentle cadence, “Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope” - it is hardly Robertson’s fault if the opposing classical and popular idioms do not fully coalesce.

The youthful choral forces had been well rehearsed by their respective choral masters and by Stephen Halsey. The music for chorus is not particularly ‘difficult’ in a technical sense - in fact Tippett simplified the spirituals in order to unify the musical language by basing own music on their fundamental elements; but, the negro slaves’ songs do need to be sung with passion yet without affectation if the charge of misappropriation, even exploitation, is to be avoided.

The members of the Proms Youth Choir were disciplined throughout. There was plenty of passion and volume, although sometimes without true weight and penetration, particularly in the tenor and basses - but perhaps that is an unfair observation, given the youthful ages of the participants. Certainly, there was much energised singing, and the lightness of the young voices prevented some of Tippett’s slightly turgid rhythmic settings, and rather repetitive imitative passages, from seeming too heavy-handed. Thus in the Chorus of the Oppressed in Part I, the polyphonic entries were crisp; similarly the Double Chorus of Persecutors and Persecuted was rhythmically energised, and sharp staccato strings intensified the air of dread. There was a lovely ensemble blend in the opening chorus of Part II, ‘A star rises in mid-winter’, and despite the size of his forces, Robertson was able to induce many a subtle pianissimo or diminuendo, notably in the opening spiritual ‘Steal away’.

The final spiritual was performed from memory, and this was both a strength and a weakness of the performance. For while such a direct address to the audience in the vast arena seemed to invite inclusion and ‘collective’ involvement, the stiff-armed rigidity of the massed singers had a distinct distancing effect - less Negro slave anthem, or even Lutheran congregational chorale, and more English cathedral evensong.

That said, all these parts added up to an intensely satisfying whole. The chorus masters of the participating choirs (the CBSO Youth Chorus, Quay Voices, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Côr Hyn Glanaethwy (Wales) and Codetta (Northern Island)) joined their young charges on the platform, and there was a genuine spirit of warm, joyful communal music-making.

In a short programme interview, David Robertson explained his rationale for the evening’s programming, the first half of the concert comprising one of Charles Ives’ most well-known works, The Unanswered Question, Samuel Barber’s ever-popular Adagio for strings, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1954 trumpet concerto, Nobody knows de trouble I see: “At the centre of this programme is the notion of reflection and questioning.” Unfortunately, in the first half Robertson did not allow sufficient time for such probing and contemplation (although he was not aided in his endeavour by much thoughtless and surely unnecessary and incessant coughing and spluttering); for in choosing to commence the Barber almost before the last echoes of Ives’ discomforting, unresolving string chords had subsided, he almost reduced the latter work to the status of irrelevant prelude to the more popularist work. The three performing groups - solo trumpet, four flutes (chosen here instead of the alternative, more diverse, group of two flutes, oboe and clarinet) and strings - were spatially separated, but Ives’ preference was for the strings to be placed off-stage and, although perhaps impractical on this occasion, the unwavering metaphysical soundscape created by the strings is surely best experienced as a cosmic rather than a human phenomenon.

Adopting a fairly slow tempo, Robertson structured the long linear lines of Barber’s Adagio effectively, but the work did not attain the emotional scale for which one might have wished. Trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger scaled the stratospheric heights of Zimmermann’s jazz-serial concerto with ease, but as a whole the performers did not quite capture the freedom of the jazz-inspired idiom and Robertson could not fully elucidate with clarity the structure of the episodic form.

Perhaps the greatest accolade of the evening should be reserved for Tippett’s oratorio itself - a work of the highest spiritual and human ambitions but one which also achieves a compelling impact and power, and which confirms Tippett’s own faith in the nature and function of music.

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):