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

Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem - BBC Prom 41

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger . Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible "1918" theme

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

Gianni Schicchi by Oberlin in Italy

It’s an all too rare pleasure to see Puccini’s only comedy as a stand alone opera. And more so when it is a careful production that uncovers the all too often overlooked musical and dramatic subtleties that abound in Puccini’s last opera.

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Rollicking Rossini in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera welcomed home a winningly animated production of L’Italiana in Algeri this season that utterly delighted a vociferously responsive audience.

Rock solid Strauss Salomé- Salzburg

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level. The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage. Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions of excellence the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Santa Fe: Atomic Doesn’t Quite Ignite

What more could we want than having Peter Sellars re-imagine his acclaimed staging of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the renowned Santa Fe Opera festival?

Santa Fe: Continuing a Proud Strauss Tradition

Santa Fe Opera has an enduring reputation for its Strauss, and this season’s enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos surely made John Crosby smile proudly.

From the House of the Dead: Munich Opera Festival

Frank Castorf might have been born to direct From the House of the Dead. In this, his third opera project - or better, his third opera project in the opera house, for his Volksbühne Meistersinger must surely be reckoned with, even by those of us who did not see it - many of his hallmarks and those of his team are present, yet without the slightest hint of staleness, of anything other than being reborn for and in the work.

Haydn's Orlando Paladino in Munich

Should you not like eighteenth-century opera very much, if at all, and should you have no or little interest in Haydn either, this may have been the production for you. The fundamental premise of Axel Ranisch’s staging of Orlando Paladino seems to have been that this was a work of little fundamental merit, or at least a work in a genre of little such merit, and that it needed the help of a modern medium - perhaps, it might even be claimed, an equivalent medium - to speak to a contemporary audience.

Donizetti's 'Regiment' Ride the Highway: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

'The score … is precisely one of those works that neither the composer nor the public takes seriously. The harmony, melody, rhythmic effects, instrumental and vocal combinations; it’s music, if you wish, but not new music. The orchestra consumes itself in useless noises…'

Bernstein Bemuses in New Mexico

Santa Fe Opera’s Candide is a nearly indefatigable romp that is currently parading on the Crosby Theatre stage, chockfull of inventive ideas.

Santa Fe Floats a Beauteous Butterfly

Two new stars moved triumphantly into the ongoing run of Santa Fe Opera’s mesmerizing rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Götterdämmerung in Munich

What I am about to write must be taken with the proviso that I have not seen, this year or any other, the rest of Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring. Friends tell me that would have made little difference, yet I cannot know for certain.

A celebration of Parry at the BBC Proms

For Prom 17, Martyn Brabbins, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales brought together English music written either side of the First World War.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sergei Prokofiev, 1918 [Source: Wikipedia]
23 May 2018

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Sergei Prokofiev, 1918 [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The Philharmonia’s ‘Voices of Revolution’ concert series, programmed in the wake of celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, reached its climax with a performance of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of that revolution. First, however, we heard two highly contrasted works by the composer from 1917 itself: the much shorter cantata, Seven, they are Seven, and the First Violin Concerto (on whose material he had begun work two years earlier).

Seven, they are Seven (Semero ikh) received an exhilirating performance under Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor of the entire series, joined by the equally fine David Butt Philip, Philharmonia Voices, and Crouch End Festival Chorus. Talk about starting in medias res! Here was a Russianised hymn to Mesopotamian paganism such as few of us, however feverish our imaginations, might otherwise have imagined, albeit with a materialist, nihilist bent the performers could not and should not shake off: the Scythian Suite rendered choral and, somehow, both more and less austere. Prokofiev’s clamour for a spirit world in which he clearly did not believe – hints of something later in the programme, or not? – looked forward to The Fiery Angel, and perhaps even beyond. Perhaps, though, the deepest, darkest music came with the relative hush towards the close: ‘Spirit of Heaven, conjure them’.

