Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Die Meistersinger and The Indian Queen
at the ENO

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

LA Opera: Barber of Seville

Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera presents an excellent Don Giovanni

On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.

Tosca at Chicago Lyric

In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.

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):