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 Reviews

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

Only one Shakespeare play has resulted in three operas that get performed today (whether internationally or primarily in one language-region). Perhaps surprisingly, the play in question is a comedy that is sometimes considered a lesser work by the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

09 Jan 2013

In the Shadow of the Opéra

Graham Johnson chose the title "In the Shadow of the Opéra" for his recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, with Lucy Crowe and Christopher Maltman. Given the renaisaance in French opera, it's good that we should be thinking of the nature of French song and its relationship to French opera and culture.

In the Shadow of the Opéra - French song and opera

Graham Johnson, Christopher Maltman, Lucy Crowe

Wigmore Hall, London, 4th January 2012

 

This was an extremely ambitious programme. A friend, who has been going to the Wigmore Hall for 40 years, exclaimed "Some of this material we don't know!" There was so much to take in that it will take time to fully sink in.

Johnson divided his recital into four main themes : On Wings of Song (Love in flight), Mélodies and arias, Vers le sud (Exoticism) and Seascapes and Landscapes. The first two sections focussed on form, the last two on subject matter.

First, he focussed on lyrical mélodies like Charles Gounod's Tombez mes ailes! The image is of a butterfly in joyful flight, but to protect her offspring, she must tear off her own wings and die. It's a metaphor for the artist who must struggle and sacrifice in order that art might grow. The gravitas of the final line undercuts the flightiness that's gone before. Christopher Maltman sang the final line "Il faut vieller, et travailler" with great force. Just as Maltman's voice is dark, Lucy Crowe's voice is every light and sweet, good for a 19th century heroine. In this section she sang light-hearted uieces like Massenet's Le sais-tu? and Reynaldo Hahn's Si mes vers avaient des ailes. This made Maltman's songs have stronger impact : Georges Bizet's La Coccinelle (to a poem by Victor Hugo) gave Maltman a chance to show his skills as a character actor. The ladybird has such personality she could become a role in music theatre. Songs like Lucien Hillemacher's Villanelle lay too high for him, but the point was made : there's more to singing than getting the notes right.

Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) was one of the most successful composers of his day, but was despised by the young Gabriel Fauré, one of Pauline Viardot's inner circle. Johnson pertinently laced Dubois's Madrigal with Fauré's Fleur jetée. Dubois' delicate lyricism outclassed by Fauré's pounding rhythms. Ironically, Madrigal is more conventionally a piece for the theatre and Maltman dramatized it well. Dubois's poet, Henry Murger, inspired Puccini's La bohème. Fleur jetée, however, is by far the more distinctive piece in musical terms, which is why it's fairly well known and a favourite of many high sopranos. But it's not really a piece for big houses, and Lucy Crowe's voice was challenged by the loud crescendo in the final line. Johnson followed the song with Fauré's La chanson du pêcheur, which Maltman delivered in an almost conversational style. This you could imagine embedded in a larger work. Debussy's Apparition (Mallarmé), with its watery imagery and sparkling piano textures, suggested Pelléas et Mélisande, though it was written as early as 1884. It's even less sympathetic to voice, set extremely high in the style of the time. Massenet had the last laugh though, with a splendid duet Horace et Lydie (1886) to a poem by Albert de Musset. Mélodie or aria? The song describes Horace and Lydie's past romance, the voices deftly cutting across each other. At the end, they resolve their dilemma and sing in harmony.

One of the key themes in French culture is Orientalisme. It was a means of exploring "unknown territory" in many ways. Orientalism garbed ideas in strange, alien ways, so artists could express unusual thoughts in dramatic context. Strangely, there was no Délibes in this recital but we had Hector Berlioz Zaïde (1845) a florid narravtive song set in Granada and the palace of Aladdin "qui vaut Cordovie et Séville!" More Gounod, too. Maltman sang Maid of Athens (1872) partly in English because the text is Lord Byron, but the chorus is in Greek, reflecting Byron's passion for Greek independence. Two "exotic" languages in one song. Giacomo Meyerbeer's Mina (1837) is a jolly piece, fine for music theatre. Perhaps I'm the only person to have discovered Meyerbeer through his songs (excellent recording by Thomas Hampson) but at least that made me appreciate how interesting his work can be.

Xavier Leroux (1863-1919) was a new discovery for me, because Le Nil (1890) is a gorgeous song, intensely atmospheric. Lucy Crowe sang the mysterious introduction quietly, just above a whisper, so we could imagine we were floating along the Nile at night in a small boat. The poet, Armand Renaud, contrasts the bacarolle with the image of the Great Sphinx and the wide plain beyond the river. Thw lovers and their moment of happiness dwarfed by vast historic forces, A beautiful song I'd like to hear again. Two songs about guitars completed the section - Eduard Lalo's Guitare (1885) and Camille Saint-Saëns Guitarres et mandolines.

Operas on the grand scale can evoke huge panoramas of time and space. But so can song. Bizet's Douce mer (1867 )(Lamartine) and Fauré's Les Bercaux (1879) (Proudhomme), are charming mood pieces, the former embellished with an exotic cry which suggests that the Mediterranean setting might even be North Africa. Debussy's Nuit d'étoiles was perhaps the best known song in the recital, pleasantly done, if the phrasing and intensity wasn't quite up to the standards of, say, Véronique Gens or others who have made it a trademark. Massenet's Joie (1868) (Camille Distel) ended the evening on a cheerful note, but Johnson and his singers wisely chose to repeat Saint-Saëns Viens! (1855) (Victor Hugo) as an encore. It's an enjoyable duet where the voices intertwine rather like traditional rounds. So perhaps folk song got its way into this programme after all.

Anne Ozorio

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):