Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

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.



Benjamin Britten
06 Dec 2012

Britten: The Canticles

‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.

Britten: The Canticles

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Benjamin Britten


‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance. The five Canticles span his career: the first dates from 1947, two years after the celebrated premiere of Peter Grimes; the last was composed in 1974, two years before the composer’s death. Britten’s texts are complex conceptually, semantically and syntactically. But, underpinning all five works is the blend of the spiritual, public and personal which characterises so much of the composer’s work.

This concert — which forms part of a three-week series of concerts celebrating Britten’s chamber music in anticipation of the composer’s centenary year in 2013, and also belongs to the series ‘A Singularity of Voice’, the title of countertenor Iestyn Davies’ residency at the Hall — presented a rare opportunity to hear the complete cycle of five works.

‘My beloved is mine’ is a musical meditation on a single line from the Song of Solomon, translated by the seventeenth-century poet Francis Quarles. Britten dedicated the work, and his choice of text, to Dick Sheppard who had been a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, and at whose Memorial Concert in Westminster Central Hall it was first heard.

It is concentrated and quietly ecstatic, and tenor Mark Padmore immediately captured its quality of rapturous ethereality, the sparse airiness of the opening, with voice and piano moving discursively in diverging registers, increasingly enlivened by sudden injections of elated energy. Padmore’s searching melismas and the oriental tint of the Julius Drake’s piano accompaniment cohered to create a sense of distance and ‘strangeness’. After the recitative-like clarity of the central section, Padmore’s declamatory precision, which was punctuated by fragmentary piano interjections, gave way to more lyrical reflection — “He is my altar, I his holy place” — a low, syncopated piano gesture adding resonance and substance to the text: “He’s my supporting elm and I his vine;/ Thus I my best beloved’s am/ Thus he is mine.”

Padmore was joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies in the second canticle, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, a more dramatic work which enacts a variation on Britten’s favoured theme, the destruction of innocence. Recitative and aria alternate to create a single condensed structure, and the performers produced a seamless dramatic entity, the musical and dramatic climaxes cohering with impact. Turning their backs on the audience, Padmore and Davies intoned God’s words to Abraham instructing him to slay his son, Isaac, in sacrifice to his deity: their rhythmic homophony was unwavering but retained a touching translucency, a spiritual organum whose dissonances were both delicate and piercing. Padmore articulated Abraham’s responding recitative with warmth and intensity; turning to his son to explain his task, the tenor employed a clear, ringing high register which conveyed Abraham’s faith and resolution. In contrast, the vibrato-less purity of Davies’ trusting reply, “Father, I am all ready/ To do your bidding most meekëly”, set against Drake’s portentous staccato bass, was poignantly open and naïve.

As the sacrifice approached, Drake’s tremulous accompaniment enhanced the thrilling rhythmic dynamism which accrued, climaxing in a moment of astonishing and tense stillness, as Isaac, accepting his fate, asks for his father’s blessing. The leaping octaves of Davies’ unaccompanied line betrayed the equivocal emotions of the young boy, at once both steadfast and fearful, while his plea, “Father, do with me as you will”, was affectingly eloquent. Preparing to do God’s will, Padmore created a terrifying intensity, underlined by Drake’s disturbing bass pedals, climaxing in an apocalyptic tumult. Spared by a God in whom Abraham has demonstrated absolute faith, father and son join in an ‘Envoi’ of gentle counterpoint and consonance, Drake’s closing gesture creating a sense of integration and sweetness.

Electing to perform the Canticles out of sequence, the performers now delivered a startling change of mood, following such melodious resolution with the sparse sombreness of the fifth Canticle, a setting of T.S. Eliot’s early poem, ‘The Death of Narcissus’, which mediates on spiritual and creative striving and vision. Britten dedicated his setting to the writer William Plomer, his librettist of Gloriana and the church parables. The unique syntax of the text, and its oblique meaning, must have presented Britten with many challenges; his style here, and in the ‘The Journey of the Magi’, is concentrated in response to the multifarious nuances and strong cadences of Eliot’s poetry.

