English

Fascinated by the unknown: a visit to Opera Rara

Opera Rara

Times have changed. Not that long ago anything in the recording industry seemed possible.  The major record companies released one opera after the next. Money was not an issue. Great new stars were introduced, and just as easily dropped. Yet another Aida and Traviata, the hundredth Rigoletto, the two hundredth Tosca or Don Giovanni…..

Smaller labels targeted the niche market of classical music enthusiasts. These collectors were interested in lesser-known works by Donizetti or Bellini, in long forgotten scores and in composers like Meyerbeer, Pacini and Mayr, who enjoyed considerable renown in the past.

One of those labels – fortunately still active today – was Opera Rara. It started out as a small business run by just two men. In their pioneering years their records were issued directly to subscribers. When Opera Rara planned to record an opera, those subscribers had to pay first. After a wait that could take as long as a year, the records were distributed. Highly exclusive! Over the years, Opera Rara became what is probably the largest (and certainly the most important) opera label.

opera rara poster

Twenty years ago I visited Opera Rara in London, where I met Patric Schmid* and conductor David Parry. Schmid was one of the founders of Opera Rara and its recording executive. Since the death of his partner Don White he also was the label’s artistic director.

It is raining quite heavily as I step out of Liverpool Street station. I have a few hours to spend and intend to visit a few bookstores. Because I get lost everywhere, it seemed a safer idea to first carefully map out my route. It turns out I am much closer by than I had thought.

Still, when I make my way there fifteen minutes before my appointment I get lost once again. The weather has turned completely, the sun shines and it is hot. Covered in sweat I enter the building on Curtain Road where Opera Rara resides.

I am received by Stephen Revell, the very friendly assistant of Patrick Schmid, who leads me into an enormous room. In the middle a grand piano, covered under a yellow sheet. On the shelves, thousands of scores, books and records.

We sit at a large wooden table. Patric Schmid enters: a handsome man in his fifties, with grey hair. He apologises David Parry has been delayed and will join us later. Coffee and tea are served, and the story behind the most adventurous opera label begins.

Opera Rara Nelly en Patrick

Patric Schmid with Nelly Miricioiu  © Voix des Arts

The love for belcanto started with Chopin. Schmid, as a young pianist, came under the spell of his enthralling  music and went on a search for more. A search that eventually led to belcanto. His fascination with belcanto became so big that he wanted to change the fact that this music was hardly ever performed. To achieve this, he founded an opera company in 1970 with his friend, the musicologist Don White, called Opera Rara.

 

The search for unknown opera’s was not easy. Schmid himself uses the expression “to dig up.” And since there were no photocopiers at the time, everything had to be produced by hand.

opera rara crociato

Pirate edition of Il Crociato in Egitto © Hans van Verseveld

In 1972 their first opera was performed: Myerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. Several problems occurred. Shortly before opening night the tenor cancelled. Where on earth do you find a replacement for a highly obscure work on such short notice? Fortunately William McKinney saved the production by taking over the role two days before the premiere.

opera rara hugo

All the operas performed by Opera Rara were broadcast by the BBC. Afterwards, these performances were issued by various pirate labels.  In 1977 Schmid and White decided to record the operas themselves and founded the record label Opera Rara. The money to make the recordings was collected directly from their supporters on a subscription basis. The first recording was Donizetti’s Ugo Conte di Parigi, made in July 1977.  The conductor was Allun Francis, who has been one of their two regular conductors since.

Janet Price sings Bianca’s aria “No, che infelice appieno….” from the Donizetti rarity Ugo Conte di Parigi:

 

The other host, conductor David Parry, meanwhile has arrived and joins our conversation with much animation. This former pupil of, amongst others, Celibidache, started his career as a rehearsal pianist, something he believes to be absolutely indispensable for a conductor. His conducting career began in 1973 in Wexford. In 1975 he worked as a conductor’s assistant there in the first performance in 93 years of Orazi e Curiazi by Mercadente, an opera he would record twenty years later for Opera Rara.

