Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

Garsington Opera’s Silver Birch on BBC Arts Digital

Audiences will have the chance to feel part of a new opera inspired by Siegfried Sassoon’s poems with an innovative 360-degree simulated experience of Garsington Opera’s Silver Birch on BBC Arts Digital from midday, Wednesday 8th November.

Mozart’s Requiem: Pierre-Henri Dutron Edition

The stories surrounding Mozart’s Requiem are well-known. Dominated by the work in the final days of his life, Mozart claimed that he composed the Requiem for himself (Landon, 153), rather than for the wealthy Count Walsegg’s wife, the man who had commissioned it in July 1791.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

Schumann and Mahler Lieder : Florian Boesch

Schumann and Mahler Lieder with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, now out from Linn Records, following their recent Schubert Winterreise on Hyperion. From Boesch and Martineau, excellence is the norm. But their Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen takes excellence to even greater levels

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

The 2017 Glyndebourne Tour arrives in Canterbury with a satisfying Così fan tutte

A Così fan tutte set in the 18th century, in Naples, beside the sea: what, no meddling with Mozart? Whatever next! First seen in 2006, and now on its final run before ‘retirement’, Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward account (revived by Bruno Ravella) of Mozart’s part-playful, part-piquant tale of amorous entanglements was a refreshing opener at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where Glyndebourne Festival Opera arrived this week for the first sojourn of the 2017 tour.

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

Shameless grabs for power; vicious, self-destructive dynastic in-fighting; a self-righteous and unwavering sense of entitlement; bruised egos and integrity jettisoned. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was the current Tory government that was being described. However, we are not in twenty-first-century Westminster, but rather in seventh-century Lombardy, the setting for Handel’s 1725 opera, Rodelinda, Richard Jones’s 2014 production of which is currently being revived at English National Opera.

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

Director Mario Bava’s motion picture, Hercules in the Haunted World, was released in Italy in November 1961, and in the United States in April 1964. In 2010 composer Patrick Morganelli wrote a chamber opera entitled Hercules vs. Vampires for Opera Theater Oregon.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King's Consort at the Wigmore Hall

This celebration of The Genius of Purcell by Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall was music-making of the most absorbing and invigorating kind: unmannered, direct and refreshing.

Hans Werner Henze : Kammermusik 1958

"....In lieblicher Bläue". Landmark new recordings of Hans Werner Henze Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge and Kammermusik 1958 from the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, with Andrew Staples, Markus Weidmann, Jürgen Ruck and Daniel Harding.

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall
11 Jul 2017

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Askonas Holt

 

But, Schubert dedicated Die schöne Müllerin to the amateur singer, Baron Karl Freiherr von Schönstein. Schönstein was a baritone, as was Michael Vogl who was regularly accompanied by Schubert in performances of the composer’s lieder, and who, in 1830, wrote vocal embellishments for an edition of the cycle by Anton Diabelli - a publication which reveals much about how Vogl might have actually performed these songs with Schubert. Certainly, there is ample precedent for baritones past and present, including Fischer-Dieskau who recorded the cycle three times, and even contraltos such as Nathalie Stutzmann , performing Schubert’s twenty Müller settings, transposed to a lower range.

Even so, countertenor Iestyn Davies’ recital with Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall was an intriguing prospect. A search for previous performances of the cycle by countertenors unearthed a 1997 recording by Jochen Kowalski for Capriccio and some performances in Germany during the late 1990s by Austrian countertenor Bernhard Landauer (who has also sung Winterreise). Davies and Drake essentially performed the Bärenreiter edition for low voice (transposed down a fourth), but they made half a dozen or so substitutions of individual songs, presumably to better accommodate Davies’ range or because some songs sit awkwardly in particular keys.

In the opening songs, the clear tone and freshness of Davies’ countertenor bestowed some dramatic advantages, capturing the young man’s lightness of spirit as he embarks on his journey with optimism and a spring in his step, sure that fortune and love lie ahead. Davies seemed to deliberately aim for an almost airy lightness, though even as early as the second song, ‘Wohin?’ (Where to?), there was the slightest hint of anxious urgency as the wanderer questions the babbling brook where it is leading him. But, when the vocal line rose - as in the song’s closing vision of the mill-wheels turning in every clear stream (‘Es gehn ja Mühlenräder/In jedem klaren Bach!’) - there was a flash of translucency as pure as the cleanest spring-waters.

Countering this lucid wholesomeness, though, was an occasional lack of fullness and weight to the tone, in the lower register, which deprived some of the songs of their impetuous drive. ‘Halt!’, for example, needed a more pressing dynamism, while in ‘Mein!’ (Mine) Davies struggled to compete with the unremitting energy of the piano part as he asserted, with almost desperate fervour, that the girl was his. Again, only when the voice rose - ‘Die geliebte Müllerin ist mein!’ - did we sense the young man’s joyful triumphalism; the equivalent of a vocal punching of the air.

In some of the strophic songs there was a lack of variety in the vocal colour, too. And, while Davies worked hard with the text, the words sometimes didn’t make their mark against busy accompaniments - despite Drake’s sterling efforts to rein in the rapid, low passagework. In ‘Jäger’ (The hunter), the voice seemed to be struggling to chase the piano’s incessant, dry triplets and the text was lost, while in ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ (Jealousy and pride), which followed segue, the bitter repetitions of ‘sag ihr’ (tell her) were swallowed by the piano’s racing rage in the bass.

