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 Reviews

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

The Maryland Opera Studio Defies Genre with Fascinating Double-Bill

This past weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presented a double-billed performance of two of Kurt Weill’s less familiar staged works: Zaubernacht (1922) and Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927).

Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The Nash Ensemble’s annual contemporary music showcase focused on the work of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a composer with whom the group has enjoyed a long and close association. Three of the six works by Birtwistle performed here were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, as was Elliott Carter’s Mosaic which, alongside Oliver Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon, completed a programme was intimate and intricate, somehow both elusive in spirit and richly communicative.

McVicar's Faust returns to the ROH

To lose one Marguerite may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But, with the ROH Gounod’s Faust seemingly heading for ruin, salvation came in the form of an eleventh-hour arrival of a redeeming ‘angel’.

A superb Semele from the English Concert at the Barbican Hall

It’s good to aim high … but be careful what you wish for. Clichéd idioms perhaps, but also wise words which Semele would have been wise to heed.

A performance of Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante by Arcangelo

In 1726 on 25 August, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy, the new French ambassador to the Venetian Republic held a celebration for the name day of King Louis XV of France. There was a new piece of music performed in the loggia at the foot of Languet's garden with an audience of diplomats and, watching from gondolas, Venetian nobles.

Matthew Rose and Tom Poster at Wigmore Hall

An interesting and thoughtfully-composed programme this, presented at Wigmore Hall by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Tom Poster, and one in which music for solo piano ensured that the diverse programme cohered.

Ekaterina Semenchuk sings Glinka and Tchaikovsky

To the Wigmore Hall for an evening of magnificently old-school vocal performance from Ekaterina Semenchuk. It was very much her evening, rather than that of her pianist, Semyon Skigin, though he had his moments, especially earlier on.

Hubert Parry's Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

Caravaggio’s depiction (1598-99) of the climactic moment when the young, beautiful, physically weak Judith seizes the head of Holofernes by the enemy general’s hair and, flinching with distaste, cleaves the neck of the occupying Assyrian with his own sword, evokes Holofernes’ terror with visceral precision - eyes and screaming mouth are wide open - and is shockingly theatrical, the starkly lit figures embraced by blackness.

La Pietà in Rome

Say "La Pietà" and you think immediately of Michelangelo’s Rome Pietà. Just now Roman Oscar-winning film composer Nicola Piovani has asked us to contemplate two additional Pietà’s in Rome, a mother whose son is dead by overdose, and a mother whose son starved to death.

Matthias Goerne: Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 & Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes: Robert Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 and Kernerlieder. Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing.

Orfeo ed Euridice in Rome

No wrecked motorcycle (director Harry Kupfer’s 1987 Berlin Orfeo), no wrecked Citroen and black hearse (David Alagna’s 2008 Montpellier Orfée [yes! tenorissimo Roberto Alagna was the Orfée]), no famed ballet company (the Joffrey Ballet) starring in L.A. Opera’s 2018 Orpheus and Eurydice).

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel - a world premiere at English National Opera

Jack the Ripper is as luridly fascinating today as he was over a century ago, so it was no doubt sensationalist of the marketing department of English National Opera to put the Victorian serial killer’s name first and the true subject of Iain Bell’s new opera - his victims, the women of Whitechapel - as something of an after-thought. Font size matters, especially if it’s to sell tickets.

Tosca at the Met


The 1917 Met Tosca production hung around for 50 years, bested by the 1925 San Francisco Opera production that lived to the ripe old age of 92.  The current Met production is just 2 years old but has the feel of something that can live forever.

Drama Queens and Divas at the ROH: Handel's Berenice

A war ‘between love and politics’: so librettist Antonio Salvi summarised the conflict at the heart of Handel’s 1737 opera, Berenice. Well, we’ve had a surfeit of warring politics of late, but there’s been little love lost between opposing factions, and the laughs that director Adele Thomas and her team supply in this satirical and spicy production at the ROH’s stunningly re-designed Linbury Theatre have been in severely short supply.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the Royal Festival Hall

A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas.

Samson et Dalila at the Met


It was the final performance of the premiere season of Darko Tresnjak’s production of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Four tenors later. 

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

30 Sep 2018

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Salome Kammer

Photo credit: Christoph Hellhake

 

The final scene of Strauss’s Salome almost touches the edges of this musical form; indeed, this scene is often performed outside its opera in concert so one might be persuaded this is where the twentieth century monodrama evolves into its own genre. Erwartung, Schoenberg’s epochal psychological musical drama from 1909, goes very much further than Strauss, however: It’s openly Expressionist, deeply psychoanalytical, ambiguous in its narrative, terrifying in its musical language and flickers between dream and nightmare.

The link between these two concerts given by the Philharmonia Orchestra was not in the slightest tenuous; indeed, a lot conjoined the music rather than distinctly separated it. Although almost a century of music exists between Erwartung and the two works by Zender and Manoury - written respectively in 2001 and 2004 - one was drawn back into the past - no matter how obliquely - even if the musical language often felt distinctly more advanced. Hans Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, for example, uses a text by the Dadaesque poet Hugo Ball: The text itself is almost meaningless, a complete inversion of language, though as you listen to it occasionally you’re struck by its Germanic tone: “großgiga m’pfa habla horem”. There is a linguistic geometry to much of poetry; the entirely original vocabulary, the use of repetition, the combination of consonants or vowels in close proximity to one another (“bschigi bschigi” or “a-o-auma”) are themselves music. Hearing Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire was not unlike reading, or listening to, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Zender’s music, on the other hand, is distinctly ascetic, even spiky. Scored for a small chamber ensemble, this is music that coalesces around the consonantal hardness of the text; a cello or violin bow screeches or scratches against a string, a trombone is muted. The voice itself is treated in virtuosic terms - and it clearly requires a soloist calibrated to sing outside the standard operatic repertoire. Salome Kammer was simply breath-taking to listen to: The vocal acrobatics, the range and breadth of her dynamics, the sense that she has lived with this text were obvious. Only once in the entire work does Zender really plummet the depths of human emotions - in ‘Todenklage’ - and here the intensity and darkness of Kammer’s voice, as well as the soloists from the Philharmonia, really excelled in changing the atmosphere of the work.

