Posts Tagged ‘Wagner 200’

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

Lieder Less

In Classical Music, Review on June 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Review – Wagner 200 – Lieder by Wagner & His Contemporaries (Wagner200)

Janice Watson (Soprano)
Joseph Middleton (Piano)

It’s rare to hear anything but Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder in performance but as part of their bicentennial celebrations, Wagner 200 programmed an evening of his lesser known songs wrapped around songs by his contemporaries Liszt and Schumann.

My heart always sinks slightly when the performer talks during a concert. It works when there is a clear and well-prepared narrative reason but when it seems ad hoc – and at times not all that well informed – it simply jars.

But there was a kernel of an idea that should have been developed. A well-written narration could have taken the audience on a proper journey through Wagner’s lieder and their relationship not only to his operas but also in relation to his contemporaries and their influence on the composer.

Sadly what should have been an musically rewarding and interesting evening was ultimately marred by less than secure performances on the whole.

By the end of the evening I was not convinced that Janice Watson had been the most convincing interpreter of either the early Wagner songs not those of Schumann and Liszt. I left feeling that perhaps this was mainly because they didn’t elicit the kind of performances that come from them being part of a regular repertoire.

And in some ways the ambition of the repetoire was slightly beyond Ms Watson as well. There was a definite sense of strain not only in terms of the higher raches of her vocal range but also in sustaining the longer spans of the vocal line.

Wagner’s Adieux de Marie Stuart, so clearly inspired by French grand opera proved a particular challenge for Watson. Not only was her French – as in all the songs performed in this language – less than clear but she also clearly struggled with the music itself, chopping phrases, stretching for the top notes and hacking her way through the coloratura.

There lack of colour – the light and shade – in the singing was also more than once cruelly exposed. Affecting those it was, La tombe dit à la rose particularly laid bare these vocal frailties that followed through to the performances from Schumann’s Liederkreis.

Here particularly I felt that Ms Watson didn’t get beyond the notes. At I did wonder why perhaps Ms Watson hadn’t shared the stage with a male colleague. As she herself said, these songs are more often – and more effectively – sung by a male singer. Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen in particular lacked the necessary poignancy and depth.

Indeed perhaps the most convincing performance before the ‘main article’ was Melodram not as much an oddity as Ms Watson assumed considering melodramas had been popular in German since before the Benda brothers and continued after Wagner with works such as Strauss Enoch Arden

And so the programme ended with the Wesendonck Lieder. It was clear that here Ms Watson was on firmer ground and that this quintet of songs form a central part of her repertoire. To be sure her performance of these lieder – and her Liszt encore – contained some of the most compelling singing of the evening. Phrases were beautifully shaped for the most part and there was a greater sense of musicianship. But even then I felt – despite some compelling moments – that she rarely got beyond the notes being sung consistently. And again there were times when her voice clearly showed signs of strain and stress.

However it was the final song of the programme that proved the most magical. For from somewhere, Ms Watson pulled out what was needed for a serene performance of Träume.

Throughout Joseph Middleton was a sympathetic accompanist and in truth created a great deal more colour in his playing. He instinctively drew out the sonorities in the lieder – his playing in the Wesendonck lieder was exquisite.

Yet in the end however the recital personally left me more with a sense of what could have been rather than what was delivered. Wagner200 contains some great insight events and I did leave wondering why that hadn’t been applied here. An evening that took the audience through the lieder of Wagner and his contemporaries, perhaps using it as an opportunity to showcase some up and coming singers as well as shedding light on both the composers and their lieder, would have been a much more satisfying option.

And perhaps it would have left Janice Watson to simply focus on the performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. I think they would have benefited from greater attention.

Bicentennial Without A Bang

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on May 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Review – Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 22 May 2013)

Isolde/Brunnhilde – Susan Bullock
Sieglinde – Giselle Allen
Wotan – James Rutherford
Die Walküre – Magdalen Ashman, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Maria Jones, Mariya Krywaniuk, Elaine McKrill, Miriam Sharrad, Antonia Sotgiu

Director – David Edwards
Lighting Designer – David Holmes

Philharmonia Orchestra
Conductor – Sir Andrew Davies

Sometimes a party can peak too early.

Perhaps the expectation is too high. Perhaps those assembled don’t quite gel. Perhaps the party plan is a little too ambitious.

Wagner 200 kicked off its London-wide celebration of the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth with what should have been – on paper – a splendid concert.

Sadly it didn’t quite come together. At the end of the concert I was left with the overwhelming impression of a concert to mark an event rather than an evening of exemplary and memorable performance.

The opening piece, the overture to Die Meistersinger underlined why Sir Andrew Davies is one of the leading conductors on the podium today. Personally I would have preferred a sprightlier tempo but Davies demonstrated an innate sense of the piece and attention to the inner contrapuntal detail.

