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

Between Mendelssohn and Wagner : Max Bruch opera Die Loreley

Max Bruch Die Loreley recorded live in the Prinzregenstheater, Munich, in 2014, broadcast by BR Klassik and now released in a 3-CD set by CPO. Stefan Blunier conducts the Münchner Rundfunkorchester with Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Thomas Mohr and Jan-Hendrick Rootering heading the cast, with the Prager Philharmonischer Chor..

Porgy and Bess at Dutch National Opera – Exhilarating and Moving

Thanks to the phenomenon of international co-productions, Dutch National Opera’s first-ever Porgy and Bess is an energizing, heart-stirring show with a wow-factor cast. Last year in London, co-producer English National Opera hosted it to glowing reviews. Its third parent, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will present it at a later date. In the meantime, in Amsterdam the singers are the crowing glory in George Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece.

Il trovatore at Seattle Opera

After a series of productions somehow skewed, perverse, and/or pallid, the first Seattle Opera production of the new year comes like a powerful gust of invigorating fresh air: a show squarely, single-mindedly focused on presenting the work of art at hand as vividly and idiomatically as possible.

Opera as Life: Stefan Herheim's The Queen of Spades at Covent Garden

‘I pitied Hermann so much that I suddenly began weeping copiously … [it] turned into a mild fit of hysteria of the most pleasant kind.’

Venus Unwrapped launches at Kings Place, with ‘Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice’

‘Playing music is for a woman a vain and frivolous thing. And I would wish you to be the most serious and chaste woman alive. Beyond this, if you do not play well your playing will give you little pleasure and not a little embarrassment. … Therefore, set aside thoughts of this frivolity and work to be humble and good and wise and obedient. Don’t let yourself be carried away by these desires, indeed resist them with a strong will.’

Gottfried von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady Now on CD

Gottfried von Einem was one of the most prominent Austrian composers in the 1950s–70s, actively producing operas, ballets, orchestral, chamber, choral works, and song cycles.

Britten: Hymn to St Cecilia – RIAS Kammerchor

Benjamin Britten Choral Songs from RIAS Kammerchor, from Harmonia mundi, in their first recording with new Chief Conductor Justin Doyle, featuring the Hymn to St. Cecilia, A Hymn to the Virgin, the Choral Dances from Gloriana, the Five Flower Songs op 47 and Ad majorem Dei gloriam op 17.

Si vous vouliez un jour – William Christie: Airs Sérieux et à boire vol 2

"Si vous vouliez un jour..." Volume 2 of the series Airs Sérieux et à boire, with Sir William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, from Harmonia Mundi, following on from the highly acclaimed "Bien que l'amour" Volume 1. Recorded live at the Philharmonie de Paris in April 2016, this new release is as vivacious and enchanting as the first.

Burying the Dead: Ceruleo offer 'Baroque at the Edge'

“Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?”

'Sound the trumpet': countertenor duets at Wigmore Hall

This programme of seventeenth-century duets, odes and instrumental works was meticulously and finely delivered by countertenors Iestyn Davies and James Hall, with The King’s Consort, but despite the beauty of the singing and the sensitivity of the playing, somehow it didn’t quite prove as affecting as I had anticipated.

Brenda Rae's superb debut at Wigmore Hall

My last visit of the year to Wigmore Hall also proved to be one of the best of 2018. American soprano Brenda Rae has been lauded for her superb performances in the lyric coloratura repertory, in the US and in Europe, and her interpretation of the title role in ENO’s 2016 production of Berg’s Lulu had the UK critics reaching for their superlatives.

POP Bohème: Melodic, Manic, Misbehaving Hipsters

Pacific Opera Project is in its fourth annual, sold out run of Puccini’s La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters', and it may seem at first blush that nothing succeeds like success.

Edward Gardner conducts Berlioz's L’Enfance du Christ

L’Enfance du Christ is not an Advent work, but since most of this country’s musical institutions shut down over Christmas, Advent is probably the only chance we shall have to hear it - and even then, only on occasion. But then Messiah is a Lenten work, and yet …

Fantasia on Christmas Carols: Sonoro at Kings Place

The initial appeal of this festive programme by the chamber choir, Sonoro, was the array of unfamiliar names nestled alongside titles of familiar favourites from the carol repertoire.

Dickens in Deptford: Thea Musgrave's A Christmas Carol

Both Venus and the hearth-fire were blazing at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance during this staging of Thea Musgrave’s 1979 opera, A Christmas Carol, an adaptation by the composer of Charles Dickens’ novel of greed, love and redemption.

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Bohuslav Martinů – What Men Live By

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.

Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann, plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d’été from Hamonia Mundi. This Harold en Italie, op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in uncharted territory.

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):