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

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

24 Jun 2016

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, Wigmore Hall London

A review by Claire Seymour

 

The philosophical profundity and the floridity of the linguistic conceits may offer partial explanation; or perhaps it is simply that there was a dearth of compositional talent. Whatever the cause, Gilchrist is seeking to redress the imbalance by commissioning three new settings of English Romantic poetry - from Sally Beamish, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove - each of which is to be paired with a song-cycle by Schumann: the two Liederkreis cycles Opp. 39 and 24 and Dichterliebe.

Sally Beamish’s West Wind, premiered by Gilchrist during this Wigmore Hall recital with accompanist Anna Tilbrook, is a companion piece to Schumann’s Op.39 Liederkreis cycle. It sets texts by Joseph Eichendorff which Gilchrist describes as quite Gothic: ‘The poetry is full of misty, veiled night-time scenes where one is not quite sure what is going on - there are knights and maidens and strange happenings down in the valley.’

Certainly the deep rumbles of the piano bass in the opening bars of Beamish’s work, which ripple upwards like a fantasia of wind, and whisper and blast through the composition, are a dark portent of the tempest which is both ‘destroyer and preserver’. As Tilbrook conjured this ‘Wild Spirit’, Gilchrist was heard off-stage and his slow entry - as if in sympathy with the dead leaves, ‘pestilence stricken multitudes’ - increased the air of foreboding. The tenor’s line retreated, ‘cold and low’ like the ‘wingèd seeds’ which lie like ‘corpse[s] within [the] grave’, while Tilbrook’s eerie rustles intimated the Spring breeze to follow. The vocal line, combining declamation and lyricism, and featuring frequent fourth intervals, recalled Britten in its dramatic tautness and the precision of its response to Shelley’s text.

Gilchrist’s subsequent slow, low lament to the ‘dirge of the dying year’ was dragged down further by the piano’s repetitive bass pedal but the image of the ‘vast sepulchre’ from which would burst forth ‘vapours, from whose solid atmosphere/ Black rain, and fire, and hail’ initiated fresh impetus. Here, and throughout, Beamish skilfully conveyed Romantic dualities - destruction and creation, faith and doubt - and in the indecisive final phrase, ‘O hear!’, as in the opening part of the work, faded fragilely into inconclusiveness.

Tilbrook’s delicate pianissimo wonderfully evoked the dreamy exoticism of the third section of Shelley’s poem. The accompaniment’s sparse textures and ‘barely-there’ gestures, anchored by a steady quaver pulsing, were a perfect support for the tenor’s incantatory lyricism. His diction superbly crisp, Gilchrist made much of the imagery, ‘sea-blooms and oozy woods’, which Beamish treats with madrigalian mimicry at times: ‘Thy voice’ was a cry of fear, the piano’s rushing cluster the ‘tremble’ of the natural world. At this central point ‘Oh hear’ disappeared, merging with Romantic nothingness as embodied by the piano’s enigmatic commentary.

In the following section, the poet-speaker’s identification with the wind was suggested by imitation between the piano and voice, and Gilchrist again revealed Beamish’s attentiveness to the poetic text, emphasising details such as the long-held darkness of ‘dead leaf’, and the flourish of ‘mightiest’, while the image of a ‘wave to pant beneath thy power’ released a tumult of energy that matched the momentum of Shelley’s enjambment. The growing positivity and peace felt by the speaker was conveyed by a focused but relaxed mezzo forte as Gilchrist imagined himself as ‘The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven’.

The final section injected renewed determination and urgency: ‘Make me thy lyre’ commanded the tenor, accompanied by astringent harmonies and parallel chords. The address to the ‘Spirit fierce, my spirit’ brought a response in the form of a varied reprise of the piano’s opening squall. True to Shelley’s appeal, ‘Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy’ (here a beautiful, unaccompanied declamation), the voice’s apostrophe, ‘O Wind’, summoned the sounds of the airy lyre, then plummeted for the poet-speaker’s reverential hope, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ In the closing bars, Gilchrist quietly left the platform.

