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

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

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):