Posts Tagged ‘John Tomlinson’

Mass Transfiguration

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on December 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

Transfiguration (Def)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/

Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”

The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.

It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.

And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.

It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.

Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.

As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.

While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.

Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.

And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.

Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.

But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.


I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.

And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.

Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.

And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.

And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.

Welsh Exodus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Review – Moses und Aron (Welsh National Opera, Covent Garden, Saturday 26 July 2014)

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell

Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

I never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have struck a deal to bring one of their productions to Covent Garden.

I hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera House continues and it was a bold choice to bring Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to London.

Incomplete and originally conceived as an oratorio, Moses und Aron was composed in twelve-tone technique, a system invented by Schoenberg as a personal resolution to the move towards atonality. However while some people are put off by the mere thought of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg’s opera is a remarkable work.

Schoenberg was not an instinctive opera composer and many think that dodecaphony lends itself more to music of intellectual vigour than an emotional response.

This performance of Moses und Aron helped disperse this belief slightly.

The Second Act – and particularly the opening with its contrapuntal intricacy – is both dramatic and musically impressive. Personally – and I don’t only mean in this production – the infamous “orgy” scene could have done with a bit of a trim in the original score, but the desolation of the ending holds a tantalizing promise of what Schoenberg might have had in his head for the final act.

However it isn’t Moses who has the most exciting music. It’s Aron. And Rainer Trost found a lyricism in the vocal line, and at times it seemed drew an almost deliberate parallel with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. Despite a slight strain at the top of his range – and I believe this has more to do with Schoenberg’s ‘unsympathetic ear’ when it comes to vocal writing – there was a purity of tone and an eloquence and clear sense of diction in Trost’s performance that was mesmerizing.

As Moses, John Tomlinson inhabited the role, creating a real sense of Moses as a person. Even when not singing, he dominated the stage – from before the music started in fact. On occasion slipping more into speech than the vocal line required, there was no denying the power of Tomlinson’s performance. And the pathos he brought to the closing scene was incredibly powerful.

Of the multitude of smaller roles, Elizabeth Atherton stood out with a clear bright soprano both as the Young Maiden, and in the Second Act as one of the quartet of Naked Virgins.

In the pit, Lothar Koenigs shone a light not only of the lyricism but also the sensuousness of much of the music. Where some conductors might have labored the twelve-note row in an attempt to being a sense of inner architecture to the music, Koenigs’ interpretation focused on the entire sweep of the two acts. And the WNO Orchestra responded with some very fine playing. Under his baton, a real sense of transparency was maintained throughout, and the players drew out the wide-range of colours and details within Schoenberg’s score.

But as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, performing with a confidence and clarity that was incredible.

The production was a mixed experience. I struggle with the concept of any production starting with an open set. Here – with John Tomlinson standing at a window – it seemed far too long. So great was the time between his appearance and the music starting that any dramatic impact was lost.

The one-set-fits-all approach can work – and it almost did here. However, with current events in Gaza, the idea that the opera opened in a room more destined for peace negotiations was slightly unsettling.

But it was in the Second Act that the production came undone. Clearly it’s always difficult to realize something like an orgy on stage – although McVicar manages it quite well in Rigoletto – but here any sense of the destruction of law and order, of licentiousness, was lost with Wieler and Morabito’s idea of having the chorus watch an imaginary film. It wasn’t so much the idea but rather it was too static for too long – again like Tomlinson’s appearance at the beginning of the opera. However, what made matters worse was having the chorus – and I wonder how it was sold to them in rehearsals – indulge in acts of sexual depravity which – quite frankly – was more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. And potentially with the neighbours. Excruciating.

At the precise moment I wished Schoenberg has kept to his original intention of making it an oratorio.

However despite the weakness of the production itself, the daring of bringing this opera to the stage, and the level of music making both in the pit, among the soloists and in the chorus was a triumph.

Sadly I think it is too much to ask for Moses und Aron to remain in WNO’s repertory except perhaps if they revive it with the complete Third Act as composed by Zoltán Kocsis?

Well worth a personal exodus to Cardiff for that.