Beamish’s text-setting recalls Britten and Purcell in its alertness to the rhythmic potential of the words and the clarity of the sometimes angular melodic line. Gilchrist proved himself the perfect proponent of the work, communicating with a naturalness and directness which complemented the easy, conversational flow of Shelley’s iambic pentameter. I hope that we have the chance to her West Wind again soon, but we will have to wait for subsequent Wigmore Hall seasons to hear how Philips brings Schumann’s Heine settings (Liederkreis Op.24) into company with the poetry of John Clare, and whether Gilchrist persuades Dove that either The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Byron’s Manfred is the perfect partner for Dichterliebe.

West Wind was preceded by five songs by Mendelssohn, a composer often criticised for failing to probe the Romantic subjectivity of his chosen poetic texts in the manner of Schumann or Schubert. Gilchrist began with ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On wings of song), a prime candidate perhaps for accusations of saccharine superficiality. Gilchrist’s tenor was warm and sweet, Tilbrook pedalled judiciously, and the duo used the minor-key inflections expressively, but they could not quite overcome the ‘Victorian parlour’ ambience. In a letter of 1842 to a former student, Marc André Souchay, Mendelssohn rebutted criticism that his Lieder Ohne Worte were songs ‘missing’ the poetry, declaring that ‘So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task … They [too] seem so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music … because the same word never means the same thing to different people’. Gilchrist, though, made much of the text, and the songs had directness and animation. ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ (There be none of Beauty’s daughters) was particularly compelling with the tenor making a sustained effort to convey the poetic spirit of Byron’s verse in which the poet-speaker reflects on the magic of his beloved’s beauty.

Tilbrook was an evocative accompanist, the piano’s syncopated throbbing embodying the distant tolling bells in ‘Nachtlied’ (Night song), and the fairy horses and elves of ‘Neue Liebe’ (New love) conjured by the accompaniment’s sprightly staccatos and measured-trill figures. In the latter, Gilchrist accurately negotiated the demanding contours of the swooping, leaping vocal line and the nuanced pacing of the final stanza in which the poet-speaker cautiously wonders if the elfin queen’s smile heralds a new love, or death, was skilfully controlled.

The Liszt songs which followed the interval were similarly attentive to detail and engagingly performed, but I found Gilchrist’s tenor a little too light and pure - even, dare one suggest, today of all days, rather ‘English’ - to capture the expressive agitation of some of these songs. That said, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ (In the Rhine, the beautiful river) was gentle and dreamy and in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) the tenor’s mezza voce floated blissfully. Gilchrist had the power, even low in the voice, to match the heroic gestures of the accompaniment to ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ (There was a King in Thule). Best of the pick was ‘Loreley’ which was notable for the duo’s masterly control of the song’s musical and dramatic form, and its rhetorical impact.

Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 closed the recital. Gilchrist’s performance of the cycle was characterised by even vocal production, sustained intensity and expressive commitment that did not veer into melodrama. These qualities were compellingly present in ‘Waldesgespräch’ in which Gilchrist enacted the meeting between a knight - confident and focused of tone - and a mysterious beautiful woman - a restrained half-voice - as Tilbrook’s ‘hunting horns’ and rustling leaves evoked the nocturnal forest scene. The piano postlude created an unnerving sense of mystery, as the human figure was engulfed by the forest’s embrace, never more to be seen. Gilchrist can make his tenor seem quite ethereal at times and in ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) there was a lovely spaciousness as the beloved appeared to the poet-speaker, ‘as though Heaven had softly kissed the Earth’. ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness), too, was sensitively shaped. In contrast, ‘Frühlingsnacht’ (Spring night) ended the recital in a spirit of joyful refulgence.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available via the BBC website ( Broadcast ) until 21 July.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano.

Mendelssohn: ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ Op.34 No.2, ‘Schlafloser Augen Leuchte’ WoO.4 No.2, ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ WoO.4 No.1, ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6, ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Sally Beamish: West Wind (world première); Liszt: ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ S272/2, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Die Loreley’ S273/2, ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ S278/2; Schumann: Liederkreis Op.39.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 22nd June 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):