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

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.

Royal Academy's Semele offers 'endless pleasures'

Self-adoring ‘celebrities’ beware. That smart-phone which feeds your narcissism might just prove your nemesis.

The Eternal Flame: Debussy, Lindberg, Stravinsky and Janáček - London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski

Although this concert was ostensibly, and in some respects a little tenuously, linked to the centenary of the Armistice, it did create some challenging assumptions about the nature of war. It was certainly the case in Magnus Lindberg’s new work, Triumf att finnas till… (‘Triumph to Exist…’) that he felt able to dislocate from the horror of the trenches and slaughter by using a text by the wartime poet Edith Södergran which gravitates towards a more sympathetic, even revisionist, expectation of this period.

François-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, Bartók and Haydn

For the second of my armistice anniversary concerts, I moved across town from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican Hall

‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ The words of George Orwell, expressed in a Tribune article, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, published in 1945.

The Last Letter: the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court

The Barbican Centre’s For the Fallen commemorations continued with this varied and thought-provoking programme, The Last Letter, which interweaved vocal and instrumental music with poems and prose, and focused on relationships - between husband and wife, fellow soldiers, young men and their homelands - disrupted by war.

Fiona Shaw's Cendrillon casts a spell: Glyndebourne Tour 2018

Fiona Shaw’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon (1899) for this year’s Glyndebourne Tour makes one feel that the annual Christmas treat at the ballet or the panto has come one month early.

The Rake’s Progress: Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is not, in many ways, a progressive opera; it doesn’t seek to radicalise, or even transform, opera and yet it is indisputably one of the great twentieth-century operas.

A raucous Così fan tutte at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Precisely where and when Così fan tutte takes place should be a matter of sublime indifference - or at least of individual taste. It is ‘about’ many things, but eighteenth-century Naples - should that actually be the less exotic yet still ‘othered’ neāpolis of Wiener Neustadt? - is not among them.

For the Fallen: James Macmillan's All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ So, wrote fellow war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley of the last sonnets of Rupert Brooke.

English Touring Opera: Troubled fidelities and faiths

‘Can engaging with contemporary social issues save the opera?’ asked M. Sophia Newman last week, on the website, News City, noting that many commentators believe that ‘public interest in stuffy, intimidating, expensive opera is inevitably dwindling’, and that ‘several recent opera productions suggest that interest in a new kind of urban, less formally-staged, socially-engaged opera is emerging and drawing in new audiences to the centuries-old art form’.

Himmelsmusik: L'Arpeggiata bring north and south together at Wigmore Hall

Johann Theile, Crato Bütner, Franz Tunder, Christian Ritter, Giovanni Felice Sances … such names do not loom large in the annals of musical historiography. But, these and other little-known seventeenth-century composers took their place alongside Bach and Biber, Schütz and Monteverdi during L’Arpeggiata’s most recent exploration of musical cross-influences and connections.

Piotr Beczała – Polish and Italian art song, Wigmore Hall London

Can Piotr Beczała sing the pants off Jonas Kaufmann ? Beczała is a major celebrity who could fill a big house, like Kaufmann does, and at Kaufmann prices. Instead, Beczała and Helmut Deutsch reached out to that truly dedicated core audience that has made the reputation of the Wigmore Hall : an audience which takes music seriously enough to stretch themselves with an eclectic evening of Polish and Italian song.

Soloists excel in Chelsea Opera Group's Norma at Cadogan Hall

“Let us not be ashamed to be carried away by the simple nobility and beauty of a lucid melody of Bellini. Let us not be ashamed to shed a tear of emotion as we hear it!”

Handel's Serse: Il Pomo d'Oro at the Barbican Hall

Sadly, and worryingly, there are plenty of modern-day political leaders - both dictators and the democratically elected - whose petulance, stubbornness and egoism threaten the safety of their own subjects as well as the stability and security of other nations.

Dutch touring Tosca is an edge-of-your-seat thriller

Who needs another Tosca? Seasoned opera buffs can be blasé about repertoire mainstays. But the Nederlandse Reisopera’s production currently touring the Netherlands is worth seeing, whether it is your first or your hundred-and-first acquaintance with Puccini’s political drama. The staging is refreshing and pacey. Musically, it has the four crucial ingredients: three accomplished leads and a conductor who swashbuckles through the score in a blaze of color.

