Franco Leoni’s ‘L’Oracolo’

Three loud bangs and a cock crowing by way of an overture herald the opening of Franco Leoni’s opera L’Oracolo (The Oracle). There follows some pigeon Chinese shouts and cheers and we are straight into the action as our anti-hero Cim-Fen throws a client out of his opium den. Franco Leoni was an Italian composer whose works are rarely performed and largely forgotten today though he did compose a large body of work for the stage. A composer of ‘charming songs for the most famous voices’ a contemporary review read. Born in 1864 in Milan he spent many years in London composing for the theatre and died there in 1949.

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Antonio Scotti as Cim-Fen in 1915 and a printed libretto from a production at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Of all his operatic works L’Oracolo which was premiered in Covent Garden in 1905 is his best known mostly thanks to Italian baritone Antonio Scotti who heard the piece in London and used his influence at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to have it staged there with himself in the leading role of Cim-Fen. It’s a relatively short one-act opera but full of intensity and emotion & there is very little let up as the action surges forward from high drama to tragedy and back again. Scotti so liked the role of Cim-Fen where he could immerse himself in a deplorable character with no apparent redeeming characteristics that he chose it for his final performance at the Met in 1933. Leoni had studied with Amilcare Ponchielli who was also the teacher of Puccini and there are certainly similarities between the two composers work, both being very emotionally intense and delving into the darker and seamier side of life.

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Pauline Lightstone Donalda who sang the role of Ah-Yoe in the world premiere at Covent Garden in 1905 and Joan Sutherland who recorded it in 1973.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown it’s a pretty violent and lurid affair full of greed, evil, and revenge. The drama is laced with a kidnapping and two murders, one with an axe to the head, around the foggy docks of San Francisco. There’s no shortage of intensity in the action and indeed the singing moves quickly from one highly dramatic scene to the next with very little let up in intensity. In fact, one of the criticisms levelled at L’Oracolo is that it’s perhaps a bit too full on. In a nutshell, the evil Cim-Fen wishes to marry Ah-Yoe, niece of the rich merchant Hu-Tsin. Secretly Cim-Fen kidnaps Hu-Tsin’s young son and then offers to find the boy if he can have Ah-Yoe’s hand in marriage. There’s almost always a love triangle and L’Oracolo is no exception as Ah-Yoe is in love with San-Lui who also offers to find the boy for Ah-Yoe’s hand. Cim-Fen brutally murders San-Lui with an axe but his father Win-Chee discovers that Cim-Fen has kidnapped the boy and hid him under his opium den. He eventually rescues the boy and kills Cim-Fen. So there you have it. Evil fiend, innocent young maiden, tragic young lover… I know, but it’s opera and you’re not even guaranteed a happy ending.

If you like verismo opera you will love this one. Plenty of impassioned singing & although it is a bit different in that Ah-Yoe is not a great role for the leading lady and the spotlight is mostly on Cim-Fen a scheming and malignant baritone. Very odd indeed. Some pundits say this otherwise strong opera has fallen out of favour because it doesn’t have a strong female role that great sopranos were interested in performing and they are vital to putting bums on seats.

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The 1973 recording featuring Tito Gobbi as Cim-Fen and Joan Sutherland as Ah-Yoe.

I was only able to track down two recordings of L’Oracolo doing the rounds. One is a quite strong live recording by Oper Frankfurt from 2010 and the other, which is probably better known is a 1975 recording with Joan Sutherland and Tito Gobbi taking the lead roles and conducted by Richard Bonynge. This is the recording I have and Gobbi is amazing as our evil anti-hero. His voice is deep, intense and booming even though it was recorded only a couple of years before his retirement. Both these recordings are available on Spotify and Amazon so make your own assessment of their merits. Some wonderful singing, plenty of action and, if staged right, great costumes & atmosphere all in a one-hour performance. What’s not to like.

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Wexford Festival Opera are presenting L’Oracolo as part of their 2018 programme.

Continuing its well-established tradition of reviving forgotten or at least neglected works Wexford Festival Opera are presenting a production of L’Oracolo this year in a double bill with Mala Vita by Umberto Giordano. A nice doubleheader of little performed Italian verismo styled pieces which should provide a very emotionally intense and draining evening.

