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

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Santa Fe’s Celebratory Jester

Santa Fe Opera noted a landmark two-thousandth performance in their distinguished history with a stylish new production of Rigoletto.

Sibelius Kullervo, BBC Proms, London

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private.

Aïda at Aspen

Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.

Prom 53: Shostakovich — Orango

One might have been forgiven for thinking that both biology and chronology had gone askew at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday evening.

Written on Skin at Lincoln Center

Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing: William Christie conducting some Charpentier.

La Púrpura de la Rosa

Advertised in the program as the first opera written in the New World, La Púrpura de la Rosa (PR) was premiered in 1701 in Lima (Peru), but more than the historical feat, true or not, accounts for the piece’s interest.

Pesaro’s Rossini Festival 2015

The 36th Rossini Opera Festival in Rossini’s Pesaro! La gazza ladra (1817), La gazzetta (1816) and L'inganno felice (1812) — the little opera that made Rossini famous.

Santa Fe: Placid Princess of Judea

Unlike the brush fire in a distant neighborhood of the John Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera’s Salome stubbornly failed to ignite.

Airy and Bucolic Glimmerglass Flute

As part of a concerted effort to incorporate local color and resonance into its annual festival, Glimmerglass has re-imagined The Magic Flute in a transformative woodland setting.

Glimmerglass Conquers Cato

Bravura singing and vibrant instrumental playing were on ample display in Glimmerglass Festival’s riveting Cato in Utica.

Energetic Glimmerglass Candide

Bernstein’s Candide seems to have more performance versions than Tales of Hoffmann.

Die Eroberung von Mexico in Salzburg

That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.

Scottish Sensation at Glimmerglass

Glimmerglass is celebrating its 40th Festival season with a stylish new production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Norma in Salzburg

This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.

The power of music: a young cast in a semi-stage account of Monteverdi’s first opera

John Eliot Gardiner conducted a much anticipated performance of Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo at the BBC Proms on 4 August 2015, with his own Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

Cold Mountain Wows Audience at Santa Fe World Premiere

On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Britten Sinfonia
09 Nov 2013

Barbican Britten

The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.

Barbican Britten

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Britten Sinfonia

 

However, Robert Tear, John Vickers, Philip Langridge and others established themselves as worthy and independent heirs, forging interpretations which were original, insightful and distinctive. Today we are fortunate to have a stellar crop of tenors who bring unique and fresh insights to Britten’s music, but it is a rare combination of cerebral insight and visceral but controlled passion which characterises Ian Bostridge’s responses and which makes his performances so captivating.

Written for the 1936 Norwich Festival, Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers certainly demands of its soloist both intellectual perspicacity and emotional immersion, two erudite, philosophical poems by W.H. Auden — Britten’s perennial collaborator during the 1930s — framing three energised Anglo-Saxon texts, the latter modernised by Auden. As Britten anticipated, the first performance, by the LPO and soloist Sophie Wyss, was not well-received: superficially the poetry examines man’s relationship with the animal kingdom, but there exists a both a political dimension and a less obvious sexual sub-text which the local audience were slow to perceive or appreciate, Auden’s complex imagery and verbal dexterity proving overly recondite.

This performance by Ian Bostridge, accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel, brought clarity and focus to the superficially obscure poetry, brilliantly conveying the musical structure which unites the diversity of styles required to communicate the varied sentiments of the texts.

In the opening recitative of the ‘Prologue’, marked sempre ad lib., Bostridge’s tone was restrained, perfectly emulating the parsonical mood of the words; the dry orchestral accompaniment facilitated the supremacy of the vocal line. Daniel encouraged the woodwind — who played superbly throughout the evening — in their interjections which contrast with the sustained string chords, casting light on significant lines of text: ‘the poles between which our desire unceasingly is discharged.’ At the image of the ‘extraordinary compulsion of the deluge and earthquake’, Bostridge’s rising minor ninths were deeply poignant, the sustained ppp string chord with trilling side drum and snares surging to an explosive fff.

‘Rats Away!’ is an anonymous medieval text which depicts animals as vermin, the primarily wind-based orchestration and scurrying musical material presenting an unsentimental, hard-edged world.

Bostridge’s virtuosic dexterity was evident in his florid melismatic variant of the opening orchestral gestures; he projected the scalic figure, ‘Rats!’, with clarity and precision combined with cadenza-like energy — aspiring with propulsive vigour towards the climactic, sustained high A — while Daniel drew forth a shrill timbre from the tremolando strings and flutter-tonguing woodwind. A contrasting mood was established in the central section, the voice articulating a sort of invocatory prayer in discourse with a legato solo viola (Clare Finnimore); here, Bostridge shaped the passage with consummate control, incisively accenting the leaping octaves which announce the names of the Evangelists and driving towards the intervallic expansiveness of the climactic phrase, ‘That these names were utter’d in’. The insistent repetitions of the three-note ‘Rats!’ motif in the recapitulation were terrifyingly dynamic, and the tenor’s final throw-away ‘Amen’, dropping from high decorative exclamations to a low D, after a laden pause, sardonically emphasised the satirical nature of the religious statements in the text — a cynicism which was further confirmed by the motivic continuations of the unison strings, which Daniel guided into ambiguous dissolution.

