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

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen at the Oscarshall Palace in Oslo

The doors at The Metropolitan Opera will not open to live audiences until 2021 at the earliest, and the likelihood of normal operatic life resuming in cities around the world looks but a distant dream at present. But, while we may not be invited from our homes into the opera house for some time yet, with its free daily screenings of past productions and its pay-per-view Met Stars Live in Concert series, the Met continues to bring opera into our homes.

Women's Voices: a sung celebration of six eloquent and confident voices

The voices of six women composers are celebrated by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and soprano Yunah Lee on this characteristically ambitious and valuable release by Lontano Records Ltd (Lorelt).

Precipice: The Grange Festival

Music-making at this year’s Grange Festival Opera may have fallen silent in June and July, but the country house and extensive grounds of The Grange provided an ideal setting for a weekend of twelve specially conceived ‘promenade’ performances encompassing music and dance.

Rosa mystica: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir

As Paul Spicer, conductor of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, observes, the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as ‘old as Christianity itself’, and programmes devoted to settings of texts which venerate the Virgin Mary are commonplace.

The Prison: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth’s last large-scale work, written in 1930 by the then 72-year-old composer who was increasingly afflicted and depressed by her worsening deafness, was The Prison – a ‘symphony’ for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Bernstein’s <em>MASS</em>: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018
08 Apr 2018

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Bernstein’s MASS: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

Photo credit: Mark Allan

 

Leonard Bernstein accepted that commission and the result was MASS , a ninety-minute ‘Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers’ which was premiered on 8th September 1971, and which placed the Latin Catholic Mass at the core of an interrogation of faith.

Humphrey Burton, Bernstein’s biographer, suggests that Bernstein’s experience of performing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, at which a Catholic Mass was said, inspired his decision to explore the historical and spiritual significance of a ritual which is at the heart of humanity’s relationship with the promises of Christianity. However, the Preface to the composer’s Second Symphony, composed twenty years earlier and titled The Age of Anxiety after W.H. Auden’s poem, states, ‘The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith’, and it was a search which continued through Candide, the Kaddish Symphony and so many of Bernstein’s works, suggesting that the pursuit of theological meaning in his modern world was in fact Bernstein’s driving preoccupation and inspiration.

1971 was a moment of crisis and change for the US. Peace protests against the six-year-long Vietnam War were escalating, and images of the shooting by the National Guard of four protesting students at Kent State University were vivid in the minds of many. In the domestic field, December 1970 had seen the devaluation of the US dollar at the end of the most inflationary year since the Korean War: taxes and unemployment figures were high and climbing, and the Nixon administration’s new economic policy caused discontent at home and in Latin America and Cuba. Moreover, President Nixon announced his plan to visit China, hoping to end the long confrontation between the US and the People’s Republic.

MASS was thus certainly ‘of its time’. The question I asked myself as I took my seat in the Royal Festival Hall for the first of two performances, directed by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly and conducted by Marin Alsop, who studied with Bernstein, was: what messages - philosophical, spiritual, political, musical, artistic - does it have for our time?

In 1971, Catholic bishops condemned the work as blasphemy; in 2000, Pope John Paul II requested that Bernstein’s MASS be staged at the Vatican, a wish that was fulfilled in 2004. This performance was described as a ‘new staging’, updated for Bernstein’s centenary year; in fact, it was a re-working of Kelly’s 2010 staging, also conducted by Alsop, and to the projected images of the Kennedys, flower-power peace protestors and Martin Luther King were addended a roll call of recent presidential incumbents from the Bushes to Obama to Trump, and images of last month’s March For Our Lives rallies in the US, in which hundreds of thousands of student called for action against gun violence.

Strangely, this visual argument for ‘relevance’ made me ‘lose faith’: in the sense that it seemed to confirm that both the promise of theological doctrine and practice, and the human faith embodied by the believers, campaigners, leaders and followers whose faces flashed before our eyes, had been shown to be flawed or misguided, ending in failure.

Fortunately, the performance itself was more uplifting, involving more than 400 hundred young performers - representing the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Streetwise Opera, the Southbank Centre’s Voicelab, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and other community groups - who spread across the extended Festival Hall stage, danced on the central platform, looked down from the rear and side galleries, marched with their brass instruments blaring down the aisles, carried candles and assembled across the breadth of the Hall. Dressed in concert black, rainbow-hued ti-shirts, street-gear, vestments, they represented all worlds, all times.

I don’t know about faith, but if I’d been conducting such multitudes, I’d have been doing so on a wing and a prayer! Marin Alsop - a diminutive but authoritative figure on a podium stage-right, nestled among the members of a rock band, facing the orchestral wind players - in contrast, was a portrait of calm control. Tele-screens had been positioned in the orchestral ranks to overcome the obscured sightlines but those playing at the rear must still have had a difficult time, in the often dimly lit Hall, and it is a credit to their maturity, confidence and professionalism that the ensemble was so strong.