Nelly Miricioiu sings ‘Di quai soavi palpiti’ from Orazi e Curiazi:

Not only conductors remain faithful to Opera Rara, singers as well. No wonder: they get the opportunity to make recordings, learn new repertory and work in a relaxed atmosphere. The greatest and most famous stars have worked (and still work) on their projects: Nelly Miriciou, Annick Massis, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Bruce Ford, Alaister Miles, Michael Spyres, Carmen Giannattassio  – just to name a few.

Opera Rara David Parry Courtain Road 98

Patric Schmid & David Parry © Basia Jaworski for Basia con fuoco

As a farewell I receive a special gift: the yellow sheet is removed from the grand piano, David Parry picks out a score and plays (and sings, helped by Patric Schmid) an aria from Margherita d’Anjou by Meyerbeer** for me.

*Patric Schmid died suddenly on November 6th, 2005. He was only 61 years old

**Margherita d’Anjou was issued in October 2003. It was one of Meyerbeer’s first operas, still from his Italian period. No complete score of the opera was preserved, so a lot was reconstructed, or “dug up” in the words of Patric Schmid. The excellent cast is headed by Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Daniela Barcellona and Alastair Miles, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the inspired direction of David Parry (ORC25).

English traslation: Remko Jas

See also interviews (in English):

JENNIFER LARMORE interview (English translation)

Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

CARMEN GIANNATTASSIO interview in English

and in German:

Nelly Miricioiu – Keizerin van de ZaterdagMatinee

JOSEPH ACHRON, MUSIC TO FALL IN LOVE WITH

 

Achron in Petersburg


Joseph Achron in Saint Petersburg  © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.

Achron Hebrew melody

Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.

 

Achron Heifetz.jpg

 

Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:

Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions,  dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work.  In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

Achroon kind

Joseph Achron as a child in Warsaw

But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.

 

Achron -Living-Hall-of-Fame-of-Music-Leopold-Auer-354

© Milchen Archive

His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century.  In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.

 

In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1,  Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.

 

Achron-with-Members-from-The-Golem-295.jpg

Joseph Achron (right) with members of the cast of The Golem. H. Leivick (center), New York.
Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.

The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:

 

In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.

Achron metKlemperer

Joseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (right). Klemperer conducted the premieres of Achron’s second and third violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection

Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.

 

Achron Miriam Kramer ASV

On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.

 (Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)

 

Achron Shaham Biddulph

Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.

Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)

 

Achron Shaham Hyperion

Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course,  the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).

English translation Remko Jas

 

BARBARA HANNIGAN : “I SING EVERYTHING AS IF IT WERE MOZART”

Barbara Hannigan Conductor-SingerPhoto: Marco Borggreve

© Marco Borggreve

Barbara Hannigan is the undisputed prima donna of modern music. Her musicianship commands great respect, her technique is flawless, and her possibilities (think of those extreme high notes) are almost endless.

On a beautiful and sunny late afternoon end of September 2011 we meet for the first time. Contrary to my habit I am five minutes late, but I do have an excuse. My first question, even before I start making apologies, might be a little odd, but she responds with laughter. “Barbara, do you love cats?”

Yes, she loves cats. Living on the road, unfortunately, makes it impossible for her to have one. Her beautiful eyes sparkle, but I can see question marks forming in them as well.

Hannigan reizen

© Barbara Hannigan website

 

I explain to her right before I wanted to leave the house, my black monster jumped on my desk, shoving all sorts of things off of it, including my phone and my voice recorder. That breaks the ice, and our meeting turns into a relaxed and cosy afternoon.

A week or so later, we meet again. This time I do carry my notebook and pen, and notes are written down.

Hannigan Boulez

with Pierre Boulez © Barbara Hannigan Website

 

After she sang Boulez’s Pli selon pli in London, the British critic Ivan Hewett (The Telegraph)  wrote: ,,She does the kind of high-wire acrobatics with her voice that very few singers can manage, and she does it with a bravura that stops you dead in your tracks. All this is joined to a startling stage presence and cool blonde beauty that contrasts interestingly with the heat in her voice.”

 

Hannigan in Pli selon pli in Amsterdam:

 

VIBRATO

According to Hewett she could have had a big career as a queen of coloratura, but instead Hannigan decided to specialize in  contemporary music.

