Recently in Performances
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.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
16 Nov 2012
A Celebration of Mendelssohn Song
The Wigmore Hall Celebration of Mendelssohn Song series culminated in a recital of works by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn and by Robert and Clara Schumann. The programme was very well chosen because Felix, Fanny, Robert and Clara knew each other..
Susan Gritton, Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti began the recital with duets, affirming the theme of companionship and symbiosis. Three contrasting settings of Heinrich Heine, including the famous Wasserfahrt op 50/4 which Felix Mendelssohn wrote shortly before the Schumanns married, inspiring Robert Schumann's Liederjahre. Heine's text suggests connections with Winterreise. The poet leaves his homeland. He passes his sweetheart's home but she shows no sign of interest, so he sails off into the unknown, blinded by tears. There's irony in the way the voices intertwine, though there's no hope for the relationship. The piano part describes waves: the ocean is impersonal, constantly changing, obliterating the past.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel wrote almost 400 works, a significant output for a woman in her social circle. Her Five Lieder op 10 reflect her intellectual rigour. Fanny endured a long engagement because Wilhelm Hensel worked in Italy, so her setting of Hensel's poem, Nach Süden (op 10/1), had deep personal meaning. The theme of separation may have resonated with her brother after her death, for he included it as the first song in this posthumous publication. Nonetheless it's very well written: Felix would not have included anything less in a tribute to his much missed sister. It bears comparison with Fanny's settings of Lenau, Geibel and Eichendorff. These were all contemporaries: Fanny was setting "new" poetry, choosing poets who were to inspire generations of composers to come.
In Vorwurf, (op 10/2), she confronts the bleakness of Lenau's verse without compromise. The suggestion of ponderous footsteps in the piano part suggests gloom, but the stern reproach in the second strophe indicates strong-minded resolution.: no escape into "romantic" passivity. The vine imagery in the Geibel setting Im Herbst (op 10/4) inspires luscious curling symmetries Most beautiful, perhaps, is the Eichendorff setting Bergeslust, (op10/5), the last piece she wrote before she died. The introduction is written with great freedom evoking the open vistas of a mountain top. Clouds drift down, and birds descend, but "Gedanken gehn und Lieder fort bis ins Himmelreich". Voice and piano join in unison.
Susan Gritton's recording of Fanny Mendelssohn Songs for Hyperion is a a classic, but on this occasion she may have been unwell, for she was not on her usual form. Nonetheless, she has worked so closely with Eugene Asti that he could compensate. He played with sensitivity, protecting Gritton so she wasn't exposed. Later in the evening, she regained her composure. In Lieder, as in life, partnership like this benefits performance. Very much in keeping with the theme of companionship that ran through this programme. It's not for nothing that Asti is one of the great champions of Mendelssohn song in recital.
Eugene Asti and Sarah Connolly have also worked closely together in Mendelssohn. Connolly sang Mendelssohn's Six Songs op 71 with great poise. Intelligent phrasing, clear diction, a nice burnished tone. I specially liked the Lenau setting Schilflied (1842) where the poet describes the stillness of a pond in the monlight, where deer and birds move among the reeds. ".....träumerisch im tiefen Rohr", sang Connolly, breathing into the vowels with great feeling. The Eichendorff setting Nachtlied (1847) is exquiste, at once elegaic and elegant. Night has descended, with intimations of death. But the poet isn't alone "Frisch auf dem, liebe Nachtigall ! du Wasserfall mit hellen Schall!" The song of the nightingale lights up the gloom with a cascade of bright, refershing song. Gentle diminuendo in the postlude, like embers glowing in the darkness.
If anything, Robert Schumann was even more sensitive to poetry than the Mendelssohns. Schumann's Spanisches Liederspiel (op 74, 1849) set Geibel's verses describing an exotic, imaginary Spain. The three songs chosen from the set depict flowers and sensual perfumes. In Botschaft, "Tausend Blumen, tauumflossen", piano and vocal lines entwine like garlands, intoxicating the listener, drawing him into a world of possibly illicit passion. In their own ways, Mendelssohn and Schumann contributed towards the Romantic challenge to the aesthetic of North German Protestant propriety. It's no coincidence that Hugo Wolf worshipped Schumann, wrote his own Spansiches Liederbuch (also to Geibel and Heyse) and operas based on Spanish themes.
Clara Schumann was a contemporary of Chopin and Liszt. Like them, she had an international celebrity career. She was an independent breadwinner in a way that Fanny Mendelssohn could not be, constrained as she was by her higher social status. By any standards, Clara Schumann was a pioneer, but Robert wanted her to be a composer, too. Songs like Lorelei and Volkslied (both Heine) charm because they're so descriptive. But her instrument was the piano, not voice. The bitter tragedy of Heine's Sie liebren sich beide (op 13/2 1842) didn't bite, though Asti's accompaniment was accomplished.
Susan Gritton sang Robert Schumann's Six Poems of Nikolaus Lenau (op 90) picking up nicely. Lyrical as these songs are, there are tricky moments, like the tongue twister "vom stillen Strahl des Schmerzens bist du gebeugt und blasser" in Meine Rose. Sarah Connolly returned for the op 90 Requiem "Ruh' von schmerzensreichen Mühen".