January 31, 2020

Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague

Patrons trickling into the theatre for Opera Melancholia heard anonymous quotes such as this one, to live chamber music by Philip Glass and Glass-inspired compositions by Daniël Hamburger. The words with which young adults tried to capture melancholy were poignant, but it was the somber pieces, especially the mournful cello and hollow percussion of Tissue No.1, that filled the house with gloom and set the scene for the main program.

Opera Melancholia is the latest production by OPERA2DAY, a small company based in The Hague that repeatedly gives its big sister in the capital a run for its money. It’s a thoughtfully constructed, progressively unsettling exploration of the nature of depression built around Glass’s opera the Fall of the House of Usher. According to the company, the work has never been staged in the Netherlands until now. Glass’s mesmerising opera is a fairly faithful adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s grisly tale, which lends itself to countless interpretations. While visiting his dejected friend Roderick Usher, Poe’s nameless narrator helps him entomb his twin sister Madeline in the family vault when she succumbs to a mysterious illness. Not having really died, however, she leaves her coffin and, falling upon her brother, kills him with fright. Thus the Usher family line is extinguished, as is their stately home. The narrator just manages to cross the causeway before the house comes crashing down into the tarn that surrounds it.

Opera Melancholica029.png

In director Serge van Veggel’s hands the opera becomes a psychiatric case study, complete with an introductory lecture by an engaging shrink and audience participation. The rotting house in the middle of the fetid lake is Roderick’s sick psyche, represented by a giant skull surrounded by an inky pond. It stands in the middle of an anatomical theatre, the kind in which cadavers were dissected for the benefit of medical students, a sober set that comes alive under Uri Rapaport’s kaleidoscopic lighting. Applying principles of psychoanalysis and Eastern philosophy, Van Veggel maps the three characters to parts of Roderick’s fractured self. He himself stands for his thinking self, or the Freudian ego, that has become disconnected from his feeling self (the Freudian id), embodied by his sister Madeline. The friend, named William in the opera, stands for consciousness or the socially acceptable superego. He’s the catalyst that forces Roderick to embrace his emotions, rather than burying them away, and heal his childhood trauma. This approach to psychotherapy probably wouldn’t bear close scientific scrutiny, but artistically it is an elegant thesis. And surely Poe, who knew a thing or two about the murky depths of the human psyche, would have approved.

If it all sounds a bit complicated, actor René M. Broeders, as the genial doctor dissecting Roderick’s mind, made it all seem plausible in his semi-improvised lecture. Be aware, if you go to a show, that his staff could question you about sadness while you’re having your pre-performance drink in the foyer, and Broeders could ask you to elaborate on your answers during his presentation. When was the last time you cried? And which piece of music best expresses melancholy? (The selections are added to a Spotify playlist. ) Responding to Broeders’ unforced humour and sensitivity, patrons were articulate and forthcoming with information, some of it rather intimate. The hall gasped when a GP reported that half of his patients presented with psychological problems, either explicit or masked by somatic symptoms. After this touching and entertaining briefing, the cast took over the stage to perform the opera/case study, and they were fantastic.

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Tenor Georgi Sztojanov left a strong impression as the Usher family physician, a part which subsumed the role of the servant, originally written for a bass. William’s compassion came across in Drew Santini’s fine baritone. Brimming with optimism in the beginning, Santini grew visibly hunched as Roderick’s moroseness wore him down. In a casting master stroke, soprano Lucie Chartin seductively spun Madeline’s vocalises offstage while willowy Ellen Landa danced her onstage. Twitchy, obsessively repetitious choreography by Ed Wubbe of Scapino Ballet captured the seductiveness of the mad and the morbid. Snaking across the dirty water, her wet robe dragging behind her, Landa was a horrific and fascinating apparition. So was tenor Santiago Burgi as the unhinged Roderick, surrounded by books and bin liners stuffed with empty booze bottles, frenziedly banging out poetry on a typewriter. Van Veggel’s pitch-perfect direction certainly helped his phenomenally intense performance, but the fearless singing and artifice-free acting were all his own. Starting out slightly whiny to convey Roderick’s desperate neediness, his voice grew stronger and rounder as the “therapy” started to work. “If our souls could twine” to the dead Madeline was beautifully elegiac and when he recited Poe’s poem The Conqueror Worm (Van Veggel’s addition to the libretto) he kicked up a windstorm of manic energy.


As a successful case study, the opera doesn’t end in the destruction of the house of Usher, but in Roderick’s cure, but visually it’s still a dramatic finale that matches the musical climax, effectively constructed by conductor Carlo Boccardo. The New European Ensemble played for him with pulsating urgency. More assertive entrances whenever Glass introduces a new pattern would have propelled the musical narrative further, and at one point the orchestra overshadowed the trio of soloists, but the performance as a whole hummed with vitality. Opera Melancholica is on tour in the Netherlands, with alternating cast members, until the 19th of March. The lecture is in Dutch, but an outline in English is available. The opera is subtitled in Dutch and English.

Jenny Camilleri

Philip Glass: The Fall of the House of Usher

René M. Broeders, Physician-Director; Santiago Burgi, Roderick; Drew Santini, William; Georgi Sztojanov, Physician (Roderick on 19/2 and 11/3); Peter Rolfe Dauz, Physician (19/2, 28/2, 6/3 and 11/3); Lucie Chartin, Madeline; Emma Fekete, Madeline (3/3, 4/3, 6/3, 16/3, 18/3 and 19/3); Ellen Landa, Dancer; Dora Stepušin, Dancer (19/2 and 11/3). Gijs van Mierlo and four other actors take turns as the Child. Herbert Janse, Set Designer; Mirjam Pater, Costume Designer; Uri Rapaport, Lighting Designer; Ed Wubbe, Choreographer; Daniël Hamburger, Composer. Serge van Veggel, Director. Carlo Boccardo, Conductor. New European Ensemble. Seen at the Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague, on Wednesday, the 29th of January, 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Opera%20Melancholica047.png image_description=Scene from The Fall of the House of Usher [Photo by Marco Borggreve] product=yes product_title=Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=All photos by Marco Borggreve
Posted by Gary at 12:13 PM

Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project

Those who might not have linked the plot circumstances of L’enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Spells) to the garrulous Donato family in the Puccini, were helped along by the creative direction of the relentlessly imaginative Josh Shaw.

You see, Mr. Shaw has decided that the bratty boy in the Ravel, who is confined to his room as punishment for not finishing his homework, is the same young lad Gherardino who had the mission of bringing the character Gianni Schicchi to do the bidding of the scheming relatives of dead Buoso Donato, who has left all of them out of his will. The thinking is that the boy was so traumatized by these machinations, that he then has nightmarish Ravelian hallucinations as his toys, furniture, animals, and various and sundry inanimate objects come to life to torment him. To reinforce the connection, all of the performers from the Puccini are back (among new ones) and subtly recognizable as part of Gherardino/The Boy’s milieu.

This might have been just a cerebral exercise were it not for Shaw’s strong hand at defining character relationships, and skill at crafting richly detailed stage business. The plotters in Schicchi can often seem “greedy generic” but here each was a unique personality, informed by subtext. The controlled restlessness of the first half of the Puccini, settled into a nice stage picture when the notary documents the new will. This was matched in the Ravel by well-choreographed sequences that paraphrased the bustle in the first piece, even down to cascades of papers hurled through the air.

gianni-2257.pngScene from Gianni Schicchi

Josh Shaw, the designer also showed his customary ingenuity and flair. The rather ordinary 1950’s (death)bed room was a handsome enough box set, but it was in L’enfant that we delighted in the many here-to-fore hidden bells and whistles, with performers bustling through hidden passageways, popping up over the top of the walls, bursting out of an armoire, and even standing on top of it. The colorful and astonishing appearance of Fire as she jumps through the wall of the fireplace, with long fabric flames billowing behind her was alone the price of admission.

The variety and excellence of Maggie Green’s over the top costumes were certainly a major factor in the project’s resounding success. From the slightly rude placement of the Teapot’s spout, to the imposing tree, to all manner of witty treatment of small animals in the fantastical second opera, to the spot-on 50’s Goombah getups of the day’s opener, this was a magnificent visual achievement. Owing to the sheer numbers of attire, it is worth noting the contributions of Assistant Costume Designers Vanessa Karamanian and Gabriela Villa Lobos.

Marie Scott Mawji’s lighting design was simple but effective. There was especially nice pointing up of key exchanges, and the passage of time in both selections was well indicated with subtle adjustments of mood, and all this from a rather limited lighting inventory.

The cast could hardly be bettered. As Schicchi the charismatic baritone E. Scott Levin is a company favorite and for good reason. Mr. Levin never fails to engage us with his well-considered impersonations that are grounded in truth. Seldom has his sturdy baritone been heard to better advantage, and his dying geezer vocal mannerisms were delectably delivered. I especially liked his undercutting delivery of the climactic, deceptive “Gianni Schicchi’s” (in which he bequeaths valuable items to himself) in his own robust, penetrating voice. This was a masterful role assumption. Turning on a dime (or lira), he makes for a wily, characterful Black Cat in part two.

enfant-2497.pngScene from L’enfant et les sortileges

Tiffany Ho was such a winning Lauretta that we missed her when she was offstage for that extended plot stretch, especially since she totally beguiled us with such a poised, freshly nuanced O mio babbino caro. Her assured, silvery soprano also impressed as Ravel’s Princess and Owl. Jonathan Matthews proved an accomplished Rinuccio, his shining, appealing tenor making the most of his featured scenes. I only wish Mr. Matthews could invest the very top of his range with the same alluring brightness of the voice below the passaggio . Small matter when he and Ms. Ho blended so splendidly in their thrilling, full-throated duet passages. More than a pretty face, Jonathan’s antics as a daffy bouncing Frog in L’enfant showed off his theatrical range.

With little to sing in the Puccini, Kimberly Sogioka’s Gherardino seemed like an appropriately lumpy, bored teenager, but that all changed when she unleashed her ample, creamy mezzo in part two. As the enfant of the title she reacted appropriately to all the dizzying spells visited upon her, all the while singing with aplomb and stylistic accuracy. Her touching final word was the perfect punctuation to the day’s riches.

Sharmay Mussachio was a powerhouse as Zita, her beautifully colored contralto slicing through proceedings with incisive appeal and stature. As the White Cat in the French opus, Ms. Mussachio trades in her deviousness for a slinking, warmly vocalized feline that would bewitch even an avowed dog lover. Joel Balzun regaled us with one of the best star turns of the day as Ravel’s Clock. Wedding uninhibited, goofy stage business to his ringing, imposing baritone, Mr. Balzun served notice that at this moment, the stage was his. Earlier, he contributed a firmly presented take on Puccini’s Betto.

Tom Sitzler took complete ownership of Schicchi’s Simone, his well-modulated and personable baritone imparting much pleasure. His generous, pliable delivery also made the most of his brief scene as he tortured L’enfant as a particularly solid-voiced Arm Chair.Sonja Krenek deployed her attractive, soulful soprano to create a well-rounded Nella that captured our ear no matter how much turmoil ensued in povero Buoso’s bed chamber, and her scolding Mother in the Ravel was infused with unspoken love.

enfant-2548.pngScene from L’enfant et les sortileges

Danielle Marcelle Bond invests her every character with such commitment and decisive choices that it is hard to single out just one. Her vibrant, well-focused mezzo memorably dispatches her assignments whether as the plotting, earthy Ciesca in part one, or as part two’s pattering Tea Cup or gliding Dragon Fly. As Ms. Bond’s husband Gherardo in Schicchi, Robert Norman commendably matched her in wiliness and vocal achievement, but he arguably has his “moment” as a manic, moody, slightly libidinous Tea Pot which found his shining lyric tenor ringing out with joyous abandon.

Jared Daniel Jones’ well-schooled bass-baritone impressed mightily in his appropriately stolid delivery as the pontificating Tree in the Ravel. How did he stand so long, so still, on top of that cabinet? And how did he get up there? Earlier in the day, Mr. Jones also dispatched Puccini’s Marco with ease. Also in Schicchi, bass-baritone Peter Barber sang the relatively few but important lines of the notary Armantio with such luxurious tone and potent presence, that we sat up in our seats with “Who is THAT?” attentiveness.

As Schicchi’s insistent Dr. Spineloccio, William Grundler used his attractive tenor in decent service to a part that is often taken by a lower voice. As the old man representing Arithmetic (i.e. a page L’enfant has torn from a schoolbook) Mr. Grundler really lets loose with a vocal comeuppance that is as vocally satisfying as it is effortlessly funny.

Audrey Yoder’s hangdog Pinellino was a game stab at Puccini’s bass character, but hey, it worked. The soprano’s attractive timbre and laudable musicianship were much more fully on display in part two as a fussy Louis XIV chair, a pestering Bat, and a limpidly realized Shepherdess. Ms. Yoder had company covering minor male roles as Sarabeth Belóndid all she could as Guccio in the first opera. Happily, Ms. Belón’ shimmering, secure mezzo got a chance to shine in the second half as she ably essayed a squirming Squirrel and a serene Shepherd.

Well-remembered for her vocal acrobatics as POP’s recent Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, Michelle Drever did not disappoint in her dual assignments of Fire and Nightingale. If anything, Ms. Drever’s melismas, leaps, and legato were now even more assured, and she imbued her vocalizing with fiery relish. This highly talented and evenly matched team of top area vocalists was buoyed by a polished band.

In the “pit,” Joshua Horsch led stylistically informed readings of two highly different sensibilities. Puccini’s boisterous Italian comedic effects, give way often to the plush lyricism that is his trademark. Ravel’s opus shows just why he is regarded as a master of orchestration, with more acerbic effects and a tendency to translucent tones, and vibrating harmonies. The outstanding group of musicians ably delineated these two works, thanks to Maestro Horch’s deft leadership.

I wish that the instrumental ensemble had indeed been in a pit, where their presence would have been on a par with the singers in Gianni Schicchi. Being off stage left sometimes rendered them hard to hear when the committed performers concertedly performed the extramusical wails the piece requires. Perhaps those outbursts could be modulated to allow the orchestra equal aural footing?

However, the balance for the Ravel was just the right mix of delicacy and brazenness that showed Mr. Horsch in complete command as he fused singers and instrumentalists into a luminous entity of sassy wonder and sheer delight.

