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

Eugene Onegin at Seattle

Passion! Pain! Poetry! (but hold the irony . . .)

Unusual and beautiful: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Kremerata Baltica, in this new release from Deutsche Grammophon.

Pow! Zap! Zowie! Wowie! -or- Arthur, King of Long Beach

If you might have thought a late 17thcentury semi-opera about a somewhat precious fairy tale monarch might not be your cup of twee, Long Beach Opera cogently challenges you to think again.

Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros perform Schubert at Wigmore Hall

How do you like your Schubert? Let me count the ways …

Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

On paper this seemed a fascinating recital, but as I was traveling to the Wigmore Hall it occurred to me this might be a clash of two great artists. Both Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say can be mercurial performers and both can bring such unique creativity to what they do one thought they might simply diverge. In the event, what happened was quite remarkable.

'Songs of Longing and Exile': Stile Antico at LSO St Luke's

Baroque at the Edge describes itself as the ‘no rules’ Baroque festival. It invites ‘leading musicians from all backgrounds to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them’.

Richard Jones' La bohème returns to Covent Garden

Richard Jones' production of Puccini's La bohème is back at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after its debut in 2017/18. The opening night, 10th January 2020, featured the first of two casts though soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was due to sing Mimì, had to drop out owing to illness, and was replaced at short notice by Simona Mihai who had sung the role in the original run and is due to sing Musetta later in this run.

Diana Damrau sings Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder on Erato

“How weary we are of wandering/Is this perhaps death?” These closing words of ‘Im Abendrot’, the last of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, and the composer’s own valedictory work, now seem unusually poignant since they stand as an epitaph to Mariss Jansons’s final Strauss recording.

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 from Hyperion

Latest in the highly acclaimed Hyperion series of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, Symphonies no 3 and 4, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in late 2018 after a series of live performances.

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Mozart’s Don Giovanni returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Robert Falls updating of the opera to the 1930s. The universality of Mozart’s score proves its adaptability to manifold settings, and this production featured several outstanding, individual performances.

Britten and Dowland: lutes, losses and laments at Wigmore Hall

'Of chord and cassiawood is the lute compounded;/ Within it lie ancient melodies'.

Tara Erraught sings Loewe, Mahler and Hamilton Harty at Wigmore Hall

During those ‘in-between’ days following Christmas and before New Year, the capital’s cultural institutions continue to offer fare both festive and more formal.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

This Accentus release of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, recorded live on 15/16th December 2018 at St. Thomas’s Church Leipzig, takes the listener ‘back to Bach’, so to speak.

Retrospect Opera's new recording of Ethel Smyth's Fête Galante

Writing in April 1923 in The Bookman, of which he was editor, about Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) - the most frequently performed of the composer’s own operas during her lifetime - Rodney Bennett reflected on the principal reasons for the general neglect of Smyth’s music in her native land.

A compelling new recording of Bruckner's early Requiem

The death of his friend and mentor Franz Seiler, notary at the St Florian monastery to which he had returned as a teaching assistant in 1845, was the immediate circumstance which led the 24-year-old Anton Bruckner to compose his first large-scale sacred work: the Requiem in D minor for soloists, choir, organ continuo and orchestra, which he completed on 14th March 1849.

Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet

Robust carol-singing, reindeer-related muzak tinkling through department stores, and light-hearted festive-fare offered by the nation’s choral societies may dominate the musical agenda during the month of December, but at Kings Place on Friday evening Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet eschewed babes-in-mangers and ding-donging carillons for an altogether more sedate and spiritual ninety minutes of reflection and ‘musical prayer’.

The New Season at the New National Theatre, Tokyo

Professional opera in Japan is roughly a century old. When the Italian director and choreographer Giovanni Vittorio Rosi (1867-1940) mounted a production of Cavalleria Rusticana in Italian in Tokyo in 1917, with Japanese singers, he brought a period of timid experimentation and occasional student performances to an end.

Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall

For those of us who live in a metropolitan bubble, where performances of Handel's Messiah by small professional ensembles are common, it is easy to forget that for many people, Handel's masterpiece remains a large-scale choral work. My own experiences of Messiah include singing the work in a choir of 150 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the venue's tradition of performing the work annually dates back to the 19th century.