The Philharmonia responded with some elegant – if not grand gestured – playing and by the end of the concert, this overture stood alone in terms of the strongest performance of the evening.

The first half ended with the Prelude and Liebstod to Tristan und Isolde. Again it was a question of tempo. While maintaining a keen sense of transparency, Davies’ decision to take the Prelude at a marginally quicker pace that undermined the sensuality inbuilt in Wagner’s music.

Susan Bullock was his Isolde and I admit that she is a soprano who leaves me undecided. Her performance of the Liebstod was not overwhelming as it should be. There was a metallic edge – almost strain – to the voice in her upper register and I felt that she didn’t manage the long-spun vocal line with any ease. Phrases were often not sufficiently shaped and in some cases seemed clipped.

The final act of Die Walküre followed after the interval. I am not sure about performances of stand-alone acts. I wasn’t convinced by Runnicles’ experiment with Tristan und Isolde for example simply because any sense of unity and momentum is missing.

And perhaps that was the central problem with this performance. Coming in cold to the final act is difficult without the emotional and musical impact of the preceding music.

The introduction got off to a brisk start and again Davies’ attention to the detail within the inner voices was notable. However it has to be said that more often than not the dotted rhythm – which the gentleman behind me was tapping out on his programme – was more like lazy triplets in the brass.

And sadly the singing was – for the most part – lacklustre and there was a clear lack of an ensemble knitted together. Indeed at times it almost felt as if we were attending the final rehearsal sadly.

In the surtitles Wotan described his Walküre offspring as a “gaggle”. Vocally he was right. Casting the eight sisters is a challenge. It works when there is a sense of ensemble without undermining the individuality of each of the singers.

This wasn’t the case here. For the most part these Walküre bordered on the shrill and when they sang together were unfocused and even at times ragged. Indeed at some points their seemed to be a not-so-silent competition as to who could sing the loudest.

Giselle Allen’s Sieglinde hinted at a potentially excellent Sieglinde. She possesses a warm and darkly hued soprano and her short moment on stage lifted the sense of drama and musicianship on a somewhat otherwise cold stage. To be able to see her sing her final scene as part of a complete performance would be thrilling.

James Rutherford was a sensible Wotan. However, while he has a dark and almost burnished bass I personally think that he is not quite ready for Wotan. He definitely shows promise but not just yet.

And sadly his reliance on using a score for the majority of the act meant that he was tethered to one of two music stands. This demolished any sense of being part of the semi-staged action – more of that later – but until his final and famous monologue, he seemed simply to sing the notes but not the part.

Finally released from looking at his score, Rutherford finally showed some potential in his final farewell to Brunnhilde. Sadly however it was at exactly this point that Davies’ hurried tempo undermined any sense of the music’s breadth or grandeur to shine through.

So, to Susan Bullock. I have to say that I do not think Brunnhilde is an ideal role. Like Deborah Voigt, she inhabits the character and can sing the notes but something is lacking. I listened to her Brunnhilde most recently when she performed the entire role at Covent Garden and once again I found her – overall – vocally short. As I have already mentioned there is a metallic hardness and strain as she reaches above the stave that – as Brunnhilde – took on an almost harsh quality at times. But individual moments – such as the opening and unaccompanied plea to her father – did reveal themselves. But overall I remain to be convinced of Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde.

Davies once again drew some wonderful playing from the Philharmonia but at times he seemed to lose his place in the overarching architecture of the act. However the Philharmonia were on good form and produced a wonderful burnished sound although at time they did overwhelm the singers. Inevitable I suppose especially in a concert performance of Wagner but more often it just felt that a little more restraint would have been the best cure.

In a concert performance any sense of staging an opera is a tricky business. Sometimes – as with Opera North’s current Ring cycle – it works well.

Here it did not. The Walküre’s use of beam light torches – when they weren’t blinding the audience seemed more reminiscent of miners than warrior maidens. And while it seemed like a good idea to utilise the seats being the orchestra, in reality it made for a difficult acoustic balance to get right and affect their ensemble.

And if the subtle use of smoke and the red lighting at the end was the only other contribution in terms of staging, then perhaps a traditional concert performance devoid of any distraction might have enabled a greater attention to the singing?

Ultimately this was a concert full of good intentions – an opportunity to mark London’s bicentennial Wagner celebrations but perhaps the programming was too ambitious. Tackling a complete act cold and in isolation is a brave choice. Perhaps it would have been more sensible to perform “bleeding chunks” of Wagner.

Perhaps Wagner 200 wanted to make a bold opening statement.

But in truth this concert got the party started with more of a whimper than a bang. However the rest of Wagner 200 – with its broad mix of performances and talks – remains incredibly promising.


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