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.
On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.
In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.
Patricia Racette’s Salome is an impetuous teenage princess who interrupts the royal routine on a cloudy night by demanding to see her stepfather’s famous prisoner. Racette’s interpretation makes her Salome younger than the characters portrayed by many of her famous colleagues of the past. This princess plays mental games with Jochanaan and with Herod. Later, she plays a physical game with the gruesome, natural-looking head of the prophet.
On February 17, 2017 Pacific Opera Project performed Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Ebell Club in Los Angeles. After that night, it can be said that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay this company from putting on a fine show. Earlier in the day the Los Angeles area was deluged with heavy rain that dropped up to an inch of water per hour. That evening, because of a blown transformer, there was no electricity in the Ebell Club area.
There has been much reconstruction of Marseille’s magnificent Opera Municipal since it opened in 1787. Most recently a huge fire in 1919 provoked a major, five-year renovation of the hall and stage that reopened in 1924.
With her irresistible cocktail of spontaneity and virtuosity, Cecilia Bartoli is a beloved favourite of Amsterdam audiences. In triple celebratory mode, the Italian mezzo-soprano chose Rossini’s La Cenerentola, whose bicentenary is this year, to mark twenty years of performing at the Concertgebouw, and her twenty-fifth performance at its Main Hall.
Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras. Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the protagonist's psychological journey.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.
American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.
Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.
'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.
On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.
In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.
In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.
There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.
On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.
Fecund Jason, father of his wife Isifile’s twins and as well father of his seductress Medea’s twins, does indeed have a problem — he prefers to sleep with and wed Medea. In this resurrection of the most famous opera of the seventeenth century he evidently also sleeps with Hercules.
‘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