July 2010

A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Welsh National Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, by Richard Wagner

"Sachs, mein Freund!" Bryn Terfel has sung extracts from Hans Sachs's music for years, and the character always seemed well suited to his warm voice and air of easy humanity. But he didn't unveil the complete role until this season, in the very production of Die Meistersinger that visited the Proms last night. Terfel proudly puts Welshman after his name, and he promised the country's National Opera that they would get his first Sachs. Six thousand listeners in Albert Hall spent most of the afternoon and evening for the privilege, just over six hours (imagine the ones in the arena who had to stand), with scarcely a handful leaving early. Terfel raises sheep at home, and it takes a golden fleece to hear him in Covent Garden, the Met, or Salzburg. Here he was cheap as chips but musically priceless.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Albert Hall

Streaks of gold. Among Verdi operas that connoisseurs treasure but not the general public, Simon Boccanegra stands high. In the modern era there have been perhaps two worthy recordings and very occasional stagings. Yet suddenly Boccanegra is everywhere, thanks to the decision by Placido Domingo to take on a baritone role. Last night at the Proms he scored a spectacular success, with popping flashbulbs and shouting worthy of the World Cup. Verdi was a confirmed atheist, but if his shade survives, it must have been astonished – the reception was far wilder than the one accorded to Die Meistersinger the night before.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Pavel Haas Quartet at Wigmore Hall: Haydn and Shostakovich

Day for night. The young Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic, has been winning prizes and rave notices for eight years now, the flicker of an eye in the usual lifespan of renowned string quartets. We are in the midst of a glut of rising young ensembles of this kind, but the Pavel Haas sets itself aside. It doesn't come on stage dressed in matching black Dolce & Gabbana or play with the impersonal precision of a machinist shop. Their style is a throwback to the forceful, romanticized sound of Russian groups like the Beethoven, Borodin, and Shostakovich Quartets. Like the last, they took their name from a modern composer. Pavel Haas (1899-1944) died at Auschwitz and has a noted place in Czech music. The group has recorded his three string quartets, which were the impetus for choosing Haas's name, we are told, rather than as a statement about the Holocaust.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Mozart’s Idomeneo at the English National Opera

Virtue rampant. It’s something of a drawback when an opera has no characters, but this wasn’t always so. At the height of the 18th century’s classical style, an emblem would suffice, or a slightly animated statue. In Mozart’s Idomeneo something like the ideal is achieved. No one is really flesh and blood but rather personified virtues: Nobility caught between Filial Devotion and conflicted love from Chaste Constancy and Heartfelt Passion. Or as the playbill has it, Idomeneo, king of Crete, is trapped by a vow to Poseidon to sacrifice his son, Idamante, while two women pine longingly, Ilia, a captured princess of Troy, and the infamous Electra, daughter of Agamemnon. These pawns on the Greek chessboard were available to any dramatist or poet of Mozart’s day, to be shuffled through the paces of opera seria, the musical equivalent of high tragedy.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Through A Glass Darkly, Almeida Theatre

Woman on the verge. I came to the Almeida Theatre with doubts about staging an Ingmar Bergman script. Not that the writing wouldn‘t be deep enough but that the stage would be too shallow. Bergman‘s true religion was light (as he makes clear in his compelling autobiography, The Magic Lantern), and it plays a pivotal role in Through a Glass Darkly, his 1961 study of a young woman‘s seduction by madness. For Karin, the light is alive, full of voices, beckoning her into a realm of reality where the angels dwell. Bergman conducted much the same search, minus the angels. But can we fully imagine the kingdom of light without Bergman’s camera?
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

The Late Middle Classes at Donmar Warehouse

Secrets and lies. Simon Gray had a late-career flop in 1999 with The Late Middle Classes, a comic drama which closed out of town before reaching the West End. It’s not hard to see why. Delicate musings about pedophilia don’t mix well with japery at the post-war middle class and its lawn-tennis-with-drinks-at-five airs. Every character is ready to explode with repressed impulses that are either nasty, immoral, or illegal. The resulting brew sits uneasily between art and entertainment. What audience, exactly, was it intended to find?
A London Summer with Huntley Dent

Bernstein’s Mass at the Royal Festival Hall

“My time will come.” This, the most famous quote from Gustav Mahler, wouldn’t seem apt for the music of Leonard Bernstein. His time was now, over and over, whatever decade from the Forties to the Eighties one is talking about. But there were dips in his meteoric trajectory, and Mass, which opened Kennedy Center in 1972, was a drastic one. Reviews weren’t merely dismissive; they expressed embarrassment for the composer, who leapt from his pedestal as an icon of classical music into the arms of hippies, flower children, and the Age of Aquarius. The work owed a distressing amount to Hair, the musical, and less obviously to Benjamin Britten and Bernstein’s own earlier works. As a spectacle, it combined the liturgy of the Latin Mass with episodes of the mob (updated with tie-dye, peasant blouses, and afros) jeering at the Church and belief in God generally. Bernstein wasn’t, shall we say, the most obvious candidate for a work of Christian devotion, and with eyes averted from the schlocky libretto -- crafted by Broadway baby Stephen Schwartz, who was young but no wunderkind-- the composer’s admirers chose to bury Mass as an ecumenical mess. The prevailing wisdom was that this, too, shall pass.
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