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

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

The Princeton Festival brings a run of three high-quality opera performances to town each summer, alternating between a modern opera and a traditional warhorse. John Adams’ Nixon in China has been announced for next summer. So this year Princeton got Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for which the Festival assembled an impressive cast and delivered a polished performance.

‘Schiff’s Surprise’: Haydn

Many of the ingredients for a memorable concert were there, or so they initially seemed to be. Alas, ultimately what we learned more clearly than anything else was that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new Principal Artist, András Schiff, is no conductor.

Recital of French song from Véronique Gens and Susan Manoff

It came as quite a surprise throughout much of the first half of this recital of French song, that it was the piano-playing of Susan Manoff that made the greater impression upon me than the singing of Véronique Gens.

Pelléas et Mélisande: Glyndebourne Festival Opera

What might have been? Such was a thought that came to my mind more than once during this, the premiere of Glyndebourne’s new Pelléas et Mélisande. What might have been if Stefan Herheim had not changed his Konzept so late in the day? (I had actually forgotten about that until reminded during the interval, yet had already began to wonder whether the production had been, especially for him, unusually rushed.)

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Royal Opera House

There is something very Danish about this Don Giovanni. It isn’t just that the director, Kasper Holten is a Dane, it’s also that the existential, moral and psychological questions Holten asks point to Kierkegaard who wrote of the fusion of the erotic and demonic in this opera in his work Either/Or (1843). However, I’ve rarely, if ever, encountered a production of Don Giovanni - even Bieito’s notorious one for ENO - where Mozart comes off as second best.

Superb Schoenberg Gurrelieder - Salonen, Philharmonia, London

Schoenberg Gurrelieder at the Royal Festival Hall, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, demonstrating how well the Philharmonia Orchestra has absorbed Schoenberg's idiom. A blazing performance, formidably dramatic, executed with stunning assurance. Salonen has made his mark on the Philharmonia through in-depth explorations of the 20th century repertoire he loves so well.

An ambitious double-bill by the Royal College of Music

London may have been basking in the golden glow of summer sunshine this week, but things have been darkly gothic on the capital’s opera scene.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<em>Remembering Debussy</em>: Claire Booth (soprano) and Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) at the Purcell Room
16 May 2018

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.

Remembering Debussy: Claire Booth (soprano) and Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) at the Purcell Room

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claire Booth

Photo credit: Sven Arnstein

 

At the heart of the programme lay Claude Debussy’s Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1889) and Jonathan Dove’s Letters from Claude. The latter was commissioned by the Richard Thomas Foundation at the invitation of pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen and premiered here by soprano Claire Booth and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

Debussy was a prodigious letter-writer, and indeed a discerning and prolific writer, critic and journalist per se. Nine volumes of his correspondence were published between 1927 and 1958, and more than 1500 of his letters survive. Among his correspondents were three women whom he bound together in amorous knots, not of their will. Gabrielle Dupont was a professional mistress from the lower echelons of the grandes horizontales society of the 1890s; Debussy abandoned her for Rosalie (Lilly) Texier, whom he married in 1899 (pressuring her into wedlock by threatening suicide); she shot herself in the stomach when Debussy subsequently left her for one of his rich pupils, Emma Barduc, with whom he had his only child.

Jonathan Dove’s Letters from Claude, as the composer himself explains, takes text from sixteen of Debussy’s letters and fragments: ‘I imagine that, perhaps after Debussy’s death, Lilly and Emma just happen to be reading some of his letters in their different homes at the same moment. There memories are, of course, full of his music, and so the piano accompaniments are each prompted by a chord or phrase from piano pieces Debussy wrote around this time - Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905), and Estampes (1903) - along with the early Danse (1890).’

The fragments which form this 12-minute whole run segue, and there was an urgency as we moved from mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley’s recitation of the composer’s insouciant instruction to Lilly to ‘put on your pink petticoat and your black hat and [to] come and say hello to me next Sunday’ to his ardent avowal of passions ‘secretly burning’ and impatience for ‘your mouth, your body’, just three days later. The charm of the fragment in which the composer reflects on the ‘Lovely Lili’s’ whereabouts and movements - she is probably lending ‘the slender grace of her body to various gorgeous dresses’ - was embodied by a beautiful translucent piano accompaniment.

Susan Bickley_11_credit Julie Kim.jpgSusan Bickley. Photo credit: Julie Kim.

Soprano Claire Booth revisited Emma Bardac’s memories, the composer’s abstract images of fragrances and flowers finding shape in trickling piano figures, and his request that Lilly should pay him a visit, even though the rain falls heavily, characterised by a circular motif of pattering wetness.

Dove conveys the complexity of torn and tattered allegiances by overlapping the voices: this is evocative in a general way, though it inevitably obscures the texts, which were also sometimes lost to an overly loud - sounds of the ‘mechanism’ were occasionally intrusive - accompaniment from Matthews-Owen. For example, Bickley’s recount of Debussy’s letter to Lilly of 23rd May 1899 - ‘I love you, I love you … I can only think of your return, and of the three whole days which you will grant me. And such a delicious ache it gives me. God how I love you.’ - was overpowered by the piano’s growing animation. Dove’s settings also lack variety - perhaps suggestive of Debussy’s emotional limitations? - as he frequently relies upon ponderous, pounding bass notes, which often descend (à la Delius or Lloyd Webber), languorously, by step, above which ostinatos or fragments in the middle and upper registers float.