This double bill is a sure-fire hit that will please the seasoned aficionado and curious novice alike. There is so much visual satisfaction and exceptional music-making going on here, that this should be one of the hottest tickets in town, and one of the most affordable. POP has taken the novel notion of pairing these two one acts for the very first time, and has emphatically turned it into a fully realized, wholly satisfying success.

James Sohre

Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
Maurice Ravel: L’enfant et les sortileges

Gianni Schicchi/Black Cat: E. Scott Levin; Gherardino/Enfant: Kimberly Sogioka; Lauretta/Princess/Owl: Tiffany Ho; Rinuccio/Frog: Jonathan Matthews; Zita/White Cat: Sharmay Musacchio; Betto/Clock: Joel Balzun; Simone/Arm Chair: Tom Sitzler; Nella/Mother: Sonja Krenek; Ciesca/Teacup/Dragonfly: Danielle Marcelle Bond; Gherardo/Teapot: Robert Norman; Marco/Tree: Jared Daniel Jones; Amantio: Peter Barber; Spinelloccio/Arithmetic: William Grundler; Pinellino/Louis XIV Chair/Bat/Shepherdess: Audrey Yoder; Guccio/Squirrel/Shepherd: Sarabeth Belón; Fire/Nightingale: Michelle Drever; Conductor: Joshua Horsch; Director/Designer: Josh Shaw; Costumer: Maggie Green; Lighting Designer: Marie Scott Mawji; Director, Occidental Glee Club: Désirée La Vertu

image=http://www.operatoday.com/gianni-2036.png image_description=Scene from Gianni Schicchi [Photo by Martha Benedict] product=yes product_title=Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Scene from Gianni Schicchi

Photos by Martha Benedict
Posted by james_s at 10:48 AM

January 30, 2020

Bieito's Carmen returns to English National Opera

Setting the action in a Spanish border town or North African colonial outpost in the immediate post-Franco era, Bieito creates a world populated by lascivious soldiers and vicious criminal lowlife. The black air throbs with machismo and testosterone thumps through the veins of the military and smugglers alike. The women - their blingy rags seedy rather provocative - are meat for sexual slaughter, though they are not averse to hair-pulling, cigarette-burning bitch-fests of their own either. The children are beggars.

It’s certainly nasty. At the start, a soldier dressed only in his underpants and carrying a heavy rifle runs in a circle around his military colleagues, a punishment which embodies the ever-tightening twist of a noose. Eventually he collapses and is dragged off, like a carcass. Zuniga gets slammed in a car door. One small child, perilously vulnerable, hovers amid the violence and her innocence seems ripe for ravaging, but Bieito holds back.

Keel Watson, Sean Panikkar, Justina Gringyté.jpg Keel Watson (Zuniga), Sean Panikkar (José), Justina Gringytė (Carmen). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Designer Alfons Flores offers no ‘set’ as such, just a flag-pole - the Spanish emblem hoisted in Act 1 is unceremoniously used as a beach towel by a lotion-slapping leggy blonde gleefully awaiting the toreador’s exploits in Act 3 - and a telephone kiosk. Carmen emerges from the latter to sing her Habanera, as if it’s her phone-sex showpiece. A dusty circle suggests bullring or barricade, as you like; there’s no freedom whether you in or out. Lillas Pastia’s bar is a second-hand car lot: these brigands keep on the move, though the battered Mercedes need a helping nudge to get rolling. Those in the ENO audience who thought that they were in for an evening of the eye-watering hues and exotic scents of Spain must have been disappointed.

Reviewing the first appearance of this production at ENO, in 2012, I noted that ‘life here is perilous and desperate, and self-serving ruthlessness offers the only hope of survival’ but that this ‘potentially intriguing and insightful concept’ was weakened because ‘such deadening violence is by nature static rather than dynamic, and the problem with this at times startlingly discerning and imaginative production is that as it progresses it needs a shot of dramatic drive’. The problems seemed different this time round but had the same effect.

The bourgeoisie at the Opéra-Comique in 1875 might have been both horrified and titillated in equal and complementary measure by the issues of race, class and gender which Carmen shoved under their noses, but sadly the exploitation and subjugation of women - violence, prostitution, destructive defiance - seem all too familiar now. This production was first mounted at the 1999 Peralada Festival in northern Catalonia, and then adapted for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2010. At twenty years-of-age, it’s starting to feel a bit weary.

Bieito’s images are striking, often unpleasant and sometimes discomforting, but the violence seemed rather abstract on this occasion - dislocated from a real community, real people and genuine relationships. The ENO Chorus sang well, but the vulgar masculinity seemed rather cartoonish. Though Alex Otterburn was a terrific Moralès, really dark and disturbed, Keel Watson’s Zuniga scarcely registered in dramatic terms. Most problematic of all was the fact that there was absolutely no chemistry between the central pair of tragic lovers.

Sean Panikkar, Nardus Williams.jpg Sean Panikkar (José), Nardus Williams (Micaëla). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Justina Gringytė, returning confidently to the title role that she performed at ENO in 2015, had plenty of grit and edge, though not much sultriness - at times she sounded as if should be singing Janáček not Bizet, and the Eastern European twang to the English text did not so much suggest ‘an outsider’ as make it impossible to forgo reliance on the surtitles (mercifully the spoken dialogue has been massacred by Bieito to the point of non-existence). There was nothing that was not secure and technically assured about Gringytė’s performance, but it was a ‘motive-less’ as the set was ‘Spanish-less’.

American tenor Sean Panikkar impressed in terms of ardour, colour and warmth, but he did not convey the almost hallucinatory madness that overcomes Don José under the heat of the Spanish sun and in the glare of Carmen’s tempting sexual allure. I wasn’t quite sure why he killed her at the close. Nor, was I convinced that this José had any genuine feelings for Nardus Williams’ Micaëla (or for his own mother, for that matter, whose absence and demise he frequently laments). Williams is asked to forgo any semblance of innocent ingénue and she did this by singing with power, a rich tone enhance by a full vibrato, and grabbing José in a passionate lip-locked embrace. Williams got the biggest applause of the night for ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ but how do we square this with the bitchy vulgarity she exhibits when she spits on the spread-eagled Carmen when she manages to get José to leave with her at the end of Act three to visit his dying mother?

Ashley Riches (Escamillo).jpg Ashley Riches (Escamillo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Ashley Riches struggled to make Escamillo ‘exciting’ - as any ‘torreador’ might, when dressed in a grey suit and deprived of one’s bullring - but he sang with characteristic vigour and precision. If I suggest that Ellie Laugharne (Frasquita) and Samantha Price (Mercédès) were a frightful double act, that’s a positive comment in the context of this production: in fact, the card scene was one of the most persuasive and ‘human’ episodes in the performance.

This is a ‘noisy’ production. The smugglers stamp and stomp, car doors slam, a naked soldier performs the torero’s night-before-the-fight ritual, slapping his abs with quasi-lycanthropic lust under the glow of the moon beam. It can all be rather distracting, especially since conductor Valentina Peleggi didn’t inspire the ENO Orchestra to coloristic heights: it felt rather muted in the pit, though some fine horn and harp playing grabbed one’s attention at times.

Toussaint Meghie’s white-suited, trilby-topped Lillas Pastia got the show underway with a sleight of hand involving a red kerchief à la matador, but it will take more than a box of tricks to make this Carmen come fully alive. Perhaps as the run unfolds the cast will get into the groove and bring some magic - black or otherwise - to Bieito’s twilight zone.

Claire Seymour

Carmen - Justina Gringytė, Don José - Sean Panikkar, Escamillo - Ashley Riches, Micaëla - Nardus Williams, Zuniga - Keel Watson, Moralès - Alex Otterburn, Frasquita - Ellie Laugharne, Mercédès - Samantha Price, Dancairo - Matthew Durkan, Remendado - John Findon; Director - Calixto Bieito, Conductor - Valentina Peleggi, Revival director - Jamie Manton, Set designer - Alfons Flores, Costume designer - Mercè Paloma, Lighting designer - Bruno Poet, Revival lighting designer - Martin Doone.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Wednesday 29th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/dancer%2C%20Alex%20Otterburn%2C%20%C2%A9%20Richard%20Hubert%20Smith.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Carmen: English National Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Dancer & Alex Otterburn (Moralès)

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Posted by claire_s at 3:03 PM

January 27, 2020

Coquettes, Wives, and Widows: Gender Politics in French Baroque Opera and Theater

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French theatrical works created an uneasy dialogue with the often-blistering depictions of marriage in contemporary writings by literary women. For over a century, composers and librettists attempted to silence such anti-traditionalist views through dramas that ridicule, banish, or, even more violently, silence and subjugate female characters who resist marriage. These dramas portray independent-minded women as agents of chaos who deploy their sexuality to destabilize class demarcations, or to destroy families and at times the monarchy itself.

Coquettes, Wives, and Widows: Gender Politics in French Baroque Opera and Theater shows how dramatists wrested narratives away from women and weaponized those narratives in a defense of the status quo. It examines a wide range of works of different types: from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Platée, ou Junon jalouse and André Campra’s Aréthuse, ou la Vengeance de l’Amour to representative works from the Comédie Française, the Comédie Italienne, and the fairgound theaters. Each theater offered denigrating portraits of independent women as dissolute, obstinate, and extremist.

The operas and other theatrical works explored in Coquettes, Wives, and Widows reveal who (in the view of many at the time) should exercise authority to make choices about women’s lives. They also give evidence of widespread fears about how society might change if it were to grant women themselves that responsibility.

[Source: University of Rochester Press]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Coquette.png image_description= product=yes product_title=Coquettes, Wives, and Widows: Gender Politics in French Baroque Opera and Theater product_by=By Marcie Ray product_id=University of Rochester Press (ISBN 9781580469883) price=$85.00 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1580469884/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1580469884&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=7cea4a6a7cf59426b665b4848d16d874
Posted by Gary at 7:56 PM

January 26, 2020

Twilight People: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin at Wigmore Hall

This is the title which the German countertenor Andreas Scholl and his Israeli wife, pianist Tamar Halperin, have chosen for several of their performances in recent years, and it is also the title of their latest disc - which launched BMG’s new Modern Recordings series in November - the programme of which they brought to Wigmore Hall following performances at the Concertgebouw and elsewhere in the UK.

Presenting works by Britten and Vaughan Williams, Copland and Berg, as well as by less well-known contemporary composers Israeli Ari Frankel and Egyptian-born Joseph Tawadros, the duo seek to explore the territory that lies between folk music and art song. At Wigmore Hall they supplemented the items on the disc in order to create two parallel sequences, Arvo Pärt balancing Frankel at the start of the respective halves, Vaughan Williams in conversation with Berg in the centre, and, at least as originally intended, Britten followed by Tawadros bringing each half to a close. Many songs segued without pause; interspersed between the songs were works for solo piano by John Cage.

There may have arrived quite a few new kids on the countertenor block since Scholl began his career, but there can be few who have such purity of tone, quasi-angelic lyricism and directness of utterance as the German singer. Texts were given due and customary care, and there were moments of lightness and gentle humour to counter the gravity of spirit. Halperin, who is also a harpsichordist and who undertook doctoral research on the music of Bach, combines clarity and sure definition - of tone and architecture - with a delicate, precise manner of articulation: her slender fingers craft strong forms which are delivered with, paradoxically, astonishing gentleness and power.

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that despite the diversity of composer names on the programme list, there was a certain ‘sameness’ as the sequence of songs unfolded - an interpretative levelling, as it were; unfailingly beautiful, Scholl’s accounts did not journey to the potential extremes of the emotional terrain, but settled in a safe middle ground, the volume and expressive temperature generally moderate.

Perhaps the high temple of art song fosters a certain mood and manner, consciously or otherwise? Scholl’s English folksongs, as arranged by Britten and Vaughan Williams, were more drawing-room than folk-club, lofty rather than soulful. ‘The Ashgrove’ was beautiful but Scholl was a rather ‘detached’ balladeer; ‘Greensleeves’ had greater range of vocal colour, with the proclamations of the refrain, “Greensleeves was all my joy”, ringing with clarion strength and directness. In the latter, too, we were reminded by the piano’s dissonant text-pointing and disrupting spread chords, that Britten’s songs are essentially art song transformations which extract from the folk source, pure or corrupted, material that is then made anew for the composer’s own purposes. In this way, it was fitting that the ‘The Salley Gardens’ had a ‘slight edginess’ as the singer’s mellifluous line was countered with the piano’s quiet, somewhat dry staccatos, capturing the protagonist’s discomfort as he looks back ruefully on his foolish youth.

Britten looked to Grainger and Moeran in his approach, as composer-arranger, to the folk sources, rejecting what he perceived as Vaughan Williams’ conservative - musical and political - pastoralism. But, ‘In the Spring’ offered Scholl the opportunity to showcase the melodism to which Vaughan Williams drew attention, as the essence of the folksong, in his review of Britten’s first volume of folk settings (in the Journal of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, December 1943): ‘Are we old fogeys of the Folk-song movement getting into a rut? If so, it is very good for us to be pulled out of it by such fiery young steeds as Benjamin Britten and Herbert Murill. We see one side of a folk-song, they see the other [...] The tune’s the thing with which we’ll catch the conscience of the composer.’ ‘Silent noon’ (from The House of Life) and ‘Tired’ (from Four Last Songs (1958)) require a more nuanced engagement with the text. The latter, which sets a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams describing her sleeping husband, was a tender lullaby, though the piano’s low rocking intimated a darkness which hinted at the eternal sleep to come, the closing cadence seemingly infused with quiet wistfulness. The unaccompanied opening of ‘The twilight people’ (setting Seamus O’Sullivan) was poised and melancholy, though Scholl revealed the depth and complexity of the protagonist’s sadness, heightening the cry, “Twilight people, why will you still be crying,/ Crying and calling to me out of the trees?”

It was, however, Halperin’s interpretations of Cage which raised the emotional heat. As she leant over the Steinway keyboard, her motionless shoulders belied the almost harrowing intensity of the ostinato repetitions of ‘Soliloquy’ which grew too a cavernous, metallic roar, while in ‘Jazz Study’ the contrasting rhythmic idioms - boogie-woogie, ragtime and blues - seemed to fight contentiously against assimilation, threatening to burst beyond the boundaries. Indeed, ‘Jazz Study’ had erupted from the applause for the preceding song, Copland’s ‘I bought me a cat’ (from Old American Songs Set 1), which made for an odd sandwich-filling between the two Cage piano works, especially as Scholl’s re-enactment of the cacophonous menagerie was rather genteel. Previously, ‘The little horses’ and ‘At the river’ (from Set 2) had played to Scholl’s lyrical strengths, yet again the sentiments seem to be politely presented rather than ‘lived within’.

