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 Performances

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

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):