Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Bellini I puritani : gripping musical theatre

Vividly gripping drama is perhaps not phrase which you might expect to be used to refer to Bellini's I Puritani, but that was the phrase which came into my mind after seen Annilese

Strong music values in 1940's setting for Handel's opera examining madness

As part of their Madness season, presenting three very contrasting music theatre treatments of madness (Handel's Orlando, Bellini's I Puritani and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) Welsh National Opera (WNO) presented Handel's Orlando at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 3 October 2015.

Bostridge, Isserlis, Drake, Wigmore Hall

Benjamin Britten met Mstislav Rostropovich in 1960, in London, where the cellist was performing Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. They were introduced by Shostakovich who had invited Britten to share his box at the Royal Festival Hall, for this concert given by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Britten’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter reports that a few days before Britten had listened to Rostropovich on the radio and remarked that he ‘“thought this the most extraordinary ‘cello playing I’d ever heard”’.

Falstaff at Forest Lawn

Sir John Falstaff appears in three plays by William Shakespeare: the two Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Music and Drama Interwoven in Chicago Lyric’s new Le nozze di Figaro

The opening performance of the 2015-2016 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago was the premiere of a new production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro under the direction of Barbara Gaines and featuring the American debut of conductor Henrik Nánási.

La traviata, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia mixes boutique performances of avant-garde opera in a small house with more traditional productions of warhorse operas performed in the Academy of Music, America’s oldest working opera house.

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Four lonely people, bound by love and fate, with inexpressible feelings that boil over in the pressure cooker of war. Àlex Ollé’s conception of Il Trovatore for Dutch National Opera hits the bull’s eye.

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Sweeney Todd at the San Francisco Opera

Did the iconic “off-beat” and “serious” American musical hold the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? The excited audience (standees three deep) thought so and roared their appreciation.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.



Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton
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.

Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton


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.

Claire Seymour

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.

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):