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

Works by Beethoven and Gerald Barry

As a whole, this concert proved a curious affair. It probably made more sense in the context of Thomas Adès’s series of Beethoven and Barry concerts with the Britten Sinfonia. The idea of a night off from the symphonic Beethoven to turn to chamber works was, in principle, a good one, but the sole Gerald Barry piece here seemed oddly out of place – and not in a productive, provocative way. Even the Beethoven pieces did not really seem to fit together especially well. A lovely performance of the op.16 Quintet nevertheless made the evening worthwhile.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - Ensemble Correspondances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Charpentier Histoires sacrées, staged - London Baroque Festival

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

Aïda in Seattle: don’t mention the war!

When Francesca Zambello presented Aïda at her own Glimmerglass Opera in 2012, her staging was, as they say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Fighter planes strafed the Egyptian headquarters as the curtain rose, water-boarding was the favored form of interrogation, Radames was executed by lethal injection.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from Riders to the Sea [Photo by Clive Barda]
14 Sep 2015

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Scene from Riders to the Sea

Photos by Clive Barda

 

The other is a setting of an episode from the epic Indian poem, the Mahābhārata, in which a wife defies Death and restores her husband to life. At first glance, the two works which formed British Youth Opera’s imaginative double bill of early-twentieth century one-act English operas appear to be geographically and thematically disparate. However, as director Rodula Gaitanou’s thoughtful productions elucidated, they are bound together by their explorations of death and grief within specific cultural contexts.

Moreover, both operas possess little dramatic development and rely considerably on setting, lighting, design, movement and stage-craft to communicate their ‘message’ with power and clarity to the audience. Set designer Simon Bejer and, especially, lighting designer David Howe made significant and impressive contributions to each of these productions.

Riders-Press-1-(Barda).pngA scene from Riders to the Sea

Riders to the Sea — written in 1927 and first performed 10 years later —is a sort of Irish predecessor to Peter Grimes: while Britten’s ambiguous fisherman does not have a parallel in Synge’s depiction of a west coast town which is simultaneously beholden to the fitful generosity of the Atlantic and helplessly exposed to the ocean’s natural violence, Britten’s desire (expressed in his written Introduction to Peter Grimes) to, ‘express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea’ is embodied in the desperation, desolation and melancholy — and ultimate resignation — of Synge’s beleaguered characters.

It is no surprise that the composer of the Pastoral Symphony and Sinfonia antartica was drawn to the tragic tale of man’s battle for survival in the face of a hostile Nature; nor that, as a Christian humanist, Vaughan Williams was struck by the resignation and faith of those who believe that there can be, and should be, no resistance against a God who is ultimately benevolent.

Riders to the Sea was based on stories that Synge had collected when living in the Aran Islands, to whence he had ‘retreated’ in order to nurture his commitment to an Irish regeneration based upon creativity and culture, rather than politics and violent protest. Maurya, a fisherman's widow, is the central consciousness of the play, and of Vaughan Williams’ opera. It is her tragedy: the sea has taken her father-in law, her husband and four sons from her; now a fifth, Michael, is missing and her youngest son, Bartleby, attracted by the appeal of the Connemara fair, wishes to travel to Galway by boat. Maurya pleads with him, with harsh words, to remain; when he refuses, Mauyra in convinced by her daughter Cathleen that she should ensure Bartleby parts on good terms with his family, but before Maurya can now give her blessing she is afflicted by a terrible dream in which Bartleby rides away shadowed by Michael on a grey pony, and she is convinced that this is a portent of tragedy. Sure enough, news soon comes of Michael’s drowning and of Bartleby’s fatal fall. Now, she has nothing more to lose; she is safe from the sea’s hunger and anger, and adopts a stoic resignation to her heart-breaking misfortunes.

Savitri-Press-1-(Barda).pngA scene from Sāvitri

Simon Bejer’s set communicated much through economical means, giving us both a naturalistic domestic world — a sparse home, equipped with spinning wheel, wooden table and, hanging from ropes which intimated the coastal locale, a stove, bucket, shirt, muslin bag — and a dream-like vision of the sea’s dark depths, with Maurya’s lost men-folk seated, facing outwards, around a circular bench, bound by the nets that they are mending. David Howe illuminated the dual world from above, shining spots — like search-lights — down into the blue-green deep, creating eerie dapples and shadows, and suggesting the exposure of the community to higher ‘powers’.

Claire Barnett-Jones was terrific as Maurya. With her first entry, the contrast between her focused yet soulful contralto and the soprano voices of her daughters, Cathleen and Nora, was telling. Vaughan Williams sets Synge’s words in declamatory fashion, following the intonation and inflections of the playwright’s Hiberno-English meticulously (Synge employed the English dialect of Ireland, to reinforce its literary potential) but this can result in limited melodic character and monotony, and make it difficult (particularly so in the absence of sur-titles to discern the details of the text).

However, Barnett-Jones’ declamation was grave and transfixing, taking us compellingly through the inexorable journey, and submission, to death; she sustained the vocal and dramatic intensity through her long monologues, and her words upon the death of Bartleby —‘May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley's soul … and on the soul of everyone left living in the world’ — were shocking in their candid acceptance of fate and passive forbearing. Barnett-Jones makes her Wigmore Hall debut next year, and is clearly a young singer to watch. As her daughters, Josephine Goddard (Cathleen) and Harriet Eyley (Nora) completed the household of feminine suffering; Eyley in particular demonstrated an appealing brightness and vigour. These soloists were complemented by a strong female chorus whose wordless prayer of mourning was moving. Huw Montague Rendall was the sole male soloist and though his baritone was a little ‘raw’ this was perhaps not dramatically inappropriate and his Bartleby was a haunting presence.