By contrast, the use of unaccompanied voices in some of the later fragments was effective and the directness of the homophonic utterances suggested shared experiences. But, given the wealth of text from which to choose, one wonders what Dove hoped to capture in such oblique fragments drawn from two letters to Emma, of June 1904: ‘Hello Madame Bardac?’ and ‘Yes…! Yes! Yes!’ That said, the climax of the closing episodes was well-shaped; recalling Debussy’s missive of 24th December 1916 to Emma, Booth made the carolling bells shine - ‘Noël! Noël!’ - and the ambience was sustained in the right-hand piano echoes above low pedals in the bass. Bickley’s cold declamation of Debussy’s rejection of Lilly, ‘I have to tell you that nothing on earth would compel me to meet up with people with whom I have broken off all relations’, fell low and lingered chillingly.

Booth’s performance of Debussy’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, which preceded the interval, was less convincing. There was certainly passion and extase in the vocal line - a real gloss at the top, as at the close of ‘Le balcon’, with its images of countless vows, perfumes and kisses - as well as a contrasting coolness at times; and, Matthews-Owen negotiated the motivic and textural complexities of the piano-writing with accomplishment. But, Booth did not always control the contours immaculately - rising lines had a tendency to break off too abruptly - and the text was often indistinguishable; given that these songs embody the symbolists’ aesthetic and desire to blur the distinction between poetry and music, this was problematic.

The central song, ‘Le jet d’eau’, revealed Booth’s rich lower register, and here something of the tenor of the language and mélodie was struck. There was a strong sense of the waves of sensory experience offered by the bounding of the bold soul towards the ‘vast enchanted skies’, and of the trembling magic of the ‘Moon, sonorous water, blessed night’ which reflect the poet’s love. The piano’s rhythmic complexities in ‘Recueillement’ (Meditative calm) were stirring and Booth infused the narrow compass of the vocal line with life, the energy subdued but always present, culminating in a final melodic plunge which carried us downwards with the ‘step of the gentle Night’.

Five songs by Gabriel Fauré brought the best from the two singers. Booth’s rendition of ‘Clair de lune’ was fluent and fresh, and ‘Au bord de l’eau’ had a lovely, heady, rolling flow. The fairly brisk tempo of ‘Après un rêve’ ensured directness and eschewed indulgent sentimentality. Susan Bickley communicated powerfully in ‘Les rose d’Ispahan’, and there was a real sense of the hypnotic arc of each stanza, while Bickley’s beguiling lower register was put to good effect in ‘Nocturne’, which had a delicious murmuring quality conveying mystery, as the night ‘half opens its blue jewel caskets’.

Bickley and Matthews-Owen framed the recital with songs by Erik Satie. In the opening ‘Élégie’, Bickley made a good attempt to capture the distance which comes from loss - and Satie’s characteristic abstraction - but the descending scales of the song and the awkward intervallic contrasts which pit pure fifths/fourths against tritones, with little harmonic or textural support from piano, made this a difficult song with which to open the recital. But, while Bickley’s intonation took a little while to settle, there was a sensitive diminishment at the close, ‘Le seul remède sur la terre/À ma misère/Est de pleurer’ (The only remedy on Earth for my misery is to cry) slipping away like a falling tear.

The piano hopped with the jerky spring of a frog at start of ‘La statue de bronze’ and Bickley used the low lying declamatory passages to convey a wry wit. In contrast, ‘Daphénéo’ was tranquil, as the gentle vocal survey of just three or four notes established a stillness and lack of sentimentality.

While occasionally the low voice was lost amid the density of the piano’s pounding triplet quavers, Bickley enjoyed the deadpan parody (of Gounod) in ‘Le chapelier’ (The mad hatter), where the lunacy of the mad hatter’s attempts to fix his languid wristwatch - oiling it with butter, clogging the gears with bread-crumbs and plunging it in cups of tea - were all to no avail, consequence or import, as the Dada-esque throw-away conclusion confirmed.

The fun was resumed at the close in the sardonic sparseness of ‘Air du poète’ and the stylish insouciance of ‘Je te veux’ which took us from the salon to the cabaret. In between there were some ‘Vexations’ - fortunately only five of 840 that Satie ‘instructed’.

Claire Seymour

Claire Booth soprano
Susan Bickley mezzo-soprano
Andrew Matthews-Owen piano

Satie - ‘Elégie’ from Trois Melodies (1886); Trois Mélodies (1916)
Debussy - Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1889)
Jonathan Dove - Letters to Claude, for soprano, mezzo-soprano & piano (World premiere)
Fauré - ‘Clair de lune’ Op.46 No.2, ‘Au bord de eau’, Op.8 No.1, ‘Après un rêve’ Op.17 No.1, ‘Les roses d’Ispahan Op.39 No.4, ‘Fleur jetée’ Op.39 No.2, ‘Nocturne’ Op.43 No.2
Satie - ‘Air du poète’, ‘Vexations’, ‘Je te veux’

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London; Tuesday 15th May 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):