December 13, 2017

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

Such thoughts were in my mind at the start of this recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida. As the musicians walked onto the Wigmore Hall platform and an expectant hush descended, I felt a wonderful sense of anticipation tinged with tension: the journey through the twenty-four songs of Winterreise is so familiar, and yet if, at the start of a performance, we know where we are heading we have no idea of how we are going to get there. Nor, paradoxically, of what - emotionally, psychologically - our final destination will be.

On this occasion, it was not a journey during which we were buffeted by icy blasts which blew the hats from our heads. The rustling branches, raging streams, rattling chains and barking dogs were finely etched but seemed to herald from a world at one remove - a distant dreamscape into which Padmore and Uchida gently but irresistibly pulled us. As the embracing chill deepened and the wanderer’s tears froze upon the cold flakes of snow, we seemed to be travelling ever deeper into an ‘interior’ landscape of detachment and emptiness: time slowed, movement stilled, the ‘real’ world dissipated into imaginative introspection. When Padmore’s wanderer was lured by the will-o’-the-wisp into the deep rocky chasm, his indifference - ‘How to find a way out does not greatly concern me. I’m used to going astray’ (‘Wie ich einen Ausgang finder,/ Liegt nicht schwer mir in dem Sinn./Bin gewohnt das irregehen’) - was dangerously tempting and undeniable. After all, he sang, ‘Every path leads to one goal’ (’S fürht ja jeder Weg zum Ziel’).

Padmore and Uchida were perfect partners, as they coaxed us into an alienation which seemed to be quietly accepted rather than angrily resisted. Both perform with a delicacy and care that is underpinned by a core of steel. Padmore’s vocal control - the evenness of line and colour, the immaculate phrasing, the meticulous articulation of the text - was complemented by Uchida’s crystalline sculpting of the wintry mind-scape.

Indeed, at times the piano seemed to be bearing the emotional weight of the cycle, particularly as Padmore’s tenor became more withdrawn, almost blanched in the later songs. His soft head voice had an almost hypnotic beauty, beguiling us into the bewildered isolation of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) - ‘Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find a green grass?’ (‘Wo find’ ich eine Blüte,/Wo find’ ich grünes Gras?’) - and making us feel both the pain of perplexed wretchedness in ‘Einsmakeit’ (Loneliness) and the comfort of a dream’s sanctuary in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring). There was contrast, creating a sense of progression, between the shapely legato of the young man’s farewells to his ‘sweetest love’ in the opening song, and the shrouded pianissimos of the later songs. In ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion), Padmore’s ghostly tenor conjured a disturbing terror as the wanderer is lured from the path by the ‘garish guile’ of a dancing light which promises friendship and warmth beyond the ice and night.

But, there were moments where I missed vocal weight, particularly in the lower range, and variety of tone: in ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) where the plunging vocal leaps and dark descent convey the wanderer’s submission to sorrow; in the desperate plea - ‘O crow, let me at last see faithfulness unto death!’ (Krähe, lass mich endliich she/Treue bis zum Grabe!’) at the close of ‘Die Krähe’.

Uchida synthesised the musical architecture and emotional trajectory, demonstrating a remarkable insight into the structural coherence of Schubert’s cycle, articulating the expressive details with wonderful judiciousness. The opening chords of ‘Gute Nacht’ were paradoxically both reticent and resolute, becoming almost imperceptibly more firm as the wanderer’s resolve hardens, pausing for the barest moment before the final stanza, where a prevailing tension in the piano’s tread, underlined by Padmore’s vocal intensification in the closing line, belied the deceptive shift to the major mode.

The limpidity of Uchida’s delineation of the frozen tears of ‘Gefrorne Trähe’; the coolness of the dark meandering at the start of ‘Erstarrung’; the perfectly judged triplets of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ intimating the murmuring currents beneath the stream’s silent surface; the incontestable blast at the opening of ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance) which pushed the wanderer ever onwards: such masterful musical story-telling was both astonishing and utterly absorbing. In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree), the delicate breeze which nudged the branches at the start became a bitterer force at the close, the piano’s taut dotted rhythms seeming to stab cruelly at the wanderer in the final verse, taunting him with the promise of rest. Contrastingly, there seemed to be no pulse at all in the first two bars of ‘Irrlicht’, as if the piano’s four-notes came from ‘elsewhere’, an embodiment of the wander’s delusions.

