05 Oct 2012
“Dreamers of Dreams”
During the years from 1890 to 1940, the so-called ‘land without music’ witnessed a remarkable outpouring of chamber and instrumental music.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
During the years from 1890 to 1940, the so-called ‘land without music’ witnessed a remarkable outpouring of chamber and instrumental music.
This deluge of creativity and achievement is being celebrated by the Wigmore Hall’s resident chamber ensemble, The Nash Ensemble, in an exciting series of recitals showcasing some of the quintessentially British masterpieces, as well as some lesser-known gems, of the period.
“Dreamers of Dreams” commenced with a varied and intriguing selection of the renowned and rare. Following an early evening concert of Bax (Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp), Britten (Suite for Harp, Op.83) and Bridge (Three Idylls for string quartet), the instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble were joined by soprano Sally Matthews in songs by Arthur Bliss and Roger Quilter reflecting the both the idiosyncratic innovations and pastoral traditions of English cultural and musical life in the 1920s.
Arthur Bliss’s ‘Rout’ is scored for soprano and a large chamber orchestra, conducted here by Ian Brown, comprising flute, clarinet, string quartet, double bass, harp, side-drum and glockenspiel, a varied array which is skilfully deployed to capture a dazzling melange of the “scraps of song that might reach a listener watching a carnival from an open window”, so declared the composer. Certainly the short rhythmic, melodic and textural motifs which repeat, alternate and return generate a busy, sparkling mood, as we move swiftly through interludes of contrasting texture and tempo. Interactions between the voice, which delivers a mixture of made-up words and syllables, and the instrumentalists bring moments of clarity and focus in the shifting soundscape, as when a touching clarinet solo (Richard Hosford) blended silkily with the low voice, before transforming into a march-like episode, which itself then slid into a lively triple-time frolic.
Lacking the sharp sardonic wit of Walton’s Façade, ‘Rout’ nevertheless conjures an air of cabaret and fun, mingling stylisation and realism, dance and depiction. Matthews delivered the syllabic cries with energy and clarity, blending effectively into the vigorous ensemble and projecting the significant vocal gestures with panache.
Two further songs by Bliss followed, both of which suffered somewhat from Matthew’s poor enunciation of the text. Clarity of diction is essential if the quirky incongruity of the seemingly trivial ‘nonsense’ of ‘Madam Noy’ - a variant, by E.W.H. Meyerstein, of the nursery rhyme ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ - is to be articulated. Indeed, Bliss dedicated this ‘Witchery Song’ to the American mezzo-soprano Anne Thursfield, who was renowned for her linguistic flair, and it was disappointing that Matthews, while dramatising the inconsequential episodes with a gentle, engaging irony, did not make more of the nuances of the text. Such nuances were, however, grasped by the instrumentalists, to pleasing and amusing effect. The delicate blend of harp (Lucy Wakeford) and flute (Philippa Davies) beautifully evoked the nocturnal vista: “winds are asleep on the ocean’s back/ The moon’s ring faint and the skyline black”; while a frolicsome trill by clarinet and flute frivolously announced the concluding “low mocking laugh on the air”.
‘The Women of Yueh’ presents settings of five poems by the Chinese poet, Li-Po; although originally for soprano and piano, a subsequent instrumental arrangement allowed Bliss to capture the full range of the inferences of the Chinese kanji through instrumental colour and shade; the flute arabesques in ‘She is a southern girl’ conveyed the mystery and fragility of the girl whose face is “prettier than star or moon” and whose feet are “white like frost”, while the low bass register of “She is gathering lotus buds” was moodily atmospheric, as the girl “hides away among the lilies” and “will not show her face again”. The moments of low, still recitation were the most affecting: the unaccompanied conclusion to “Many a girl of the South” settled seductively on a repeating tone, “She will pluck the flowers of the water/ For amorous wayfarers”, while at the close of “She, a Tung-yang girl” Matthews’ tender, slow recitation, “The moon has not yet set/ They look at each other - broken-hearted”, was enriched by woodwind trills, the latter evolving into a troubled, oscillating gesture before finally resolving into a consoling major chord.
After the interval, Matthews returned with Ian Brown now as pianist for three ‘pastoral’ songs by Roger Quilter, songs which capture the composer’s sensitivity to the Suffolk countryside of his youth. In ‘I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing’, Brown’s soothing but penetrating compound lilt conveyed a deep connection with the earth, while Matthews brought a gleam to “the shine of the air”, suggesting the depth of the speaker’s love for the “rooks and the crows and the sea-gulls”. The sparse texture of the final verse, delivered after a slight but telling pause, poignantly suggested the pleasure in the harvest done, but also a subconscious recognition of the passing of traditional ways.
Brown’s accompaniment in ‘I Wish and I Wish’ was fittingly fey and faery-like, and ‘Cherry Valley’, with its tender unfolding melody (reminiscent of Finzi) darkened with complex harmonic shadows, was touching; but, while the low concluding line - “In Cherry Valley the cherries blow/ The valley paths are white as slow” - was wonderfully controlled, Matthews did not really capture the simplicity in which the poet’s meaning resides. These are intimate songs, and the Wigmore Hall (where, in fact, many of these songs and those programmed later in the series were first heard) offers a sympathetic acoustic, of which Matthews did not always take advantage.
The vocal offerings were preceded and followed by purely instrumental works, beginning with a refreshing and rich performance of Vaughan William’s Phantasy String Quintet. Lawrence Power’s opening viola theme, which reappears in each movement, was delivered without overly fussy vibrato but with a wonderfully focused, rich tone, delightfully complemented by the translucent traceries of Marianne Thorsen’s high violin. The four movements (Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca) are played without a break, and the players moved adroitly through the varying moods: Paul Watkin’s energised cello staccato in the Scherzo initiated some dense rhythmic polyphony and syncopation, which was followed by the serene muted blend of the four upper strings in Alla Sarabanda. After much contrapuntal complexity the Burlesca ended with the return of the viola motif above a held dissonant chord, before an effulgent outpouring from the first violin, in the manner of a lark ascending, brought the work to an elevating close.
Three folksong arranged by Percy Grainger for piano and strings entertained, with the crisp dance textures, pizzicato bite and flamboyant final variant of ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ giving way to the restful cadence of ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’, the cello’s calm melody supported by stirring harmonic progressions. Brown, Thorsen and Watkins were joined by Power in ‘Clog Dance’, which ran through a gamut of moods embracing decorum, rumbustiousness and insouciance.
The concert concluded with a committed and intelligent performance of Elgar’s E minor String Quartet. A mood of nervous speculation characterised the first movement, the spry rhythms and irresolute harmonies combining to create a restlessness which was resolved into an ebullient, confident energy in the final movement. The intervening andante, marked Piacevole, was contemplative, its peace undisturbed - a perfect embodiment of the words of Arthur O’Shaughnessy which inspired Elgar, “We are the Music Makers, and we are the Dreamers of Dreams”.
Vaughan Williams: Phantasy String Quintet in D minor
Grainger: ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’; ‘Shepherd’s Hey’; ‘Handel in the Strand’; Bliss‘Rout’; ‘Madame Noy’; ‘Women of Yueh’
Quilter: Three pastoral songs for soprano and piano trio
Elgar: String Quartet in E minor Op.83
Nash Ensemble. Sally Matthews, soprano. Ian Brown, conductor. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday, 22nd September 2012.