Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
11 Nov 2013
Britten’s Atmospheric War Requiem, London
On Remembrance Sunday, Semyon Bychkov conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall with Roderick Williams, Allan Clayton, Sabrina Cvilak, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and choristers of Westminster Abbey.
The sense of occasion was overwhelming.
The vast auditorium was packed, and the arena area where Prommers throng in summer, was filled with seats. Before the performance began, the house lights were turned, not onto the stage but onto the audience. It was a moment of sheer theatre, but utterly appropriate, for everyone in the building must have known, or know of someone affected by the barbarity of war. No-one could remain unmoved. Wilfred Owen wrote about the First World War, and Britten wrote to commemorate peace after the Second World War. But the world is still wracked by conflict. Wars of attrition continue, millions of people still suffer. Turning the spotlight on the audience reminded us that Remembrance is more than "Lest we forget" but also implies moral obligation.
How amazing it must have been for the performers to look onto the Royal Albert Hall and see the lights shining on thousands of faces! This was infinitely more a communal experience than just a musical event. The lines between performance and reception blurred. Normal measure of performance were largely irrelevant. We were all participating in something much greater than ourselves.
Because the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, it has become associated with vast venues and ostentatious displays of public piety. Although it's written for some 300 performers, at the really critical moments, Britten silences the tumult. Britten was essentially a private man, not given to big public gestures of emotion. The heart of the piece is the twelve member ensemble that accompanies the two male soloists. The choruses and the female soloist sing in Latin, and sing words that would fit neatly into any standard Requiem Mass. Significantly, Britten sets the key texts in English, using the words of Wilfred Owen, who wrote from personal experience. Owen does not celebrate public victory : quite the opposite. He fought bravely, but eschewed formal religion. Britten doesn't quote the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, but Wifred Owen's Parable of the Old Men and the Young, with its reference to the wilful slaying, not sanctioned by God, of "half the seed of Europe, one by one"
"Move him into the sun" sings the tenor (Allan Clayton). The quote is from a poem titled Futility. A corpse lies on snowbound ground. The soprano and choruses sing "Lachrymosa", of tears and the conventional expression of sorrow. The music is beautiful, but Owen, and Britten are having none of this. "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil, to break earth's sleep at all"? Unlike seeds in the soil, the dead don't re-sprout. In the Sanctus, the choirs sing "Hosanna in excelcis". But Britten has the baritone (Roderick Williams) sing, quite pointedly "Mine ancient scars should not be gloried. Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried". Britten's War Requiem isn't designed to comfort, as much as to provoke.
Bychkov places the chamber ensemble to his immediate left, "the heart side" in theatre parlance.The instrumentation mimics that of a large orchestra - five strings, four winds, horn, harp and percussion - but the individual voices are heard clearly : It's another indication of Britten's "inner" programme.
"Lbera me, Domine" the soprano (Sabina Cvilak) sings, haloed by the chorus. "Tremens factus sum ego" (I tremble and fear) The orchestra screams, cymbals crashing, suggesting the chaos of battle. Bychkov's definition of horns, trumpets and trombones was specially good, emphasizing military conflict. But Britten deliberately shifts focus. To minimal accompaniment the tenor sings ""Strange friend, I said, here is no cause to mourn". Tenor and baritone face each other in a strange No Man's Land where nations do not fight. There are no "Germans" or "British" here but two human beings, man to man. Their voices blend. "Let us sleep now", singing in unity. They are turning away from the vast forces around them. Perhaps Britten recognized that social forces dominate over the private. The War Requiem ends on a wave of uplifting glory, sending the audience out into the world feeling the better for having been part of the experience.