Sunday 12 July 2020

A Life On-Line: the other Semele, and an alternative Tristan and Isolde

Frank Martin: Le vin herbé - Caitlin Hulcup, Tom Randle - Welsh National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Frank Martin: Le vin herbé - Caitlin Hulcup, Tom Randle
Welsh National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Our opera viewing this week was very much devoted to rarities. We began with a piece that I have never heard live, Frank Martin's Le vin herbé, in a production directed by Polly Graham for Welsh National Opera in 2017, courtesy of OperaVision. Not strictly an opera, this is a small scale piece with the emphasis on the chorus, here the terrific chorus of Welsh National Opera which provided the many smaller solo roles, with Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the Tristan and Iseult, and Catherine Wyn Rogers as Iseult's mother. James Southall conducted.

The story is rather different to that in Wagner's opera, and Martin's music more concentrated and intense, yet with the same tragic results.

Fascinatingly, the last time I saw Schoenberg's Moses und Aron staged it was performed by Welsh National Opera, with the chorus on terrific form. We caught it again this week on OperaVision performed by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin directed by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. I have to confess that I found some of the imagery of the production a little puzzling, notably the references to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with Moses and Aron (Robert Hayward and John Daszak) as two sad clowns doing magic tricks. But there were some stunning moments, particularly when Moses' descent from the mountain is over a pile of dead Jewish bodies (in fact puppets). And there chorus was on great form, singing and moving to terrific effect. The performance was recorded in 2015, when the production was given to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Whilst Martin's and Wagner's operas share the same story, the librettos are very different. But Handel and John Eccles' Semele operas actually share the same libretto (though Handel's opera edited and altered Congreve's original). Eccles' opera is one of the might have beens of English musical theatre. Written in 1706, it was never performed owing to the complexities of theatrical politics and Eccles never wrote anything else of the stage. It lacks the singable melodies of Handel's piece, and perhaps just misses the quirkiness of Purcell's genius. But its neglect is downright puzzling, and you can draw a clear line from Blow's Venus and Adonis, to Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, to Eccles' Semele, which then virtually disappears.

In November 2019, Julian Perkins conducted a performance in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge with the combined talents of Cambridge Handel Opera Company and the Academy of Ancient Music, joining forces with Cambridge Early Music. The video is on the Academy of Ancient Music's YouTube channel, and there will be a recording next year (which will be the work's first fully professional recording, it having only been recorded once before with Anthony Rooley directing forces from Florida State University).

There was a terrific cast, with Anna Dennis as Juno, Richard Burkhard as Jupiter, Helen Charlston as Juno, Aoife Miskelly as Ino, William Wallace as Athmas, Jonathan Brown as Cadmus, Heloise Bernard as Iris, Christopher Foster as Somnus, and Bethany Horak-Hallett as Cupid, all having great fun with a rather different view of the piece to Handel. It zipped along at two hours and I would love to hear it in the theatre.

We also caught Bridget Cunningham's lovely recital for Living Room Live, in Bach and Handel with a glorious harpsichord (stunning-looking too) and the delight of seeming to eavesdrop on someone's salon.

Music at the Tower this week had a striking bill of Bach's Coffee Cantata with Mary Bevan, William Thomas and Michael Solomon Williams, and Emma Kirkby's Dowland Works [Facebook]. More Bach from violinist Fenella Humphreys who is working her way through Bach's Sonatas and Partitas [YouTube].

Longborough Opera has been featuring podcasts about Wagner's operas, this week Lee Bisset (who was due to sing Brunnhilde at the festival this year), historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and writer Sophie Rashbrook chatted about Wagner's heroines [Longborough Opera]. More talking as two boy choristers from the choir of New College, Oxford shared some of their favourite moments [Facebook]. And conductor John Andrews has finished his A Very Brief History of Opera, in six delightful episodes on YouTube.

Soprano Louise Alder shared a tantalising snippet of her singing 'Bel raggio lusinghier' from Rossini's Semiramide, recorded from San Francisco Opera [Instagram]. Les Bougies Baroques gave us a #ThrowbackThursday to their National Gallery recital as part of LGBT History Month, with the trio from Handel's Orlando. [Instagram]. Grange Park Opera moved into symphonic music for its latest offering from the Found Season with Strauss' Metamorphosen conducted by Martyn Brabbins and a 'super-group' of London orchestral players [Grange Park Opera]

As part of BBC Radio 3's Postcards from Composers, we heard Shirley Thompson's Mabuika (A Taino Welcome) from Helen Vollam, principal trombone of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Shirley imagining Helen playing the sea trumpet! [Facebook]. And there was a lovely excerpt of The Gesualdo Six rehearsing Tallis' Lamentations [Facebook]. You will be able to catch them in the full work at JAM on the Marsh's forthcoming on-line jamboree.

Irish soprano Miriam Murphy sadly died during the week and Irish National Opera posted an excerpt of her in concert in tribute [Facebook]

BBC iPlayer featured a delightful film from choreographer Corey Baker where 27 dancers from across the globe performed bits of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in their baths! [iPlayer]

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