Berg’s ‘Abschied’ saw Scholl employ his natural baritone - which is light and fresh; ‘Vielgeliebte schone Frau’ was more sultry, while Berg’s Rückert setting, ‘Ferne Lieder’, trembled with a suppressed intensity at the close: “Under die fernen Lieder sind/ Laut geword’nes Schweigen” (And the distant songs turn into a loud silence). It was, however, the unfamiliar songs that I found most engaging and moving. The piano’s cool bare fifths at the start of Ari Frankel’s ‘The rest’ seemed to draw one into the world of Schubert’s Leiermann, the almost monotonal vocal line conjuring that song’s juxtaposition of movement and stasis, as the hurdy-gurdy turns but the pedal tones and melodic repetitions deny life. It was a challenging song with which to open the recital, and Scholl skilfully crafted the transition from constriction to increasing focus and fullness, before blanching the colour at the close. No less impressive were, as a second-half counterpart, Arvo Pärt’s ‘Vater unser’ and, especially, ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, in which the piano’s repetitions were this time juxtaposed with expertly negotiated contrasts of vocal register. Here, Scholl, singing in his native tongue, conveyed greater sensitivity to the details of the text, poignantly painting an image of memory embodied in a nightingale’s song.

I was captivated by Joseph Tawadros’ ‘Beauty is life’ (setting Kahlil Gibran) which closed the first half of the recital. Again, harmonic stasis was countered by an almost wild rhythmic energy which rushed forth in the piano from the opening vocalise: “Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.” The final vocal fall, resting on dissonance, was a fine embodiment of the poetic dichotomy, “you are eternity and you are the mirror”. I was disappointed that Scholl and Halperin denied us the opportunity to hear Tawadros’ ‘A truth’ - another Gibran setting that was originally designed to bring the recital to a symmetrical close - which they replaced with Brahms’ ‘In stiller Nacht’.

We had two encores: first, Shlomo Gronich's 'Al Na Telech', an arrangment of Bach’s C major Prelude BWV846, and then an arrangement by Halperin of ‘O Waly Waly’. The latter, a three-way conversation between the folk past, Britten and Halperin was a perfect embodiment of the underlying ethos of the recital.

Claire Seymour

Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Tamar Halperin (piano)

Ari Frankel: ‘The Rest’; Copland: ‘The Little Horses’, ‘At the river’; Vaughan Williams: ‘In the Spring’; Berg: ‘Wo der Goldregen steht’; Vaughan Williams: ‘Silent Noon’; Cage: ‘Soliloquy’; Copland: ‘I Bought me a Cat’; Cage: ‘Jazz Study’; Britten: ‘The Ash Grove’; Joseph Tawadros: ‘Beauty is Life’ (arr. Matt McMahon); Pärt: ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, ‘Vater unser’; Britten: ‘Greensleeves’; Berg: ‘Abschied’, ‘Vielgeliebte schöne Frau’, ‘Ferne Lieder’; Vaughan Williams: ‘The Twilight People’, ‘Tired’; Cage: ‘In a Landscape’; Britten: ‘The Salley Gardens’; Brahms: ‘In stiller Nacht’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 24th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Scholl%20Halperin.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Twilight People: Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Tamar Halperin (piano), at Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin
Posted by claire_s at 5:40 AM

January 25, 2020

A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

Much of this seemed to be the result of hasty planning of the back-of-an-envelope kind. The influence of 17th-century French musical manners on the English Baroque has been an oft-explored recipe, and this snapshot of stylistic assimilation by Henry Purcell was given partial illumination through La Nuova Musica’s choice of anthems and motets associated with the English and French royal courts.

Matters were not helped by the printing of the entire text to Purcell’s 1690 Arise, my muse only to abandon this opulently scored music after its opening movements without any explanation. Some joined up thinking would have helped here, and since the work is one of Purcell’s least performed birthday Odes, it would have been welcome to hear more of it, especially as two uncredited trumpet players were redundant for the rest of the evening. Musically, it was satisfying enough in the sort of way that a film trailer leaves you wanting more, and its opening ‘Symphony’ immediately flagged up Purcell’s borrowing of the French-style overture.

Other Purcell selections included the 1685 Coronation anthem I was glad when they said unto me, curiously performed here with just five singers (plus organ continuo). However impressive singing one-to-a-part maybe, vocal ensembles rarely achieve perfect blend and balance in live performance. The absence of a uniform quality aside and an unvarying vocal weight and tempi, this festive anthem was conceived for the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, so this ‘semi-skimmed’ rendition meant that any sense of ceremony and gravitas largely had to be imagined.

Purcell’s music fared better in the wonderful marriage of words and music that is My beloved spake, one of the composer’s finest anthem-symphonies and blest with an undeniable theatrical instinct and youthful vitality. That said, some more joie de vivre could have enlivened its spritely “alleluias” (where evocations of courtly French dances didn’t quite emerge), but that’s not to ignore Nick Pritchard mellifluous tenor depicting a flourishing fig tree or the solo group celebrating “the voice of the turtle”.

No greater contrast could have been achieved beforehand than in the dreamlike repetitions of Cassandra Miller’s newly commissioned work Sleepsinging here receiving its world premiere. Setting a text by the Restoration poet Thomas Betterton, this Canadian composer draws inspiration from two songs belonging to Purcell’s Fairy Queen and melodic reimaginings from Christopher Lowrey and Nick Pritchard for whom the work is written. This collaboration comprises a series of slow descending canons (and not so subtle portamenti) given to the string players, against which smoothly fashioned meditative vocal lines add to its trance-like mood and culminates in a closing paragraph of rapt beauty.

More involving musically was a superb account of John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell forming the emotional centrepiece of the evening. Both Lowrey and Pritchard successfully negotiated its awkward tessitura at the start and brought much refinement to the warbling of Dryden’s Lark and Linnet, as did two merrily chirping recorder players Sarah Humphrys and Rebecca Austen-Brown. Throughout, this heartfelt tribute was a thoroughly absorbing affair, whether reflective or rejoicing, voices and instruments in perfect accord.

Not so the trio of women’s voices that sang Jean Baptiste Lully’s Dixit Dominus, a devotional setting, possibly originally intended for performance by Parisian nuns, was rendered with variously unforgiving and woolly tone. It was, otherwise, an excellent choice not least in underlining the dotted rhythms and expressive harmonies that Purcell would later adopt. More persuasive was Charpentier’s extended Passion motet Le Reniement de St Pierre, a dramatic portrait of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ to which La Nuova Musica responded with an intensity of expression marked by strong individual characterisation and stylish direction.

It was good to hear church music from two composers seldom heard beyond the confines of our cathedrals. From the supposedly vain Pelham Humphrey (whom Samuel Pepys considered ‘an absolute Monsieur’) was a poignantly sung Like as the hart. Across the channel came Jean Phillipe Rameau’s Lenten motet Laboravi clamans where five voices outlined its contrapuntal manner embellished with tasteful ornamentation. The programme concluded with Rameau’s ravishing quartet Tendre amour’ from Les Indes galantes, now glowing with some much-needed warmth.

David Truslove

La Nuova Musica: David Bates (director), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor)

John Blow: Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell,Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Le reniement de St Pierre,Pelham Humfrey: Like as the hart,Jean Baptiste Lully: Dixit Dominus,Cassandra Miller: Sleepsinging, Henry Purcell: Arise, my muse, I was glad when they said unto me, My beloved spake, Jean Phillipe Rameau: Laboravi clamans, Les Indes galantes Tendre amour

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 23rd January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Nick-Pritchard-photo-1-credit-Nick-James.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by David Truslove product_id=Above: Nick Pritchard (tenor)

Photo credit: Nick James
Posted by claire_s at 5:15 PM

January 19, 2020

Eugene Onegin at Seattle

I took a long time for me to warm up to Eugene Onegin. It lacks the soaring, aching Tchaikovskian melodies that once heard, stick in memory ever after. Apart from a few passages – the letter scene in the first act, the lover’s dawn lament in the second, the feverish duet that ends the third – the vocal lines are conversational, accompanied by small motifs seemingly meaningless as smoke rings curling in the air. But with familiarity these tunelets merge and intertwine to create a hazy atmosphere of gentle melancholy that perfectly reflects a story line focused on loss, the past, the sweet pain of regret.

That truly nostalgic mood is wonderfully supported by director Tomer Zvulun’s “concept” for the staging, and Erhard Rom’s simple but versatile settings to contain it: slender beech trees against fields of grain, a gloomy winter dawn, ballrooms both provincial and majestic, which a shift of light can freeze a mundane scene into an evocative image, a postcard from the past.

20200109_eugeneonegin-day02_seattleopera_sunnymartini_39034.pngSeattle Opera Chorus, Melody Wilson (Olga) and Colin Ainsworth (Lensky)

Vocally the principal singers in the two casts necessitated by Seattle’s compressed two-week eight-performance are uniformly excellent: Marjukka Tepponen highlights Tatyana’s timidity and woolgathering but rises to anguished dignity in the big duet. Marina Costa-Jackson makes her more impulsive, even a little feisty. Both approaches mesh with their respective Onegins’: John Moore bravely shows us the priggish, mannered side of Evgenyi; Michael Adams goes for the smoldering mystery that captivates his unintended victim.

Tchaikovsky’s amateur libretto gives Onegin little chance to shine until the very end of the opera. In this staging as in many others, it’s Colin Ainsworth as that innocent sap Lensky who scores our sighs and applause for his dawn monologue on the brink of extinction. Melody Wilson’s youthful voice is a little undeveloped for the near-contralto tessitura of Tatyana’s teen-aged sister Olga; I look forward to hearing her in a solidly mezzo role.

The Seattle Opera chorus – whether playing happy serfs, smug provincial dignitaries or lofty aristocrats at the Imperial court – sing, act, and move so well that the numerous dance numbers staged by Logan Pachciarz are among the greatest pleasures of the staging.

I think one opportunity is missed in this production: the chance to provide a dimension of the Aleksandr Pushkin’s original poem that is completely absent from the libretto. Tchaikovsky’s personality was complex and ambiguous but one thing he lacked utterly: a sense of irony. For him, life is no laughing matter: one loves, one loses, one suffers, and only death awaits us.

Pushkin doesn’t disagree; but his reaction to our predicament is to smile, even laugh outright, at the absurd ways we try to deal with it, and there are many moments in the action of the opera, even as simplified and sentimentalized by the composer, where such ironies lie temptingly near the surface. Director Zvulun chooses to let them pass, even when audible chuckles show that the audience gets the joke even if he doesn’t.

Still, the drama achieves tragicomic grandeur thanks to conductor Aleksandar Markovič. Taking his time setting the scene of seemingly placid country life, he minutely paces the soprano through the many musical beats of the her exalted “letter scene” to a beautiful climax. From that point onward, every scene, crowded or intimate, festive or solitary, moves the story relentlessly forward.

20200108_eugeneonegin-day01_seattleopera_sunnymartini_37860.pngJohn Moore (Eugene Onegin)

(Speaking of moving forward: Is anybody else as irritated by M. Triquet as I? His wan little couplets stop the action dead at the birthday ball in act II, just when we should be concentrating on Onegin’s fake flirtation with Olga.)

The musicians of the Seattle Symphony have long been a mighty asset in the pit at McCaw Hall; this time, under Markovič’s shaping hand, they excelled themselves, particularly the solo winds so important to Tchaikovsky’s sound palette. This is Maestro Markovič’s US debut. I hope the Opera’s general director Christa Scheppelmann nails him down for future projects before word gets out.

Roger Downey

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Tatyana – Marjukka Tepponen (11th January)/Marina Costa-Jackson (12th Jan.), Onegin – John Moore (11 th Jan.)/Michael Adams (12th Jan) Lenski – Colin Ainsworth, Olga – Melody Wilson, Prince Gremin – David Leigh, Larina – Margaret Gawrysiak, Filipevna – Meredith Arwady, M. Triquet – Martin Bakari, Zaretzki – Misha Mizikoe; Director – Tomer Zvulun, revival director – Stephanie Havey; Conductor – Aleksanr Markovič; Scenic designer – Erhard Rom; Lighting designer – Robert Wierzel; Costume designer – Isabella Bywater; Choreographer- Logan Pachciarz; Seattle Opera Chorus (Chorus master John Keene); Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Marion McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, Seattle Washington; 11th and 12th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/20200108_eugeneonegin-day01_seattleopera_sunnymartini_38202.png image_description=Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Eugene Onegin) [Photo by Sunny Martini] product=yes product_title=Eugene Onegin at Seattle product_by=A review by Roger Downey product_id=Above: Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Eugene Onegin)

Photos by Sunny Martini courtesy of Seattle Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:00 PM

January 17, 2020

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

In the four years since her appointment as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was announced, Gražinytė-Tyla has established a significant presence. She understands the long standing CBSO ethos of adventurous programming. While many conductors would play safe with recordings of easily marketable repertoire, Gražinytė-Tyla chooses repertoire which stretches boundaries. In 2018, she led the CBSO in an in-depth immersion into the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, which resulted in one of the finest ever recordings of Weinberg’s Symphony no 21, the “Kaddish” with Weinberg specialist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Please read my review of that here.

In this new recording, she presents the Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė. Though this recording may not have immediate mass market appeal, it is so unusual, so beautiful and so moving that it could, long term, prove to be a milestone in bringing the riches of Lithuanian and Baltic music to a wider audience.

The music of the Baltic region evolves from ancient traditions absorbed into the culture of the early Christian era, encouraging vocal and communal music-making. When Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were incorporated into the Soviet Union, regional identities were suppressed, and music became a covert force against the regime. It’s notable how music with a spiritual element survived repression: Ustvolskaya and Giubaldina, Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, Osvaldus Balaskauskas, Pēteris Vasks, Lutosławski, Miloslav Kabeláč and many others. Hence the Singing Revolution of 1987 and mass non-violent protest which ultimately led to independence. This spiritual element also connects to a sense of communion with nature and the environment. The bonus DVD that comes with this recording, includes a performance conducted by Gražinytė-Tyla of works by Bronius Kutavičius (b. 1932) inspired by ancient polytheistic belief and music in what is now Lithuania. Definitely worth listening to, as it sets context for the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė. Indeed, the whole video is worth watching for its insights into Gražinytė-Tyla’s values and background.

