Sir Mark Elder, Alice Coote and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra

London Philharmonic – Sir Mark Elder conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony

Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
Trinity Boys Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 25 November, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Nearly all Mahler symphonies are about journeys, mostly the progression from darkness to light. His Third is unique in the sense that it encompasses all life and the natural world too. At the end of a really good performance of this work the listener should feel foot-weary and emotionally drained. Getting there involves a lot of stamina for well over one hundred players, two sets of choristers and a mezzo-soprano soloist, together with a conductor who knows how to pace the six movements which take up most of two hours and draw out the infinitely varied detail. Sir Mark Elder, a late replacement for the previously advertised Robin Ticciati, may not visibly emote and he lacks the theatrical flamboyance of others, but he is a safe pair of hands when it comes to negotiating the twists and turns of a score peppered with all kinds of instructions about what to do and especially what not to do. Not every command was adhered to: for instance, the bells of the horns were not lifted up in the opening movement, and Elder’s pause between the first two movements of just two minutes was less than the composer’s stipulated five. Over and above such quibbles, Elder had the good fortune to have at his disposal the London Philharmonic Orchestra on commanding form, a few minor imperfections aside, both in terms of individual playing and ensemble work.

Mahler’s design for his Third Symphony is that of a musical cosmology, something never attempted before save in the operatic world of Richard Wagner, and indeed never equalled since. His working titles for the six movements (later removed from the score like scaffolding after completion of the building project) are as follows:

  • Pan awakes, summer marches in
  • What the wild flowers tell me
  • What the animals in the wood tell me
  • What man tells me
  • What the angels tell me
  • What love tells me

The titles alone are an indication of the scope and scale of the work. In 1904, after hearing a performance, Schoenberg wrote to the composer in admiring fashion: “I have seen your soul naked, stark naked. It lay before me, like a wild, mysterious landscape, with blood-curdling depths and ravines, and next, bright, comely, sunny meadows and idyllic places of rest.” Mahler himself knew he was demanding a lot from his audiences, stating that “People will need time to crack the nuts which I have shaken from the tree”. Any interpreter who rushes through even the more wildly extravagant episodes does so at their own peril.

Elder took his time over the first movement (thirty-six minutes, to be precise), adopting a slow-burn approach which allowed the individual strands, including the separation of first and second violins, as well as characteristics in the instrumentation, such as harps and tambourine, to have their full effect. Here too, the LPO’s leader, Alice Ivy-Pemberton, made the first of her many solo contributions, sweet-toned, sensitive, and always stylish. The biggest interpretative problem of all lies in achieving overall structural coherence without sacrificing too much detail, for Mahler weaves together elements of a funeral march (a recurring feature in his symphonies) with a grandly exuberant procession, the latter prompting Richard Strauss to make a typically mischievous description of this long opening movement: “A May Day procession of socialist workers along the Prater.” In Elder’s hands the detail was often dazzling, and the ear was left to savour moments where chasms below open up, such as the important trombone solo imbued with a sense of desolation. Careful attention to dynamics was apparent, not least towards the end of the movement where the lens of the interpreter switched to viewing the landmarks from afar, a distancing effect which Mahler uses repeatedly. But for all that I missed a little more abandon, a truly joyous outpouring which revels in the hedonistic spirit of being alive, of throwing all caution to the winds.

Elder’s softer, more cautious manner repaid dividends in the following three movements. The second, in the style of a minuet, was not short of charm, elfin-footed and drawing half-pirouettes in the glistening early-morning sunshine, accompanied by gentle zephyrs refreshing the soul, the woodwind calling to mind softly whirring clocks and then chiming the hour in perfect synchrony with the keyboard percussion. The third adopts the character of a scherzo and has markedly rustic elements, well conveyed on this occasion by the E-flat clarinets and the raucousness of full orchestral chatter. Its unique quality, however, derives from the repeated solos for an off-stage posthorn, played with great poise and nobility by Paul Beniston, properly observing the portamento as directed by the composer. One of the hardest things to achieve here is the appropriate distance from the listener: too far and the ear loses some of the detail; too close and the magical sense of becoming slowly airborne and floating in the wind is lost. Here it was just right, the softly shimmering strings providing an ideal cushion of support.

In the fourth movement Mahler moves into much darker territory. He requires a very slow tempo, dynamics mostly confined to ppp and a Misterioso quality. Little should disturb the essential raptness. There has been much debate about what Mahler intended for the important oboe solo, marked “Hinaufziehen. Wie ein Naturlaut” (drawing up and mimicking the sound of nature). Certainly, the aspiration and vocalisation of a wood bird is a defining feature. Some players merely hint at an upward lift in the two notes that are played (still marked pp). Here, however, there was a very marked glissando effect at much too high a dynamic level: it was like having a peacock on your front lawn.

Alice Coote can already look back on a distinguished career of singing Mahler. She possesses not only excellent German diction, but the timbres of her voice effortlessly encompass the bittersweet qualities that underlie so much of this composer’s writing. From a perfectly judged opening solo line, beautifully matching the soft introduction on strings and harp, with its admonitory message to mankind to take heed, and the repeated “O Mensch” carrying all the heartache of man’s inhumanity of man, Coote’s voice opened out gloriously for the moment of awakening from deep slumber, “Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht”.

I was delighted to see a set of five tuned handbells deployed at the start of the fifth movement, in which Mahler recreates a mood of celestial enchantment, heightened by the use of glockenspiel. However, placing the forty or so boy choristers on the conductor’s right rather than centrally resulted in a loss of projection, and though the voices were suitably angelic they also lacked the degree of lustiness inherent in the words of the text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 

It can be argued that Mahler’s great concluding slow movement is equalled only by what he wrote at the end of his Ninth Symphony. It is in any case the first real Adagio which he wrote, though that term is not used in the score. The LPO has a long tradition of working under great interpreters in this field, and my own memory stretches back to the remarkable performances which Haitink gave with these forces in the early 1970s. His quality of utter seamlessness was not quite replicated by Elder in this performance, but again his slow-burn approach allowed a gradual drawing together of all the elements of polyphony, the strings later leaving invisible traces of scorching in the air, the trumpets both chilling and piercing, the horns thundering, as well as an exquisitely floated flute solo from Juliette Bausor. Mahler’s Third Symphony is a long and progressive journey, moving from inanimate nature to God in heaven. In his memorable and often cited conversation with Sibelius in 1907 about the nature of a symphony, Mahler averred that “this means creating a world with all the technical means available”. Why have his symphonies not lost their compelling power to attract capacity audiences whenever they are performed? Quite simply because this composer gives them literally everything he can.

Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni Tenorio – Royal College of Music

Don Giovanni Tenorio – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati after Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Don Giovanni – Marcus Swietlicki
Donna Anna – Beatriz Volante
Donna Elvira – Georgia Melville
Donna Ximena – Jessica Lawley
The Commendatore – David Fraser
Don Ottavio – Sam Harris
Maturina – Henna Mun
Pasquariello – Ross Fettes
Biagio – San Hird
Lanterna – Benedict Munden

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Louise Bakker – Director
Becky-Dee Trevenen – Designer
Joshua Gadsby – Lighting
Alex Gotch – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 22 November, 2023
Venue: Royal College of Music, London

Mozart and da Ponte’s version of the Don Juan legend has become so greatly admired (indeed, for ETA Hoffmann ‘the opera of all operas’) that its fame has eclipsed the fact that the story was frequently treated on the stage before them – quite often in theatres for low comedy, disdained by devotees of more serious opera. Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s version – premiered in February 1787 at Venice’s Teatro San Moisé, which also commissioned Rossini’s early one Act farces a few decades later – was the immediate spur for Mozart and da Ponte in their work. The latter certainly knew and drew upon Giovanni Bertati’s libretto for his own text, though Gazzaniga’s score for his more conventional opera buffa doesn’t appear to have influenced Mozart in his vastly more sophisticated musical setting (the fairly generic style of the genre is one which Mozart had already far transcended by the time of La finta giardiniera 13 years before, making his Don Giovanni so much a richer and more complicated opera as a result, defying categorisation). 

Nevertheless, Gazzaniga’s work is of more than merely passing interest to serious enthusiasts of opera for several reasons. The title role was written for the same singer who went on to create Don Ottavio for Mozart at the premiere of his own setting at Prague in October 1787. The opera became widely popular, with performances all across Europe in the decades immediately after its composition and so would have been at least as well-known as Mozart’s. When da Ponte oversaw a production at London in 1794, he arranged for Mozart’s ‘Catalogue’ aria to be inserted at the relevant point in place of Gazzaniga’s own setting of the infamous list of conquests, and that precedent is adopted by the Royal College of Music here. It’s also not uninteresting that the opera foreshadows the concept of Strauss’s Ariadne in that it is actually the second part of a double bill, where the preceding part, Giovanni Valentini’s Il capriccio drammatico (sadly not given here) concerns the travails of an opera troupe in putting on a production of the drama, and so Don Giovanni Tenorio constitutes their rehearsal of it, or an opera within an opera.

The scenario is very similar to da Ponte’s except that it is simpler and briefer. Gazzaniga’s score (not a great deal over an hour) is filled out here with the addition of some other arias by Salieri, and sinfonias by Gazzaniga and Sarti, which all help to give it more gravitas. Director Louise Bakker also fairly points out that this inclusion ‘has given us the opportunity to explore the plausibility of the contexts of focusing on the other characters more fully’. But even with those additions this production could manage without an interval so as not to break up its dramatic momentum. Given that, the interval comes at the point of maximum chaos which best corresponds to the natural break within a longer opera buffa, here an altercation between Donna Elvira and Maturina (which itself is like a more vicious version of the contretemps between Susanna and Marcellina in Act One of Figaro). The characters are much the same as in Mozart’s opera – Pasquariello is Leporello; Maturina and Biagio take the place of Zerlina and Masetto. The notable differences are that Mozart has no equivalent for Donna Ximena, another of the Don’s conquests; and there is a separate part for a cook (Lanterna – almost fearful as much as exasperated in Benedict Munden’s account here) who complains about life as a servant while he lays out the fateful banquet (at which Pasquariello also eats as a guest) just as Leporello bemoans at the very beginning.

In keeping with Gazzaniga’s music of an essentially mid-18th century galant style typical of opera buffa (which nobody could claim is a masterpiece or breaks any new ground) the production preserves the atmosphere of that era with its characters’ costumes, ironically exemplifying an outwardly genteel society which the Don would subvert. On an otherwise generally abstract set of a few arches or thresholds, and a large downwards curving wall pierced by a door (presumably representing a slippery slope to perdition) there are a few props to create a sense of place, particularly an orange tree to evoke the drama’s Sevillean background. Although the stone guest is faithfully represented as such, the Don is dragged off the stage not by supernatural demons, but by an irate mob of locals.

Marcus Swietlicki gives a calmly assured account of the title role, but Ross Fettes provides a more drolly charismatic centrepiece as the ever-resourceful Pasquariello. Beatriz Volante is a suitably discreet Donna Anna, in a role that is considerably downgraded in significance and extent compared with Mozart’s version, giving way to Georgia Melville’s resolute, commanding Donna Elvira who has two arias in the grand manner of opera seria that Mozart reserves for Donna Anna. (The noble composure of Elvira’s first aria, as she laments the lot of women, also rather evokes the tone and effect of Countess Almaviva’s opening aria.) Henna Mun is sprightly, turning feisty, as Maturina, complementing well Sam Hird as her vociferously-voiced, but still melodious, wronged fiancé Biagio. As the Don’s other object of lust, Donna Ximena, Jessica Lawley is vocally silvery and alluring, poised in character between Maturina and Elvira’s extremes. Sam Harris supports Donna Anna as a tenderly comforting Don Ottavio.

Michael Rosewell conducts the RCM Opera Orchestra in a robust performance that makes the most of the music’s possibilities, particularly giving impetus to Gazzaniga’s not infrequently fluid structure. It doesn’t have Mozart’s symphonic breadth and complexity, and the scene with the statue is essentially comic, lacking the sensationalism (in the best sense) and sublimity of the later masterpiece; the three Salieri insertion arias also tend to be the more striking numbers. But other sections demonstrate a flexible, developmental structure that makes the score more than a mere sequence of predictable, static set pieces. This is a highly worthwhile project, fascinating to serious fans of opera in illuminating the byways of the core repertoire.

Further performances to 25 November

Photo: Craig Fuller

Handel’s Ariodante – Royal Academy of Music

Ariodante – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Antonio Salvi after an episode in Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ariodante – Angharad Rowlands
Ginevra – Clara Orif
Dalinda – Erin O’Rourke
Polinesso – Rebecca Hart
Lurcanio – Henry Ross
King of Scotland – Charles Cunliffe
Odoardo – Samuel Stopford

Royal Academy Sinfonia
David Bates

Olivia Fuchs – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 November, 2023
Venue: Royal Academy of Music, London

At the outset of Olivia Fuchs’s production of Handel’s Ariodante (1735) for the Royal Academy of Music, members of the unnamed King of Scotland’s court set down on a whiteboard the ‘Rules’ which govern their society, and that are implied or invoked in the original text of the subsequent drama, adapted from an episode in the Renaissance epic Orlando furioso about adventuring knights harking back (with some irony and comedy it should be said) to the supposed age of chivalry in the early Middle Ages. Such a code – the divine right of kings; only a man can defend a woman’s honour; gender is binary; the value of a woman is her purity and so on – ironically deconstructs in simplistic, crudely ‘woke’ terms the assumptions of such a society and it’s not necessarily wrong to single them out for sending up or to critique. But it’s a caricature of a complicated set of social and political conventions of a former age which, in any case, the opera’s original libretto and Handel’s personable and sensitive music question and transcend in their ultimate commendation of Ariodante and Ginevra’s love, after Polinesso’s villainous ploy is discovered. 