In ‘Messalina’ we move from public to private domains, as the singer mourns the loss of his pet monkey. Bostridge’s drooping lament, ‘Ay, ay me, alas, heigh ho!’, richly resonated with the hollowness of the divided strings’ opening 5ths, the singer’s glissandi falling 7ths both musically precise and ardently expressive. The narrative lines, ‘Thus doth Messalina go/ Up and down the house a-cry’, possessed a folk-like naivety, as the solo woodwind melodies intertwined with the voice. The elaborate, melismatic cries of ‘Fie!’ were electrifying: Bostridge was not afraid to push his voice to the limits through the tumbling major/minor thirds, the quiet registral expanse of soaring molto espressivo e vibrato strings above deep tuba and trombone expressed both the wide scope of emotions experienced and the chasm of grief. The tenor’s stabbing crotchets, ‘Fie!’, dissipated into despair and some beautiful solos from horn, bassoon and alto saxophone, the latter lyrically played by Christian Forshaw, led us without pause into Britten’s setting of Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Dance of Death’ — ‘Hawking for the Partridge’.

The tenor’s initial roll call of predators — ‘Beauty, Timble, Trover, Damsel’ — was savage, the tight tarantella rhythm a parody of the traditional hunting song. Bostridge whistled through his teeth, the repeated rising 9th, ‘Whurrrrret!’, penetrating and discomforting; indeed, the sense of a self-gratifying pleasure in violence is given an ominous twist in the subsequent passage, where the isolation and repetition of the words ‘Travel Jew’ portentously equates the ritual killing of animals with the ‘Jew-hunting’ perpetrated by Nazi Germany — as ever, Bostridge was alert to every nuance and inference of the text, and to the musical opportunities for its expression. Daniel drew forth the multitude of onomatopoeic motifs — the woodwinds’ staccato flurry of feathers, the horn’s rasping glissandi of alarm — creating a mood of terror and hysteria.

The conductor sustained the insistent rhythms of the ‘Dance of Death’ in the concluding ‘Epilogue and Funeral March’; the ostinato xylophone soullessly suggested man’s inability to break out of the endless cycle of cruelty and despair. This movement possesses a disturbing tension and ambiguity, and Bostridge and Daniel made much of the contrasts between Auden’s two stanzas, exploiting Britten’s interjections and imitative sounds.

Auden’s first stanza describes the traditional self-assurance of man, who pities the animals’ undirected innocence and whose own love, the driving power which motivates the individual, is tempered by reason. However, in the second stanza Auden proposes a ‘modern’ view of a love which leads to guilt and self-regard, adapting lines from Lenin to ask us to imagine a man who has modified his ‘southern gestures’ and makes it his ambition only ‘To hunger, work illegally,/ And be anonymous?’

Bostridge’s extended melisma, contrasting powerfully with the composure of the preceding syllabic lines, was finely crafted: initially restrained — recalling the opening of the ‘Prologue’ — then flowering exquisitely into an impassioned arioso. In the concluding funeral march, Daniel fashioned a controlled disintegration, as the bass faded away leaving hard col legno and pizzicato strings to offer the final inconclusive, pessimistic utterances.

Elsewhere in the programme the prodigious talents of the Britten Sinfonia — individually and collectively — were much on display. A pacy reading of Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor allowed the strings to demonstrate their responsive appreciation of the composer’s rhythmic vitality and impulsiveness, as well as their feeling for colour and dynamic range. Daniel’s flexible, free direction suggested that he is a dancer manqué, so lithe and unconstrained were his gestures.

Young pianist, Lara Melda — the winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2010 — was a dazzling soloist in Britten’s Young Apollo (for piano, string quartet and string orchestra), sparkling through the rising scales in scintillating fashion above gleaming, brilliant strings. Her reading was full of the bright optimism of youth; fittingly, for the work was first performed in Toronto in 1939 with the 25-year-old composer himself at the keyboard.

Tippett’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli was engagingly theatrical, the textures rich and the elaborate ornamentations lavishly conveyed. Soloists Thomas Gould (violin), Miranda Dale (violin) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) were superb, Gould in particular galvanising all the instrumentalists to offer an uplifting, deeply committed performance.

Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes bears the sub-title ‘A Time There Was’ — an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words — and the inscription, ‘lovingly and reverently dedicate to the memory of Percy Grainger’. At first glance, it might be felt that Britten and Grainger have little in common, but a penetratingly creative engagement with English folk-song links the two disparate personalities, and in this performance Daniel demonstrated a discerning appreciation of the relationship between the simple, straightforward folk-song melodies and the, at times, disruptive accompaniments. The final movement, a setting of ‘Lord Melbourne’ which was collected by Grainger, was imbued with a draining dejection, redolent of Hardy’s verse.

Claire Seymour

‘Barbican Britten’ continues until 24th November — see www.barbican.org.uk for further details.


Programme and performers:

Henry Purcell, arr. Benjamin Britten, Chacony in G Minor; Benjamin Britten, Young Apollo Op.16; Michael Tippett,Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli; Benjamin Britten, Our Hunting Fathers, Op.8; Benjamin Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was). Ian Bostridge, tenor; Lara Melda, piano; Paul Daniel, conductor; Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Centre, London, Friday 8th November 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):