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 Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

07 Sep 2014

St Matthew Passion, Prom 66

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.

Bach St Matthew Passion, Prom 66

A review by Robert Hugill

 

Originally created in 2010 and directed by Peter Sellars, this was far more than a concert staging; it was a fully dramatic production which sought to wring every last ounce of emotion out of Bach's epic work.

There was a strong cast and all but one had appeared in the original production, with Christian Gerhaher as Christus, Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, and Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Topi Lehtipuu and Eric Owens as the soloists. Almost as important was the choral contribution from the Berlin Radio Choir, singing off the book like the rest of the cast.

The first surprise was how few forces Rattle was using. Each orchestra had just 15 strings in it and the choirs numbered 30 people each. The sound was lithe and light, fluid and flexible, with a nice bounce to it. But this was a very modern sound, giving the Bach a smoothness and surface polish which does not exist in period performances as the instruments die away faster. This was modern symphonic Bach, with intelligent nods to historical performance but without throwing out everything we might expect from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Needless to say, all of the many instrumental obbligatos were superbly played, often from memory as the instrumentalist stood out from the orchestra and joined the vocal soloists creating a real sense of duets and chamber music. Despite the large size of the Royal Albert Hall, this performance had many moments of intimate, chamber communication.

The choirs and orchestras were ranged round the edge of the stage, up onto the ramped seating. There were boxes for the singers to sit on (rarely used as they were often in motion), and the central stage area had an array of larger boxes (the biggest doubled as last supper table, bier and even massage table). All participants were in black, with the female soloists in gowns but with bare feet. My companion complained about the cut and fit of Padmore's trousers, and I noted that he was wearing brown shoes.

My problem with the staging was that it was never quite clear who these people are, and why they were reacting in such an extreme manner. Mark Padmore's Evangelist not only narrated the story but took on the role of Christ, enacting all of the drama, whilst Christian Gerhaher's Christus remained separated from the drama and never participated. That this was a re-enactment rather than a dramatisation was clear from the amount of meta-narrative. From the opening it was clear that the choirs were reacting to events which had already happened, but which the drama had not yet described. The solos were staged as being part of the drama, I lost count of the number of times Magdalena Kožená (singing the alto solos) had to rush on tossing her hair looking anxious, to run distractedly round the stage and sing a consoling aria to Mark Padmore. The arias were sung not as contemplations and meditations on the drama, but as part of it.

And this was the problem, everyone was reacting all the time, everyone was emotional all the time and there was a great deal of stage movement. Whilst, for some members of the audience it was clear that Sellars' dramatic narrative helped them appreciate Bach's work, for me it got in the way. There were many times during the performance when I simply closed my eyes and listened to the music.

There was indeed much to enjoy. Camilla Tilling made a poised soprano soloist, her cool demeanour belying the emotionalism in her voice. At times she sounded a little pressed, but then according to Sellars' narrative, she had every right to be. 'Blute nur' was sung with slim-line, elegant tones whilst there was a lovely dancing quality to 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' with some lovely perky wind solos. In 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' the sense of a duet with the flautist, who stood on stage next to her, was palpable and the two combined with a profoundly expressive sense of line.

Whilst I might have found Magdalena Kožená's dramatics rather distracting, she was truly wonderful as the alto soloist. Her voice has a slight, interesting edge to it which I found very appealing and which made the quieter numbers profoundly expressive. From her first aria,'Buss' und Reu' she displayed a fabulous technique, singing the passagework smoothly and evenly (even though in that first aria she was giving Mark Padmore a massage). Here, and elsewhere, the music was always very light on its feet. 'Erbarme dich' was thankfully a quiet pause, with Kožená stationary on stage (for once) and joined by the violinist for a sublime duet. However, during Kožená's intensely intent account of 'Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen', Mark Padmore was distractingly in agony (he'd just been scourged) the whole time, and Kozena seemed to be cleaning his back.

The problem for me was that, here and elsewhere, the music is not a dramatic reaction to the events just proceeding but a personal contemplation, albeit a highly emotional one. By the time we reached 'Sehet! Sehet! Jesus hat die Hand', I was growing tired of Kožená's emotionalism.as she ran around hugging everyone. But if you closed your eyes, the aria was musically sublime.

