Conductor: Aleksandar Markovic
Soloist: Emma Bell (soprano)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
In recent years, through the Leeds Town Hall semi-stagings under Music Director Richard Farnes, the Orchestra of Opera North has gained a reputation as a top-class Wagner orchestra. However, in the opening concert of the Kirklees season, despite two Wagner pieces on the programme, the focus was very much on a magnificent performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).
It’s a matter of dispute how far the hero is Strauss himself. The programme notes quote Norman Del Mar’s dismissal of the identification, but there is no doubt that sections reflect his critics (broadly comic caricatures), his wife (an extended violin solo reflecting both his love and her caprices) and his achievements (musical quotations from many of his works). Admittedly the striking self-confidence of the opening and the triumphal war section are difficult to reconcile with Strauss’ bourgeois existence!
Ein Heldenleben requires massive forces. On the Town Hall stage were ten brass, nine horns, five percussion, and so on. These were marshalled superbly by Aleksandar Markovic, the Serbian conductor who recently left his post with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and who in October conducts his first opera for Opera North, appropriately enough Jenufa by Leos Janacek, Brno’s finest. On the evidence of this latest concert, Markovic should become a familiar figure at Opera North.
Markovic’s Heldenleben was dramatic, but without bombast. It was precise, controlled, full of dynamic and thematic contrasts, but essentially integrated, so that the final contentment spread by the return of the solo violin’s love theme seemed a true response to the boisterous caricature, the storms of war and the hero’s recurring angst. Central to the whole performance was orchestra leader David Greed’s superb treatment of “The Hero’s Companion”, Frau Strauss realised in flowing romantic violin lines, flirty phrases and argumentative question and answer with the other strings. At the end of that section, the whole orchestra exploded into military mode with off-stage trumpets, violent percussion and jaggedly exciting brass, snarling trombones and all. But it’s the beautiful legato violin theme that wins out at the end of Ein Heldenleben.
Pre-interval, the Wagner pieces provided a great contrast to each other. The Overture to Rienzi is the only part of Wagner’s first successful opera to be performed with any frequency. Key scores perished in Hitler’s bunker and the Dresden bombings, so any edition is a reconstruction and at Huddersfield the brass almost equalled Heldenleben numbers. Markovic presided over a well-judged performance, possibly less thoroughly rehearsed than Heldenleben, with the mighty brass effects never allowed to dominate the noble themes. Occasionally it sounded a bit much like early Verdi, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and it was by any standards a rousing curtain-raiser.
Then the brass and percussion forces thinned and Emma Bell gave us a beautifully controlled performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, finding every change of mood in five songs with little variety of tempo, from the agitation of Stehe still! to the sensuality of Im Treibhaus to the rapture of Schmerzen – oddly enough the only joyful song of the five can be translated as “Anguish”!
Reviewed on 17 September 2015