Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Semiramide at the Rossini Opera Festival

The pleasures (immense) and pain of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide (Venice, 1823). Uncut.

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Edward Evans and Peter Bray [Photo © ROH/ Tristram Kenton]
11 Jul 2013

Britten: The Canticles

First performed at this year’s Brighton Festival and originally designed for the Theatre Royal Brighton, this multi-media staging of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles by long-standing collaborators Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable, also had an outing at Snape Maltings Aldeburgh in May this year, and has now arrived on the austere stage of the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.

Britten: The Canticles

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Edward Evans and Peter Bray

Photos © ROH/ Tristram Kenton

 

Twenty-seven years separate the first and last Canticles and in some ways these intimate, dense narratives represent a composing life, exhibiting Britten’s stylistic preoccupations and expressive concerns at various points in his career. There are certainly musical and thematic links between the individual Canticles but, performed as a sequence, do they cohere? In a programme article, Paul Kildea finds common ground in their dramatic concentration, their ‘opulent’ poetic language, and the fact that each Canticle is dedicated, ‘in name or spirit, to one of Britten’s heroes’.

By assigning each Canticle to a different director, Bartlett and Constable perhaps make their task even more difficult; then there is the further problem that, with their varying moods and energies, when performed in sequence the Canticles do not form a naturally persuasive dramatic form.

Bartlett remarks that the Canticles ‘get a great deal out of the simplest musical resources, they excavate extraordinary and multiple levels of sense from their words’. And so they do; the rich textual imagery is translated into densely evocative music, which is why they do not need further visual accompaniment. Indeed, concrete embodiments of Britten’s musical images risk either distracting from the musical performances, or being ignored as the audience focuses inevitably on the medium which expresses the composer’s meaning most directly - especially when it is communicated through vocal and instrumental performances as powerful as those heard here.

Such problems were most apparent in the first Canticle, ‘My Beloved is Mine’, a setting of text adapted from theSong of Solomon. Written for and first performed by Peter Pears, this is a lyrical, joyful celebration of love and sexual passion. Ian Bostridge’s beautifully unfolding raptures faded sweetly into relaxed whisperings; alongside this Bartlett offered a mundane morning routine, as two men (actors Peter Bray and Edward Evans) enjoyed a demure breakfast before departing for a day in the office. Presumably Bartlett wished to suggest a natural, everyday union of the spiritual and the sexual, but the darkness which divided the stage, separating the music from its visual interpretation, embodied the huge chasm between the expressive register of the music and the mime.

Scott Graham’s balletic interpretation of the second Canticle, a retelling of the biblical father-son drama, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, was less intrusive, the tender gestures of his two dancers (Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand) forming a reserved yet affecting dramatization of the narrative as recounted and enacted by the richly blending voices of Bostridge and countertenor Iestyn Davies.

Canticles-12.gifJulius Drake and Ian Bostridge

The third Canticle, ‘Still Falls the Rain’, was accompanied by John Keane’s video illustration of the manufacture of weaponry and the carnage wrought by aerial bombardment juxtaposed with Christian iconography. The visual oppositions and associations were an apt expression of Edith Sitwell’s vehement poem with its bitter diction and insistent repetitions. Moreover, the striking visual contrasts complemented the musical antagonism of voice and horn, as Bostridge’s hesitant, lamenting ‘refrain’ meandered seemingly unaware of Richard Watkins’ eerie horn calls from afar, until the two strands united peacefully at the close. But, the images were an adjunct rather than integral; to be glanced at but not too deeply reflected upon, for it was the music which commanded one attention and shaped one’s emotions.

The fourth Canticle involved no extraneous diversions, and for this reason Constable’s presentation of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ was the most powerfully suggestive. Bostridge and Davies were joined by baritone Benedict Nelson, and the three singers, weary travellers with scuffed suitcases by their sides, reflected hauntingly on their life-journey, which has brought them not knowledge, understanding and faith, rather anxiety, incomprehension and disenchantment.

Britten returned to Eliot in the final Canticle, a setting of ‘The Death of St Narcissus’. Responding to Eliot’s lines, ‘So he became a dancer to God/ Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He danced on hot sand/ Until the arrows came’, Wendy Houstoun presented a single dancer (Dan Watson) spinning ceaselessly, as if spurred on by the troubling dissonances between Bostridge’s striving melodies and the eloquent interjections of Sally Pryce’s harp. In the final moments, harp and voice were reconciled, as the dancer’s spirals and the harp’s expansive ringing octaves faded into the oblivion of shadows.

Musically this was a stunning performance, underpinned by the intelligent, responsive piano accompaniment of Julius Drake. Singers and instrumentalists unfailingly communicated the urgent drama of each Canticle, sensitively alert to every contradiction and inference. No more was needed.

Claire Seymour


There are two further performances at the Linbury Studio, ROH, on 11th and 12th July, at 7.45pm.

Cast and production information:

Ian Bostridge: tenor; Iestyn Davies: countertenor; Benedict Nelson: baritone; Julius Drake: piano; Richard Watkins: horn; Sally Pryce: harp; Neil Bartlett: Scott Graham: John Keane: Paule Constable: Wendy Houstoun: directors; Edward Evans: Peter Bray: actors; Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand (from Ignition Physical Theatre): Dan Watson: dancers. Royal Opera House, London, Wednesday 10th July 2013.

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):