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.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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.