Savitri-Press-2-(Barda).pngA scene from Sāvitri

The trouble with Riders to the Sea, though is that Vaughan Williams’ respectful — overly reverential? — approach to Synge’s text means that it is not the music that defines the ‘meaning’ of the opera. Synge’s text calls the tune, and the music further applies the brakes: the melodic lines can seem as lacking in life as Maurya’s deceased menfolk. Musically, only Maurya is ‘three-dimensional’, and powerful stagecraft is need if the drama, rather than the emotions felt by Maurya, is to be credibly recreated. (One can, however, imagine Riders working well on the radio.) Alongside Howe’s captivating lighting there was some absorbing stagecraft: the ‘resurrection’ of Michael from the kitchen table over which his mother and sisters mourn, and his slow walk to take his place among the circle of drowned kinsmen, were arresting and affecting. But, rather than create drama from within, Gaitanou often imposed it from without, through an overly intrusive ‘Sea Machine’ (which the composer did include in the orchestral forces), for example, and through invasive sobbing at the close. Silence would surely have been more ‘truthful’.

Conductor Geoffrey Paterson worked hard at the start to communicate the violent force of the composer’s clashing dissonances, the polyphonic voices of the instrumentalists of the Southbank Sinfonia speaking penetratingly. But, Paterson was less successful in the latter stages of the score, where it is the ‘vertical’ shifts and surges of harmony (recalling the Tallis Fantasia)which should communicate the emotional unrest and agony of the bereaved, as well as the merciless welling of the sea.

Savitri-Press-3-(Knight).pngA scene from Sāvitri

Written between 1908 and 1909, and first performed in 1916, Holst’s Sāvitri lasts just 30 minutes and is written for three singers supported by a small ensemble of two flutes, cor anglais, double string quartet, and double-bass. The original Mahābhārata tale upon which the opera is based, effectively reverses Synge’s portrayal of feminine resignation: the Indian myth tells of the beautiful princess Sāvitri’s refusal to accept that Death should be permitted to take her husband, Satyavān — a woodcutter and son of a dispossessed king, whom she has married despite being informed by the sage Narada that Satyavān, who is unaware of his fate, has just one year to live. When the fateful day arrives, Satyavān falls dead while out cutting wood: Sāvitri challenges Death (Yama), and the latter, recognising her extraordinary lack of fear of him, grants her five boons, and she tricks Death thereby enabling her husband to return to life.

Holst set only the central episode, the confrontation with Death. And, at heart his opera is not really about Death, but rather concerned with Life. Replying to one of Death’s questions, Sāvitri explains that ‘life is communion, each one that liveth, liveth for all’, continuing ‘life is eternal’ and ‘urges us on till time and space are forgot and joy and sorrow are one’ — sentiments which remind us of Holst’s interest in ideologies of William Morris and of Walt Whitman.

Holst also excised all references to Hinduism, making the story more universal. Gaitanou and Bejer, however, to some extent restore the specific cultural and religious context, with warm lighting painting the stage in swathes of yellow, ochre, orange and maroon — penetrated by dark silhouettes and shadows — and a carpet of flickering candles placed amid festive flowers, upon which rests Death’s throne, evoking Diwali, the Festival of Lights.

Holst’s melodic writing is more distinctive and expressive than Vaughan Williams’ undemonstrative declamation but Sāvitri suffers from a similar absence of sustained dramatic action and momentum. Mezzo soprano Sofia Larsson sang accurately and cleanly, but lacked the weight and variety of hue to carry the drama forward. Her confrontations with Matt Buswell’s Death were engaging however, and she captured Sāvitri’s fortitude in the face of exposure to supra-human forces. Buswell’s control of line and intonation was a little wayward at times (Death’s music is more harmonically unstable than the essentially modal clarity of the lovers’ melodies), but he communicated with directness. Adam Temple-Smith’s appealing tenor emphasised Satyavān’s sincerity and vulnerability, and he coped admirably with the high lying passages, although his diction was not always clear. Geoffrey Paterson again drew fine playing from the players of the Southbank Sinfonia; solos by the viola and cello were especially touching.

Hats off to British Youth Opera for these adventurous and brave productions; they illuminated surprising relationships between the two seldom performed works and showcased some fine young talent.

Claire Seymour


Casts:

Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea

Nora — Harriet Eyley, Cathleen — Josephine Goddard, Maurya — Claire Barnett-Jones, Bartley Huw Montague — Rendall, A Woman — Beth Moxon, Chorus (Hannah Bennett, Susanna Buckle, Sian Griffiths, Emily Kyte, Polly Leech, Lauren Morris, Beth Moxon, Rebecca Silverman, Rebekah Smith, Victoria Songwei Li, Rachel Wolseley, Catherine Wood; with Glen Cunningham, Christopher Dollins, Richard Moore, Kenneth Reid, Martins Smaukstelis, Harry Thatcher, Joel Williams)

Holst: Sāvitri

Death — Matt Buswell, Sāvitri — Sofia Larsson, Satyavān — Adam Temple-Smith, Chorus (Hannah Bennett, Susanna Buckle, Heulen Cynfal, Sian Griffiths, Emily Kyte, Polly Leech, Lauren Morris, Beth Moxon, Rebekah Smith, Victoria Songwei Li, Rachel Wolseley, Catherine Wood; with Glen Cunningham, Christopher Dollins, Milo Harries, Richard Moore, Kenneth Reid, Martins Smaukstelis, Harry Thatcher)

Production Team:

Director — Rodula Gaitanow, Conductor — Geoffrey Paterson, Set Designer — Simon Bejer, Lighting Designer — David Howe, Costume Designer — Laura Jane Stanfield, Movement Director — Mandy Demetriou, Vocal Coach — Mary Hegarty. British Youth Opera, Peacock Theatre, London, Wednesday, 10th September 2015.

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):