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Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments:
“I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
31 Oct 2016
The Tallis Scholars: Josquin's Missa Di dadi
‘Can great music be inspired by the throw of the dice?’ asks Peter Phillips, director of The Tallis Scholars, in his liner notes to the ensemble’s new recording of Josquin’s Missa Di dadi (The Dice Mass). The fifteenth-century artist certainly had an abundant supply of devotional imagery. As one scholar has put it, during this age there was neither ‘an object nor an action, however trivial, that [was] not constantly correlated with Christ or salvation’.
The practice of basing both secular and sacred polyphonic compositions on cantus firmi exemplifies this referential symbolism and Josquin’s Missa Di dadi intensifies the use of aural and visual stimuli from the secular world in the service of the sacred to an extreme degree. The liking
of French medieval society for dice games - legislation against which was stringent during the period - would seem at first glance, however, to be at odds
with the purpose of the liturgy: gain without effort was akin to usury, and we might imagine that any musical reference or association was intended in only
the darkest of humorous veins. Phillips links Josquin’s composition to the Milan of the Sforzas, a known ‘hot-house of gambling during the fifteenth
century’, and speculates that the composer possibly ‘joined in with this fashion, at court and in private’. There’s an added ‘gamble’ in that there is some
doubt as to whether the Missa Di dadi is a genuine part of Josquin’s oeuvre at all.
Whatever the conjectures, what is certain is that the tenor line of Robert Morton’s three-part rondeau ‘N’aray je jamais mieulx que j’ay’ provides the cantus firmus, and this aural dimension is enriched by the ‘dadi’ (the Italian for ‘dice’) which appear in the tenor part, signalling
proportionality of form - symmetry in the Gloria and Credo, unpredictability in the Sanctus. For example, the Gloria is preceded by a pair of dice reading
four and one, indicating to the tenor that the notes of the chanson need to be quadrupled in length to fit with the other parts. 
This recording of Josquin’s Missa Di dadi, on the Gimell label, is the sixth album (of a projected nine) in The Tallis Scholars’ project to record
all of Josquin’s masses. Phillips explains the rationale behind the endeavour: ‘I chose to record all Josquin’s masses partly because The Tallis Scholars
have been associated with his music for their entire career, and partly because his masses make the best possible project. 19 masses over nine discs is
manageable - where Palestrina’s 107 masses is not - while their scoring sets them apart in Josquin’s output. Nowhere else did he concentrate so
specifically on four-part chamber-music-like writing, yet every Mass has its own individual sound world.
‘I realised that in his masses Josquin had created a set of pieces of unique quality, designed to explore all the potential within the form, as Beethoven
later did with the symphony. I wanted to gather them all together for the first time, so that the public can appreciate the scope of Josquin’s genius.’
From the first notes of the Kyrie, The Tallis Scholars summon an acoustic richness which is invigorating and dynamic. The balance between unity of ensemble
and the characterisation of individual lines is exemplary. As pairs and groups of voices move apart and come together, with meticulous precision, even bare
fifths have a tension which is released in the succeeding movement of voices. Close-voiced part-writing converges on unisons which then flower into
searching vocal flourishes. Listening to the first Kyrie, one admires the way that the voices enter in turn, adding weight and depth; from the first there
is a stylish confidence in the delivery - epitomised by the purity and focus of the final chord of this section.
The Christe frees individual voices within the polyphonic texture; one is able to focus on the melodic and motivic development of any particular vocal line
while remaining always aware of the symphony of whole. Kyrie II is more ecstatic, with greater rhythmic vitality and a wider registral range; the bass is
especially rich in this movement, and the warm major-key resolution conjures the jubilant effect of a resounding organ.
The Gloria is notable for the seamless movement from chant to polyphony. Rhythmic points gain impetus through repetition and there is a bracing contrast
between rich harmony and unisons at cadences. The setting of ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ is sparser of texture and darker in tone; and while ‘Domine Fili
unigenite’ descends still further into barer realms, the addition of the upper voices in the ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ and the greater floridity of the
melodic line lifts the spirit of the music once more. In the ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere’ we can appreciate what Phillips means when he speaks of
Josquin’s exploitation of the full potential of the four-part texture and mass form: the overall blend of voices seems to soften here, but distinction is
still made between homophonic and polyphonic passages, with solo voices drawn forth, leading to a euphoric climax.
A lovely firm bass in the Credo forms a sure foundation above which the lighter tenors and altos can take flight. The contrapuntal points in the Crucifixus
take on a harder ‘edge’ initially but as the lines become increasingly elaborate they acquire, almost imperceptibly, a mesmerising richness: the emotive
mellifluousness is intensely spiritual, but the homophonic episodes too have great vibrancy.
The freedom and expansiveness of the Sanctus is immediately evident, while the Agnus Dei - especially the second of the three sections - has a refreshing
transparency. This is a tremendous performance of the Missa Di dadi which showcases Josquin at both his most intimate and theatrical.
The disc also includes Josquin’s ‘Missa une mousse de Biscaye’ - a work thought to be the composer’s earliest Mass setting, dating from 1473-75, and in
which there is the same sense of a composer exploring all the possible techniques and forms available to him. Typically, the mass is based on a secular
tune - one with a French and Basque text (Biscay is a province in the Basque region of northern Spain). The French ‘mousse’ is derived from the Castilian
‘moza’ meaning ‘a lass’, and the original song presents a dialogue between a young man, speaking in French, and a Basque girl, who replies to all his
amorous proposals with the puzzling refrain ‘Soaz, soaz, ordonarequin’.
The Tallis Scholars’ enunciation of the text of both masses is characteristically precise and clear. The music of the ‘Missa une mousse de Biscaye’ wanders
quite waywardly through an unusually diverse harmonic palette - perhaps evoking the mis-communication of the lovers in the original song? - but the
singers’ intonation is always true and the progressions sure. Long vocal lines are effortlessly spun, and individual parts come together to form strikingly
plush bodies of sound.
The ensemble brings drama and intensity to the mass. The ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum Patris’ drives forward with rhythmic cogency and the sound is bright and
energising; the singers create grandeur and spaciousness in the ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and expand confidently into the ‘Et iterum venturus est’. Similarly,
after the stillness of the initial setting of ‘Sanctus’ there is persuasive movement into the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’, which in turn swells into a majestic
first ‘Hosanna’ where the light-footed bass line and strong cadence bring a sense of joy.
The Tallis Scholars’ first album in this Josquin series won the Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 1987 and this new addition continues the ensemble’s
masterly exploration of the way the composer’s music reconciles the earthly and the liturgical.
The album is available on CD and from iTunes in their “Mastered for iTunes” format. It is also available in a variety of high resolution Stereo and
Surround Sound Download formats from the Gimell website at www.gimell.com.
Josquin Masses: Di dadi; Une mousse de Biscaye.
The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.
Gimell CDGIM 048 (CD: 71.13)
Michael Long presents a comprehensive and persuasive account of the function and meaning of the dice in ‘Symbol and Ritual in Josquin’s Missa di Dadi’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol.42, No.1. (Spring, 1989): 1-22.