A Britten Weekend – With a 17th century interlude!

Three-quarters Britten.  That was my weekend.  On Saturday I attended the afternoon performance of Britten’s opera, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at the Metropolitan Opera.  Then in the evening I attended the first concert of Columbia University’s Miller Theater Early Music Series, by Le Poeme Harmonique, a French early-music ensemble led by Vincent Dumestre, in music by Monteverdi and some contemporaries under the program title “Combattimenti!”  On Sunday, I attended two recitals, at 1 and 4, of songs by Britten, jointly presented by 5 Boroughs Music Festival, Brooklyn Art Song Society, and The Casement Fund Song Series.   A heavy dose of Britten, but I survived!!

First – the Met.  Rather than do a new production of Britten opera for the composers centennial (which comes up in November), the Met revived this rather uninspired 1996 production of the piece Britten and Pears quickly put together for an Aldeburgh Festival production in 1960.  They didn’t involve an experienced librettist, but together cut Shakespeare’s play to fit the time they could allot, resulting in not much coherence but plenty of opportunities for great music.  And there is some great music here, interspersed with more commonplace stuff.  I think by general consensus this is not one of the Britten’s stronger operas.  And so I question why the Met couldn’t honor the greatest 20th century composer of opera in English with a splendid new production of one of his major operas. 

In any event, the performance was a good one, despite the weaknesses of the piece.  James Conlon had the Met Orchestra playing up to its brilliant standard, and Iestyn Davies was a knock-out as Oberon, King of the Fairies.  I was also quite taken with young Riley Costello, who played the speaking and acrobatic role of Puck.  Matthew Rose was broadly comical as Bottom, a weaver who sings some of his lines wearing an awkward Donkey head. 

By contrast, my evening event Saturday was brilliant on all accounts.  Dumestre has put together one of the most exciting early music ensembles.  Most of the compositions on Saturday’s program can be heard on a recording they did for the French Alpha label in 2009, but it is always more exciting to hear a live performance, with all its spontaneity, and real rather than electrically-recreated sound.  The period instruments made a big, rich sound in the lively acoustic of Miller Theatre, although the poor ventilation system in the hall and the unseasonably warm weather meant that they had to do lots of retuning between compositions.  The entire ensemble of singers was brilliant, but especially noteworthy were Jan Van Elsacker, a tenor, who sang the narrator’s role in Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and the most extended solo role – the patent-medicine vendor – in Marco Marazzoli’s hilarious madrigal comedy, “La Fiera di Farfa.”  Marazzoli’s piece is definitely worth seeking out the recording, an extended scena involving attending a fair in an old Italian town square, with all the noise and vendors and dancing and acrobats, etc.  Everything is described with great gusto, and Elsacker’s irrepressible merchant will not be shouted down as he makes the broadest, most outrageous claims for the healing powers of his brew.  Also stellar was tenor Serge Goubioud, especially in his big solo in Il Fasolo’s “Lamento di madama Lucia con la riposta di Cola,” which unfortunately is not on the recording.    This was an outstanding concert.  If you ever see an event scheduled by this group, run to get a ticket as fast as you can.

The Britten song recitals on Sunday were also excellent.  It was especially exciting to hear Nicky Spence, the British tenor who makes his Metropolitan Opera debut tomorrow (!!) in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” as one of the leads.  Indeed, it is astonishing to me that on the day before his Met debut Spence was willing to commit to sing Britten songs in an afternoon concert.  He probably should have been resting his voice instead!  But artists will be artists, and he was terrific.  The other fantastic singers were Mary Mackenzie (soprano), Michael Slattery (tenor), Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 1 pm recital, and, in addition to Spence, Martha Guth (soprano), Naomi O’Connell (mezzo-soprano), and Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 4 pm recital.   As a great baritone-fancier, I was particularly impressed by Kelly, who also sang sublimely last season during the Schubertfest!  Thomas Bagwell was the pianist for the first recital, Malcolm Martineau for the second.  A broad cross-section of Britten’s songs were rendered exquisitely.  This was actually the second of two days of an ambitious Britten song festival.  The first three recitals were presented yesterday in Brooklyn, while today’s program was at the excellent small recital hall at Baruch College on 25th Street in Manhattan.  It was a privilege to hear so much great music-making, and worth devoting most of the day to hear many pieces by Britten that are not frequently performed.  Indeed, Martineau pointed out that some of the early songs interspersed among the later-published song cycles on Sunday’s 4 pm program may have been receiving their US concert premieres.

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