Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]
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.

Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]

 

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.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

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

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):