“I want my music to compose a symphony from the roaring of waves, from the mysterious language of hundred-year woods, from the twinkling of stars, from our folksongs and from my boundless longing” wrote Mikalojus Čiurlionis (1875-1911) the Lithuanian composer, poet and painter. Šerkšnytė’s Midsummer Song (2009) addresses the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night in the calendar, which has ritual significance in many cultures, as it marks the passage of seasons and of time itself. Thus the “gossamer melodies alternating between major and minor, evolving step by step into a wealth of colours and forms”, as Verena Mogel notes, “.... a multi-layered, finely structured fabric in which the overlapping and contrasting layers of strings never lose their coherence.... a consistent, dramatic arch unfolds from beginning to end, a constant alternation of tension and relaxation, the singing of isolated voices and dense textures”. The effect is mystical, as if the music were tapping into some deep source of earth-magic. Brief figures might represent specifics, like birds, or wind, but this is an inner landscape of the soul: much deeper than tone poem. Listening to this can clean away the superficial clutter of noise that surrounds us. For me, it is an immensely rewarding and uplifting experience.

Šerkšnytė’s De profundis (1989) takes its cue not so much from Psalm 130 but from the storms and turbulence of youth, perhaps a necessary rite of passage before the coming of wisdom. Hence the shifting tensions, formed by “fretful, 18 note motifs interspersed with rests which hover above downward spiralling glissandi in contrast with almost motionless chord progressions in which dissonances resolve again and again into harmonic clarity”. This was the piece which earned Šerkšnytė her bachelor’s degree, but it is by no means a “student” work.

Based on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, Šerkšnytė’s Songs of Love and Death (2007) is structured along the lines of an Indian raga, evoking emotional states of mind as much as the themes of day, evening, night and dawn in the text. In the first movement, “Diena, Vakararas” (day, evening) textures hover creating an impressionistic palette of delicate colour, highlighted by exotic-sounding percussion and woodwinds. A free-flowing sense of calm prevails, from which the soloists’ voices arise, their lines like incantation, gradually building up to form a chorale as intricate as tracery. In “Naktis” (Night) a solo violin sings, elaborating on the themes of the previous movement. The choir picks up the themes, their lines hushed, undulating and diffuse, providing a backdrop to the two pairs of soloists (Lina Dambrauskaitė, Justina Gringyte, Tomas Pavilionis and Nerijus Masevičius) who sing of love and longing. The brief orchestral interlude marks a transition. The woodwinds create fluttering bird-like figures, which illustrate the references in the text to a dawn chorus followed by the sudden flight of birds. “Rytus. Amzinasis rytas (Morning. Eternal morning) marks not just a new day but a leap into an altogether new level of transcendence. The soloists sing, united in ensemble and as individuals interacting, the choir intoning behind them. As the emotional flight takes off, the voices gradually recede into space, the orchestra returning to reverent serenity. Giedré Slekytė conducts the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and the Vilnius Municipal Choir (Jauna Muzika).

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Serksnyte.png image_description=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7761 9 product=yes product_title=Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Works by Raminta Šerkšnytė product_by=Kremerata Baltica, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Giedre Slekyte. product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7761 9 [CD & DVD] price=$14.25 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07Y1XYG61/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B07Y1XYG61&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=82024f17cf5ab83cfc902ff326741c87
Posted by iconoclast at 6:00 PM

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

Director-Conductor-Video-Production-Designer (hell, why not just say Factotum?) Andreas Mitisek has boldly chosen to modernize a mythical king as a Super Action Hero in a highly diverting reimagined production of Purcell’s seldom heard King Arthur.

This composition used to also be known for the contribution of librettist John Dryden. In this adaptation, not so much. In fact, precious little seems to remain of the contribution of England’s first Poet Laureate. Pace, purists, the fact is that the story and dialogue concocted by Mr. Mitisek and Culture Clash, artisans known for their deft political satire, is almost unfailingly engaging and exhaustively inventive.

In the original, the principal characters speak dialogue but do not also sing, unless they are spirits, gods, or in one case, drunk. The original story concerned the confrontation of Arthur and the Saxons. No syrupy Camelot tale here. Happily, King Arthur’s score is some of Purcell’s most lilting and charming music, including some pretty adventurous harmonies for the time.

Truth to tell, I was discovering this piece for the first time, and what a revelatory joy it was. I am quite sure that the music had to have been substantially re-ordered to suit the concept, and it most certainly was reworded, but the score sounded fresh, compelling, delightful and insightful. Under Maestro Mitisek’s assured baton, the excellent ten-piece Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra was first among equals in the project’s success.

arthur-210.jpg Taylor Chamberlin.pngDarryl Taylor (Lance E. Lott) and Jamie Chamberlin (Nurse Gwen E. Vere)

Playing with awesome stylistic acumen, impeccable intonation, and with admirable variations of color and personality, this ensemble wholly distinguished themselves well beyond other experiences I have enjoyed with period orchestras. Their solid musical achievement was the foundation that buoyed the other musical glories.

Director/Designer Mitisek has an intriguing concept for the production, teasing in the promo that it will present the royal as a comic book action hero. And that he does, but he accomplishes so much more in this fantastical staging. We first meet Arthur as a tired businessman slogging up to his humble bedside, briefcase in hand, like a beaten down Willy Loman.

As he shucks his clothing to go to bed, he reveals a comical red tee with the letter A emblazoned on it. And then, the merry confusion begins. Is the superhero Arthur all in his mind? Or maybe, in ours? It is put forth that the leading man is in a rest home at best, an asylum at worst. As the singing actor floats in and out of reality and fantasy, he ably transitions from a nebbishy speaking voice to faux Shakesperean delivery.

The nurse in the institution is Gwen E. Vere, who also doubles as the va-va-voom young princess Arthur is ostensibly attempting to rescue. A kindred inmate (or is he?) Lance E. Lot is a perfect foil and likeable action story sidekick. The wickedly appealing nemesis in the piece is the nefarious Doc Oswald.

Added to the rich subtext is the overarching theme that Arthur’s real-or-imagined quest is about fear of “the other.” Many references are made to the current immigration crisis, some more effective than others. In this version, all of the four leading characters are double threats, i.e. they perform equally solidly as actors and as singers. To this end, LBO has fielded a solid quartet of performers.

As Arthur King (sic), Marc Molomot firmly grounded the tale. Mr. Molomot is a highly skilled actor who also happens to sport a firmly delivered tenor voice. He superbly delineates between the mentally troubled inmate, and the grandiose, willful monarch. Mr. Molomot’s sizable tenor had an assured presence, and he easily filled the house with ringing tone. If his musical line lumbered a bit at first, he soon warmed into a vocal presentation of secure beauty.

arthur-399.jpg Molomot Taylor Chamberlin Berry.pngDarryl Taylor (Lance E. Lott), Jamie Chamberlin (Nurse Gwen E. Vere), Cedric Berry (Doc Oswald), and Marc Molomot (Arthur King)

Jamie Chamberlin was a delight in her poised performance as Gwen E. Vere. It is amazing how radiantly she was able to sing with her tongue firmly planted in cheek.

After a slightly tremulous start, Ms. Chamberlin’s attractive lyric soprano fired on all cylinders, and her singing impressed with its alluring timbre and commendable musicality. Moreover, Jamie embodies a wholly committed stage persona, and is fearless in embracing the sexy posturing often asked of her.

Darryl Taylor proved to be a winning Lance E. Lott, and he ably paired with Arthur in the cleverly devised action antics. His appealing counter-tenor provided a good variety to the mix, and his aplomb with the florid passages was a joy to encounter. If there was an occasional slight rasp in his mid-voice, small matter, since the shining upper register provided much pleasure.

Movie star handsome Cedric Berry was the villain you love to hate as Doc Oswald. Mr. Berry sports an uncommonly beguiling baritone, with a very personal, warm sound. I loved his subtle menace as seducer, villain, and mad doctor. His ripe tonal production fell gratefully on the ear, and if he may have seemed just a little short on top in his first scene, Mr. Berry proved an assured interpreter, who negotiated his considerable gifts with skillful musicianship.

Back to Mr. Mitisek: As Video and Set Designer, Andreas made all the right choices. For the set, he was content to utilize the simplest of set pieces and furniture to suggest the shape shifting reality and fantasy milieus. The scrim wall separating the upstage orchestra from the action was a perfect screen on which to project Lichtenstein-like comic book figures that engaged the eye and furthered the visual presentation.

Daniel Weingarten’s imaginative lighting design seamlessly partnered the projected images, including video monologues by each of the four principals, which were among the very best elements of the technical presentation. In these one-on-one character revelations, the performers really connected with the responsive audience. I am not sure they were in the most effective sequence, but they were nevertheless, most effective.

Erik Lawrence coordinated the witty costumes to fine effect, with Denice Paxton making clever choices as the head of hair and make-up decisions. Only the sound design disappointed, with an occasionally uneven mix. These accomplished singers should not have needed any amplification, especially since the results were by turns tinny or tubby.

The announced 90-minute running time of King Arthur was exceeded by 15 minutes. The uniformly solid, concise accomplishment of the musical numbers was not quite matched by the spoken theatrics, which tended at times to amble. Long after we got the point of specific character exchanges, scenes ran on after their sell-by date.

Too, the genuinely sympathetic plight of refugees and immigrants seemed to be over played at times, straining to create resonance. I loved-loved-loved re-purposing Emma Lazarus’ words emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty to a Purcell tune. This was magnificently delivered by Mr. Molomot. But then, after this stunningly sobering moment, which could have meaningfully ended the proceedings, we were back to faffing around in the ha-ha-comics arena.

There is much to be admired in this bold and resonant take on Purcell’s King Arthur. If this production is to have (as I hope) a further life, I would only urge the creators to prune and focus their laudatory message and ingenious re-working. As it is, this is already a not-to-be-missed presentation by Long Beach Opera, an evergreen force to be reckoned with in today’s opera world.

James Sohre

King Arthur
Music by Henry Purcell
Story and Libretto by Andreas Mitisek & Culture Clash
Musical Adaptation by Andreas Mitisek
Original Libretto by John Dryden

Doc Oswald: Cedric Berry; Nurse Gwen E. Vere: Jamie Chamberlin; Arthur King: Marc Molomot; Lance E. Lott: Darryl Taylor; Conductor/Stage Director/Video & Production Designer: Andreas Mitisek; Music Director & Concertmaster: Ilia Korol; Lighting Design: Daniel Weingarten; Costume Coordinator: Erik Lawrence; Hair and Make-up Head: Denice Paxton

image=http://www.operatoday.com/arthur-118.jpg%20Chamberlin%20Molomot%20Berry.png image_description=Cedric Berry (Doc Oswald), Jamie Chamberlin (Nurse Gwen E. Vere), and Marc Molomot (Arthur King) [Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff] product=yes product_title=King Arthur by Long Beach Opera product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Cedric Berry (Doc Oswald), Jamie Chamberlin (Nurse Gwen E. Vere), and Marc Molomot (Arthur King)

All photos by Keith Ian Polakoff
Posted by james_s at 5:39 PM

Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros perform Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Tenor or baritone? Male or female voice? Perhaps Angelika Kirchschlager would convince you, as she did me at Temple Church in 2018 , that Winterreise communicates an essential human experience, rather than an explicitly male or female perspective? Then, I recall a performance, with Julius Drake once again at the piano, by Iestyn Davies at Middle Temple Hall in 2017 , in which his countertenor brought a simplicity and freshness to the initial optimism of the carefree country youth who sets out on his pastoral wanderings in Die schöne Müllerin. And, just this month the Voyager Quartet have released a recording of songs from Winterreise arranged for string quartet , with specially composed Intermezzi placed between the songs.

In this Wigmore Hall recital, French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky strayed from what one might consider his ‘home patch’, the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, into the waters of early nineteenth-century Romanticism, and presented twenty of Schubert’s lieder. He was accompanied by pianist Jérôme Ducros with whom Jaroussky has previously recorded nineteenth-century French melodies ( Green (2015), and Opium (2009)).

All of Jaroussky’s distinguished and distinctive vocal qualities - elegance, precision, mellifluous lyricism and sweet warmth of tone - were brought to bear on these German lieder and if one occasionally missed the range of colour, variety of weight and tonal darkness with which a tenor or baritone might inject drama and tension, then Jaroussky’s exquisite phrasing and Ducros’ sensitivity were more than recompense. Indeed, I cannot overstate the contribution that Ducros’ relaxed virtuosity and expressive insight made to the duo’s persuasive expressive artistry. From the first song, ‘Im Frühling’, the pianist naturally inhabited the ‘spirit’ of the idiom. The relaxed piano introduction conjured the reflective wistfulness of the poet-speaker, while the subsequent switch to the minor mode, with the protagonist’s acknowledgement of human frailties, was pointed with a subtle quickening and a tensing of the tone, before a dreamy rubato eased the young man back into his memories.

That said, the first entry of the voice did still startle, the countertenor tone and timbre seeming an interloper to ears familiar with this repertory. And, as the recital unfolded, certain challenges were evident, and not always fully overcome. Occasionally Jaroussky’s voice lacked the inner tension required to convey the textual ambiguities and irony: “Die Sehnsucht du,/ Und was sie stillt” (you are longing and what stills it), sings the poet-speaker at the opening of ‘Du bist die Ruh’, but I missed the intensity of the paradox and, later, the sense of overwhelming emotions as the voice climbs higher: “Treib andern Schmerz/ Aus dieser Brust.” (Drive other pain from this breast!), though the vocal warmth of Jaroussky’s pianissimo in the final stanza and the piano’s subtle pause before the final line were welcome compensation. Elsewhere, as in ‘Nacht und Träume’, the piano was pushed a little low by the need for transposition, creating a gulf between the accompaniment’s rumbling depths - though Ducros achieved a remarkable clarity - and the gleaming arcs of the vocal line far above.

