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

Garsington Opera transfers Falstaff from Elizabeth pomp to Edwardian pompousness

Bruno Ravella’s new production of Verdi's Falstaff for Garsington Opera eschews Elizabethan pomp in favour of Edwardian pompousness, and in so doing places incipient, insurgent feminism and the eternal class consciousness of fin de siècle English polite society centre stage.

Mascagni's Isabeau at Opera Holland Park: in conversation with David Butt Philip

Opera directors are used to thinking their way out of theatrical, dramaturgical and musico-dramatic conundrums, but one of the more unusual challenges must be how to stage the spectacle of a young princess’s naked horseback-ride through the streets of a city.

Grange Park Opera travels to America

The Italian censors forced Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma to relocate their operatic drama of the murder of the Swedish King Gustav III to Boston, demote the monarch to state governor and rename him Riccardo, and for their production of Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera, director Stephen Medcalf and designer Jamie Vartan have left the ‘ruler’ in his censorial exile.

Puccini’s La bohème at The Royal Opera House

When I reviewed Covent Garden’s Tosca back in January, I came very close to suggesting that we might be entering a period of crisis in casting the great Puccini operas. Fast forward six months, and what a world of difference!

Na’ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard (world premiere)

Let me begin, like an undergraduate unsure quite what to say at the beginning of an essay: there were many reasons to admire the first performance of Na’ama Zisser’s opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission from the Royal Opera and the Guildhall.

Les Arts Florissants : An English Garden, Barbican London

At the Barbican, London, Les Arts Florissants conducted by Paul Agnew, with soloists of Le Jardin de Voix in "An English Garden" a semi-staged programme of English baroque.

Die Walküre in San Francisco

The hero Siegfried in utero, Siegmund dead, Wotan humiliated, Brünnhilde asleep, San Francisco’s Ring ripped relentlessly into the shredded emotional lives of its gods and mortals. Conductor Donald Runnicles laid bare Richard Wagner’s score in its most heroic and in its most personal revelations, in their intimacy and in their exploding release.

Das Rheingold in San Francisco

Alberich’s ring forged, the gods moved into Valhalla, Loge’s Bic flicked, Wagner’s cumbersome nineteenth century mythology began unfolding last night here in Bayreuth-by-the-Bay.

ENO's Acis and Galatea at Lilian Baylis House

The shepherds and nymphs are at play! It’s end-of-the-year office-party time in Elysium. The bean-bags, balloons and banners - ‘Work Hard, Play Harder’ - invite the weary workers of Mountain Media to let their hair down, and enter the ‘Groves of Delights and Crystal Fountains’.

Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House

Since returning to London in January, I have been heartened by much of what I have seen - and indeed heard - from the Royal Opera.

Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

Another wonderful Wigmore song recital: this time from Stéphane Degout – recently shining in George Benjamin's new operatic masterpiece,

An excellent La finta semplice from Classical Opera

‘How beautiful it is to love! But even more beautiful is freedom!’ The opening lines of the libretto of Mozart’s La finta semplice are as contradictory as the unfolding tale is ridiculous. Either that master of comedy, Carlo Goldoni, was having an off-day when he penned the text - which was performed during the Carnival of 1764 in the Teatro Giustiniani di S. Moisè in Venice with music by Salvatore Perillo - or Marco Coltellini, the poeta cesareo who was entertaining the Viennese aristocracy in 1768, took unfortunate liberties with poetry and plot.

Pan-European Orpheus : Julian Prégardien

"Orpheus I am!" - An unusual but very well chosen collection of songs, arias and madrigals from the 17th century, featuring Julian Prégardien and Teatro del mondo. Devised by Andreas Küppers, this collection crosses boundaries demonstrating how Italian, German, French and English contemporaries responded to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Whatever Love Is: The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall

‘We love singing songs, telling stories …’ profess The Prince Consort on their website, and this carefully curated programme at Wigmore Hall perfectly embodied this passion, as Artistic Director and pianist Alisdair Hogarth was joined by tenor Andrew Staples (the Consort’s Creative Director), Verity Wingate (soprano) and poet Laura Mucha to reflect on ‘whatever love is’.

Bryn Terfel's magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam

It had been a while since Bryn Terfel sang a complete opera role in Amsterdam. Back in 2002 his larger-than-life Doctor Dulcamara hijacked the stage of what was then De Nederlandse Opera, now Dutch National Opera.

Laci Boldemann’s Opera Black Is White, Said the Emperor

We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas-some familiar, others forgotten-are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams.

A volcanic Elektra by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic

“There are no gods in heaven!” sings Elektra just before her brother Orest kills their mother. In the Greek plays about the cursed House of Atreus the Olympian gods command the banished Orestes to return home and avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra. He dispatches both her and her lover Aegisthus.

Così fan tutte: Opera Holland Park

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; or does it? In Così fan tutte, who knows? Or rather, what could such a question even mean?

The poignancy of triviality: Garsington Opera's Capriccio

“Wort oder Ton?” asks Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio. The Countess answers with a question of her own, at the close of this self-consciously self-reflective Konversationstück für Musik: “Gibt es einen, der nicht trivail ist?” (“Is there any ending that isn’t trivial?”)

Netia Jones' new Die Zauberflöte opens Garsington Opera's 2018 season

“These portals, these columns prove/that wisdom, industry and art reside here.” So says Tamino, as he gazes up at the three imposing doors in the centre of Netia Jones’ replica of the 18th-century Wormsley Park House - in the grounds of which Garsington Opera’s ‘floating’ Pavilion makes its home each summer.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall
22 Feb 2018

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ashley Riches

Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt

 

The programme opened with a perennial favourite, Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’ (The trout) and Middleton and Riches immediately made evident their concern, which was sustained throughout the recital, to communicate the narrative of their chosen songs - through motivic word-painting, vocal nuance, diversity of tone and dramatic presence. Middleton delicately conjured the slithering scales and flapping tail of the capricious fish, while Riches’ strong, forth-right projection conveyed the fisherman’s determination to land his catch.

