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 Performances

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Unsuk Chin [Photo by Priska Ketterer]
19 Apr 2018

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Unsuk Chin [Photo by Priska Ketterer]

 

Any connections between the first and second halves were not necessarily explicit; this was not an overtly didactic programme (nothing wrong with that, of course). Nevertheless, I fancied I could hear certain pitches, certain turns of phrases, perhaps even certain rhythms, in both; and even if I could not, contrasts fascinated enough.

There was no doubting the avant-gardism of either of the first two composers. Biber’s Battalia opened in lively fashion, soon displaying the composer’s seventeenth-century extended techniques – ‘extended’, by the standards of many a twentieth-century composer too – with col legno playing and foot stamping in its opening ‘Sonata’. Members of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen offered a splendidly cultivated, non-puritanical sound. (Certain journalists, having learned of a thing called ‘performance practice’ do not like that. They need rules to help them deliver a ‘verdict’.) Then, to take us all by surprise, lest we latter-day Friends of Karajan were becoming too pleased with ourselves, an ‘older, more ‘fiddling’ sound catapulted us back through time to the bizarre, Ivesian quodlibet of ‘Die leideriche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’, horribly hilarious in its ‘wrongness’. (Would we think so, though, if we had been told it were twenty-first-century music?) Virtuosic solo passages for Mars – Martian?! – a slow aria whose twists surprised as if they were Purcell’s, a battle in which the post-Montverdian stile concitato (and again Purcell) came to mind, and a touching final lament for ‘Verwundten Musquetirer’: these and much more were presented with a relished concision suggesting that Webern had better look to his laurels – that is, had the concert-going public ever permitted him to collect them in the first place.

I freely admit that I had not previously found Salonen’s Beethoven to my taste, nor, perhaps more to the point, to my understanding. This performance of the Second Symphony, also of course in D major, proved very different, making me keen to hear more. Where previously I had longed for a more modernistic approach such as I suspected might have been his, here it was: not for its own sake, but emerging from score and programming alike, almost as if a Michael Gielen for our times. The opening chord struck me with its rasping natural trumpets; otherwise, there was nothing – thank goodness – especially ‘period’ about this. Salonen even showed that it is perfectly possible to hear dialogue between first and second violins without placing them on opposite sides of each other. The first movement was lively in a different way from Biber, yet suggestive nevertheless of some sort of kinship. Most notable of all was the real sense of return at the onset of the recapitulation, of joy in a Haydnesque, even Handelian manner. The sheer character of the coda made me smile, as it stormed the heavens in a twenty-first century remodelling of ‘tradition’.

The second movement struck an excellent balance between neo-Mozartian flow and the ‘late’ Brahmsian future. Gorgeous, never narcissistic, richness to the inner parts proved an especial joys; as often with the Philharmonia, I could not help but notice the playing of the viola section in particular. Mystery and tension in the minor mode were palpable. This seemed very much a precursor to the ‘slow’ movement of the Eighth, even though I am not sure that it actually ‘is’. The scherzo was sprightly without tending towards brutality, as too often it can (say, in the worst of Karajan). Its musical roots were in Haydn, whilst the Trio peered forward, more ‘modern’ in material and formal instantiation. The finale proved more brazen even than in Gielen’s hands. Yet it still had plenty of time to display woodwind charm and colour. It had space and impetus – which brings us to the second half.

Chin’s Le Chant des Enfants des Etoiles, jointly commissioned by the LOTTE Group and the Philharmonia, had received its world premiere in 2016 from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myun-Whung Chung, to whom it is dedicated. Written for children’s choir (here the outstanding Trinity Boys Choir), mixed choir (Philharmonia Voices, also on excellent form) and large orchestra, it reflects and even perhaps, whatever her intention or not, ‘expresses’ the composer’s longstanding interest in physical cosmology, setting related poems from writers ranging from Henry Vaughan (roughly contemporary with Biber, be it noted), through Blake, Octavio Paz, Shelley, to Edith Södergran, Fernando Pessoa, Juan Ramón Rimenez, Eeva-Liisa Manner, and others. The approach is not so literal-minded as to set them chronologically, but the work itself seemed both to reprise the exploratory historical path announced in the first half and to take it further, in dialogue with and yet not bound by those poems. Tension builds and eventually subsides, perhaps not unlike the life in each of us, every one a piece of stardust – or even of a star itself.

There was no doubting Chin’s grateful writing for voices, nor the intelligibility of most of the words. When one could not immediately discern them, it seemed that that was the point – or at least that intelligibility was not the priority. I was put in mind from time to time of Britten’s ability to write for a range of performers, not all of them professionals, not that, a prominent harp solo notwithstanding, the music sounded like his. Insofar as I could tell, the singers relished their task; such, at any rate, was the performative impression. I wondered whether the earliest sections trod water a little, but perhaps that was more a matter of my ears and mind taking time to adjust; having looked at the score since, I could not tell you why. At any rate, once the shimmering stardust really took flight – at least in my ears – it never looked back. An almost Messiaenesque ecstasy – not as pastiche, yet in spirit – was to be felt as well as heard. An organ cadenza seemed to usher in a world of experimental Gothic Romanticism: Prometheus unbound, or Unbound? Bells, a battery (Biber?) of percussion, gorgeous harmonies took us to climax, prior to a retreat, or perhaps better a twilight, the trebles intoning ‘M’illumino d’immenso’ in the final ‘Matin’. Was this work, was the programme as a whole, more than the sum of its parts? I am not entirely sure, and why should I be, after a single hearing? I tend, however, to think so. I should love to hear both again, if not to find out, then to further my thoughts on the subject. For art, like cosmology, is surely there to broaden our horizons, to stimulate us, not to provide an answer, nor to be ‘correct’.

Mark Berry


Programme:

Biber: Battalia à 10 in D major; Beethoven: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36; Unsuk Chin: Le Chant des enfants des étoiles (European premiere). Trinity Boys Choir (director: David Swinson)/Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)/Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 15 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):