Presto News - 7th October 2013
Berlioz's Les Troyens from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
2012 was in every sense a big year for the Royal Opera House: they entered into the Olympic spirit with not only Wagner’s Ring but also this new production of Berlioz’s five-hour Classical epic Les Troyens, which hadn’t been staged there for forty years. In some respects it’s easy to see why: one of the longest ‘single-sitting’ operas in the repertoire, it requires a massed chorus and corps de ballet, consummate singing actors in some tricky-to-cast roles and of course some serious magic in terms of visual impact.
Es Devlin’s sets certainly supply the latter in spades - so much so that on the afternoon I was there the audience erupted into spontaneous applause at curtain-up! The first two acts, which deal with the Fall of Troy, revolve around a stark monochrome citadel: overtones of the Industrial Revolution here, with the costumes reflecting the time when the opera was written rather than Classical antiquity; the three ‘Carthage’ acts take place in a bright terracotta kasbah (director David McVicar was apparently inspired by a line in Virgil which compares Carthage to honeycomb). But the tour de force is the giant, flaming Trojan horse, sculpted from the detritus of war: it dominates the stage at the end of Part One and returns, terrifyingly, reformed as Hannibal in the final tableau as the Trojans dream of an avenging angel.
This was one of those productions where disappointment at a star’s absence turns to delight at a new discovery: I’d been crestfallen when an ailing Jonas Kaufmann withdrew from the role of Énée six weeks before opening, but his replacement Bryan Hymel delivered something very different, very special and (dare I say it?) more authentically ‘French’-sounding than Kaufmann might have been. That he also went on to take over from Juan Diego Flórez, in Robert le Diable, gives some idea of the remarkable combination of vocal qualities at work here: it’s a voice that not only sits very high but is also capable of slicing through Berlioz’s heftiest orchestration, and he brought the house down in his final punishing scene. He’s still only 34, a baby in terms of heroic repertoire, and I can’t wait to see what he'll be doing in five years’ time.
The other stand-out performance came from the Italian firebrand Anna Caterina Antonacci as doomed prophetess Cassandre: riveting from her very first line, she brings a no-holds-barred physicality to the role and hurls out her imprecations like a true French tragedienne. Her performance alone would have been worth the price of my ticket.
Eva-Maria Westbroek makes for a radiant, vulnerable Didon, stronger on womanly sensuality than regal hauteur or hell-hath-no-fury: it’s an unconventional characterisation, perhaps, but here it contrasts nicely with Antonacci’s white-hot theatricality. Her big, bright soprano throws a different perspective on a role more usually assigned to lyric-dramatic mezzos, and there’s no want of warmth in the middle range, where so much of this music lies.
There are some superb cameos, too: with her incisive bottom register and magnetic stage-presence, the young Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp will surely make a fine Queen of Carthage herself, and Ed Lyon delivers a heart-stopping account of the young sailor Hylas’s lament for his homeland, despite being suspended in a vertigo-inducing crow's-nest! Barbara Senator’s boyish frame made her totally convincing as Énée’s young son in the opera-house, and she comes across amazingly well on-screen too, especially in her impish attempts to play Cupid.
Yes, it’s a long session’s viewing (the beauty of DVDs is that you can make ‘cuts’ of your own if the lengthy ballets get a bit much!), but this was one of the operatic highlights of 2012 and it retains much of its impact in this excellent DVD transfer.
Berlioz: Les Troyens (DVD)
Bryan Hymel (Énée), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Didon), Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ashley Holland (Panthée), Robert Lloyd (Priam), Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Also available on blu-ray.
Katherine Cooper - firstname.lastname@example.org
7th October 2013
Boulez Conducts Mahler: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker, The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez’s complete Mahler cycle of symphonies and songs, which started almost 20 years ago, is now presented for the first time in a single set of 14 CDs at budget price. The set features orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker, and Cleveland Orchestra, and top soloists such as Christine Schäfer, Anne Sofie von Otter, Juliane Banse, Magdalena Kožená, Thomas Quasthoff, Violeta Urmana, and Michael Schade.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 & Tragic Overture
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev begins his Brahms symphony cycle with recordings of the first two symphonies, the Tragic Overture and the Haydn Variations.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko
Completed in 1936 but withdrawn during rehearsal and not performed until 1961, the Fourth Symphony finds Shostakovich stretching his musical idiom to the limit in the search for a personal means of expression at a time of personal and professional crisis. It has become one of the most highly regarded of the composer’s large-scale works.
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20
James Ehnes (violin), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi
This is the second instalment in Chandos’s series devoted to Tchaikovsky’s three great ballets. Here Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra present the complete version of Swan Lake, with Tchaikovsky’s original Bolshoy score of twenty-nine numbers across four acts, along with two supplementary numbers which Tchaikovsky provided not long after the premiere.
Britten: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 3
Emperor String Quartet
On this second disc of the Emperor Quartet’s survey of Britten’s music for string quartet, Alla marcia appears as an interlude between the first and the last of Britten's three published string quartets. The first disc in this series of three was released in 2010, and included a performance of the Second String Quartet described as ‘stupendous’ in Classic FM Magazine.
Schumann: Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Christian Tetzlaff (violin) & Lars Vogt (piano)
In this selection of sonatas, Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt reveal Schumann’s development as a composer; this recording includes the third Sonata which was neglected for a century after Schumann’s death, only premiering in 1956.
Daniil Trifonov: The Carnegie Recital
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
In the past thirty years, the honour of a live Carnegie Hall recital recording has been bestowed by DG upon only two other pianists: Mikhail Pletnev and Lang Lang. Daniil Trifonov now joins this elite company for his very first recording on the Yellow Label. Recorded in February this year, this richly contrasted and spectacularly virtuosic programme includes much-loved classics by Chopin and Liszt.
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Arensky & Taneyev: Piano Quintets
Piers Lane (piano), Goldner String Quartet
Two chamber masterpieces from nineteenth-century Russia, performed by Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet. Taneyev has been known as the ‘Russian Brahms’. Composed in 1911, his Piano Quintet bids for the accolade of the greatest work in the Russian piano-chamber repertoire before Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet of 1940. Arensky’s Piano Quintet of 1900 is less monumental but is a deeply attractive and enjoyable work.
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