Hannigan Elmer de Haas

© Elmer de Haas

“I chose modern music all by myself,” Hannigan says. “I found it thrilling.  It is exciting to  collaborate with composers, although I do not always enjoy everything I have to sing.

The ‘non vibrato,’ for example, is absolute horror to me. It goes against the natural way of singing.  Vibrato is the soul of singing, it transmits emotions. I did it on special request of a composer (no, no names), but without pleasure. ” She adds decidedly: ,,It takes away the personality of the voice.”

She thinks it is nonsense modern music should be sung differently from the classics. “Modern music, in fact, is a form of belcanto. Without technique it is impossible to do. It is my repertoire, and it is indeed hard, but it gives me a sense of intense gratification.”

“Of course I am careful. But as a rule I sing everything as if it were Mozart. I do need to protect my high notes, though. So if I sing Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, for example, I make sure I combine it with less extreme pieces. ” Laughing: “One day, I would not mind singing Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, and if Juan Diego Flórez could be my partner….

Hannigan sings Le Rossignol:

CONDUCTING

Barbara-Hannigan04750-photocredit-MarcoBorggreve

© Marco Borggreve

She continues in a serious mood: “I would love to do so many more things! I am always hungry, I want so much, but I cannot accept everything people offer me. I used to be known as a singer who could be easily booked , but at the moment I am booked for quite a few years ahead. I sing fifty or sixty performances a year. In the last season I also conducted five or six concerts.”

Conducting is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of a soprano. “It was pointed out to me that when I sing my body language resembles conducting. In addition, I have always thought about how an orchestra should sound, also while I sing. So at a certain moment I started to take lessons, with several dear colleagues. It was all very private, so I cannot give any names.”

Hannigan conducts and sings Gershwin:

Actually, Hannigan does do many more things. At the moment she dances a lot. And like everything she does, she does it at a high level. With Sasha Waltz, with whom she did a few important projects in the past (Matsukaze by Toshio Hosokawa, for example), she will sing and dance Dusapin’s Passion. Hannigan has already performed this dance-opera several times. In 2010 she appeared in it at the Holland festival in Amsterdam, in Audi’s “mise en space.”

Matsukaze:

“It was the first time I worked with Audi, and I have fond memories of it.  Imagine the entire production being done in just two days! I have worked on it with a lot of pleasure. But now I really look forward to the Sascha Waltz production. Very exciting, also because this time I really get to dance.”

 

Her favorite composer? “Ligeti! I admire him tremendously. His music truly brings out everything I have in me!”

György Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre 2015 Barbara Hannigan:

BARBARA IN PRIVATE

Hannigan backstage-torontotour

Hannigan backstage-torontotour
© Barbara Hannigan website

In what sort of a family was she raised? “My family was  certainly musical, but on an amateur level. My sister still plays the cello, and I had to choose at age seventeen between the piano, hobo or singing. I chose singing.”

She started her studies in Toronto and later went to London. “In 1995 I decided to move to The Hague. I had heard a lot about an outstanding teacher there. I immediately felt at home, also because of the musical climate, so I stayed.”

“Sometimes I miss my country and my family very much. I hardly ever see them. Often a year goes by before I get a chance to see them. Skype helps, but it is a surrogate.”

Does she have any time left for hobbies? “I love to cook. That is also the reason I always rent an apartment, even if it is only for a couple of days. I always bring my own knives. And my herbs. At home I always cook, although my husband is quite good at it also. But I am better, so he gets to clean up, which he happily does. Wonderful, but difficult when I am on my own, because then I have to do everything myself. The dishes as well, which I am not used to.

GEORGE BENJAMIN AND WRITTEN ON SKIN

Hannigan Benjamin

withe George Benjamin in Aix-en-Provence  © Barbara Hannigan website

Barbara Hannigan is the muse of many contemporary composers, including George Benjamin. He composed Written on Skin with her voice in mind. It was clear from the beginning she should sing Agnes. In July 2012 Hannigan sang the world premiere of Written on Skin.

During the preparations and in between the performances Hannigan kept me informed by an “e-mail diary.”

“George Benjamin and I met three years ago in his house.  I was supposed to show him the possibilities of my instrument. We played a little composer-singer game without words, “composing” together. It gave me the opportunity to show him how my voice moves most comfortably.”

