Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for
major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards
of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen
gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of
the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.
Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half
century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some
conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere
of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing:
William Christie conducting some Charpentier.
Advertised in the program as the first opera written in the New World,
La Púrpura de la Rosa (PR) was premiered in 1701 in Lima
(Peru), but more than the historical feat, true or not, accounts for the
That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.
This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: A Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
It must be both a privilege and a
daunting prospect to be asked to participate in a tribute concert to the
singer, who died from breast cancer in 2006; here three mezzo-sopranos stepped
up to the honour and the challenge, joining the Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment - with whom Hunt Lieberson collaborated closely at Glyndebourne
and on CD - celebrating three contrasting, full-blooded female roles from
Karine Deshayes (a late replacement for the indisposed Stéphanie
D’Oustrac) began and ended the evening with Sesto’s arias, ‘L’angue
offeso mai riposa’ (The offended serpent will not rest) and ‘Svegliatevi
nel core’ from Giulio Cesare respectively. Deshayes has a vibrant
voice, particularly at the top, and she nimbly negotiated the passage work.
But, while there was undoubted rage and impassioned purpose, she didn’t quite
capture the emotional depth and range of these arias, as Sesto vows vengeance
against Ptolemy for the assassination of his father.
Thus in Sesto’s first number in the opera, there was much bite in the
repetitions of ‘Svegliatevi’ (awaken) as Sesto determines to muster the
fury in his soul. Yet, in the central section of the da capo form, as Sesto’s
thoughts turn to the father he has lost only moments before, the heaviness in
his heart outweighs his impotent anger; there is vengeance but also grief.
William Christie drew a fittingly spare timbre from the accompanying OAE, but
Deshayes did not quite match the players’ melancholy, sombre weight.
‘Figlio’ (son) needs rather more plangent emphasis, as Sesto both implores
his father and imagines his paternal words of counsel and support.
In Glyndebourne’s 2006 production of Theodora, Hunt Lieberson
took the part of Irene, the protagonist’s devoted supporter. Irene’s arias
are intense, heartfelt statements of faith as her beloved friend, Theodora, an
early Christian, is persecuted and condemned by the Romans. Reviewing the live
recording of Peter Sellars’ acclaimed production, Rupert Christiansen
commented, ‘it is impossible to conceive of this character’s arias being
sung with more grave beauty or emotional commitment than [Hunt Lieberson]
brings to them’.
Quite a tall order, then, for Anna Stéphany, performing ‘Ah! Whither
should we fly’ and ‘Lord to Thee each night and day’. Stéphany combined
vocal beauty with convincing characterisation, Christie shaping the contrasting
tempos and textures with style but without undue mannerism. A gentle firmness
characterised the voice in ‘As with rosy steps’; Stéphany’s lower
register was rich and sonorous, and she dared to adopt a whispering
pianissimo to moving effect. In ‘Lord to thee’ Stéphany
introduced a startling change of character in the second part of the aria,
‘Though convulsive rocks the ground’, which served to make the profound
devotion of the da capo repeat yet more affecting.
‘Where Shall I Fly?’ from Hercules is a tour de force
of theatrical and histrionic drama and Renata Pokupić was almost equal to its
vocal demands. As Hercules’ jealous, fiery wife, she delivered Dejanira’s
desperate self-reproaches with an impressive combination of spontaneity and
control, but her lower range sometimes lacked power and penetration, and she
didn’t quite pierce the depths of Dejanira’s subconscious mind. Pokupić
encompassed the extensive melodic range of the virtuosic ‘Dopo Notte’
(After night), from Ariodante with skill, the registers more even
here, although the syncopated rhythms which drive the music forward sometimes
lacked precision. It was, however, a fine showcase for her communicative
panache; Ariodante’s exuberant joy at being reunited with his beloved Ginevra
was compellingly and upliftingly conveyed.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided an animated, responsive
accompaniment to all three soloists, William Christie finding a perfect balance
of grace and power. The emphatic playing by the celli and double basses in the
overture to Giulio Cesare - perhaps encouraged by the explosive
stamp with which Christie commenced some of the instrumental numbers! - was
complemented by more reflective bass meanderings in the overture to
Theodora. In the two concerti grossi there was considerable variety of
both texture and mood, and the playing of the three soloists was crisp and
rhythmically exciting. The relationship between soloists and ripieno
was one based upon sharing and exchange, the flow seamless, the tempi
invigorating. As a closing tribute to Hunt Lieberson, Christie announced an
encore; the diverse sentiments of the ‘Musette’ from Concerto Grosso Op.6
No.6 were a perfect homage to the singer’s artistry and integrity.
Giulio Cesare - Overture; ‘L’angue offeso mai
riposa’; Theodora - ‘Ah! Whither should we fly As with rosy
steps the morn’; Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op.6 No.12; Hercules
- ‘Whither shall I fly?’; Theodora - Overture; Lord, to
‘Thee each night and day’; Ariodante - ‘Dopo notte’;
Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op.3 No.2; Giulio Cesare - Svegliatevi
nel core. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Monday 3rd