Yet, as the recital unfolded such matters seemed of little import. As early as the second song, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’, Jaroussky began to persuasively transport the listener to poetic worlds, the lower lying vocal line and smoothly skipping octave leaps capturing all of the fisherman’s innocent joy and passionate transcendence, the latter confirmed by the piano’s gentle tierce de Picardie. Jaroussky imbued playful songs such as ‘An die Laute’, with its whisperings of love, or ‘Wiedersehn’, with its joyful anticipation of return and reunion, with a beguiling naturalness: the latter began with a gentle ‘nudge’ forward from the piano and acquired increasing richness of tone. The duo eschewed sentimentalism and mannerism, pushing the tempo forward in ‘An die Musik’, and thereby communicating with directness and strength. They used the the text effectively in ‘An Sylvia’, the rhythmic repetitions in the piano bass providing a buoyant foundation for worshipful lover’s reflections on Sylvia’s peerless beauty and virtue.

Moreover, the songs’ innate inner conflicts became increasingly potent. The low whispers of ‘Erster Verlust’ - “Ach, ver bringt die schone Tage,/ Wer jene holde Zeit zurück!” (Ah, who will bring the fair days back, who that radiant time!) - mourned with sweet sadness; ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ (Scene from Hades) was intensely rhetorical. In the second half of the recital, Jaroussky seemed to gain confidence and venture more deeply into the songs’ dramas: ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ ranged widely, the poet-speaker’s initial joy, enhanced by the playful sinuousness of the piano, welled urgently with memories of separation and loss, and Jaroussky found variety within the stanzaic form. In both ‘Herbst’ and ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ the duo captured the Romantic paradox which unites simplicity and intensity, wonder and pain. ‘Im Abendrot’ possessed something of the strangeness and awe that the wanderer experiences in Winterreise’s ‘Die Nebensonnen’.

‘Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen’ epitomised their expressive eloquence, Jaroussky shaping the vocal phrases beautifully to form a long, even expanse. It seemed fitting that this song slipped segue into Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, as the countertenor imperceptibly left the platform, for Ducros sustained the song’s fluent articulacy, communicating the core strength and struggle within the tender external weavings and reflections of the Impromptu. This was playing of rare insight and musicality. The ten songs in the first half had been similarly divided by an instrumental item, Schubert’s Klavierstück in E flat, which Duclos presented with rhetorical clarity and range: a compelling miniature drama.

Should Jaroussky and Duclos consider recording this Schubert programme, I would tentatively suggest that they might reverse the two final items! Duclos crafted a strong narrative in ‘Nachstück’, but Jaroussky’s countertenor doesn’t have the variety of tone to capture the contrasting voices of the poem’s speakers. The preceding ‘Abendstern’, however, was a masterclass in the art of song which the duo presented with characteristic unassuming eloquence.

Claire Seymour

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) , Jérôme Ducros (piano)

Schubert: ‘Im Frühling’ D882, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ D933, ‘An die Laute’ D905, ‘Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands’ D677, ‘Wiedersehn’ D855, Klavierstück in E flat D946 No.2, ‘An die Musik’ D547, ‘Erster Verlust’ D226, ‘An Silvia’ D891, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ D583, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ D741, ‘Der Musensohn’ D764, ‘Nacht und Träume’ D827, ‘Herbst’ D945, ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’ D343, Impromptu in G flat D899 No.3, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ D774, ‘Im Abendrot’ D799, ‘Die Sterne’ D939, ‘Abendstern’ D806, ‘Nachtstück’ D672

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 16th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jaroussky%20%26%20Duclos.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Schubert lieder at Wigmore Hall: Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) and Jérôme Ducros (piano), Thursday 16th January 2020 product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) and Jérôme Ducros (piano)
Posted by claire_s at 8:09 AM

January 16, 2020

Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

Fazil Say, especially, can divide critical opinion but I have always found him one of the most interesting pianists of his generation. His musicality is profound; he literally feels everything he plays and when you watch him, he is like a marionette, his arms and hands moving as if attached to strings. Who the puppeteer might be remained one of those unanswerable questions. He conducts from the keyboard, his body sways to the music before him as if he is completely immersed in it; he dives and swims in what he plays with synchronised eloquence. It’s quite beautiful to watch. Equally astonishing are the tonal colours, the sheer palate of sound he gets from the instrument - and in French music - which this was recital was largely of - the effect was almost obscenely erotic. But what you also get with Say is the composer, the radical protester, the activist, the atheist and a beguiling fascination with the textures of the Middle East all of which penetrates his interpretations of western music.

Marianne Crebassa, too, is just as compelling. This is a mezzo who is quite at home in Handel as she is in French song; but she takes the risk to sing Herrmann, Dalbavie and Berio with equally impressive results. Where I really find Crebassa so exceptional is in repertoire which is on the fringe of mainstream song. Last year she sang Berio’s Folk Songs and one felt she was ghosting the great Cathy Berberian in singing them. The purity of her mezzo voice, and the darkness of the shadows in the tone, might have silted out some of the roughness, but the theatricality and precision was totally there. In this recital we got two wordless vocalised works - one by Ravel, the other by Say - and both demonstrated a calibre of control and virtuosity which reminded one, in style at least, of Diamanda Galas - even if they were sung down several octaves.

I suppose what was interesting about this recital - and what I should like to hear more of in future - was the melding together of two formats. On the one hand, we had the conventional duet between pianist and mezzo - but, on the other, we also got Fazil Say as a soloist taking centre stage. If for much of the recital he stuck, too, to the theme of French music it ended with a deeply personal response to protest, freedom and liberty. This may have been something which Say had composed - these were his own works - but they were unmistakably timeless and relevent today in their message.

The symbiosis we heard in this concert perhaps stemmed from the success of their 2017 CD they recorded, Secrets, of an almost identical program. Crebassa, in a short preface to that disc, had written of the tranquillity, inner thoughts and secrecy some of these composers had on her itinerant life. There are the unconfessed desires of Ravel, the melancholy of Debussy or the unhappiness of Duparc from which unsuspected hope emerges. These are secrets “like a perfume that you’ve never forgotten”.

The differences between French song and German Lied aren’t particularly subtle and as Crebassa showed throughout this recital she has the kind of voice which is capable of delving into that picturesque landscape of evocatively poetic sophistication it needs. Debussy’s Trois Mélodies can sometimes prove elusive at getting inside the Verlaine settings on which they are based. It’s true that the clarity of the stanzas don’t always sound coherently visible - in fact, they often come across with the brush strokes of invisible edges, perhaps blurred here and there. Even for a naturally gifted singer such as Crebassa, and one who sings with such impeccable thought for the words on the page, these songs can sound ambiguous. But then, perhaps they are meant to. Crebassa did bring a vibrancy to them and Say was more subtle than one might have expected. But he is a pianist with a definite back story and so his playing tends to be infused and framed by desolation when it’s needed - such as in ‘Le son du cor’. Crebassa brought out the sensuality, an assuaging pliability, which veered between being ardent and devotional.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade is more substantial in almost every way. When I last heard Crebassa sing this it was in the orchestral version. That had been a pretty faultless performance, though she had been helped substantially by the Philharmonia Orchestra’s enormously gilded playing in doing so. I don’t think this performance managed to scale those heights. This felt less voluptuous, somewhat drier in tone. It wasn’t that she and Say divaricated from each other, rather that you felt neither attached much warmth or intimacy to it. Crebassa always manages to draw one into this music with her magical beginning of the first song, ‘Asie’, but what was largely missing was a sweeping hypnotism the rest of the song needs. Its sheer length and breadth are demanding and although Say was completely inside the Middle Eastern and Persian sound-world - not at all unsurprising given his heritage - I don’t think Crebassa was overly inspired to follow him. The two shorter songs perhaps suited Crebassa better. ‘La flute enchantée’ is a contrast song, a vivid portrait of sorrow and joviality and Crebassa struck the balance perfectly; ‘L’indifferent’ resonates with ambiguity - “like a girl”, “handsome face” and so on - and it’s Crebassa’s brilliantly burnished mezzo quality of her voice which particularly makes the enigma of the song’s ambiguity so convincing when other singer’s struggle to do this.

Faure’s Mirages are almost metaphysical songs, though the way in which some of them work - like ‘Cygne sur L’eau’ - requires an uncommon unity of vision between the pianist and soloist. Crebassa was exemplary in picturing motion through the words and Say restrained and careful in giving us the gliding narrative through the keyboard to accompany her. They serpentined through these two songs as they unwound like a musical stream. The works by Duparc could, in one sense, have almost acted as a preface for the Say sonata which was to follow - these are much darker, almost Wagnerian, in tone and inflection. Chanson triste is almost weighted down by its tragedy; Au pays où se fait la guerre a bitter lament on separation and death. Crebassa doesn’t bring the opulence to Chanson triste that Jessye Norman used to and this is probably the correct approach. Here we got something altogether sharper, more penetrating, laced with an infinity of sadness. It was rather a similar story in the second song where the unsparing focus on terror and the horrors of war were amply pictured and Say was superb in underlining this through the drama of solid octaves on the piano. If it should have had any melodic direction it was pointedly, and largely, eschewed.

Marianne Crebassa can often be at her best in repertoire which for many singers takes them outside their comfort zone. Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera, which had closed the first half of the recital, is a wordless tour de force evoking the drama of Spanish dance. It had everything you could want: drama, pace, inflection, the complete evocation of Spain. Gezi Park 3, which concluded the second half, and composed by Fazil Say, is the final work of a trilogy in homage to protests sparked by opposition to the destruction of this Istanbul park. Also wordless, it is often a reflection of mourning, of lament, but it is never less than inspiring in its passion. Crebassa was riveting throughout and completely unfazed by the virtuosity it demanded of her.

Fazil Say’s solo part of this multi-faceted programme included pieces by Satie, Debussy and himself. The first three gnossiennes owe, in part, their inspiration to Romanian folk music something which sits comfortably with Say’s ethnically influenced pianism. In the past, he has sounded heavy-handed, even rather wilful, in these pieces. That appeared less the case here. Satie is rather vague as to what he wants the soloist to do - or, perhaps a better way of describing it is he allows a certain creative sense of direction. There is nothing monochrome about this music; and there is certainly nothing monochrome about Say’s playing either. There is no disguising his distinctive body movement as if he is part of the music he is playing. Even though these pieces can sometimes sound as if they have stopped in motion Say hasn’t done so. There was a great deal of intricacy which evolved from his playing, a composer’s vision of these pieces, and the intricate lines were very clearly phrased. The two Debussy Preludes were in turn powerful yet dazzling.

It was, however, Gezi Park 2, Fazil Say’s almost 20-minute piano sonata which made the most lasting impression, and quite possibly of the entire recital. The second part of his trilogy is a harrowing, deeply powerful piece, especially the third movement which is about the killing of an innocent teenage boy, Berkin Elvan, who was hit by a tear gas canister during the protests and subsequently died. The music of the sonata often reflects on the turbulence of the events - there is often little space throughout for any music which could be said to harmonise or gravitate towards contemplation. But that is not to say this piece doesn’t have a message of hope beneath its torrential rawness. Clusters of pounding chords are often the dominate thread that links much of the music, and predominantly at the lower reaches of the keyboard. But by pressing his hand on the opened top of the piano, with a light pressure, Say can also instil this work with a ghostly silence as he uses a single finger to adjust the dynamics at the other end of the keyboard. The virtuosity required is breath-taking, in many respects reminiscent of a piece like Prokofiev’s G minor concerto. The performance was completely absorbing and it’s certainly a sonata which pays repeated listening. A magnificent end to a quite superb recital.

Marc Bridle

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Fazil Say (piano)

Claude Debussy: Trois melodies; Erik Satie: 3 Gnossiennes ; Debussy: La Cathédrale engloute, Minstrels: Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade, Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera; Gabriel Faure: Mirages; Henri Duparc: Chanson triste,Au pays où se fais la guerre; Fazil Say: Gezi Park 2, Gezi Park 3.

Wigmore Hall, London; 8th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fazil%20Say%20%28piano%29%20and%20Marianne%20Crebassa%20%28mezzo-soprano%29.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title= Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano) and Fazil Say (piano), Wigmore Hall, 8th January 2020 product_by=A review by Marc Bridle product_id=Above: Fazil Say (piano) and Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano)
Posted by claire_s at 9:31 AM

January 14, 2020

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Posted by Gary at 2:06 PM

The Cambridge Companion to Operetta

Operas_Sergei_Prokofiev.png“Those whose thoughts of musical theatre are dominated by the Broadway musical will find this book a revelation. From the 1850s to the early 1930s, when urban theatres sought to mount glamorous musical entertainment, it was to operetta that they turned. It was a form of musical theatre that crossed national borders with ease and was adored by audiences around the world. This collection of essays by an array of international scholars examines the key figures in operetta in many different countries. It offers a critical and historical study of the widespread production of operetta and of the enthusiasm with which it was welcomed. Furthermore, it challenges nationalistic views of music and approaches operetta as a cosmopolitan genre. This Cambridge Companion contributes to a widening appreciation of the music of operetta and a deepening knowledge of the cultural importance of operetta around the world.”

Posted by Gary at 2:00 PM

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

The ensuing conversations between past and present, and between different cultures, can reveal surprising affinities and inspire experiment and transformation. In 2019, I enjoyed performances by Ceruleo whose concert drama, Burying the Dead (directed by Tom Guthrie), took us back to 1695 and into the feverish mind of Henry Purcell, and American violinist, Elicia Silverstein , whose recital of music for solo violin illuminated striking continuities stretching over three centuries.

There are certainly many ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ to be found in the music of the Baroque, not least in the operas of Handel - one of the finest being ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo in which Almenira, abducted by the sorceress Armida and imprisoned in the palace, laments her fate: ‘Let me weep over/ my cruel fate,/ and let me sigh for/ liberty.’ Oddly, this aria, included in Stile Antico’s published programme, was omitted during this afternoon concert at LSO St Luke’s, thereby removing the only item that might accurately have been termed ‘Baroque’ from the sequence of songs and instrumental works about displacement and exile. But, if the relationship between the repertoire performed and the Baroque at the Edge ‘concept’ seemed rather tenuous (the programme had in fact previously been presented at Wigmore Hall in June last year), the twelve-voice ensemble still offered intriguing reflections and some fine singing in music spanning from John Dowland to Giles Swayne.

Stile Antico took a little time to settle into their first item, Robert White’s Lamentations à 5 (Part 1), a setting of part of the liturgy of Tenebrae. The music of White, who lived from c.1538-74, looks back towards the music of the early sixteenth century, when precise musical illustration of the text was not a priority, rather than forward to the Baroque: the vocal scoring reflects the cumulative polyphony and ‘waves’ of sound that one finds in manuscripts such as the Eton Choirbook, and the topmost ‘mean’ part often lies low. The twelve singers were arranged in an arc of alternating voice-types, which created a strong blend, but disadvantaged the three soprano voices which were occasionally lost within the whole.