The first rehearsals took place in London, after which we moved to Aix-en-Provence, where the word premiere would be. The whole “making of” process was quite intense.  My role is very demanding. Looking at the score you might think: finally a composer who does not take advantage of Barbara Hannigan’s high notes, or make her into a stratospheric trapeze artist.  But the music still is extremely demanding.

The vocal lines lie very high and are long, spread out and loud. Rather difficult for the quick moving core of my voice. I had to approach the part very carefully. Particularly from the moment on when the tension in the opera slowly starts to increase, scene by scene, until the final climax, when I sing my big aria.

A few months before I received the score George changed a few notes for me – something he has sworn never to do for anybody! He rewrote several passages in my score by hand, which has helped me enormously.”

“I really think my role is phenomenally good. It feels like a fantastic preamble and the greatest preparation for Lulu, who I will sing in October for the first time. Agnes ends were Lulu begins. A sexually liberated woman with no problems with herself. A gift of a role!

One of the highlights for me was the “Sitzprobe” with the orchestra. It was the first time George heard his entire piece, with orchestra and singers. It was two weeks before opening night and we were all very nervous. But the entire cast stood behind him and his fabulous score. It was a very moving and emotional day.

All my colleagues (not only the singers, but the extras as well) were fantastic and we all got along marvelously. George had composed the music specifically for each one of us. A lot was demanded from us, not only vocally, but dramatically as well, but we all supported each other.”

Hannigan written on skin

 

“I think the production is unequalled and I adore Katie Mitchell, the director. It was the first time I worked with her. She pays a lot of attention to details, providing a lot of background information to the artists on stage. The public never notices that, but it had a tremendous influence on our performance. Working with Katie was a sensation, and I hope one day she will direct me in Lulu. “

“I loved the sensual scenes which were combined with violent ones. We had a special “fight director”  who taught us to act as realistically as possible without hurting each other. I believe that was quite unique for an opera production. You also need a lot of trust in your colleagues.

I have to say: Agnes is a dream role, and I thought it was fantastic I got the chance to play her. All the reviews were full of praise, and the public was enthusiastic as well. It really was a dream.”

“I had been in Aix-en-Provence before, in 2008, for the first version of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. That performance was staged by Giuseppe Frigeni. In 2010 Sasha Waltz directed it. With her production we opened the season of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.“

In 2008 we performed in the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – small and very intimate.  Very beautiful too. Because of the dimensions it is rather limited in its possibilities, though. For Written on Skin we were programmed in the biggest theatre of the festival, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Very unusual for a modern, ‘fresh from the pen’-opera. Opening night, as you know, was a huge success, and all the subsequent performances were sold out.

I love the city. Aix is fabulous and so easy-going. The city encourages you to relax, even while you are hard at work. The festival is truly special. No highbrow business like you see at some other festivals. There is a true mix of different styles and types of performances. Symphonic music as well as chamber music.

They also have a fabulous young artists program, and I truly appreciate their efforts to get rid of the elitist stamp art has, particularly opera. Art truly can be real, and it can appeal to anyone.

I think Katie Mitchell and her team have tried with Written on skin to not only avoid stock opera gestures, but also to create something that actually did happen and that touches you. Something many of us have experienced personally, certainly women.”

Trailer of the Aix production:

English translation Remko Jas

More Barbara Hannigan:

BARBARA HANNIGAN betovert in liederen van HENRI DUTILLEUX. Concertgebouw Amsterdam, oktober 2013

LULU van Krzysztof Warlikowski. Brussel 2012

PLI SELON PLI. Amsterdam 2011

LET ME TELL YOU ZaterdagMatinee

Satie, Hannigan en de Leeuw

 

Forbidden Music in World Word II: PAUL HERMANN

For English translation scroll down

 

Hermann cd

De exacte datum en de plaats van zijn dood zullen voor altijd onbekend blijven. Het laatste wat we van Paul Hermann (1902 – 1944) hebben vernomen is dat hij opgepakt werd tijdens een grote straatrazzia in Toulouse in april 1944 en via het doorgangskamp Drancy overgebracht werd naar Auschwitz en verder naar Litouwen. Sindsdien werd er niets meer van hem vernomen.