 

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Franco Alfano – Risurrezione

 

The curse of Turandot! No, not a plot twist in the famous Puccini opera which nobody has noticed yet but the legacy bequeath to Franco Alfano, the composer commissioned to completed the work Puccini left unfinished when he died in 1924. A number of composers were considered for the task of completing Turandot and Puccini even nominated his own candidate before he died, but the dubious honour fell to Alfano. Despite a very productive musical career that spanned over 50 years as composer and teacher which included 13 operas it is for completing Turandot that Alfano is best remembered today.

Born in Naples in 1875 and considered one of Italy’s ‘Giovane Scuola’ Alfano who was initially hoping to be a concert pianist left Italy to study in Leipzig before returning to Italy and taking up teaching posts in Bologna, Turin, Pesaro and eventually Rome. Not from a rich family and having no patron teaching was the only way Alfano could support himself as a composer.

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Leo Tolstoy and an Italian edition of his last great novel Risurrezione.

This years Wexford Festival Opera continuing its tradition of reviving rarely performed works will feature a performance of Alfano’s early opera Risurrezione. Written in 1904 it is based on the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy.

Prince Dmitri seduces Katiusha before leaving to join the army. Katiusha who is now pregnant with his child waits for Dmitri’s return but when he does and she sees him with a prostitute she is too afraid to approach him. She falls on hard times losing her home and her baby and turns herself to a life of prostitution. Being wrongly charged with the murder of one of her clients she is sent to prison in Siberia. Dimity who discovers her predicament and his hand in it is consumed with remorse for how he has treated her and follows her to Siberia. There he uses his influence to obtains a pardon for her but she refuses his repeated offers to marry her despite the deep love she still feels for him.

Franco Alfano and Magda Olivero who sang Katiusha in a 1971 recording in Turin.

 

Although coming slightly after the high watermark of the verismo operas Risurrezione is written very much in that style. Verismo (realism) operas tend to be based on the real lives of ordinary people and deal with the tragedies and passions of everyday life and tend not to be known for their happy endings. Risurrezione is very much in this genre and sticks fairly close to the often distressing material in the novel though it does feature a relatively happy ending. There are much better known works in the verismo canon not least the famous double act of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci and if you like the soaring passion filled Italian singing featured in these and many of Puccini’s operas then you will certainly enjoy this. The comparison to some of Puccini’s work is quite striking at times in my opinion.

In his later works Alfano turned away from the verismo style of his earlier years when he came under the influence of the French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel and his operas La Leggenda di Sakuntula of 1921 and Cirano de Bergerac of 1936 are in this later style.

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There are a number of recordings of Risurrezione available and the one I have is a wonderfully well played and sung live recording by the Orchestre National de Montpellier from 2001 with soprano Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni and tenor Antonio Nagore in the two main roles.

Details of the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera are here

Info on the Orchestre National de Montpellier recording is here

Owen Wingrave

Owen Wingrave had its premiere broadcast in May 1971. I say broadcast as this later work by Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the BBC as a work for TV, it didn’t get its stage premiere until 1973. The story is of a young man from a military background who refuses to continue the family tradition of service, is summoned back home to explain himself and ends up the victim of an unexplained and somewhat macabre and tragic death.

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Benjamin Britten & Henry James. Britten had previously adapted another story by James, The Turn of the Screw, for the stage.

The opera opens with Wingrave and his friend Lechmere receiving instruction in tactics from Mr. Coyle, a family friend and military instructor. Lechmere is very gung-ho and is looking forward to his career in the army, he can’t wait for the adventure and excitement of military life and combat. At one stage he sings a fragment of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in his excitement to get into action. All this grates on Wingrave and it’s during these lessons that he finally reveals his hatred and detestation of war and the military which sets in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to his death in the haunted room at his family home of Paramore (par amour?)

