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

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

Dulwich Opera’s Carmen

Dulwich Opera Company’s Carmen was a convincingly successful show.  This was mainly due to succinct musical direction and rigorous dramatic direction.  It also meant that the proximity of the action was a fascinating treat, and by the artists being young, and easy on the eye.

Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten

There is a host of fine operas out there languishing more or less unperformed (in some cases, quite unperformed). A few of them might even qualify as ‘great’. (Feel free to remove inverted commas, should that be your thing.) Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, whatever its proponents might claim, is certainly not one of those: not even close.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Wilfred Owen
13 Oct 2013

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Britten’s War Requiem is one of the defining artistic works of the twentieth century. Consummate artwork, religious ritual and prayer, ceremonial commemoration, ideological political statement, public expression of mourning, and private avowal of faith,

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Wilfred Owen

 

it demands performances which make a memorable, indelible mark on our consciousness and conscience. This haunting, arresting performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, will surely be treasured and esteemed, ineradicably etched in the minds and hearts of all present.

Composed for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, following its destruction during WWII, the score of the War Requiem is immensely demanding is numerous ways. First, huge orchestral forces are required: a large orchestra, chamber orchestra, large choir, boys’ choir, three soloists - the soprano singing with the forces of the main chorus, baritone and tenor aligned with the chamber instrumentalists. These personnel not only require consummate handling and control in performance, but also thorough, rigorous preparation. On this occasion, throughout the performance Jurowski’s commanding appreciation and manipulation of the whole and of the details and minutiae was impressively assured; the merest sign from the baton, clear and precise, was all that the performers required, and confident, communal understanding was unfailingly evident.

But, more than this, the preparation of the vast forces had clearly been exemplary. The London Philharmonic Choir sang throughout as one voice, having been impressively marshalled by Chorus Director, Neville Creed. Creed also conducted the chamber orchestra with a notable attentiveness and sensitivity, directing the instrumentalists with intelligent expressivity but always alert to their function within the larger whole. Leader Peter Schoerman and the other instrumentalists played exquisitely and affectively, intermittent soloists within the broader canvas.

Trinity Boys’ Choir performed confidently, expertly prepared by director David Swinson. One small proviso though: their opening lines in the Requiem aeternum were almost inaudible, and they were hushed and distant throughout; while this certainly suggested a remote separation from human concerns, a little more ‘presence’ might have brought greater sense of the power of their ‘innocence’.

The second challenge that Britten presents is the score’s integration of different linguistic and musical strata, the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen interlacing in intricate ways, supported by complex orchestral textures and dialogues. This necessitates a penetrating vision, in order to appreciation and communicate the way in which the separate strands cohere to convey a powerful singular message. It was William Plomer, Britten’s librettist for Gloriana and the Church Parables, who wrote that: ‘It is a function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different, and to be able to combine them in some new form.’ In this regard, Jurowski provided a compelling and inspiring framework, but the massed celebrants of the Mass, each of the soloists and the members of the small chamber orchestra also demonstrated an intuitive understanding of their role within the larger whole.

The London Philharmonic Chorus powerfully communicated the ritual emotions of the Mass, making Britten’s complex, challenging choral writing sound relatively straightforward. In the opening Requiem aeternum, their pianissimo ‘Kyrie eleison’ shimmered with an unearthly glow, while at the start of the subsequent Dies Irae they responded with thrilling passion to the terror and drama of the angular off-beat brass - the vigorous horn fanfares recalling the bugle calls of the Serenade and of Owen Wingrave - before subsiding to an eerie, exhausted calm: ‘Mors stupebit et natura/ Cum resurget creatura/ Judicanti responsura’ (Death and nature will be astounded/ When creation rises again/ To answer the Judge). The sopranos and altos pleaded with focused unity in the ‘Recordare’ before the male choral voices made more urgent pleas, underpinned by the pressing rhythms of the horns. In the Offertorium, the complex textures of interlacing choral and instrumental voices were expertly defined; at the close the Choir delivered the text with affecting, poignant fleetness, ‘Quam olim Abraham’ (Which thou did promise …).

Replacing Tatiana Monogarova, the advertised soloist, Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva sang with impressive single-mindedness and heroism. Positioned in the balcony with the main body of the Choir, she soared exquisitely above the massed forces, never shrill, floating with power and focus - a pure emblem of the sentiments of the ritual. Crystalline of tone and with powerful projection in the ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ section of the Dies Irae, Dobračeva built to a majestic climax; later in the movement, soprano and choir responded with passion to the incisive violence of the percussive rhythms and the off-beat aggression of timpani and cymbals. In the ‘Libera me’, initially supported by some wondrously fleeting violin gestures, the soprano rose effortlessly above the accruing instrumental thunder as the asymmetrical tempi drove the music towards apocalypse.

Singing with the chamber orchestra, it is the two male soloists who, paradoxically, convey the most intimate experience and emotions, and who speak most directly to the audience. Presenting Owen’s ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’ in the Dies Irae, German baritone Matthias Goerne movingly communicated the oppressive weight that burdens those who, ‘Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept’. Later in the movement, Goerne brought both a rhetorical grandeur and a disturbing sense of brutality to the poem, ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’. In the Sanctus, the agony of the restlessly questioning poet-speaker was conveyed, aided by some discomforting timpani strokes. Initially Goerne’s diction and pronunciation may have been less than clear, but it is worth remembering that the baritone role was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Peter Pears singing the tenor part), and that the two soldiers represent the opposing forces in the war. This is most powerfully and intensely apparent in the final ‘Strange Meeting’; here, Goerne and the string players of the chamber ensemble condensed the horror, pain and senselessness of war. The ghostly reverberations of the line, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, were surpassed only by the unnerving emptiness of the final line, accompanied by deathly string tremors: ‘I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’

Joining Goerne, tenor Ian Bostridge offered a typically penetrating and perceptive reading of the poetic texts. His unrelieved indignation in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ immediately challenged us, establishing a disconcerting mood, one enhanced by the probing clarinet solo which accompanies the lines, ‘What candles may be held to speed them all?/ Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes /Shall sine the holy glimmers of good-byes.’ ‘Move him into the sun’ was imbued with a ghostly disquiet, which was marvellously, if temporarily, calmed by the Choir’s consoling, major-key cadence, ‘Pie Jesu Domine … Amen’. Articulating the English soldier’s tale in ‘Strange Meeting’, Bostridge injected a startling, unpredictable energy as he described how he examined the corpses upon which he stumbled, ‘Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared’; the tenor’s voice accompanied by the responsive chamber orchestra, startlingly embodying the probing, springing movements of the dead. The full texture which accompanied Bostridge’s greeting, ‘“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn”, was almost unbearably poignant.

At the end of a performance which was simultaneously emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the concluding choral Amen had a Mahlerian power and pathos. This was a performance that was both theatrical and spiritual, and made an immense impression on all present; the long silence which followed the final utterance, Jurowski’s baton suspended aloft, told of its emotional impact on those in the Festival Hall.

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival is inspired by Alex Ross’s eponymous book which explores the social, political and cultural forces which shaped the art of the twentieth century. As we prepare for the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 war, the War Requiem’s fusion of Owen’s honest poetry - devoid of self-pity but angrily asserting the very Pity of war - and the timelessness of the Latin Requiem Mass, together with the circumstances of the work’s own commission - the re-consecration of a sacred building destroyed in yet another world conflict that Owen must have hoped his words would help prevent - remind us that we still have not heeded the Poets’ moral caution of the futility of war.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Evelina Dobračeva, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Neville Creed, conductor (chamber orchestra); London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir; Trinity Boys’ Choir. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Saturday 12th 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):