27 Nov 2012
Haydn and Strauss, LPO
Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall.
For reasons that elude me, they are not, even this, the so-called Nelson Mass, arguably the most celebrated of all, if only on account of his nickname. Indeed classical sacred music in general, Mozart’s included, with a very few obvious exceptions, is unaccountably neglected by most concert programmers. (When did you last hear Beethoven’s Mass in C major, op.86, any of Gluck’s sacred music, anything that was not a Mass setting from the Salzburg Mozart, or indeed any of the shorter liturgical works by Schubert?) Perhaps performers, audiences, bureaucrats alike still have the Whiggish canard that the Enlightenment was somehow concerned with secularisation seared into their incurious minds; if so, send them away with a copy of Ernst Cassirer’s venerable Philosophy of the Enlightenment in one hand and a good few scores or recordings in the other. In any case, let us hope that the London Philharmonic will programme more of this wonderful repertoire, especially if performed with such success as it was here, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The ‘Kyrie’ plunged us immediately into a world of high liturgical, symphonic, well-nigh operatic, drama, the D minor tonality of Don Giovanni ringing in our ears. It was driven, but not too much; Nézet-Séguin knew where to yield too. The London Philharmonic Choir, here as elsewhere, shone, fullness of tone and precision in no sense antithetical. Sarah-Jane Brandon imparted the necessary note of wartime terror to the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material, form sharply delineated by Nézet-Séguin. A propulsive opening to the ‘Gloria’ shared that marriage of choral weight and transparency. It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how much Haydn’s writing for soprano against choir prefigures the ‘Hymn’ in The Creation, which lay, after all, just around the corner. The setting of the words ‘miserere nobis’ seemed to evoke Mozart — which of course in many senses it does, Haydn always keen to learn at the hands of the younger genius.
A particularly Haydnesque combination of Baroque sturdy figured bass, such as one always finds in his setting of the Creed (‘Tu es Petrus’) and Beethovenian symphonism characterised the opening section of the ‘Credo’. It was nicely shaded too, without fussiness. The cult of alte Musik furthered by Gottfried van Swieten, Viennese patron to Mozart and Haydn, as well as librettist (of sorts) for Haydn’s oratorios, was heard here for the inspirational influence it was: none of today’s mere antiquarianism (at best), but a vital force, informing performance and composition alike. Just listen to the words ‘et homo factus est’, Handel channelled via Haydn’s loving yet vigorous offices. The final section, like much of the rest of the faster material, was taken at a challenging tempo, or at least a tempo that would have proved challenging, had it not been for the excellence of orchestral and choral execution.
The ‘Sanctus’ was properly imploring, taken at a magnificently slow tempo, without the slightest hint of dragging. ‘Pleni sunt cœli...’ came as a thunderbolt of joy. A flowing contrast to both parts of that preceding movement was offered by a flowing ‘Benedicturs’. Militarism made its point, chillingly, yet commendably without the exaggeration one would most likely have endured from latter-day ‘authenticke’ freak-shows. Textures were clear and weighty (where necessary). Nézet-Séguin handled the ‘Agnus Dei’ with loving tenderness. Sarah Connolly offered excellent solo work at the opening, soon joined by her equally fine colleagues, Brandon, Robin Tritschler, and Luca Pisaroni. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brought a wonderful, elating feeling of choral and orchestral release. Was anyone a more joyful contrapuntist — or homophonist! — than Haydn? As he is alleged to have said to a (slightly dubious) biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, ‘At the thought of God my heart leaps for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’
Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben followed the interval. It is difficult to think of anything meaningful to connect the two works, so it was better approached simply as a contrast — which indeed it was. Nézet-Séguin and the LPO revelled in the opening kaleidoscope of colour, which sometimes, quite rightly, tended a little towards the phantasmagorically nauseous. The LPO’s cellos shone particularly, horns (led by David Pyatt) here and elsewhere quite glorious. Strauss’s critics were properly carping; Pieter Schoeman’s violin solo offered a delectable ‘feminine’ contrast, clean but not clinical, sinuous but not cloying. It was an interesting reading taken as a whole: not overtly symphonic, yet by the same token certainly not without form. Rather, the latter seemed to emerge from the material, which is doubtless as it should be. (Not that there is just one way of that happening, of course.) Battle was instrumental in more than one sense, a battery of brass and percussion both impressing and amusing: Strauss the inveterate ironist. It was brutal, but in a toy soldiers’ sort of way. There were a few occasions when I thought Nézet-Séguin might have relaxed a little more, but that was certainly preferable to meandering, always a danger in this score. The difficulty of shooting’s one bolt too early — I am not even convinced that Karajan always showed himself innocent of that all-too-seductive mistake — was avoided completely: quite an achievement.
Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 24 November 2012.