Recently in Performances
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
15 Jun 2005
Il Barbiere di “Siviglia” in Antwerp
Very attentive readers will have noticed I put “Siviglia” in quotation marks as it refers in this production to the name of an Italian hairdresser’s salon and not to the Spanish city. Director Joosten who always keeps an attentive eye on surtitles and has them changed when the sung lines are contrary to the happenings on the scene nevertheless let a reference to the Spanish Prado slip in.
Scene from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Photo: Annemie Augustijns)
Il Barbiere di "Siviglia"
|Anja van Engeland||Berta|
|Benoît de Leersnyder||Fiorello|
|2=. Symfonisch Orkest en Koor van de Vlaamse Opera|
|2=. Conducted by Ivan Törzs|
|2=. Directed by Guy Joosten|
|2=. Sets and Costumes by Johannes Leiacker|
|2=. De Vlaamse Opera - Antwerp|
Very attentive readers will have noticed I put "Siviglia" in quotation marks as it refers in this production to the name of an Italian hairdresser's salon and not to the Spanish city. Director Joosten who always keeps an attentive eye on surtitles and has them changed when the sung lines are contrary to the happenings on the scene nevertheless let a reference to the Spanish Prado slip in.
Anyway that was the only reference to a traditional Barbiere as Rossini's opera was fully updated to somewhere in the south of Italy. We are at the same time in a modern hairdresser's salon but one so open that the view of the windows of the apartments above unobstructed. The important thing is that the set worked well and helped to make the necessary comic points.
As is usual with Joosten he changed traditional perceptions of the protagonists. Figaro was not only the "factotum della citta" but a nice charming gay hairdresser who tries to seduce all and any male performer that comes within a distance of a yard (though I clearly remember a very macho Figaro in Joosten's Nozze di Figaro).
Rosina is a leggy young sexy lady not above using her many charms to get her man though that's where Joosten fails for the first time. Every time the lady appears she wears another wonderful often extravagantly coloured thick wig. At first the gimmick gets some tittering but by the sixth or seventh wig the hair is still as thick but the joke is definitely wearing thin. Joosten fails too (or hasn't sought for a solution) with Rosina's "billet doux" tricks. The letter jokes in 'Dunque io son' probably worked in Rossini's days but are stale nowadays. Joosten didn't have the courage of his convictions, let the lady write little notes instead of trying to work something out and let her SMS (Short Message Service) in this 2005 action play.
During the duet Figaro was extremely busy with some client who hid behind a newspaper. When he dropped the paper and left the salon, the audience discovered that one of Flanders' most popular entertainers had put in a cameo performance for a few seconds. The idea got a hearty and deserved laugh but the laugh would have been as big if the man had revealed himself after, instead of right in the middle of, the duet and the musical line wouldn't have been disrupted.
Almaviva corresponded more or less to the image of the Italian lover though Joosten had a small surprise. A pre-recorded "Se il mio nome" with a calypso rhythm and orchestra was played on a CD-machine.
The emphasis in Don Basilio was on 'Don' (as in Don Corleone) and he was changed into a machine gun handling gangster. Movie references are now a fixture of this director. In his Amsterdam treatment of Elisir d'Amore, Bryn Terfel was dressed and behaved as a mixture of Elvis Presley and Liberace. This time Ambrogio's (Bartolo's servant) main task was exactly repeating Gene Kelly's choreography (umbrella included and not in the libretto) around a lantern post (in the libretto) during the storm music. Don Bartolo was the only one behaving more or less in the traditional way, though he too was mainly busy shaving people instead of treating them.
The general impression was one of overdirecting, of too many jokes, of too clever ideas not always consistently worked out. One example: Seemingly drunken, Almaviva is not dressed as an Italian army officer but just as another of the bunch of carabinieri who is always entering and leaving the salon.
Still, the sum of this production is far more than the many small irritations. It is modern, respects the spirit of the work, gives sense and drive to the old warhorse. I hope the Antwerp opera will offer us a reprise in a few years when that great saviour of opera, 'plain routine', will eject a few of the extravagancies. But even now, I admit I wouldn't want to watch a traditional Barbiere in the seasons ahead; and that's maybe the highest praise I can give Guy Joosten (who will direct the new Roméo at the Met).
Musically there were a few problems. Conductor Michel Tilkin left at the last moment as things didn't work out well with his orchestra. Anyway that's the official reason. Rumour has it that he simply left in disgust at Joosten's treatment (that Calypso serenade?). So the Antwerp music director Ivan Törzs had to jump in.
Now Italian belcanto is not exactly Mr. Törzs speciality but the orchestra is so fine that the Rossinian crescendi didn't suffer and that harmony reigned between pit and scene (I attended the second performance). There were a few times when Törzs lingered too long on recitatives and he almost brought the music at a dead end in "Freddo ed immobile" but he still made the best of a difficult situation and singers didn't need to keep their eyes glued on the conductor.
Originally Gary Magee should have sung Figaro but already at the beginning of the season it was clear that Walloon baritone Lionel Lhote would take over. The baritone has a clear, big booming voice which is improving all the time. His is probably the greatest talent in the country and I would dearly love to hear him in a big Verdi role. A pity we have to suffer once more the inevitable Caproni or Vanaud next season in all the theatres over here when there is such a fine voice and an exuberant actor available.
Mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel has a ripe fruity mezzo that becomes rather shrill above the staff; and her coloratura are not exactly pure either. I fear the lady was somewhat more chosen for her fine looks, long legs and fearless acting than for Rossinian musicality. Tenor Iain Paton has the right voice colour but his voice too is somewhat unwieldy and he had his difficulties too with the intricacies of the score. Already in 1964 Ugo Benelli proved (too soon for the times) that "Cessa di piu resistere" is a necessary but acrobatic show piece for the tenor but Juan Diego Florez has now made it so popular that it is no longer acceptable to cut it as happened here (though it would probably have exposed Paton's lack of coloratura in a cruel way). This was rather conspicuous as Berta's almost unknown aria was restored, though sung rather sharp by Anja van Engeland. Apart from Lhote, the best singing came from the wonderful black resounding bass voice of Alexander Vinogradov. Urban Malmberg was a fine Bartolo.
Though Joosten may ask a lot of movement and antics from his singers, he is cleverly enough not to demand they should sing with their back to the audiences or swinging on a rope etc. They could easily project their voices in the audience.