Back at Paramore his family and presumed fiancé Kate find the news Coyle has brought them about Owen hard to believe and when he himself arrives home their jokes about straightening himself out and having to grow up turn to charges of disloyalty and cowardice. When Owen is disinherited by Sir Philip Wingrave, Kate sees the future she has planned wit him crumble in front of her eyes and she taunts Owen about his stupidity, selfishness and cowardice. To disprove her charge of cowardice he takes up Kate’s challenge to sleep in the haunted room at Paramore. A room where a tragic death had befallen an ancestor. A father had killed his son and then mysteriously died himself in the room and none at paramore goes into it. Owen gets Kate to lock him in to prove he is not a coward but the house is woken during the night to screams and shouts and Owen is found mysteriously dead in the room.

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Peter Pears in the role of General Sir Philip Wingrave.

The opera is an adaptation of a story by Henry James which caught Britten’s eye because of its pacifist theme and he makes this the overriding message of the opera. Pacifism was an issue that was very close to Britten’s heart and informed a number of his other works, most famously the War Requiem. Britten himself was a prominent pacifist and was excused from military service during World War II as a conscientious objector. He fled to America with the tenor Peter Pears in 1939 as the tanks of totalitarianism rolled across Europe and after returning to Britain many considered this an unforgivable act of cowardice (rather like with Owen Wingrave himself?). (Not for Britten were concert tours to support the war effort like another operatic hero of mine, the amazing English contralto Kathleen Ferrier). Owen Wingrave was broadly a comment on the Vietnam War which was at its height in 1968 when Britten began to work on the opera and was becoming protracted and bogged down by the time of its broadcast in 1971. A conflict whose moral compass appeared to be much less clear cut than the one Britten has absented himself from in the early 1940’s.

Britten is not a composer I particularly enjoy in the main as I find a lot of his work quite challenging musically and a touch hard to digest. Sometimes sharp and jarring, sometimes percussive, disconcerting and un-melodic, and occasionally there is a moral undercurrent I find a touch unsettling in some of his work, not least his ability to quite happily return to a Britain saved from the evil of nazism by a military he so patently despise.

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Britten conducts Owen Wingrave for the BBC TV production.

The music in Owen Wingrave can be quite sparse and often merely forms a backdrop to the dialogue and action. One advantage from a singers point of view of this often withdrawn musical background is that it leaves a lot of space for voice to shine and can really show up a singers talents (or flaws). For me Britten is quite heavy handed in Owen Wingrave as he forces his political message a bit too stridently. An example of this is the continual and unabated verbal assault Owen comes under in Act II. He is attacked from all sides and Britten delineates his interpretation of right and wrong far too cleanly and then proceeds to hammer away at it continually. The situation can really only end in tragedy.

Opera Collective Ireland are currently touring Owen Wingrave in a co-production with the Académie de l’Opéra national de Paris.

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Details of Opera Collective Ireland’s production are Here

 

 

Oh Boy! it’s Marianne Crebassa

The debut album from French mezzo Marianne Crebassa has certainly brought a warm glow to my new year at any rate. A wonderful collection of arias from some of the great trouser roles in opera sung with a beauty, power and skill that is truly inspiring. Trouser or breeches roles in opera are male characters that are played by women. Called ‘travesty’ roles in Italian, many of these roles were originally sung by castrati but are now performed mostly by mezzos but increasingly by counertenors who have a similar vocal range. (Countertenors are the highest register in male voice and with changing musical training and styles are coming back into fashion. See Philippe Jaroussky for example).

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The album opens with an absolute show stopper ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’ from Orphée et Erudice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. A tour de force of shimmering singing from this seminal work which clearly announces that you are in for a real treat with this album. Mozart who wrote some great trouser roles has, at six, the greatest number of tracks on this collection. Two from the rarely performed early opera Lucio Silla from 1772. The restless and uplifting ‘Il tenero momento’ from Act I as Cecelia anticipates meeting his beloved Giunia and the heart wrenchingly beautiful ‘Pupille amate’ from Act 3 as he prepares for the last farewell to his beloved from his prison cell before being put to death. (he is pardoned eventually, and gets his girl… a happy ending, in opera!).