The harmony of spirit between singer and pianist was compelling. In ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), the rhythmic tension between voice and accompaniment was sensitively controlled, and Padmore’s heightening of the repeated last line of each stanza was underscored by the swelling of the piano’s richer chords and Uchida’s expressive shaping of the return to the minor key. ‘Frühlingstraum’ balanced frighteningly on the edge of an abyss, hovering between reality and fantasy, pausing in silence when the screaming ravens had woken the dreaming wanderer, before Uchida resumed the slow, rocking of the dream-world for which he longs - the battle for mental stability subtly but sharply dramatized in musical terms. The clarity of the interplay of voice and piano in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The Signpost) made the piano’s left-hand ornaments speak eloquently beneath Padmore’s beautifully even high line, Uchida retreating to a barely-there pianissimo in the final verse as the wanderer gazes at the road he must travel and ‘from which no man has ever returned’ (Die noch Keiner ging zurück).

The performers’ vision cohered most powerfully in the final four songs. The slow sombreness of ‘Das Wirthaus’ (The inn) was thrust aside by the desperate wilfulness of ‘Muth’ (Courage), but it was the exquisite, gentle warmth - almost shocking after the preceding unrelenting coldness - of Uchida’s introductory phrase in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom song) that was so striking; as was the way the yearning of the vocal line faded to quiet hopelessness, as the piano’s attempted assertiveness slipped into resignation. When Padmore asked the cycle’s final question, ‘Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?’, slight warmth adding urgent need to the rising plea, Uchida’s reply - strong at first, then diminishing into silence - seemed to suggest that this wanderer would indeed find his peace ‘elsewhere’.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Schubert: Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11th December 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MarkPadmore004web.jpg image_description=Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title=Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id= Above: Mark Padmore

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Posted by claire_s at 3:05 AM

December 12, 2017

Turandot in San Francisco

The David Hockney Turandot, with the John Adams / Peter Sellers Girls of the Golden West, the Vincent Boussard Manon and the Prague/Karlsruhe/SF shared Elektra were all fascinating in their mises en scène. Only La traviata of the five operas of the 2017 fall season (some of us remember when there were thirteen) suffered an outdated production, though it too had its merits — the three excellent principal singers and the masterful conducting of Nicola Luisotti.

In September the refurbished David Hockney 1992 Turandot burst once again onto the War Memorial Opera House stage in new intense colors for Puccini’s musically imagined Peking, the princess Turandot enacted in highest verismo terms by Austrian soprano Martina Serafin and the pit energized by the subtleties of Puccini’s score, conductor Luisotti having matured over his ten San Francisco years to join the ranks of the great conductors of Italian opera.

TurandotNov17_SFO2.pngLeah Crocetto as Liu

The Turandot casting evolved in three significant ways for the six November performances. The icy Princess was now sung in highest heroic terms by Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, the slave girl Liu was sung by former Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto who has achieved a now deserved diva status, and Calaf’s father Timur was sung fully and forcefully by American bass Soloman Howard, grounding this role dramatically into the Liu tragedy of Calaf’s ascension into the realm of high love.

Nina Stemme, the world’s reigning dramatic soprano, took us into the heady stratospheres of the soprano voice and kept us there beyond what we know can be humanly possible. The three riddles were hurled in intense colors and vocal luster, her defeat felt in surprisingly human terms, this superb artist like almost no other is able to be both human and super-human. The ascension to love in the Alfano finale took the human love she had discovered into the rarefied spheres of Romanticism’s spiritual union, this impossible Teutonic ideal rendered possible, finally, in the Puccini oeuvre where before it had never found, or even sought.