To that extent it sheds rather little new light on the opera which has been presented before with the King’s court as one of stultifying, dehumanising conventions, for example in a previous production at the RAM itself, jointly with the London Handel Festival in 2014 by Paul Curran and conducted by Jane Glover. Insofar as Fuchs’s interpretation seeks to reappraise radically those conventions – rather than simply question them or let them recede into the background by the end – it perhaps misses a trick in not drawing more a connection with the fact that what effectively brings about the destabilising and explicit overturning of those Rules and the Court’s adherence to them is not any dispassionate, rational inquiry, but Polinesso’s pre-meditated and wicked plot. Out of jealous rage, he has Ginevra’s lady in waiting Dalinda dress up as her mistress and then goes into her chamber at night while Ariodante is watching, making the latter think that Ginevra is unfaithful. Subsequently it is Polinesso who, alone, comes to accept the challenge of her father, the King, and attempt to defend her honour in a duel with Ariodante’s irate brother, Lurcanio, hoping that he will win Ginevra as his prize. 

What Handel’s opera carefully leaves unanswered or unresolved at the end – i.e. what lessons this society has learnt, and which rules will obtain after the happy denouement of Ginevra’s vindication and Ariodante’s reappearance – in this production is inconsistently and uncomfortably ignored. If it wants to insist so explicitly and righteously on the bankruptcy of those apparent ‘Rules’ in favour of some other vision of society then, following the chain of cause and effect logically and consciously, it somewhat begs the question as to who or what will police people’s intentions and actions following the abrogation of those Rules, given that it was only the willingness to pursue a good old-fashioned trial that Polinesso’s evil was found out.

The concept of the Rules aside, the production more subtly suggests the restrictions of that social code by conceiving of the court as a prison-like space in black and white tones (as also its denizens), out of which it is difficult to escape. Ginevra herself is doubly imprisoned symbolically within the patriarchal system thrust upon her, as she is frequently seen within a metal frame on the stage, setting her dramatic persona as presented within an ironic or distancing device. At the end she, and all the other characters, free themselves from their outer dress and conformity to those Rules, and become their true, non-binary selves (as though retreating into such an array of arbitrary and contingent identities doesn’t render them as an atomised community of isolated individuals with their mutually exclusive differences). 

A generally bold performance from the cast and the RA Sinfonia under David Bates’s lively direction somewhat lurched between exemplifying the production’s confrontation with assumed values, and expressing the deeper emotional truths of Handel’s score where the composer charts a more nuanced, complicated trajectory towards the opera’s resolution – even here where significant chunks of the second and third Acts are cut (as well as the dances) eliminating much of the subplot between Dalinda and Polinesso. 

Angharad Rowlands is a controlled, quietly eloquent Ariodante, not going for histrionics in the soul-searching ‘Scherza infida’ or in the triumphant ‘Dopo notte’, but retaining dignity and order. Clara Orif rather steals the show for her charged rendition of Ginevra, not least in the aria of her deepest grief which turns into a potent emotional drama to rival ‘Scherza infida’ as a musical climax; she certainly demonstrates a talent for Baroque theatricality that is one to watch. Erin O’Rourke is a voluble Dalinda, no mere shadow of her mistress, even if some notes of her coloratura are faint and not equally glittering. Rebecca Hart cultivates a sly, insidious Polinesso rather than a jaggedly evil character. Henry Ross and Charles Cunliffe turn in enthusiastic performances as Lurcanio and the King respectively, perhaps even over-projecting within a modestly sized theatre and over a small instrumental ensemble; if Cunliffe is the more measured in articulation, Ross’s tone spreads untidily on some notes. But overall the cast respond avidly to a production that doesn’t take a routine approach to what is now a part of the operatic canon.

Further performances to 24 November

Photo: Frank Impelluso (ChamberMusicSociety)

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall – Dvořák, Corigliano, Farrenc & Beethoven

Nocturne for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Double Bass, Op.40
Soliloquy for Clarinet and String Quartet
Quintet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass, Op.30
Quintet in C for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello, Op.29

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [Gilles Vonsattel, (piano), Francisco Fullana & Arnaud Sussmann (violins), Yura Lee & Matthew Lipman (violas), Nicholas Canellakis (cello), Anthony Manzo (double bass) & David Shifrin (clarinet)]

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 19 November, 2023
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

This rich and inventive program, billed ‘Quintet Odyssey’, offered four quintets, each with different instrumentation – none of them the familiar piano quintet formation. Unavoidably late, I missed the seven-minute-long Nocturne by Dvořák. Luckily, I arrived in time for Corigliano’s slightly longer (nine minutes) Soliloquy. Essentially Romantic in style, the bleak and beautiful work is a chamber adaptation of the slow second movement of his 1977 Clarinet Concerto, an elegy for his father who was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966.

Conceived as a duet, the piece is, in the composer’s words, ‘an extended dialogue for clarinet and violin.’ Opening with a high-pitched, hauntingly ethereal solo, Francisco Fullana’s delicately poised violin set the scene. Soon the other strings entered, their graceful lines supporting the mournful mood. The music became its most heartrending when David Schifrin – the clarinettist who commissioned and premiered the work – joined in, spinning subtly nuanced phrases around the strings and alternating tonalities with the first violin. Devoid of an emotional climax, Corigliano’s poignant score is largely static – but never bland. In this exquisitely realized performance it came across as stylistically correct and deeply moving. 

Louise Farrenc, a French contemporary of Mendelssohn and Schumann, is a preeminent figure in the ongoing rediscovery of history’s female composers. A prominent pianist and composer, she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842, the only woman appointed to that faculty in the 19th century. Dating from 1839, her enchanting Piano Quintet in A minor is scored for the somewhat unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass (the same as Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet). The music echoes several styles predominant in mid-19th century Europe, especially the virtuosic piano writing of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the Austrian composer who was one of Farrenc’s teachers.

The CMS players delivered a first-rate performance, with Gilles Vonsattel bringing out all the virtuosic aspects of the keyboard writing. He easily handled the technical and expressive challenges, particularly in the opening Allegro, and most effectively balanced the keyboard’s many elaborately ornamented lines with the rich, melancholic string parts in the ecstatic Finale. All three upper string players enjoyed some passages of solo prominence in the second movement Adagio, which opened with Nicholas Canellakis’s expressive cello before Matthew Lipman’s warm viola came to the foreground, followed by violinist Arnaud Sussmann’s resonant bowing. Meanwhile double bassist Anthony Manzo richly sustained the lowest part of the harmony.  The fresh and transparent playing of all five musicians elicited echoes of Mendelssohn’s fairy music in the quicksilver Scherzo.  Overall, the performance was remarkably elegant and well-balanced.

The program concluded with a pliant, brilliantly realized rendition of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C, a relatively rare concert item and the composer’s only full-scale original work in that genre. All five players – Arnaud Sussmann, Francisco Fullana, Yura Lee, Matthew Lipman, and Nicholas Canellakis – were alert to the affability of the spacious Allegro moderato opening, traversing its numerous twists with sizable tensile strength, and to the voluptuousness in the Italianate lines of the noble and lyrical Adagio that followed. Two brief movements, an energetic scherzo and a dramatic finale with insistent tremolo, concluded the concert in colourful style.