Marianne Crebassa as Cherubino sings ‘Voi che sapete’

On an album of great trouser roles the impish and lovestruck Cherubino from Le Nozze di Figaro has of course to make an appearance. Crebassa performed this role with aplomb for the Dutch National Opera last year and here we are treated to accomplished renditions of ‘Non so più’ where Cherubino tries to explain to a rather bemused Susanna his infatuation with women and later with ‘Voi che sapete’ he treats the distraught Countess Almaviva (our friend Rosina from ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’) to his inner romantic machinations and torments. The rather urgent and dramatic ‘Va’ pure ad altri in braccio’ from the early and rarely performed La finta giardiniera is also included while the suitably climatic ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’ from Mozart’s last opera La Clemenza di Tito closes the collection.

Mozart’s mark on this collection doesn’t end there as there is also a tune from Reynaldo Hahn’s Mozart, an homage to the great man written in 1925 where the young Mozart is played as a trouser role. Although of a different era and style to the other pieces in this collection ‘Alors, adieu donc, mon amour!’ sits quite comfortably amongst them.

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Jacques Offenbach, that most French of composers.

That most French of composers Jacques Offenbach (think, the Can-Can!) is represented by the beautiful ‘Vois sous l’archet frémissant’ with its weeping violins from his masterpiece Les Contes d’Hoffmann where Nicklausse tries to consoles the heartbroken Hoffmann by telling him that only in art can true love be found. ‘Poet, give your heart! It consoles your tears.’ We are also treated to ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, the beautiful ballad from Act I of the again rarely performed Fantasio where Crebassa hauntingly sings the title role of the young student.

Marianne Crebassa records Offenbach’s ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’

Continuing the roll call of great French composers Charles Gounod makes his presence felt with ‘Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme’ from Faust and the jaunty and uplifting ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’ from Roméo et Juliette where the loyal Stéphano taunts the Capulets that their beloved young Juliet will soon be amongst the Montagues with his master Roméo.

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Cécile Eyreams as Urbain in ‘Les Huguenots’ and the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Certainly one of the highlights here is the astonishing ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut’ from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots. It’s an enormous four-hour work which recounts events around the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 from a composer who was wildly popular in his day but broadly ignored today. Les Huguenots with over 1000 performances at the Paris Opéra by 1900 is possibly the most performed opera in the 19th Century (Surely a credit to the attention spans of earlier generations). Crebassa absolutely sparkles here with an incredibly agile and technically brilliant rendition. Stunning.

Another wonderfully romantic aria is ‘Ô petite étoile’ from Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera L’Étoile, an underperformed work which is returning to favour with The Royal Opera giving its Covent Garden debut last year (it was premiered in Paris in 1877). There is certainly a strong showing of lesser known works in this collection and the slow and aching  ‘Sommeil, ami des dieux’ from Psyché by Ambroise Thomas is no exception as indeed is ‘Cœur sans amour’ from the very rarely performed work Cendrillon by Jules Massenet.

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Emmanuel Chabrier, Jules Massenet and Ambroise Thomas.

From start to finish this album is technically stunning and a pleasure to listen to. Incredible singing and beautiful orchestration by the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under the baton of Marc Minkowski mean this album should be on your player with earphones at the ready for anytime you think the world isn’t romantic or beautiful enough. Without a doubt it is my first great recorded opera discovery of 2017.

Favourite tracks!

Orphée et Eurydice – ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’

Les Huguenots – ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’

Roméo et Juliette – ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’

La clemenza di Tito – ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’

Marianne Crebassa’s Website

‘Oh Boy!’ on Amazon

The Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

Opera Recital in Drogheda

As an opera lover I won’t pretend there isn’t something slightly odd about hearing songs that are meant to be part of a dramatic narrative acted out on stage being sung as a concert in formal evening wear. I want to get this personal observation out of the way before I go on to talk about this evenings performance as it relates to opera recitals in general and not this evenings concert particularly. There is of course an argument that the music is in and of itself inspiring and uplifting and that in a recital you get all the best bits without having to sit through a full opera. It is of course a wonderful treat to hear these show stoppers sung back to back like an operatic greatest hits and I know recitals are a vital part of the earning stream of many classically trained singers. Recitals also creates an opportunity for a wider audience to experience opera sung live which is certainly good so having said that I would earnestly encourage anyone who enjoys recitals to please go to full staged performances and hear these wonderful tunes sung in context alongside their brother and sister arias and choruses.

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Sopranos Aoife Gibney & Amy Ní Fhearraigh.

