10 Apr 2014
Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall
This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
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.
This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.
Remarkably assured, and accompanied empathetically and imaginatively by pianist John Paul Ekins, Alder revealed an alluring voice characterised by lyrical charm and astonishing power, particularly at the top; and her vocal prowess was complemented by a sure sense of poetic meaning and musical poetry.
Benjamin Britten’s song cycle On This Island began the programme. Taking their cue from the title of the opening song, ‘Let the florid music praise’, Ekins and Alder relished the Handelian grandeur of the quasi-fanfare rhetoricisms, the soprano’s vocal lines charged with drama and energy, Ekins’ Baroque ornamentations ostentatious and rhythmically propulsive. After the splendour of the first stanza’s agile coloratura displays, the second stanza was more subdued, but lyrical and mellifluous, paralleling the move from public to private world in W.H. Auden’s poetry.
Alder demonstrated a focused and robust tone across the registers, and a flamboyant, theatrical musical presence in this first song. The second, ‘Now the Leaves are Falling Fast’, was more introverted, the irregular ostinato and repeated chords of the accompaniment, coupled with the circling semi-quavers in the voice, creating a tense mood: ‘Arms stiffly to reprove/ In false attitudes of love.’ Yet, the peace and fulfilment intimated in the final verse, ‘None may drink except in dreams’, was fittingly silky and consoling.
In ‘Seascape’ and ‘As it is plenty’ the performers grappled with the rather awkward text settings; the latter, in which Auden presents a social satire mocking the narrowness of bourgeois values, may be witty does not readily lend itself to musical embodiment — but Alder worked hard to convey the ironic vein. However, the even, oppressive chords of ‘Nocturne’ and Alder’s effortlessly lyrical vocal line conveyed a strong understanding of poetic nuance; for the ‘meaning’ is to be found as much in the metrical smoothness of the poetry as in the individual words and this is matched by the regularity of Britten’s music. As the monotone recitation gave way to a progressive rising to the highest pitch, Alder transformed the mood, expressing the move from sleep to consciousness: ‘Calmly til the morning break/ Let him lie, then gently wake.’
Four songs by Richard Strauss followed, beginning with ‘Ich Schwebe’ (I float) in which Alder revealed a rich resonance, if not quite a creamy Straussian sumptuousness. ‘Der Stern’ (The star) showcased the soprano’s wide range and seamless leaps between registers, conveying the tender relationship between the poet-speaker and the star above which ‘waves down here/ it approaches me warmly’ (‘Er nahte mir gern;/ Er Wärmet und funkelt’).
‘Waldesfahrt’ (Woodland journey) was eerily light of touch, the piano’s cascades and evocative diminishment suggesting the shadowy forms ‘nodding through the carriage window’ (‘Kopnickend zum Wagen herein’); the muted ending — as the shadows ‘blend together like mist’ and ‘giggle and dart’ away — was particularly affecting. ‘Schlechtes Wetter’ (Wretched weather) is a vivid setting of Heine’s depiction of quiet family life within and torrential rain without. The performers modulated effectively between the insouciant relaxation of domestic harmony, especially in the swinging waltz-like final stanza, and the dry discord which conveys the dreadful deluge seen through the window-panes.
After the interval came Franz Liszt’s Tre Sonetti di Petrarcha, settings of Petrarch’s sonnets 47, 104 and 123, which tell of the poet’s love for a woman named Laura. Surprisingly Italianate, these songs exploit bel canto idioms — virtuosic display, a wide vocal range, legato melodic lines, climatic phrase structures — and Alder proved equal to all the technical demands. Ekins too mastered the quasi- orchestral accompaniment with ease (the songs were originally published in transcribed form for piano solo). The introduction to ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno, e ‘I mese, e l’anno’ (Blessed by the day, the month, the year) had a warm sense of expanse, and the song gained in urgency, an impetuous accelerando towards the close expressing the obsessiveness of the poet’s passion. The strength of Alder’s upper register made a particularly strong impact, and conveyed a sparkling sense of joy, the thrill of the poet’s ‘first sweet pang’ (‘primo dolce affanno’) of love.