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Sir András Schiff at Carnegie Hall –  Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven & Haydn 

“Aria” from Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Capriccio in B flat, ‘On the departure of a most beloved brother’, BWV992
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903

Variations sérieuses, Op.54

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31/2 (The Tempest)

Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII: 6

Piano Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)

Sir András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 16 November, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Returning to Carnegie Hall for the first time since 2019, Sir András Schiff offered a recital full of drama and surprises – especially surprises, since no program notes were available in advance. The event was rather like a concert lecture, with each piece preceded by explanatory comments from the artist, contextualizing the selection and sometimes illustrating a point by playing brief passages. 

Sir András began by simply walking out on stage, sitting down at the piano, and playing the opening bars of the well-known Aria da capo from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With no printed lineup of compositions to be performed, some audience members quite understandably assumed they were going to hear the whole 80-minute opus until the pianist stood up and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t play all of it tonight.” Speaking in a soft, unassuming manner he joked that this night was “his debut in Carnegie Hall – as a speaker” and then went on to share his ideas about how concerts have become too predictable and need to be rejuvenated. 

After declaring that “Life is too short for anything but the best” and referring to Bach as “the greatest composer of all time”, he returned to the keyboard and proceeded to show why – in a delightful performance of the Capriccio on the Departure of a Most Beloved Brother, a musical farewell from the 19-year old Bach to one of his older brothers, Johan Jacob, who left Germany to join the band of the Swedish King Charles XII. Without making much of a fuss, Schiff brought out all the charms of the nostalgic narrative, most noticeably in the final movement: a fugue based on notes of a post horn.   

The recital then moved on to more mature Bach with a mesmerizing accountof the deservedly famous Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, one of the composer’s most improvisatory and expressive keyboard works, largely because of the freedom of form and chromatic modulations that characterize the first half. The Fantasy – abounding in twists, turns, tempo changes, and modulations – started slowly and accelerated organically, leaving the way open for a fast and brilliant rendition of the Fugue, brimming with excitement and momentum.

Next came a weighty and dramatic rendition of the Variations sérieuses by Felix Mendelssohn, who Schiff described as “very much underrated” while reminding us that it was the composer’s 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin that began the Bach renaissance. Schiff had no trouble meeting the virtuosic demands of the formidable piece. His was a highly articulated account, full of contrasts – sometimes songful, other times austere, occasionally mischievous – as it moved from one variation to another organically, culminating in a stunning finale.

After introducing the “Tempest” sonata as “one of the great masterpieces of all time”, the pianist demonstrated how Beethoven achieved special effects with specified pedals in each movement, particularly the unconventional use of the sustaining pedal in the sonata’s opening. He then plunged into a passionate and thoroughly compelling rendition of the work, bringing out the inner life of the music through extensive use of rubato and frequent variations in tempo.

The second half of the program began with the Variations in F minor by Joseph Haydn, a composer Schiff described as “very much under-appreciated”. After callingthe 1793 work, the last thing Haydn composed for solo piano, a “neglected masterpiece”, he then launched into a remarkably detailed and attentive account, allowing each theme to reveal the depths of its inner character, from cheerful exuberance to melancholy, and concluding with a darkly brooding coda.

The recital ended with a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No.21 (“Waldstein”).  Well, it almost ended. Though the hour was late, Sir András graciously offered three encores, which he introduced by saying, “You’re welcome to sing along with me now” before embarking on his own arrangement of Samuel Cohen’s “Hatikvah” (The Hope), the national anthem of Israel. Some audience members did sing along in Hebrew, albeit very softly; others just hummed. After that came the familiar Allegro from Mozart’s Sonata No.16, K545, and the cheerful little tune, “Fröhlicher Landmann (The Happy Farmer), from Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young, Op.68.

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Sir Bryn Terfel at Carnegie Hall 

Let Us Garlands Bring, Op.18
J. Thomas
Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn
I Can Give You the Starlight, from The Dancing Years
Suo Gân [arr. Hazell]
We’ll Gather Lilacs from Perchance to Dream
Beside the Sea [arr. Hazell]
David of the White Rock [arr. Thomas and Davies]
My Dearest Dear, from The Dancing Years
And Her Mother Came Too, from A to Z
Schwanengesang, D957 – I: Liebesbotschaft
Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, D343
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D774
Viejo Zortzico
Nuit d’étoiles
R. Schumann
Mein schöner Stern!, Op.101/4
Wie Todesahnung … O du mein holder Abendstern, from Tannhäuser [arr. Jeff Howard]
All Through the Night [arr. Hazell]
C. Schōnberg
Stars, from Les Misérables

Sir Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 14 November, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

After a six-year absence, Sir Bryn Terfel returned to Carnegie Hall with a widely diverse program. The recital began with what he described as “a trip down memory lane” – Let Us Garlands Bring Gerald Finzi’s settings of five Shakespearean texts the first song cycle the singer learned as a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Terfel’s impeccable diction and vocal polish were apparent from the first lines of the somber-toned “Come away, come away, death”. “Who is Sylvia?” was marked by extraordinary lightness, and “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” proved particularly poignant with pianist Annabel Thwaite’s plaintive accompaniment. The light-hearted “O mistress mine’’ wonderfully expressive, and the final “It was a lover and his lass” gently graceful.

The lyrical sounds of the Welsh national instrument resonated in John Thomas’s arrangement of the traditional “Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn” (Watching the Wheat), the first Welsh piece on the program and one of two sparkling solo interludes by Terfel’s renowned harpist wife, Hannah Stone.  

The first half of the program ended with a mix of show ballads by the Welsh composer Ivan Novello interspersed with traditional Welsh songs, some accompanied by piano, others by harp. Novello’s sweetly sentimental “I Can Give you the Starlight”, “We’ll Gather Lilacs”, and “My Dearest Dear” – all from the 1930s and 40s – enjoyed a smooth, romantic treatment. In an altogether different vein was “And Her Mother Came Too”. Terfel’s hilarious interpretation of this saucy tale about an overbearing, ever-present mother-in-law had the audience laughing out loud. The three folk songs – the gently nostalgic Ar lan y Môr” (Down by the sea); the mournful “Dafydd y Garreg Wen” (David of the White Rock), and the hauntingly beautiful “Suo Gân” (Lullaby) – were rendered with great sensitivity,

The second half opened with three Schubert lieder. “Liebesbotschaft” (Love’s Message) and “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To be Sung on the Water) were both finely sung, but the highlight of the set was “Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen” (Litany for the Feast of All Souls), its long phrases exhibiting extraordinary breath control, exquisite pianissimo, and impeccable German diction. At the piano, Thwaite provided perfect support in every respect.

Following the Schubert songs, Stone returned to the stage for a second solo turn: a lilting rendition of the Spanish composer Jesús Guridi’s Basque folk dance, “Viejo Zortzico”. 

The program ended with five songs by different composers but linked by a common theme: “Songs of the Stars”. Following Debussy’s beguiling ‘Nuit d’étoiles and Robert Schumann’s ardent “Mein schöner Stern!”, Terfel offered a wondrously nuanced version of “O du mein holder Abendstern”, the nobleman Wolfram’s hymn to the evening star from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  

After the prayerfully calm “Ar Hyd y Nos” (All through the Night), sung with the last verse in English, the program concluded with an impassioned performance of the showstopping “Stars” from Les Misérables. 