We were back in the historic St. Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda with its wonderful atmosphere and acoustics for this concert. In his introductory remarks the Reverend Iain Jamieson reminded the audience that this is primarily a place of worship but it has to be said that it is also a wonderful performance space. Our singers this evening were Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Aoife Gibney, Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring with accompaniment on piano by Aoife O’Sullivan. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Amy Ní Fhearraigh perform as Suzanna in a fully staged production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama (Aoife Gibney also performed Contessa Almaviva but not on the night I attended). For my review click here

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Tenor Owen Gilhooly & baritone Gavan Ring.

The recital itself was in a word wonderful and for me at least the programme very appropriately opened with the aria that first caught my ear and helped me realise there was this thing out there called opera. ‘Largo al factotum’ from Rossini’s masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Sung rather energetically by Gavan Ring, this classic bel-canto tongue twister set the tone for the quality of the evening to follow.

The first half of the concert featured some of the best known arias and duets in the operatic canon. After Rossini we moved to tunes by Puccini, Donizetti, Mozart and Bizet from their great operas. Aoife Gibney and Amy Ní Fhearraigh performed two fabulous duets, ‘Sull’aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro and an incredibly elegant and accomplished rendition of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé. A slightly surprising inclusion in the programme was ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ the tragically sad aria from Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) written when he was only 23 and many years before he moved to America in 1938 to write some of his most famous pieces for Hollywood movies. The first half of the programme closed with Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring treating us to the famous duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from George Bizets’ The Pearl Fishers. What a run into the intermission…

Gavan Ring sings ‘Largo al factotum’ from The Barber of Seville

During the intermission we all retired to the parish hall for a chat and a complimentary coffee or glass of wine, well done and thank you to the organisers! It was obvious from talking to some of the concert goers that they were very impressed with the concert and keen to retake their seats for part two.

To open the second half we returned to the Italian canon with more treasures from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi and Owen Gilhooly singing a beautiful yet powerful version of ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’  from Jules Massenet’s Werther. This half also had its little surprises as well in the form of ‘O Carlo ascolta’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos sung with resonance and presence by Gavan Ring. Gavan is certainly a Baritone to watch. We also had an English language contribution in the form of ‘Tiny’s Song’ from Benjamin Britten’s early operetta Paul Bunyan sung by Aoife Gibney and for a finale we were treated to a rousing all hands on deck rendition of the ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s La Traviata with all the singers dancing ’round the stage.

One observation I would make is that on an evening that was essential a greatest hits of opera, 14 of the songs were in Italian, 4 in French and 1 each in German and English. This rather clearly illustrates the grip Italy has on the public perception of opera or at least the type of opera that triumphs at wonderfully memorable tunes at any rate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the concert with its selection of operatic classics peppered with a few off kilter contributions that added a bit of variety to the programme and the standing ovation for the performers at the end of the evening was very well deserved.

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com/

http://www.gavanring.co.uk/

http://www.owengilhooly.com/

Sacred Music at an Historic Site

The English Civil War was already over by the time Parliamentarian troops arrived at the walls of Drogheda on the 3rd of September 1649. A bitter and protracted conflict which only ended with the fall of an axe on the divinely anointed neck of King Charles I in January of that year. Despite the ending of the war in England many loose ends were left untied and the most problematic of these was Ireland. This in some way possibly explains what happened when Oliver Cromwell’s 48 pounders finally breached the town walls on the 11th of September. The massacre that followed needs no retelling here but in one documented incident Royalist defenders barricaded themselves in a Church which Cromwell’s troops set alight burning it to the ground and all those inside.

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St. Peter’s CoI Church, Drogheda.

We sit this evening in St. Peters Church of Ireland on the very site where these tragic events unfolded 367 years ago, anticipating a wonderful evening of choral music as part of this seasons Drogheda International Classical Music Series. The performance was preceded by an interview with this evenings conductor James Wood. Wood has so far had a long and varied career as a musician, composer and conductor which for many years centred around the New London Chamber Choir which he set up in 1981 and conducted for 26 years before moving to Germany.

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Chamber Choir Ireland.

