Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Royal Opera

Bold, bright and brash, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Il barbiere di Siviglia tells its story clearly in complementary primary colours.

Gluck and Bertoni at Bampton

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2014 double bill neatly balanced drollery and gravity. Rectifying the apparent prevailing indifference to the 300th centenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck birth, Bampton offered a sharp, witty production of the composer’s Il Parnaso confuso, pairing this ‘festa teatrale’ with Ferdinando Bertoni’s more sombre Orfeo.

Purcell: A Retrospective

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra launched the Wigmore Hall’s two-year series, ‘Purcell: A Retrospective’, in splendid style. Flexibility, buoyancy and transparency were the watchwords.

Mahler: Symphony no.3 — Prom 73

It would be unfair, but one could summarise this concert with the words, ‘Senator, you’re no Leonard Bernstein.’

Los Angeles Opera Opens with La traviata

On September 13, Los Angeles Opera opened its 2014-2015 season with a revival of Marta Domingo’s updated, Art Deco staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. It starred Nino Machaidze as Violetta, Arturo Chácon-Cruz as Alfredo, and Plácido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. The conductor was Music Director James Conlon.

Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, 2014

In its annual concert previewing the forthcoming season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its “Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park” during the past weekend to a large audience of enthusiastic listeners.

Susannah in San Francisco

Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

Xerxes, ENO

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.

San Diego Opera Opens 2014-2015 Season

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.

Otello at ENO

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.

Anna Nicole, back with a bang!

It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Norma in San Francisco

It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).

Joyce DiDonato starts Wigmore Hall new season

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.

Aida at Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival

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.

St Matthew Passion, Prom 66

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.

Glimmerglass: Butterfly Leads the Pack

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.

Operalia, the World Opera Competition, Showcases 2014 Winners

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.

Elektra at Prom 59

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.

Powerful Mahler Symphony no 2 Harding, BBC Proms London

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.

Nina Stemme's stunning Strauss Salome, BBC Proms London

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

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi  (Italian, Rome 1593-1651/53 Naples) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
03 May 2013

Rare restoration: Handel’s Esther 1720

Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.

G F Handel : Esther

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, Rome 1593-1651/53 Naples) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

 

The Dunedin Consort’s 2012 recording of ‘the first reconstructable version, 1720, was highly acclaimed; it was the result of research by musicologist John H. Roberts which identified the music which was intended for a private performance in 1720 at the residence of James Bridges, later Duke of Chandos, and that which Handel added subsequently for the 1732 revival.

This Wigmore Hall performance, the only London appearance in 2013 of the acclaimed Edinburgh-based ensemble, was musically accomplished but, excepting the contribution of one or two individuals, did not consistently generate sufficient dramatic and narrative impetus.

Part of the problem is the libretto, attributed to Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and based on a Racine play, which lacks the dramatic élan of the biblical book of Esther and has narrative inconsistencies that are probably a result of the various revisions and re-workings. In the opening scene, Haman, henchman to the Persian King, Assuerus, proclaims an order that all the Jews are to be massacred. Ironically, at that time they are celebrating the felicitous news that Esther has been chosen as queen following a search for a woman to replace the disobedient Queen Vashti, and are ignorant of the threat to their race. Morcedai, leader of the Jewish community in Persia and guardian to Esther, informs Esther of the news and begs her to intervene with the King. She approaches Assuerus with dread, fearful that she will be punished by the law that condemns anyone who enters the King’s presence; but Assuerus admits her and then avows his love. In the final act, the King offers Esther anything she desires - he seems strangely unaware of her Jewish identity and even of Haman’s decree. Esther convinces Assuerus of Haman’s treachery and the latter is sentenced to death while the Jews are granted their freedom.

As Haman, bass Matthew Brook recognised the need to make the most of the text, and deftly created a villainous stage persona in his Act 1 aria, ‘Pluck root and branch from out the land’, delivering a punchy vocal line and terse dotted rhythms. In the magnificent Act 3 aria, ‘How art thou fall’n from thy height!’, Brook declaimed powerfully above the inexorable bass line with its plunging intervals, wonderfully conveying the mixed emotions of the condemned man.