I think Philippe Manoury’s Blackout is rather closer to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, both in its narrative and musical language. It tells the story of a woman who gets in a lift which then gets stuck during a power cut. As she waits in the darkness, her mind is forced into an emotional state of memory and dream. Manoury tells the story in real time over a period of twenty minutes - so, we get the rapid speed of the escalation of the lift contrasted with the slow-motion depiction of the narrator’s state of mind. Daniela Langer’s French text could be said to have its origins in Walter Grauman’s 1964 psychological thriller, Lady in a Cage, though the way she has written the text in prose-form suggests a nod towards the monodramas of Samuel Beckett.

Manoury writes for a slightly larger ensemble than Zender does but the expressionism is still there in spades. The febrile string writing, underscored by nervousness in the woodwind, dig deep into the psychological darkness of a mind in dream-mode. The music feels like elastic at times - it pulls between tempos that are fast and slow, and this is somewhat reflected in the narration of the text. A crackled recording of Ella Fitzgerald interjects. I don’t think this music requires the contralto Hilary Summers to use the full range of her quite remarkable voice, but she is never strained by the demands the music makes on her either. I found some of her French a little on the prosaic side, but she successfully navigated the internal psychology of the narrator’s mind to beautiful effect.

credit_Minna_Hatinen_Finnish_National_Opera_and_Ballet-1-2 (4).jpg Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo Credit: Minna Hatinen.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s opening concert of their autumn season, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, placed Schoenberg’s Erwartung in the middle of their programme. Schoenberg has always played to Salonen’s strengths, and so it did here. He treats this work as one of the great pillars of Modernism and there is much in his conducting of it that brings out the psychosis, lamentation and darkness of this monodrama. The fluidity he brings to the score, over its half-hour span, is quite remarkable - the contours of the music are almost unbroken, even if the trajectory of the narration never is. The changes in tempo and meter are so perfectly judged you almost feel as if this is a musical form of linguistic stream-of-consciousness. There is, however, one powerful impression one is left with in a Salonen performance of this work, and it’s a somewhat ironic one. Erwartung is a towering affirmation of Expressionism, but Salonen draws playing of incredible beauty from the Philharmonia Orchestra it seems to stand in opposition to the work’s more powerful emotive strands. I’ve rarely heard such refined woodwind playing as we got here - but this has long been a hallmark of this orchestra. It wasn’t necessarily out of place, but this came close to bordering on Romanticism.

It was left to the soloist - the outstanding Angela Denoke (replacing at short notice Camilla Nyland) - to raise this performance to the quite exceptional. Denoke brings despair, fear, madness and complete immersion into the psychological confusion the narrative demands. Her timbre resonates with darkness and ambiguity, but get to the upper range of her voice and the angst is shattering. One of the difficulties of a concert performance of this piece is it can sometimes lack the dramatic element it needs - Denoke, however, is consumed on stage in front of an orchestra using the colours of her voice to convey the moonlit streets, dense woodland or meadows and paths. The voice is entirely an expression of what Schoenberg termed his “Angst-dream”.

I’m not sure the rest of the Philharmonia’s concert was quite as memorable. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung, if notable for some superlative brass playing (especially a quartet of splendid Wagner tubas) avoided the pitfall of being overly lugubrious but sacrificed some of the music’s clarity of orchestration - I missed the transparency in the harps (pretty much inaudible), and the woodwind phrasing wasn’t plaintive enough, though I think much of this was due to the orchestral balance being somewhat overwrought. It did, nevertheless, feel cohesively dramatic. I think the best - and probably the worst - one can say about Salonen’s Bruckner Sixth Symphony was that it was utterly unique. If the opening of the first movement barely touched on Bruckner’s Majestoso tempo, Salonen’s intention was to take the rest of it at a sprightly allegro. Even if the playing was largely razor-sharp rhythms weren’t, and string bowing was notably messy. Oddly, the Adagio was taken in tempo and it was a highpoint of the performance (Tom Blomfield’s oboe solo being exquisite). The Scherzo achieved a neat symmetry of balance - with a fluid Trio section - but come the Finale the performance fell out of tempo again. The coda was undeniable exciting, but this was an extraordinarily mysterious Bruckner Sixth in almost every sense.

Marc Bridle

Hans Zender: Cabaret Voltaire for voice and ensemble (UK premiere) - Salome Kammer (vocal artist); Philippe Manoury: Blackout - Monodrama for contralto and ensemble (UK premiere) - Hilary Summers (contralto), Philharmonia Orchestra soloists, Pierre-André Valade (conductor)

Purcell Room, London; 27th September 2018.

Wagner, Schoenberg, Bruckner - Angela Denoka (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, London; 27th September 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):