The theme running through this evenings programme was one of veneration and prayer to the Virgin Mary with pieces from the 15th Century right up to the present day. I am obviously a big fan of choral music and one reason I was so interested in attending this concert was to hear a chamber choir singing Renaissance hymns and motets accompanied by saxophone, an instrument that was only invented in 1840. I had heard the matching of saxophone with Michael Nyman’s reworking of various baroque motifs and liked the effect so was very keen to hear this evenings concert with Chamber Choir Ireland and the Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

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Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

The opening piece by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410/25 – 1497) set the tone for the evening and I think it is fair to say the whole audience was immediately transported away from 21st century Drogheda to candle lit 15th Century churches and cloisters in the most glorious and enchanting way. A magnificently atmospheric piece, Intemerata Dei Mater (Unblemished Mother of God) is a hymn to Our Lady and like a number of pieces this evening it was sung in Latin which only added to the other wordiness and spirituality to this magical music that has travelled down through the centuries to us. This piece also gave us a first taste of how well saxophone works as an accompaniment to the choir. Although most people’s experience of saxophone is through jazz where the instrument can be quite strident and angular, this evening it was very subtle, didn’t overpower the vocals at all and lent a wonderful instrumental backdrop for the polyphony of voices to work into and around. Beautiful rolling bass harmony lines underpinned an uplifting and occasionally soaring soprano melody in this glorious piece.

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Arvo Pärt & Benjamin Britten – two giants of modern sacred choral music.

The next two composers on the programme were more contemporary. Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and Arvo Pärt (1935 – ). The Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten, composed when he was only 16, is a setting of a 13th Century poem for voice only. A favourite of English church choirs it is rather higher in register than the previous piece with fewer grounding deeper notes. The tenors and sopranos soared along wonderfully and indeed, next to the previous piece, this work written in 1930 pointed up the timeless beauty of this sacred music.

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The New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City with a detail of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Virgincita is a prayer to the Virgin Mary written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 2012 after a visit to Mexico which was inspired by the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which Pärt saw is supposedly painted on Saint Juan Diego’s cloak and is now on display in the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (The most visited Catholic shrine in the world). Pärt who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1970’s is renowned for his sacred and spiritual music which is heavily influenced by the choral traditions of Christianity. We stayed with Pärt for the next instrumental piece, the otherworldly and almost ‘trippy’ Fratres (Brothers) which highlighted the ensemble playing of the Chatham Saxophone Quartet to great effect.

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Johannes Ockeghem, Carlo Gesualdo & Jacob Obrecht.

Next we moved back again in time to a piece by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), the rather colourful and somewhat disturbing Italian Renaissance composer who murdered his wife and her lover and lead a rather bizarre and often macabre and troubled life. From 2008 to 2011 James Wood undertook to complete the missing voice parts of Gesualdo’s Second Book of Sacred Music and the Ave Sanctissima Maria (Most Holy Mary) is from this work. This is again a magnificently uplifting piece of Renaissance polyphony sung in Latin with a number of soaring heavenly crescendos that succeeded in rousing one dozing attendee near me…

We then stayed with Renaissance music for the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) of Jacob Obrecht (1457 – 1505), a Flemish composer of sacred music who was famous for his Mass settings. Obrecht’s music has great colour and beauty which caught the ear of the Papacy resulting in his music being performed in the Sistine Chapel. We then had another instrumental piece, Padouana, a slow dance from the German composer Johann Schein’s (1586 – 1630) Banchetto Musicale (Musical Banquet) which again showed the quartets mastery of highly atmospheric almost yearning ensemble playing.

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Johann Schein.

Moving to the 19th century and a setting of the Ave Maria by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). Best known for his romantic symphonies Bruckner was also a prolific composer of sacred music and like Britten’s hymn the higher register voices dominate to create an airy, elevated and almost unworldly feel to this piece which concludes with the classic Amen ending so prevalent in later sacred music. This beautiful setting composed in 1861 was Bruckner’s first major composition after finishing his musical studies in Vienna.

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Anton Bruckner & Giya Kancheli.

