13 Oct 2013
Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall
‘All Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.’ The sentiments of the closing lines of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, ‘No worst, there is none.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘All Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.’ The sentiments of the closing lines of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, ‘No worst, there is none.
Pitched past pitch of grief’, embody the connecting theme of this recital: the metaphysical convergence of twilight and death. However, tenor Toby Spence and pianist Julian Milford presented texts pondering the connection between the external landscape and the inner mind which offered a wider range of experiences than Hopkins’ emotional descent into blackness and grief, soothing us with glimpses of peace, consolation and hopes for regeneration.
Sleep, death and dreams were recurring images in Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre, and the composer’s arrangement of the folksong, ‘At the mid hour of night’, introduced us in restrained fashion to the evening’s theme. Sombre, intoning 5ths in the piano bass tolled the midnight hour. Spence began gently, even a little reticently; the diction was clear, the voice tender but perhaps lacking sufficient characterisation to draw out the magical ecstasy of the brief narrative. A flourish from Julian Milford, sudden and elusive, gave presence to the wild song ‘which once ’twas rapture to hear’.
Schubert’s ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, settings of two songs sung by the peculiar harper in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, followed, Milford quietly strumming the strange harmonies of the opening spread chords of ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (Who gives himself to loneliness) and establishing an eerie air. Goethe’s eponymous hero has visited the old harper in the hope that he might learn how to dispel his loneliness, and Spence inflected a moving melancholy note, spinning and sustaining a beautiful pianissimo line, dynamics and breathing perfectly controlled. The fairly restrained emotions of this song, were swept away by the restless piano introduction to ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’ (Who never ate his bread with tears), and by the earnest desperation of the opening vocal lines, ‘Wer nie die Kummervollen Nächte/ Auf seinem Bette Weinend saß’ (who never through the anxious nights/ sat weeping on his bed); here Spence gave us the first glimpse of the depth of characterisation and elucidation that he can bring to even the briefest song. The second stanza build through a powerful crescendo, eerie repetitions focusing the text’s emotional agitation, complemented by strong harmonic assertions in the piano.
Spence was not entirely comfortable in the third of the set, ‘An die Türen’ (I’ll steal from door to door), sounding a little strained in the sustained higher lying lines, but the subsequent hymn-like ‘Im Abendrot’ had a beautifully soft ethereality enriched by glimmers of the golden radiance and red glowing of the setting sun. The final verse faded with quiet resignation into an acceptance that ‘dies Herz, eh’ es zusammenbricht,/ Trinkt noch Glut und schlürft noch Licht’ (this heart, before it breaks, shall still drink fire and savour light).
The graceful arcs of Milford’s accompaniment introduced Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide’ in which the constancy and devotion of the lover is expressed through imagery of natural sublimity, modulated only by the evening breezes and thoughts of the flowers which will bloom on the lover’s grave which inject a hint of sorrow. This was a confident, dramatic interpretation: Spence brought an ardent vigour to the visions of nature’s splendour, building to a quasi-operatic close: the resonant image of the purple leaves which will adorn the narrator’s resting place shimmering with the name, ‘Adelaide!’, was matched by the resounding intensity of the vocal delivery. ‘Ich liebe dich’ is a gentler love song, but Spence injected much feeling into the opening rising 6th, making the most of a simple gesture to convey the song’s modest truthfulness. Milford lyrically introduced new melodic material in the second stanza, and the naturalness of the interplay between voice and accompaniment created a mood of calm, before the diffident return of the initial vocal phrase to begin stanza three. The arching melodies of the coda and the repetition of the final lines of text, reassured us of God’s blessing and protection.
