Arts Review

Notes from the Road: Part II

Adventures measuring the majesty of the United States by odometer gave way in the second half of the summer to a long soak in European urbanism.[1] Indulging in an opportunity to study Italian in Bologna for a month, I traded out my trusty tent for portici and camp food for mortadella and the region’s manifold pastas. The language school was populated by a darling and eccentric group of students, each with his or her own story. There was the serene and stately English­woman who, after going in pensione, had been spending evenings in her village Italian club and summers in a new Italian city each year. There was the bombastic professoressa from California, for whom Italian studies represented a change of lifestyle and mentality; the Oxford medievalist living between past and present; the Brazilian recently quitting his life as a business executive; the singer from Colombia; the chemist from Spain. It was a lively group, and in our budding but broken Italian we would debate topics ranging from the relative merits of certain Medi­eval philosophers to the various habits of our respective countrymen. In the midst of a conversazione comparing preferences for German or for Italian nineteenth-century music, I was asked by a fellow-student where one could find the best opera nowadays. I struggled to communicate in Italian what first came to mind: that globalization circulated the same artists and productions from city to city; that as a result the once distinc­tive “sounds” of the great orchestras and companies were becoming somewhat leveled, etc., etc. . . . I was quick—if not exactly coherent—in proffering these opinions, but her question stuck with me and became something of an idée fixe as I explored the musical offerings of the late European summer. Were there elements counteracting this collapse into the global mainstream “classical music”?

In celebration of the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth (1567–1643), the Cappella Musicale di San Petronio in Bologna, the musical establishment (founded 1436) of the city’s head church, in collaboration with the arts organization Corti Chiese, e Cortili (CCC) presented two of the composer’s most celebrated works: the Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) and his late opera Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria. The latter I attended on July 21st at the Cortile dell’Archiginnasio of Bologna, the courtyard of the sixteenth-century university building originally constructed to unify the faculties of canon and civil law and the liberal arts under one roof. Today the building houses the Archiginnasio Municipal Library as well as one of Europe’s earliest anatomical dissection theaters. The orchestra and chorus were supplied by the cappella of the Basilica of San Petronio under Michele Vannelli (directing from the harpsichord), while the singing roles for the opera were selected through the competition ENCORE 2017, sponsored by CCC.

A concert in Italy during the summer months starts late and ends even later than you expected. The heat of the day, inescapable in a country skeptical of fans and suspicious of air conditioning (a holdover, perhaps, of the ancient wisdom to avoid fetid air and wet drafts), encourages snoozing into the late afternoon and socializing well into the night. Although the show was billed for a start time of 8:30 pm, the doors creaked open sometime around 8:45 to an impatient crowd of overzealous students bearing opera scores, impeccably dressed couples, and signoras pushing straight through them all to chastise the staff for the wait. With pauses—during which one could buy bottled water in vending machines within the ancient, frescoed halls—the show ran well past 1:00 am. Over the course of those hours, the Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria of Monteverdi and his librettist Giacomo Badoaro retold the Homeric tale of Ulysses’ long-awaited return to Ithaca.

The production embraced the grandeur of its topic and a ritual element in its retelling through a traditional approach to choreography and costuming, which harmonized with the surrounding courtyard and succeeded in conjuring the terrible sweep of Classical myth from the modest staging and band. Making no apologies for generally (though not rigidly) embracing the Baroque performance practice, borrowed from Classical oratory, of “park and bark”—standing still while singing—the cast was adept in adopting contrapposto poses which, in conjunction with the elegance and confidence of their singing and with the cleverness of the costuming, produced the riveting effect of bringing to life Classical statuary. This commitment to formalism of gestures and staging, along with a general panache from the singers, was striking in its ability to concentrate and condense the grandiose power of mythical representation. For me, this approach was much more satisfying than productions which try to compensate for the repetitiveness of recitative or da capo arias by distracting the audience with superfluous staging; I’m thinking in particular of some of the Handel productions at the Met in recent years. From what was evidently not an enormous budget, stage director Alberto Allegrezza (who also sang in a minor tenor role) and choreographer Davide Vecchi succeeded in making magic from “a tin diadem and pasteboard scepter.”