New Listen #1 – Bluebeard’s Castle (Béla Bartók)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 19, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Bluebeard (Kékszakállú) – John Tomlinson
Judith (Judit) – Anne Sofie von Otter
Narrator – Sandor Elès

Conductor – Bernard Haitink
Berlin Philharmonic

As I mentioned in my last post of 2011, I intend to listen to as much new music as I can in 2012. Of course there will always be new singers that I will always look out for but one area I plan to explore is chamber music for example. I have to admit that – with the exception of a few pieces – this is a genre that I rarely listen to and know very little about. Apart from that I hope that I will stumble on individual works and composers I haven’t listened to before or – as is the case with this first blog of the new year –that I should have listened to by now, but for whatever reason, have neglected or avoided to do.

There is something uniquely thrilling about listening to a piece of music for the first time. Over and above the obvious thrill of ‘the new’ there are two things that make it personally exciting for me. The first is giving myself the time – and the luxury – to focus on one thing with no other distraction. All too often music is listened to in the background because of its familiarity or – in my case travelling as much as I do – en route to somewhere. And secondly it can lead to the discovery beyond that single work of other pieces by that composer. And of course there is the added frisson of either hearing new artists for the first time or, as is the case here, of hearing two of my favourite artists in unfamiliar repertory.

So the first ‘new piece’ of the New Year is Béla Bartók’s only opera, the one act Bluebeard’s Castle.

So much for chamber music. Next time I promise.

I have to admit that the impetus for choosing this piece was the result of a recent edition of Gramophone magazine and having scanned my shelves realising that I have two recordings of this opera – John Tomlinson and Anne Sofie von Otter conducted by Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Following Gramophone’s recommendation, I selected the former. I can’t remember why I bought either recording but can only surmise that at some point in the past I decided – as I have now – to listen to the work. Clearly on that occasion it didn’t happen.

My enduring memory of Bartók is ploughing through his six volume piano cycle, Mikrokosmos. At the time when all I was only interested in was Mozart and Beethoven’s piano sonatas it seemed a never-ending torture inflicted on me by my piano teacher to work my way through each and every piece. At the time I failed to appreciate either the inventive originality of the music itself or it’s raison d’être – to improve technical proficiency. And perhaps that is why I have never really engaged in his music since. A subconscious decision that I am determined to rectify this year.

As the intention is to listen to music that I haven’t heard before I intend to take a different approach with these blogs. As these will be first impressions I intend to take a step back and take a more general overview. Comparison – where possible and appropriate – will be made but these entries will be more about initial and hopefully, lasting impact the music has.

With Bartók starting with his one and only opera seemed like a logical place to begin. Immediately Bartók confounds expectation. The opera doesn’t open in the traditional sense with an overture. Far from it, before the curtain has risen – according to the stage directions – we are presented with a narrator. This creates an immediate sense of isolation almost for the audience as they are invited to watch no so much an opera – or indeed a play – but to participate as voyeurs on the couple. Structurally the opera is in a single act split into seven tableaux, one for each door, plus the opening scene setting when Bluebeard returns to the castle with his new bride.

Further more, on a personal level the sense of dissimilarity from the norm is heightened by the language of the opera itself. Hungarian is not – in any way – a language I am familiar with and therefore unlike when listening to vocal music in German, Italian, French and even, for those ecclesiastical moments, Latin, where there is the opportunity to anchor either words, phrases or whole libretti to the music, here I was somewhat cast adrift. However, cast adrift in a good way. As with the Czechoslovakian of Rusalka, the Hungarian language is phonetically rich and for wont of a better description, has a musicality all of its own as evidenced by the opening narration.

When the orchestra does finally intrude on the narrator again I was struck by a sound world that was both unusual yet familiar. I don’t know enough Bartók (yet) but from the start it took me back to Mikrokosmos – the easily identifiable rhythmic pulse of Bartók’s music and the percussive angularity of his motif-based melody.

From the very opening orchestral bars, Bartók creates a sense of dread and foreboding with the desolate scoring of woodwind and strings. And each of the scenes is a masterpiece of orchestration in terms of colour and variety.

