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Christine Buras and Thomas Ang

by on 19 December 2020

Sweet Sadness

Christine Buras and Thomas Ang

Opera Live At Home, On-line from 18th December

Review by Suzanne Frost

More and more little squares appear on the screen, like dimly lit windows into people’s houses – the grid of Zoom faces is probably the ultimate staple of 2020.  For anyone who has been working from home this year it has become a daily part of live and, without being too smug, it is a little bit adorable to still see people insecure about the mute button or the general etiquette of video conferencing.  Kudos though to each and every one willing to master technology because this is where culture has had to move to in this most frustrating and frightening year, and anyone looking for the joys we once had so readily at our fingertips – like listening to someone making music – must get by links and passwords first.  Singing itself is apparently highly dangerous and contagious, not for the joy it may spread but the viral loads.

Christine Buras

Helen Astrid’s Opera Live at Home feels like the 2020 version of the Hauskonzert, a Christmas staple in itself, and the wonders of technology allow us not to make music for a handful of people we used to invite into our homes (remember that?) but to reach a global audience who form their own online bubble for the duration of one hour.  Soprano Christine Buras and her Pianist Thomas Ang are in Hampstead Parish Church, Christine sparkling as bright as the festively decorated Christmas tree behind her.  Many of Christine’s loyal American fan base have tuned in from the states.  I myself am miles away in Germany, in my quarantine sweatpants, in a small rental flat in Berlin where I am currently isolating in order to be able to see my parents come Christmas Eve.

When the rich Klangteppich of von Weber’s Freischütz suddenly burst through my screen – in German too! – it feels startling and warm, and somehow incredibly kind and generous as well.  The gravitas and seriousness of Handel’s Generalbass always suits the festive season, but Christine also ornaments the aria from Gulio Cesare with gorgeous schmuck.  The silence after a piece of music is somewhat deafening, but we make our appreciation known by using the clapping hands emoji.

Next in the programme is an aria from Susannah, a 1955s opera by the American composer Carlyle Flloyd, a new discovery for many of us, and one of lasting memory, with the folksy melody and the devastatingly sad lyrics mirroring much of the incomprehensible loneliness we are all feeling.

One of the many things that I seem to have lost to 2020 is my ability to concentrate for any length of time, probably a psychological side effect of being subconsciously stressed and worried for months on end, and so my mind start to wander off during Massenet’s Heriodarte, whose romantic ….  Might not swirl as well on Zoom as they would from a full orchestra pit.  Verdi’s Ave Maria, Desdemona’s pleading vorahnendes prayer is frail and intimate, far too intimate to cut through the phone call my partner is holding in the other room, but if 2020 taught us anything it is that we all needs bottomless amounts of patience and kindness to get us through, for some this might be the generous sharing of some live classical music, for others a good old natter with a faraway friend.  Quarantine, similar to grief, is something everyone has to go through in their own way.

Rusalka’s Song to the Moon is one of my most favourite arias in the world.  Actually it is my grandma’s favourite, and it instantly makes me think of her, only a few minutes’ drive away in theory, but locked up in her care home where last week they found a handful of positive cases.  After making the dangerous journey over here, I will not be able to see her after all, but in my mind I can summon the image of her gently waving her head saying “Hach!” – which is a very German kind of sigh made up of equal parts melancholia and making yourself pretty comfortably at home in that sweet sadness (like Marlene Dietrich, who sang “If I were too happy, I’d get homesick for my sadness”).  Rusalka, based on Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid in easily one of the most heart-breaking fairy tales that exist in the world, and as the gentle waves of the prelude lap from Thomas Ang’s piano and Christine’s  almost too strong voice speaks of endless yearning, every phrase of Dvořák’s melody ending upwards like a question, I realise how dearly I miss stories, humans telling stories, with their bodies and voices and beautiful talents.  I have feverishly lapped up stories through lockdown wherever I could, from livestreams to movies and TV and Netflix, maybe because the pause button has been pressed on our own stories for the moment, but everywhere you look they have been two dimensional, trapped on flat screens, lacking humanness.  Like many of us, I am utterly addicted to my little screen, craving some sort of answers from it, yet all too aware of its limitations.

The evening ends with Max Reger’s’ Wiegenlied, the most Christmassy song about Maria lulling little Jesus to sleep.  But it is Rusalka that lingers long after the gallery of Zoom faces dropped off one by one, and I echo Rusalka pleading cry and hope that the moon won’t forsake us. 

 Suzanne Frost, December 2020

Photography by Christine Buras and Ken Ilad

Opera Live at Home will feature tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens accompanied by Maria-Elena Farrugia in New Year concert on  26th January 2021

From → Music, On-Line, Opera, Recital

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