Leah Crocetto in her Adler days was perhaps prematurely cast as Liu in the 2011 SFO Turandot. Just now la Corcetto projected the musical and histrionic attributes of a fully arrived, mature artist. Gratefully she is willing to take risks, like her first act “Signore, ascolta!” sung pianissimo, knowing dramatically that it is a silent prayer. It was stunning even with this estimable artist rested on the lower edges of pitch tones. There were not issues at all with her third act “Tu che di gel sei cinta,” delivered with compassion and fervor. La Crocetto brought great dignity to Liu’s tragedy in studied, convincing and satisfying verismo terms.

If conductor Christopher Franklin fully supported these two remarkable artists in their vocal and dramatic subtleties he took the balance of the score to its most blatant terms, knocking out the intimacy of the Ping, Pang, Pong interplay in rhythmic force, and resorting to the latent bombast of both Puccini and Alfano whenever possible. Obvious effect was certainly achieved, a thoughtful realization of the musical and dramatic magic of the Puccini score was sacrificed.

The June revival of the San Francisco Opera’s 2011 Der Ring des Nibelungen will tell more about a perceived new sophistication of casting perspectives at San Francisco Opera. The casting of Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde is a great start.

Michael Milenski


Cast and production information:

Turandot: Nine Stimme; Calaf: Brian Jagde; Liù: Leah Crocetto; Timur: Soloman Howard; Ping: Joo Won Kang; Pang: Julius Ahn; Pong: Joel Sorensen; A Mandarin: Brad Walker; Emperor Altoum: Robert Brubaker. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production and Design: David Hockney; Director: Garnett Bruce; Costume Designer: Ian Falconer; Original Lighting Designer: Thomas J. Munn; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, November 6, 2017.


image=http://www.operatoday.com/TurandotNov17_SFO1.png

product=yes
product_title=Turandot in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Nine Stimme as Turandot [All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 12:32 PM

December 8, 2017

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

But, in the event, this performance of Damiano Michieletto’s production of the verismo duo was so compelling that the December chill and Christmas sparkles of the Covent Garden piazza were utterly forgotten and for three hours we were in a village in south Italy, with its family bakery, shabby school hall, kitsch Easter parade, black-veiled mamas and flower-strewn madonnas.

In 2015 , I found the incessantly revolving set distracting and some of Michieletto’s gestures mannered; but, this time round (the first revival) I was absolutely persuaded. How to explain my change of heart? Perhaps it was that revival director Rodula Gaitanou seemed to have found a way to balance stylisation and naturalism in such a way that the movement of cast and chorus around the revolve, and the interweaving of motifs across the two operas, felt genuine and ‘real’. Just as, under the baton of conductor Daniel Oren, the ROH orchestra gave us an introductory tour of the emotional trajectory of Cavalleria, so the revolving set seemed to take us on a stroll through the town, and not just into its homes and houses but into the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

Inside the Panificio bakery, with its sacks of flour stacked high beside the mechanical weighing scales, the trays of loaves sat waiting for the oven. The Catholic icon perched on a high shelf later found its way into the scuffed school hall where the performance of Pagliacci - advertised on the bakery wall - took place. The children scrabbling for panettone at the bakery window donned tinsel halos and papery wings to form an angelic Easter choir, and after the parade remained in costume to reappear on the cramped school stage in a choral prelude to Pagliacci. The ROH Chorus - as ever, in tremendous voice - wandered casually about the village, gathered in the square for a post-parade knees-up, assembled eagerly for the ensuing entertainment, all with complete naturalism.

There are some surreal and stylised moments too. When the devout villagers raise their candles and adjust their shrouds during the Easter hymn, the gaudy Madonna on the festive float seems to come to life, pointing an accusatory finger at the traumatised Santuzza. And, the meta-theatre of Pagliacci is emphasised not just by the interlocking jigsaw of Paolo Fantin’s set, which allows us to witness parallel action as fiction spills into fact, but also by Alessandro Carletti’s lighting contrasts which pit blinding strip lights against blackness, and a lurid green glow against a rosy-pink shimmer.