Similarly tenor James Gilchrist (Assuerus) sang with expressive and well-measured urgency. His Act 2 duet with Esther (Mhairi Lawson), ‘Awake My Soul, My Life, My Breath!’ was full of ardency and eagerness, the thrill of passion embodied in his tone a striking contrast to the spectral, pianissimo chords of the accompaniment, restrained and dry until a slight blossoming of warmth and colour at the close. The following ‘O beauteous Queen, unclose those eyes!’ possessed an earnest ardour, the text repetitions given true shape and meaning as Gilchrist crafted a substantial musico-dramatic structure. His recitatives were likewise authoritative and full of impact.
Soprano Mhairi Lawson demonstrated both the coloratura lustre and quiet nuance that the role of Esther requires, subtly shading her imploring line, ‘Who calls my parting soul from death?’ in her Act 2 duet with Assuerus, and assertively declaring her defiance in her Act 3 aria, ‘Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!’ The extended melodies of the Act 2 aria, ‘Tears assist me’, were fluent and exquisitely shaped. But, overall she did not quite convey the regal assurance of the soon-to-be queen.

Nicholas Mulroy sang the long lines of Mordecai’s Act 2 aria cleanly but with little tonal variety and his forte outbursts occasionally seemed a little forced. Given the sparse string textures one might have expected the text to be more distinct. Although a little unyielding initially, tenor Thomas Hobbs (First Israelite) relaxed in the da capo repeat of ‘Tune your hearts to cheerful strains’ and the elegant nuances of the oboe solo and pizzicato strings brought a mood of easeful joy. As the Priest of the Israelites, countertenor Tim Mead was technically assured but struggled to fulfil the challenge of controlling and shaping the long aria which forms a climax to Act 1.

In the programme article, conductor John Butt makes much of the ‘greater emphasis’ placed on the chorus, in comparison to Handel’s Italianate works, noting that the composer was drawing on both the German choral tradition and the resources available in English cathedrals, colleges and private homes at the time. Butt led the chorus of 10 (the soloists supplemented by countertenor Rory McCleery and bass Jim Holliday) in vigorous fashion but as an ensemble they did not always respond to his direction; one would expect such slender forces, accompanied by small chamber orchestra, to be characterised by a nimble, airy brightness but at times the choral numbers seemed somewhat flat and unresponsive. The delivery of the text lacked buoyancy, even in the final ‘Hallelujah Chorus-inspired’ choral proclamation, “For ever blessed be thy holy name’; here, while the massed sound was majestic, the repetitions of ‘ever’ acquired increasing weight, one which resulted in a rather emphatic heaviness rather than emotional excitement. In the opening scene of Act 3, the chorus joyfully welcome their saviour, but despite the vigorous string playing the choral cries, ‘Earth trembles’, were remarkably polite, the ‘r’ genteelly rolled.

The instrumentalists were similarly well-marshalled but despite poise, accuracy and sure technique, there was not always a sense that they truly breathed Handel’s rhythms, and Butt’s tempi were often conservative. But, if the ensemble lacked a fiery spark, there was much fine solo playing. The lyrical overture showcased Katharina Speckelsen’s beautiful oboe playing, which was matched by the delicate grace of Carina Cosgrave’s flute obbligato in the Israelite Boy’s aria, ‘Praise the Lord with cheerful noise’, sung sweetly by Rachel Redmond. The strings punctuated the secco recitative incisively, as in the Priest’s Act 1 Scene 3 ‘How have our sins provok’d the Lord!’; in the aria which follows, the voice contrasted effectively with striking string unisons and declamatory interjections. The accompanied recitative was similarly coloured by orchestral texture and tone, Haman’s ‘Turn not, O Queen’ enriched by plangent repeated string notes, the twisting chromatic bass directly the harmony to strange realms. And, Assuerus’ excited aria, ‘How can I stay, when love invites?’, was enlivened further by some agile bassoon playing. The crisp articulation, splendid trills and focused countermelodies of the trumpet and horns brought nobility to the final act.

The stage platform was rather crowded and perhaps this inhibited the performers’ dramatic energy; overall, there was some fine singing and playing, but - while acknowledging that the Wigmore Hall is an intimate venue - there was little sense of a desire to communicate the heart of the emotional drama - the passion of an oppressed people - with immediacy and directness. Butt’s reference to the ‘English context’ of cathedral and collegiate choirs may indeed be pertinent, for such establishments were the training ground for many of the soloists and indeed the conductor himself. The result was a performance of a sacred drama in which the ecclesiastical dimension perhaps outweighed dramatic imperatives.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Mhairi Lawson, soprano - Esther; James Gilchrist, tenor - Assuerus & Habdonah; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone - Haman; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor - Mordecai; Thomas Hobbs, tenor - First Israelite; Tim Mead, countertenor - Priest; Malcolm Bennett, tenor - Officer & Second Israelite; Rachel Redmond, soprano - Israelite Boy. The Dunedin Consort, Wigmore Hall, London, 25th April 2013. Image : Esther before Ahasueras : Artemesia Gentileschi

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):