Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

The New York Festival of Song Creates Intimacy and Joy in a Series of Lesser-Known Rachmaninoff Songs

The New York Festival of Song, founded in 1988 by Michael Barrett and Steven Blier, offers unique evenings of songs rarely heard, or songs rarely heard in conjunction with one another.

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in San Francisco

Falstaff and Die Meistersinger are among the pinnacles if not the pinnacles of nineteenth century opera. Both operas are atypical of the composer and both operas are based on a Shakespeare play.

Le Nozze di Figaro, Manitoba Opera

To borrow from the great Bard himself: “the course of true love never did run smooth.”

Arizona Opera Presents Florencia in el Amazonas

Florencia in el Amazonas was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by major United States opera houses.

Viva la Mamma!: A Fun Evening at POP

Gaetano Donizetti wrote a comedy or dramma giocoso called Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (The Conventions and Inconveniences of the Theater), which is also known by the shorter title, Viva La Mamma!.

LA Opera Norma: A Feast for the Ears

Vincenzo Bellini composed Norma to a libretto that Felice Romani had fashioned after Alexandre Soumet’s French play, Norma, ossia L'infanticidio (Norma, or The Infanticide).

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In order to mount a successful production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, first performed in 1925, the dramatic intensity and lyrical beauty of the score must become the focal point for participants.

Florilegium at Wigmore Hall

During this exploration of music from the Austro-German Baroque, Florilegium were joined by the baritone Roderick Williams in a programme of music which placed the music and career of J.S. Bach in the context of three older contemporaries: Franz Tunder (1614-67), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1701) and Heinrich Biber (1644-1704).

Leoncavallo’s Zazà by Opera Rara

Charismatic charm, vivacious insouciance, fervent passion, dejected self-pity, blazing anger and stoic selflessness: Zazà — a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights — is a walking compendium of emotions.

L'ospedale - an anonymous opera rediscovered

‘Stay away from doctors; they are bad for your health.’ This seems to be the central message of L’Ospedale - a one-hour opera by an unknown seventeenth-century composer, with a libretto by Antonio Abati which presents a satirical critique of the medical profession of the day and those who had the misfortune to need curative treatment for their physical and mental ills.

Šimon Voseček : Biedermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.



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):