What really swept me to the Italian South, though, was the terrific singing of all involved. This was the first time that I have heard Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča and I was struck by the expressive weight of her voice, which burst forth with power and punch - as if the betrayed Santuzza’s distress and dishonour were just too devastating to be contained, literally overwhelming her and all around her too. Indeed, the rich layers and grand plushness of her mezzo seemed almost too majestic for the unlucky lass in a dowdy cardigan, but I guess that’s what Mascagni’s music is telling us: that human emotions have no bounds or boundaries.

I remained unbeguiled by Michieletto’s decision to begin Cavalleria at its end, presenting us with a play of maternal grief as Mamma Lucia bends over the bloody body of Turiddu - a child’s red scooter-bike leaning on the street-lamp adds a touch of sentimentality - and I again found Elena Zilio’s histrionic head-clutching, body-convulsing and hand-wringing to be hyperbolic. But, elsewhere Zilio was a strong presence, physically and vocally, in the production - a true matriarch in every sense.

Alfio - cast, Catherine Ashmore.jpgMark S. Doss (Alfio/centre) and ROH Chorus. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Mark S. Doss convincingly cast aside the relaxed confidence which Alfio displays when he rolls into town with a car boot full of fashionable wares - the tussle between two girls who fancy the same handbag is a neat touch - for dark-toned menace when he learns of Lola’s betrayal. Martina Belli returned to the latter role and her glossy mezzo-soprano gave the temptress real allure.

Nedda and Tonio.jpgCarmen Giannattasio (Nedda) and Simon Keenlyside (Tonio). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Also reappearing in her 2015 role, Carmen Giannattasio was a persuasive Nedda in Pagliacci, encompassing a gamut from shining ardour to a silvery whisper in her duet with Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk’s warm-hued Silvio, and acting superbly when ‘Columbine’ is dragged by the raging Canio from harmless play-acting to murderous reality.

Simon Keenlyside injected a terrible hostility into the Prologue of Pagliacci. Alone in Nedda’s claustrophobic, starkly-lit backstage dressing-room, as he invited us to enjoy the ensuing drama, Tonio seemed to sneer with contempt at our gullibility and casual ignorance as he reminded us that what we were about to see involved real people with real emotions. And, Keenlyside made sure that the rejected hunch-back’s latent menace was evident throughout, despite Tonio’s shabbiness and shuffling: think Rigoletto meets Iago.

Lucia and Turiddu.jpgElena Zilio (Mamma Lucia) and Bryan Hymel (Turridu). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

It was American tenor Bryan Hymel, though, who stole the show. Cast as Turiddu, he also stepped into Canio’s shoes (family circumstances obliged the originally cast Fabio Sartori to withdraw from the first three performances), and proved equally compelling in both role debuts, holding nothing back despite the vocal, and expressive, demands. The confident, bright ring of his tenor was imbued with deeper, darker colours when Turridu was confronted by the vengeful Alfio, and in his farewell to Mamma Lucia, Hymel heartbreakingly conveyed the doomed Turridu’s honesty, self-knowledge and vulnerability. Canio’s account of the evening entertainment to come, at the start of Pagliacci, had a lyricism and power that hinted at terrifying tragic potential. And, indeed, Hymel continually ratcheted up the emotional thermometer until the mercury exploded in a blazing conclusion.

Tonio may have spoken the truth when he spat out his closing line, ‘La commedia è finita!’, but the impact of this double bill’s punch will surely be long-lasting.

Claire Seymour

Cavalleria Rusticana : Santuzza - Elīna Garanča, Turiddu - Bryan Hymel, Mamma Lucia - Elena Zilio, Alfio - Mark S. Doss, Lola - Martina Belli.

Pagliacci: Canio - Bryan Hymel, Tonio - Simon Keenlyside, Nedda - Carmen Giannattasio, Beppe - Luis Gomes, Silvio - Andrzej Filończyk, Two Villagers - Andrew O’Connor/Nigel Cliffe.