There were three encores: the first a delicate arrangement of John Jacob Niles’s Appalachian folk hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander”, performed by all three artists; the second a virtuosic account by Stone of Deborah Henson-Conant’s fiery solo showpiece “Baroque Flamenco”, complete with percussive effects tapped out on the harp soundboard; and the third a supremely roguish “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof by Terfel accompanied by Thwaite and some spontaneous rhythmic clapping from the audience.

(Jephtha) ALLAN CLAYTON (Iphis) JENNIFER FRANCE ROH Jephtha © Marc Brenner

Royal Opera House – Handel’s Jephtha – Allan Clayton, Jennifer France & Alice Coote; directed by Oliver Mears; conducted by Laurence Cummings

Jephtha – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Thomas Morell [sung in English with English surtitles]

Jephtha – Allan Clayton
Iphis – Jennifer France
Storgè – Alice Coote
Hamor – Cameron Shahbazi
Zebul – Brindley Sherratt
Angel – Ivo Clark

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Laurence Cummings

Oliver Mears – Director
Simon Lima Holdsworth – Designer
Ilona Karas – Costume designer
Fabiana Piccioli – Lighting designer
Anna Morrissey – Movement director
Sander Loonen – Video projections

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 November, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

A staging of Handel’s last original oratorio Jephtha (1752), whose narrative is set against an epic backdrop of the ancient Israelites fighting their way to victory, could have stirred sensitivities in the context of the present war in Gaza. But Oliver Mears’s new production puts aside any specific religious and national confrontations, making it a drama about Jephtha’s internal struggle as he grapples with the age-old dilemma between self-indulgent excess and moral purity.

The Israelites – over whom Jephtha is appointed leader or Judge (to use the term of the episode in the Old Testament) – are recast as Puritans, fending off the Ammonites, who are reinterpreted here as louche and sordid society in a tableau vivant recreation of Hogarth’s ‘The Rake at the Rose Tavern’ from A Rake’s Progress. It is within that outward and inward practice of religious enthusiasm, even fanaticism, that Jephtha makes his bold vow to God that, in the event of military success against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first living thing he encounters (which turns out to be his daughter, Iphis). The ‘Israelites’/Puritans create a bonfire of vanities, destroying the paraphernalia of the Ammonites’ pleasure-seeking, including the burning of a reproduction of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Mears surely making a witty reference to his own staging of Rigoletto, also revived at Covent Garden this season, which makes prominent use of the same image). 

Although the Puritans’ heyday had been several generations before Handel’s (and Hogarth’s) lifetime, there is a certain logic in deploying the Israelites as such since that ‘hotter sort of Protestant’ tended to see themselves as the new Israel or community of righteous believers, set apart from the mass of gentile, unenlightened Christians of other denominations by whom they were surrounded. And in any case, a general moral puritanism (overt or latent) is a universal facet of individual human psychology as well as collective human society in all times and places – the rise of Methodism and a culture of middle class virtue and probity in the mid-18th century for example (to which Handel’s own turn from aristocratic, ‘exotic’ Italian opera to upright English oratorio itself responded) was a milder version of the Puritan revolution in the previous century. 

Enlightenment in a deeper philosophical sense – particularly that of the intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries – is a theme which permeates Thomas Morell’s libretto, as it frequently contrasts the images of light and darkness (which must also have pressed home to Handel who started going blind during the composition of this work). That idea fruitfully inspires Simon Lima Holdsworth’s design (rather better than the facile interview in the programme would suggest: ‘religion repeatedly uses concepts of light and dark as a metaphor. Similarly, the ‘Enlightenment’ is itself a reference to the emergence of intellectual thought from a period of darkness. Many people […] also experienced more light literally, due to advancements in oil lamp technology’). A pair of stark walls with incised Scriptural texts, standing as the irrevocable word of God or dogma of religious certainty, are continually reconfigured to allow characters to come and go in varying degrees of illumination or shadow, vividly sustaining the drama’s visual poetry.

But the production itself resorts to a rather gimmicky and caricatured notion of what religious faith is about. There is an intimation of that before the Overture even begins, when Jephtha is seen in sackcloth, writing in despair and torment, and hemmed in between those two walls, while maddening voice projections fill the auditorium with quotations from the Bible. It rather undermines the subsequent drama to pre-empt the narrative about Jephtha’s spiritual downfall from certainty to doubt (or at least a deeper, more qualified understanding of reality) which is effectively the downfall of a hero in Greek tragedy. Handel (the highly experienced musical dramatist) and Morell were as much concerned with the intellectual dialogue and tension between that cultural heritage of Classical (pagan) antiquity (much admired in their time) and the Judaeo-Christian religion upon which society was still substantially founded – in other words, between different understandings of the working out in the world of impersonal fate or divine providence respectively. The similar story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, and Idamante by Idomeneus would preoccupy other dramatists and composers. Depicting Hamor (Iphis’s lover) as a nervous, hysterical wreck at the beginning of Act Two, before Jephtha has even fatefully encountered Iphis after his victory, also dissipates the tension to come. 

Dramatic logic might still have been salvaged, but the ending is especially confused. As the Puritan community believe they must sacrifice Iphis in accordance with Jephtha’s reported oath, they bring the benches of their prayer hall to create a pyre upon which she is to be burnt. Whereas in the original she would be put to the sword by sacrificing priests, it’s not clear what the symbol of the purifying flames is supposed to mean here, nor why her peers should so keenly take upon themselves her execution – Iphis is no witch or outcast. After the Angel intervenes to point out that Jephtha’s vow was actually to sacrifice or dedicate to holy service the first living being he saw, such that Iphis may live after all, it is understandable within that chosen sequence of actions that they should have blood on their hands as a metaphor for their guilt. But it isn’t clear then why they should hiss at and ostracise Jephtha when he praises God on this fortunate turn of events. Given Mears’s fair point in general in critiquing religious dogmatism and fanaticism, it is a good ironic trick to interpret Iphis’s (enforced) dedication to perpetual virginity as becoming a nun instead (even if that doesn’t make literal sense in a Puritan setting). Rather than being a (supposedly) happy ending, this is turned into a tragedy almost as bad as if she had died, as Jephtha, Hamor, and her mother Storgè all despair over this outcome here too. 

But a last problem arises – as Iphis sheds her nun’s habit, and triumphantly escapes with Hamor, why do her parents remain so utterly defeated, returning at the conclusion to the same image of the despairing Jephtha as at the beginning? The Angel has torn up the sheet upon which the oath is recorded and a cascade of other pieces of paper fall from the auditorium’s dome over the audience, so it seems to be annulled and Jephtha should have cause for no further grief. It’s a perplexing outcome.