 

Hermann en Székely

Paul Hermann en Zoltán Székely

De Joodse Hermann werd geboren in Boedapest, waar hij aan de Franz Liszt Academie studeerde bij o.a. Adolf Schiffer (cello), Zoltán Kodály (compositie) en Léo Weiner (kamermuziek). Sinds die tijd dateert ook zijn innige vriendschap met violist Zoltán Székely en pianist Géza Frid.

 

Hermann cello

Tijdens een optreden in Nederland maakte hij kennis met de Nederlandse Ada Weevers met wie hij trouwde en met wie hij tot 1933 in Berlijn woonde. Toen Hitler aan de macht kwam, vestigde het gezin zich in Oudorp in Nederland (leuk weetje: Hermann sprak en schreef voortreffelijk Nederlands). Na de tragische dood van zijn vrouw verhuisde Hermann eerst naar Brussel en later naar Parijs.

 

Hermann vrouw

Hermann met vrouw en dochter

Hermann was voornamelijk beroemd als cellist (hij werd de ‘Hongaarse Casals’ genoemd), zo speelde hij de wereldpremière van solocellosonate van Kodály en eind jaren dertig trad hij vaak op in het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; maar hij was ook een begenadigd componist. Na de oorlog raakte hij – net als zovele van zijn lotgenoten – in de vergetelheid.

Portretten van componisten die vervolgd en verboden zijn in Nederland tijdens Wereldoorlog 2:

Het is dankzij de Leo Smit Stichting dat wij nu kennis kunnen maken met zijn muziek, waarvoor DANK! Zijn Grand Duo uit 1930, oorspronkelijk gecomponeerd voor en uitgevoerd met Zoltan Szekely, krijgt nu een uitstekende vertolking van Burkhard Maiss en Bogdan Jianu. Wat een ongekend prachtig werk het toch is!

De Strijktrio en de Pianotrio stammen uit het begin jaren twintig, toen Hermann nog aan het Liszt-Academie studeerde. Dat er in beide, zeer prettig in het oor klinkende werken een prominente rol aan de cello is toebedeeld is nogal wiedes.

De droevige liederen die Hermann in impressionistische stijl na de dood van zijn vrouw componeerde worden zeer ontroerend gezongen door Irene Maessen.

 

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Hermann lowres.medium

The exact date and place of his death still remain unknown. The last that was heard of Paul (Pál) Hermann (1902-1944) was that he got arrested during a big street razzia in Toulouse in April 1944 and was deported from the Drancy transit camp to Auschwitz, and from there on to Lithuania.  After that, no trace of Hermann was ever found.

The Jewish Hermann was born in Budapest, where he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with, amongst others, Adolf Schiffer (cello), Zoltán Kodály (composition) and Leó Weiner (chamber music). His close friendships with violinist Zoltán Székely and pianist Géza Frid originated during these years.

Hermann Szekely Trio

 

After a concert in the Netherlands Hermann met the Dutch Ada Weevers whom he married, and with whom he lived in Berlin until 1933. After Hitler’s rise to power, the family moved to Ouddorp in the Netherlands (interesting fact: Hermann spoke and wrote excellent Dutch). After the tragic death of Hermann’s wife he first moved to Brussels, then to Paris.

 

Hermann klein

Although Hermann was most widely known as a cellist he was a talented composer as well. He made his international breakthrough with Kodály’s Sonata for solo cello. Dutch newspapers would call him the “Hungarian Casals” when he regularly performed at the Concertgebouw in the late 1930’s.

After the war, as so many of his fellow victims,  he was forgotten.

Portraits of persecuted composers in Netherlands during World War II:

Thanks to the Leo Smit Foundation it is now possible to listen to his music again, for which I would like to say a big thank you!

His Grand Duo from 1930, originally composed for and performed by Zoltan Szekely, now gets an outstanding performance by Burkhard Maiss and Bogdan Jianu, What an unbelievably beautiful work this is!

