10 Apr 2014
Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall
This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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.