The opera was for many in the cast the capstone project for a series of master classes on period performance run in conjunction with the Scuola di Musica G. Fiorini Valsamoggia. The singers certainly repre­sented a range of experience and “finish,” but the cast was impressively unified in their aesthetic and the lead roles performed with professional aplomb. Penelope was regally portrayed by contralto Sara Tommasini, whose dignified interpretation of the character extended from her carefully controlled voice to a graceful execution of the choreography. Her voice, while interestingly complex and rich, was wielded with a brilliant clarity and articulation which put the text at an advantage. The star of the show was undoubtedly the title role, played by Czech baritone Lukáš Zeman. While in complete accord with the stylistic values of the production, he was able to mediate between the lofty affections of noble representation and sincere human pathos. The effortless virtuosity with which he maneuvered in the style was paired with great acting talent and the daring (so essential to the character of Ulysses) to take thrilling chances in the heat of performance. Zeman’s opening strains in Scene VII uttered as Ulysses just wakes from a dream were breathed in little more than a whisper, drawing the audience together in the intimacy of the Archiginnasio’s acoustics and space. Conversely, his fighting scenes at the end of Act II swept with a fury marvelous to behold.

From the bell-like acoustics of a Renaissance Bolognese courtyard and the focused splendor of early Baroque opera, I traveled to Verona on July 22 to luxuriate in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival. A few years past its hundredth birthday now, the festival opened in 1913 with an inaugural performance of Aida. Housed in one of the best-preserved Roman arenas in the world (1st cent. CE), the Arena di Verona festival takes place in the world’s largest open-air opera theater. Competition for seats is fierce. Cheap tickets for the general seating in the summa cavea draw large and enthusiastic crowds each night; it is advisable to arrive early, with cushions and snacks in tow (food is technically banned, but the operagoers are blatant, and the ushers don’t even pretend not to see the contraband), and with a plan of attack. As the gates open, thousands of opera lovers throng up precarious marble slabs pocked by centuries of weather. One develops relationships with the dozens of other bodies roasting near one’s own in the hot sun, waging subtle, friendly battles to win territory with offensive flapping of sharp elbows or defensive emplacement of stinky feet. Agile concessions vendors, fleet and sure of step, weave amidst the horde shouting their offers for exorbitantly-priced beer, wine, and libretti in English, Italian, French, and German. Once one has finished one’s forbidden aperativo, one can pass the time counting the harps being wheeled into the orchestra one by one or attempt to decipher the dialects of one’s fellow plebeians.

While the challenge of Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria was to conjure the magnificent and the lofty by the controlling of a limited number of elements in a small space, the production of Madama Butterfly strove to achieve a delicate interiority and intimacy from materials gargantuan and muscular. This was no small task. The sheer athletic strength required of the singers to project their voices in an open-air building with a capacity of 15,000 (in Roman times 30,000; health and safety codes have evidently changed) was staggering, and somehow reminis­cent of the contests of strength and virtus which had drawn spectators to the games so many centuries ago. The enormity of the orchestra, the set, and the space of the theater necessitated a gross approach to performance not unlike a production of any colossal work in the visual or plastic arts. Here were needed vast swaths of bold and primary colors and contrasts in tone not from moment to moment but from scene to scene—a very different universe from the intricate filigree that could be accomplished in the courtyard of the Archiginnasio. Yet the conceit of the direction and staging by Franco Zeffirelli together with an extraordinarily compelling Cio-Cio-San sung by Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka led one from Madama Butterfly’s outer themes of colonization and the meeting of cultures to the complexity of the inner life of an individual. Zeffirelli’s monolithic set piece depicted the hilltop on which F. B. Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San made their nuptial abode; the set opened up to reveal a glimpse of the interior of the home itself. The audience is never admitted any farther into this inner sanctum; the set and staging therefore achieved a sense of interiority by hinting at but denying full access to space. Likewise, though the magnitude of the theater required the singer to maintain certain decibels and timbres, Dyka was able to shade, hint, and provide just enough melodic direction to invite the audience to worlds of sound beyond the broad strokes of arena-size opera. I never lost a word from Dyka, who gave Cio-Cio-San assertive agency and crystalline sincerity. The strong lead was supported by an equally impressive Suzuki in mezzo Silvia Beltrami, whose appearances were some of the highlights of the evening.

As July turns to August, the Italians flock north en masse to spend the hottest weeks of the year in the mountains or at the shores of a lake. I too headed for a more temperate clime and arrived in London just in time to attend two of the Proms concerts in its 122nd season. Founded in 1895 by impresario Robert Newman and conductor Henry Wood, the Proms began as a scheme to expand the concert-going audience through low prices and an informal ambience, allowing the audience to eat, drink, smoke, and promenade in all its Victorian glory. At the turn of the twentieth century, standing or “promming” tickets cost just one shilling (less than a pound in today’s money). Currently the BBC Proms is the world’s largest classical music festival and longest-running orches­tral concert series, totaling eight weeks of daily orchestral, chamber, and choral concerts every summer. While most of the concerts don’t involve a perambulating audience in the original sense, “prommers” still vie for places in standing areas at the concert venues.