Director - Damiano Michieletto, Conductor - Daniel Oren, Set designs - Paolo Fantin, Costume designs - Carla Teti, Lighting design - Alessandro Carletti, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 6th December 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Santuzza%20and%20madonna.jpg image_description=Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden product=yes product_title=Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id= Above: Elīna Garanča (Santuzza/left) and ROH Chorus

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore
Posted by claire_s at 2:34 AM

December 5, 2017

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Last staged locally in April 2009, the three-show run directed by Winnipeg’s Robert Herriot also featured Tyrone Paterson leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through Puccini’s rapturous score. The maestro also notably marked his own auspicious anniversary on the MO podium in November, beginning his tenure as the company’s music advisor/principal conductor 25 years ago conducting exactly this same work.

The three-act tragedy sung in Italian, and based on a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa tells the tale of 15-year old Cio-Cio San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly), who weds American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton based in Nagasaki, Japan. After he returns home to the U.S to find a “proper” American wife, she bears his son, little Sorrow, and awaits his return with tragic consequences.

The 150-minute production featured a particularly strong cast of principals. The first of those is world-renowned Tokyo-born soprano Hiromi Omura, who delivered a masterful performance as the young geisha in a role she debuted in 2004, and has now performed over 100 times. As she morphed from lovesick girl to noble young woman who dies for honour, her soaring, well-paced vocals in the notoriously difficult part were fully displayed from her opening “Ancora un passo or via—Spira sul mar,” until final “suicide aria” “Con onor muore.”

MB Opera Madama Butterfly, 2017. Photo - R. Tinker.png

Omura also performed her highly anticipated aria “Un bel di vedremo” with limpid fragility and ringing high notes as sparkling as the starry night sky, trembling in anticipation for her husband’s ship to sail back into harbour that earned her spontaneous applause and cries of brava. However, it’s during her silent vigil as she awaits Pinkerton’s return during the exquisite “Humming Chorus” where Omura’s profoundly moving artistry spoke loudest, as seemingly every shade of raw, vulnerable emotion flashed across her face: from hope to fear; love to loss, lit beautifully by Bill Williams.

Her equal in every way, acclaimed Canadian lyric tenor David Pomeroy created a strapping, 19-year old Pinkerton, who swaggered through his opening aria “Dovunque al mondo” fueled by strains of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and chillingly proclaimed “America forever.” Pomeroy set sail on his own harrowing narrative arc with port stops along the way, including sweetly tender love duet with this new bride, “Viene la sera,” until becoming unmoored and wracked with remorse during Act III’s “Addio fiorito asil” sung with dramatic intensity.

It’s also a testament to Pomeroy’s powerhouse acting skills that he earned perhaps one of the greatest compliments during his opening night curtain call: boisterous boos from a clearly engaged, impassioned audience on their feet for his wholly believable characterization that the artist acknowledged with delight.

Baritone Gregory Dahl also brought subtle nuance to his role as US consul Sharpless, who urges Pinkerton to be cautious of Butterfly’s heart, and later becomes caught in the lovers’ downward spiral during trio “Io so che alle sue pene,” sung with Pinkerton and Suzuki as a well-balanced ensemble.

MB Opera Madama Butterfly 2017, Laurelle Froese (Kate Pinkerton), Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Suzuki), Gregory Dahl (Sharpless). Photo - R. Tinker.png

Suzuki, portrayed by Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen in her MO debut also crafted a dedicated maid and confidant, who harmonized seamlessly with Butterfly and strewed cherry blossom petals during “Flower Duet” “Scuoti quella fronda,” while infusing the culturally sensitive production with greater verisimilitude.

It’s always a joy seeing baritone David Watson onstage, who made every moment count as The Bonze. Kudos also to Quinn Ledlow (alternating with Ava Kilfoyle), who brought sweet innocence to little Sorrow, despite the evening’s late hour for a four-year old tot. Winnipeg baritone Mel Braun served double duty as the Commissioner and a Prince Yamadori, while mezzo-soprano Laurelle Jade Froese instilled Kate Pinkerton with dignified, sensitive compassion.

However, the production is not without flaw. Cio-Cio San—now Mrs. Pinkerton—remained resolutely Japanese in appearance, still dressed in a kimono during Acts II and III despite singing of her “American house” that visually weakened her character’s transformation. And marriage broker Goro, (tenor James McLennan), who machinates the nuptials between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San appeared far too polite and at times overly pedestrian for a scheming plot driver.