However all that may be, Allan Clayton gives a magnificent account of the troubled title character, always in command of the music with lustrous vocal production, but introducing an eloquent layer of defensive confidence or courage when need be, or angst and vulnerability elsewhere. The sublime simplicity of ‘Waft her, angels’ is a whole drama in itself, but contributes to his overall consistently transfixing characterisation. Jennifer France opens out as the performance proceeds, reticent at first but developing more fire and charisma with her finely honed vocalism as his daughter.

Alice Coote tends to drawl as Storge, particularly in the upper register, when such notes could be emphasised to express more fierceness or terror. In her two Airs of such fury, there could be rather more passion and vehemence, of the nature of Dejanira’s mad scene in Hercules (which she performed so compellingly in concert in 2015). Cameron Shahbazi’s stylish countertenor as Hamor is an apt foil for Iphis, until he expresses his agitated disappointment at her becoming a nun with a forceful edge. Brindley Sherratt stirs the Puritan crowd with a loose, expansive bass tone, while treble Ivo Clark is a winsome Angel.

Laurence Cummings directs the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a largely routine, dutiful interpretation. A prevailing subdued colour prevails, which isn’t inappropriate – or wouldn’t be in a smaller scale, concert performance. But precisely in a staged presentation in such a large place, there could be more vigour and drama, which Cummings is generally so good at in his renditions of Handel. It’s good to hear a fairly numerous ensemble for the choruses, but Baroque polyphony isn’t quite the ROH Chorus’s forte (who rarely sing anything earlier than the end of the 18th century). The contrapuntal lines aren’t especially crisp but become lost in a somewhat wild delivery at times; it’s only in the more sturdy, homophonic passages that they are more emphatic and dramatically effective.

The production certainly has some interesting ideas, and its theatricality often engages as entertainment. But Handel’s very great oratorio digs deeper as a drama at both human and philosophical levels. If it is about religious faith per se, it is not really about blind faith in any arbitrarily chosen dogma, but is a much subtler examination about the world perceived as governed either by an uncontrollable, implacable fate or by a providential, possibly beneficent force that leaves room for the exercise of freedom, and how faith may operate between those.

Further performances to 24 November 

Photo: Brian Hatton

The Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall – Bach Magnificat and Mozart Requiem

J.S. Bach
Magnificat in D, BWV243

Requiem in D minor, K626 [completed by Süssmayr]

Susanna Phillips (soprano)
Lucia Bradford (mezzo-soprano)
Eric Finbarr Carey (tenor)
Joseph Beutel (bass-baritone)

Oratorio Society of New York
Orchestra of the Society
Kent Tritle

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 6 November, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Oratorio Society of New York opened its 150th anniversary season with two of the most celebrated compositions in the choral repertoire. The concert began with a refined rendition of J.S. Bach’s bracingly compact masterpiece, the Magnificat in D. With more than half of its twelve movements set as arias or duets, a successful interpretation requires a first rate group of soloists. On this occasion the four were mostly in top form, the only exceptions being soprano Susanna Phillips’s hardly audible account of her ‘Et exsultavit’ and bass-baritone Joseph Beutel’s ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’, which required more power. Mezzo Lucia Bradford and tenor Eric Finbarr Carey brought out the very best in each other in their splendidly balanced ‘Et misericordia’.

An ideal performance of the 1723 canticle might use a chorus with a small fraction of the members OSNY’s 200-strong choir. It might also deploy a body of period instruments in place of the Society’s modern-instrument freelance ensemble. Although the number of singers on stage occasionally obscured Bach’s counterpoint, this rendition proved highly satisfying, largely because of music director Kent Tritle’s precision. Instrumental highlights included an exquisitely ethereal oboe obligato in the aria, ‘Quia respexit’, and the brilliant trumpets in the closing ‘Gloria’. The choral forces provided gorgeous singing throughout; most exemplary was the opening ‘Magnificat’ and the swift-paced ‘Fecit potentiam’.  

The second half of the program was devoted to what must be music’s most illustrious encounter with the spectre of death: Mozart’s Requiem. Under Tritle’s competent and confident direction, the overlapping themes of anxiety, anger and acceptance were dramatically brought to life by the choir, orchestra and the four soloists, filling Carnegie Hall’s vast auditorium with sublime sound. 

Tritle’s brisk tempos permitted energetic forward motion, especially in the ‘Kyrie’. In the urgently fearful ‘Dies irae’ the performance became increasingly crisp and characterful; the ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’ displaying the polyphony with remarkable transparency. The ‘Confutatus’ was brimming with fire while the mournful ‘Lacrimosa’, heart wrenching. The whole ensemble rose to the challenges in the fugal writing that closes many sections of the work, effectively asserting their lines, and sounding magnificentmost notably at the end of the ‘Offertorium’.  

The solo quartet was strongest in the middle of the tonal spectrum, with Bradford’s opulent mezzo successfully navigating the depths of her register in the alto solos, and Carey bringing impressively dramatic textures to his tenor lines. Bradford and Phillips blended nicely in the beguiling ‘Benedictus’. Beutel’s bass-baritone intoned the opening of the ‘Tuba mirum’ authoritatively but lacked true heft in the bottom range.

The choristers responded to Tritle’s direction with splendid unity and ravishing tone, the sopranos never stumbling over the top of Mozart’s soaring lines. There were too some full choral passages of breath-taking beauty such as the hushed ending of the ‘Agnus Dei’. Together with the orchestra they brought the piece to a powerfully emphatic close with the phrase ‘cum sanctis tuis’ marking a return to the ‘Kyrie’ fugue and building to a resplendent climax and a long-held final chord.  

Photo: David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

Guildhall School of Music Drama – Respighi opera double bill – Maria egiziaca & La bella dormente nel bosco

Maria egiziaca – opera in one Act and three episodes to a libretto by Claudio Guastalla based on Domenico Cavalca’s Vitae Patrum [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

La bella dormente nel bosco – opera in three Acts to a libretto by Gian Bistolfi based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Sleeping Beauty [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Maria –ladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko
Il pellegrino / Abbate Zosimo – Alaric Green
Il marinaio – Steven van der Linden
Il lebbroso – Jonah Halton
Uno compagno – Ana Balestra
Voce d’un angelo – Yolisa Ngwexana
Secondo compagno / La cieca – Shana Moron-Caravel
Il povero – Rachel Roper
Voce del mare – Joe Chalmers

La bella dormente nel bosco
La Regina – Shana Moron-Caravel
La Principessa – Ana-Carmen Balestra
Il Principe Aprile – Jonah Halton
Il Re – Joe Chalmers
La Fata azzurra – Yolisa Ngwexana
La Fata verde – Holly Brown
Il Gatto – Julia Merino
Il Fuso – Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko
L’Ambasciatore / Un Boscaiuolo – Joe Chalmers
Il buffone / Mister Dollar – Steven van der Linden
Il Cuculo / La Duchessa / La vecchietta – Rachel Roper
L’usignuolo – Biqing Zhang

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler

Victoria Newlyn – Director
Laura Jane Stanfield – Designer
Jack Wiltshire – Lighting designer
Jonathan Strutt – Video designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 6 November, 2023
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

As the programme notes for Victoria Newlyn’s production of this double bill of Respighi stage works points out, neither of these works were originally created as conventional operas. His version of the sleeping beauty story La bella dormente nel bosco was first a puppet opera (premiered 1922 in that guise), and Maria egiziaca (1932) a ‘concert opera’ like a modern form of a mediaeval mystery play, but both are presented by the Guildhall now as standard staged operas (without puppets or any shadow actors in the case of the former). Both deal in a legendary or mythical manner with the transition to another, more transcendent form of life, and it makes some sense to draw connections between the two, for example in using a common set and design, as here (and as the Royal College of Music did earlier this year when presenting La bella dormente with Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges). 

