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

Pow! Zap! Zowie! Wowie! -or- Arthur, King of Long Beach

If you might have thought a late 17thcentury semi-opera about a somewhat precious fairy tale monarch might not be your cup of twee, Long Beach Opera cogently challenges you to think again.

Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros perform Schubert at Wigmore Hall

How do you like your Schubert? Let me count the ways …

Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

On paper this seemed a fascinating recital, but as I was traveling to the Wigmore Hall it occurred to me this might be a clash of two great artists. Both Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say can be mercurial performers and both can bring such unique creativity to what they do one thought they might simply diverge. In the event, what happened was quite remarkable.

'Songs of Longing and Exile': Stile Antico at LSO St Luke's

Baroque at the Edge describes itself as the ‘no rules’ Baroque festival. It invites ‘leading musicians from all backgrounds to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them’.

Richard Jones' La bohème returns to Covent Garden

Richard Jones' production of Puccini's La bohème is back at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after its debut in 2017/18. The opening night, 10th January 2020, featured the first of two casts though soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was due to sing Mimì, had to drop out owing to illness, and was replaced at short notice by Simona Mihai who had sung the role in the original run and is due to sing Musetta later in this run.

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Mozart’s Don Giovanni returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Robert Falls updating of the opera to the 1930s. The universality of Mozart’s score proves its adaptability to manifold settings, and this production featured several outstanding, individual performances.

Britten and Dowland: lutes, losses and laments at Wigmore Hall

'Of chord and cassiawood is the lute compounded;/ Within it lie ancient melodies'.

Tara Erraught sings Loewe, Mahler and Hamilton Harty at Wigmore Hall

During those ‘in-between’ days following Christmas and before New Year, the capital’s cultural institutions continue to offer fare both festive and more formal.

Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet

Robust carol-singing, reindeer-related muzak tinkling through department stores, and light-hearted festive-fare offered by the nation’s choral societies may dominate the musical agenda during the month of December, but at Kings Place on Friday evening Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet eschewed babes-in-mangers and ding-donging carillons for an altogether more sedate and spiritual ninety minutes of reflection and ‘musical prayer’.

The New Season at the New National Theatre, Tokyo

Professional opera in Japan is roughly a century old. When the Italian director and choreographer Giovanni Vittorio Rosi (1867-1940) mounted a production of Cavalleria Rusticana in Italian in Tokyo in 1917, with Japanese singers, he brought a period of timid experimentation and occasional student performances to an end.

Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall

For those of us who live in a metropolitan bubble, where performances of Handel's Messiah by small professional ensembles are common, it is easy to forget that for many people, Handel's masterpiece remains a large-scale choral work. My own experiences of Messiah include singing the work in a choir of 150 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the venue's tradition of performing the work annually dates back to the 19th century.

What to Make of Tosca at La Scala

La Scala’s season opened last week with Tosca. This was perhaps the preeminent event in Italian cultural and social life: paparazzi swarmed politicians, industrialists, celebrities and personalities, while almost three million Italians watched a live broadcast on RAI 1. Milan was still buzzing nine days later, when I attended the third performance of the run.

La traviata at Covent Garden: Bassenz’s triumphant Violetta in Eyre’s timeless production

There is a very good reason why Covent Garden has stuck with Richard Eyre’s 25-year old production of La traviata. Like Zeffirelli’s Tosca, it comes across as timeless whilst being precisely of its time; a quarter of a century has hardly faded its allure, nor dented its narrative clarity. All it really needs is a Violetta to sweep us off our feet, and that we got with Hrachuhi Bassenz.

'Aspects of Love': Jakub Józef Orliński at Wigmore Hall

Boretti, Predieri, Conti, Matteis, Orlandini, Mattheson: masters of the Baroque? Yes, if this recital by Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński is anything by which to judge.

Otello at Covent Garden: superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Franz Schubert
18 Feb 2016

Schubert: The Complete Songs

The Wigmore Hall’s chronological journey through the complete lieder of Franz Schubert continued with this recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Graham Johnson. The duo gave a thought-provoking performance which was notable for the searching dialectic between simplicity and complexity which it illuminated.

Schubert: The Complete Songs

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Franz Schubert

 

The songs were grouped by poet, and we began with settings of six poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — a poet who preferred composers to take a direct approach to setting his poems: that is, to retain the structure of his texts and avoid overly fancy and heavy piano accompaniments.

