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Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

During this exploration of music from the Austro-German Baroque, Florilegium were joined by the baritone Roderick Williams in a programme of music which placed the music and career of J.S. Bach in the context of three older contemporaries: Franz Tunder (1614-67), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1701) and Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The work of these three composers may be less familiar to listeners, but Florilegium revealed the musical sophistication - under the increasing influence of the Italian style - and emotional range of this music which was composed during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Leoncavallo: Zazà - Opera Rara

Charismatic charm, vivacious insouciance, fervent passion, dejected self-pity, blazing anger and stoic selflessness: Zazà - a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights - is a walking compendium of emotions. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s eponymous opera lives by its heroine. Tackling this exhausting, and perilous, role at the Barbican Hall, The soprano Ermonela Jaho gave an absolutely fabulous performance, her range, warmth and total commitment ensuring that the hooker’s heart of gold shone winningly.

L'ospedale - an anonymous opera rediscovered

‘Stay away from doctors; they are bad for your health.’ This seems to be the central message of L’Ospedale - a one-hour opera by an unknown seventeenth-century composer, with a libretto by Antonio Abati which presents a satirical critique of the medical profession of the day and those who had the misfortune to need curative treatment for their physical and mental ills.

Šimon Voseček : Beidermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.



20 Jan 2013

Sir Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur ROH 2013

If, first time around, in 2008, The Minotaur offered the obvious excitement of the premiere, it was now noteworthy how quickly it had settled into repertory status. Not that it has yet been performed elsewhere than Covent Garden, though it should be as a matter of urgency, but that its 2013 outing proceeded with the apparent ease one might expect of, say, The Magic Flute or Carmen. That is surely testament both to the excellence of the performances we heard as well as to the stature of Birtwistle’s opera itself.

Though it packs an undoubted musico-dramatic punch, The Minotaur is not perhaps the overwhelming experience, the assault upon one’s faculties, offered by The Mask of Orpheus. It arguably stands a ‘late’ or at least ‘later’ work, somewhat simpler - these things are relative, of course - and more direct (ditto). The unbroken thread of the score, a metaphor for Ariadne’s own thread, brings the work closer to conventionally understood operatic tradition. This is a more linear work than many, for though Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, also play once again with ritual and repetition, re-telling is incorporated, expressed, almost Wagner-like, within an essentially linear narrative. The labyrinth, then, has order, clearly discernible, beyond the apparently senseless chaos of human-bestial existence, as symbolised in the person of the ‘half and half,’ Asterios the Minotaur. Whether to start here, with The Mask of Orpheus, with Gawain, with Punch and Judy, or elsewhere is not something about which to become unduly worked up; the choice would be akin to deciding or falling upon a Wagnerian baptism of fire with Tristan or the Shakespeare-like entrée of Die Meistersinger, and so on. It is difficult to imagine, however, that anyone with ears to hear and with the slightest curiosity would not be hooked; my immediate response upon emerging from the theatre was to hope that I should be able to find a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Reworkings of myth proceed in typical Birtwistle fashion, though here of course the credit is at least as much Harsent’s. An especially interesting idea is the presentation of the bull who mounted Pasiphae as Poseideon; the Minotaur is therefore perhaps Theseus’s half-brother. (We still do not know, nor does he, whether Theseus be the son of Poseidon or the son of Aegeus.) It is, moreover, an excellent touch to tantalise us with Theseus’s future abandonment of Ariadne; it is stressed that they will board the ship together, but it is equally noteworthy that no one foresees her reaching Athens. The orchestra, meanwhile, acts very much in neo-Wagnerian style as Chorus, shadowing, intensifying, commenting upon the action. Perhaps there is something of Bach in the well-nigh obbligato quality of the alto saxophone identified with Ariadne - who in this retelling becomes perhaps a more compromised, even ambiguous character. She is not always ‘straight’ with Theseus; she even attempts to trick Fate, both by moving a pebble from one hand to hand. It takes a second try, moreover, before she acts truthfully towards the Snake Priestess. Things could readily have turned out otherwise, then, or maybe not, if one believes in Fate. At any rate, thinking about such matters, experiencing them through the drama, is unavoidable.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved almost Classical, again contributing very much to the suspicion that this opera has already attained ‘classic’ status. With an orchestra and chorus on top form, the musical drama, incisive, ominous, gripping, beautifully melancholic, spoke, as the cliché would have it, for itself. There was no need for any extraneous ‘excitement’ to be applied from without; this was a far more fulfilling, musically-involving approach. The battery of percussion spoke, of course, but so did the steely yet malleable tones of orchestral woodwind, and not just the saxophone. Choral baiting of the Minotaur truly chilled our blood, just as others’ blood will be spilled on stage.

Christine Rice offered a heartfelt, conflicted Ariadne, Johan Reuter a stolid - but deliberately so - Theseus, his heroism thoughtfully questioned. John Tomlinson, celebrating an extraordinary thirty-five years on the Covent Garden stage, seems to have made the role of the Minotaur just as much as his own as he did the Green Knight in Gawain. (Salzburg’s new production this summer will almost inevitably feature him.) It is a part well suited to his advancing years. Vocal perfection is not required; it might even be out of place. But dramatic presence and integrity most definitely are; the tragic plight of a creature created and rejected so cruelly by ‘humanity’ was searingly portrayed. Andrew Watts again caused consternation with the mysterious archaic babble of the Snake Priestess, tellingly translated by another old Birtwistle hand, Alan Oke. Elisabeth Meister made an equally fantastic impression as the chilling Ker, feasting on the innocents’ blood; it is a screaming harpy-like role, but a musically screaming one, especially in this assumption. There was, in short, no weak link in the cast, and it is a very strong cast indeed.

Stephen Langridge’s staging tells the story with clarity, aided by Alison Chitty’s straightforward yet imaginative designs. I cannot help but retain a niggling doubt that a more adventurous production might have brought out a good number more dramatic strands than we see here. Something more Mask of Orpheus-like or indeed Soldaten-like might have alerted the audience to dramatic layers that went unseen, if certainly not unheard. By the same token, however, there is nothing wrong with expecting and/or permitting the audience to do some ‘aural thinking’ for itself. Let us hope, in any case, that before long there will be alternatives, which will expand our imaginative understanding of the work.

Programme essays were for the most part particularly informative, pieces by Rhian Samuel and David Beard especially so, though it is slightly odd to read Samuel referring to The Mask of Orpheus as ‘Birtwistle’s early opera’; ‘earlier’ perhaps? Moreover, Ruth Padel’s piece is simply incorrect to claim that ‘Monteverdi’s first opera was Arianna’; It was of course Orfeo. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from the contributions taken as a whole. How splendid, then, to experience the Royal Opera House very much back on form - and on form in so many ways.

Mark Berry

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