At the heart of the programme was the cycle of seven pavans by Dowland which form the composer’s Lacrhrimae. These instrumental works were sung to new texts by poet Peter Oswald, based on the testimonies of modern-day refugees and migrants. Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ was heard at the opening of Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, then individual voices emerged to tell their own stories: a journalist who ‘spoke against the state’; a migrant whose appeal, “Driver, driver, save me from hell!”, was ignored. (The texts of all the works performed during the concert were helpfully projected onto a screen overhead). After recollections of racism, aggression and loneliness the concluding pavan, Lachrimae Verae, offered some consolation with its images of acceptance and assimilation, the voice now ‘safe in daylight’.

Stile Antico shaped the interweaving polyphony with refinement and tailored the tierce de Picardie cadences with gentle expressivity, conveying both pathos and tender hopes for peace. With the semi-circle anchored by basses James Arthur and Nathan Harrison, sopranos and altos grouped either side, and tenors to the fore, individual parts were able to rise and recede affectingly. On the whole the intonation was secure - the false relations of Lachrimae Amantis were focused and pungent - but at times the straight-toned sopranos pushed a little sharp, particularly as the dynamic rose. However, overall the execution was accomplished.

The ‘concept’ was a worthy one but there were several innate problems. First, its hard to think of a repertory in which musical and textual rhetoric are so inextricably fused as the Renaissance lute ayre or part-song. Here, the register, rhythm and imagery of Oswald’s texts sat uncomfortably on the musical gestures. Moreover, the courtly airs and songs of Dowland and his contemporaries are founded on the principle of the poetic conceit and artifice: yet, the voices we heard spoke with openness, plainness and sincerity, creating a further odd misalignment of text and music. And, while there was no doubting the directness and sometimes disconcerting honesty of the voices inhabiting Oswald’s texts, the diction and imagery was often banal. Perhaps such plainness, and cliché, was ‘truthful’, and intended, but the text’s potential power seemed diminished within this musical context.

Stile Antico were joined in this concert by the refugee choir Woven Gold and oud player Rihab Azar, herself a refugee. Azar opened the concert with Farid al-Atrash’s ‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality), the darkened church enhancing the reflectiveness of the traceries and rhythmic energies that she drew from her oud. Further instrumental items were interwoven between Dowland’s pavans. The melodic rhetoric of the Classical Arabic Muwashshah (literally ‘girdled’), ‘Badat Min al-Khidr’ (Seen through the veil), was deeply affecting; the extract from Nedim Nalbantoğlu’s ‘Buselik Saz Semaisi’ had a beautiful fullness of tone and captivating vigour. One could sense a strong ‘narrative’ in Khalid Mohammed Ali’s ‘Uyun Sharida’ (Escaped Eyes).

Azar delivered these songs, and her own compositions (‘Questions’ presented a striking individual musical voice), with a delicate wistfulness that was unmannered, unassuming and communicative. It was a pity that she was seated to the extreme left of the stage, for though her oud spoke clear and true, her performances deserved the opportunity to acquire even greater presence.

At the close of the concert, though, Azar was able to occupy centre-stage, at the heart of a performance of Giles Swayne’s ‘Bodrum Beach’ which was commissioned for the ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ project. Swayne has composed a frank and disturbing musical response to the 2015 tragedy in which a Syrian woman and five children drowned when attempting to cross the 2.5- mile strait of the Aegean Sea from the Bodrum peninsula to Kos. The text adapts Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and here the union of words, imagery and choric rhetoric was both apt and dramatic. Swayne’s discomforting dissonances and the pitch cluster of the cry, “There were twelve of us”, were powerful and unsettling.

The final item saw Stile Antico and Azar joined by Woven Gold, to conclude the programme with Dowland’s ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’. Earlier in the concert, Woven Gold - whose members come from diverse cultures from Congo to Iran, Uganda to Pakistan - had performed traditional songs from Arabia and the Congo, sung in the original languages and arranged by members of the group. Now they responded with sensitivity and skill to the music of another distant culture, that of Elizabethan England, showing us the pleasure and rewards of shared experiences.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico, Woven Gold, Rihab Azar (oud)

Farid al-Atrash: ‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality); Robert White: Lamentations à 5 (Part 1); Trad. Arabic: ‘Sultana Ghalban’, ‘Il Bulbul’, ‘Balini Balwa’; Trad. Congolese: ‘Elonga ezali’; John Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae; Rihab Azar & Peter Wiegold: ‘Love far away’; Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, Lachrimae Gementes; Classical Arabic Muwashshah: Badat Min al-Khidr; Dowland: Lachrimae Tristess, Lachrimae Coactae; Azar: ‘Questions’; Nedim Nalbantoğlu: ‘Buselik Saz Semaisi’ (extract); Dowland: Lachrimae Amantis, Lachrimae Verae; Giles Swayne: ‘Bodrum Beach’; Dowland: ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’.

LSO St Luke’s, London; Sunday 12th November 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stile%20Antico%20Marco%20Borggreve.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Baroque at the Edge: Stile Antico, Woven Gold, Rihab Azar (oud) - ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Stile Antico

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Posted by claire_s at 5:11 AM

January 11, 2020

Richard Jones' La bohème returns to Covent Garden

Emmanuel Villaume conducted, with Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo (who sang the role in the production during 2017/18), Andrzej Filonczyk as Marcello, Peter Kellner as Colline, Gyula Nagy as Schaunard and Aida Garifullina (making her Royal Opera debut) as Musetta. The revival was directed by Julia Burbach.

Jones' production replaced the Royal Opera's longest running production, John Copley's 1974 La bohème with supra-realistic designs from Julia Trevelyan Oman: a much loved production, frequently revived, which was launched with a cast including Katia Ricciarelli and Placido Domingo, and whose final revival (supervised by Copley himself) included Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, with some performances conducted by Placido Domingo. Some of Jones' decisions around his new production should perhaps be seen in the light of having to replace this production.

One question which hangs over La bohème, perhaps surprisingly, is 'who are these people?' Puccini specifies that the opera is set in Paris in the 1830s, when the original Henri Murger stories were set, but is it? Are the young men students, or are they men simply living the bohemian life, as happened at the period? In other words, are they role-playing the life of a struggling artist? Perhaps the characters are denizens of the Paris of 1890, when Puccini wrote the opera, a city divided from the city of Murger by the huge urban renewal of Baron Haussmann? Puccini is rumoured to have based some of the men's antics on the japes that he and his friends got up to when he was studying in Milan, and some of Puccini's friends claimed that they were the originals of the young men, as Puccini had a bohemian club in a local tavern whilst he was writing the opera. And don't forget that the young Puccini was taken under the wing by a group of older Italian artists who had all been members of the Scapigliatura (literally unkempt or dishevelled), the Italian artistic movement which was the equivalent of French bohemianism.

Modern directors often side-step these issues by setting the opera somewhere in the 20th century, but Jones addresses it head on by adding a theatrical element to his production. Whilst the costumes and set details are all clearly 1890s, he and designer Stewart Laing provide a great deal of evidence of the theatrical mechanism: no drop curtains, clear and obvious scene changes, visible lights and snow machine, stage-hands moving the scenery. Jones also strips back some of the detail. Whilst Act Two is a dazzling whirl of theatrical daring, all vivid action and moving scenery, Acts One and Three take place in a bright attic space. There is no dark when Mimì and Rodolfo's candles go out, there is no shaft of romantic moonlight for 'O soave fanciulla'. Instead, Jones leaves space for the singers and the production relies on the relations between the singers, and the characters they create. Some of the action is naturalistic, but often the four young men, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard act as a sort of chorus. It could be stagey and artificial, but much depends on the singers creating the roles.

Thankfully, for this revival the Royal Opera had put together a strong and very balanced cast, with Simona Mihai displaying little, if any, sign of having been parachuted in at the last minute.

Castronovo as Rodolfo and Mihai as Mimì.jpgCharles Castronovo as Rodolfo and Simona Mihai as Mimì. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Mihai and Castronovo made a fine, believable pairing as Mimì and Rodolfo. Mihai successfully combined a sense of fragility with an underlying strength of character, and a powerful ability to project musically. Castronovo's performance was intelligent and generous; this was not one of those Rodolfos which, though finely sung, are all about the tenor. Castronovo had the ability to shape lines, and sing quietly, and slip into ensemble. He and Mihai made a superb pairing, and for me the strongest scene in the opera was the end of Act Three where the set moves backwards and leaves the four singers, Mihai and Castronovo, Garifullina and Filonczyk (as Musetta and Marcello) on stage. Mihai and Castronovo made this a powerful moment, immensely moving and memorable in a way that it is often not. Mimì's death scene was finely and intelligently done, yet there was something a little staged about it (perhaps because of Mihai's last-minute substitution) so that whilst I admired it, my guts were not quite wrenched as they should be.

The young (he was born in 1994) Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk made a strong Marcello, making him an equal character to Rodolfo and Mimì. There was a lovely ping to Filonczyk's voice, and it helped that he made fine, sexy Marcello, albeit in a different style to Rodolfo. This is a romantic opera and whilst we can suspend disbelief, it helps if we don't have to. Andrzej Filonczyk and Aida Garifullina made the relationship between Marcello and Musetta really sizzle (and perhaps showed us what was lacking in that of Rodolfo and Mimì). Garifullina, perhaps somewhat luxury casting as Musetta, played Jones' conception of the character to the hilt, giving us a waltz that was beautifully sung and very sexy (including the removing and throwing of the knickers). There was a grandness to Garifullina's Musetta too, and it made me regret that Puccini decided not to set the scene where Musetta is thrown out of her lodgings and throws a party in the courtyard.

Aida Garifullina as Musetta with cast.jpg Aida Garifullina as Musetta, with cast. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The other two bohemians, Peter Kellner as Colline and Gyula Nagy as Schaunard, made equally strong contributions so that the four young men were a wonderfully theatrical and balanced quartet. Nagy's Schaunard was almost hyper-active and very 'theatrical', one wondered whether Jones was hinting about his sexuality, whilst Kellner drew a fine focus towards him, culminating in a powerfully concentrated performance of his farewell to his coat.

The smaller roles were equally part of the whole, with Jeremy White as a delightful Benoit, Andrew Macnair as an intriguing Parpignol, Eddie Wade as a highly befuddled Alcindoro, John Morrisey as the customs officer and Thomas Barnard as the Sergeant. A word too about the non-credited roles, there was fine work from the actors including the man playing the maitre d'hotel of the restaurant and the tall young actor leading the band at the end of Act Two.

One of the things that I noticed about the production was quite how funny it was. It wasn't just the audience laughing at the surtitles as they read them, but the action was itself funny without guying the piece. None of the singers tried to pretend to be a teenager, but all created a real sense of enjoyment and some moments of sharp humour.

I loved what Emmanuel Villaume and the orchestra did with the piece. This was a flexible and fluid performance, yet one that moved. With a single interval after Act Two, each half came in at under an hour, yet it never felt rushed. Things flowed past in a shapely manner, and the great moments were finely shaped without ever feeling we were over lingering.

La bohème is in production at the Royal Opera until 5th February 2020, with a second cast conducted by Ariane Matiakh for some performances.

Robert Hugill

Puccini: La bohème

Mimì - Simona Mihai, Rodolfo - Charles Castronovo, Marcello - Andrzej Filonczyk, Colline - Peter Kellner, Musetta - Aida Garifullina, Benoit - Jeremy White, Parpignol - Andrew Macnair, Alcindoro - Eddie Wade, Customs Officer - John Morrissey, Sergeant -Thomas Barnard; Director - Richard Jones, Revival Director - Julia Burbach, Conductor - Emmanuel Villaume, Designer - Stewart Laing, Lighting Designer - Mimi Jordan Sherin, Movement Director - Sarah Fahie, Revival Movement Director - Danielle Urbas, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Friday 10th January 2020

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La%20boh%C3%A8me%20Tristram%20Kenton.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Richard Jones' production of La bohème, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: La bohème, production image

Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton
Posted by claire_s at 10:48 AM

January 8, 2020

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

Jansons was - and had been for many years in my view - the finest living Strauss conductor and Diana Damrau might consider herself very fortunate that she was the soprano he had chosen to program these songs with throughout 2019. A performance of them in New York, in early November, and less than a month before his death, would find both singer and conductor unwell - but that is not the case on this recording made in Munich. And nor was it so when I reviewed their Strauss concert for Opera Today, given in London in January last year, which was an unforgettable example of this conductor’s way with Strauss.

At the time, I thought Damrau’s performance of the Vier letzte Lieder struggled to achieve a unanimity between the songs; there was even an occasional lack of depth and involvement. But, it was clearly evident she could touch greatness, even if sometimes one felt her singing leaned heavily the other way too. This recording gives a somewhat different impression - as recordings often do - but what is also unusual, and this is often not the case, is that Damrau is challenged by an orchestra and conductor at the limit of their expressive range. You have to go back decades to hear something similar - to Celibidache, in a live performance with Jessye Norman, Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Karajan, again, with Janowitz.

Damrau has not always chosen her repertoire wisely - neither Violetta nor Lucia quite suited her, and a disc of bel canto arias displayed such shortcomings in her vocal command - not least an unsteady (and rather wide) vibrato and an inability to sustain phrasing - that one wondered if the voice, rather like Studer’s or Battle’s were to become, was beyond redemption. You detect very slight hints of those vocal problems in the orchestral songs here, a tendency to ‘gulp’, the breathing a touch erratic, and that is, I think, because when you hear Damrau live, against an orchestra, the voice can sound under pressure. Despite the opulence, and those silky lines, it’s not the largest instrument; the Lieder, however, are quite another matter. She really does do intimacy supremely well.

Here we have a Strauss soprano who is perhaps unrivalled amongst singers today in getting inside these songs, though she has largely eschewed the more obvious ones for Lieder which penetrate deep within the psyche, and which embrace expressionism and mortality. Many of the songs she has chosen are complex miniatures which veer between simplicity and emotional depth, often within a few bars; their brevity can make them seem monochrome when in fact they are rendered with the intense vibrancy of Impressionism. Damrau can, and does, make a complete Shakespearian tragedy - of madness and psychosis - out of one Strauss set where Bellini arias with identical themes eluded her. It isn’t just the intimacy she brings to Strauss Lieder, but also a complete range to her voice which she often struggles with in the Vier letzte Lieder.