Schubert often treats his poets’ work with much greater freedom, digression and complexity than Goethe desired, but the single-strophe songs offered here revealed the composer’s ability to turn these brief texts into spell-binding musical miniatures. Johnson’s chords rippled gently at the start of ‘Meeres Stille’ (Calm sea), delicately supporting the carefully unfolding tenor melody. Bostridge imbued the simple line with great profundity: the openness of the vowels, ‘Glatte Fläche’ (glassy surface), permitted a momentary flash of brightness, before the dark descent into ‘deadly silence’. The extreme slowness of ‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’ (Wanderer’s night-song) established an expressive intensity which strengthened into rhetoric with the troubled question, ‘Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?’ (What use is all this joy and pain?). If Bostridge did not quite control the first high, quiet floating reply, ‘Süßer Friede!’ (Sweet peace!), the enriched repetition was warmly persuasive, but the consolations of this song were cruelly swept aside by ‘Wonne der Wehmut’ (Delight in sadness), where Bostridge coloured his voice with a slightly harder ‘edge’ to convey the poet-speaker’s self-consoling melancholy. Goethe’s six-line poem equates ‘eternal’ (ewigen) love with ‘unhappy’ (unglücklicher) love — a simple alteration in the two final lines (which repeat the opening lines) confirms the Romantic conceit — and Bostridge, ever alert to textual nuance, made much of the agonised dissonance, aided by Johnson’s biting accent, to convey the speaker’s pain; a pain, which was subsumed and embraced in the consonant repetitions of Schubert’s closing phrase, ‘Trocknet nicht’ (Grow not dry).

The tempo of ‘An den Mond’ was slower than my recollections of other performances by Bostridge of this song; I thought that it made the opening more tense with anticipation, and it also made for greater contrast with the subsequent forward momentum, ‘Fließe, Fließem lieber Fluß!’ (Flow, flow on, beloved river!), which was aided by Johnson’s even, undulating quavers. ‘Jägers Abendlied’ (Huntsman’s evening song) and ‘An Schwager Kronos’ (To Coachman Chronos) were marvellously intense counterparts to the single-strophe songs, though — uncharacteristically — the text of the former was distinctly approximate in places. There was imprecision, too, in the booming piano octaves which open the latter, and while the wide, glorious vistas opened magically as the horseman crested the hill, I’d have liked more staccato definition in the pounding accompaniment triplets.

Now largely forgotten as a poet, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer had a considerable influence on Schubert’s musical and personal development, and the composer set 47 songs and two operas to Mayrhofer’s texts. The poet was described by Johannes Brahms as the ‘ernsthafteste’ (most serious) of Schubert’s friends, and it was no surprise that the ten settings which followed took us into more complex and, at times, obscure psychological and mythological realms, in which pain and passion combined in an ambiguous communion.

The strange harmonic lurches of and shifts of tempo of ‘Atys’ are deliberately destabilising, and Bostridge’s telling of the tale of this self-castrating fertility deity’s tragic end was disturbing. (In Mayrhofer’s version of the myth, as the cymbals announce the arrival of his beloved goddess, the unrequited Atys throws himself from a cliff in the forest in a fit of mad frenzy. The tenor, too, staggered (alarmingly at times) as if pierced by the speaker’s pain. Here was the instinctive appreciation of the text’s nuances that we are so used to from Bostridge; the smallest details — a slight injection of intensity at the end of the first stanza was all that was needed to convey the fervour of Atys’ yearning for his homeland — made their mark. And, Johnson was an equally vivid story-teller: the softness of the major-key conclusion to this first stanza was quickly quelled by the darkness of the minor tonality, and the dryness of the punched chords at the start of Atys’ own account of his rage testified to the ferocity of his pent-up fury. The long piano postlude was a superb musical narrative. In ‘Der zürnenden Diana’ (To Diana in her wrath), however, the accompaniment at times overwhelmed the voice and again I found the thick-textured repeating chords occasionally uneven. But the duplicitous goddess’s image, which gladdens Actaeon’s heart even as he dies, was conjured by a beautiful lucidity of texture and smooth but penetrating vocal phrasing, making the hit of the arrow — which seemed almost literally to fell Bostridge — even more acute.

