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

The Threepenny Opera, London

‘Mack does bad things.’ The tabloid headline that convinces Rory Kinnear’s surly, sharp-suited Macheath that it might be time to take a short holiday epitomizes the cold, understated menace of Rufus Norris’s production of Simon Stephens’ new adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre.

La bohème, LA Opera

On May 25, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented a revival of the Herbert Ross production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La bohème. Stage director, Peter Kazaras, made use of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s wide stage by setting some scenes usually seen inside the garret on the surrounding roof instead.

Amazons Enchant San Francisco

On May 21, 2016, Ars Minerva presented The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles (Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate), an opera consisting of a prologue and three acts by seventeenth century Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino.

Mathis der Maler, Dresden

While Pegida anti-refugee demonstrations have been taking place for a while now in Dresden, there was something noble about the Semperoper with its banners declaring all are welcome, listing Othello, the Turk, and the hedon Papageno as examples.

The Makropulos Case, Munich

Opera houses’ neglect of Leoš Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life.

Orphée et Euridice, Seattle

It’s not easy for critics to hit the right note when they write about musical collaborations between students and professionals. We have to allow for inevitable lack of polish and inexperience while maintaining an overall high standard of judgment.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich

Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne

Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.

Oedipe at Covent Garden

George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO

‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’

Madame Butterfly , ENO

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.

Great Scott Wows San Diego

On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.

Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men

Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.

The Rose and the Ring

Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

21 Nov 2012

Finzi Dies Natalis, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble's series at the Wigmore Hall, "Dreamer of Dreams" continued its survey of British music in the first half of the 20th century with an intriguing programme. Many underlying themes, and thoughtful juxtapositions.

Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Alwyn, Gerald Finzi

The Nash Emsemble, Lawrence Power (viola), Ian Brown (piano) Roderick Williams, Ailish Tynan Paul Watkins (conductor)

Wigmore Hall, London 17th November 2012

 

Britten's Simple Symphony op 4 for strings (1933-34) shows the composer in exuberant high spirits. The "Boisterous Bourrée" romped cheerfully. The "stomping" melody mimics heavy feet dancing, but needs to sound humorous. In the "Playful Pizzicato", the Nash Ensemble strings plucked crazily but in complete technical control. Britten is having fun, sending up "serious" music while being perfectly serious. In the early 1930's Walt Disney was making Silly Symphonies, an extremely inventive series of cartoons. While nursery characters frolicked, the audience was listening to orchestral music in the classical tradition. Britten enjoyed movies. Quite possibly, he saw Disney's work. A Silly Symphony based on Britten's Simple Symphony would have been delightful. The themes in this symphony derive from the compositions Britten wrote as a child; he re-invents them (Read my article "Benjamin Britten Boy Wonder" HERE). "Simple" is a cheekly misnomer. While this short, sharp symphony bubbles with child-like glee, there's nothing childish in the technique. This is Britten, bursting into the public sphere, inspired by the wonder of creative growth.

The recital would end with Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis which describes the miracle of creation through the eyes of a new born. Between these two pillars, the Nash Ensemble placed early works by Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams, extending the theme of youth and artistic birth.

Bridge was later to become a formative influence on Britten, who opened horizons for Britten beyond the confines of British music at the time. Bridge's Three Songs for voice, viola and piano (1906) aren't specially innovative, and rely heavily on good performance. Roderick Williams animates the songs with committment. He's beautiful to listen to but the texts and text settings aren't up to his standards. "Blow...ye..winds" doesn't flow even if the poet is Matthew Arnold. "Where is that our soul doth go?" is a translation of a poem by Heine, so stodgy that it would defy most composers. Fortunately, Bridge's ear for viola was much more acute. The viola part dominates, voice and piano taking secondary place. Laurence Power's sensual playing made these pieces effective. Perhaps they are really songs for viola?

In 1908, Ralph Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel. This was his artistic breakthrough. His Five Mystical Songs (1906-11) are well known in the orchestral version, so hearing them as piano song shows how they bridge religious music and art song. Herbert wrote hyms for the godly: Vaughan Williams wrote hymns though he wasn't devout. Easter is fervent. Roderick Williams emphasizes the key words and phrases, like "Thy Lord is Risen", but the sensuous beauty of his voice tempered their ferocity. The text suggest militant Christianity : Williams's warmth imbues it with humanity. The middle verse "Awake my lute" shines with characteristic RVW cadences, well defined by Ian Brown the pianist. Roderick Williams's voice is naturally beautiful and colours the words with sensitivity. In I got me flowers, the imagery is delicate, but the subdued chromatic middle section culminates in a forceful finale. "There is but one, and that one forever" sang Williams forcefully, supported by Brown's playing which resonated like a church organ.