David Alden's fine Lucia returns to ENO

The burden of the past, and the duty to ensure its survival in the present and future, exercise a violent grip on the male protagonists in David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for English National Opera, with dangerous and disturbing consequences.

Verdi's Requiem at the ROH

The full title of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874 attests to its origins, but it was the death of Giacomo Rossini on 13th November 1868 that was the initial impetus for Verdi’s desire to compose a Requiem Mass which would honour Rossini, one of the figureheads of Italian cultural magnificence, in a national ceremony which - following the example of Cherubini’s C minor Requiem and Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts - was to be as much a public and political occasion as a religious one.

Wexford Festival 2018

The 67th Wexford Opera Festival kicked off with three mighty whacks of a drum and rooster’s raucous squawk, heralding the murderous machinations of the drug-dealing degenerate, Cim-Fen, in Franco Leoni’s one-act blood-and-guts verismo melodrama, L’oracolo … alongside an announcement by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, of an award of €1 million in capital funding for the National Opera House to support necessary updating and refurbishment works over the next 3 years.

A New La bohème Opens Season at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2018-19 season with Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. This new production, shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and with the Teatro Real, Madrid, features an accomplished cast and innovative scenic approaches.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Harrison Birtwistle [Photo by Hanya Chlala]
19 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 — Gawain

This was a truly outstanding performance, thoroughly worthy of its standing ovation. The only problem now will be of upholding such standards throughout the Barbican’s Birtwistle at 80 series.

Birtwistle at 80 — Gawain (concert hall staging)

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Harrison Birtwistle [Photo by Hanya Chlala]

 

This was something no one present is likely to forget: a masterpiece, whose absence from opera houses, not just in this country but across the world, stands as a devastating indictment to all concerned, was given a ‘concert staging’ to match the finest efforts of any established house. Last year’s Salzburg staging — incredibly, the only one since Covent Garden’s premiere and revivals — performed a signal service in bringing Birtwistle’s opera to an international audience, but a questionable production detracted somewhat from the impact of an excellent musical performance. Here, John Lloyd Davies’s unfussy direction did all that was necessary — or at least seemed to be necessary — with the support of excellent lighting. Quite whether the projections were necessary, I have my doubts, but they did no especial harm either.

A happy surprise was the reinstatement of the full version of the Turning of the Seasons, which I had never heard before. What utterly magnificent music this is — and, equally to the point, musical drama which strongly reinforces the power of ritual in this opera. Gawain’s year-long journey reminds us of the crucial importance of the passing of time; actions are not here merely repeated, revisited, viewed from different standpoints. There is surely a strong comparison to be drawn here with Siegfried’s going out into the world, ‘zu neuen Taten’, and of course both Wagner and Birtwistle question, indeed deconstruct the notion of heroism. As the disillusioned Gawain insists, he is not, almost certainly never was, that hero the court, the world had imagined him to be. That unnerving experience of returning to a place, to people, and it, they having carried on without one registered all the more powerfully, even chillingly. A stronger sense of the passing of time was gained, then, but so was a stronger sense of the sheer power of ritual, in this case of the calendar and of man’s relationship to it, ambivalently positioned as it is in this case between Church and something closer to paganism. Speaking to other audience members during the interval, some, though by no means all, seemed to have struggled with the consequent greater length of the first act. I did not feel that at the time, but admit to noting thereafter a certain imbalance with respect to the first and second. That need not necessarily be a bad thing, but I could not help but wonder whether a second revision might be in order. Perhaps the Turning of the Seasons could become a second act tableau in itself; perhaps it might be split between the two acts, for, as Birtwistle has noted, many of his works have a tendency to ‘stop’ rather than to ‘end’. (I am not sure that that is really the case with this work, which is in many ways more conventionally operatic than many give it credit for, but the point may still stand in general.) At any rate, experiencing this additional music for the first time was an overwhelming experience in itself; moreover, it permits more to be heard from Guinevere, Bishop Baldwin, and the chorus. I understand — I think — the case for the revised version, but I should now never wish the cuts to be reinstated. In practice, though, I shall have to take what, if anything, I am given.