This was beautiful and vivid characterisation. And, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ (The alpine huntsman) was similarly engaging. Riches relished, here and elsewhere, the opportunity to embody different characters and their energetic debates, aiming for comic contrast between the floating appeals of a mother who wishes her son to stay at home to tend the lambs and the insistent protests of the young adventurer who yearns to set out on his quest for the gazelle. Riches’ buoyant baritone brought to mind an image of the eager hazelnut gatherer in Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’, sallying forth ‘in the eagerness of boyish hope … Tricked out in proud disguise of cast-off weeds’! The duo exploited the way Schubert’s rhythmic structure tells the tale, culminating in the stately pronouncements of the Spirit of the Mountain who intervenes - here with a sonorous gravity worthy of Sarastro - to protect the trembling gazelle. And, alert to every expressive dimension, Riches injected a little tenderness and pathos into the god’s final plea, ‘The earth has room for all; why do you persecute my herd?’ (‘Raum für alle hat die Erde,/Was verfolgst du meine Herde?’)

Riches works hard with his texts, and - as was evident during his vibrant performance in Purcell’s King Arthur with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall recently - he is not afraid to prioritise textual meaning over beauty of line to deepen the expressive meaning, though there is plentiful lyrical mellifluousness too. I was impressed by the directness and impact of his diction in the three German lieder. But, while he certainly took care (perhaps too much?) with the enunciation in the sequence of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Gallic songs that followed, his French is less idiomatic and this did affect the vocal phrasing, as occasionally Riches’ tendency to emphasise particular syllables disrupted the evenness of the syllabic scansion that is inherent in the language and reflected in the melodic and rhythmic settings.

I think, too, that this repertory is not Riches’ natural territory; his voice is full and strong, and while he did make a good attempt to ‘lighten’ the tone, the result did not feel entirely ‘natural’. The landscape of Fauré’s ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ (The butterfly and the flower) is a world away from Schubert’s forest foraging and it took Riches a little while to settle into the new terrain, but the wry reflections of the young man troubled by the contesting attractions of his lover’s lips and the rose-coloured ladybird resting on her snow-white neck, in Saint-Saëns’ ‘La coccinelle’, were engagingly delivered, Riches swooning into romantic reverie at the parodic close. Middleton’s atmospheric accompaniment added much to the sentimental hyperbole of Massenet’ quasi-operatic ‘La mort de la cigale’ (Death of the cicada), and here Riches exercised satisfying control during the extended vocal phrases and flowed lightly through the melismas of the central section.

One wonders why the French seem to have had such a ‘thing’ for insects, for Ravel, too, included an homage to the cricket (‘Le grillon’) in his Histoires naturelle (1906). Here, Middleton’s tremulous pointillism was delicately and delightfully evocative and what was really impressive about this song was the way the duo maintained rhythmic momentum, and a beguiling narrative, despite the fragmentary vocal line and seemingly ‘static’ piano gestures. It is the birds rather than the beetles that Ravel truly celebrates though, and none more than the peacock (‘Le paon’), whose pomp and pride rang from Middleton’s introductory bars with the brightness of the feathered eyes of the bird’s train, which was itself brandished with a startling pianistic flourish at the close. Some critics have suggested that Ravel is indulging in self-portraiture, here, painting a picture of the fin de siècle artist-cum-dandy, and this performance made that reading a convincing one. I admired Riches’ memory in this song - indeed, in all of Ravel’s set of five, for the texts are lengthy and often prosaic, with subtly shifting meters. He made a good effort to make the words ‘live’ in both ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ (The kingfisher), in which Middleton’s grave tone conveyed the bird’s regal status and demeanour, and in the account, in ‘La pintade’ (The guinea-fowl), of the quarrelsome nature of a farmer’s querulous hen.

Riches’ had shown his comfort and flair in the musical theatre idiom during the LSO’s Bernstein Anniversary celebrations at the Barbican Hall, before Christmas, when he was displayed a cocksure swagger and vibrant Yankee drawl in Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. And, while this recital did not, as then, end with Riches leading the audience in a conga down Wigmore Hall’s aisles, the final item of the programme, Vernon Duke’s Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo, did give him liberty to don his Flanders-and-Swann hat, indulge his instinct for showmanship and celebrate the piquant wit of Vernon Duke’s musical embodiments of the brief portraits which form Ogden Nash’s bestiary. I have to confess that this repertoire is not really my cup of tea (I tend to the view that the poetry isn’t worth reading, let alone setting to music, but many will, for good reasons, disagree!). But, Riches rattled off the zoological roster with panache, and his poise and pronunciation were admirable. He couldn’t resist going down to the farm one more time: his encore, ‘I Bought Me A Cat’ from Copland’s Old American Songs was a noisy and nonsensical, and fittingly ‘natural’, end to a charming recital.

This recital can be heard for one month following the performance on BBC iPlayer.

Claire Seymour

Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Franz Schubert - ‘Die Forelle’ D550, ‘Die Vögel’ D691, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ D588; Fauré - ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ Op.1 No.1; Saint-Saëns - ‘La coccinelle’; Massenet - ‘La mort de la cigale’; Ravel -Histoires naturelles; Vernon Duke - Ogden Nash's Musical Zoo.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th February 2018.

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):