However, these minor misgivings which were more than outweighed by the imaginative psychological portrait that Davies and Drake created, and by the convincing coherence of the narrative arc of the sequence. The tragic peak was not reached too early. It was only when the young lass got up to leave the miller in the final stanza of ‘Tränenregen’ (Rain of tears) - after Davies had conjured a melting introspection as the miller becomes absorbed in the brook’s reflection of his loved one’s eyes - that there was a slight hardening of the vocal tone which, together with the minor key coloration in the accompaniment, hinted at future rejection. A tense hiatus before the twelfth song, ‘Pause’, painfully undermined the apparent self-belief of ‘Mein!’; there followed an accumulating dynamism, before the recognition, despair and resignation of the closing songs.

And, even ‘weaknesses’ could be used to advantage, as at the close of ‘Am Feierabend’ (When work is over) where the mill-owner’s dismissal of his workforce lacked the forcefulness of the miller’s recollection of the mill-girl’s evening farewell, thereby conveying the young man’s own lack of masculine maturity. Similarly, the two speakers in the mournful, stalling ‘waltz’, ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ (The miller and the brook), may not have been strongly differentiated vocally but there was a convincing rhythmic contrast between the floating lilt of the miller’s dolefulness and silken dreams of the cool peace of dark waters, and the brook’s more energetic realism.

Davies was at his best in the slower, simpler settings, where he crafted his beautiful countertenor into unbroken legato lines of soft sweetness. In ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (Thanksgiving to the brook) there was, beguilingly, also a sense of incipient strength beneath the unruffled surface, as the miller saw hope in the sun’s brightness. ‘Der Neugierige’ (The inquisitive one) had the rhetorical pathos - ‘Sag, Bächlein, liebt sie mich?’ (Tell me, brooklet, does she love me?) - of the most bittersweet Elizabethan lute song. In ‘Morgengruß’ (Morning greeting), the rising sixth which commences each stanza shone with innocent idealisation while the falling vocal resolutions of the miller’s hesitant questions and the slightest withdrawal of the piano cadences captured the fragility of his dreams and trembling disturbance of his fears.

For all the ambiguities, though, the cycle is anchored by the constancy of the brook’s presence, and Drake expertly conjured the stream’s changing moods: from cheerful babbling, to angry churning, to - in the final song - soothing relief. The position of the piano part is quite low, even before transposition, and Drake’s skill and sensitivity in overcoming the challenges that this low tessitura presents - the danger of ‘muddiness’, the elusiveness of true pianissimo - was remarkable: the touch was unfailingly gentle but never at the expense of clarity and detail.

In the second half of the cycle, Davies’ countertenor became richer and more focused, evoking the growing strength of the miller’s emotional uncertainty. This anxiety was powerfully expressed at the close of the penultimate stanza of ‘Pause’ where, having hung up his lute the miller fears that its strings - whose music he can no longer bear, so full is his heart - will be brushed by a breeze, or a bee: ‘Da wird mir so bange und es durchschauert mich’ (I shall feel afraid and shudder). Davies left the fermata hanging, the pain of the lingering silence finding expression in the bitter harmonic dissonances of the final stanza, and the poignant major-minor twists of the piano’s postlude.

In these latter songs, and particularly in the final three songs, Davies’ miller seemed much more than an embodiment of Romantic Sehnsucht, as one finds expressed by the deathly inertia of ‘Trockne Blumen’ (Withered flowers) and the song’s closing expression of the Romantic faith that true love can find fulfilment only in death. Instead, it was the modernity of Die Schöne Müllerin which Davies and Drake made captivatingly evident: the restlessness of a disturbed, perhaps delusional, young man who veers between defiant hope and suicidal torment - a restlessness which is enhanced by the fragmentation of the narrative, which offers only brief, subjective glimpses of an imagined external world.

And, this sense of disjuncture was enhanced by what initially seemed unsatisfying - the frequent large distance between Davies’ countertenor line and the low-lying piano accompaniment. As the cycle progressed this literal distance increasingly conveyed a psychological schism - as in ‘Pause’, when the piano repeats well-defined rhythmic motifs against which the voice drifts in self-absorbed musing. The contrast between the vocal leaps in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (The beloved colour) and the piano’s middle-voiced repeating note, together with the harmonic changefulness of ‘Die böse Farbe’ (The evil colour) spoke of the miller’s instability and ensuing delusion. It is the brook’s own voice that speaks at the close of the cycle, but here it might have been the voice of the protagonist himself, lost in his own delirium.

Schubert composed Die schöne Müllerin under the shadows of despair. He had contracted syphilis, probably at the end of 1822. Seriously ill, he was admitted to hospital in May 1823, and it was in that month that he wrote the poem, ‘My Prayer’, which contains the lines:

Behold, brought to nothing in the dust,
a prey to unheard-of-grief,
the pilgrimage of pain that is my life nears its everlasting end.
Destroy it and all I am;
cast everything into Lethe's depths;
and then, Almighty,
let a new being thrive in purity and strength.

[ Sich, vernichtet liegt im Staube,
Unerhortem Gram zum Raube,
Meines Lebens Martergang Nahend ew’gem Untergang.
Todt’ es und mich selbe todte,
Sturz’ nun Alles in die Lethe,
Und ein reines kraft’ges Sein,
Lass’, o Grosser, dann gedeih'n.
]

In this thought-provoking recital, the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ (The brook’s lullaby), seemed infused with a like grief for the loss of innocence. This miller was not a would-be Romantic hero whom we might both indulge and pity for his naivety and foolishness; rather his misconceptions, self-deception and disenchantment seemed truly tragic.

Claire Seymour

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin Op.25 D. 795
Texts by Wilhelm Müller

Temple Music Song, Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 10th July 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):