Martyn Brabbins led a superlative performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the splendid BBC Singers (conducted offstage with equal excellence by Andrew Griffiths) and what I suspect may be the finest cast the work has yet received. The BBC SO’s contribution was almost beyond praise, every inch the equal of its Vienna counterpart last summer. It is perhaps all too tempting to resort to ‘national’ stereotypes, and maybe this was as much a matter of staging and venue, but I think I perceived a more generally internationally modernist Klang from the ORF Vienna Radio SO, and a more deeply English — but certainly not remotely nationalist — melancholy from the BBC orchestra. That is not to say that the violence of Birtwistle’s score did not register; it most certainly did, to searing effect. Nor that the powerful Stravinskian antecedents did not register. One may hear a fascinating struggle between a world born of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and one born of The Rite of Spring: doubtless an over-simplification, but perhaps not entirely gratuitous. The welding together of primitivism, mediævalism, and (Northern) English landscape was perhaps achieved still more idiomatically by Brabbins than by Ingo Metzmacher, matching the distinguished contribution by Elgar Howarth on the CD recording from the Royal Opera House. (Alas, that was made at a revival, so has the revised version of the score, but it remains an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who remotely cares about twentieth-century opera.) The brass — including three tubas and a euphonium — proved as powerful as any more celebrated section, but with none of the brashness one sometimes encounters from American orchestras in particular. A battery of percussion unleashed its fire at times, yet also offered true delicacy, not least in the guise of that unforgettable cimbalom part. Uneasy magic was conjured up — the observed and observing malevolence of Morgan le Fay? — from the woodwind, whilst the strings worked over-over-time throughout: incisive and, yes, at times beguiling. Courtly love and eroticism were given their due; one cannot deconstruct without in some sense having constructed.

Such was also the tale of the vocal performances. Leigh Melrose summoned up memories of his fine ENO Wozzeck as Gawain, and yet went further still. Very human choices, fears, and disappointments made the descent — or should that actually be ascent? — from his initial swagger all the more affecting. Sir John Tomlinson was his inimitable self, a true force of nature, if the more or less unforgivable cliché may be forgiven, as the Green Knight. An ‘objective’ review would have to mention the indulgence that needs to be offered to his higher range, here not so often employed, but frankly such cavils seem irrelevant in the face of so all-encompassing a dramatic assumption. The day will come — at least, we hope it will, if our opera houses will listen — when another bass will have to take on the role, but for the moment, the archetypal, apparent timelessness of this performance makes it impossible to imagine. For Tomlinson, moreover, there was no need for a score. Jennifer Johnston made a glorious impression as Lady de Hautdesert the wife of his alter ego: rich, even voluptuous, of tone, nicely ambiguous of purpose, and yet imparting something very important concerning the human and perhaps especially the female condition as constructed here. Laura Aikin was equally magnificent as Morgan le Fay. The cruel demands of the role clearly hold no fears for her; far more than ever before, I had the sense of her as a real character, as the moving force of events. Perhaps the longer version played a role in that; her manipulative appearance onstage — unseen to the hero — when Gawain arrived at the Hautdeserts certainly did. It was, however, an interpretative consequence too, born of vocal strength and palpable musical intelligence.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Rachel Nicholls made for an excellent royal couple, as attentive to words as to vocal line. William Towers made more of the role of Bishop Baldwin — again, doubtless partly a matter of the version, but not only that — than I had previously heard. His is a virile counter-tenor, put to piercing, perhaps sanctimonious use here. I certainly found myself asking more about the character, his role, his motivations, than I had done so before. John Graham-Hall fully inhabited the role of the Fool; there was an entirely appropriate correspondence with King Lear to be made in this case. Ivan Ludlow and Robert Anthony Gardiner offered finely sung portrayals of Agravain and Ywain. There was not a weak link in the cast, just as there was not in the evening as a whole. A resounding triumph! Now which company will do its duty and give us a properly thought-through new staging?

Mark Berry


Cast and production information:

Gawain: Leigh Melrose; The Green Knight, Sir Bertiak de Hautdesert: Sir John Tomlinson; Morgan Le Fay: Laura Aikin; Lady de Hautdesert: Jennifer Johnston; King Arthur: Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts; A Fool: John Graham Hall; Guinevere: Rachel Nicholls; Bishop Baldwin: William Towers; Agravain: Ivan Ludlow; Ywain: Robert Anthony Gardiner. Sound Intermedia (sound design)/Aqamera (projections)/John Lloyd Davies (director). BBC Singers (conductor: Andrew Griffiths)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Friday 16 May 2014.

Click here for the complete text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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):