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

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

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.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

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.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

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.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

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.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

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.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

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.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

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).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.

A double dose of Don Quixote at the Wigmore Hall

Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.

Bampton Classical Opera: A double bill of divine comedies

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2016 double-bill ‘touched down’ at St John’s Smith Square last night, following performances in The Deanery Garden at Bampton and The Orangery of Westonbirt School earlier this summer.

Mahler’s Second, Concertgebouw

Daniele Gatti opened the first series of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s season with a slightly uneven performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. With four planned, this staple repertoire for the RCO meant to introduce Gatti to the RCO subscribers.

Mad About San Jose’s Lucia

Opera San Jose opened a commendably impassioned Lucia di Lammermoor that sets the company’s bar very high indeed as it begins its new season.

ROH, Norma

The approach of the 2016-17 opera season has brought rising anticipation and expectation for the ROH’s new production - the first at Covent Garden for almost 30 years - of Bellini’s bel canto master-piece, Norma.

The Changing of the Guard

Last June, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for his last concert as Principal Conductor.

Morgen und Abend at Berlin

After its world premiere at Royal Opera House in London last year, the German première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Morgen und Abend took place at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

Rarely have I experienced such fabulous singing in such a dreadful production. With magnificent voices, Andreas Schager and Dorothea Röschmann rescued Michael Thalheimer’s grotesque staging of von Weber’s Der Freischütz. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Alexander Soddy led a richly detailed, transparent and brilliantly glowing Berliner Staatskapelle.

Prom 74: Verdi's Requiem

For the penultimate BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 9 September 2016, Marin Alsop conducted the BBC Youth Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi's Requiem with soloists Tamara Wilson, Alisa Kolosova, Dimitri Pittas, and Morris Robinson.

British Youth Opera: English Eccentrics

“Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Prom 68: a wonderful Semiramide

When I look back on the 2016 Proms season, this Opera Rara performance of Semiramide - the last opera that Rossini wrote for Italy - will be, alongside Pekka Kuusisto’s thrillingly free and refreshing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto - one of the stand-out moments.

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

Of all the places in Germany, Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg staged an intriguing American double bill of rarities. An experience that was well worth the trip to this desolate ghost town, remnant of industrial West Germany.

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):