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

Porgy and Bess at Dutch National Opera – Exhilarating and Moving

Thanks to the phenomenon of international co-productions, Dutch National Opera’s first-ever Porgy and Bess is an energizing, heart-stirring show with a wow-factor cast. Last year in London, co-producer English National Opera hosted it to glowing reviews. Its third parent, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will present it at a later date. In the meantime, in Amsterdam the singers are the crowing glory in George Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece.

Il trovatore at Seattle Opera

After a series of productions somehow skewed, perverse, and/or pallid, the first Seattle Opera production of the new year comes like a powerful gust of invigorating fresh air: a show squarely, single-mindedly focused on presenting the work of art at hand as vividly and idiomatically as possible.

Opera as Life: Stefan Herheim's The Queen of Spades at Covent Garden

‘I pitied Hermann so much that I suddenly began weeping copiously … [it] turned into a mild fit of hysteria of the most pleasant kind.’

Venus Unwrapped launches at Kings Place, with ‘Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice’

‘Playing music is for a woman a vain and frivolous thing. And I would wish you to be the most serious and chaste woman alive. Beyond this, if you do not play well your playing will give you little pleasure and not a little embarrassment. … Therefore, set aside thoughts of this frivolity and work to be humble and good and wise and obedient. Don’t let yourself be carried away by these desires, indeed resist them with a strong will.’

Burying the Dead: Ceruleo offer 'Baroque at the Edge'

“Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?”

'Sound the trumpet': countertenor duets at Wigmore Hall

This programme of seventeenth-century duets, odes and instrumental works was meticulously and finely delivered by countertenors Iestyn Davies and James Hall, with The King’s Consort, but despite the beauty of the singing and the sensitivity of the playing, somehow it didn’t quite prove as affecting as I had anticipated.

Brenda Rae's superb debut at Wigmore Hall

My last visit of the year to Wigmore Hall also proved to be one of the best of 2018. American soprano Brenda Rae has been lauded for her superb performances in the lyric coloratura repertory, in the US and in Europe, and her interpretation of the title role in ENO’s 2016 production of Berg’s Lulu had the UK critics reaching for their superlatives.

POP Bohème: Melodic, Manic, Misbehaving Hipsters

Pacific Opera Project is in its fourth annual, sold out run of Puccini’s La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters', and it may seem at first blush that nothing succeeds like success.

Edward Gardner conducts Berlioz's L’Enfance du Christ

L’Enfance du Christ is not an Advent work, but since most of this country’s musical institutions shut down over Christmas, Advent is probably the only chance we shall have to hear it - and even then, only on occasion. But then Messiah is a Lenten work, and yet …

Fantasia on Christmas Carols: Sonoro at Kings Place

The initial appeal of this festive programme by the chamber choir, Sonoro, was the array of unfamiliar names nestled alongside titles of familiar favourites from the carol repertoire.

Dickens in Deptford: Thea Musgrave's A Christmas Carol

Both Venus and the hearth-fire were blazing at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance during this staging of Thea Musgrave’s 1979 opera, A Christmas Carol, an adaptation by the composer of Charles Dickens’ novel of greed, love and redemption.

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

n, Hanna Schwarz as Pique Dame [All photos copyright Ruth Walz, courtesy of the SBrandon Jovanovich as Hermanalzburg Festival]
19 Aug 2018

The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festival

Hans Werner Henze’s fifth opera, The Bassarids (those who wear fox skins) had its world premiere at Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus in 1966. Now, 52 years later Henze’s massive “opera seria” returns, but to the Felsenreitschule —the old riding school made into a theater that hosts the Salzburg Festival’s difficult operas, the Grosses Festspielhaus now dedicated to the grand repertoire.

The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festival

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Tanya Ariane Baumgartner as Agave, the king of Thebes mother, holding high his severed head [All photos copyright Ruth Walz, courtesy of the Salzburg Festival]

 

And difficult Henze’s opera is. There is an heroic orchestra — batteries of brass, batteries of percussion, harps, pianos, guitars, it is after all the destruction of the founding family of one of ancient Greece’s greatest cities in the retelling of the last play of one of Greece’s greatest tragedians, Euripides! Not to mention two tone rows (yes, Henze was a serial composer) that configure the stark world of Pentheus, king of Thebes and the colorful world of Dionysus his challenger.

Euripides’ Bacchae was recast as an opera libretto for Henze by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, who provided the libretto for The Rake’s Progress and texts for Benjamin Britten. Thus here as well are the expected discussions, rather fixations on repressed sexual realities.