Prom 33[2] on Thursday, August 10, was performed at the Royal Albert Hall, the main venue for the BBC Proms. The theater was packed, with prommers crowding as close to the stage as possible; some of them indeed seemed to be mere inches from the feet of the performers. From what I gather, nearly all the 100+ Proms performances see this kind of attendance. The event was performed by the BBC Philharmonic led by concertmaster Yuri Torchinsky under the baton of Finnish violinist and conductor John Storgårds (Chief Guest Conductor). Beneath the watchful and kindly gaze of a bronze bust of Henry Wood placed prominently above the stage, the symphony focused on works by Northern European composers in the first half, performing excerpts from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 23; Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, Op. 11; and his tone poem for soprano and orchestra Luonnotar, Op. 70 with Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen. After the pause, the orchestra was joined by German cellist Alban Gerhardt for Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129; they closed with Paul Hindemith’s symphony Mathis der Maler.

The Philharmonic was at the top of their game that evening, keeping water-tight ensemble and delving into each selection with gusto. The first half of the concert highlighted BBC 3’s “Composer of the Week” Edvard Grieg. All five works were played with lush orchestral sound and virtuosic verve. Particularly enjoyable moments were the fragments of two Norwegian dances played by solo viola in Peer Gynt, “At the Wedding: Prelude to Act 1.” Principal violist Steven Burnard took on the character wholeheartedly, offering gloriously rustic fiddling which transported us from the plush-velvet cushions of the Royal Albert to the forests of Norway. Burnard’s solo introduced an entire evening of particularly fine playing from the Philharmonic viola section. I also admired Storgårds’ interpretation of “Morning Mood: Prelude to Act 4,” a movement which has become a cliché through its long use by Looney Tunes and Hollywood. Storgårds’ flowing tempo and the lightness of articulation from the winds was a refreshing and lovely take on this music. Lise Davidsen was a pleasure to hear in her Proms debut, both in the fourth selection of the Grieg, “Solveig’s Song” as well as in the Sibelius. Sibelius’ Luonnotar is a retelling of the Finnish creation myth in the first runo (canto) of the Kalevala, the Finnish national folk epic. I found it particularly affecting: the soprano slips in and out of third and first person as she narrates the descent of the air maiden Luonnotar to the sea, where the waves impregnate her and she becomes the earth mother. Onstage, Davidsen’s height and stage presence evoked something of her mythical subject, and her incantation of the poem drew one into the otherworldly. Not so well known in the States, Sibelius’ Luonnotar is an extraordinary composition which combines an intricate harmonic language with novel approaches to sung speech and connections to the Finnish folk performance tradition. The vocal part demands an unusually wide range from the performer, which Davidsen navigated expertly and with supple voice. Unfortunately, the end of Luonnotar was spoiled by an ill-timed cell-phone alarm, but the overall effect was mesmerizing.

The second half of the program was likewise excellent. Alban Gerhardt gave an impressive performance of Schumann’s cello concerto. Traversing the cello’s fingerboard with the fleetness of a violinist, Gerhardt’s interpretation of the concerto focused on fluidity of movement and the shaping of large structural units. While the interpretation was convincing, his reluctance to choose particular moments for development in tone and time, particularly in the third movement, was sometimes disappointing. Certainly the third movement of the concerto has often been reproached for being needlessly repetitive; however this performance at times seemed an apology for it. Gerhardt’s approach to the slow movement, as well as moments in the recapitulation of the first movement, were, however, beautifully sensitive and singing and made a very memorable impression. The last work on the program, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, highlighted both the strengths of the Philharmonic’s ensemble as a whole and the individual strengths of its sections. Storgårds transitioned effortlessly from a role of conjurer of gestures, shapes, and colors to a rhythmic timekeeper and facilitator of precision. Luminosity of sound as well as clarity of counterpoint and in complex rhythms were achieved effortlessly, it seemed.

