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Soaring Beauty Only Dreamt About: German Opera

by on 12 July 2017

German Opera

Opera Foundry at Ormond Road, Richmond, 1st July

Review by Mark Aspen

Continued from Power, Passion and Precision: German Opera


The monumental scale (even in this chamber recital) of Der Ring des Niebelungen that closed the first half of Opera Foundry’s exposé of German Opera set the precedent for its embodiment in the musical concepts of Wagner.   Of course no sampling of German opera would be complete without Wagner, whose perception of integrated music drama thoroughly chimes with that proposed by Harsdörfer, and none more so than in Der Ring des Niebelungen.  The Ring concludes with Götterdämmerung and towards the end of Act I Waltraute recounts what has happened to Wotan, Höre mit Sinn, was ich dir sage!  (Listen thoughtfully to what I am going to tell you).  Annette Dumville’s Waltraute told the story of Wotan’s shattered spear with firm mezzo voice, accurate in note and pronunciation.  (It was interesting to hear the wide range of German accents, whereas most pronunciation nowadays favours the sounds of the Ruhrgebiet, Dumville’s was firmly placed Hochdeutsch.)

In a similar vein is Wagner’s colossal romantic opera, Lohengrin.  A key aria in this work is Elsa’s dream.  Elsa is a young noblewomen, who stands accused of the murder of her brother Gottfried, heir to the Duchy of Brabant.  (There is a tenth-century historical background when the King of Saxony was trying to forge an alliance with Brabant, now part of Belgium, against Hungarian invaders.  As part of the jostling for various thrones, Gottfried did disappear in suspicious circumstances.)  The Saxon King Henry and his knights are uncomfortable that Telramund, Gottfried and Elsa’a guardian, has brought this charge against Elsa, but agrees that she should be put on trial.  Times being as they were, Telramund demands a trial by battle.  She prays to God and has a dream which she describes in her aria, Einsam in trüben Tagen (Once on a bleak day).  Ukrainian soprano, Tamara Ravenhill, took up the story with great poise and expressive delivery.  It is of her knight in shining armour who leans on his sword and caries a golden horn.  “Er soll mein Streiter sein” (He will be my champion) she declares.  (He will come in a skiff pulled by a swan … that beats a white charger anyday!)

Wagner’s one crack at comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is actually more of a light romance with a sideways look at human nature.  The Prize Song, for which would-be mastersingers competed, was an historical annual event at Nuremberg during the middle ages.  (Hans Sachs, who lived 1494 to 1576, and who appears in the opera, held the master-singer title many times.)  Walther, a Franconian knight, chances by Nuremberg during the competition time, falls in love with Eva, and vows to win the competition and Eva’s hand.  Matthew Connolly returned as Walther to sing The Morning Dream, his prize song, Morgendlich leuchtend in rassigen Schein (The morning radiant in its vibrant glow), which he has composed under Sachs’ guidance.  Connolly was better placed as Walther than as Caspar to make full use of the vibrancy of his tenor voice, giving an affecting rendition of the determined Walther’s musical quest for the hand of Eva.   During the first half of the performance we had seen how Sachs had relinquished any claim to Eva and calling in Magdalene, Eva friend, and David, his apprentice, declared that a master-song had been born in his workshop.  Traditionally the song must be baptised, but an apprentice cannot be a witness, so Sachs promotes David to journeyman with a cuff around the ear (another quaint Nuremberg tradition).  They sing together, all rejoicing (from very different viewpoints) in the outcome and in Eva and Walther’s love, Selig wie die Sonne (blessed as the sun).  Opera foundry’s quintet was exceptional, Eva, Magdalene, Walther, David and Sachs (Ravenhill, Dumville, Connolly, Johnson and Andrade) complementing and enhancing each other’s’ voices as they wove a delicate embroidery of harmonies.