That Silver Age dying away into nothing seemed apt preparation for the Violin Concerto’s celebrated silver opening. ‘Febrile’ is a word I am sure I overuse. It is difficult, however, not to resort to it in describing Pekka Kuusisto’s performance, full of the most intense – perhaps, for some, too intense? – variegation in articulation and phrasing. Unfashionably, I have always preferred the concerto’s G minor successor; if this performance did not change my mind, it came closer than most and, indeed, seemed almost to highlight what the two works have in common rather than what distinguishes them. Moreover, its side-slipping harmonic progressions, especially in the first movement, seemed almost to incite metrical equivalents. The second movement proved truly a twentieth-century scherzo, with the musical – and technical – consequences implied. Bitter-sweet lyricism and much else one could imagine, whether a priori or a posteriori, characterised the finale. Kuusisto’s despatch of Prokofiev’s double-stopping was despatched with almost diabolically casual ease, he and Ashkenazy shaping and characterising the movement to a tee. Kuusisto’s encore improvisation on a Russian folksong, ‘Midnight in Moscow’, was perhaps for fans only – but he clearly, far from unreasonably, has a good few of them.

Then came the Cantata grand finale. Ashkenazy seems to have had it about right in an interview with The Daily Telegraph – remember when that was still occasionally a serious newspaper? – in 2003, telling Geoffrey Norris that the composer had ‘kind of welcomed what was happening in Russia and wanted to see the brighter side. He didn't want to see the tragedy. With this welcome back into his country, he felt he should do what the country wanted him to do.’ More specifically concerning the Cantata, Ashkenazy continued, ‘it wasn't … an obligation ... Some people say that he wanted to mock, but I don't think so. It's a great piece, one of his greatest achievements. His attitude was just to go along with the general flow.’ It is a fascinating piece, certainly; I am not entirely convinced that it was one of his greatest achievements, but it is far, far too good not to hear. And how the world has moved on since that interview: bar a few irreconcilables on the Right, we are mostly communists again now, albeit of very different stripes, from ‘fully automated luxury queer space’ to something a little more traditionally Stalinist. If the point, as Marx maintained in his Theses on Feuerbach, as heard here, were not just, as philosophers had done, to interpret the world, but to change it, then the progress socialism has made in just the last few years augurs well indeed. It still seems a little odd, perhaps, to watch a Festival Hall full of Home Counties concert-goers, celebrating Leninism, but none of them seemed to have a problem with doing so. Good for them, for who, in what is also Marx 200 year, is not now in some sense a Marxist? At any rate, surely none of us would have the grimly negative imagination – or perhaps you would? – to dream up a neoliberal cantata celebrating, say, Hayek, Thatcher, and May: perhaps one of those curious ‘Hecklers’ who once disrupted Birtwistle performances? Trump, perhaps, albeit in a gaudier, more ironic fashion: perhaps a commission for Helmut Lachenmann. As for a Blairite Third Way

The opening sounded as if a socialist realist-ish Boris Godunov, the Philharmonia brass commendably ‘Russian’ in tone, albeit without raucousness. Whether that lack of roughness were an entirely good thing one may wonder; it is certainly Ashkenazy’s way. Listening afterwards, for instance, to Valery Gergiev in Rotterdam, I found more variety, perhaps something deeper, but it would be churlish to complain unduly, in what remained a highly accomplished performance. For Prokofiev’s late (late for him, that is) modernistic fragmentation retained degrees both of revolutionary disconcertion and of traditional grounding: surely Beethoven’s Ninth in the cellos that prepare the way for the choral entry: ‘massive’ here in every respect. Frozen, then thawing strings seemed also to pave the way for the ‘patriotic’ world soon to come, of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. Russia or socialism? You decide – or rather, Stalin will. Factory metal resounded, a reminder, perhaps of Mosolov, heard earlier in the series?

The lack of belief, in a strict sense, is quite different here from that of Shostakovich, and sounded as such. Whatever we think of the latter composer as ‘dissident’ or anything else, Prokofiev’s personality, musical and political, was of a very different nature, as side-slipping as those harmonies, which is not to impute cynicism, but perhaps to return us to Ashkenazy’s observations. (He, after all, unlike most of us, lived in the USSR.) And, just as in the Violin Concerto, Cinderella called too. There are no straight lines to draw in Prokofiev’s career; he did not come to write as he later did only on account of ‘external’ pressures. For there was belief of a sort: on hearing ‘We vow to you, Comrade Lenin…’ we did – if only, to quote Ashkenazy, ‘kind of’, at least whilst in thrall to Prokofiev’s stream of consciousness. Deafening: almost. Extraordinary: certainly.

Mark Berry

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):