Bassarids_Salzburg2.pngKing Pentheus dressed as a woman, Dionysus plus a bacchanalia spirit (mute role)

Essentially Semele, great grand daughter of Cadmus, founding king of Thebes, was murdered while giving birth to a son who may be the son of Zeus, and therefore a god, or maybe not. Cadmus abdicated naming Semele’s sister Agave’s son Pentheus as the new king. Pentheus has complicated feelings about his mother who is pretty complicated herself. A challenger appears who may be the god Dionysus. Everyone joins his cult. Pentheus disguises himself as a woman to learn about the cult. He is discovered by a band of women led by his mother who tear him to pieces believing that he is a lion. Dionysus removes his mother Semele from her earthly tomb and takes her to Olympus to join him as a god.

With all this on his mind Henze needed far more than his two tone rows, thus he mined musical and operatic traditions to embellish and enrich his musical manifestation of the Auden/Kallman take on the Euripides’ Bacchae. Vocal lines are comprehensible, and there actually is a sort of bel canto. There are occasional, quite beautiful arias within the opera’s symphonic structure. Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion is oft quoted, Mahler like textures and harmonies are discernible, and by musical miracle we even arrive at a momentary, truly magnificent 6/4 chord (second inversion of a triad) during Semele’s assumption!

It is magnificent, complex, highly expressive music that painstakingly delves into the psychological depths of insecure men and women, of obsession, and into the psychologies of mass social phenomena and the resulting human debasement.

But the final scene of the opera is in fact wonderfully liberating, indeed moving as Dionysus leaves Thebes and abandons the cult he has founded. He commands Persephone to open the gates of hell and release his mother that she may triumphantly unite with him upon Olympus.

Mounting Henze’s setting of the Auden/Kallman’s neurotic tale of infanticide in the massive stone world of the old riding school was a wondrous gift to famed Polish stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski. He simply spread it all out across the expanse of the riding school paddock, The a vista crypt and shrine of Semele on the far left, the private bedroom (his neurotic inner life) of King Pentheus on the far right and in between three palace rooms where the founding dynasty of Thebes was destroyed. The massive upper reaches of the riding school galleries became a metaphorical mount Cithaeron.

Henze’s choruses were crucial players in the drama, not spectators, though the chorus did begin the evening as spectators filing into the first two rows of the auditorium as the citizens of Thebes praising their new king. They quickly left and little by little they joined the Dionysian cult as did Thebes founder Cadmus, deftly enacted by venerable bass Willard White who was in good voice.

The palace prophet Tiresias — blind of course — was played by Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff who cross-dressed as the fey Calliope of the Intermezzo. Cadmus’ granddaughter Agave was convincingly, even heroically portrayed by Frankfurt Opera’s dramatic mezzo soprano Tanya Ariane Baumgartner. Her weaker sister Autonoe was sung by Berlin’s Komischen Oper’s Vera-Lotte Böcker.

Bassarids_Salzburg3.pngAgave as Venus in Intermezzo, with Adonis, Persephone and Calliope

A more complicated if less defined character was Pentheus’ Captain (of the royal guard) sung by Hungarian bass-baritone Károly Szemerédy who doubled as the Adonis in the Intermezzo in which Dionysus’ magic mirror shows to Pentheus the unbridled sexuality of his mother — a cunningly staged scene by Warlikowski that video-mirrored the Intermezzo in black and white from its enactment far stage left onto a wall far stage right.

Pentheus’ wet nurse Beroe, sung by Dutch mezzo Anna Maria Dur, was another complex character. Hera, Zeus’ wife impersonates Beroe so that she could intimidate Semele into demanding to see her lover (Zeus) thus destroying herself. Yet Beroe expresses blind, uncomplicated maternal love for Pentheus earning our sympathy.

Canadian Opera’s baritone Russell Braun brought unbridled commitment to his portrayal of the weak, sexually repressed King Pentheus, moving from impotent authority to loss of identity, from fulfillment as a woman to honesty as a lost man. Sri Lankan-American tenor Sean Panikkar brought full spectrum to Dionysus, from cunning manipulator to the loving son of the mother he never knew.

Henze’s score is fiendishly difficult, for its singers and for its orchestra. Conductor Kent Nagano marshalled the always impressive forces of the Vienna Philharmonic into a convincing performance, simultaneously chorus master Huw Rhys James conducted (from the pit) the 100 or so voices of the concert choir of the Vienna State Opera in its huge chorus role.

Michael Milenski


Additional production information:

Sets: Christian Schmidt; Costumes: Reinhard von der Thannen; Lights: Stefan Billiger

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, August 13, 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):