Nuremberg is a long way from Richmond, but the opera Martha is set in an around the marketplace in Richmond in 1710.  In fact it is a very cosmopolitan opera.  The composer, Friedrich von Flotow was a German aristocrat, who studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, and Martha has a German libretto based on a French story.  Moreover, it started life as a ballet, specially composed for Parisian ballerina, Adèle Dumilâtre.  It is however, a fun piece of romantic opera, which, although there is a strong element of farce: think Feydeau meets G&S.  Two gentlewomen, Harriet and Nancy, maids-of-honour to Queen Anne, masquerade as maidservants as a ploy to outwit Harriet’s foppish admirer.  Getting carried away with the fun, they queue up with the servants at Richmond market, who are looking for work.  Two young farmers, Lyonel and Plunkett, take them on as housemaids, but then, to the ladies’ consternation, they discover that they have entered into twelve months of indentured service.  Their suitability for their new positions is severely tested when they are put to work spinning yarn, a task at which both ladies are totally incompetent. The Spinning-Wheel Quartet, is quite demanding, requiring lots of ha-ha-ing at the girls’ inability to do a domestic chore and the men’s attempts to show them how.  The demand is largely on breathing control but all were up to the challenge. Na! Jetzt hurtig, ohne Zaudern (Come on now, nimbly, without hesitation), urge Lyonel (Padua) and Plunkett (Beer).  Was soll ich dazu sagen? (What should I say about that?) replies Lady Harriet, who now bears the soubriquet Martha.  Foster-Mitchell in the role of Martha was joined by mezzo, Urszula Bock.  Both were enchanting as the bemused pair.  The lesson continues until the very (be)witching hour of Mitternacht  and the Good Night Quartet.  Again, this was a nicely balanced quartet, although the male voices seemed a little stretched at the top end of their registers.  Schlafe wohl! Und mag dich reuen (Sleep well! – and I may regret you …) they sing.  And shortly they do regret, for no sooner have the ladies said their Gute Nacht s but they are out of the window and fleeing back to the posher parts of Richmond.  (In 1710 there were also non-posh parts.)  There was a huge sense of illicit fun and misplaced adventure zooming out of this piece: plus the story happens in Richmond!

German Opera continued in this mode, with a piece which starts fairly light-heartedly, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Märchenoper (fairy tale opera), Hänsel und Gretel.  The libretto, which was written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, is based on the Grimms’ fairy tale.  But all Grimm brothers’ tales soon have a darker undercurrent. (See Glass’ opera, Living Bones! The Juniper Tree ).  From a poor home, in which hunger and love are equi-present, the eponymous brother and sister venture into the forest, where peril and idyll are equi-present, a metaphor for the real world.  Urszula Bock and Angela Vouyajolu, as the young siblings, were a delight to hear and to watch.  They formed a musically satisfying duet and a very credible acting pair.  Gretel teaching Hansel to dance, Brüderchen, komm tanz’ mit mir (Little brother come and dance with me) was utterly joyous.  Vouyajolu’s bell-like soprano and Bock’s silky mezzo complemented each other perfectly.   The piece is folk-tune inspired and gains a lot from its simplicity.  (I had slight niggle with the surtitles though: isn’t nick better translated as nod, and makes more sense.)  Then like Eve eating the apple, they come across the gingerbread house, break off pieces and savour them, O Himmel, welch Wunder ist hier geschehen! (O Heaven, what miracle has happened here!).  “Don’t do it!” we inwardly shout.

Vouyajolu and Bock reappeared, together with Ravenhill, in German Opera’s final piece which was from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.   Also the finale of the opera itself, this trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt (I made a vow), the opening words of the Marschellin, was sung by Ravenhill with dignity and restraint.  The somewhat sordid shenanigans of the romantic intrigues of the Viennese aristocracy dissolve in the joy of the two young lovers, Sophie (Vouyajolu) and Octavian (Bock).  The soaring beauty of the sentiment was enriched by the arching beautiful sustained notes by this talented trio.

The bedrock of the evening’s performance, on which the remarkable skills of the singers were firmly based was the accomplished and indefatigable piano accompaniment of Opera Foundry’s répétiteur, Sarah Quantrell.  The word “accompaniment” rather underplays its part in the performance, as it was in all cases replacing what would normally be an orchestra (chamber, Baroque or full symphony in size as the work would demand).  She was unfalteringly there with the singers in all fourteen of the opera extracts, a tour de force.

After Italian Opera, then French Opera and now German Opera, what delights has Richard Cartmale next in store (Russian opera?)?  We wait with bated breath.  But for this evening of German Opera one could feel the spirit of Georg Philipp Harsdörfer sitting there in the front row, nodding approval for Opera Foundry’s wide and well-chosen exposé of the German language art form that he had only dreamt about.

Mark Aspen

July 2017


Photographs by Robert Piwko Photgraphy


From → Opera, Reviews

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