My last musical stop in Europe was the BBC Proms at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday, August 12, for a performance by the BBC Singers of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s motet Confitebor tibi, Domine and his mass based on that motet paired with the world premiere of Judith Weir’s oratorio In the Land of Uz in collaboration with the Nash Ensemble. A prommer this time, I arrived at the event early to enjoy a bit of tea from the Cathedral refectory and to queue for the show. Luckily for us, the prommers were seated for this event, just under the T. C. Lewis organ in the right transept. Southwark is the oldest cathedral building in London and has lived through centuries of fires, pestilence, destruction, and renovations since its foundation in the twelfth century. Most recently, it witnessed the terrorist attack at nearby London Bridge and Borough Market this past June, after which it endured damage during the police response. The concert was introduced to us by our BBC host in light of these recent events, and we were invited to listen to the Palestrina sung beautifully by the BBC Singers in a reflective vein. While no such overt suggestions for contemplative listening were made for Judith Weir’s In the Land of Uz, the substance of the oratorio seemed to me apt for the moment and consonant with the contemplation encouraged by the location and programming of the concert. In what the composer describes as a “dramatized reading” for choir, tenor, and an unusually-scored chamber ensemble, Master of the Queen’s Music and Associate Composer of the BBC Singers Judith Weir (b. 1954) set texts from the biblical book of Job, a bleak tale that asks the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

In the Land of Uz is a fascinating contemporary take on the traditional oratorio genre, written skillfully as functional music for both concert halls and church services. As the narrator read from the Cathedral pulpit, it seemed to me that the performance visually emphasized the liturgical heritage and potential of the work. Given the presence of such a venerable tradition of choral singing in Britain (and its ties to the Anglican Church in particular), one can only imagine that this work will in future continue to resound within sanctuary walls. Being scored for choir, tenor and viola soloists, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, tuba, and organ, The Land of Uz can be performed by a choral group without the financial barrier of having to hire an entire orchestra as other cantatas and oratorios would require. I found these aspects of the composition to show Weir both to be sensible and to possess a keen sensibility for the history of the genre of the oratorio. This kind of attention to the future life of contemporary art music and its suitability to multiple presentation types is a regrettable rarity in many of the new music circles I know from the States.

I found Weir’s oratorio to be an intelligent, powerful work. The Prologue of the piece opens with an ingenious bit of text-setting: what would otherwise be an extremely tedious genealogical list of unfamiliar-sounding names became under Weir’s pen an opportunity for rhythmic and polyphonic proliferation of sounds uttering “Habbub, Huzzah, Huzoth. . . . Zabad, Zabbar, Zabdi. . . .” The solo role of Job enters after the first calamities befall his family. Singing without accompaniment in a style reminiscent of Jewish cantillation, Job is soon joined by the solo viola, which will be his “alter ego,” in the words of the composer. Tenor Adrian Thompson’s Job was lyrical, contrasting pleasingly with the more angular writing for the choir. A favorite part of the performance was the third movement entitled “Job’s Comforters.” Here Weir uses a Baroque ritornello structure realized in a jazz-infused style. Above the ritornello performed by bass and soprano sax, the female voices of the choir enter in stretto, producing a kaleidoscopic effect. In these elements, Weir manifested a learned consciousness for her place in Western art music, while at the same time casting the form in a novel combination of styles and instrumentation.

For all its merits, certain parts of the oratorio fell a bit flat for me. While I enjoyed the writing for and use of the viola (William Coleman from the Nash Ensemble played with confidence and sensitivity), I never quite understood how the viola was representing “Job’s alter ego.” Here I don’t so much critique Weir’s oratorio as I confess to being distracted in performance by trying to reconcile what I was hearing to the stated dramatic function of the instrument. At another point, although I appreciated the sense of the idea for a trumpet and organ duo to portray the whirlwind of God in the fifth movement (a choice that showed Weir sensitive to the allegorical and historical meanings of these instruments, again much to her credit), the setting of the melodic and gestural content did not capture the brilliant potential of the idea. From this point until the end of the work, the oratorio seemed to plateau in the creativity of its writing and, for my taste, concluded much too straightforwardly. In keeping with the Bible’s lieto fine (“After this lived Job one hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old, and full of days.”), Weir set the end in choral homophony followed by the resolution of the viola’s solo material. In comparison with the thought-provoking and sonically stimulating text-setting of the prologue, this conclusion struck me as vapid. I would have wished for a more challenging musical read for the end of the book of Job and from such a creative text-setter. As a whole, however, In the Land of Uz is a splendid addition to contemporary choral repertoire and was given a very persuasive premiere from the BBC singers and Nash Ensemble.
[1] See “Notes from the Road,” The Hudson Review, Volume LXX, No. 2 (Summer 2017).

[2] Videos of the performances reviewed not available. However, you can listen to the performances by clicking “Show more tracks” under the “Music Played” section of the BBC’s Prom 33 page and the Proms at Southwark page.