Antiphon is known to Anglicans as the hymn My Lord is King!. "Let all the world in ev'ry corner sings" erupts with a flurry of bell sounds, as if bells were ringing all over the world. Ralph Vaughan Williams admirers connect immediately with the pealing bells of In Summertime on Bredon (from On Wenlock Edge) Text is foursquare. "The Church with palms must shout". But Vaughan Williams makes it clear that, for him, this is not anthem but art song.

William Alwyn's Pastoral fantasia for solo viola and strings (1939) may have been included as a vehicle for Laurence Power. His playing made the piece worthwhile and enjoyable even though the work itself isn't memorable. Alwyn's pastoralism is pretty, but we know from Vaughan Williams that landscape painting in music is much more than surface charm. It was good to hear Alwyn in the company of Britten, Finzi and Vaugham Williams so we appreciate their originality all the more.

Gerald Finzi's masterpiece Dies Natalis op 8 (1939) was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in January 1940, by Elsie Suddaby. The Finzis and their sons used precious petrol rations to drive up to London for the occasion. For many in this 2012 Wigmore Hall audience, with many Finzi specialists, it was the much anticipated highlight of the evening. Unfortunately, Susan Gritton was indisposed, which is a pity as she's very good. She didn't seem well the previous week at the Mendelssohn concert (reviewed here) but her replacement was left so late that the announcement had to be made on stage. Ailish Tynan was aparently cooking lamb for dinner when she was called to sing. Dies Natalis is difficult to sing but several sopranos and tenors have it in their repertoire. Since Tynan's best work has been in oratorio, her performance was interesting because it showed, like RVW's Five Mystical Songs, that oratorio and art song are fundamentally different genres.

Dies Natalis begins with an Intrada where themes to come emerge briefly. It suggests, to me, the swirling gases of the cosmos, before the Universe was formed. Dies Natalis deals with no less than the miracle of Life and Creation, so this interpretation is valid, since it suggests primordial growth and vast cosmic forces. I was a little surprised that the themes weren't as clearly defined as they could be, but that hardly matters, since the concept is so overwhelming. This sense of infinite space and time is important because the poet, Thomas Traherne, though Christian, was a mystic. Transcendentalism "transcends" traditional dogma. "Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?" the poet asks. Traherne's Rhapsody is prose, but with strange syntax, which Finzi respects by setting it with unsual rhythms "I was a stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys: my knowledge was Divine!", the word "divine" jumping forth from the score, as if illuminated by unearthly glow.

Although there are references to Adam and to God, Traherne's surreal imagery bears little resemblence to conventional religious text. "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never shall be reap'd nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting". Finzi's dynamic extremes emphasize the psychic extreme of the poet's imagination. They aren't there to display vocal gymnastics. Tynan's notes were pitched to extremes, at the expense of diction. We should be hearing meaning, not voice as such, but meaning in Dies Natalis is not easy to grasp. Calm stillness underpins the ecstasy, for the cycle repeatedly refers to sublimation over ego and the sense of self. "I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, immortal and divine".

From Rhapsody to Rapture. This cycle often works best when sung by a tenor, emphasizing the strange, unconventional spirituality. "Sweet Infancy!" does not refer to babies, but to the idea of birth. Perhaps for Finzi with his beliefs in organic farming and living in harmony with nature, it's a statement of faith in something more primeval, the very force of life itself. Finzi was way ahead of his time.

"When silent I, so many thousand, thousand Years beneath the Dust did in a Chaos lie, How could I Smiles, or Tears, or Lips or Hands or Eyes perceive " (Traherne's upper case). Most definitely this isn't a human baby, nor even baby Jesus. Long before science developed theories about the Big Bang and primordial soup Traherne intuited the idea of the birth of the cosmos. Dies Natalis explores new territory, completely alien to the certainities of the established Church. Indeed, the very idea of faith is challenged. Fundamental to this cycle is the sense of wonder, of seeing the world anew through absolutely pure, unbiased eyes. Even Jesus had a mission when he became Man. Finzi creates a Being without any consciouness other than the sheer miracle of existence. "A Stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange Glory see......Strange all and new to me, but that they MINE should be ...who Nothing was, That strangest is, of all, yet brought to pass".

Recording recommendations - Wilfrid Brown, schoolteacher to Finzi's sons, (1955) and Ian Bostridge ( 1997)

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):