Recently in Performances
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
27 Mar 2014
Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Wigmore Hall, London
Celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the UK's greatest composers (if not the greatest), this concert was an intriguing, and not always stimulating, mix. Birtwistle with Carter makes sense, but Birtwistle with Adams does not - or at least only within the remit of the concert series. The concert was actually entitled “Nash Inventions: American and British Masterworks, including an 80th Birthday Tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle” and was the final concert in the “Inventions” series.
So it was that Birtwistle bookended the evening. The first piece was his Fantasia upon all the notes (2012), commissioned by the present ensemble and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012. Scored for flute, clarinet, harp (the sound of the harp, although not omnipresent, was a Theseus-thread through the evening) and string quartet, the score breathed out a lyric expansiveness, its long lines fully honoured here and leading to a frenetic climax before the piece effectively disintegrated. The basis for the composition (“all the notes”) is the shifting scales of the harp, dependent on the pedals used. In this way, the harp, by no means soloistic, subtly guides the harmonic language of the piece. It was a fine example of the composer's subtle practices, and was beautifully and sensitively delivered here by members of the Nash Ensemble.
Carter and Birtwistle are of course linked by age as well as the complexities of their music (although the manifestations of those complexities are, of course, very different). There were two Carter pieces in the first half: Enchanted Preludes of 1988 and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux of some 22 years previous. The first, Enchanted Preludes, is scored for flute and cello, here played by Philippa Davies and Adrian Brendel, respectively. It was a virtuoso performance of a sophisticated piece. Both players demonstrated superb control of their instruments in a piece that demonstrates, concisely, Carter's strengths of a consistent harmonic language and a superb ear for detail. If Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux for flute and clarinet (Davies again, this time with Richard Hosford on clarinet) was not quite as fine a piece, not as sure of itself, it nevertheless evinced a great sense of dialogue.
The Adams was the odd man out. Somehow Shaker Loops, in its chamber version for seven strings, felt rather roughly 'inserted' in deference to the American side of the concert series. It was a fabulous performance: perfectly graduated crescendi and a real sense of determination. But the piece felt over-long and frankly bloated, and was firmly compositionally outgunned by its companion pieces.
Elliott Carter's Mosaic of 2004 (for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio and double-bass) began the second half. The harp part is virtuosic but in the pre-concert talk Birtwistle had contrasted Carter's treatment of the instrument to his own: Carter does not let the instrument resonate (and therefore, by implication, be true to its own nature). The complex pedal work is impressive indeed as a performance act and one does have to wonder if this aspect is part of the piece's basis, just as the viola is asked to be contra-itself and be very forceful; very un-viola-like perhaps. It is an interesting piece, certainly, but it was overshadowed to no small extent by the piece that most people had surely come to hear, Birtwistle's recent The Moth Requiem (2012).
The BBC Singers were on absolute top form for the demands of this work, which sets a number of Latin names of butterflies interspersed into the poem “A Literalist” by Robin Blaser from his larger work The Moth Poem. The poem concerns a moth trapped in the body of a piano and which could be heard in contact with the strings. It is a lovely idea, and masterfully realised. The scoring is for 12 singers, 3 harps and alto flute. In fact Birtwistle uses the three harps as one “meta-instrument”, as he explained in his characteristically dry-witted pre-performance event. Birtwistle's years of experience enabled him to weave an intoxicating sonic tapestry. The fragmenting of texture and musical material in the work's final stages is impeccably timed. This is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Running through the concert was the sure direction of Nicholas Kok, whose clarity as a conductor was a model of its kind. A remarkable evening.