Beautiful role debut for Malin Byström in Amsterdam Salome

Strauss: Salome

Dutch National Opera, 9th June 2017

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Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1861) by Jan Adam Kruseman at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

While the audience cheered at the end of the new Salome at Dutch National Opera, Malin Byström punched the air triumphantly with her fist. With good reason, because this was a wonderful role debut.

Full review on Bachtrack.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra premieres Easter Passions

Debussy/Ali-Zadeh/Živković: RCO/Brabbins

Concertgebouw, 7th April 2017

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Saint Sebastian by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Sarria Church, Floriana, Malta

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra continues its recent tradition of commissioning a new Eastertide passion every four years. This year they commissioned two new works, Mystical Sacrifice by Djuro Živković and Nasimi-Passion by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. Symphonic fragments from Debussy’s incidental music for a mystery play about Saint Sebastian completed the programme.

Full review on Bachtrack.

Over-the-top Elgar and hushed Mahler from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Elgar/Mahler: RCO/Gardiner

Concertgebouw, 2nd March 2017

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Mahler and Elgar are not two composers one would automatically associate with each other. For the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the former is an intrinsic part of their tradition, the latter only sporadically on their music stands. So much so that on Thursday evening it was the first time ever that they performed his Cockaigne Overture.

Full review on Bachtrack.

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Wagner: Die Walküre, Act III

Concertgebouw, 9th December 2016

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Wotan Bidding Farewell to Brunhilde (1908) by Ferdinand Leeke

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

Presumably, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, foremost in the land and one of the best in the world, could not muster the budget for a complete Walküre — a worrisome fact, if this was indeed the case.

Full review on Opera Today.

Magnificent terror in new Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

Concertgebouw, 5th November 2016

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Detail from The Last Judgement (circa 1505) by Hieronymus Bosch

Like the work of it’s dedicatee, Detlev Glanert’s Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch spans the mortal and the immortal, the demonic and the angelic, the putrid and the sublime. It is one of the events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death, and premiered one day before this Amsterdam performance, at St John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Bosch’s birthplace. It was an extraordinary performance…

Full review on Bachtrack.

Daniele Gatti and the RCO make it official during showcase concert

Beethoven/Schubert/Mahler/Mozart/Respighi/Verdi: RCO/Gatti

Concertgebouw, 9th September 2016

“Love at first sight” is how Dutch culture minister Jet Bussemaker described the first encounter between Milanese conductor Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As if officiating at a wedding, she sealed the union between the orchestra and its seventh chief conductor by presenting the maestro with a golden baton, previously owned by his predecessor Eduard van Beinum.

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Decapitation of Lamoral, Count of Egmont in 1568

Full review on Bachtrack.

Ten-minute homework for the Herheim

QueenOfSpades.jpegWhen mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato laid down her edict to stop dumbing down opera, she was probably thinking of apologetic marketing such as: “You should see Wagner’s Ring because it is like Lord of the Rings“. Or: “Puccini’s Bohemians are just like Friends.” Opera should be marketed on the strength of its differences compared to other forms of art and entertainment, not its similarities. Fans love opera because there’s nothing else like it. Sometimes you need to do a little homework before a performance, beyond reading the plot synopsis. But what’s ten minutes of investment when you get rewarded with an experience such as Pique Dame at this year’s Holland Festival, which opened yesterday?

Director Stefan Herheim and his team have created a handsome production that is both clever and moving. (They have done loads of homework.) The idea is that the characters in this story of love and obsession are expressions of the composer’s desire and suffering. The struggle with his homosexuality and his longing to conform to the norm are central to the staging. Baritone Vladimir Stoyanov plays Tchaikovsky (as well as Prince Yeletsky), as does pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven (who also plays the piano in the drawing room scene). Before the overture we see the composer winding up a pair of mechanical caged birds. The music box plays Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, referenced in the score during a Mozart-like diversion called “The Faithful Shepherdess”.  The caged birds, a symbol of repressed feelings thrashing to be released through composition, reappear during “The Faithful Shepherdess” and are neatly linked to Tomsky’s mildly lewd song about the birds and the boughs. That’s just one strand in the rich weave of this production, where the characters externalise Tchaikovsky’s inner life. Tomsky’s confident macho officer, flanked by his bullying cronies, represents everything that the composer would like to be. Visually, the character most strongly identified with Tchaikovsky is Prince Yeletsky, whose declaration of love to Liza  becomes the composer’s hopes for his catastrophic marriage to Antonina Miliukova. But both Liza and the Old Countess are also Tchaikovsky at various points. Liza’s sister Polina is dressed as a young man. She could be the young Tchaikovsky, or one of the objects of his passion, such as his nephew Vladimir Davydov. This sounds complicated, but isn’t, because the links are crystal-clear. Many of the costumes are variations on the composer’s grey suit, which flowers into a bustle in one of its feminine versions. It’s up to the spectator to decide why his white shirt is repeatedly streaked with a red trailing cravat. Hermann’s obsession with gambling stands for Tchaikovsky’s unwanted homosexual passions and he literally wrestles with this part of himself. The way Herheim has the chorus voicing social mockery and menace, as well as the composer’s self-loathing, makes your blood run cold. After all, as recently as 2013 the Russian Minister of Culture felt the need to declare that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

So what do you need to know before going to this terrific show?

  1. If you’re not familiar with the opera, read the synopsis.
  2. Then read a bit about Tchaikovsky’s life. If you like extra homework, read about the theories surrounding the composer’s death.
  3. Keep in mind these key concepts: self-loathing, longing to conform, catastrophic marriage, drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, possible suicide.

Then go and be swept away by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Tchaikovsky master Mariss Jansons, and the fascinating storm of emotions raging onstage. If you need any further convincing, here’s Bachtrack’s 5-star review.

Pique Dame runs at Dutch National Opera until the 3rd of July, 2016.