Brahms’ well-known ‘Wiegenlied’ (Cradle song) was delivered without sentimentality; the pace was fairly slow, the textures rich, the piano’s swinging rhythms redolent of the blanketing nocturnal presence which embraces the sleeping child’s crib. Spence’s delicate pianissimo at the start of the second stanza evoked the otherworldly translucence of the angels who watch over infant’s dreams. Dusk settled over the Wigmore Hall towards the close of the first half of the recital. In Brahms’ substantial song, ‘Abenddämmerung’ (Twilight), Milford skilfully conveyed the rich musical narrative which the complex and ever-changing accompaniment articulates. Recalling those once loved now lost, Spence imbued the closing verses with a meditative air, slowing the tempo for the final stanza and thoughtfully colouring the text; the harmonies darkened, before Milford’s perfectly placed major cadence reassured us once more of the union of heaven and earth which is reached through sleep and death. An assertive reading of Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ brought the first half to a close, the vigour of the repetitions, ‘Hallelujah’, reinforcing this spirit of hope and replacing the mood of calm with one of confident rejoicing.
The second half of the programme comprised Britten’s 1945 song-cycle, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’, and offered weightier, more fervent explorations of the theme, inspiring some wonderfully impassioned responses from Spence and Milford. The rhetorical pounding of the accompaniment in ‘Oh my blacke Soule’ was a disturbing death knell, and provided a springboard for Spence’s flexible melodic lines as he relished both the harmonic piquancy and the rhythmic disjunctures of Britten’s imaginative text setting. Once again the tenor’s impressive pianissimo in the final lines was touching, but this mood was roughly swept aside by the moto perpetuo of ‘Batter my heart’. The clarity, lightness and evenness of Milford’s scurrying accompaniment were noteworthy, and the unequivocal incisiveness of the ending shocking. In ‘O might those sighes and teares’ the performers made much of Britten’s response to the sonnet’s volta, the syncopated dissonant interplay of the first eight lines, with their mood of questioning unrest, giving way to the sparse and harrowing expressions of disconsolate despair with which the poem ends, powerfully conveyed by Milford’s thin high piano register and Spence’s slightly hollow vocal timbre.
‘Oh, to vex me’ was restless and mercurial, Spence’s voice fleetingly running through the text, concluding with a disconcerting melisma, ‘when I shake with fear’. ‘What if this present’ began and ended with arresting rhetorical gestures, although once again Spence exhibited some slight strain in the higher forte passages. ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ was wonderfully affecting, however, the major tonality and warm lyricism offering succour and relief. Spence revealed his ability to plunge the metaphysical depths of Donne’s complex verse in ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’; after the minor key sombreness of the plea, ‘Teach me how to repent’, the penitent defencelessness of the unaccompanied final line, ‘As if thou had seal’d my pardon, with thy blood’, was chilling in its intensity.
An impetuous account of ‘Thou hast made me’ concluded magisterially, before the final sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’, provided quiet consolation: ‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’
After what had been a fairly short programme, we were offered two encores which stayed true to the theme: Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ — a memorial for the poet, Matthäus von Collins, in which the singer lures the moon and the spirits to visit his dreams — and Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ which gifts us the ultimate musical solace from life’s grief and fears.
The sustained warm applause was recognition not only the invention and richness of the interpretations we had enjoyed but also of the strong sense of good will and affection felt by the audience for a singer who must have faced his own dark questions during his recent recovery from thyroid cancer. While the publicity gush that through ‘a tough recovery process and personal introspection, Toby Spence has gained profound insights into the human condition’ may have been once step too far in the direction of pretentious twaddle, the recital revealed that there is no doubting Spence’s musical intelligence and artistry.
Traditional arr. Benjamin Britten, ‘At the mid hour of night’; Franz Schubert, ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, ‘Im Abendrot’; Ludwig van Beethoven, ‘Adelaide’, ‘Ich liebe dich’; Johannes Brahms, ‘Wegenlied’, ‘Abenddämmerung’; Henry Purcell, ‘Evening hymn’ (realised Britten); Benjamin Britten, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’. Toby Spence, tenor; Julian Milford, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 11th October 2013