Just as Cio-Cio San paints pictures of wisps of smoke with her voice during her iconic “Un bel di vedremo,” Herriot likewise uses the stage as a canvas for his creative ideas.

His thoughtfully created tableaux including glorious eye candy, including Cio-Cio San’s first entrance flanked by the MO Chorus of geishas, well prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki, that primly take their place and twirl their delicate parasols on the tiered set of sliding shoji screens originally designed by Patrick Clark for Pacific Opera Victoria. Herriot also injects a new layer of fascinating sub-text into the opera’s dying moments, as each lead character suddenly reappears onstage to witness Butterfly’s demise, now trapped in their own world of unspoken regret.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly does not offer the grand spectacle of Verdi’s Aida or even his own opulent Turandot, preferring instead to peer deeply into the hearts and minds of its doomed characters. Despite those that might still believe his “East-meets-West” operatic butterfly should be captured and pinned to a board—archaic and irrelevant, to be shelved as a curiosity of the past fueled by the then fashionable “orientalism”—MO’s latest production proved that in the hands of a soaring cast, this great Italian love story still flies high.

Holly Harris

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MB%20Opera%2C%20Madama%20Butterfly%2C%202017%20Hiromi%20Omura%20%28Cio-Cio-San%29%20and%20David%20Pomeroy%20%28Pinkerton%29.%20Photo%20-%20R.%20Tinker.png image_description=[Photo by R. Tinker] product=yes product_title=Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly product_by=A review by Holly Harris product_id=Above: Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton

Photos by R. Tinker
Posted by Gary at 12:20 PM

December 1, 2017

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

The Rare Book and Manuscript collection of Middle Temple Library contains seventy-two volumes from the personal library of poet and priest John Donne, and so Benjamin Britten’s setting of Donne’s Holy Sonnets seemed a fitting inclusion in this programme. These Petrarchan sonnets, written between 1609-18, express the poet’s - and his age’s - perplexity with the nature of the soul and its relationship to the body: the octet presents the ‘argument’ which is then meditated upon in the concluding sestet (it was a pity that this form was distorted in the programme). What better mirror can there be of the way that Donne’s impassioned enquiry is given controlled formal expression than human song? Music, most especially the sung voice, is surely an embodiment of Donne’s conception of the union, and mutual necessity, of body and soul.

It’s no surprise that Britten was drawn to Donne’s poetry in August 1945. It was a time when he was exploring the music of Purcell, and developing his approach to setting English texts. And, with the war in Europe only just over, Donne’s meditations on death and loss must have reflected the prevailing emotional bleakness, brittleness and bitterness; Britten had himself just returned from a tour of German concentration camps with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Perhaps, too, the composer, as a homosexual and conscientious objector, identified with the self-examination and emotional wrangling of the young Donne, whose decision to reject Catholicism both ‘demonised’ him in the eyes of the Papists and threw him into poverty.

Donne’s reflections on ‘That subtle knot which makes us man’, (‘The Ecstasy’) and the cruel uncertainty of divine intervention reveal both the human body and man’s spiritual disposition to be fickle: his exploratory philosophical conceits are complex, sometimes obscure, presenting ideas which challenge and disturb. Britten’s settings (he selected and re-ordered nine of the sonnets) are similarly demanding: musically, technically and emotionally.

The opening of the cycle is bleak and Bostridge’s fortissimo cry of anguish, ‘Oh my blacke Soule!’, was fearless, despite the high pitch, against the rhetorical might of Drake’s pounding low octaves which never became purely mechanical despite their ferocity. Bostridge imbued Britten’s chromatic vocal line with a piercing bitterness and anger, the torturous twists conveying the protagonist’s rage at his ‘sicknesse’ - ‘deaths herald, and champion’. But, there was a quieter torment in Donne’s frustrated conclusion that grace both requires and is a requisite for repentance, and here Bostridge blanched his voice to communicate the power of the poet’s paradox that ‘being red’, Christ’s human blood dyes human souls to ‘white’ purity.

