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

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

'So sweet is the pain': Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

In this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, soprano Roberta Invernizzi presented Italian songs from the first half of seventeenth-century, exploring love and loyalty, loss and lies, and demonstrating consummate declamatory mastery.

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

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):