Damrau’s voice sits in the middle range (as do most) of the singers who have tackled these songs, and, for many of them, the weakest of the four is most often the first, ‘Frühling’. Jansons doesn’t make life too difficult for Damrau here - far from it. The very opening bars are fluid enough and that free-flowing tempo is largely sustained throughout. Damrau doesn’t need the huge flexibility of breath control that Gundula Janowitz does for Karajan - and nor is she really expected to exceed the comfort zone of her own range to meet her conductor’s tempi. Damrau is rather adept at shadowing the orchestra, especially the woodwind, and though she can hit her top notes there is the hint of a quiver to them and intrusive vibrato (between 2’30 and 2’36 shows how under pressure Damrau can sometimes sound). But what is somewhat lacking in this performance of ‘Frühling’ is sufficient tonal colour; you’ll really struggle to hear any attempt at giving any weight or length to the notes, though this is in one sense because Jansons clearly sees this song as having more momentum than many conductors tend to (he is even quicker than Szell who is certainly no slouch).

The first thing one notices about ‘September’ isn’t Damrau but the beautifully gilded playing of the Bavarian strings. What the recording captures so magnificently here is a division between sombre autumnal plangency and the mysterious allegorical shiver of leaves falling from the Acacia tree. It’s wonderfully caught through divided violins, Jansons giving an almost Debussy-like canvas to the scoring that even eluded Karajan. When I heard Damrau last year I thought she rather missed the mark in this song but that is less the case in this performance. There is still a tendency to snatch phrases (c. 0’24) but she generally rescues the music with greater suspension and a lingering drift into seasonal unconsciousness.

Damrau’s strength in Strauss is an intrinsic capacity in his darker music to delve rather deeply beyond the text and give us something special. This is the case in lieder like the ‘Ophelia’ songs (also included on this disc) - and it’s also evident in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. The voice is neither as sumptuous nor as creamy as some - unlike the orchestra here which is simply ravishing - but she gives such meaning to Hesse’s words that death becomes enigmatic. In some performances the voice seems to ascend and soar above the orchestra as if it is in perpetual flight; Damrau takes a different approach, floating around the solo violin and horn as they spiral towards heaven. It works (when it really shouldn’t) simply because Damrau knows what the emotional context of the words are. If in the preceding songs she sometimes struggles with the phrasing, here their meandering length is glowing, even impeccably done.

‘Im Abendrot’ is similarly affecting, although this is a song which is as much about the orchestra as it is the soprano. Those trills on doubled flutes are the most lyrical of larks imaginable, their fluttering wings taking flight with breath-taking elegance. This is a dissolving sunset that slowly melts as an old couple reflect on their past love. Damrau doesn’t see complexity here, just the simplicity of intimacy, her voice coalescing with the orchestra as the music fades into a stillness. It is, I think, impossible to listen to these final lines, “Wie sind wir wandermüde/Ist dies etwa der Tod”, in this particular performance, without thinking of Mariss Jansons. If one can sometimes feel equivocal about Diana Damrau’s singing, even though there are very notable parts here which are very fine indeed, this is very much a supreme reminder of how great a conductor Jansons was of Richard Strauss.

Where Damrau really does excel on this disc is in the lieder, where she is partnered by the pianist Helmut Deutsch. This partnership is so symbiotic in Strauss - if it isn’t always in some other composers they perform together - that the results are often profoundly moving. The quartet of songs which make up ‘Mädchenblumen’ probably couldn’t be more different from the Vier letzte Lieder. These are lieder about nature, the complete obverse of the death-haunted songs which open the disc. Their metaphor is about a transformation into the living world - a garden of flowers, burbling streams, trees flexing their branches in a gentle breeze. They require a rather different approach from a soprano, though a no less deep and involving one. They aren’t without their challenges. ‘Kornblumen’ sinks or swims on the soprano’s agility to enter before the pianist, something which Damrau easily does here. But, there are distinct changes in dynamics and motion as well. ‘Mahnblumen’ is paced with sparkling energy and some labyrinthine twists in the phrasing; ‘Wasserosse’ should sound like a painting in music, the rippling of music conveyed in both the voice and the piano. Damrau and Deutsch manage both.

Probably the finest songs here are the ‘Ophelia’ settings, and not just because they derive their inspiration from Shakespeare. They suit Damrau’s uninhibited way with Straussian psychology well. These are lieder which demand some depth, a certain fleshing out of character: Ophelia is on the brink of madness and psychosis, and these are songs which prophesise death and embrace mortality. Damrau can make a distinction in these songs, and earlier Strauss ones, between a single element - in this case water - by giving a terrifying power to it in the ‘Ophelia’ setting; she is destined to drown. The music itself is taxing with leaps in the voice evoking Ophelia’s madness, or low notes reflecting the crisis of doom which will befall her. It’s a very convincing portrait, in a performance which is quite beautifully sung.

Songs from both the 8 Lieder and the 5 Lieder are sung out of numerical order, which I find slightly disorienting. ‘Die Verschwiegenen’ is suitably terse, ‘Die Nacht’ (recalling at its opening on the piano the oboe solo in Don Juan) is beautifully poised, whilst ‘Die Zeitlose’ returns us to the gardens of nature, but this time to flowers with a toxic scent to them which Damrau so carefully describes in such a short space of time. The disc closes with ‘Morgen’, but in Strauss’s orchestrated version with Jansons and his Bavarian players supplying amply lush support, and Damrau providing that sense of infinite timelessness a great interpreter of this song always brings to it.

This is, I think, one of those Strauss recordings where we get a near remarkable recital of this composer’s lieder and a performance of the Vier letzte Lieder which is less memorable for its soprano (unfortunately very common these days) but a reminder of the qualities of a great Strauss conductor. I wouldn’t want to be without this recording for Diana Damrau’s performances of her ‘Ophelia’ songs, nor her ‘Mädchenblumen’ - and Helmut Deutsch is as fine a pianist in them as one would hear today. But nor would I wish to be without the exceptional playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra which offer something rather special.

Marc Bridle

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Erato%20Damrau%20Strauss.jpg image_description= Erato 9029530346 product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder product_by= Diana Damrau (soprano), Helmut Deutsch (piano), Mariss Jansons (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra product_id= Erato 9029530346 [CD] price=$13.25 product_url=https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8718050--strauss-vier-letzte-lieder-lieder
Posted by claire_s at 10:51 AM

January 5, 2020

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 from Hyperion

Following on from A Sea Symphony (read more here) and A London Symphony, this series is proving to be a major contribution to the discography. Vivid, thought-through performances, immensely rewarding.

In this Vaughan Williams Symphony no 3, the introduction to the Molto moderato seems to vibrate as if from within. Deliberately ambiguous textures, constantly shifting and unsettled. Despite the poignant violin, (which might suggest The Lark Ascending) this is not complacent. As Vaughan Williams himself wrote, “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.” The oboe and cor anglais intensify the irony, for these instruments remind us what the fields of France might have been before they became battlegrounds.

The horn solo with which the Lento movement begins further reinforces the battlefield connotations, at once a reveille and and Last Taps. Gradually lines stretch forward, but the landscape is still haunted by the ambiguities of the first movement, the panorama seen, as it were behind smoke and rain. The trumpet cadenza, played without valves sounds deliberately hollow, as if blown not quite in tune by an ordinary foot soldier: too much polish would not work. Yet more irony, since it takes considerable skill on the part of a trained professional to achieve such results. The high, ascendant tessitura suggests gradual change of perspective, upwards into another realm. Does the trumpet here foretell the Last Trumpet at the End of Time? In the third movement, bright figures suggest freedom. They introduce the vigorous, earthy dances of the scherzo, which may or may not signify the music of earlier times with which Vaughan Williams was so familiar. But are these dances bucolic or brutalist? This symphony operates on many different levels.

In the final movement, Vaughan Williams employs a human voice, (Elizabeth Watts) albeit one singing ethereal wordless vocalize. If the trumpet at the end of the second movement signifies the Last Trumpet, the voice here might signify angels, but not necessarily. Perhaps it’s a reminder that some things are beyond human comprehension and may never be bridged. Elizabeth Watts’ timbre is pure and unworldly, with just enough warmth to suggest some tantalizing form of comfort. Her voice echoes from afar, for distance matters: there is a dividing line between this world and whatever may or may not lie ahead. The re-entry of the orchestra brings us back to earth. There are echoes of the dances in the scherzo, of the high string tessituras and wind instruments, now embellished by harp and celeste. The expansive, searching lines now rise with greater fullness than before, yet recede into near silence. The voice continues, alone.

Of his Symphony no 4 in F minor, Vaughan Williams told Sir Henry Wood, “I don’t like the work itself much, but it is undoubtedly a very fine piece”. Good music “exists” by its own creative volition: it’s not manufactured to preconceived specifications like a consumer product. As the composer was later to write “I do think it beautiful...because we know that beauty can come from unbeautiful things”.

Brabbins shapes the introduction so it seems to explode with fierce but controlled force. Although this fanfare might seem shocking, it does connect to other aspects of the composer’s work. At times I was reminded of the figure in the Antiphon in Five Mystical Songs “The Church with psalms must shout.... My God and King “. Vaughan Williams, who knew the Bible and Messianic traditions, understood the concept of forces so powerful that they cannot be constrained. Pounding ostinato, trumpets (again, Biblical significance) ablaze, trombones and tuba add depth. The theme isn’t meant to be soothing. It could reflect the “terrible beauty” from the Book of Job Ch 37, 17-22, though there is nothing religious about this symphony. The references merely serve to indicate that a cataclysm of some sort is being unleashed.

More brass in the second movement, marked andante moderato, but this time more restrained, the strings of the BBCSO murmuring en masse, from which the woodwind line rises, moving ever upwards. A sense of unease: tense pizzicato creating a fragile though regular beat. The flute melody, exquisitely played, has a poignant quality: painfully alone but unbowed. Wildness returns with the third movement, brass pounding, trombones creating long zig-zag lines. For a moment the tuba leads a trio with grunting bassoons. The term “scherzo” means “joke” but the humour here is darkly ironic. This colours the sprightly theme which follows: it’s not escapist. The swaggering thrust of the first movement returns, angular dissonances flying in all directions, clod-hopping ostinato suggesting grotesque horror. The Finale is “con epilogo fugato” : no easy resolution, no easy answers. Given Brabbins’ grounding in modern and modern British music, his approach to this symphony is particularly interesting, full of insight and freedom. intuitively executed.

The bonus on this recording is the premiere of Saraband, taken by Brabbins from an unpublished manuscript. This brief cantata, for voice, chorus and orchestra, with David Butt-Philip as soloist, sets lines from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, describing Helen of Troy. Drafted in 1913-14, but not completed, the work was set aside by other pressures of work. Even in embryo, it’s an interesting work which bears the mark of the composer at this fertile stage in his career.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RVW_3_4.png image_description=Hyperion CDA68280 product=yes product_title=Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 3 & 4 product_by=BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) product_id=Hyerion CDA68280 [CD] price=$19.98 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07YTD412F/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B07YTD412F&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=477ef6b9a116a8d91eda47ac467ea519
Posted by iconoclast at 5:54 PM

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Don Giovanni and Leporello were performed by Lucas Meachem and Matthew Rose. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio were sung by Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Amanda Majeski, and Ben Bliss. Zerlina and Masetto were Ying Fang and Brandon Cedel. The Commendatore was Mika Kares. The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by James Gaffigan, and the Lyric Opera Chorus prepared by its Chirus Master Michael Black. Sets and costumes for this production are by Walt Spangler and Ana Kuzmanic respectively. The lighting designer is Duane Schuler, wigs and makeup are by Sarah Hatten. Making debuts at Lyric Opera in this production were Mmes. Willis-Sorensen and Fang along with Messrs. Bliss, Cedel, and Kares.

From the opening chords of the overture Mr. Gaffigan kept a firm, shaping hand over the orchestral colors while affording due support to the soloists on stage. Leporello’s opening lines are delivered by Mr. Rose with a characteristic mix of declamation and melodic fervor, to which the bass-baritone returns at key moments in both solo and ensemble passages. His complaints about the master Don Giovanni lead abruptly into the scene between Donna Anna and Don Giovanni as they are confronted by Anna’s father, the Commendatore. As Donna Anna, Ms. Willis-Sorensen creates a believable character given to flights of emotion expressed in vocal embellishments. Once Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore Mr. Meachem’s interaction with his servant exemplifies the tension in recitative and dialogue that keeps this pair united. The contrast of Meachem’s baritone with the lower vocal type of Rose’s Leporello creates interest in the passages of mutual comment and strategy. Since these exchanges essentially advance the action of the opera, their significance here takes on added importance. Upon the return of Donna Anna with her suitor Don Ottavio the horror of Giovanni’s actions and the need for retribution fills the young pair’s duet. Both Willis-Sorensen and Bliss show an ardent commitment in their conjoined singing, while each retains the personality of individual character in vocal identity. Donna Anna’s bursts of impassioned grief are tempered by Bliss’s steadying projection of Don Ottavio’s attempts to comfort and to encourage his beloved in her loss. With a nod to the future, they exit and allow Don Giovanni to ponder further conquests. His unexpected encounter with Donna Elvira provides Ms. Majeski the space to delineate her character with spirit and exquisite lyrical projection. In her aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai” [“Ah, who is there who will tell me…”], Majeski sings with tasteful Classical line indicative of Elvira’s noble demeanor, yet incorporating a side that has also experienced emotional betrayal. The admirable range of Majeski’s voice is here fraught with angry resentment but also bound by the discipline of melodic structure. From polished top notes expressing her love on “l’amai” descending to the deeply intoned chest tones of ’l’empio” [“the villain”], Majeski communicates the competing emotions that define Elvira’s complex personality now and later in the opera. This musically expressed ambivalence is nurtured by Rose’s frank ad amusingly punctuated performance of Leporello’s “Catalogue” aria detailing his master’s multiple seductions.