The final piece was quite a spectacular from contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935 – ). Written in 2005 Amao Omi (Senseless War) is a strangely haunting and melancholic work which was written for choir and saxophone. The composer claims he chose the disjointed words of the text for their sound rather than their meaning. It was certainly a very spiritual and seductive piece and was a suitably climactic conclusion to the programme.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring and even uplifting evening charged with that very organic beauty that can only be achieved by the life-giving breath of humanity playing on vocal cords and vibrating reeds. In a busy world where so many people are stressed, worried and anxious, this music is not only an inspiring aesthetic experience but a spiritual therapy. Congratulations and thanks to Chamber Choir Ireland, the Chatham Saxophone Quartet, James Woods and all involved in presenting this wonderful musical and spiritual experience.

http://www.chamberchoirireland.com

http://www.chathamsaxquartet.ie

http://www.choroi.net  (James Wood)

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com

http://www.musicnetwork.ie

La Passion de Simone

Well the Summer holidays are truly over and we’re all back at our desks and here at Operakey I’m delighted to be back doing what I love doing most… talking Opera! I will be looking at some of the operas I have been listening to over the summer which will include works by Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Albert Lortzing & Vincenzo Bellini. I will also be reviewing the upcoming and eagerly awaited production of Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company with a new translation by Roddy Doyle but first to a composer who I have been listening to quite a lot recently and one who we have looked at previously here on Operakey, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (see L’Amour de loin). This time we will be looking at ‘La Passion de Simone’ which is technically an oratorio but lets not concern ourselves with that.

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Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho attended the Freiburg conservatory of music in Germany and studied under a regime of strict serialism (imagine – percussive, atonal, dissonance) where she says

‘you were not allowed to have pulse or tonally orientated harmonies or melodies’

and later she came under the influence of the Spectral composers. Spectralism, which developed in France in the 1970’s, involved experimenting with the use of computers in composition and though some of the works in this style can be rather angular and anaemic Saariaho marries these electronic elements which are often quite subtle with tonal orchestration to create a truly beautiful and ethereal style.

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Simone Weil, 1909 -1943.

The inspiration for ‘La Passion de Simone’ was the life and death of the French philosopher, political activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil who starved herself to death in an English sanatorium in 1943, aged 34, in empathy with the hardships and suffering of her fellow countrymen under Nazi occupation. Weil was an incredibly complex and fascinating individual and some knowledge of her life is certainly helpful in appreciating this work.

The libretto is by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf who Saariaho regularly collaborates with and takes the form of fifteen sections or ‘Stations’ as they are called to evoke the comparison with the Stations of the Cross (Saariaho very much sees Weil’s life as a spiritual journey) and the piece in many ways takes the form of a traditional Passion Play as each station deals with a specific event or period in Weil’s tragic life. At the core of the piece is Weil’s continual struggle against injustice and inhumanity and the desire not only to sympathise with but also to actually experience the pain and suffering of others, be they struggling for economic survival (her insistence on working in factories) or for political or national freedom (she briefly fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and for the French Resistance in World War II).

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Soprano Pia Freund, accompanied by a silent dancer.

There is only one main character in this work, Weil’s imaginary sister who sings her thoughts and feelings about the various stages in Weil’s life while a narrator occasionally reads passages from her writings and a small chorus provides colour and resonance to the vocal style. Like other works by Saariaho La Passion de Simone has a very spiritual and ethereal feel, an almost floating unworldly quality that seduces the listener into its soundscape. The stage setting for the original production was by the rather controversial American director Peter Sellars and features the singer on a raised platform and very little else. As mentioned in previous posts I am a fan of minimalist stage design and the lack of visual clutter works particularly well with a piece like this which is so musically and vocally absorbing, the movements and expressions of the singer being the conduit for the emotional strength of the libretto.

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Soprano Julia Bullock at the Ojai Music Festival

The orchestration echoes and reinforces the themes of each of the stations whether it be the percussive and almost threatening style of the 5th and 6th station where Weil, despite her education and comfortable life chooses to work in factories in order to live the experiences of poor people or the almost angelic and otherworldly style of the 13th (‘Slowly you give up the ghost my little sister Simone’). and 14th (‘Every evil is aroused in the world’) station as Weil fades away and eventually dies of malnutrition.