Padmore was joined by harpist Lucy Wakeford in an enigmatic performance. With characteristic alertness to the capacities and potentialities of particular instruments, Britten drew on the distinctive reverberations and harmonic resonances of the harp to create a mood of ambiguity and inscrutability. Here, the focused sobriety of the opening — “I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs. And the gray shadow on his lips” — enlarged into an energetic and expansive array of colours exploiting the harp’s full arc and scope: “First he was sure that he had been a tree,/ Twisting its branches among each other/And tangling its roots among each other. Wakeford’s articulation was simultaneously precise and sweeping; Padmore brought a dark mystery and sensuousness to his low range: “Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He danced on the hot sand.” In the final lines, “Now he is green, dry and stained/ With the shadow in his mouth”, Padmore’s ghostly modal ascent diminished into insubstantiality, while the harp’s sparing octaves dissolved into the air.

The journeying motif is present in all of the three last Canticles. Another setting of Eliot, the fourth Canticle, ‘Journey of the Magi’, explores the difficulty of grasping the significance of Christ’s birth, as the three Magi make their arduous journey through the desolate desert. Following an urgent, dissonant piano rumbling, the crisp rhythms of Padmore, Davies and baritone Marcus Farnsworth conveyed the energy of departure, the vocal close harmony underpinned by the lively punctuation of Drake’s accompanying ostinato. A boisterous vigour was conjured, “With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness … And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow”, the precisely delivered homophony suggesting a unity of thinking among the travellers.

Such sense of purposefulness was disturbed however by a prevailing unease, which erupts in Eliot’s final stanza, when the Magi reach their destination. Eliot is resentful and aggrieved: “I had seen birth and death/, But had thought they were different.” The singers’ focused, perfectly blended unison enhanced the sense of disturbance and fear, for the men will return to their Kingdoms of “alien people clutching their gods”. At this point, Britten introduces the plainchant ‘Magi videntes stellam’ in the piano and Drake relished the clanging strangeness which suggests the troubling disquiet of those who, so changed by what they have witnessed, “should be glad of another death”.

The recital closed with ‘Still Falls the Rain’, a setting of text from ‘The Canticle of the Rose’ by Edith Sitwell. This third Canticle was written following the suicide of Britten’s close friend Noel Mewton-Wood, and was first performed at the Wigmore Hall in January 1955 by the composer, Peter Pears and Dennis Brain. Padmore, perhaps inspired equally by the work’s history and Britten’s genius, rose to extraordinary heights of musical expression and discerning perceptivity, accompanied by the astonishingly sensitive horn playing of Richard Watkins.

Mimicking the variation structure of The Turn of the Screw, the work which immediately preceded it, this Canticle never settles, by turns expansive then austere, rhetorical and then reserved. Watkins exploited every timbre available, while Padmore found an astonishing range of colours in response to the nuances of the text, as exemplified by the startling change of tone from beauty to anger in the opening unaccompanied lines. Tempo was used to convey unrest, the staccato piano accompaniment and horn counterpoint indicative of the disturbing knowledge of man’s guilt: “the small hopes breed and the human brain/ Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.” Nowhere was the mood more despairing and angry than Padmore’s half-spoken outburst, “O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune — ?”, a quotation from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. The veiled quality of the tenor’s subsequent reflection on man’s human heart, “dark-smirched with pain/ As Caesar’s laurel crown”, painfully deepened the anguish.

Sitwell’s poem bears the subtitle, ‘The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn’; she presents images from the Passion to reassure man of the continuing existence of God in a world torn apart by man’s inhumanity. If there had been any questioning about the non-chronological ordering of the Canticles, they were dispelled by the heartrendingly breathtaking close, voice and horn ultimately united in a brief but blissful moment of transcendence and reconciliation, the horn’s pianissimo almost unimaginably hushed: “’Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”

Britten claimed that the canticles were ‘a new invention in a sense although … modelled on Purcell’s Divine Hymns’ . Here, surely, was music divine.

Claire Seymour

Wigmore Hall, London Friday 30th November 2012

Britten: The Canticles

Iestyn Davies countertenor Mark Padmore tenor Marcus Farnsworth baritone Richard Watkins horn Lucy Wakeford harp Julius Drake piano Britten

Canticle I: My beloved is mine Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain — the Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus

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):