Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).



James Gilchrist
18 Jul 2014

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: James Gilchrist


Indeed, it was Beethoven’s six songs (To the Distant Beloved) — settings of texts by the minor poet, Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858) which are united by the idea or motif of love filtered through images of the idealised pastoral — which were most imaginative and impressive, as Gilchrist and his accompanist Anna Tilbrook swept seamlessly through the sequence, conveying the impetuousness and naivety of the enamoured young poet-speaker and the all-encompassing nature of his obsession with his beloved.

In the opening song, Gilchrist’s light tone was just right for the young man’s nostalgic recollections of the distant meadows where he first met his loved one as well as the wistful sadness of their subsequent separation. The introspective yearning of the second song, in which the poet longs to be at his lover’s side was beautifully evoked. Tilbrook crafted a lovely melodic line in the second stanza, as the voice repeated a single note over several bars, perfectly embodying the sentiments of the text which paints an image of stillness and the quiet observation of nature: ‘Still die Primmel dort sinnt, /Weht so leise der Wind/ Möchte ich sein!’ (the primrose meditates in silence, and the wind blows so softly — there would I be!).

‘Leichter Segler in den Höhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) was light of tread but had a rhythmic persuasiveness, and the move to the minor for the final stanzas was tellingly pointed; indeed, throughout the recital Tilbrook shaped the harmonic pathways with discernment. In this Beethoven sequence the varied, developing accompaniments were fresh and compelling, and transitions between songs fluently executed, with some well-judged pauses, relaxations and surges of tempo.

After the simplicity of the first five strophic forms, Gilchrist employed the through-composed structure of the final song to shape a convincing conclusion. In the slow opening line, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese lieder’ (Accept, then, these songs) the legato was disarming, and he made effective use of a hushed head voice as the sun’s rays faded ‘Hinter jener Bergeshöh’ (behind those mountain heights).

The smooth grace of Gilchrist’s tenor and his unmannered attentiveness to musical and verbal nuances seemed especially well-suited to these Beethoven song. Tilbrook, too, demonstrated a dexterous technique and thoughtful touch, creating fleeting textures to capture the ‘pure’ sounds of the romantic landscape.

Scubert’s Rellstab settings which opened the concert, though they share Beethoven’s theme of love for a distant beloved, were less settled and focused; despite Gilchrist’s close observance of detail and his mellifluous delivery, he didn’t quite capture the darker side of the spirit of ‘Sehnsucht’ which is innate to these songs. The most successful of the set were the final two, ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away) and ‘Abschied’ (Farewell), in which the colours and tempo perfectly matched the poetic sentiment.

There were some engaging individual readings too: ‘Kreigers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding) was slow and ominous of tempo, and Tilbrook created a sense of resounding expanse in the incisive rhythms and broad phrases. Gilchrist was unfailingly alert to the individual words and to the poem’s rapid fluctuations of mood, although occasionally such attentiveness resulted in a loss of naturalness: the line ‘Von Sehnsucht mir so heiß’ (so afire with longing) was deliberately heightened, not without effect, but its repetition was troubled by a wavering vibrato which weakened the melodic form — a problem that was not reserved for this song.

In ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade), Gilchrist displayed a soft gentleness ideal for embodying the nocturnal song and moonlit rustlings and whispers. And, in ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring longing) he used vocal colour to create a searching air; the queries which end each stanza — ‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’, ‘Und Du?’ — were tentatively posed, rather than rhetorical, creating a touching vulnerability and pathos.

The Heine settings had more intensity and drama, not surprisingly as the poetry leaves behind Rellstab’s sighing breezes and rippling streams and enters bleaker realms of suffering and isolation. ‘Atlas’ was powerfully rhetorical, with Tilbrook’s accompaniment fittingly heavy and laboured, but Gilchrist still did not quite convince as one wholly wretched, who has the weight of the world, and its suffering, upon his shoulders. While ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was beautifully restrained, ‘Das Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden) had a bright energy and warm optimism.

The performers shaped the emotional climax of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town) with skill. The cool distance of the opening, as the turrets of the town loom mistily on the remote horizon, built to a pained intensity in the final line, ‘Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (where I lost what I loved most) as the sun-drenched vision of the poet-speaker’s painful memory gleamed forth. An adventurously wide dynamic range was employed to suggest the insidious presence and danger of the wraith which haunts the poet-speaker in the final song of the Heine sequence, ‘Der Doppelgänger’; and, once more, Gilchrist and Tilbrook graded the escalation of the speaker’s despair, the riskily slow tempo of the first stanza surging in the last, as the tone grew ever more fierce and piercing.

Throughout the programme, Gilchrist displayed an attractive, relaxed middle register, some interesting colours at the bottom and a dreamy head voice; but in the Schubert songs when the dynamic rose in the upper range the voice seemed somewhat tense. Tilbrook was alert to the word- and mood-painting in Schubert’s accompaniments but sometimes the pictorial gestures were a little too deliberate, as in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) where the brook bubbled rather than murmured; and her use of rubato was at times overly conspicuous.

Unfailingly pleasing, this recital was meticulous in preparation and execution; perhaps too much so, in that Gilchrist never seemed to ‘inhabit’ the songs, rather to deliver them albeit with intelligence and skill; it all sounded rather too ‘nice’. But, that is scarcely a criticism — and perhaps a personal taste. For, while Gilchrist may not quite have the range of tones and shades to plummet the Romantic essence of these songs, he and Tilbrook demonstrated appreciable insight and care for the music.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 17th July 2014.

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang D957; Ludwig van Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

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):