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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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments:
“I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
23 Jan 2013
Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall - Warlock, Britten
Surveying British chamber and instrumental music written between the 1890s and WWII, the Nash Ensemble’s Wigmore Hall residency series, Dreamers of Dreams, has illuminated the creativity and originality of British musical life during this period, revealing the shared and the idiosyncratic preoccupations of composers; the intertwined biographies of musicians; the influence of key individual performers on repertoire, style and idiom; the dialogue between old and new; and the prevailing shadows of war and irreversible change.
This recital was enriched by all these elements, its constituent works informed by an interest in the nation’s folk traditions as well as Celtic romanticism and custom; by expanding boundaries and new musical and geographical horizons; by elegiac melancholy and also by optimism, freshness and renewal.
The desolate tones of Peter Warlock’s darkly prophetic The Curlew, for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet, dominated the first half of the concert. Setting four poems by W.B. Yeats, Warlock evokes an almost unalleviated mood of despair; much of the vitality of the music derives from the composer’s uncannily apposite setting of the text, and tenor Mark Padmore’s eloquent, unmannered delivery of the rhythmically elaborate text did much to communicate the vividness and immediacy of the work. The opening instrumental mood-painting was moving and atmospheric: the plangent cor anglais (Gareth Hulse) announcing the eponymous bird’s plaintive lament, answered by the gentle repetitive murmuring of the flute’s peewit (Philippa Davies). The players adroitly established the bleak vista before the first, delayed entry of the voice, “O curlew, cry no more in the air”. Throughout the instrumental fabric was clearly articulated, both solos and ensemble presenting thematic wisps with delicacy and dolefulness - a perfect illustrative backdrop for the melancholic texts. The string players wove an intricate web of tremolo and sul ponticello traceries, complementing the woodwind’s mournful diminuendos and echoes.
Padmore shaped the vocal lines intelligently, although perhaps he did not fully reveal the emotional disturbance at the heart of the work, for the text and score demand that we be truly discomforted and perturbed. But there was affecting contrast and drama. With the opening of final stanza of ‘The Withering of the Boughs’, the tenor evoked tentative intimations of hope and new life, warmed by a string rocking motif, which was then immediately and unequivocally destroyed by the voice’s exposed quasi parlando repetition: “The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.” The composer instructs the singer to use a “low tone - almost a whisper” and Padmore executed this challenging line with consummate control.
Yeats’ pensive Celtic lyricism and the plaintive cor anglais colouring of Warlock’s songs harked back to the opening work of the evening, Arnold Bax’s Oboe Quintet, the melodies of which mimic, though do not quote, Irish folksong and dance. Composed at the end of 1922, this composition was pioneering in its integration of oboe and strings. In the opening movement, Gareth Hulse’s wistful oboe figures rose with graceful melancholy from the strings’ introductory elegiac chords; and the muted pianissimo ending - the upper strings’ tranquillity disturbed by the cello’s insistent repetitions and the oboe’s final curlicue - was spell-binding.
But, while asked to create an endless range of textures and timbres, the strings do more than simply accompany. In the second movement, violinist Marianne Thorson spun a silky espressivo thread, accompanied by rich string chords, a beautiful contrast to the subsequent improvisatory flourishes from the oboe. Laurence Power conveyed the power and vitality of Bax’s writing for the viola. Moreover, despite the prevailing ambience of lament, lively folk gestures and rhythms provide energy and drive, culminating in an animated, jig-like final movement. The shadow of war darkens the hues of the closing bars, however, and the Nash Ensemble brought the piece to a sober, forlorn, but not sentimental, conclusion.
Britten’s Songs from the Chinese for voice and guitar followed the interval. These ancient texts, with their mild formality and distance, suited Padmore perfectly. In ‘The Old Lute’ - a setting of Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by Emperor Wu-ti of the Han dynasty, who ruled more than 2000 years ago - Padmore floated the higher pitches and elongated the syllables to create a calm quietness, evoking the sound of the lute, now dusty and faded, but whose sound “is still cold and clear”. In contrast, the rhythm drive of Wu-ti’s ‘The Autumn Wind’, with its short phrases and vigorous consonants, enabled the tenor to re-create the dynamism of the racing wind, and to evoke the unstoppable momentum of passing time. Guitarist Craig Ogden sculpted crystalline accompaniments, establishing a fitting airiness and transparency. Together the performers ensured that the concentrated focus of the songs, and the formal and thematic unity of Britten’s score, was clearly communicated.
The evening ended with a rare opportunity to hear Vaughan Williams’ C Minor string quartet of 1898. Although one senses the young composer searching for an individual musical voice - the influence of Dvorak, Brahms and Tchaikovsky is evident - there is much of merit in these four movements, and the medium is convincingly handled, the string textures accomplished. The inner movements, Andantino and Intermezzo: Allegretto characteristically make use of Elizabethan modality and English folksong to create a meditative ambience, while the Variazione con finale fugato which concludes the work is a rhythmically invigorating presto. The four string players of the Nash Ensemble gave a committed performance of what essentially feels like ‘work in progress’; the ensemble work and attention to detail was exemplary and the players exhibited considerable technical mastery.
Given the thoughtfulness and imagination which has clearly informed the Nash Ensemble’s programming throughout this series, the inclusion of Elgar’s three tuneful yet rather light-weight violin encores - Salut d’Amour, Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit - seemed an odd decision. Thorsen and Ian Brown (piano) performed them with refinement and artistry but the works seemed out of context here.