Recently in Performances
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman
theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or
amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators
or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in
other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard
Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014
by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine
Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
11 Feb 2013
Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works
This concert was part of a greater weekend of concerts at the Southbank
Centre looking at Paris during the second and third decades of the twentieth
century, the weekend itself part of the year-long Rest is Noise
An arresting opening — which I initially feared would irritate, but
which actually worked very well — was provided by Harriet Walter’s
narration, replete with East Coast accent, presenting a first-person sketch,
written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, of the life of Winnaretta Singer. Daughter
of the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Singer, Winnaretta went on to
become the celebrated musical patroness, Princess Edmund de Polignac,
commissioning both Socrate and Renard, though Diaghilev’s
machinations and Stravinsky’s duplicity — at least according to this
account — meant that her salon would not host the latter work’s premiere.
Walter’s delivery of the script was just as excellent as one would expect
from this fine actress: never overdone, effortlessly convincing. I wondered a
little about the Princess’s, or rather Wertenbaker’s, claim that patrons go
unsung. Not in my lectures they do not; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I
over-emphasise their role. I also wondered whether a male patron would have
received quite so sympathetic a treatment: might we not at least have been led
to think, ‘why should someone inherit all that money in the first place?’
But those are quibbles, and the narration, heard before Socrate and
before Renard seemed to go down well with the audience.
Satie’s Socrate: oh dear. I tried; I really did. Doubtless some
will say that was the problem. But for me, its sole redeeming feature was the
excellence of the performances from Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw.
Cool, white, monotonous, with the occasional subtle colouring of the vocal
line: soprano and pianist were really beyond reproach. However, a work, like so
much of Satie, which seems set up to forestall criticism — whatever you say
against it, someone will respone, ‘well that is the point’ — had better
be of Stravinskian quality if, as, for instance The Rake’s Progress
does, it attempts that disabling tactic. Frankly, it makes one long even for
the dullest of Stravinsky: Apollo, or Orpheus, say. Its
lengthy ‘setting’ of Plato — is it really a ‘setting’ at
all, when it seems to respond no more to the text than Rossini does in much of
his Stabat Mater? — droans on and on, until, by the time the third
part, ‘La Mort de Socrate’ opens, one feels as if one has been suffering
the same composer’s Vexations. What a strange conception of ancient
Greece this is; it almost makes one sympathise with Nietzsche’s venom against
Socrates. The artists, admirably controlled throughout, made the most of the
slight suggestion of drama as we heard of the poison’s arrival, but if the
best one can say about something is that it is somewhat less tedious than the
music of Philip Glass, perhaps it is time to wonder whether Satie has an
Emperor, let alone clothes.
Stravinsky’s invention thus struck the hall like a thunderbolt. It always
does, at least in good performances, and these performances were certainly
that. A string quartet (Jonathan Morton, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Tim
Gill, all standing save for the cellist) drawn from the London Sinfonietta
brought us the composer’s astonishing Three Pieces. The work’s
strangeness, its utter dissociation from anything one might consider to
constitute a string quartet repertoire and tradition still shocks — and
certainly did so here. Defiantly post-Rite of Spring, this is in many
senses a far more radical break with ‘tradition’, as unique as Le Roi
des étoiles. Tightly focused rhythms and — as soon as one bothered to
listen — a profusion of melody were hallmarks of this account. The final
piece brought a sense of the hieratic, but what a contrast it made with the
mere tedium of Satie. Here was music. Timothy Lines offered strong performances
of the Three Pieces for clarinet, written five years later in 1919. If
the first offered a gentler, one is almost tempted to say pastoral,
sound-world, it remained utterly Stravinskian in its evident
‘construction’. And in any case, there was nothing remotely gentle about
its joyous successor, nor to the third, which seemed to anticipate the world of
Renard. The performance was rich in tonal and dynamic differentiation,
rhythm propelling the notes and their ‘meaning’. The 1920
Concertino for string quartet followed, though oddly the programme had
no notes on it. Again, the utterly individual approach of the composer not only
to the medium of the string quartet but to stringed instruments themselves was
immediately announced. A kaleidoscope of what Stravinsky would have hated one
to call ‘moods’ — unless, of course, he arbitrarily decided to use the
word, as in his Norwegian Moods — revealed itself during the
work’s brief span. Here was concision to rival Webern, yet long before
Stravinsky’s serialist turn. It sounded almost akin to a mechanised Beethoven
Hannigan turned director for the wonderful burlesque, Renard, given in
concert performance, Colour and rhythm were very much to the fore in a
performance for which she seemed to act more as enabler than dictator. Old
Stravinsky hands that the London Sinfonietta are, that is doubtless the right
way around. Thematic consistency during and after the opening March was
especially noteworthy; this was no mere collection of episodes. Even when the
Cock turned languid, ‘Sizhu na dubu...’ (‘I’m on my perch...’),
rhythmic underpinning remained tight. There was room for seduction too, from
the Fox with his cake. But above all what struck was the visceral nature of
Stravinsky’s score, so truthful a representation of the or at least a
childhood imagination. The London Sinfonietta’s performance could not be
faulted; the four vocal soloists proved fine advocates too. If the tenors
perhaps captured greater attention, that is probably more a reflection of score
than performance. Why do we not hear this work more often?
Satie: Socrate; Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, Three
Pieces for clarinet, Concertino, Renard.
Barbara Hannigan (soprano/director), Daniel Norman (tenor); Edgaras
Montvidas (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); John Molloy (bass); Reinbert de
Leeuw (piano); Timothy Lines (clarinet); Harriet Walter (narrator);Timberlake
Wertenbaker (script writer); London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London,
Sunday 10 February 2013.