 

Hermann Thibaud trio

Burkhard Maiß, Bogdan Jianu and Andrei Banciu © 2018 The Jacques Thibaud Trio

The String Trio and the Piano Trio date from the early 1920’s when Hermann still was a student at the Liszt-Academy. It comes as no surprise that both works, which fall easy on the ears, have a prominent role for the cello.

The sad songs Hermann composed in an impressionistic style after his wife’s death are sung very movingly by Irene Maessen.

English translation Remko Jas

All photos:  © courtesy Leo Smit Foundation

More about Hermann:
http://www.forbiddenmusicregained.org/search/composer/id/100027


FORBIDDEN MUSIC IN WORLD WAR II
PAUL HERMANN
Grand Duo for violin and Cello, String Trio, Piano Trio, Cello Concerto, Songs, Quatre Épigrammes, Allegro for Piano, Tocata for Piano, Suite for Piano
Burkhard Maiss (violin); Hannah Strijdbos viola), Bogdan Jianu, Clive Greensmith (cello); Andrei Banciu, Beth Nam (piano); Irene Maessen (soprano)
Et’cetera KTC 1590 (2 cd’s)

DONIZETTI: LES MARTYRS (English translation)

 

martyrs

 

Les Martyrs, an almost forgotten grand opera by Donizetti started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.

 

Martyrs Polyeuctus_of_Meletine_in_Armenia_(Menologion_of_Basil_II)

Polyeuctus of Melitene in 10th-century Byzantine miniature from the Menologion of Basil II

Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.

After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.

He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.

In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”

Despite its early successes the Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).

Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960,  a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.

martyrs-poliuto

In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.

 

53b45-les-martyrs-joyce-el-khou-012

Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres

Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé.

In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable,  moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.

Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”

The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.

Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).


English translation: Remko Jas

GAETANO DONIZETTI
Les Martyrs
Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, Wynne Evans a.o.
Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Mark Elder
Opera Rara ORC52

Interview with Joyce El-Khoury: Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

See also: POLIUTO

Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

 

Joyce Behamou

Joyce El-Khoury © Julien Benhamou

 

The first time I met Joyce El-Khoury was by coincidence. We happened to sit next to each other during opening night of Gounod’s Faust at the National Opera and started an animated conversation, which continued during intermission and after the opera had ended. We got along so well, in fact, that we soon made an appointment to continue our conversation elsewhere.

Joyce Michael

Joyce El-Khoury with Michael Fabiano in Amsterdam

A few days afterwards we meet at an almost deserted outdoor café on Rembrandt Square. The weather is gorgeous – the sun reflecting itself in our wine glasses. El-Khoury loves Amsterdam, and cannot get enough of the city.

In November 2014 El-Khoury will return to Amsterdam for Musetta (La Bohème) and the prospect to spend six entire weeks there already makes her happy. She immediately discards my remarks on the weather in November and December.

“I simply love the city, regardless the weather. The atmosphere is unique and the people are so friendly! I love Amsterdam.  Everyone is free here, or at least seems to be. The city is a huge inspiration to me. The only problem are the bikers, they scare me a little!”

The Canadian soprano, born in Beirut, is a star in the making. Opera News wrote about her: “Canadian Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it”.

Joyce Violetta

As Violetta (La Traviata) at the Dutch National Opera

The Dutch public can attest to this. In May 2013 El-Khoury made an unexpected and overwhelming debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the National Opera. In May 2014 she stole the hearts of the NTR Saturday Matinee audience with a deeply moving performance of Rusalka in Dvorak’s opera of the same name.

“The Matinee is even better than sinking into a warm bath. The public is so incredibly sympathetic and kind, you can feel their love, which really makes you feel good, feel loved.  You feel like … no, this feeling cannot be described. Also the organisers, the rehearsal assistants … The most beautiful moment to me came when the orchestra started to play and our voices blended with the sound of the orchestra for the first time.”

“And then we had James Gaffigan to conduct us …. I have no words for him. He breathed along with us. He was one of us, and stood above us at the same time. But also next to us. This Rusalka has been the highlight of my life thus far. Singing is a privilege, but singing at the Matinee in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life…”

Beirut and Canada

Joyce El-Khoury was born in Beirut and moved to Canada when she was six years old.

