Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.

La Rondine Swoops Into St. Louis

If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Emmeline a Stunner in Saint Louis

Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Luminous Handel in Saint Louis

For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”

Two Women in San Francisco

Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?

Les Troyens in San Francisco

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.

Dog Days at REDCAT

On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.

Opera Las Vegas Presents Exquisite Madama Butterfly

Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.

Yardbird, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.

Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Glyndebourne

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.

German Lieder Is Given a Dramatic Twist by The Ensemble for the Romantic Century

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.

Intermezzo, Garsington Opera

Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.

The Queen of Spades, ENO

Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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):