Recently in Performances
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos
this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark
streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It
is that exclusive—you can’t even find the
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic
concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
05 May 2013
Superlative singing: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
Act One started a little tentatively. Perhaps it takes time for the drama to unfold and Kaufmann knew how much was yet to come. His pacing was deft : when he needed to stun, his voice rang out with ferocious colour. This was a Don Carlo one could imagine defying the Spanish Empire, its violence and tyranny. His vocal authority was matched by physical energy. Kaufmann embodies the part perfectly. His interactions were outstanding. His voice balances well with Anja Harteros (Elisabetta) and Marius Kwiecien (Rodrigo), and he allowed the duets and trios to work seamlessly. There was no big name ego dominance, Kaufmann placing his art above all.
Verdi prepares us from the start for the turbulence turbulence that will meet Elizabeth of Valois. Even before she leaves home, Elisabetta experiences extreme changes of mood within a compressed period of time. Anja Harteros delineates these intense feelings deftly, without exaggeration, so they arise naturally from her singing. When she bids goodbye to the Countess of Aremberg (Elizabeth Woods), Harteros sings as though she were bidding farewell to life itself. Indeed she is, for Elisabetta is now alone, trapped in an alien world. Harteros creates Elisabetta with such conviction that she dominates the drama even when she is silent. Her presence is felt even when others are singing about her. When Harteros sings "Tu che le vanità", we feel that Elisabetta has reached valediction, after a long and tortured journey. She sings of Fontainebleau and her brief day of happiness so tenderly that the agony of "Addio, addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" becomes truly overwhelming. Harteros and Kaufmann have taken these roles before together. Here, in London, they achieved transcendence.
Ferruccio Furlanetto was equally outstanding. His years of experience in the part give him authority. Verdi writes the part to reflect the personal austerity for which the historic Philip II was known. A solo cello introduces his big aria "Ella giammai m'amò", emphasizing the King's loneliness., despite the trappings of wealth and power around him. Later, violas and basses extend the mood of melancholy. Furlanetto sings with force, but with colour and tenderness. Because he makes us feel the man beneath the public persona, we realize that the tragedy involves Philip as well as his wife and son. Furlanetto makes us realize that the king is just as much trapped by the system as they are. "Beware the Grand Inqusitor !" he cries, for the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the only truly evil character in this opera.
Verdi introduces the Grand Inquisitor with music that exudes menace. Slow, low rumbling sounds, suggesting a snake slithering, oozing poisonous slime. Eric Halfvarson was indisposed with a cold, but this didn't affect his singing. The Grand Inquisitor is supposed to sound diseased. "Did God not give his only Son to save the world ?". Theology is twisted for evil purposes.
Mariusz Kwiecień was a clean voiced, muscular Rodrigo, and a perfect complement to Kaufmann's Don Carlo. The dynamic between them is very good : they're both relatively youthful and fresh. This similarity is important, for it reinforces the tragedy, and the theme of sacrifice. When Kwiecień sings Rodrigo's last aria, "Per me giunto è il di supreme", he infuses it with warmth and love, so it connects with Elisabetta's farewell to life.
One of Béatrice Uria-Monzon's signature roles is Carmen, so when she sang the Pricess of Eboli, she brought a Carmen-like sharpness to the role, which was entirely in order. Her Veil Song was a showpiece, but the song is a mask, since the princess's true feelings are also hidden behind a veil. When she realizes her mistakes, her personality disintegrates. When Uria-Monzon sings of the convent, she suggests the horoor of living death.
Dusica Bijelic sang a sprightly Tebaldo. Even the Flemish Deputies made an impact greater than the size oif their parts : extremely tight ensemble, yet individually characterized. Robert Lloyd sang Carlo V credibly. The Royal Opera House Orchestra and chorus, always excellent, were on even better form than usual. Verdi is Antomio Pappano's great strength. He's inspired towards an highly individual but vivid reading which emphasizes dramatic detail. He's also a singer's conductor, who lets voices breath, as we heard so admirably.
This would have been an almost perfect Verdi Don Carlo, but is lamentably let down by the production. Originally directed by Nicholas Hytner and revived this time by Paul Higgins, it was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2008. The designs (by Bob Crowley) feel outdated, serving little dramatic purpose. Huge expanses of space are filled with grids of holes. Perhaps these represent windows, walls or even the spying eyes that are ever present in tyrannical regimes. If the image had been developed well, it might have enhanced the paranoia that runs through this opera. Instead, the image lies inert, like a weak joke endlessly repeated. In the scene where the ladies of the court listen to the Veil Song, there's a wall of red plastic cubes which look like they've descended from Legoland for no obvious reason.
The greatest weakness of this Don Carlo was that the staging missed the deeper, more challenging levels of the opera. The monastery of Yuste is depicted by the tomb of Charles V with the name "Carlos" engraved in huge letters so they can't possibly be missed. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor renounced his power and retreated into the monastery where he died ten years before the Revolt of the Netherlands.
Opera isn't history. But when a composer like Verdi adapts history for art, there is a reason. In this production, the political aspects of the story are downplayed. Even the asceticism of Charles V and Philip II is sacrificed to decorative imperative, although the words "addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" pertain to more than Elisabetta. This is the kind of production that gives modern staging a bad reputation. Yet because it's comic book cute, it's probably popular. Staging is much more than decor. Like every other element in a production, it should contribute to meaning and drama, rather than distract. A cast of this exceptional quality deserved better.