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.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
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