Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

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):