“I am a Canadian and I feel at home in Canada, but my soul, my heart, my everything stayed behind in Lebanon. Most of my family, for example, lives there. If my grandparents would not spend half of their time here, and half the time in Lebanon, I would miss them terribly. My heart is Lebanese, and I hope to spend some more time there one day.

“My father had a beautiful voice, but it was my grandfather George who was the famous singer. Well, famous, when he walked down the street people yelled Kyrie Eleison at him. I sang in the chorus as well, it helped me a lot when we first settled in Ottawa. Everything was new there, and I missed Beirut terribly, but singing comforted me.”

“I never thought about making singing my profession, I wanted to be a doctor. Or a nurse. I even worked in a children’s hospital for a while. My parents did not think that was a very good idea, though. “You have such a perfect and beautiful voice, you really need to do something with it” they said. They not only stimulated me, but also helped me to find my path in the manner that suited me. Unconditional love, indeed.”

“I function best under stress, I need to be challenged. I am sort of a workaholic: even on vacation I always take my score with me.”

El-Khoury’s current repertoire includes many classical and less famous roles by composers like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Language does not seem to play a role for her.

“I have been very lucky: languages, to me, come quite easily. Learning a language almost goes by itself, it is all very natural for me. Maybe because I was raised bilingual (Arabic and French), with English added later.

I have an affinity with languages, and I love to sing in Czech or in Russian. “

Rusalka

joyce-rusalka

Rusalka in Amsterdam © Lieneke Effern

“Rusalka is in love, like someone who is in love for the first time. She dreams and believes her dreams are the truth. She is invisible to the prince, nothing more than a wave. She can only be united with him in the foam on the waves, but she wants to be seen too!”

“I am not sure whether the prince loves her…. I think he is fascinated by her. She is a great unknown, a beauty, a mystery. But she does not speak, so he does not know what to think anymore. You may think that is horrible, but you can hardly blame him. She is weird, which scares him a little.”

“Rusalka becomes truly human the moment she forgives. By forgiving she transforms into a human being. I think the opera enables us to study human emotions.”

Finale third act Rusalka from Amsterdam:

 

La Boheme

joyce-musetta

Musetta (La Boheme) in Amsterdam ©Lieneke Effern

“There is not a lot of difference between Musetta and Mimi, I think. I have sung both parts, and I love them equally. Musetta may appear more superficial, but she is not. She is just better at hiding her emotions and feelings. To the world she is happy and strong, and a big flirt as well, but inside she is a little bird. She genuinely loves Marcello, and is afraid of being hurt. It all shows in the final scene.”

With Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for La Boheme in Ottawa, El-Khoury sings Mimi

 

“The most emotional moment in the opera, to me, comes in  the second act, when Mimi says: “”Io támo tanto.”  My voice always breaks there for a moment.”

“I need to feel something. I need to have a connection with a role, and understand the character. I have to be challenged emotionally. When I do not feel anything, it  becomes too mechanical and detached. I also think you need to keep your emotions in check, though, however hard that may be. Otherwise your throat blocks, and you cannot sing.”

Trailer of the Amsterdam production, El-Khoury sings Musetta:

Suor Angelica

When I am banned to the moon and can only take one opera with me that would be Suor Angelica! For the drama, but also for the music. The music comforts me, and gives me a warm and good feeling. And then there is that beautiful ending,  the wonder that everything ends well!”

“This role also brought me where I am now. I was hired to sing Loretta in Gianni Schicchi during the Castleton Festival in 2010, but I was also the understudy for the singer who sang Angelica. She fell ill during opening night, and very gladly I took over. Under the circumstances they reversed the order: first Schicchi and then Angelica. Maestro Lorin Maazel was most helpful.”

“Later Maazel took me to Munich and even to China! I will miss him terribly: he was my mentor, teacher, supporter and friend.”

Final scene from Angelica, Castleton:

 

La Traviata

“I have learned a lot from Renata Scotto, mainly about body language: the things you do when you not sing. We have worked together in Palm Beach on a Traviata she directed in which I sang the lead. “

“I sang my very first Violetta in 2012 in Wales, then Amsterdam followed. I thought the Amsterdam production was very beautiful.  I had watched the DVD many times, and understood the clock straight away, but the business with the couch had to be explained to me. I thought it was a tremendous experience.”