Sonnet XIV begins with a plea, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, and the relentless energy of the poem, with its predominance of monosyllabic vowels, was captured in the perpetual motion of Bostridge’s vital, pulsating vocal line - ‘breake, blowe, burn’ - and the piano’s drumming staccato. In Sonnet XIX, Drake’s light whirling conjured the protagonist’s vexation, which culminated in melismatic terror, ‘To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod’, the chasm in the vocal line after ‘feare’ evoking the horror of the abyss. Drake himself literally shuddered with each low, hammering thud of the ‘fantastique Ague’ of Donne’s capricious devoutness.

But, alongside the angry dilemmas and disputations there was reflective introspection too. In Sonnet III the piano seemed literally to sob ‘sighes and teares’ and, after Donne’s desperate fear that he has ‘mourn’d in vain’, Bostridge introduced a rueful relaxation into the vocal lament which reflects on the frivolous waste of finite tears spilt for trivial reasons, verbally relishing the richness of Donne’s self-castigating description of the ‘hydoptique drunkard, and night-scouting thief/That itchy Lecher’. There was stillness at the close of Sonnet XIII, ‘This beauteous forme assures a piteous minde’, and in the octet of the following Sonnet XVII the tenderness of Bostridge’s tenor captured the poet-speaker’s poignant yearning for closeness to God following the early death of his wife, before the piano’s rocking chords conjuring the sensual ‘wooing’ of a God concerned that ‘the World, Fleshe, yea Devil’ will steal the poet’s devotion.

The declamatory trumpeting of Sonnet VII, ‘At the round earths imagin’d corners’, had compelling rhythmic heft but this bright confidence was quelled by the irrefutable knowledge of man’s sin: Bostridge’s prayer for pardon, ‘When we are there; here on this ground, Teach mee how to repent;’ was harrowingly honest and vulnerable. The musicians swept segue into the penultimate sonnet, in which the poet-speaker’s acknowledgement of reliance on God to help him refrain from temptation and sin was delivered with commanding authority, culminating in a tumult followed by a shattering silence: ‘And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.’

Donne’s succour that death is not the end, ‘Death, be not proud’, inspired some beautifully easeful lyricism, but the poet’s representation of death’s power as no greater than that of the ‘poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well’ lacks conviction. And, despite the lulling ease of the triplets (‘Thou are slave to Fate, Chance, kings’) and the light, dotted rhythms (‘And does with poison, warre, and sicknesse dwell’), at the close Bostridge’s fierce stare and deliberate placing of the final words - death shall be no more; death thou shalt die’ - offered little consolation. The piano’s passacaglia is unresolvable: Britten did indeed add an unpublished ‘Epilogue’ - a setting of text from Donne’s ‘Meditation XVII’ that includes the lines ‘For whom the bell tolls’.

This was an astonishingly committed, physical, musical probing of Donne’s pained philosophical agonising and poetic disputes by Bostridge. No wonder he looked drained at the close: as if Donne’s dilemmas and despair that the ‘mysteries’ of the mind ‘in souls do grow,/But yet the body is [the] book’ (‘The Ecstasy’) were made corporeal.

At the time he was composing The Holy Sonnets, Britten was also working on his realisation of Purcell’s The Queen’s Epicedium, which was composed in response to the death of Queen Mary in December 1694 and which was the first vocal item in the programme. Here, Bostridge’s rhetorical mannerisms were perhaps less successful; I felt that - despite the gentle, lachrymose lilt of the central air - Purcell’s essential lyricism was lacking, replaced by an almost existential grief in the final of the three musical sections, where the three-note descending motif, ‘heu!’ (alas), was a soul-consuming wail of despair, the ‘h’ a heart-puncturing knife. William Croft’s ‘A Hymn on Divine Musick’ was more fluid and affirmative, surging towards the vision of transcendence, where ‘the Blest ascend the Seat where Hallelujah’s never end’.