What to Make of Tosca at La Scala

La Scala’s season opened last week with Tosca. This was perhaps the preeminent event in Italian cultural and social life: paparazzi swarmed politicians, industrialists, celebrities and personalities, while almost three million Italians watched a live broadcast on RAI 1. Milan was still buzzing nine days later, when I attended the third performance of the run.

La traviata at Covent Garden: Bassenz’s triumphant Violetta in Eyre’s timeless production

There is a very good reason why Covent Garden has stuck with Richard Eyre’s 25-year old production of La traviata. Like Zeffirelli’s Tosca, it comes across as timeless whilst being precisely of its time; a quarter of a century has hardly faded its allure, nor dented its narrative clarity. All it really needs is a Violetta to sweep us off our feet, and that we got with Hrachuhi Bassenz.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

11 Nov 2018

The Last Letter: the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court

The Barbican Centre’s For the Fallen commemorations continued with this varied and thought-provoking programme, The Last Letter, which interweaved vocal and instrumental music with poems and prose, and focused on relationships - between husband and wife, fellow soldiers, young men and their homelands - disrupted by war.

The Last Letter: Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court Concert Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jonathan McGovern

Photo credit: Gerard Collett

 

Devised by Dr Kate Kennedy - who is the Weinrebe Research Fellow in Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford - and performed in Milton Court Concert Hall by the Britten Sinfonia, baritone Jonathan McGovern and narrators Sophie Hunter and Richard Pryal - the programme represented, in Kennedy’s words, a ‘re-thinking and re-imagining’ of the First World War: a ‘nuanced’ picture allowing us to hear a ‘multiplicity of voices’ and which ‘put the composers of the war side by side with the writers, both male and female’.

It was certainly a diverse programme, with two musical works - the five songs which form Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter (2015), here performed for the first time in an arrangement for chamber orchestra, and five songs from Ivor Gurney’s settings of Housman, The Western Playland (1919, pub. 1926) - forming the backbone around which assorted poems, letters, prose fragments and other musical items were arrayed.

While the performances, musical and spoken, were unwaveringly committed and engaging, the sequence seemed to me overly complicated and fragmented - not least because of the confusing and unhelpful layout of the printed programme, in which a list of the musical items was followed by a description of the poetry and prose readings (though the texts themselves were not supplied), with the texts of the songs by Muhly and Gurney buried later in the programme amid explanatory notes relating to the other musical compositions to be performed. How was one to negotiate through the sequence, especially as the Concert Hall was repeatedly plunged into darkness, allowing for some atmospheric and theatrical spotlighting of the readers but making it nigh on impossible to read the printed texts supplied? Moreover, the cycles by Muhly and Gurney lost some of their impact because of the dispersal of their movements amid other items which tugged one’s focus in different directions, hindering the development of a ‘narrative’ and weakening the accumulation of expressive intensity through each cycle’s sequence of songs.

That said, I was impressed by the way the evening’s two narrators, Richard Pryal and Sophie Hunter, brought the varied voices, relationships and experiences of the historical past, recorded on the written page, into the living present. Amplification was employed - by necessity, I suppose, though one imagines that any self-respecting schoolmaster of the day would have had little trouble projecting with clarion resonance to the corners of the Concert Hall - and at times I would have liked the spoken voices to have had a little less immediacy, as in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Fragment’ or Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’, where I would have welcomed more gradation of tone and volume. But, Pryal and Hunter drew us into the pain and pathos recorded in the memoirs of Helen Thomas - whose poet-soldier husband, Edward, was killed at Arras in April 1917 - and in the letters of Vera Brittain and her fiancé, Roland Leighton.

Frederick Kelly’s letter to Edward Marsh, informing him of the death of his dear friend, Rupert Brooke, was beautifully recited by Pryal, accompanied by an intense rendition of Kelly’s Elegy: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke (1915), arranged for small string ensemble, in which Thomas Gould’s violin solo floated tenderly like an ascending spirit (Kelly was himself killed at the Somme just a few months thereafter). One of the most striking readings was ‘The Relief’, part of ‘Out of the Trenches’ from Broken Carousel by the German, Jewish poet, Leo Sternberg (translated from the German by Peter Appelbaum), with its terrible images of the soldiers ‘snowed in the trenches like snow-covered clods of earth … Our death cry only a signal for the army/ Behind us’.