Alsop, a long-time advocate for MASS, repeatedly smiled encouragingly at the young performers. I feared that the quasi-anarchy of the rock-blues protest song which disrupts ‘Dona nobis pacem’ would overwhelm audience, performers and conductor alike, but, no: Alsop’s raised fist punched sharply to the floor, signally a remarkably instantaneous silence, as the frustrated, despairing Celebrant smashed his sacraments and hurled his chalice to the floor - a very human response to spiritual responsibility and frustration.

Bernstein’s generic eclecticism has inspired some vicious criticism. Writing in the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg accused Bernstein of creating with MASS ‘a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce’, while critic, musicologist and amanuensis to Stravinsky, Robert Craft, contemptuously condemned the work as ‘Mass, the Musical’.

The blues (in the Confiteor) sits alongside gospel (in the Gloria, interwoven with chant). Christian hymns jostle next to Hebraic intonations (‘In nominee patris’). Folk song (at the premiere, Bernstein is reported to have said to Aaron Copland, of the closing chorale, ‘That’s you, baby’) and musical theatre (finger-clicking straight from West Side Story) share the score with operatic a cappella (‘Almighty Father’ could have been lifted from Candide). Then, there are the alternations between pre-recorded music (representing the fossilization of faith, perhaps?) and live performance. The microphone balance was not always perfect in the Festival Hall. I confess I felt rather ear-beaten but the diversity, and by the occasional disjunct between stylistic levity and spiritual magnitude.

This registral mismatch is in evidence, too, in the libretto (by Bernstein in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz), which is as likely to thrown up a cliché as a clinching one liner such as ‘Living is easy when you’re half-alive’. The rhymes may be perspicacious at times - in the Gospel-Sermon ‘God Said’, the soloists sings an all-too-contemporary reminder, ‘God said to spread His commands/ To folks in faraway lands;/ They may not want us there,/ But man it’s out of our hands.’ - but the words of Auden kept surfacing in my mind: ‘“You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusion.’

The only named solo role is that of the Celebrant, and Tony Award-winning Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot met every one of the role’s many challenges, encompassing the extensive tessitura effortlessly, projecting with a powerful urgency - of both hope and anger - and employing a sweet head voice which was superbly centred and controlled. Szot had the sensitivity to imbue the ‘Simple Song’ with pure sincerity and the stamina to negotiate the long soliloquy, ‘Fracture’, with compelling intensity. Every emotional ounce of the Celebrant’s trial, torment and reconciliation was communicated.

The Celebrant essentially represents ‘Christianity’ and is pitted against the ‘Street People’ who are unnamed, who challenge his assurances: ‘I believe in God, but does God believe in me’, cries a disillusioned rock singer. Those taking the principal, unnamed solo roles made convincing individuals of the protestors and hippies, creating effective narrative. The three treble soloists, Maia Greaves and Freddie and Leo Jemison, were similarly impressive, their composure, vocal accuracy and theatrical presence remarkable for their tender years. The dancers, clad in drab beige and cramped on the central platform, did not really have the opportunity to shine, however.

This is an exciting month for the Southbank Centre. This performance of MASS (which was repeated the following evening) initiated a Young People’s Weekend - comprising educational activities and wrap-around events including an education project with Year 9 students at Lilian Baylis Technology College - while next week witnesses the launch of Composers’ Collective, a new year-round initiative connecting composers at all stages of their careers with a variety of eminent composers. Moreover, Monday 9th April will see the reopening of the newly-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. It’s good to be reminded of the need to have faith in music, in art and in the young people who are humankind’s cultural and spiritual future.

Similarly, whatever one’s misgivings about MASS’s ambitious striving for universality and plurality - in theological and musical terms - it’s good to be reminded too of the historical, perhaps inherent, relationship of faith and art. In ‘I believe in God’, Bernstein pushes home this relationship: ‘I believe in one God,/ But then I believe in three./ I'll believe in twenty gods If they'll believe in me./ I believe in F sharp./ I believe in G./ But does it mean a thing to you/ Or should I change my key?’ Candide and Cunegonde offer a response to such questions in the final chorus of Candide: ‘The sweetest flow’rs, the fairest trees/ Are grown in solid ground.’ Or, as Bernstein put it in the liner notes to the 1977 Deutsche Gramaphon recording of The Age of Anxiety: ‘Faith turns out to be in your own backyard … where you least look for it, as in this glass of orange juice I am holding in my hand. There is God in the orange juice, for sunshine is there, earth, vitamins …’

So, we must grow our own gardens, and our own faith. And, at the Festival Hall, Kelly, Alsop and the multitude of young performers reminded us that if we worship at the altar of music and art, the best of all possible worlds just might be attainable.

Claire Seymour

Leonard Bernstein: MASS

Conductor - Marin Alsop, Director - Judy Kelly, Celebrant - Paulo Szot, Treble soloists - Maia Greaves, Freddie Jemison, Leo Jemison, Lead Vocal Coach - Mary King, Designer - Michael Vale, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Singers (from Southbank Centre’s Voicelab, Avanti House Secondary School, The Choir With No Name, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Millennium Performing Arts, Streetwise Opera, Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Woven Gold), Visuals (Yeast Culture & Lilian Bayliss Technology School).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Friday 6th April 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):