Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Exaudi Vocal Ensemble
08 Nov 2013

Exaudi: O tenebroso giorno — Gesualdo then and now

One year since the launch of their project to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals, vocal ensemble Exaudi returned to the Wigmore Hall to present an intermingling of old and new madrigals which was typically inventive, virtuosic and compelling.

Exaudi: O tenebroso giorno — Gesualdo then and now

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Exaudi Vocal Ensemble

 

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was the warp between which the weft threads of modernism were woven. Madrigalist, mannerist and master of harmonic ingenuity, the patrician composer’s contributions to the genre are remarkable for their harmonic capriciousness and volatility. Much is often made of the fact that one can add ‘murderer’ to the alliterative inventory of the composer’s roles, his violent despatch of his faithless wife and her lover earning him notoriety in the annals of music history; and, while such vengeful acts were in fact common in Renaissance Italian courts — indeed, the contemporary code of honour practically demanded them — it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that something of Gesualdo’s brooding, melancholic temperament is evident in the turbulent harmonic daring of his madrigals.

It has been suggested that Gesualdo’s harmonic adventurousness was inspired by his visits to Ferrara from 1594, where he was able to experiment upon the archicembalo with six keyboards that had been constructed by the court maestro Nicola Vicentino. But, it is just as likely that overhearing the vocal ensemble that Vicentino had trained in secrecy, in order to put into practice his own experimental theories of music, was the major influence in the formation of Gesualdo’s idiosyncratic idiom.

Gesualdo3.gifCarlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa [Source: Wikipedia]

Writing of a new edition of the madrigals published in1962, the musicologist Denis Stevens declared, ‘Five fine soloists, each with perfect intonation, not too much vibrato, and a really controlled line, would bring … [the] splendid pieces in this book to life’. ‘Dolcissima mia vita’ (Sweetness life of mine) immediately asserted the composer’s highly personal vein of chromatic irregularity, and five members of Exaudi , although they took a few minutes to settle, certainly brought vitality to the contrapuntal lines, ‘Credete forse che’l bel foco ond’ardo’ (Can you believe the fire that now scorches me), triggered by a buoyant countertenor line sung by Tom Williams.

The sliding chromatic resolutions of ‘Deh, come invan sospiro’ (Ah! How I sigh in vain) demonstrated the composer’s skill in expressing the struggle between violent, conflicting emotions, while the closing repetitions of ‘divenga morte’ (life for me has become death) spanned a spectrum of colours and moods, both rich and shadowy. In ‘Tu piangi, o Filli mia’ (You weep, O my Phyllis), the five voices blended agreeably; in an energetic rendition, the strong communication between the members of the quintet was evident in the vivid sectional contrasts that were achieved.

Gesualdo’s almost hypersensitive response to lyric emotions is unfailingly astonishing, as the individual vocal lines veer in unexpected directions, the linear discourses producing a questing, searching mood as dissonances are suspended and resolutions delayed. In ‘Itene, o miei sospiri’ (Go now, o my sighs) the sheer force of the harmonic energy was remarkable, building from the initial direct command, ‘Itene’, to the rich contrapuntal interweaving of the climax, before the relaxation of the concluding homophonic thirds. The deep register of the opening of ‘O tenebroso giorno’ (O dark day) was forbiddingly sombre, before the more uplifting harmonies of ‘Quando lieto ritorno/ Farai dinanzi a quella/Che è più d’ogni altra bella’ (When will you happily/ return to that beauty’s side/ who is more beautiful than any other) created a flowing lightness. The voices negotiated the unusual, challenging intervals of the melodic lines with pinpoint accuracy, and the final phrase possessed a pure air of expansiveness: ‘Che con suoi sguardi morte e vita appaga?’ (whose gaze satisfies both death and life?’).

The rich open vowel sounds of ‘O dolorosa gioia’ (Oh dolorous joy), sung with lustrous timbre, opened the second half of the recital; the five vocalists enjoyed the harmonic paradoxes used to convey the oxymoronic verse — unexpectedly easeful major harmonies suggest ‘soave dolore’ (sweet suffering), for example. The final line, ‘Poichè sì docle mi fa morto e vivo’ (for so sweetly it makes me feel both dead and alive) had both immediacy and aloofness. The fitful changes of mood of the brief ‘Moro, lasso’ (I die, alas), were powerfully communicated, the despairing cry, ‘Ahi, che m’ancide e non vuo!’ (oh, kills me and will not help me!), full of rhetorical directness.

