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

Stéphanie D’Oustrac: Sirènes

After D’Oustrac’s striking success as Cassandre in Berlioz Les Troyens, this will reach audiences less familiar with her core repertoire in the baroque and grand opéra. Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and La mort d’Ophélie, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the Lieder of Franz Liszt are very well known, but the finesse of D’Oustrac’s timbre lends a lucid gloss which makes them feel fresh and pure.

Faust in Marseille

We sat, bewildered, all of us, watching (enduring) Gounod’s sweet little tear jerker as a nasty drug trip. Except for the Australian Marguerite it was an all French cast and they all gamely played along, the sophisticated verse of Offenbach’s librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré clearly sailing out over an abrasive pit.

Down in flames: Les Troyens, Opéra de Paris

Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens with Philippe Jordan conducting the Opéra National de Paris. Since Les Troyens headlined the inauguration of Opéra Bastille 30 years ago, we might have expected something special of this new production. It should have been a triumph, with such a good conductor and some of the best singers in the business. But it wasn't.

Luminous Mahler Symphony no.3: François-Xavier Roth, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.3 with François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, now at last on CD, released by Harmonia Mundi, after the highly acclaimed live performance streamed a few months ago.

Andrew Davis conducts Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ at Hoddinott Hall

A weekend commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) entitled Berlioz: The Ultimate Romantic was launched in style from Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with a magnificent account of L’enfance du Christ (Childhood of Christ). The emotional impact of this ‘sacred trilogy’ seemed to gain further weight for its performance midway between Christmas and Easter, neatly encapsulating Christ’s journey from birth to death.

Love Songs: Temple Song Series

In contrast to the ‘single-shaming’ advertisement - “To the 12,750 people who ordered a single takeaway on Valentine’s Day. You ok, hun?” - for which the financial services company, Revolut, were taken to task, this Temple Music recital programme on 14th February put the emphasis firmly on partnerships: intimate, impassioned and impetuous.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten – English National Opera

There is a famous story that when Philip Glass first met Nadia Boulanger she pointed to a single bar of one of his early pieces and said: “There, that was written by a real composer”. Glass recalls that it was the only positive thing she ever said about him

Rachvelishvili excels in ROH Orchestra's Russian programme

Cardboard buds flaming into magic orchids. The frenzied whizz of a Catherine Wheel as it pushes forth its fiery petals. A harvest sky threshed and glittering with golden grain.

Lucrèce Borgia in Toulouse

This famed murderess worked her magic on Toulouse’s Théâtre du Capitole stage, six dead including her beloved long lost son. It was Victor Hugo’s carefully crafted 1833 thriller recrafted by Italian librettist Felice Romano that became Donizetti’s fragile Lucrezia Borgia.

Amanda Majeski makes a stunning debut at Covent Garden in Richard Jones's new production of Kát’a Kabanová

How important is ‘context’, in opera? Or, ‘symbol’? How does one balance the realism of a broad social milieu with the expressionistic intensity of an individual’s psychological torment and fracture?

Returning to heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

The Cardinall’s Musick invited us for a second time to join them in ‘the company of heaven’ at Wigmore Hall, in a recital that was framed by musical devotions to St Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary.

Diana Damrau’s Richard Strauss Residency at the Barbican: The first two concerts

Listening to these two concerts - largely devoted to the music of Richard Strauss, and given by the soprano Diana Damrau, and the superlative Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the second - I was reminded of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s observation that German music would be unthinkable without him.

De la Maison des Morts in Lyon

The obsessive Russian Dostoevsky’s novel cruelly objectified into music by Czech composer Leos Janacek brutalized into action by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski beatified by Argentine conductor Alejo Pérez.

A First-Ever Recording: Benjamin Godard’s 1890 Opera on Dante and Beatrice

The composer Benjamin Godard (1849–95) is today largely unknown to most music lovers. Specialist collectors, though, have been enjoying his songs (described as “imaginative and delightful” by Robert Moore in American Record Guide), his Concerto Romantique for violin (either in its entirety or just the dancelike Canzonetta, which David Oistrakh recorded winningly decades ago), and some substantial chamber and orchestral works that have received first recordings in recent years.

La Nuova Musica perform Handel's Alcina at St John's Smith Square

There was a full house at St John’s Smith Square for La Nuova Musica’s presentation of Handel’s Alcina.

Ermonela Jaho is an emotively powerful Violetta in ROH's La traviata

Perhaps it was the ‘Blue Monday’ effect, but the first Act of this revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata seemed strangely ‘consumptive’, its energy dissipating, its ‘breathing’ rather laboured.

Vivaldi scores intriguing but uneven Dangerous Liaisons in The Hague

“Why should I spend good money on tables when I have men standing idle?” asks a Regency country squire in the British sitcom Blackadder the Third. The Marquise de Merteuil in OPERA2DAY’s Dangerous Liaisons would agree with him. Her servants support her dinner table, groaning with gateaux, on their backs.

Between Mendelssohn and Wagner: Max Bruch’s Die Loreley

Max Bruch Die Loreley recorded live in the Prinzregenstheater, Munich, in 2014, broadcast by BR Klassik and now released in a 3-CD set by CPO. Stefan Blunier conducts the Münchner Rundfunkorchester with Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Thomas Mohr and Jan-Hendrick Rootering heading the cast, with the Prager Philharmonischer Chor..

Porgy and Bess at Dutch National Opera – Exhilarating and Moving

Thanks to the phenomenon of international co-productions, Dutch National Opera’s first-ever Porgy and Bess is an energizing, heart-stirring show with a wow-factor cast. Last year in London, co-producer English National Opera hosted it to glowing reviews. Its third parent, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will present it at a later date. In the meantime, in Amsterdam the singers are the crowing glory in George Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece.