La Traviata from Palm Beach directed by Renata Scotto:

 

What is your dream role?

“Thaïs! Preferably with the gorgeous costumes they had in Los Angeles. I also love Butterfly. The part lies slightly higher than other Puccini roles, but I think it suits me. I also want to sing all three Tudor queens.”

Joyce Maria S

As Maria Stuarda in Seattle

“I am not sure it will ever happen, but I would love to sing Salome” she adds with hesitation. “Actually, I would love to be a conductor, I love being in charge!”

English translation: Remko Jas

Interview in Dutch: JOYCE EL-KHOURY
About Les Martyrs: DONIZETTI: LES MARTYRS (English translation)

 

LE ROSSIGNOL ET LA ROSE: Interview with CHEN REISS.

Chen Reis

© Paul Marc Mitchell

In march 2015 Chen Reiss appeared on the stage of the National Opera in Amsterdam. She kindly took some time off from her heavy rehearsal schedule to answer my questions.

The evening we meet in the canteen of the National Opera, Chen Reiss is tired, very tired. It was a long day of rehearsals, from 10:30 until 18:00!!! With a break, but nonetheless…

She had arrived in Amsterdam six weeks earlier to study Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Simon McBurney’s staging requires great physical efforts of the entire cast.

Not easy, especially not if you happen to be a mother as well, travelling with a daughter who is almost two years old. It is impossible to keep up with the daily news this way, which is a blessing, in a way, because most of that news does not exactly cheer Reiss up.

 

Chen

© Paul Marc Mitchell

“I am extremely pessimistic and scared. As a Jewish and an Israeli woman I feel less and less at home in Europe. I am deeply worried, and fear everything will go awry. Not a very nice perspective, certainly not for a parent. Fortunately enough I am too busy to listen to the news. I have breakfast at eight, with my daughter, after which rehearsals start. In the evening, when I get home, it is simply too late. I am tired, and often I need to study…”

“I love Mozart with all of my heart: his sacred music perhaps even more than his operas. Those works I love singing above everything else, the music is so beautiful! Full of passion, but stylish and elegant at the same time. Which Mozart roles I love the most? Ilia (Idomeneo), I think, but in fact I love them all equally!”

Chen Reiss reveales her Top 5 Mozart soprano arias:

“Pamina passive? I don’t believe so, on the contrary! She is extremely brave and full of initiative. So much is happening to her. First she is kidnapped, then almost raped. Then her mother tells her to kill her own father. When she refuses she is scorned and cursed. She then escapes rape for a second time…  Just when you think not much else could happen to her the man she loves no longer wants to speak to her! She goes to hell and back and gets so desperate she can only think of suicide. The decision to undergo the trials and follow the man she loves to the end was made entirely by herself.  She is a hard act to follow!”

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Bogaard 

Is it eternal love, I ask?
My question makes her laugh out loud. In opera, which love is not eternal, after all?

Reiss finds the Amsterdam production by Simon McBurney truly charming. “It all looks very exciting and beautiful, and in addition I work with fantastic colleagues. And this is the third time I get to fly!

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Boogaard

 

In Vienna I was a very high flying Waldvogel in Siegfried, which not only gave me high anxiety quite a bit but made it hard for me to follow the conductor as well ….  In my last Idomeneo production I was lifted into the air for a moment, which was rather fun.

Trailer of the Viennese Idomeneo:

“Do I ever refuse a role? Yes, surely, but only when it does not suit my voice. It is harder to decide which productions you should avoid. Often you do not know the concept until a week before rehearsals start. Then it is too late to refuse. Refusing anyhow is difficult, because you no longer will be booked, especially if you are a young singer.

This also happens to great stars, by the way. Anna Netrebko recently left a production because she could not agree with the director. Apparently it is easier to replace a world famous singer than a director. The director is felt to be the most important figure, and everything revolves around him or her.”

“I was once made to wear a very heavy hat, which physically I could not do. Not even a letter from my doctor helped: I was fired, and the concept remained. Will this ever change? Who knows. Perhaps if people would stop buying tickets?”

 

(meer…)