Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with
its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples
venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and
moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more
positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners
backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern
rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer,
but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard
Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour
franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy
of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such
illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara
Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors
Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the
final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length
concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated
drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the
composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who
has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman
composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
Wilhelm Stenhammer : Gillet Pa Solhaug, Sterling World Premiere Recordings
It is well worth shelling out for, since Gillet på Solhaug is good listening and the new critical edition, by Anders Wiklund, should establish a reputation for early Swedish opera. Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927), like most musicians of the time, studied in Berlin and Florence, but worked primarily in Sweden. As a composer, he is extremely well known for his songs, chamber music and piano works. Gildet på Solhaug, completed in 1893, was his first formal opera. It premiered at the Hoftheater Stuttgart in 1899 and at Stockholm Opera in 1902.
Gillet på Solhaug begins with a brief introduction not a formal overture, and moves almost immediately to the core of the drama. At a drunken party, Knut Gaesling, a notorious thug, spies, Signe, a delicate maiden and swears he will marry her. His friend, Erik fra Haegge, agrees, so as far as Knut is concerned the deal,is done whatever Signe might think. Marriage as horse trading. Knut hasn't reckoned on Margit, Signe's strong-willed older sister. In a long and moving soliloquy "Vel var det, han gik", she describes herself: The bride of Solhaug, wealthy but so desperately unhappy she longs for death. The part is written for a mezzo with good lower resonance, suggesting Margit's inner strength. As Knut sneers, Margit should have been a priest. Signe is written for high soprano, suggesting innocence, the music around her skipping innocently. Seven years before, Margit and Gudmund Alfsøn had pledged their love. Now he's an outlaw and she's married another man. Margit tries to hide her feelings but the music says what she can't, but with a clean, pure chastity that fits her character. Gudmund's a harpist: Stenhammer lets his music sing.
In the second act, the feast at Solhaug is in full swing, drunken guests carousing to the sounds of Hardanger fiddle, scored for modern orchestra. Stenhammer's background in writing for voice, choir and orchestra comes to the fore, providing an ironic backdrop to the action unfolding. Knut's machinations are brutal,Gudmund's declaration of love for Signe is thrown into chill perspective. But Margit dominates above all. Her lines are grave and dignified. The purity of Margit's line expresses something deep in her soul. What a pity the English translations are risible. "How should I quiver my magic lay"("Hvor skulde jeg kvade" in Danish, "Wie woll't ich singen" in German) and "I'd fain fling it down to the neckan hard by" ("Skaenke den til nøkken dernede"). Margit's mixing poison.
A long, mysterious passage, with low woodwinds describes the night scene, when then guests depart. Suddenly, the pace accelerates. High winds and brass and a swooping string diminuendo suggest alarm. What is happening in the darkness ? In I morgen så drager vel Gudmund herfra, lit by mournful bassoons, Margit sings of a child born blind, whose sight us restored by witchcraft. But the magic can't last: the child falls blind again, but this time with the pain of knowing what he's lost. In contrast, Bengt's bluff, crude music underlines Margit's torment. Though they've been married three years. he still thinks he's done her a favour because she once was poor. He's only saved from drinking the poison when news arrives from outside. Knut's defeated, Gudmund';s won favour with the King and will marry Signe. Bengt lives, but Margit can't go on. Her final aria "Skaemennede engel, fromme og milde" is powerful : better to renounce the worlds than endure a living death. Wonderful, shimmering string textures, Gudmund and Signe join in with wonder, and a choir in reverent, clean tones, sings about rays of light, emanating from Heaven. Although photos of early stagings show elaborate furnishings and sets. Margit's story is, fundamentally, one of renunciation. Hence the purity of Stenhammer's setting. Wagnerian or Verdian excess would not work quite so well. Margit, for all the intensity of her passions, is essentially a country girl whose instincts lie with purity.
This performance was conducted by Henrik Schaefer with the Symphony Orchestra of Norrköping and Choruses, recorded in August 2015 in connection with Swedish Radio. Matilda Paulsson sang Margit, Karolina Andersson sang Signe, Per Håkan Precht sang Gudmund, Fredrik Zetterström sang Bengt, Erik Lundh sang Erik and Mathias Zachariassen sang Knut. Definitely a recommendation! Please also see my piece on Hugo Wolf Das Fest auf SolhaugHERE, where Wolf;s incidental music is blended with a very good modern narration, very much in the spirit of 19th century German story telling drama.