Il trovatore at Seattle Opera

After a series of productions somehow skewed, perverse, and/or pallid, the first Seattle Opera production of the new year comes like a powerful gust of invigorating fresh air: a show squarely, single-mindedly focused on presenting the work of art at hand as vividly and idiomatically as possible.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall
24 May 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra: a scintillating Bluebeard

Ravi Shankar’s posthumous opera Sukanya drew a full house to the Royal Festival Hall last Friday but the arrival of the Budapest Festival Orchestra under their founder Iván Fischer seemed to have less appeal to Londoners - which was disappointing as the absolute commitment of Fischer and his musicians to the Hungarian programme that they presented was equalled in intensity by the blazing richness of the BFO’s playing.

Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

Above: Krisztián Cser

Photo credit: Péter Herman

 

Not surprisingly, Béla Bartók was the fulcrum of the evening: but the programme was paradoxically both cohesive in spirit and diverse in medium. We enjoyed Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, presented with a decidedly Romantic slant, and an astonishingly transparent and detailed performance of the composer’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, both of which were preceded by examples of the folk sources from which Bartók’s invention sprang.

I feared that the first half of the concert was in danger of turning into a lecture-recital, with the visceral experience of the music itself pushed aside by scholarly ethnographical explanation. And, by the time we reached the interval, my misgivings had not been entirely dispelled. Fischer began by offering a brief introductory account of Bartók’s ethnographic research and innovation, supplemented by some archive recordings. Then, we had the ‘live experience’ as folk singer Márta Sebestyén and three instrumentalists performed some of the folk songs that had so stimulated Bartók’s musical imagination in the early years of the twentieth century.

Sebestyén - confident, composed, wryly playful but absolutely honest - is a master of her material; she makes no concessions, her tone quite hard but direct, but she has a piercing gaze and was a captivating presence in her deep red dress. But, why on earth did the RFH not provide surtitles? For it’s difficult to respond and evaluate when one doesn’t have a clue what situation, action or emotion is being conveyed in song. Moreover, given that Sebestyén’s attire seemed to nod in the direction of ‘authenticity’, why were her fellow musicians - playing folk violin, viola and double bass - dressed in Western concert dress? (The sticky resin-capped fingerboards of András Szabó’s viola and Zsolt Fejérvári’s double bass seemed a droll rebuke to the context in which they were performing.) Perhaps I was alone in sensing an air of constriction: I wanted these performances to break out more exuberantly. In the song offered at the end of the first half, the toes of violinist István Kádar did indeed seem to be twitching as nimbly as his fingers, and Fejérvári’s snapping pizzicati and fingerboard-cracking slaps did suggest that the music would flourish with freedom in the bar afterwards. But, I felt this was an ‘experiment’ that did not quite come off.

Fischer’s reading of Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs (1933) - an arrangement of 9 of the composer’s 15 Hungarian Songs for piano that date from twenty years earlier - emphasised the lyricism of the melodic writing and the richness of the orchestral colour. The opening unison was strikingly dense and opulent in tone and if the string playing was gloriously silky - and the players relished the characterful glissandi and harmonics, leader Violetta Eckhardt sometimes turning to smile at her section - woodwind and brass offered occasionally nasality to prevent the performance slipping into the syrupy folk nationalism of Brahms or Dvořák, and there were some darker colourings from the timpani and low brass. Fischer was simultaneously alert to the details and free in gesture: flicks and sways elicited precise responses by players who know their maestro well.

It was a real joy to experience such an attractive orchestral sound, but it was an extraordinarily vivid performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, by turns crystalline and ample, that brought the concert alive. Fischer himself recited (from memory) the opening narration while simultaneously indicating the beat to the musicians behind him. As the conductor gradually tightened the psychological screw, the BFO made every single one of Bartók’s scintillating, brilliantly defined sonorities tell, from ecstasy - the gleaming blast of golden C Major at the opening of the fifth door - to tragedy: the pathetic, weeping undulations of the lake of tears revealed behind the sixth - ‘What is this water?’ Judith gasps, her incredulity tinted by celesta, harp and flutes.

Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi has - according to the programme - sung the role of the naïve, curious Judith over 150 times. I have heard her sing the role twice in the last two years: here at the RFH with Sir Willard White’s Bluebeard in a performance by the LPO conducted by Charles Dutoit; and at the Proms in 2016 (again with Dutoit, conducting the RPO, and alongside John Relyea as Bluebeard). This time, however, I missed the ‘freshness’ and ‘youthful excitement’ I found in these previous interpretations. Certainly, there was an assured sense of dramatic progression but Komlósi did not convince me that she was an impetuous young bride, and her mezzo is not as steady as it once was. That said, there was real poignancy in the quieter moments, as when arriving at the castle, the disconcerted Judith questions, ‘What no windows?’; and, the astonished horror of the realisation, ‘Your castle is crying!’ was equalled for delicate expressivity by the cellos’ oscillating string crossings. Komlósi has the power, too, to ride the orchestra tumult: her demand that Bluebeard open the doors was spine-chilling and, though at the bottom of her range, her insistence that she be given the keys and her observation that ‘Your castle’s walls are bloody’ were perturbingly penetrating.

Bass Krisztián Cser was a striking portrait of steely repressed emotion allied with an almost unwelcome recognition of power - ‘You see the extent of my Kingdom’ - and of his own capacity for violent domination. There were hints of vulnerability too: ‘Judith, Judith’ Cser cried, accompanied by a lovely cello solo, and at times the warm horns suggested heart-feeling submerged and suppressed.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra pride themselves in being one of Gramophone’s ‘top ten’ world orchestras. On the evidence of this stirring and disturbing performance, the accolade is fully deserved.

Claire Seymour

Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), Krisztián Cser (bass), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Tuesday 23rd May 2017.

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):