Baroque opera has long been an important part of the Bavarian State Opera’s programming. And beyond the company itself, Munich’s tradition stretches back many years indeed: Kubelík’s Handel with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, for instance.
All told, this was probably the best Don Giovanni I have seen and heard. Judging opera performances - perhaps we should not be ‘judging’ at all, but let us leave that on one side - is a difficult task: there are so many variables, at least as many as in a play and a concert combined, but then there is the issue of that ‘combination’ too.
Can one justly “review” a streamed performance? Probably not.
But however different or diminished such a performance, one can—and
must—bear witness to such an event when it represents a landmark in the
evolution of an art form.
‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.
J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.
The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.
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