Archive for puccini

Brown Bread: Hildegard Behrens

Posted in Music, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

I am much saddened to hear of the passing of Hildegard Behrens, of a ruptured aortic aneurism aged 72. In my limited experience of live opera she was one of the three great post-war Wagnerian sopranos along with Birgit Nilsson and Rita Hunter. They are all gone. Not only was hers a gorgeous voice she was a true actress with the deepest intelligence. Not only was she a singer she began her working life as a lawyer.

Behrens was one of the major performers of the second half of the twentieth century. Her professionalism and musicality set the benchmark in the German repertoire. She will be greatly missed.

Behrens was not only a fine singer with a bright, incisive soprano, but a singing actress of rare power and intellect. I have memories of her as Marie at Covent Garden (my first Wozzeck in the theatre, an overpowering evening for a number of reasons) and on records as Brunnhilde in the complete Sawallisch Ring – the finest recorded cycle of the stereo era – and delivering a remarkable Isolde in Bernstein’s eccentric, infuriating, absurdly slow and mannered but intermittently rather glorious Tristan.

Hildegard Behrens sang Brunnhilde in a complete Ring Cycle under Haitink in concert performances in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall a little over a decade ago (also featuring John Tomlinson and Siegfried Jerusalem inter alia). She was sensational – and she took the time to mingle with a group of stage door loiterers after Götterdämmerung on the Saturday night, wherein she seemed utterly sweet and delightful.

R.I.P. Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009

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Preposterous Opera Plots

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Which opera has the most ridiculous and over-inflated plot? Where huge events hinge on one character not recognizing another because they’re wearing a hat or some such tiny device; where characters find themselves related in the most stupendously unbelievable way. I’m working on an idea about how often such sublime music came out of frankly sometimes pretty dire story matter.

There are so many to choose from, really. Verdi’s Il Trovatore is generally reckoned to be pretty ridiculous and I find Beethoven’s Fidelio a bit risible. Some aspects of La Traviata stretch the credibility a bit, I think. You could say that Dorabella and Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) should have been able to recognize their own boyfriends, even with fake moustaches, but perhaps in 18th century Naples things were a bit stricter than now and they never got close enough to see them properly. The plot did, however, prompt what I think is some of Mozart’s best music, and the plot does raise all sorts of interesting and troubling ideas.

The turn of the plot at the end of Puccini’s Suor Angelica can cause many opera-goers to wince a bit, but it may well depend on your religious sensibilities, not just dramatic ones. Of course, some people simply hate the music as well; but I think it’s completely ravishing, and that Angelica’s final aria manages to transcend my own issues with the plot, so that one seems to fit the bill.

But if you want an utterly gaga opera with gorgeous music, try Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, although it’s not quite right in this context as its bizarreness is entirely self-aware (sex-changing women, sex-changing men, men giving birth, policemen on pantomime horses, choruses of babies, etc., etc.).

In more recent years, I’d nominate Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong as fairly risible and incomprehensible. It was the detached head sticking out of the floor of the stage advising someone who was trying to make a phone call that (and here you have to sing operatically) “you need a sixpence, twopence won’t do” that did it for me. I remember absolute howls of laughter at the line “Only the dead come here, and they’re dead boring”, as if Birtwistle was some sort of comic genius. I didn’t dare point out that the only reason it seemed remotely funny was because the rest of the opera was so mind-numbingly tedious.

The most incomprehensible opera plot I know of was one by Haydn called La Fedeltà Premiata (can’t remember the librettist). It means “Fidelity Rewarded” which is more than can be said for the effort needed to follow it. Impossible to work out “who is madly in love with who”, as Ogden Nash called it. The only thing to do when taking guests to see it was to warn them not to bother trying.

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