Review of performance--Boston, Massachusetts--February 26, 2001--Staging of Bach cantatas BWV 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut & BWV 82 Ich habe Genug

On Monday night February 26, 2001, I attended what was described as a Boston preview before a New York premiere of a performance of two Bach cantatas "
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut" and "Ich habe Genug" staged by Peter Sellars, sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, conducted by Craig Smith. Both cantatas were performed on a bare stage with no scenery. The bare brick wall at the back of the stage was visible. A few ladders leaned against it. The Emerson Majestic Theatre seats about seven hundred people, I believe. Emmanuel Music, which under Craig Smith, has performed cantatas of Bach as part of the Sunday liturgy at an Episcopal Church on Newbury Street for thirty years now, has familiarity with the music of Bach that few can equal. The playing of the musicians in the small orchestra was impeccable.

Before the music began, Peter Sellars, Craig Smith, and Peter Sellars sat on folding chairs on stage, and spoke through microphones about the cantatas. Peter Sellars did most of the talking. He was a likeably witty and interesting speaker. I could not help wondering whether the speaking was intended in part to lengthen the somewhat short program. Three cantatas had originally been planned and announced, but it was ultimately decided to perform only two.

In "
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut," a cantata of a sinner's despair that ends in joy, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson wore a cornflower-blue gown and long dusty-rose scarf, vaguely medieval in style, designed by Dunya Ramicova. Sellars had explained that the costume was also the set, in the tradition of some Indian and Chinese theatre. The gown did seem very appropriate to the music, more than a more conventional evening gown would have. Throughout the cantata, the singer assumed a variety of postures and made various gestures, at times rearranging the scarf, to help to dramatize the feelings that she was expressing in the cantata. I did not find the staging at all bad, but it did seem to me superfluous. Ms. Hunt Lieberson's singing was quite moving. Her voice now has a certain maturity and lacks some of the lush facility that it had several years ago. It was a joy to hear her as she beautifully conveyed the emotions of the text. An individual can concentrate on only so many things at a time, and I wish that she had not had to be distracted by assuming postures and making gestures. I wish that at times she had focused a little more on enunciating consonants.

After an intermission, Sellars came out alone to talk briefly about the second cantata, "I have enough," with a text sung by someone on the point of death. Again, he was amusing and interesting. In this cantata, Ms. Hunt Lieberson wore a hospital gown. Michael Schumacher, directing assistant, a good-looking dark-haired young man dressed in black, stood behind her and held a very bright light bulb at the end of a long cord. The brightness of the bulb was slightly disturbing to me even though I was in row N, and I shut my eyes for much of the cantata. Again the singer assumed different postures as she sang quite movingly. The audience seemd to appreciate the performance, and I was very glad to have attended.
In an article in The Observer of December 23, 2001, in which writers and artists choose their high points - and low points - of the past twelve months, actress Penelope Wilton was quoted, "It wasn't a turkey, but I really disliked Peter Sellars's staging of Bach cantatas at the Barbican. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing was truly wonderful but the unhelpful staging just spelt everything out. Why do we have to be so literal about everything?"
The recording

On September 16, 2003, Nonesuch Records released a recording of Cantatas BWV 82 and 199 sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, made during three days of recording sessions beginning May 13, 2003, with Emmanuel Music under the direction of Craig Smith.

In the
Boston Herald of September 23, 2003, T. J. Medrek wrote:  "Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Emmanuel Music's new CD of two of Bach's cantatas is proof that perfection is possible.  The Nonesuch disc captures the glorious mezzo at her finest.  Her heartbreakingly beautiful voice, so filled with emotional depth, carries us along on two of Bach's most powerful journeys to hell and back."
Information about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Links to some reviews

Bach Cantatas 82 and 199. CD,

Cantatas BWV 82-199 (L.Hunt Lieberson), CD,
Reviewing the Bach cantatas recording in Opera News of November 2003, Martin Bernheimer wrote that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson "conveys ample plathos without affectation on her own probing terms.  Peggy Pearson matches her, tone for exquisite tone, on the oboe.  Craig Smith conducts throughout with equal parts style and sensitivity.  Michael Steinberg's exceptionally thoughtful liner notes provide additional illumination."
Bach: Cantatas Bwv 82 And 199 / Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
"These accounts of Bach's two cantatas for solo contralto will probably upset the period-instrument purists - Craig Smith's conducting of a modern chamber orchestra owes little to recent notions of baroque practice. But everyone else will be delighted, for this is a rare recording by arguably the greatest mezzosoprano of our age."--from review by Andrew Clements at
"Lorraine Hunt Liebersonís new recording of the cantata ["Ich habe genug"], on Nonesuch, is beautiful enough to stop a war, if anyone thought to try," wrote Alex Ross in the November 3, 2003, issue of the New Yorker.
In the New York Times of November 2, 2003, Anthony Tommasini called this recording "one [of] the finest Bach recordings to have come along in some time."

* * *

"And singing does not come more consolingly beautiful than Ms. Hunt Lieberson's plaintive, dusky-toned contributions on this important recording."
December 18, 2003

The vocal album of the year has to be that of Lorraine Hunt Liebersonís pairing of the Bach cantatas 'Ich habe genug' ('I have enough') and 'Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut' ('My heart swims in blood'), on the Nonesuch label, with the Emmanuel Music Orchestra, conducted by Craig Smith. . . .  The sentiments of these devotional masterpieces are penitential yet joyous, and this great dramatic singer makes the journey from torment to spiritual release riveting, drawing on all the emotional colors in her radiantly melancholic palette to mark each harrowing step of the way. Perhaps no singer since Callas has cut so deeply to the heart of the matter. In the case of Ms. Hunt Lieberson, she takes you in with a natural intimacy that is all-enveloping."
--Charles Michener in the
New York Observer.
"A stunning and remarkably affecting achievement all around."--Andrew Farach-Colton in Gramophone.

Those who heard the cantatas in Boston and New York have attested to their almost unbearable intensity," wrote David Weininger for the Boston Phoenix.

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Eleven Great Cantatas (Dover Music Scores), paperback,

Volume contains scores for the following cantatas (including "Ich habe genug"):

Cantata No.106 Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit

Cantata No.12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen

Cantata No.140 Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme

Cantata No.21 Ich Hatte Viel Bekummerniss

Cantata No.4 Christ Lag In Todesbanden

Cantata No.51 Jauchzet Gott In Allen Landen

Cantata No.56 Ich Will Den Kreuzstab Gerne Tragen

Cantata No.61 Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland

Cantata No.78 Jesu Der Du Meine Seele

Cantata No.80 Ein' Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott

Cantata No.82 Ich Habe Genug


Cantata No. 199 -- Mein Herze Schwimmt Im Blut (Kalmus Edition), paperback,

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - Bach: Cantatas, BWV 82 & 199 (USA)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - Bach: Cantatas, BWV 82 & 199