La Passion de Simone is an impressively beautiful and haunting work and like much of Saariaho’s output it bucks the trend to more dissonant stylings in much contemporary vocal composition. Yes, traumatic or disturbing passages in the libretto are accompanied by surging and angular orchestration but this is to serve the text and the overall power of the work is in its beauty and its ability to take the listener into the world it creates and hold them there. I strongly advise readers to listen to more of Saariaho’s choral and orchestral works as she is certainly one of the most impressive contemporary composers and one gets the impression that despite the very modern feel of much of her work and the subtle use of electronica she is a composer who has a great love of the classical and impressionist traditions.

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The recording I have is on the Ondine label and features American Soprano Dawn Upshaw for whom the soprano piece was originally written. It is quite a demanding vocal piece and Upshaw’s performance is moving and absorbing (she missed the world premiere in Vienna while under treatment for breast cancer but performed the UK, French and US premieres).

http://saariaho.org

http://www.americanweilsociety.org/

Dance of the Little Swans

One of the highlights of Swan Lake, if indeed highlights can be plucked from such a Masterpiece, has to be the Dance of the Little Swans from Act II.

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Prince Siegfried has arrived at an enchanted lake deep in the forest where he sees Odette and the other swans in the moonlight but cannot bring himself to raise his bow to slay any of them. As he watches he sees some young swans swim out onto the lake, surrounded and protected by the older ones.

The young swans want to appear as beautiful and elegant as the older ones who swim so protectively around them but they still need to huddle together for support and comfort as they perform their half elegant half awkward dance before trying to take flight from the lake. But alas they can’t spread their wings as they are too young and like all the other swans they are under the spell of the sorcerer Von Rothbart which keeps them confined to their earthly avian beauty.

The dance of the Little Swans was added to the 1895 revision of Swan Lake which is the version mostly performed today and is for obvious reasons a ballet school favourite. It is also the source of some rather humorous….interpretations!

The Royal Moscow Ballet tour Swan Lake in Ireland in March with five dates.

 

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Time for a little Ballet

Vey excited at getting my tickets to the Royal Moscow Ballet who visit Ireland for five performances of Swan Lake in March. There are a number of versions of Swan Lake and there is a happy ending version and a sad ending one to confuse things even further. The sad ending where Odette and Siegfried break Von Rothbart’s spell by proving their true love in death was considered to have mystical and religious overtones by the soviet regime so a happy ending was created with the true love and the spell breaking but not the death. The version most performed today is the 1895 version but with the happy ending.

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Swan Lake is probably one of the most beautiful spectacles you will ever see and although I have seen a number of recorded versions I have never been to a live production. Of the versions recorded on DVD I recommend one by The Royal Swedish Ballet recorded at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2002 and released by the BBC & Opus Arte. This is a full, traditional, classical version….sublime.

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Swan Lake has what is considered to be the most difficult role for a ballerina in the repertoire not least because the lead ballerina must play two roles, that of Odette and Odile who are meant to be diametrically opposed characters, the famous White Swan/Black Swan, and as such requite different dancing techniques and dramatisations. Swan lake also has the famous 32 fouettés performed by Odile in Act 3 where the audience and I dare say the whole cast wish the ballerina on to the end successfully.

Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

While accepting that opera is essentially a live art form, a lot of performances nowadays are being recorded to extend the experience beyond the immediate audience and allow those who cannot attend for financial or geographical reasons to have a sense of the live experience.

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Cecelia Bartoli & Gino Quilico in Rossini’s comic classic.

I have a small collection of DVD’s which started a number of years back with a performance of ‘The Barber of Seville’ featuring Cecelia Bartoli as Rosina and Gino Quilico in the title role.

The Barber is such wonderful introduction to Opera, awash with great tunes and bursting with comic scenes. Still to this day probably my favourite opera and of course Cecilia Bertoli in this production is a mesmerising Mezzo who can do justice to Rossini’s requirement for vocal gymnastics.

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Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

But pride of place in my DVD collection has to go to the recording of David McVicars production of Mozarts  ‘Die Zauberflöte’ from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2003. Simon Keenlyside is wonderful as Papageno but this production is remembered for German soprano Diana Damrau’s performance as The Queen of the Night. An absolute jaw dropper that had me glued to the screen and a regular visitor to youtube ever since for regular top ups. I can’t recommend the recording of this production highly enough, it is stunning.