The duet for soprano and alto at the end of part one, 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' was expressive but lacked the contemplative poise which others have brought to it. Instead it was staged as high drama, with the two soloists rushing around the stage, giving an emotionalism which found its way into the music as well.

Topi Lehtipuu's tenor seemed to be having a slightly edgy day, there was a tense quality to the upper part of his voice which did not always lend itself to the music. But there was still a great deal to enjoy in his performance. He brought a nicely dramatic edge to 'O Schmerz' and 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' and sang the recitative 'Mein Jesus scheigt' direct to the audience which gave it intensity, though the aria 'Geduld, Geduld', was sung to the solo gamba player, with the tenseness in his voice giving the aria a nicely nervy quality.

Eric Owens was the new member of the cast, replacing Thomas Quasthoff who had appeared in the 2010 production. Owens gave a committed, highly emotional and expressive performance but I found that his voice had a tightness and a dryness to it which did not appeal. Mind you, he had quite a physical role; during 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen' he was physically manipulating the prone Mark Padmore. In 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder', the solo violinist almost took the lead, playing aggressively at the prone Eric Owens.

Christian Gerhaher was a subtle and moving Christus, but he was placed behind the orchestra at the top of the ramped seating, and did not take part in the action. For part two he sang from various parts of the auditorium effectively a disembodied voice. I have great admiration for Gerhaher and have heard him give some superb performances. In the context of a simple concert performance of the work, his Christus would have been intensely moving, but he didn't stand a chance in Peter Sellars' highly emotional world and effectively he was repeatedly upstaged by Padmore and the rest of the action.
'
Mark Padmore was simply a miracle as the Evangelist. Whatever you thought of Sellars' staging, it was apparent that Padmore did everything that Sellars wanted. He created an intense, highly emotional almost overwrought protagonist which was played out in the music too. Padmore still has the apparently effortless control of his high register and the ability to colour notes, so that his Evangelist was highly communicative and able to fill the Royal Albert Hall with a whisper. I have heard Padmore sing the role before, and no doubt will do so again, but this was truly a performance like no other.

The singers of the Berlin Radio Choir were called upon to fully participate in the drama. They were not innocent bystanders simply commentating, they were there. The result was a highly dramatic and highly emotional performance, one that was visually, rather wearing, but which reaped rich rewards in the highly engaged vocal performance from the singers. This was some of the most intent, vivid Bach singing I have heard in a long time. not just in terms of dramatics, but in the quiet moments to. Some of the turbae were truly shocking, whilst some of the chorales were hushed and simple. For the opening and closing choruses of part one, they were joined by the choristers (both boys and girls) from Wells Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral.

The smaller solo roles were all well taken by members of the Berlin Radio Choir, each creating a little moment of drama. Jorge Schneider was Judas, Soren von Billerbeck was Peter, Axek Scheidig was Pilate, Christine Lichtenberg and Holger Marks were the Witnesses, David Stingl and Thomas Futzner were the Chief Priests, Isabelle Vosskuhler and Christina Bischoff were the Maids and Bianca Reim was Pilate's wife. The instrumental soloists were Daniel Stabrawa and Daishin Kashimoto (violins), Emmanuel Pahud and Michael Hasel (flutes), Albrech Mayer and Andreas Wiggman (oboes and oboes d'amore), Domink Wollenweber and Christoph Hartmann (oboes di caccia), Stefan Scheigert and Markus Weidmann (bassoons), Ulrich Wolff (viola da gamba) and the continuo group was Martin Lohr (cello), Lynda Sayce (lute), Raphael Alpermann and Jorg-Andreas Botticher (organs), Matthew McDonald (double bass).

My problem with the performance was that Sellars was forcing us to think about Bach's work in a particular way. Rather than universalising it, he was making us view it through his eyes. This was typified by the way the ending was staged, forcing the audience to sit in reverent silence at the end rather than being able to burst into applause.

Robert Hugill


Christian Gerhaher: Christus, Mark Padmore: Evangelist; Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kozena, Topi Lehtipuu, Eric Owens; Berlin Radio Choir, Wells Cathedral Choristers, Winchester Cathedral Choristers. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle: conductor, Peter Sellars: director. BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2014.

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):