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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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
25 Sep 2005
GLINKA: Ruslan and Lyudmila
Based on a tongue-in-cheek poem by young Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Glinka’s second opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) is an epic adventure tale, in which three rival Russian knights roam the land in search of a Kievan princess kidnapped by a sorcerer.
The opera, known to most Western listeners primarily through its showpiece overture, is one of the most brilliant creations of 19th-century Russian music. In five acts with a prolog, it is enormous and difficult, requiring high virtuosity from both singers and instrumentalists; the score also presents a host of problems for stage directors as it defies all attempts at realistic staging. Meanwhile, conductors face numerous textological conundrums caused by the divergences in the existing sources and the lack of an authorial manuscript, believed to have perished in a fire.
A new Bolshoi Theater recording of the opera, made live in 2003 and recently released by PentaTone Classics, may help to solve some mysteries of Glinka’s masterpiece. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov claims that his production represents “the original version” of the work recreated from the newly found authoritative copies of the lost manuscript. Fans of the opera should not expect major revelations, however: while there are several discrepancies in pitch and rhythm throughout the score, the sequence and content of the material is essentially intact. Indeed, if some music on this recording proves unrecognizable, it is the unfortunate consequence of the performance quality of the new production.
To start with the singers, the ladies generally did better than the men. Alexandra Durseneva’s voice is a deep, rich contralto, a little heavy for my taste, but just sexy enough for the Middle-Eastern exotica of her character, prince Ratmir. Maria Gavrilova is a lovely Gorislava; she is by far the best singer in the lineup, which makes one wish that the composer had given her more than a cameo role. Ekaterina Morozova as Lyudmila is more disappointing: her coloratura is clean and precise, but is suitable more for the Queen of the Night (her signature part) than for a warm-blooded Russian princess; this is particularly noticeable in her Act 4 aria. Still more disappointing is Lyudmila’s beloved, Ruslan; the voice of Taras Shtonda, particularly in the barely perceptible low register, is thoroughly uninspiring. Valery Gilmanov appears to have given up on the whirlwind tempi of Farlaf’s buffo part: the Vivace assai of the famously Rossini-esque Act 2 rondo barely qualifies as a Moderato, completely destroying the hilarious effects of the scene. Maxim Paster’s ringing tenor with steady yet sweet upper register is perfect for Bayan; Vitaly Panfilov’s Finn, however, while technically flawless, is painfully devoid of color. Indeed, several singers on the recording seem to have sacrificed both richness of timbre and richness of interpretation to the goal of precisely rendering the notes of the carefully restored score. One wonders if such an approach would win any converts to Glinka’s genius.
It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous importance of the chorus in Glinka’s epic. According to Vedernikov, the emphasis placed in his production on the chorus as an ever-present commentator led him to abandon the realistic costume drama for an oratorio-like “mystery” (the one with a more contemporary look, as evident from the CD cover art). Unfortunately, as I have already commented in an earlier review for this site, the Bolshoi Theater’s chorus is weak, and has trouble keeping both the pitch and the beat. The introduction and finale – scenes that require more volume than precision – are less affected by this, but the quality is disastrous, for instance, in the Act 2 scene of Ruslan with the giant Head – the character represented by the unison male choir that must be perfectly in sync to achieve the desired effect.
Last but not least, Glinka’s opera lives and dies by its orchestration: as Vedernikov points out, apart from the complex, delicate accompaniment, there are more than 40 minutes of purely instrumental music in Ruslan. The fiendishly difficult score presents an evidently insurmountable challenge to the Bolshoi orchestra, the weakest spot of that theater’s productions over the past few years. As a result, Glinka’s sparkling orchestra comes across as dull, colorless, heavy, and more than occasionally out of tune. The tempo of the brilliant overture is sluggish at best, and even in that tempo the musicians are struggling.
Overall, the new Ruslan and Lyudmila recording is of value for a performer in need of consulting an authoritative version of Glinka’s score without visiting the notoriously mysterious Moscow archives. The rest of us may be better off staying faithful to the Mariinsky recording, or even the vintage 1978 Bolshoi production with Nesterenko, which Melodiya recently re-released on CD. After all, as the conductor tells us, this work is first and foremost a musical masterpiece; it should be approached as such.
University of Missouri—Columbia