Pelham Humfrey’s ‘Lord, I have sinned’ and ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ followed. In the former, after the tormenting repetitions of the opening line and the underscoring of the speaker’s terror by the lucidity of the piano’s textures, there was some small solace in the tierce de Picardie of the close: ‘Teach but my Heart and Eyes/To Melt away,/And the one Drop of Balsam will suffice.’ And, Bostridge’s tenor paced with evenness and equanimity through the melodic arcs of Humfrey’s setting of Donne’s ‘Divine Poem’ towards the spiritual closure of the final cadence.

PiattiQ Walking colour.jpegPiatti Sting Quartet.

The Piatti Quartet had opened the recital with a performance of Purcell’s Chacony that, characterised by a cool detachment, minimal vibrato and barely-there pianissimos, emphasised the cerebral workings-out of the work over its timbral diversity and harmonic richness. Violinists Nathaniel Anderson-Frank and Michael Trainor swapped first and second fiddle chairs when the instrumentalists joined Bostridge and Drake in the second half of the concert for a tremendously detailed performance of On Wenlock Edge in which delicacy was allied with declamatory focus. At times I felt that the Piatti might have been even more assertive partners in articulating Vaughan Williams’ musical arguments, but they played with pictorial evocativeness and technical precision, as exemplified at the opening of the first, eponymous Housman setting, as their shimmer of agitated tremolando gave life to the shivering wind which sweeps through the forest of the exposed escarpment.

Bostridge’s tenor was quite veiled at the start of ‘From far, from eve and morning’, as Drake’s chords strummed solemnly, but as always he was alert to every textual and musical detail - swelling slightly through ‘The stuff of life to knit me/Blew hither’, imbuing the pronouncement, ‘here am I’, with nuanced resonance, somehow even seeming to add weight to the silence which precedes the final line statement, ‘Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters/I take my endless way’ - and the song gained warmth and motion, voice and strings perfectly synchronised. Similarly, above beautifully hushed strings, Bostridge differentiated the dialogue of the living and the dead in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ with wonderful dramatic and emotional impact. The enquiry, ‘And has he found to sleep in/A better bed than mine?’, was loaded with desperate intensity, while the response, ‘I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart’, faded into evasiveness - ‘Never ask me whose’ - as the muted strings’ reprise of the opening muted pushed aside the ghostly questioning.

The piano’s terse arpgeggios and the strings’ pizzicato chords established a piquant irony in ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’ but this was extinguished by the mists and tolling bells of ‘On Bredon Hill’, in which Bostridge countered the poet-speaker’s relaxed remembrance of Sunday mornings when ‘My love and I would lie’ with the intensity of the protagonists’ sensory experience - ‘see the coloured counties,/And hear the larks so high’ - the fullness of the open vowels heightened by the quietude of the instrumentalists’ dense chords. Bostridge summoned an epic tone to recall ‘the snows at Christmas/On Bredon top [were] strown’ which carried into Drake’s thudding bells and the circular roaming of the cello (Jessie Ann Richardson) and viola (Tetsuumi Nagata) which, like a musical magnet, draws the mourners to Bredon Hill.

The seductive vision of ‘valleys of spring of rivers’ which opens Vaughan Williams’ final setting, ‘Clun’, gave way, inevitably, to the heavy tread of the journey towards the ‘quieter place than Clu,/Where doomsday may thunder and lighten/And little ’twill matter to one’ - a quasi-inversion of the energy of the opening song of the composer’s Songs of Travel. Here Bostridge’s voice darkened to a shadow, an echo: human mortality cannot outrun the ravage wreaked by time.

This performance was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Tuesday 5th December at 7.30pm.

Claire Seymour

Temple Song : Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), the Piatti Quartet

Purcell - Chacony in G minor for string quartet, William Croft - ‘A Hymn On Divine Musick’, Pelham Humfrey - ‘Lord, I Have Sinned’ and ‘Hymn to God the Father’, Britten - The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Vaughan Williams - On Wenlock Edge.

Middle Temple Hall, London; Wednesday 29th November 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ian%20Bostridge%20%C2%A9%20Sim%20Canetty-Clarke%202.jpg image_description=Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake and the Piatti Quartet at Middle Temple Hall product=yes product_title=Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake and the Piatti Quartet at Middle Temple Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id= Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke
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