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

Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008.

New perceptions: a Royal Academy Opera double bill

‘Once upon a time …’ So fairy-tales begin, although often they don’t conclude with a ‘happy ever after’. Certainly, both Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, paired in this Royal Academy Opera double bill, might be said to present transformations from innocence and ignorance to experience and knowledge, but there is little that is saccharine about their protagonists’ journeys from darkness to enlightenment.

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Leonard Bernstein: Tristan und Isolde in Munich on Blu-ray

Although Birgit Nilsson, one of the great Isolde’s, wrote with evident fondness – and some wit – of Leonard Bernstein in her autobiography – “unfortunately, he burned the candles at both ends” – their paths rarely crossed musically. There’s a live Fidelio from March 1970, done in Italy, but almost nothing else is preserved on disc.

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey - LPO, Thomas Adès (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall
13 Apr 2018

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey - LPO, Thomas Adès (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Adès, Toby Spence, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir

Photograph courtesy of Trinity Boys Choir

 

Perséphone was commissioned in early 1933 by the dancer Ida Rubinstein and performed by her ballet company the following year (the score - for solo tenor (Eumolpus, the Priest), speaker-dancer (Persephone, the Goddess), mixed chorus and children’s chorus - was revised in 1949). An imperious and idiosyncratic patron - she also commissioned the painter Léon Bakst to arrange the flowers in her Parisian garden in boxes, so that the design could be changed every few weeks, and was reported to keep a black tiger cup and drink champagne out of Madonna lilies - she requested from Stravinsky a sung ballet based upon André Gide’s poem Perséphone, in which she would take the speaker-dancer role of the harvest-bringing goddess of fertility.

Gide’s text, based on Homer’s ‘Hymn to Demeter’ from the Iliad, gives the classical myth a Christian gloss - also fitting for this Easter month perhaps, but less successful in terms of ‘narrative’. In Gide’s libretto, Perséphone’s sacrifice is voluntary - she willingly and knowingly picks the fatal narcissus bloom - and the compassion she demonstrates, transfiguring. When rescued courtesy of the sudden appearance of Demophoön/Triptolemus she rejoices at being restored to her mother, Demeter, but accepts that her bond with Pluto cannot be broken. Gide closes his French text with the words of Jesus, as reported by Saint John, ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ (Il faut, pour qu’un printemps renaisse/ Que le grain consente a mourir/ Sour terre, afin qu’il repraraisse/ En moisson d’or pour l’avenir), thereby reconciling classicism and Christianity. One suspects Stravinsky’s interest in lay in more earthy rituals of sacrifice and renewal such as he had explored in The Rite of Spring.

Conductor Thomas Adès conjured the transparency and textural variety of the score with delicacy and clear direction in equal measure - I was reminded of Lily Briscoe’s vision, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of ‘the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly's wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral’. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced tender sonorities and a beguiling sweetness; superb playing by the strings, piano and harp was enhanced by beautiful woodwind solos, nowhere more so than the flutes’ decoration of Perséphone’s final speech. Adès never allowed the large stretches of ostinato to inhibit the forward momentum and there was an underlying rhythmic impetus, and occasionally a dance-like sweep.

The ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir injected sensuality and mystery into the murmurs of the opening chorus, ‘Reste avec nous, princesse Perséphone’, as the nymphs entreat the goddess to stay, as her mother instructed, in their care, amid the flowers and birds, the tender embrace of the stream, the caress of the air. The lullaby, ‘Sur ce lit elle repose’, was beautifully shaped. Male and female voices came together sonorously in ‘Nous apportions nos offrandes’ (We bring offerings), the chorus in Part III (Perséphone Reborn) which swells with the spirit of Russian Easter music. The members of Trinity Boys Choir sat perfectly still for forty-five minutes before, singing from memory, they added a pure religiosity to the closing episodes.

In Eumolpus’ first rhetorical address to the goddess of a million names, ‘puissante Demeter’, Toby Spence’s tenor was rather overwhelmed by the vibrant orchestral forces and he seemed a little uncomfortable vocally. But, subsequently, particularly in the more declamatory, recitative-like passages Spence grew in sureness, stature and confidence; and the high-lying line certainly presented no difficulty - there was never a sense of strain at the top, and by the close there was considerable dignity.

Gide’s French verses are richly romantic: Stravinsky described such phraseology as ‘La brise a caressé les fleurs’ (The breeze has caressed the flowers), ‘Ivresse matinale’ (Morning intoxication) and ‘Rayon naissante, petale’ (Newborn sunbeam, petal), as ‘vers caramel’. Dame Kristin Scott Thomas conveyed both the perfume and the poise of the poetry. Not only was her French faultless, but her timing was impeccable too - no mean feat given that Stravinsky did not indicate in the score how the text should be synchronised with the music.

Such exquisite calm and control was all the more noteworthy and telling, considering the exuberance of the works performed in the first half of the concert. Gerald Barry’s Organ Concerto (receiving its first London performance) is a miscellany of memory, incorporating assorted aural remembrances from Barry’s childhood: a harmonium (a solo for which is more extensive and prominent than the writing for organ), Angelus bells, 21 metronomes, and more. It’s also a war-zone, reflecting Barry’s own inharmonious relationship with the Sacristan at a Catholic church outside Cologne where the composer once worked, and the early twentieth-century musical battle between tonality and atonality. Barry tells us the impetus to embrace the latter contest was prompted by a photograph of a Washington Square cat, Blue Gadoo, peering at a book called Sex and The Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde’: ‘By his expression I knew he was mourning the loss of atonality. So I put his fight for atonality against tonality into the concerto.’

If this sounds rather too consciously self-aware, then the resulting work is certainly combative. The stuttering trumpet initiates the antagonism that the organ (Thomas Trotter) then escalates until the initial splutters have become a cacophonous rampage - Stravinsky’s superimpositions, in The Rite, say, result in what might termed ‘organised chaos’, but I’m not sure that’s what Barry has is mind. After the storm, silence: a timpani tone row, rising step by step, initiates some quietude into which intrude tolling bells and ticking metronomes. ‘Resolution’ of a sort is attained through a final hymn in which the trumpets’ lovely circular melody sits asymmetrically atop pounding, harmonious tutti crotchets in 4/4 time. If with such concordance one felt one’s nerves finally relax, the knowledge that Barry titles this hymn, Humiliated and Insulted, might have tempered the relief offered by the final consonance.

Adès seemed to relish Barry’s battles, conducting with intellectual command and technical precision. He always has seemed able to assimilate a huge range of ideas and debates with utter command, and no lack of emotion or sensitivity, and this was exemplified in the work which opened the concert, his own - recently extended - orchestral suite from his 1995 ballet, Powder Her Face. Despite the huge forces employed and the hyperbolic emotions conjured, Adès ensured that we could appreciate the Stravinskian lucidity and quasi-classicism of the score, which, with pictorial episodes added to the original three dances, now encompasses more of a narrative. The LPO slinked through the slides, whoops, snide nasality and louche levity, as Adès, his gestures crisp and clear, the baton essaying pungent swipes at times, proved an exemplary guide through the nightmarishly complex rhythmic and temporal side-steps and sashays.

Despite all the virtuosity and variety on display, though, it was the purity - both Gallic and classical - essential lyricism and simplicity of Perséphone which seemed most profound.

Claire Seymour

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey
Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face Suite (UK premiere)
Gerald Barry: Organ Concerto
Stravinsky: Perséphone

Thomas Adès (conductor), Thomas Trotter (organ), Tonby Spence (narrator), Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (Perséphone), London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Trinity Boys Choir.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 11th 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):