Two madrigals à 6 brought the sequence to a close: ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ (Darkness covered the earth) had both solemn depth and warmth, while the incessant suspensions and twists of ‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’ (My eyes are dimmed), particularly in the final homophonic section, were meticulously precise and moving.

Interspersed between the Renaissance treasures were four contemporary works; the present in conversation with the past. (The Gesualdo works were performed without conductor, while director James Weeks led the new madrigals). Stefano Gervanosi’s ‘Amore l’alma m’allaccia’ (Tasso, Love tightens my soul), for SSATB, was immensely challenging with its dense, iridescent sonorities and textures, the accumulating harmonic tension provocatively evoking the pain of ‘dolci aspre catene’ (sweet bitter chains). Repetition of miniature motifs built to an imitative frenzy, and the singers demonstrated rhythmic precision and expert ensemble in the more airy, fragmented closing section, the brief vocal snatches intimating the erotic tensions of the text.

Exaudi performed Michael Finnissy’s Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I in October 2012; at that time, I remarked the way the composer ‘exploited the sinuous false relations, suspensions and dissonances of the sixteenth-century idiom … explicitly intertwining elements of Gesualdo’s original with Finnissy’s own elaborations and developments’. Here, three later songs from the set were presented. The transparent texture of the 2-voice opening to III, ‘Beltà poi che t’assenti’ (My beauty, since you are gone) was enriched by piquant close dissonances, while the sustained lamenting lines of the end were affectingly shaped. IV, ‘Quel ‘no’ crudel che la mia speme ancise’ (That cruel ‘no’ which killed my hope), presented copious challenges for the two sopranos and for conductor, Weeks, whose broad loops emphatically marked the points of coincidence amid the free rhapsodic sweeps of the vocal lines, with their eerie glissandi and ululations. As the voices moved apart in register, the interplay between the burnished lower voice and the soaring high soprano effectively conveyed love’s power to ‘vince ogni core’ (conquer all hearts). A denser texture characterised VI, ‘Resta di darmi noia’ (Cease to give me annoyance), the five voices vividly articulating the opening text in homophonous broken rhythms; above a bed of sustained chords, tenor and soprano engaged in a veritable vocal battle of passion and bitterness: ‘Morta è per me la gioia,/ Onde sperar non lice/ D’esser mai più felice’ (For me all joy is dead, nor can I ever hope again to find happiness).

Christopher Fox’s ‘suo tormento’ (His torment) is a setting of an extract from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ Canto X, although as the composer’s programme note explained: ‘Dante’s text … is used only as a sound-source and in the score the source-word for each sound is given [in square brackets] to indicate how the underlaid letters should sound. The text is ‘read’ outwards from the centre … reading, as it were, into both past and future — and the music should sound like a doomed attempt to be understood.’ Certainly, the broken phrases expressed a sense of frustrated attempts to see and comprehend and a vexing impotence. Two shorts settings of Antonio Gramsci followed, the words set in more conventional fashion. ‘figura’, ‘hoketus’ and ‘kanon’ from Johannes Schöllhorn’s Madrigali a Dio (texts by Pier Paolo Pasolini) was the last of the modern offerings. Set for 6 voices these madrigals are cerebral works, ‘figura’ opening with a wave-like drone, with the voices freely and linearly interacting with each other in complex just intonation. ‘hoketus’ was energised and unpredictable, meaning conveyed by sound rather than sense, whirling glissandi and introverted ‘chattering’ representing ‘una sola/ Parola, una sola/ Parola ripete pazzamente’ (a single word, a single word madly repeats). The stratospheric soprano in ‘kanon’ was effortlessly delivered by Juliet Fraser, above an energetic counterpoint of male voices. Needless to say, these works demanded enormous precision of rhythm and pitch, perfect ensemble as well as vocal confidence; the members of Exaudi exhibited all these qualities in abundance.

I’ve previously expressed reservations, and I’m still not convinced, that director James Weeks’ inter-madrigal commentaries, though direct and engaging, are truly necessary or beneficial: for they weaken the continuity of the musical dialogue between past and present, a musical conversation which would be stronger if fluid and uninterrupted by the spoken word. But, in the final reckoning the music spoke for itself: the noble humanistic spirit of the Renaissance madrigal, underpinned by the potency of intense vocal expression, is alive and well.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

James Weeks, director; Juliet Fraser, Amanda Morrison, soprano; Lucy Goddard, mezzo-soprano; Tom Williams, countertenor; Stephen Jeffes, Jonathan Bungard, tenor; Jonathan Saunders, Simon Whiteley, bass. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th 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):