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 March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Written at a time when both his theatrical business and physical health were in a bad way, Handel’s Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1738, fared badly and sank rapidly into obscurity where it languished until the late-twentieth century.
Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").at the Barbican Hall, London.
The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.
Each March France's splendid Opéra de Lyon mounts a cycle of operas that speak to a chosen theme. Just now the theme is Mémoires -- mythic productions of famed, now dead, late 20th century stage directors. These directors are Klaus Michael Grüber (1941-2008), Ruth Berghaus (1927-1996), and Heiner Müller (1929-1995).
The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).
For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.
The dramatic strength that Stage Director Michael Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot.
On February 25, 2017, in Tucson and on the following March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona Opera presented its first world premiere, Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn’s Riders of the Purple Sage.
During the past few seasons, English Touring Opera has confirmed its triple-value: it takes opera to the parts of the UK that other companies frequently fail to reach; its inventive, often theme-based, programming and willingness to take risks shine a light on unfamiliar repertory which invariably offers unanticipated pleasures; the company provides a platform for young British singers who are easing their way into the ‘industry’, assuming a role that latterly ENO might have been expected to fulfil.
A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London. Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony. Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing.
On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.
In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.
Patricia Racette’s Salome is an impetuous teenage princess who interrupts the royal routine on a cloudy night by demanding to see her stepfather’s famous prisoner. Racette’s interpretation makes her Salome younger than the characters portrayed by many of her famous colleagues of the past. This princess plays mental games with Jochanaan and with Herod. Later, she plays a physical game with the gruesome, natural-looking head of the prophet.
On February 17, 2017 Pacific Opera Project performed Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Ebell Club in Los Angeles. After that night, it can be said that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay this company from putting on a fine show. Earlier in the day the Los Angeles area was deluged with heavy rain that dropped up to an inch of water per hour. That evening, because of a blown transformer, there was no electricity in the Ebell Club area.
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