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 Performances

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.

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.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

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):