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

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

'So sweet is the pain': Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

In this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, soprano Roberta Invernizzi presented Italian songs from the first half of seventeenth-century, exploring love and loyalty, loss and lies, and demonstrating consummate declamatory mastery.

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Woman with a Lute by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
16 Feb 2014

John Dowland: In Darkness

Its soothing wooden walls gently bathed in aquamarine light, the very modern Hall at King’s Place made a surprisingly fitting venue for a musical journey to the intimate Elizabethan chamber.

John Dowland: In Darkness

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Woman with a Lute by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

 

‘Semper Dowland Semper Dolens’ (Always Dowland, always sad); such was the motto of the Elizabethan lutenist, poet, diplomat — and possibly spy — John Dowland. And, certainly there was much darkness and despair as tenor Ian Bostridge, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the viol consort Fretwork interwove a selection of the composer’s sorrowful songs with a sequence of instrumental pavans and galliards. The prevailing mood was one of melancholy, but a melancholy of a poetic kind: not a sickness of the mind which consumes and destroys, but rather a meditative profundity inspiring creative outpouring.

‘Modern’ misery might be an oppressive, existential sadness — as Susan Sontag declared, ‘Depression is melancholy, minus its charm’ — but scholars have characterised the Renaissance as a ‘golden age’ of melancholy, when an excess of black bile was both a physical illness to be treated by the idiosyncratic methods of contemporary medics, and a conduit to the imperial majesty of the human mind. As humanists began translating ancient Greek texts, they discovered the Aristotelian notion of melancholic brilliance: the belief that those inclined to melancholy often display a genius which set them apart. Similarly, the Romantics eulogised melancholy as an essential element of the sublime and glorified the sadness that would bring insight and reveal truth.

It is this exaltation of melancholy that one finds in Dowland. The songs have a fairly limited melodic range and this, coupled with the absence of fioriture, directs the listener’s attention the poetry itself. Given this emphasis on the text, one can think of few singers more suited to interpret and convey the nuances of Dowland’s suggestive, often ambiguous lines than Ian Bostridge, a master words-smith. Yet, scale is important. Elizabethans would surely be surprised, if not shocked, by the much larger, more ambient voices of modern singers; in the past the lines would have been gently recounted, the message more important than the melody. There is a danger that undue emphasis and underscoring might distort rather than illuminate.

The simplicity of the songs must speak for itself, the harmonic and imitative details almost imperceptibly adding meaning. Although there were moments where the poet-singer persona was imbued with a more Romantic sensibility than might have been desirable, Bostridge by and large negotiated this danger, using expressive accents and textual emphasis judiciously. Moreover, the unfailingly true intonation communicated the sentiments of the texts with absolute sincerity.

Keen to maximise the unprecedented success of his First Book of Songs, printed in 1597, Dowland arranged them to be performed by whatever domestic forces might be available. The softly unrolling ‘Flow My Tears’ was accompanied by the full ensemble, Bostridge’s low register perhaps a little unfocused, insufficiently distinct against the regularity of the viol timbre. But, the tenor’s alertness to every opportunity for subtle stresses which can underline both meaning and form was immediately apparent, the two verbs — ‘Down vain lights, shine you no more’ — establishing a more insistent voice after the forlorn opening stanza. No occasion for variety was neglected: the lightness and energy of the following stanza, and the more restless movement in the viol lines, evoked agitation, to be replaced by the poignant reticence of the subsequent announcement, ‘since hope is gone’. The final stanza was a microcosm of the virtues of the whole programme: dynamic variety — the forte challenge to the ‘shadows that in darkness dwell’ giving way to pianissimo resignation; exquisite harmonic inflection, with false relations lightly underscored; and poised conclusions, the lute’s cadential ornamentation delicately adorning the bitter-sweet tierce de Picardie.

In ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, Bostridge’s clear diction highlighted the rhythmic elasticity of the accompaniment, which developed further in the intricate in-between verse commentaries. ‘Come Again’ found the tenor accompanied solely by Kenny’s lute. Bostridge built the rising sequence, ‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die’, with urgency, blooming on the final syllable; in contrast, in the subsequent verse the recognition that the lover’s hopes are futile, ‘I die/ In endless pain and endless misery’, was darkened by a richly toned decorative turn on the final word.

Kenny also accompanied ‘Sorrow stay’, but this short song is no simple strophic song with accompaniment, but rather seems to anticipate Romantic lieder, the lute promoted from an accompanying role engaging in idiomatic dialogue with the voice, to an equal partner. The instrumental harmonies and melodic motifs are as significant as the voice in conveying meaning. Such interplay deepened the self-castigating misery of the poet-singer’s opening cry to Sorrow, ‘lend repentant tears/ To a woeful wretched wight’; similarly, the lagging delay of the final falling couplet enhanced the sense of the protagonist’s struggle and defeat: ‘down, down I fall/ And arise I never shall.’ At the repeat, Bostridge held the pinnacle, ‘arise’, for just a moment before sinking again into doleful submission.

‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’ offered some respite from the gloom, the more sanguine sentiments conveyed by a sense of movement through the phrases, and the lively trochaic emphases in the viol accompaniment. With one bass viol and the tenor viol silent, the airier texture complemented the optimism of the text.

But, this lighter mood did not last long, for in Dowland’s masterpiece, ‘In darkness let me dwell’, the tenor’s veiled lower register and seamless phrases, supported by bass viol and lute, took us to the abyss. Bostridge exploited the experimental harmonic colouring of the words, almost sneering the phrase ‘My music hellish jarring sounds’ and employing a nasal bitterness and chromatic slide to convey angry despair: ‘wedded to my woes,/ And bedded to my tomb’. The sudden assertiveness of the appeal for death was startling; in the final reprise of opening phrase, the lute gradually expired, leaving just a scarcely audible voice before that too faded inconclusively into the silence. This was a breath-taking display of insight coupled with musicality and technical skill.

After these dark hues, ‘Time Stands Still’ drew forth a sweeter tone, while the enclosing shapes of the long melodic lines conveyed a quietude and motionlessness which was only briefly disturbed by the lute’s energetic flourish introducing the more purposeful declaration, ‘If bloudlesse envie say, dutie hath no desert’. Tempo and textures were used expressively in ‘If my complaint’. The sprightliness suggested the singer’s pained sense of injustice, while the viols’ inter-verse elaboration might have been a riposte from she, or he, who stands accused — for this song may be as much an appeal to a negligent patron as an indifferent beloved.

In ‘I say my lady weep’ Bostridge used a sotto voce to moving effect. Indeed, tears - ‘Lachrimae’ — were in many ways Dowland’s catchword. He even signed his name ‘Jo. Dowlandi de Lachrimae’. In between the songs, Fretwork presented seven ‘Lachrimæ’ pavans, each defined by a preceding adjective — old tears, old tears renewed, sad tears, lovers’ tears — with characteristic discipline and refinement. The harmonic subtleties of ‘Lachrimæ Gementes’ (groaning tears) cultivated an almost trance-like self-absorption; similarly, the chromatic complexities of the more homophonic ‘Lachrimæ Verae’ (true tears), and the easing of the tempo at the close, were deeply expressive.

There were also galliards and pavans whose titles and dedications give us an indication of the various societies in which Dowland moved; from the Earl of Essex to Digory Piper, a Cornish pirate! Though each dance was consummately delivered, at times I found the musical interest in the middle and lower voices was sacrificed to homogeneity, or overwhelmed by the consistent emphasis given to the upper line of Asako Morikawa’s viola da gamba.

In the instrumental numbers there was a general problem of balance, with Kenny’s lute often absorbed into the uniform viol texture, and clearly audible only at the decorative cadences. However, the busy, more vigorous passages of the ‘The King of Denmark’s Galliard’ did create a more spacious foundation for the lute’s intricate passagework.

Kenny’s performance of ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ made one lament that the programme included only one work for solo lute; the drooping chromatic scale with which the piece commences was expertly shaped, initiating contrapuntal lines of textural clarity and variety. Synchronised and broken chords eloquently punctuated the running melodic lines, the latter assuming ever-more complex questing patterns. Kenny’s technical virtuosity was complemented by expressive articulacy; concluding with a rhetorical flourish, this ‘Fancy’ spoke as directly and movingly as any of Dowland’s songs.

While Fretwork performed these pavans and galliards, Bostridge remained seated, centre-stage, like a brooding Hamlet: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ There was, however, some lightening of the mood at the close, the mild, carefree nimbleness of ‘M. Henry Noell his Galiard’ and the brightly soaring high vocal lines of the final song, ‘Shall I strive with words to move’, bringing a freshness to alleviate the melancholy.

As Richard Boothby reminded us in his programme article, a sonnet by one of Dowland’s contemporary poets, Richard Barnfield, praised the composer, ‘whose heavenly touch / Upon the lute doth ravish human sense’. On this occasion, in the words of Dowland himself, ‘Sorrow was there made fair’.

Claire Seymour


Performers:

Ian Bostridge tenor, Elizabeth Kenny lute, Fretwork: Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, William Hunt, Richard Tunnicliffe, Richard Boothby, viols. King’s Place, London, Wednesday, 12th February 2014.

Programme:

Flow my tears; Lachrimæ Antiquæ Novæ; The King of Denmark’s Galliard; Can she excuse my wrongs/The Earle of Essex Galliard; Lachrimæ Gementes; Forlorn Hope Fancy; Come Again, sweet love doth now invite; Sorrow stay!; M. John Langton’s Pavan; My thoughts are winged with hope; Lachrimæ Tristes; In darkness let me dwell; Lachrimæ Coactæ; Time stands still; If my complaints/ Captaine Digory Piper, his Galliard 4.00; Lachrimæ Amantis; If floods of tears; Lachrimæ Veræ; I saw my lady weep; M. Henry Noell his Galliard; Shall I strive with words

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):