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

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May I594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Saul  (Markus  Brück)  and  Abner/High  Priest/Amalekite/Doeg  (Stuart  Jackson) [Photo © Bill Cooper]
23 Aug 2018

Saul, Glyndebourne Festival

Music reigned supreme at Glyndebourne’s production of Handel’s Saul, with warm lyricism and exquisite delicacy offered by its soloists alongside an impressive powerhouse of a Chorus.

Saul, Glyndebourne Festival

A review by Jack Pepper

Above: Saul (Markus Brück) and Abner/High Priest/Amalekite/Doeg (Stuart Jackson)

Photos © Bill Cooper

 

Although the production raised questions at times, with what some purists may decry as gimmicks, the performance overall presented a dark and searching exploration of the themes of power, age, love and loss. Here was a highly enjoyable and memorable examination of the human condition.

Taking its narrative from the First Book of Samuel, Handel’s oratorio – first performed in 1739 – explores the descent of King Saul, where respect for young David (who has just slain Goliath) rapidly turns to hateful jealousy of the younger man’s popularity. Glyndebourne’s revival of Barrie Kosky’s 2015 production for the Festival brought more than a streak of tragedy: here was an emotionally compelling performance full of instrumental and vocal colour.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies took the role of David, who alongside the lustrous singing of tenor Allan Clayton – who played Jonathan, King Saul’s son – provided the soloistic highlights of the evening. In the First Act, Davies provided moments of genuinely heart-stopping beauty, the lyrical power of his voice evident when the orchestra suddenly cut out, leaving the countertenor sustaining a single note on a crescendo. With masterly awareness of dynamics coupled with a silky upper register, Davies displayed a vocal control few can match. Captivating. Allan Clayton was similarly expressive, again especially striking when the texture was most exposed; there were moments when the orchestra fell silent, leaving Clayton singing quietly alone, his voice full of lyrical warmth. This was music-making of the most controlled, sensitive and nuanced degree.

Topping off a superb cast, German baritone Markus Brück played King Saul in what is his Glyndebourne debut, alongside Handelian soprano Karina Gauvin as Merab, Saul’s daughter. Brück’s voice was richly expressive, bringing out the darker colours in this most troubled of characters. Although the libretto, in my eyes at least, hardly portrays a character of great psychological complexity – the King declines to madness within the blink of an eye, hardly the nuanced depiction of madness and decline in Shakespeare’s King Lear – Brück presented a character full of emotional contrasts with a voice similarly replete with juxtaposing colours. Gauvin was equally impressive, her duet with Davies at the opening of Act 3 full of urgency.

Also in particularly fine form were The Glyndebourne Chorus, whose voices provided both musical and dramatic delight; at the point in which Saul is confronting his madness explicitly, The Chorus stride right up to the edge of the stage, feet from the audience, their powerful singing dominating the space in an effective recreation of the voices swirling through the monarch’s mind. With Kosky’s creative use of space and The Chorus’s dramatic projection of their voices, this was a supreme example of how imaginative production and performance can combine to create the most vivid portrayal of a text. The Glyndebourne Chorus’s forceful fortissimo singing and vivid characterisation were one of the highlights of the evening.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Handel expert Laurence Cummings were also brimming with energy. The opening was full of bounce, whilst a consistently transparent texture allowed us to hear every delightful imitation in Handel’s intricate scoring. One of Saul’s unique points is its orchestration, with trombones evoking sackbuts, playing alongside kettledrums (which Handel borrowed from the Tower of London, no less), harp and carillon (a keyboard-glockenspiel). The score is therefore packed to the brim with colour, and Cummings made plentiful use of this, pointedly emphasising specific moments of instrumental contrast, most notably the tenderness of a theorbo (played by David Miller) accompanying the scene in which a declining Saul is cradled by Allan Clayton’s Jonathan.

©BC20180714_SAUL_0245.pngMichal (Anna Devin) and dancers

The production itself memorably played on the theme of light and dark, with effective use of stage lighting; the spotlight at the very start gently grew so as to expose the severed head of Goliath on stage, whilst later on the all-white tablecloths that dominated the stage dazzled the audience with light, perhaps a comment on Saul’s growing emotional blindness. A production highlight was the set for the final act, where hundreds of candles lined the stage, only to be gently extinguished by the chorus; this warm orange glow slowly reduced to darkness, Kosky’s staging here was a poignant moment of visual poetry.

However, if I am to make any criticism of this fine evening, it was that at times the production gave way to what some purists might decry as gimmickry; six dancers would rush onto the stage, sometimes after moments of exquisite emotional tenderness, and start gyrating at the edge of the stage. Although it brought a few laughs from the audience, I wondered whether the frequency of these interruptions was necessary, with the dancers breaking the flow of the narrative and wrecking the emotional tenderness that made many of the scenes so striking. Similarly distracting was the regularity of the shrieks and screams from the chorus, which – although a superb way of evoking the distress and the very humanity of the characters onstage – came so frequently that they detracted from their power. One scream would be striking, but ten or eleven become plain distractions.

Despite this small criticism, to the production’s credit, Kosky’s minimalism brought us back to the world of Ancient Greek tragedy, most appropriate for this Lear-like narrative; in having minimal distractions on stage in the way of set design, Kosky allowed us to focus on the human beings that are at the centre of this tragedy. Such an exposed stage drew greater sympathy from the audience because, when Saul was sat alone with just his closest family near him, his isolation was made painfully clear. Kosky appears to find that the inherent drama in Handel’s oratorios – even if they are not strictly operas, they are operatic by nature – is suited to the similarly dramatic nature of Greek theatre.[*] The influence of Greek Tragedy reminds us that, whilst this story is taken from the Bible, there are numerous parallels to Tragic plays and theatre in its progression, something Kosky’s production magnified with great effect.

An evening full of horror, delight, humour and despair all at once, this was an emotionally compelling and beautifully-performed evening. They say that a tragic story can be cathartic; no wonder everyone emerged from the theatre so full of life. An excellent evening.

Jack Pepper [†]



Editor’s Notes:

[*] According to Grout & Williams, “Wearied by the material difficulties and discouraged by the waning fortunes of opera, Handel had already begun in the 1730s to turn his attention to composing oratorios: Saul and Israel in Egypt were performed by the end of that decade, and in the following years came some of the other masterpieces by which the composer is best known today.” (p. 187)

[†] Jack, who has written for Opera Today, was invited by Glyndebourne to review their production of Saul as part of an initiative to engage younger writers in opera and opera criticism.

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):