In the light of the Armistice commemorations and with Brexit on the horizon, the fact that Muhly’s The Last Letter was commissioned by the Barbican Centre and the European Concert Hall Organisation, with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, seemed almost painfully ironic. Muhly’s settings of four letters drawn from Mandy Kirkby’s edition, Love letters of the Great War, and Schiller’s poem ‘The Gods of Greece’ (translated by Richard Wigmore) was first performed in this same Concert Hall in October 2015 by baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Gary Matthewman. Here, members of the Britten Sinfonia played the composer’s new chamber orchestration, accompanying Jonathan McGovern, who gave an earnest and compelling performance.

The sparse textures etched by piano and harp at the start of the first song, threw the vocal yearning into sharp relief, as the husband repeatedly asks his wife, “Please, tell me your name, as I have forgotten it”. McGovern then conjured the urgency of the wife’s reply, surging in short fragments, “Jack - my own - my only love - how I look for our next letter - how much longer shall I have to wait?”, before retreating to a pianissimo of almost visceral intensity, “Oh! Let me feel you crushing,my very life into yours”. The large leap between the first two words of her written request to be permitted a conjugal visit, “Dear Leader of the Company!”, conveyed every atom of the strength she had to summon, before her passion - anger, desire, frustration - seemed to over-spill. McGovern’s focused line in the subsequent slow, simple declamation that she was to divorce her husband and marry another man, masked tragic emotional disturbance, as intimated by the violin’s commentary; the abruptness of the close was brutal. In the final song, in which Schiller describes a deserted landscape, the baritone’s dark tone and robustness through the angular line, “Fair world, where are you?”, was compelling.

The strength of line that McGovern displayed to such good effect in Muhly’s songs was occasionally less effective in Gurney’s Housman settings. In ‘Reveille’, I’d have liked more nuanced phrasing, to complement Gould’s expressive contribution, and while the forthrightness of the poet-speaker’s almost defiant honesty in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ - “Now, of my threescore years and ten,/ Twenty will not come again,/ And take from seventy springs a score,/ It only leaves me fifty more.” - I missed the soft wistfulness of the closing vision of the cherry tree, “hung with snow”. Pianist Mark Knoop engaged expressively with the vocal line and accompanying string quartet in ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’ and McGovern worked hard to differentiate the text’s speakers.

The members of the Britten Sinfonia made their own instrumental contribution to the memorialising medley. I was not familiar with Music for Seven Stringed Instruments (1907-11) by Rudi Stephan, who was killed in action near Tarnopol in Galicia on 29th September 1915, aged twenty-seven, but the Sinfonia’s beautiful performance of ‘Nachspiel’, which ended the first part of the recital, made me want to hear more. The melodies were supple, the tone warm, the harmonies subtly ambiguous, and the players crafted the structure finely, building towards a luminescent close in which the violins soared with silvery translucence above gentle but pointed harp gestures. Two movements, ‘Prelude’ and ‘Forlane’, from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (1917), arranged by Robert Weiner for oboe and string quartet, were interspersed between vocal items in the second half of the concert, which concluded, perhaps inevitably, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936). The Britten Sinfonia gave a poised and self-possessed performance, employing a restrained vibrato which served paradoxically to increase the focused intensity. Here, at last, after the multiplicity of voices and perspectives, was the singularity and stillness that offered time and space for reflection and remembrance.

Claire Seymour

The Last Letter : Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould (violin/director), Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Sophie Hunter (narrator), Richard Pryal (narrator).
Nico Muhly, ‘Letter One’ from The Last Letter (world premiere of chamber orchestral version); Ivor Gurney, ‘Reveille’ fromThe Western Playland; Frederick S. Kelly (arr. Divall),Elegy: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke; Muhly, ‘Letter Two’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘Loveliest of Trees’ fromThe Western Playland; Rudi Stephan, ‘Nachspiel’ fromMusic for Seven Stringed Instruments; Gurney, ‘The Aspens’ fromThe Western Playland; Muhly, ‘Letter Three’ fromThe Last Letter; Ravel (arr. Weiner), ‘Prelude’ fromLe tombeau de Couperin; Muhly, ‘Letter Four’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ fromThe Western Playland; Ravel (arr. Weiner), ‘Forlane’ fromLe tombeau de Couperin; Muhly, ‘Letter Five’ fromThe Last Letter; Gurney, ‘March’ from The Western Playland; Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings.
Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Friday 9th November 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):