That works better for La bella dormente however, as there is little that is linked up with or illuminates the Christian story of Maria egiziaca – essentially a hagiographical retelling of the life of St Mary of Egypt (also known as Mary the Harlot). In the heyday of artistic and cultural Modernism, and against the backdrop of ascendant fascism, the 1930s were not an auspicious time for such straightforward adaptations of Christian stories without irony or any other particular comment or slant on them. It seems to be a late tapping into the brief renewal of interest in the Christian religion of the fin de siècle Decadent movement around the turn of the 20th century, perhaps spawned by Wagner’s Parsifal, and also seen in Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play Le Martyre de saint Sébastien for which Debussy wrote incidental music. As well as Gregorian chant, Respighi’s score draws upon older traditions of operatic recitative and arioso going back to Monteverdi (a harpsichord is used among the ensemble) and to that extent the work is also redolent of such Baroque sacred dramas of the Counter-Reformation as Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio or the oratorios of Carissimi.

In telling the story of a 3rd century sex worker turned saint on repenting of her sins, Respighi and his librettist drew upon the hagiographical writings collected in the Vitae Patrum in late antiquity, as translated into Italian by the 14th century friar Domenico Cavalca. Among such an eclectic mix of literary and musical sources, the set (featuring two tiers of Tuscan arches in a gaudy, almost art nouveau vision of the Renaissance) and a chorus clad in 18th century undergarments add to the mishmash and don’t enrich the work’s Christian theme or repurpose it for our era. That chorus only appear as though from the 18th century (even more improbably for a Christian story, the age of Enlightenment) because they recur in the same form in La bella dormente, fitting in exactly with the essentially colourful Rococo character of this presentation, and that vividness is in better keeping with this courtly tale, first popularised in Europe in the 17th century.

In consequence, Maria egiziaca rather feels like it is tacked on to the beginning of this double bill instead of drawing deeper connections with the fairy tale that follows. The one link made is that, just as the chorus of angels at the conclusion of St Mary’s story are reading books – evidently the written narrative of her life – so the sleeping beauty of the following opera comes to life again also reading, and continues to do so to the end, to extend this little extra-theatrical conceit to both works. That is enhanced in the case of Maria egiziaca, at least, in that the extracts from the Vitae Patrum noted in Respighi’s score are projected on to the curtain during the two musical interludes between its three episodes, rather like the captions in a silent film – and sometimes the drama of the music is like a cinematic soundtrack.

Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko’s Maria is bold and vibrant in her singing, both before and after her conversion to a life of Christian virtue, representing the saint’s charisma. She contrasts well with both Steven van der Linden’s calmly focussed and deliberately passionless sailor, bewailing the sadness and pointlessness of his existence at the beginning of the work, and Alaric Green’s more rugged, initially judgmental Pilgrim and later as the Abbot Zosimus (a Palestinian saint) with whom Mary comes into contact.

Biqing Zhang’s sprightly coloratura as the Nightingale and Rachel Roper’s woodier Cuckoo kick off La bella dormente. Yolisa Ngwexana is more secure in the equally florid role of the Blue Fairy than in her earlier, weaker account of the Voice of an Angel in Maria egiziaca. Ana-Carmen Balestra is measured and charming as the eponymous sleeping beauty, whose finger is maliciously pricked by the spiked glove of the embodied spindle (played by Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko) rather than accidentally sustaining that wound from an inanimate object, perhaps to emphasise the romantic, even erotic nature of her prolonged sleep, brought about by active human agency, just as it will also be ended by the same means, all symbolic of her transition to the emotional and psychological maturity into which she is supposed to awake (though in line with modern sensibilities there is no physical, technically non-consensual, kiss or embrace to rouse her from slumber). 

Where Joe Chalmers is commanding as her father, the King, Jonah Halton uses too much head voice as Prince April who awakens her ‘several hundred’ years later, such that he sounds too strained and lacking heft for the rapturous passage in duet with her that forms the work’s musical climax. Steven van der Linden is splendidly vulgar as Mister Dollar, the alternative suitor for the Princess, and Holly Brown aptly snarls in the largely spoken role of the Green Fairy, who does battle with the Blue Fairy for the fate of the sleeping one. 

Dominic Wheeler leads a mellow, solemn account of Maria egiziaca, particularly in its more liturgically inspired passages, with plainsong-like melodies harmonised in block chords like a mediaeval fauxbourdon (and another link to some of Debussy’s scoring for Le Martyre de saint Sébastien) but elsewhere pointed up with more drama and passion. The performance of La bella dormente draws out an attractive array of instrumental colours – more so than I recall was the case with RCM’s performance back in March, and providing an appropriate counterpoint to the visual vibrancy of the production. The Guildhall chorus ring the changes between the more ethereal sequences of the first opera, and their more sensual approach as the creatures of the woods for the second, often sounding more like the Flower Maidens of Parsifal. The RCM’s production of La bella dormente dug deeper into the drama, but the Guildhall now have the edge for the sparkling musical performance, though the staging is more than perfunctory and reveals a work that perhaps should feature more often than it usually does on stage (notwithstanding the coincidence of two productions in London this year), especially as a fairy tale for Christmas time.

Further performances to 13 November with alternate casts

Salome. Photo - Staatsoper Hamburg

Staatsoper Hamburg – Richard Strauss’s Salome conducted by Kent Nagano

Richard Strauss
Salome – music drama in one act to a libretto by Hedwig Lachmann based on the 1891 French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde [sung in German with German and English surtitles]

Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea – John Daszak
Herodias – Violeta Urmana
Salome – Asmik Grigorian
Jokanaan (John the Baptist) – Kyle Ketelsen
Narraboth – Oleksiy Palchykov
Herodias’s Page – Jana Kurucová
First Jew – James Kryshak
Second Jew – Florian Panzieri
Third Jew – Daniel Kluge
Fourth Jew – Andrew Dickinson
Fifth Jew – Hubert Kowalczyk
First Nazarene – Alexander Roslavets
Second Nazarene – Nicholas Mogg
First Soldier – David Minseok Kang
Second Soldier – Kark Huml

Orchestra of Hamburg State Opera
Kent Nagano

Dmitri Tcherniakov – Director & Set Designer
Elena Zaytseva – Costume Designer
Gleb Filshtinsky – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 29 October, 2023
Venue: Staatsoper Hamburg, Hamburg

One of the toughest of nuts for any theatre director to crack is this. How do you make a necrophiliac nymphet sympathetic to your audience? How do you ensure that after a seedbed of depravity culminating in the presentation of a human head on a silver platter, feelings of total revulsion are not a lasting impression? That is the measure of any modern-day interpretation of Richard Strauss’s music drama (he deliberately chose not to call it an opera, following the example of Wagner) Salome.

