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

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.

A double dose of Don Quixote at the Wigmore Hall

Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.

Bampton Classical Opera: A double bill of divine comedies

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2016 double-bill ‘touched down’ at St John’s Smith Square last night, following performances in The Deanery Garden at Bampton and The Orangery of Westonbirt School earlier this summer.

Mahler’s Second, Concertgebouw

Daniele Gatti opened the first series of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s season with a slightly uneven performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. With four planned, this staple repertoire for the RCO meant to introduce Gatti to the RCO subscribers.

Mad About San Jose’s Lucia

Opera San Jose opened a commendably impassioned Lucia di Lammermoor that sets the company’s bar very high indeed as it begins its new season.

ROH, Norma

The approach of the 2016-17 opera season has brought rising anticipation and expectation for the ROH’s new production - the first at Covent Garden for almost 30 years - of Bellini’s bel canto master-piece, Norma.

The Changing of the Guard

Last June, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for his last concert as Principal Conductor.

Morgen und Abend at Berlin

After its world premiere at Royal Opera House in London last year, the German première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Morgen und Abend took place at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

Rarely have I experienced such fabulous singing in such a dreadful production. With magnificent voices, Andreas Schager and Dorothea Röschmann rescued Michael Thalheimer’s grotesque staging of von Weber’s Der Freischütz. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Alexander Soddy led a richly detailed, transparent and brilliantly glowing Berliner Staatskapelle.

Prom 74: Verdi's Requiem

For the penultimate BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 9 September 2016, Marin Alsop conducted the BBC Youth Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi's Requiem with soloists Tamara Wilson, Alisa Kolosova, Dimitri Pittas, and Morris Robinson.

British Youth Opera: English Eccentrics

“Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Prom 68: a wonderful Semiramide

When I look back on the 2016 Proms season, this Opera Rara performance of Semiramide - the last opera that Rossini wrote for Italy - will be, alongside Pekka Kuusisto’s thrillingly free and refreshing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto - one of the stand-out moments.

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

Of all the places in Germany, Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg staged an intriguing American double bill of rarities. An experience that was well worth the trip to this desolate ghost town, remnant of industrial West Germany.

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):