Bostridge’s ability to employ his extensive technical capacities to diverse expressive effect was ever evident. There was not a single song that did not have something to surprise us, or command our attention. The strength of line in ‘An die Freunde’ (To my friends) was noteworthy, emphasising the power of human love — ‘Das freut euch, Guten, freuet euch;/ Die alles is dem Toten gleich’ (rejoice, good friends, rejoice; all this is nothing to the dead) — particularly after the Gothic eeriness of the piano’s chromatic tread at the start. The high-lying melody of ‘Abendstern’ (Evening star) was sweetly and surely phrased, the major-minor alternations bittersweet, as the poet-speaker’s apostrophe to the lovely celestial light paradoxically conveyed his own terrestrial alienation. ‘Einsamkeit’ (Solitude) was, quite simply, breath-taking in its dramatic and musical range, and its philosophical insight.

While some of the Mayrhofer settings are well-known, it was good to hear some unfamiliar songs too: ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (Ulfru fishing) presented another indistinct protagonist who longs for refuge from man’s insecurities, dilemmas and disappointments — expressed by the furious unrelenting quavers of the accompaniment and the determined onward march of the vocal line — and whose surprising identification with the fish whom he hunts leads him to long to share the blithe tranquillity of the fishes’ sanctuary. The entry of the voice in ‘Freiwilliges Versinken’ (Voluntary oblivion) — on a weak beat and into cloudy harmonic territory, amid piano inner-voice trills — was wrong-footing. Here, the power of Bostridge’s lower register together with the fragmentation of the vocal line created a hypnotic sense of disintegration, while the intimations of release suggested by the concluding hints of major tonality, and the tenor’s wonderfully controlled upwards appoggiatura, spilled into, and were extended by, Johnson’s expressive piano postlude. ‘Auflösug’ (Dissolution) was an apocalyptic whirlwind — again, there was a danger that the voice might be overshadowed by the piano’s tumult — in which the poet-speaker longs for the world to dissolve in self-consuming exhilaration. But, there were surprises here, too, in the astonishing final line in which the low tenor phrase was subsumed within the piano’s shimmering ‘ätherischen Chöre’ (ethereal choirs).

The final sequence of six songs was devoted to settings of Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze. ‘Die liebliche Stern’ (The lovely star) was sung with dulcet beauty; in contrast, in ‘Tiefes Leid’ (Deep sorrow) Bostridge turned a burning, accusative gaze upon the audience, pulling the slow pulse this way and that to embody the poet-speaker’s own mental anguish — ‘Ich bin von aller Ruh gechieden,/ Ich treib’ umher auf wilder Flut;’ (I have lost all peace of mind and drift on wild waters), and retreating into introspection in the whispered lines, ‘Nicht weck’ ich sie mit meinen Schritten/ In ihrer dunlen Einsamkeit.’ (I shall not wake them with my footsteps in their dark solitude.) In ‘Lebensmut’ (Courage for living), despite the piano’s heroic summons, Bostridge seemed overcome by weariness as the poet-speaker faced the sapping struggles of life; leaning onto and into the piano (in which he had placed a score) it seemed that the tenor might succumb to the disillusionment and collapse which baits the speaker. Both ‘Im Walde’ (In the forest) and ‘Auf der Brücke’ (On the bridge) were characterised by strong unity of interpretation. Finally, after the dreamy delusions of ‘In Frühling’ (In Spring), the final song, ‘Über Wildemann (Above Wildemann), concluded our journey. The sublime mountain landscape (Wildemann is a small town in the Harz highlands) with its roaring winds, rushing rivers and verdant meadows offered tempting consolation to the tormented poet-speaker in the central major-key verses, but at the final reckoning there was only alienation, as the final verse drove onwards with grim obsessiveness.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano.

Meeres Stille, Wandrers Nachtlied I, An den Mond, Wonne der Wehmut, Jägers Abendlied, An Schwager Kronos; Geheimnis, Wie Ulfru fischt, Atys, Einsamkeit, An die Freunde, Freiwilliges Versinken, Der zürnenden Diana, Abendstern, Auflösung, Gondelfahrer; Im Walde, Der liebliche Stern, Auf der Brücke, Tiefes Lied, Lebensmut, Im Frühling, Über Wildemann. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 16th February 2016.

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):