During the recitative opening of ‘Pace non trovo’ (I find no peace), Ekins etched the piano lines, particularly the left hand gestures, with real clarity, then found an orchestral resonance in the more operatic aria section ,as Alder’s melody blossomed, culminating in an intense climax cut short by a theatrical silence: ‘Equalmente mi spiace morte e vita’ (death and life alike repel me). Then, the gently undulating accompaniment to ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ (I beheld on earth angelic grace) established a sweetness upon which Alder beautifully floated her graceful melody.
After these Austrian and Italian sojourns the performers returned to home territory with three songs by Frank Bridge. ‘Goldenhair’, a setting of Joyce, was characterised by vivid textures and expressive harmonies. ‘When most I wink’, composed when Bridge was a student and the first of his songs to survive, and ‘Love wen a-riding’ were clearly and lightly enunciated by Alder, who communicated the songs’ simple charm engagingly.
The vocal items were framed by two compositions for strings, both dating from the 1920s, impressively performed by the Ligeti Quartet. Béla Bartók’s 4th String Quartet is a taut, sometimes terse work of unceasing compression and concentration, in which outbursts of athletic energy puncture pointillist textures and timbres. The Ligeti Quartet presented a remarkably eloquent reading, controlling the arching five-movement form with intelligence and insight.
The confident tone with which they began the opening Allegro was immediately absorbing; supple melodic lines, energised by rhythmic accents which were rich rather than harsh, intertwined in complex counterpoint, but the textures retained a distinctive clarity as the voices mirrored and answered each other. There was buoyancy and bite, and some agile cello playing from Valerie Welbanks who shaped the pentatonic lyrical fragments expressively. The fleeting flickerings of the muted Prestissimo which follows were wonderfully ethereal; the panoply of coloristic devices — muted harmonics, glissandi, pizzicati — were skilfully negotiated and the players convincingly privileged texture over melody and harmony.
The ‘night music’ of the third movement beautifully contrasted the pianissimo shimmering of the upper strings with the cello’s well-focused exotic melody which meandered in folk-like fashion. Leader Mandira de Saram assumed the melodic thread, her sweet high phrases wistful and melancholy, before second violinist, Patrick Dawkins, interjected with some robust, gutsy G-string colours. The snapping pizzicati of the fourth movement generated a vigorous rustic verve, and this dynamism spilled into the Allegro molto which was an invigorating, impetuous dance, the unpredictable accents building to an emphatic concluding statement of the motto theme which binds the work.
Alban Berg’s passionate, dramatic Lyric Suite closed the recital. The Ligeti Quartet conveyed both the romanticism and modernism of the work, the sweeping range of diverse emotions balanced by a cerebral appreciation of the work’s architecture and language. Since musicologist George Perle discovered in 1976 an annotated copy of the first edition which revealed the precise, autobiographical programme of the work, the emotional highs and lows have been understood within the specific context of Berg’s obsessive passion for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin; but one did not need a narrative key to the musical code in order to appreciate the unfolding drama, so sure was the Ligeti Quartet’s command of the shifts of tempo and intensification of mood: giovale, amoroso, misterioso, estatico, appassionato, delirando, desolato.
The penultimate Presto was fearsomely feverish before the final Largo, in which the players chose to restore the setting of Baudelaire (translated into German by Stefan George) which the dark, foreboding music had originally accompanied. Alder’s focus was startling and the range of colours she found in her lower register impressive; the depiction of the barren polar world over which darkness dwells was weighty and ominous. The chilling climax, as the soprano faced the terror of this night of chaos (‘Und dieser nacht o ein chaos riesengross’) was a moment of extreme theatre: ‘nacht’ rang with piercing intensity, only for Alder to crescendo through the phrase with astonishing power. The falling contours of the final dissolving phrases were attentively shaped but without mannerism, as the string voices slipped away as inexorably as Baudelaire’s slowly unwinding spindle of time.
Bartók: String Quartet No. 4; Britten: On this Island Op. 11; Richard Strauss: ‘Ich schwebe’, ‘Der Stern’, ‘Waldesfahrt’, ‘Schlechtes Wetter’; Liszt: Tre sonetti di Petrarca; Bridge: ‘Golden Hair’, ‘When most I wink’, ‘Love went a-riding’; Berg: Lyric Suite. Louise Alder, soprano; John Paul Ekins, piano; Ligeti String Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 31st March 2014.