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 Performances

San Jose’s Bohemian Rhapsody

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.

Fine Traviata Completes SDO Season

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.

The Exterminating Angel: compulsive repetitions and re-enactments

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!”

Dutch National Opera revives deliciously dark satire A Dog’s Heart

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.

María José Moreno lights up the Israeli Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor

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.

Cinderella Enchants Phoenix

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.

LA Opera’s Young Artist Program Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

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.

Extravagant Line-up 2017-18 at Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany

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.

Gerhaher and Bartoli take over Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus

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 Symphony no 8 : Jurowski, LPO, Royal Festival Hall, London

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.

Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques: a charming French-UK collaboration at the RCM

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.

St Matthew Passion: Armonico Consort and Ian Bostridge

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.

Pop Art with Abdellah Lasri in Berliner Staatsoper’s marvelous La bohème

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.

New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

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.

Two rarities from the Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall

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.

Enchanting Tales at L A Opera

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 in a stunning Butterfly at Covent Garden

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.

Brave but flawed world premiere: Fortress Europe in Amsterdam

Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.

New Sussex Opera: A Village Romeo and Juliet

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.

La voix humaine: Opera Holland Park at the Royal Albert Hall

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Julius Fučik
29 Nov 2012

Vladimir Jurowski, LPO

Vladimir Jurowski said all the right things during a brief address at the opening of the concert. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should not be regarded as the climax of the performance, but as the fifth movement in a single work, whose theme was human suffering and the strength of the human spirit, never quashed by the former.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Overture: Fidelio, op.72c; Arnold Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op.41; Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, op.46; Luigi Nono, Julius Fučik (United Kingdom premiere); Beethoven, Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Julius Fučik

 

It was, moreover, a rare pleasure to experience such bold and coherent programming. The problem, alas, was that performances of these works — or performance of this ‘work’ — were not always convincing; it was, perhaps predictably but no less sadly, Beethoven who suffered most. Two of the other ‘movements’, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Nono’s Julius Fučik received excellent performances. A curate’s egg, then, which was hardly the intention.

The Fidelio Overture opened proceedings. It was hard driven, though to be fair, I have heard worse. Odder was the strange, almost balletic lightness of tone, strange until one realised that it arose from a fatal lack of harmonic grounding. I was put in mind of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent Philharmonia performance of the Fifth Symphony, which ended up sounding more like Delibes than Beethoven; it too had inspired programming, the symphony prefacing Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, yet was let down in Beethoven’s case by inferior performance. And so, Beethoven’s music merely floated along. It was all efficiently despatched by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the problem lay in Jurowski’s conception. Once again, moreover, Jurowski indulged his odd penchant for mixing modern horns, which, give or take the odd split note, played splendidly, and natural trumpets, whose rasping certainly did not help matters.

Schoenberg was next up. First came his Ode to Napoleon, given in its version for narrator, piano, and string orchestra. I have never been especially convinced by the orchestral version; a string quartet works far better. Sadly, this performance did nothing to alter that judgement. Part of the problem is — and was — that the piano does not blend well with the strings and ends up sounding like a concertante instrument rather than a member of a chamber ensemble. Despite excellent playing from Catherine Edwards, the effect was unconvincing. Robert Hayward contributed an excellent rendition of Byron’s poem, relishing text and subtext alike to chilling effect. Jurowski did not help matters for at least the first half of the performance. Once again, harmonic depth was lacking and direction was disturbingly metronomic. There was little or no sense of the score’s roots in German tradition, not least that of Beethoven. Having said that, Jurowski’s reading improved considerably. By the time we reached the words, ‘If still she loves thee, hoard that gem, ‘Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!’ the summoned ghosts of Romanticism duly haunted. The stanza, ‘Thou Timour…’ accomplished, perhaps for the first time with respect to this performance, speed without (the wrong sort of) brutality. Schoenberg’s furious inverse ode to Napoleon/Hitler ended with just the right sense of false triumph, the final E-flat cadence — an ironic echo of the Eroica — falling flat as it must. Sadly, a performance that really gathered pace and conviction was blighted by some appalling audience behaviour, not least a French-speaking — yes, literally ‘speaking’ — person in the row in front of me, who flashed around his Blackberry for most of the time.

A Survivor from Warsaw completed the first half. It suffered even worse from the Blackberry wielder, who proceeded not only to type messages throughout the performance, but to chatter to his companion and even to fondle her. Such a reaction to commemoration of the Holocaust would have been obscene enough, but he actually seemed turned on not so much by genocide as by his indifference to it. (I should lay odds that he was a ‘beneficiary’ of ‘corporate hospitality’.) A Survivor survived, just about, but such behaviour ought to lead to a life-time ban. This work is less garrulous than the Ode to Napoleon and seemed to inspire Jurowski less fitfully. It received a more properly modern and focused performance, with less of the agitprop to it. Richly expressive and rhythmically alert, this was at last a reading that justified the hopes of the programme. Ghosts of Mahler and of Schoenberg’s earlier self pervaded work and performance alike. Hayward’s narration was once again excellent, a case in point the combination of brutality and beauty — Nazi æstheticisation of politics brought to mind — in Schoenberg’s setting of the Feldwebel’s words. The horrific race, quickly a stampede, into the chamber was such even before the word ‘stampede’. Militancy, inspired and terrifying, of the male chorus and its hymn, ‘Sh’ma Yisroel’ brought echoes of Bach as well as Beethoven, a spirited rejoinder to the vile ‘Aryanisation’ of German culture official policy had brought. (Even the text of Mozart’s Requiem had had to be altered, ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem,’ rejected in favour of ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in coelis et tibi reddetur votum hic in terra,’ in Bruno Kittel’s celebrated or notorious 1941 recording.)

