Last night’s TSO performance of Britten’s War Requiem was a bit of a mixed bag. There were things to like but, overall, I was not greatly moved; which I expect to be by this work, and it seemed like a very long evening for one work of modest length.
Let’s start with the positives.Tatiana Pavlovskaya was as good a soprano soloist as I have heard in this piece. She sang with enough power to be a distinct voice in all but the very densest sections of the music while maintaining an admirable sweetness of tone without the almost customary screechiness. The Toronto Children’s Chorus was excellent. Toby Spence’s diction was top notch with every word clear. There was some really nice playing from the chamber orchestra, especially the strings. The last fifteen minutes from the blood curdling Libera Me to “let us sleep now” had the right balance of terror and lyricism though, even here, there could have been more drama. Where was the frisson at “I am the enemy you killed my friend”? Continue reading →
Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest was given at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 in a new production by Robert Lepage. It got an HD broadcast and a subsequent DVD release. It’s an interesting work which, on happening, was compared to Peter Grimes as the “next great English opera”. Whether this early hype will turn into a sustained place in the repertoire is yet to be seen. Musically it’s not easy to characterize. Adès very much has his own style; mixing lyricism with atonality and, in this piece, setting one of the roles, Ariel, so high it’s surprising anyone has been found to sing it. Certainly it’s a more aggressively modern style than most of the work currently being produced in North America. The libretto two is unusual. Shakespeare’s own words were, apparently, considered too difficult to sing though, of course, Britten famously set great screeds of unadulterated bard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the Tempest, Meredith Oakes has rendered the text into couplets; rhymed or half rhymed. It works quite well with only the occasional touch of Jeremy Sams like banality.
Here’s another fine example of how well Handel’s oratorios can work when staged. It’s a recording of Hercules made at Paris’ Palais Garnier in 2004. The staging is by Luc Bondy and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are joined by a youngish cast of extremely good singers. It’s compelling stuff. I think what, for me, makes the oratorios much more interesting than most of Handel’s opera seria is structural. The operas tend to alternate recit and da capo aria with maybe a duet or chorus to close an act but they are pretty predictable. In the oratorios Handel makes much more use of ensembles and the chorus and, for me, that’s vastly preferable.
A new recording of Britten’s Gloriana is to be welcomed, even when it’s less than perfect. It’s an unusual work for Britten. It’s very grand. The orchestra is large and the music doesn’t seem to be as transparent and detailed as much of his work. This is especially true in Act 1 where I almost wondered whether Britten was sending up “grand opera”. It’s also a grand opera sort of plot. The libretto is based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and deals with the late life romance between the queen and the young Robert Devereux, earl of Essex and deputy in Ireland. It has some fine moments; notably the lute songs in Act 2 and the choral dances in Act 2. Act 3 is also dramatically quite effective; dealing with Essex’ abortive rebellion and execution. Curiously, in the final scene, Britten resorts to a lot of spoken dialogue, as he does briefly with Balstrode’s admonition in Peter Grimes. It’s almost as if he has no musical vocabulary for the highest emotional states; a sort of anti-Puccini.
Jonathan Kent sets his 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw in the 1950s. It’s effective enough especially when combined with Paul Brown’s beautiful and ingenious set and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting. The set centres on a glass panel which appears in different places and different angles but always suggesting a semi-permeable membrane. Between reality and imagination? Knowledge and innocence? Good and evil? All are hinted at. A rotating platform allows other set elements to be rapidly and effectively deployed. There’s also a very clever treatment of the prologue involving 8mm home video.