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

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

A disappointing Prom from Nathalie Stutzmann and BBCNOW

Nathalie Stutzmann really is an impressive conductor. The sheer elegance she brings to her formidable technique, the effortless drive towards making much of the music she conducts sound so passionate and the ability to shock us into hearing something quite new in music we think we know is really rather refreshing. Why then did this Prom sometimes feel weary, even disappointing at times?

Merola’s Striking If I Were You

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer have become an indispensable presence in the contemporary opera world, and their latest premiere, If I Were You, found the duo at the very top of their game.

The Thirteenth Child: When She Was Good…

Santa Fe Opera continues its remarkable record for producing World (and American) Premieres with The Thirteenth Child, music by Poul Ruders, libretto by Becky and David Starobin.

The Sopranos at Tanglewood

Among classical music lovers, Wagner inspires equal measures of devotion and disdain. Some travel far and sit for hours to hear his operas live. Others eschew them completely.

Agrippina at the Bavarian State Opera

And still they come. The opera world’s obsession with Handel’s operas shows no sign of abating. The Bavarian State Opera has, since Peter Jonas’s Intendancy, stood at the forefront of Handel staging; this new production of Agrippina was dedicated to him. As ever, I was pleased to see one of these operas for the first time in the theatre – how could I not be pleased to see almost anything in Munich’s wonderful Prinzregententheater – but again, as ever, I was left unable ever quite to put to one side the dramaturgical difficulties/problems/flaws/inadequacies. (Call them what you will.)

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
12 Sep 2015

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]

 

There was much anticipation in packed Royal Albert Hall for the penultimateBBC Promenade Concert on Friday 11 September 2015, whenSir Simon Rattle would conduct Sir Edward Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, soloistsToby Spence,Magdalena Kozena andRoderick Williams, and the BBC Proms Youth Choir. The Dream of Gerontius was a work which featured regularly on concert programmes in Birmingham during Rattle's period with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but probably has not featured much in those of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

What we can easily forget, though, is that in the period up to the First World War, Elgar was highly regarded by his continental colleagues. The Dream of Gerontius was enthusiastically received in Germany when first performed there in 1901 and 1902, and Richard Strauss regarded Elgar as a fellow progressive composer.

Simon Rattle opened the prelude on just a thread, with the a lovely sense of the undulating line. Rather than giving us a richly cushioned string sound, we heard a magically transparent texture with extraordinary clarity. The sense of phrasing was very distinctive (something the mezzo Magdalena Kozena shared), and it is a long time since I have heard portamentos used in so frequently and so effectively in the work. But that said, Simon Rattle had a tendency to hold the music up rather then letting it flow on. This was a performance where we were encouraged to stop and admire the daisies rather than stride into the wider landscape. But though much was quiet, intensely contemplative there was drama too this was not a self-regarding account of the work, and the moments of drama in Elgar's score were stunningly realised, and all the more telling for being contrasted with such intense quiet.

The work was cast with three lyric soloists, Toby Spence, Magdalena Kozena and Roderick Williams, which chimed in with Simon Rattle's view of the work. That said, it was noticeable the Rattle did not give the sort of space and sympathy to the singers as a conductor like Bernard Haitink (whom I heard conducting it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Richard Lewis and Alfreda Hodgson in the early 1980's).

Toby Spence sang with a lovely even focussed tone, and no hint of distortion or strain but it was noticeable that especially during part one he had to work hard constantly, you were aware of the mechanics behind his voice to enable him to ride the cushion of the orchestra. But the result was, ultimately very satisfying. A direct, plain-speaking Gerontius but one sung with immense musicality. And he sang with the sort of fine, straight tone which could project to the very end of the Albert Hall. Because of this, the famous moments such as Sanctus fortis stood out less as arias, and were woven into the texture but were no less moving. Spence's approach was not as operatic as some tenors whose experience is on the opera stage, but he brought a good sense of drama even when not singing. Overall he created a fine and absorbing sense of Gerontius the character, and of course some of his floated notes, supported by the transparency of the orchestra, were simply magical.

Magdalena Kozena, looking rather too consciously the angel in a white dress, brought her familiar qualities of intense involvement, wonderfully plangent, direct tone and a sense of profoundly musical phrasing. It has to be admitted that though her English was clear, it was also rather occluded but she was clearly working the words strongly, in a way which does not always happen when foreign singers sing English oratorio. Without being her interventionist, this was a performance where the singer shaped every single phrase in distinctive way. For much of the earlier passages in Part Two, her delivery ended to the over emphatic as she struggled somewhat to project her lower register in a part which was designed for a contralto or a mezzo-soprano with a strong lower register. For the moments when she was able to float her tone in the upper part of the voice, this meant we were treated to some gorgeous, intelligent singing, so that the concluding Angel's Farewell was simply magical.

Roderick Williams sang the Priest and the Angel of the Agony with forthright directness. He does not have the biggest, blackest voice in these roles, but compensated with the intelligence of his approach and a fine sense of musicality.

But the stars of the performance, almost eclipsing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, were the young singers of the BBC Proms Youth Choir. Drawn from the CBSO Youth Chorus, Halle Youth Choir, Quay Voices, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Ulster Youth Choir and University of Birmingham Voices, with the result numbering some 330 singers. They sang with clear, focussed and unforced tone which brought an extraordinary clarity to the individual lines, the whole welded into a single expressive whole. There is something wonderfully particular about the sound of a huge choir of young voices, with numbers ample enough so that there is no forcing.

I heard them last year in the Proms performance of Britten's War Requiem, and was impressed and the group was similarly on form this year. But what took the breath away was how the young singers did everything that Simon Rattle asked, so that much of the choral part was sung on a magical thread with each singer producing what must have been just a breath of sound. This was matched by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra so that we had some of the most quietly intense and transparent moments in this work that I have ever heard. Listening again in BBC iPlayer these passages have a greater sense of presence thanks to the placing of the microphones, but in the Royal Albert Hall there was a sense of evanescence which matched Simon Rattle's view of the work. It wasn't all hushed of course, and the great moments like the end of Part One and Praise to the Holiest were notable for the amazing combination of musicality, clarity and power which the young singers brought to the piece.

I have to confess that when I first started listening to this performance, I was not certain that I was going to like it. Though there were impressive details, it did not coalesce into the sort of absorbing Gerontius performance which I wanted. But by the end, Simon Rattle and his forces had drawn me in. I wasn't just admiring the details, but carried along with a very particular view of the drama and the sense that all performers were aligned in a very distinctive and highly involving vision. This is not a performance I would want to live with every day, but it was still magical.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Toby Spence, Magdalena Kozena, Roderick Williams, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Sir Simon Rattle. BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall; 11 September 2015.

Click here for access to the broadcast of this performance.

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):