The British premiere of Nono’s 1951 Julius Fučik opened the second half, wisely instructed to be performed without a break. (Not that that stopped some applauding the end of the first movement of the Beethoven…) Incomplete, it was first performed — posthumously — at the 2006 Munich Biennale (not almost sixty years ago, as Jurowski claimed, perhaps thinking of composition) and offers another of Nono’s tributes to the memory of the Czech communist and literary critic, hanged following captivity in Berlin in 1943 and an official hero for socialist Czechoslovakia. Fučik’s words — and ‘Voice’ — are employed in Intolleranza 1960 (dedicated to Schoenberg), and Nono’s Composizione per Orchestra no.1, also from 1951, offered another as-yet-secret memorial — programme music hardly the thing for Darmstadt — to Fučik. It was a pity we could not hear the Composizione as well, but perhaps that is just being greedy or plain unreasonable. A strange mini-biography awaited us on the screen as we returned from the interval. I hope that the problematic sentence was a matter of translation — though surely that could have been attended to’ since ‘sadly,’ as in ‘Sadly, the Nazis executed him in 1943,’ really is not the mot juste. The house lights went down so as to focus attention upon the stage and the searchlit interrogation of Fučik. (Still worse now, Blackberry man resumed its activities, lighting up a good part of the stalls with his screen and flashing red light.)

Jurowski captured to a tee the pointillistic post-Webern violence of Nono’s opening, likewise its lyricism that marks the composer’s music even at this stage as quite different from that of Stockhausen. The score blossomed — both in work and performance — into something perhaps surprisingly Schoenbergian, but then Nono never shared Boulez’s resolve to parricide, despite posthumous elevation as Schoenberg’s son-in-law. (It is rather misleading, by the way, to speak of him at this stage in that light, since he had yet to meet Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria, let alone to marry her. Their meeting had to wait until the 1953 premiere of Moses und Aron.) Obar Ebrahim and Malcolm Sinclair offered excellent performances. This excellent account, antiphonal drumming and all, exuded brutality, psychoticism, and yet inviting, spellbinding beauty — not unlike the interrogation in Intolleranza. It was somehow not unlike a Bach cantata, though Fučik’s last words — ‘Believe me, this has taken nothing, absolutely nothing, from the joy that is in me and that heralds itself each day with some Beethoven theme or other … — inevitably brought one’s focus, insofar as it was not distracted by Blackberry antics, towards another great predecessor. Nor was Schoenberg forgotten. I could not help but think of Helmut Lachenmann’s transcription of a 1960 lecture Nono gave on A Survivor from Warsaw at Darmstadt. It was, Nono, said (my translation):

… the musical-æsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s creative necessity:

‘And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should not look at it coldly, but … with indignation, that I might expose it and create it in its nature as injustice and abuse. …’

* * *

And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s [here Nono makes reference to a previous quotation from Arnold Schmitz on Bach] docere and movere, above all in his A Survivor from Warsaw, he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about it.’

Finally, then, the Fifth Symphony. The odd-numbered movements fared better than the even ones, but this was not, alas, a performance to justify the hopes placed in it. (Most infuriating or even obscene of all was Blackberry man sitting back to ‘enjoy’ what he presumably thought of as the ‘real’ music. He managed to wait until the first movement coda before checking for messages again.) Jurowski took the first movement fast but not entirely unreasonably so. If hardly the last word in profundity, then at least there was a much stronger sense of line than there had been in the overture. One had to put up with those dreadful rasping trumpets though. Beethoven’s extraordinary concision came through, if not the necessary weight of tone and message. It was good to have the opening of the slow movement greeted by a mobile telephone, but in truth, there was little of consequence to be disrupted here. Predictably swift, this is doubtless what passes for a Beethoven slow movement, even one marked “Andante can moto”, in the fashionable circles of an age seemingly incapable, a few Barenboim-like exceptions aside, of responding to the symphonic Beethoven. It sounded more like an intermezzo with unpleasant and arbitrary brass interventions than the unfolding of an inevitable musical narrative. The LPO very much seemed to be going through the motions — and I could not entirely blame them. It was genuinely sad that, following the two previous performances, this music should go for so little, but at least Jurowski’s tempo ensured that it was over relatively quickly.

Rather to my surprise, the scherzo fared better. It was full of menace, not least since melody, harmony, and rhythm now once again seemed to be related to one another. The counterpoint of the trio was irrepressible as well as clear, the ghostliness of the scherzo’s reprise not merely colourful but also chilling. Alas, the opening of the finale was marred by the plodding parade-ground sound of natural trumpets. The horns, by contrast, sounded glorious. It was full of incidental ‘moments’ — not quite in the Stockhausen sense: that might have been interesting… — yet the great sweep of Beethoven’s imagination seemed quite to elude Jurowski. This performance remained stubbornly earthbound, for all its superficial highlighting in apparent attempts to generate ‘excitement’. The drama has to come within; it cannot be appliqué. A message for our time indeed. Whilst I was greatly moved by A Survivor and by Julius Fučik, Beethoven — and this is less sad than tragic — elicited no such reaction. Jurowski’s programming was estimable, but it needed a Gielen or a Barenboim — or, imagine! a Klemperer or a Furtwängler — to carry it off.

Mark Berry


Performers and Production Information

Robert Hayward (narrator); Omar Ebrahim (Fučik); Malcom Sinclair (Voice in Julius Fučik). Annabel Arden (director); John B. Read (lighting); Pieter Hugo (protographer); Annalisa Terranova (video). Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 28 November 2012.

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):