06 Dec 2012
Britten: The Canticles
‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.
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.
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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.
‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.
‘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.
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