The neatly pastoral setting of a villagers’ gathering in this production highlights both an intrusion and subsequent restoration of simplicity. Ying Fang and Cedel depict an ideal rustic couple, their voices melding into the greenery of their outdoor celebration. Tempos suggest a tense encounter at the entrance of the Don and servant, but they relax appropriately at the start of Giovanni’s attempt to win over Zerlina. The duet “Là ci darem la mano” [“There you will give me your hand”] is sung with care and poignancy, indeed allowing Ying Fang’s floating tones to suggest a momentary, emotional attraction to the Don. Donna Elvira’s abrupt intrusion has here the twofold purpose of saving Zerlina and also preparing for her accusations in the following ensenble with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. Majeski makes the most of this pivotal scene by injecting rising melismas into her aria supporting the maiden and denouncing with declarative force “il traditor!” [“the betrayer!”]. Such persistence continued in the ensemble helps to awaken in Donna Anna the realization of her father’s killer and her seducer. Willis-Sorensen’s address to Don Ottavio in the aria “Or sai, chi l’onore rapire a me volse” [“Now you know who tried to steal my honor from me”] is replete with urgent intonation, seamless breath control, and an unexpected yet effective decorative flourish at the close. In response to Anna’s appeals for vengeance Bliss’s Don Ottavio sings a meltingly lyrical performance of “Dalla sua pace la mia dipende” [“Upon her peace of mind mine also rests”]. In his transitions between phrases Bliss achieves an unbroken spirit of emotional commitment to his beloved, perhaps most achingly communicated with rising pitches sung on “morte mi da” [“(her trouble) is equal to my death”]. Despite this unity of noble determination, conjoined with Donna Elvira’s resentment, the threesome is nevertheless here amusingly outwitted so that Don Giovanni’s escapades may continue in the following act.

The convivial banter between master and servant proceeds in the next act with clever motion and idiomatic sensitivity by Meachem and Rose. The serenade performed beneath Donna Elvira’s window captures Meachem’s portrayal of Don Giovanni in an ardent, softly touching performance suggesting at least the mask of vulnerability in this inveterate rake. In the trio of set pieces that follow as highlights in this act the characters’ personalities are intensified here through vocal expressiveness. When Bliss sings “Il mio tresoro” [“My beloved treasure”] his command of legato and ease of phrasing incorporating appoggiatura render his message that he will summon the authorities believably urgent. In much the same way, Majeski’s performance of “Mi tradi” [“He betrayed me”] reiterates Donna Elvira’s initial attraction while the beauty of lyrical phrase and ascent to top notes emphasizes her subsequent resolve. Don Giovanni’s final descent from an inverted banquet-table into the brimstone of hell is motivated as much by the dramatic as by the vocal strengths of this performance.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/don-giovanni_chicago.png image_description=Amanda Majeski (Donna Elvira) and Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni) [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Amanda Majeski (Donna Elvira) and Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni) [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by jim_z at 5:35 PM

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

Arthur Waley’s translation of ‘The Old Lute’ by the ancient Chinese poet Po Chü-i (772-846), which was set by Benjamin Britten in his 1957 cycle, Songs from the Chinese, is a perfect metaphor for the composer’s quest to re-define and rejuvenate English music by re-connecting with the great English composers of the past - a quest which was revived during this recital by tenor Allan Clayton, guitarist Sean Shibe, viola player Timothy Ridout and pianist James Baillieu, continuing Wigmore Hall’s Britten Series.

Much has been written of the influence of Purcell on Britten, not least by the composer himself, particularly with regard to his approach to word-setting, but of no less significance on the development of Britten’s compositional voice was the music of John Dowland. Moreover, from the 1950s Peter Pears and Julian Bream reintroduced Dowland to the listening public in Britain and overseas; in 1963 the Aldeburgh Festival was devoted to the 400th anniversary of Dowland’s birth.

Superficially, one notices a fascination shared by the two composers with images of sleep, the night and death, but, more significantly, during the Elizabethan period were established vocal traditions of musical and textual rhetoric of which Britten was a natural inheritor. Such traditions are nowhere more powerfully crystallised than in the Elizabethan lute song, the expressive idiom of which cohered potent musical gestures with stylised texts and literary codes.

And, it was this ‘lost world of the lute song’ that Clayton and Shibe - the guitarist attired in striking Jacobean doublet and ruff - revived in a sequence of preludes and songs from Dowland’s F irst Booke of Songs or Ayres (1597). The musicians were both seated, there was no undue formality, and the opening Praeludium (included on Shibe’s acclaimed 2018 disc, Dreams & Fancies ) delicately slipped segue into ‘Come again, sweet love doth know invite’. Clayton’s tenor was light and airy, subtly picking out selected words and nuances - “I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die” first swelled with urgency, then, when repeated, retreated to a floating whisper - above Shibe’s pristinely elaborate polyphonic accompaniment. There was a freedom in the tenor’s manner: in latter stanzas melodic decorations and small variants were introduced, somewhat in the manner of a folksong.

‘Away with these self-loving lads’ was notable for the naturalness of Clayton’s delivery and the sweetness of the vocal tone. The programmed ‘Sleep, wayward thoughts’ was replaced by another unidentified instrumental prelude to the final song in the sequence, ‘Come, heavy sleep’, the twentieth and final song from Dowland’s book of ayres, in which the lute, by turns expansive then secretive, complemented the voice’s weary, melancholy wrestling with life’s cares.

These songs were beautifully presented, with ease and clarity. I missed, however, that certain undercurrent of tension that send frissons through the deceptively artless utterances. Such lute songs were undoubtedly sung in the sort of intimate social and domestic setting that Clayton and Shibe seemed inclined to reproduce here, and were also perhaps played in solitude, the lone singer-lutenist the only listener. But, within their professions of courtly love - the male lover addressing an indifferent or disdainful mistress - the songs couch political and courtly themes, and they would have been heard too in aristocratic contexts: petitions to Queen Elizabeth I for favour and advancement, or forgiveness, conveyed through a language of love that codifies loyalty and ambition. Clayton’s relaxed delivery and crooning quality did not do full justice to the artifice and artfulness of the songs. His tendency to elide words - as at the start of ‘Come away’, where the rest in the vocal line, respecting the comma in the text, was over-ridden by a sustained legato - created a casualness which beguiled the listener’s ear but which neglected the sharpness, wit and oratory of the texts.

In his Earl of Somerset Masque (1614), Thomas Campion spoke of the emotive power of such musico-verbal rhetoric: “Happy is hee whose words can move./ Yet sweet Notes help perswasion./ Mixe your words with Musicke then./ That they the more may enter.” We certainly find such rhetoric in the Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex in Britten’s 1953 opera, Gloriana, the text of which layers words by the Earl himself, Robert Devereux, with those of a madrigal by John Wilbye: “Happy we he could finish forth his fate/ In some unhaunted desert, most obscure/ From all societies, from love and hate/ Of worldly folk.” It was made popular by Pears and Bream; in 1957, the latter arranged the original harp and muted strings accompaniment for guitar and voice, and I assume that this is what we heard here.

Sean-Shibe Kaupo-Kikkas.jpg Sean Shibe (guitar). Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

Clayton powerfully conjured the “dream, a mood, an air/ To spirit us both away” which Elizabeth requests from her disgraced lover in the final act of the opera. While, taken out of its dramatic context, the song’s pathos may have been diminished, in fact time and place seemed irrelevant as the vocal line expanded freely, ebbing and flowing, blossoming in melismatic wistfulness: “Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;/ In contemporary spending all his days.” Points of rhythmic repose, as when Essex’s sighing repetitions embody his dream that he might then “sleep secure”, merely confirmed the transitory and illusory nature of his hopes which dissolved into nothingness at the close of the song.

The spirit of the ‘antique’ continued in Britten’s Songs from the Chinese which were composed for Pears and Bream and performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17th June 1958. In ‘The Big Chariot’, a more robust vocal tone and fuller vibrato, aided by the rhythmic vigour of the guitar’s weaving counterpoint, and enhanced further by emphatic textual repetitions, conveyed the massive size and weight of the chariot and thus the suffering it causes:You'll be stifled with dust, be stifled with dust,” sang Clayton, his tenor seeming to bend low under the heaviness of his burden, before flowering in elaborate melismatic sadness: “Don’t think about the sorrows of the world.”

The closing couplet of ‘The Old Lute’ was especially powerful. The drooping melancholy of the falling thirds that close many of the vocal lines, intimating the sad decay of the old lute’s music, Clayton’s question was more declamatory: “How did it come to be neglected so?” The guitar’s response was disconcerting. Rapid, upwards-sweeping arpeggios presented the answer: what the poet calls the ‘barbarous’ noise of the new instruments, “the Ch’iang flute and the zither of Ch’in”, has turned the musical world, quite literally, upside down.

In ‘The Autumn Wind’ and ‘The Herd-Boy’ the visual aspects of the text - the strengthening breeze, the lilt of the ox’s tread - were enchantingly conveyed by the accompaniment, as Clayton thoughtfully heightened the text: “I think of my lovely lady, I never can forget”. The textual stresses of ‘Depression’, with its heavy spondaic beat, were brilliantly imitated by Shibe who exploited Britten’s fading gestures to complement the singer whose “body sinks to decay”. Finally came ‘Dance Song’, with its strange, ambiguous text and unsettling blend of vivacity and pain; it seems to lament the loss of the mythical ‘lin’, hunted to extinction. Waley translates ‘lin’ as ‘unicorn’ and initially the voice presents fanfare-like motifs, “The unicorn's hoofs!”; but, with every repetition of “Alas for the unicorn” Clayton’s voice rose in emotional pitch, increasingly frequent glissandi eventually climaxing in a cry of anguish for lost love, lost youth, lost beauty … and lost music.

Timothy+Ridout Kaupo+Kikkas.jpgTimothy Ridout (viola). Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

The central items of the recital saw the voice fall silent, and the past re-born through instrumental contemplation. Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland was premiered by viola player William Primrose at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival with the composer himself at the keyboard. Here, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu captured the ceremony and grace of the pavan, drawn from Dowland’s ‘If my complaint could passions move’ (which is not heard in the viola until after the variations have been presented), while exploiting the colours and irregularities of those variations to the full. Ridout’s tone was by turns beautifully deep and sonorous, then more gracious, always refined. Powerful pizzicato resounded, propelled by Baillieu’s flowing sweeps. The absence of vibrato at the close again evoked the distance of past worlds.

Britten returned to Dowland, thirteen years after Lachrymae in his Nocturnal for solo guitar, which is loosely based upon ‘Come, heavy sleep’. In a mesmerising performance that was, paradoxically, both introspective and deeply communicative, Shibe seemed to venture ‘inside’ the music itself, as the semitonal conflicts wrought themselves into ever greater complexities before releasing their knots in tentative melodic fragments. Britten’s resourcefulness with small means is astonishing but Shibe’s performance held the Wigmore Hall audience spellbound. Cradling his instrument, head bent low, the Scottish-Japanese guitarist put me in mind of Dr John Dee: for this was musical magick, as if the spirit of those Elizabethan alchemists had returned to play upon our ears and hearts and minds - mesmerising us with terrifyingly quiet pianissimos, the player almost lost in improvisatory meditations which were broken by surprising, frightening declamations of eloquence and eeriness. The long-for statement of the song’s theme offered little consolation, finally fragmenting into absence and echoing in its silence John Donne’s account, in his Sermons, of the depression and human ingloriousness that serve as a foil to the glory of heaven: ‘an extraordinary sadnesse, a predominant melancholy, a faintnesse of heart, a chearlesnesse, a joylesnesse of spirit.’

Clayton returned to the platform with Baillieu to perform the three songs that Britten composed as incidental music for Ronald Duncan’s 1945 play, This Way to the Tomb. I felt that the final item, Britten’s 1953 song-cycle Winter Words, setting eight songs by Thomas Hardy, found Clayton reach an expressive peak. Here there was real dynamism, the texts both poetic and dramatic: the poems may not form a continuous narrative but the singer’s voice can unite the disparate happenings into an intelligible whole, and so create a sense of a discourse on time. For, there is a central ‘theme’, the loss of childlike innocence as adult consciousness develops, and Clayton was able to suggest a persona looking back at his youth in his later years.

Sentimentality was kept at bay in ‘At Day-Close in November’, by the briskness of the piano’s upward flourishes which conveyed the impetuous and passionate feeling which is present in the poem, and perhaps also suggested the impatient pitching to and fro of the pine branches; and by the vigour with which Clayton’s poet-speaker relived an event from his past, “I set every tree in my June time”. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western (The Journeying Boy)’, the tenor imbued his reflections on the lonely child who is travelling in a third-class railway carriage, towards an unknown destination, with compassion and intensity, as Baillieu’s imitative whistle and steam gradually pushed forward, creating accumulating motion, energy and unease.

‘Wagtail and Baby’ had a gentle, conversational air, while ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial (or The Tenor Man’s Story) was beautifully eloquent and poignant. Baillieu was a mercurial voice in ‘At the Railway Station, Upway (or The Convict and the Boy with the Violin)’, capturing the strangeness of the constable’s smile as the boy’s fiddle “began to twang” and the convict’s ironic jingle rang out with guttural grimness, and a searing crescendo that was a pained vocal grimace: “This life so free/Is the thing for me.” In the final song, ‘Before Life and After’, the piano’s repeated chords seemed indifferent to the singer’s distress, progressing forwards, not allowing the voice to linger meditatively. In the final stanza Clayton’s ever more insistent reflections on loss culminated in a question that seemed both despairing and terrified - “How long, how long” before “nescience shall be reaffirmed”? The open vowel was a cry of hopelessness.

To conclude the four musicians assembled together on stage, and Britten’s arrangement of ‘I wonder as I wander’ - the sparse inter-verse commentary shared in turn by viola, guitar, piano - spirited us to past musical worlds: in the words of Hardy, “A Time There Was …”

Claire Seymour

Allan Clayton (tenor) Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), James Baillieu (piano)

Dowland : Praeludium, ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’, ‘Away with these self-loving lads’, ‘Come, heavy sleep’; Britten: The Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from Gloriana Op.53, Songs from the Chinese Op.58, Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op.48, Nocturnal after John Dowland Op.70, This Way to the Tomb (‘Evening’, ‘Morning’, ‘Night’), Winter Words Op.52

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 4th January 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Clayton%20Sim%20Canetty-Clarke.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Allan Clayton sings Dowland and Britten at Wigmore Hall 0product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Allan Clayton (tenor)

Photo credit: Sam Canetty-Clarke
Posted by claire_s at 1:25 PM