17 Jan 2014
The Sixteen: Jephtha
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen brought Handel's final oratorio, Jephtha, to the Barbican (14 January 2014) preparatory to recording the work.
On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen brought Handel's final oratorio, Jephtha, to the Barbican (14 January 2014) preparatory to recording the work.
The cast of experienced Handelians included James Gilchrist in the title role, with Susan Bickley as his wife Storge, Sophie Bevan as his daughter Iphis, Robin Blaze as her fiancée Hamor and Matthew Brook as Jephtha's brother Zebul. The result was a finely dramatic performance which bodes well for the recording, to be released later this year on the Coro label.
Handel's oratorio, with a libretto by Revd Thomas Morrell, was written not for the stage but for concert performance, and the intention was to point a moral via uplifting music. An important key to the libretto is Jephtha's family's reaction to the events. For this to work, they must be established as characters and so the first three scenes give us a sequence of arias, one for each of the five main characters, ending with a duet for the lovers Hamor and Iphis. It is not the most dramatic of sequences, and can be tricky to make work on stage.
One of the virtues of the Barbican performance was how each of the five singers, Matthew Brook, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze and Sophie Bevan made their character count and made us feel that they and their music really mattered dramatically. This was particularly true with Robin Blaze's character Hamor. He is necessary in order to give Iphis a life that she will miss, but Hamor's actual music rarely takes plot or drama forward. Blaze brought a vivid sense of character to his performance.
Handel emphasises the group nature of the characters by giving, Iphis, Hamor, Storge and Jephtha a quartet of reaction to Jephtha's vow in Act 2; a remarkable and prescient piece of writing which is a genuine quartet with four different vocal characters. When Handel revived the work in 1753 he trimmed the end of Act 3 after the angel's appearance (Winton Dean is very dismissive of the arias at this point) and instead introduced a quintet. This was the version performed at the Barbican. This quintet is not a genuine one, instead it is a duet for Iphis and Hamor with a contributory coro from Storge, Jephtha and Zebul. A construction familiar from the conclusions of some of Handel's Italian operas.
James Gilchrist made an intense Jephtha, perhaps not quite so much the self-absorbed zealot that he was on stage at the Buxton Festival, but still with a profound sense of the character's inward religious certainty. Gilchrist is a fine and stylish Handelian, his opening aria, Virtue my soul, was fluidly fluent and sung with vivid, bright tone. But when the real drama started, with Jephtha's vow, Gilchrist sang the accompagnato with a powerful intensity. With His mighty arm at the beginning of Act 2, though a more conventional piece which Gilchrist sang with decisive confidence and fine passagework, he also brought a compelling intensity to it. In the recitative and aria, "Open thy marble jaws, O tomb", when Jephtha sees his daughter and realizes the result of his vow, Gilchrist combined drama with great musicality and made us hang on to every note.
Handel closes Act 2 with a truly remarkable sequence, Jephtha's accompagnato "Deeper and deeper still" followed by the chorus "How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees". Gilchrist made the accompagnato fine-grained but dramatic, bringing a vivid power to his voice when necessary. Gilchrist brought flexibility and power to the role, with a certain focussed intensity and the result, in Deeper and deeper still, was finely moving. Act 3 opens with Jephtha's sequence of aria, "Hide thou thy hated beams", accompagnato and aria, "Waft her angels" with the latter aria being rightly famous. We were not disappointed here and Gilchrist sang with a lovely sense of line and profoundly beautifully tone. The fine expressiveness of the opening was transformed when Gilchrist unleashed real power in the middle section.
From the outset, Susan Bickley showed commitment and identification with her character, creating Storge from the first notes she sang. Her first aria, In gentle murmurs will I mourn was fabulously fluent but with an affecting edge to the timbre of her voice. Later in the act Handel and Morrell allow Storge to really develop with Scenes of horror, scenes of woe. Here Bickley started the aria with great technical poise and a nicely vivid feeling, then gradually developed so that the da capo was intense indeed. In Act 2, on hearing the result of Jephtha's vow, Storge has an accompagnato and aria which opens First perish though, and perish all the world and her Bickley virtually spat the words out. But one of the virtues of her performance was that, though she had a clear sense of the drama, it was always with the confines of what Handel wrote; she used the music to achieve her ends quite vividly without ever distorting the vocal line.
Sophie Bevan brought a grave and sombre beauty to the role of Iphis. The character gets some charming and pastoral music, but there was little sense of the flirtatious tone which some singers use. Instead Bevan was thoughtful from the first. Take the heart you fondly gave in Act 1 was graceful yet sober. Later in the act The smiling dawn of happy days was lively and full of wholesome charm, plus there was some fabulous passage-work. In Act 2, Tune the soft melodious lute was sung with fine grained beauty, complemented with some fine flute playing Welcome as the cheerful light when she greets her father was simply lovely, a fine counterpoint to Jephtha's dramatic reaction. Her reaction to the vow in that act was an accompagnato full of resigned acceptance followed by a plangently sung aria, Happy they which was direct, simple and very moving. Her farewell in Act 3, Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods was finely done, again full of a grave and sombre beauty.
Robin Blaze's account of Hamor's first aria," Dull delay, in piercing anguish" was surprisingly characterful and full of an appealing and gentle ardour which characterized his whole performance. Blaze's and Bevan's duet in Act 1 was full of charm with the two voices moving finely in concert, complemented by rhythmic interest in the strings. Hamor's aria at the beginning of Act 2, Up the dreadful steep ascending, after he has recounted the outcome of the battle, was sung by Blaze with great technical facility, but he was also very vivid, making the aria seem dramatically valid rather than holding things up. This was also true of On me let blind mistaken zeal, Hamor's reaction to the results of Jephtha's vow, and which Blaze made you feel that the piece really mattered.
Matthew Brook's Zebul got his big moment at the beginning, with his accompagnato and aria "Pour forth no more unheeded prayers". Brook sang with great commitment and a nicely focussed, grainy baritone voice. His later contributions were restricted to recitative, the quintet, but no less fine for that.
The quartet was superbly done, the four singers Bevan, Bickley, Blaze and Gilchrist giving full power to Handel's remarkable writing.Grace Davidson, from the choir, was the Angel, giving a nicely poised account of her aria.
The Sixteen sang with their familiar commitment and energy. The choruses in Jephtha are not the showiest that Handel wrote, instead we get some writing of extraordinary power and intensity to which the chorus responded with fine control and brilliant sense of drama. The chorus which closes Act 2 has a very striking structure and her the singers gave us a performance of grave and sober beauty.
Christophers and the orchestra brought a nice rhythmic crispness and great vividness to the playing from the first notes of the overture with some notable solo moments for various instruments. Christophers used harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ for the continue which gave us a nice variety of textures, though I am not sure whether the inclusion of a harp in the line-up would please purists.
The programme book included a fine essay by Ruth Smith and came complete with printed words, no projected surtitles here thank goodness. The performance was done with a single interval, after Act 1, and I have to say that I still think that these pieces work best with two intervals.
This was a finely compelling performance of one of Handel's major works and I certainly look forward to the recording. It was dedicated to the memory of Winton Dean, the great writer on Handel (and many other things) who died last year