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

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Prom 49: Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach’s <em>St John Passion</em>
21 Aug 2017

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Prom 49: Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: John Butt directs the Dunedin Consort in a liturgical reconstruction of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

 

For the climax of the BBC Proms celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Butt and the Dunedin Consort performed Bach's St John Passion at the Royal Albert Hall in the context of Lutheran Vespers, with organist Stephen Farr performing chorale preludes by Bach and Buxtehude on the Royal Albert Hall Organ, and the audience being encouraged to join in the congregational chorales. The passion was performed by Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Matthew Brook (Jesus), with Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff and Robert Davies.

But if we were expecting the same stripped down approach to the passion that John Butt uses on the recording, then we were in for a bit disappointment. Part of Butt's ethos when recording Bach is not only textual fidelity, but research into the original performance traditions. This meant that the CD re-created the Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday Vespers, and used a total of ten singers to perform all the solos and the choruses, with a similarly small instrumental ensemble. At the Royal Albert Hall, Butt had a professional choir of 36 and an orchestra with based around 33 strings.

Thankfully, the performance from Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist showed that you did not need large forces to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mulroy was riveting, easily communicating music and text, and singing largely from memory, this was spine-tingling narration. Mulroy is a highly involved and vivid performer, bringing out the extremes of the passion story, and imbuing the music with a remarkable range of colour. But, as with every good Evangelist, it was the text which really counted and Mulroy's level of involvement and projection made a gripping evening.

Mulroy was matched by the dignified Jesus of Matthew Brook, who similarly used the words to devastating effect and somehow conveyed that he really did mean it. He sang with a trenchant firmness of line, and rather than being other-worldly was wonderfully human.

Nicholas Mulroy performs the role of the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St John Passion.jpg Nicholas Mulroy performs the role of the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.

The other soloists did not always achieve the same degree of communicability, though it has to be admitted that singing Baroque music in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall is rather a fine art. Sophie Bevan was a beautifully focussed soprano soloist. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ was sung with a lovely sense of joy, and some fine passagework, whilst Bevan was partnered by the magical sound of four baroque flutes. In ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ she found a real vein of expressive purity.

Tim Mead was poised and expressive in ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’, though perhaps a little too controlled, and he was partnered by some very fine oboe playing indeed. In ‘Es is vollbracht’ he was movingly expressive, and in contrast to many of the fleet speeds in other movements here John Butt allowed the movement to unfold in its own time, with vivid contrasts in the middle section.

Andrew Tortise made ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ quite dramatic and rather vivid. ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbeter Rücken’ was beautifully considered and expressive, but seemed to lack the ultimate emotional punch needed. Here Tortise was partnered by the lovely sound of a pair of muted violins, whilst in ‘Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt’, Tortise's fine performance was somewhat overshadowed by the vivid playing of the orchestral violins

Bass soloist Konstantin Wolff was nicely correct in his arias, singing with fine control and nice sense of line but he seemed not to be able to project the underlying emotions across the Albert Hall's large spaces, this was a rather more intimate performance. In ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ the balance with the chorus was not always ideal. Baritone Robert Davies sang Pilate with fine musicality but with a rather muted sense of the drama.

The chorus might, perhaps, have been larger than I was hoping for but musically they certainly did not disappoint. Butt's speeds throughout were often fleet, and his singers followed him admirably and produced a series of vivid and moving performances. The great opening and closing choruses were both kept moving, yet without skating over the surface so that the deep emotions of the music was conveyed too. In the turbae, the singing was fast, furious and wonderfully vivid.

The large orchestra was similarly impressive, not just in the myriad solo moments that Bach provides, but in the degree of expressivity found in the general run of the music.

The soloists sang in the opening and closing choruses and chorales, which is just as it should be and made the piece feel much more like a communal expression. The extracts of the vespers service provided a remarkable piece of context. The reconstruction is, to a certain extent, speculative but informative nonetheless. The way the Bach and Buxtehude organ chorale preludes flowed seamless from the chorales on which they were based, sung lustily in unaccompanied unison by the Prom audience, gave a vivid impression of the importance of context in this work. After the end of the passion, we flowed directly in Jacob Handl's funeral motet, and then on to the blessing, and a final pairing of chorale prelude and chorale.

In the programme booklet, John Butt talked about the important hierarchy of the different levels of singing in the church in Bach's day, from the congregation's chorales through the more sophisticated Renaissance-style motet singing (done with several singers to a part) to the more soloistic performance of Bach's own music, performed by very few singers. But this was something we rather missed in this performance which allied itself to modern choral traditions of performance. In terms of balance there was the usual problem of 'can you hear the oboes?'. In the livelier choral moments, we heard very much a choir and strings with both the oboes and the chamber organ rather disappearing into the texture.

It is unfair of a listener to expect a performance to re-create exactly the effect of a particular recording, but I could not help feeling that this performance of the St John Passion was a missed opportunity in a number of ways. The long running time (nearly three hours) and late start time meant that audience members were leaving before the end, and you wished that an afternoon slot could have been found for the event. That someone did not believe that a stripped down performance with just 10 singers could fill the Royal Albert Hall was a shame, Nicholas Mulroy showed how it could be done.

The performance is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Robert Hugill

J.S. Bach: St John Passion (performed within a reconstruction of the Leipzig liturgy for Good Friday Vespers)

Evangelist - Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Jesus - Matthew Brook (bass), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Tim Mead (alto), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Konstantin Wolff (bass), Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director)

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London; Sunday 20th August 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):