Vocally, there are no arias or set pieces for either singer. Rather Bartók’s musical style lends itself to expressive arioso that rests above the orchestra, sometimes sharing the melodic material but more often sitting in juxtaposition. Both von Otter and Tomlinson are perfectly cast. The latter not only has a deep, rich tone as befits the character but the ability to shade his voice according to the narrative. And similarly von Otter inhabits the character of Judit. It’s simply chilling how she can modulate her voice to depict the excited and demanding bride to one of desolation as she realises the fate she must accept. And as I followed the text throughout and to my untrained Hungarian ear, their diction was incredible.

The first door reveals a torture chamber and it was – to my ear – reminiscent of some Richard Strauss and in particular Salome. Plangent winds and falling motifs seem to symbolise Judit throughout the opera. Bartók’s interpretation of fanfares and martial music reveal the armoury behind the second door. The gentle, almost resigned music as Bluebeard relents and gives his new bride all the keys to the doors – particular the use of the harp – is in sharp contrast to Judit’s more insistent music as she insists on her love for him.

As Judit enters the treasury behind the third door, Bartók scores his most lyrical music yet, until of course she realises that even the gems are covered in blood but Bartók moves quickly on to the castle’s secret garden with its trilling flutes and richer string writing. The vocal writing remains inherently lyrical, and now there is almost a sense of Zemlinsky, however listen carefully for the dissonances in the winds that hark back – in my mind – to the blood-covered jewels earlier and Judit’s increasing sense of disquiet.

The fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s kingdom and here – for the first time – Bartók unleashes the full orchestra. Brass chords and magnificent broad, sweeping phrases in Bluebeard’s vocal line immediately create a sense of great space. The immediate juxtaposition with Judit’s quiet, unaccompanied response is chilling. Suddenly the sense of her isolation from the real world and a sense of dread of her fate become clearer. Judit is but another possession.

The dialogue between husband and wife becomes increasingly animated and agitated as Judit demands that he reveals what lies behind the final two doors. Solo timpani signal Bluebeard’s decision to open the sixth door. Glissandi strings signify the awaiting terror as she opens the door to reveal a lake of Bluebeard’s tears.

Bartók’s manipulation of the orchestra is masterful. From a sense of great agitatio everything suddenly stops. Orchestral flourishes contrast with winding phrases in the flutes and oboes creating an aural picture of inertia – or waters deep and forbidding ripples. Even the vocal lines have a musical ennui to them.

Skilfully Bartók builds the music to its most sensual – luscious strong writing and soft brass pedals – as Judit asks if Bluebeard loves her – but the underlying dissonances remain. His use of silences is telling in this section as she begins to question him about his previous wives as the falling motive below her vocal line becomes more insistent.

As Judit moves closer to her fate, her vocal line every more agitated, Bartók builds the orchestra below her to a thrilling climax before it recedes back to just strings and beating drum as he finally gives her the seventh and final key.

And of course, as the audience would know, behind the seventh door are Bluebeard’s former wives. The cor anglais sets the scene with its repeated falling motif as Bluebeard reveals the truth. The music is – considering the drama – interestingly static with Bartók writing long, arching phrases contrasted with – and a nice touch – the sense of a pulse or heart-beat in the brass.

Bluebeard’s description of his wives is magical in its delicate orchestration and here tellingly, for the first time, Bartók elides the two vocal lines as Judit makes comment on her predecessors and he reveals and executes Judit’s inevitable fate. Her pleading vocal lines are in sharp contrast to his broad phrases.

And of course Bartók builds to the final orchestral denouement before the orchestra finally fades as darkness takes over the stage and we return to the dark and bleak sound world of the beginning – unison strings, desolate winds that gradually dissipate with a final beat from the timpani.

Listening to this opera has been incredibly enjoyable and I have returned to it more than once as I have written this blog. Bartók is a master craftsman when it comes to its orchestration and, under Haitink’s baton, clearly a master dramatist too. It’s a shame that he never wrote any more stage works.

Not only do I look forward to exploring my other recording of this opera, but also his orchestral and chamber music this year. And seeing a production of this work is now a priority.

I might even be persuaded to return to Mikrokosmos.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera