07 Dec 2012
Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall
The Nash Ensemble’s final contribution to the Wigmore Hall’s Britten centenary series, ‘Before Life and After’, presented works for soloists and strings.
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.
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.
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.
The Nash Ensemble’s final contribution to the Wigmore Hall’s Britten centenary series, ‘Before Life and After’, presented works for soloists and strings.
Composed for its dedicatee, William Primrose, who premiered the work at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival, Lachrymae once again occupied Britten in the final months of his life, when he returned to the work in order to arrange the original piano accompaniment for string ensemble, charging the relationship between soloist and accompanists with increased tension and concentration.
The viola was Britten’s own instrument and so often — as in the passacaglia in Peter Grimes, or the second movement of the two Portraits for strings, written when he was just 17 years old, or the Third String Quartet, composed shortly before his death — is seems to be the instrument through which he speaks most personally. In Lachrymae, inspired by Dowland’s melancholy song ‘If my complaints could passions move’, Britten’s own voice converses discursively with voices from the past, creating an ambience of ambiguity and mystery.
Soloist Lawrence Power conveyed the searching hesitancy of the melodic line with probing eloquence. Although the opening is tentative — a quotation from Dowland’s song is introduced and submerged in a low-lying register in the accompaniment — Power established his presence and poise, while sustaining the air of expressive mystery. The viola’s fragments of quotation from Dowland, haunting snatches of an archaic sound world, were poignant lyrical utterances when juxtaposed with the uneven, unstable, more modern instrumental fabric.
Martin Brabbins deftly shaped the unfolding exchanges between soloist and players, and within the ensemble, crafting interchanges suggestive of conversation and quotation. There was a sense of distancing and translation: from voice to viola, and from Elizabethan past to modern present. The co-presence of Dowland’s compositional voice and Britten’s idiosyncratic idiom seemed both curious and inevitable, the two held in balance and in alternation throughout.
Brabbins was concerned with the minutiae of the score but also controlled the whole form as the sequence of variations (or ‘Reflections’ as Britten called them) progressed towards the full revelation of its source. From the shadowy opening of the Lento, with its muffled tremolos and muted una corda playing, the piece built in intensity. The approach to the interruption of this evolution by the viola’s statement of the Lachrymae of the title, Dowland’s Flow My tears’, in Reflection 6 was electric; and Brabbins’ emphasis on the vivid textural contrasts, complemented by the viola’s direct utterance, made for a powerful and moving climax.
Britten’s innate and renowned sensitivity to words can seem wasted on Rimbaud’s somewhat self-indulgent poetry, which expresses the nineteen-year-old Frenchman’s sense of excitement when faced with the thrilling potential of modernity and new frontiers, and which the composer set in the instrumental song cycle, Les Illuminations. Britten himself was only 26 at the time of composition, but it is clear that he already had an ear for French idioms and rhythm. And, this was emphasised further by soprano Sandrine Piau’s beautiful, understated enunciation of her native language, highlighting by turns the languid repose and racy energy of the verse.
This was a commanding, polished performance, one which retained the sensuality of Rimbaud’s animated, colourful outpouring but which also maintained a certain distance, clarity and composure. ‘Villes’ was light and airy, Piau momentary blossoming when the poet-speaker exalts: “Old craters, encircled by colossi and palms of copper, roar melodiously in the fires”. The string lines and voice are very much of equal import, the latter often melodically subordinate to the on-going instrumental discourse; Brabbins and the players of the Nash Ensemble were firmly focused, alert to the instrumental arguments and colourings which embrace the voice. The violins’ dance-like melodies in ‘Antique’ were wonderfully undulating and sinuous, while the march-like tune in ‘Royauté’ had real rhythmic bite.
In the latter, Piau revealed her wit and humour; but she was equally at home with the more prosaic recitative of ‘Phrase’, producing an incredible gracefulness at the very top of her register, and dancing weightlessly through the glissandi, accompanied by delicate string harmonics. The virtuosic twirls and runs of ‘Marine’, “tourillons, tourillons’, and the constant and surprising shifts of mood, presented no difficulties. After the drolleries of the opening of ‘Parade’, Piau’s gleaming rich sound bloomed in the ecstatic ‘final’ phrase: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade!” Her ability to convey diverse nuances in different contexts was strongly evident here: this phrase appears in both the opening ‘Fanfare’ and the ‘Interlude’ but Piau drew completely different meanings from the phrase through tone and articulation. This was a fresh and direct performance, which received a well-deserved rapturous reception.
Fittingly, for the work received its world premiere in the Wigmore Hall in 1943, the concert concluded with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This was an almost overwhelmingly intense rendering, both soloists — tenor John Mark Ainsley and horn player Richard Watkins — performing from memory. Ainsley was movingly expressive and eloquent; but, for me Watkins was the star of the whole evening, every note intelligently conceived and produced with supreme technical mastery, the considerable challenges of Britten’s writing for the natural horn despatched effortlessly. In the opening ‘Prologue’, Watkins manipulated the inherent out-of-tuneness of the instrument to marvellous effect. Throughout the work his phrasing was beautifully judged, nowhere more so than in the haunting echoes of ‘Nocturne’. Elsewhere his golden legato and glowing tone simply took my breath away.
Ainsley’s flexible, relaxed opening phrase in ‘Pastoral’ — rounded, perfectly placed and beautifully poised — set the bar for the rest of his performance. ‘Nocturne’ was elegant but unfussy, the dialogue between voice and horn. In the extended horn preface and postlude of ‘Elegy’ Watkins’ eerily descending semitones powerfully embodied the sense of sin which Blake’s troubling verse obliquely conveys. The darkness which settled over this number carried to ‘Dirge’, as Ainsley’s insistent, increasingly fearful tone brought the shadows of nightmare into the hall, the high keening of the tenor’s melody reiterating the mocking semitone of the ‘Elegy’, extending its terrible influence. The tension was released by the fleet hunting calls and cascading scales of ‘Hymn’, a setting of Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn to Diana’, goddess of the moon and of the hunt. After a virtuousic cadenza at the close of this movemenr, Watkins unobstrusively left the stage; Ainsley delivered a silky if not soothing performance of Keats’ “O soft embalmer of the still midnight”. Shades of unease were latent in the high Ds of the final line, “And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul”, intimating the ultimate ‘rest’, and confirming that the disturbing dreams of the earlier movements had not fully been banished.
The Nash Ensemble strings were superb throughout, and Brabbins tempi were unfailingly well-judged. If I were to admit to one small misgiving it would be that the Epilogue, delivered by Watkins from the gallery at the back of the Hall, seemed to have too much presence, too much solidity. A more diffuse, ethereal quality — one that might have been achieved if Watkins had played off-stage, perhaps with door ajar, behind the platform — would have sustained the enduring ghostliness that lingered in so many of the movements. But, this complaint seems ungenerous when we were treated to such a wonderful evening of music-making.
Sandrine Piau: soprano; John Mark Ainsley: tenor; Richard Watkins: horn; Lawrence Power: viola; Martyn Brabbins: conductor; Nash Ensemble.
Lachrymae for solo viola and strings Op.48a; Les Illuminations Op.18; Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 4 December 2012.