That too was the task facing Dmitri Tcherniakov in his new production of Salome at Hamburg State Opera. He is on the record as being strongly influenced by the fin-de-siècle background to Oscar Wilde’s piece and by key figures in the emerging school of psychoanalysis such as Sigmund Freud, seeing both in his earlier Elektra production (which he previously directed for Hamburg State Opera) and Salome – two prime examples of family dramas.

The curtain rises to reveal a typical salon of the period; long casement windows at one end look out onto a city street. Dominating the centre of the stage, around which all the action revolves, is a long dining-table, covered with a wine-red tablecloth and all the paraphernalia of a banquet. The spread is in Herod’s honour, for his birthday is being celebrated. Grey and white walls, with one side given over to niches in which lie several ornamental heads (how obvious is that?), produce a chilly ambience, compounded by a setting which utilises only half the elevation behind the curtain. This creates a sense of intimacy but also reinforces the claustrophobia, since all the leading and supporting characters are forced to occupy a relatively small floor area.

Doubts about the unity of the setting and discrepancies in detailing begin to emerge at this point. The salon takes us back more than a century, yet the very modern chandeliers and Perspex dining chairs suggest a different era. The guests are attired in costumes of the period, though Herod could easily have come from the cast of The Mikado, dressed as he is in a pink, floral-patterned suit. There are two glaring exceptions. First Jokanaan, who has gate-crashed the party and sits at one end of the table with his back to the audience, wearing jeans, sweater, and a sports jacket, fingering the pages of his red-backed book of holy scripture. Who is he, the other guests want to know, pointing at the intruder. Second Salome herself, who enters looking like a street urchin, dressed in a black T-shirt, orange shift and trendy trainers, making use of a white puffer jacket and various other costume changes as the action proceeds.

Tcherniakov dodges the two principal mainstays of most traditional productions. There is no Dance of the Seven Veils (which Strauss composed after he had completed the initial score). Instead, this Salome moves around the stage and on the dining-table in a variety of poses; she lets Herod retrieve her from a niche into which she has crawled stripped to her underwear; he in turn slings her over his shoulder, after which he strokes her body, pulls on her long stockings, and dresses her in a new costume. It is clear by this stage that she has become his sexual plaything and his victim, since Tcherniakov in his stage direction repeatedly alludes to the fact that she has been abused by him. She has grown up in a household in which violence and political murder are the weapons of power: that is the lesson she has learned for herself. The absence of the dance itself and replacement by the titillation aroused by displaying and caressing parts of the female body nonetheless represent a powerful emotional statement.

There is no beheading. Jokanaan remains quietly in his seat, even during those eerie moments when repeated and pinched double-bass notes mimic the execution. He then struggles violently with Salome as she tries to kiss him, casting her aside and walking off stage carrying his little red book of prophetic statements. No spilling of blood, no ghoulish mask or head made of papier-mâché. It’s all in your mind, Salome.

There are recurring episodes of grim coquetry and high drama. Salome is all too aware of her own sexuality and openly flirts with Narraboth, stripping him of his tie as she pulls him across the table. His death in turn never happens on stage: he simply exits the proceedings. When Salome first registers the presence of Jokanaan, he calmly lights a cigar and puffs at her in disdain. In one of her teenage temper tantrums, after she has failed to persuade Jokanaan to let her kiss him, Salome takes several porcelain bowls containing the table flower decorations and smashes them against the walls, hurling one of the chairs over the head of Jokanaan for good measure. She then rips off the tablecloth and the remaining accoutrements of the banquet. Violence breeds violence. I must confess I felt very unsettled during the sequence when the Five Jews argue amongst themselves at the dinner-table to see Herod fire paper aeroplanes at them in an attempt to stop their quarrelling. In current times that was very near the bone, though the production team let it be known in the programme-book that they reject any insinuation of antisemitism that might be drawn from the libretto. When Salome reiterates her desire to be given the head of Jokanaan, and Herod initially resists her increasingly strident demands, she seizes a knife from the table and threatens him with it as he advances towards her. In a further allusion to domestic violence, Herod humiliates his wife by tearing off her bling-studded diadem and smashing the baubles, only to suggest moments later when he places it on the head of Salome that she can have half his kingdom and be his “beautiful queen”. This is all the very opposite of happy families and the nightmare of all dinner-parties.

The big heroine of the evening was Salome herself. Asmik Grigorian was in quite splendid voice. The role itself requires a huge range, stretching from brilliant high Bs to a dusky G below middle C. There were no weaknesses in her assumption of the part: she had all the power to ride moments of dense orchestration, floating angelic tones as she sang of Jokanaan’s body “being like ivory”; later, on experiencing rejection, she used the full amplitude of her chest register to spit out her conviction that “He is terrible”; still later she added a dramatic chill to her voice as she reiterated to Herod, “Give me the head of Jokanaan”. Her range of vocal colour throughout was extraordinary, the words pouring from her like streams of molten lava, her anguish carried aloft as if by soaring eagles when she reached the point of maximum resistance from Herod. What also stood out for me in her characterisation was her hyper-activity. Initially playing Salome as a listless spoilt brat, she kept constantly on the move, seizing objects of interest from the table, her gaze rapidly moving from one dinner-guest to the next. Then, as her obsession with Jokanaan took hold, there was a steely determination in everything she did. But there was also a key moment when her own childhood trauma surfaced once more, as she opened two boxes Herod placed before her and lovingly discovered the dresses she had grown out of as well as her former dolls and other toy playthings. 

Violeta Urmana was a powerful Herodias, doubly spurned, both by her errant husband whose “mole eyes beneath their blinking lids” were focused almost entirely on his stepdaughter, and also by her own child, with whom there is not a single vocal exchange in the score. She too was a woman wronged; her loneliness on stage was palpable. John Daszak brought vocal stamina to the role of Herod, never masking his brutish dominance of the proceedings, yet introducing a whining tone into his flirtatious exchanges with Salome. I liked the light and lyrical tenor voice of Oleksiy Palchykov as Narraboth, displaying his own sexual attractiveness to both Salome and the Page.

And what of the great prophet himself, Jokanaan? In this role Kyle Ketelsen had one clear advantage. His voice never needed to climb up from subterranean depths and chill the marrows of an audience from a cistern below. Indeed, he was constantly closer to them than any of the other characters and always present on stage, so vocal projection needed no extra assistance. His warm baritone sometimes minimised the sheer force of his prophetic statements, though his anger and obsessiveness about his rightful cause were never in doubt. 

In the pit, Nagano and his players served a complex score well. Strauss deploys a huge orchestra, one of the largest for any operatic work. Nagano took care never to cover his singers, even in some of the searing climaxes; in passages for orchestra alone he achieved a remarkable depth and richness of sound, yet frequently allowed the diaphanous, chamber-like quality of the score to emerge. But the night belonged to Grigorian, clearly one of the most impressive Salomes of our time.

Further performances: 1, 4, 8, 12, 15 November

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