Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Die Meistersinger and The Indian Queen
at the ENO

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

A worthy tribute for a vocal seductress of the ancient régime

Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

LA Opera: Barber of Seville

Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Henry Purcell: King Arthur
24 Oct 2005

King Arthur - the first musical?

Reviewing this DVD recording of Purcell’s music-drama “King Arthur” from the 2004 Salzburg Festival was both a pleasure and a pain. The pleasure came from the intense, contagious sense of sheer fun that illuminates this production by Jurgen Flimm and Nikolaus Harnoncourt from start to finish.

Henry Purcell: King Arthur

Barbara Bonney, Michael Schade, Isabel Rey, Peter Maertens, Dietmar König. Directed for Stage by Jürgen Flimm. Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.). Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, 2004.

EuroArts 2054508 [DVD]

 

Flimm’s magical and creative stage direction seldom flags, and Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien drives the whole mad, not to say occasionally maddening, pantechnicon along at a great pace and with admirable musical sensibility.

The pain came with equal regularity however. An interesting point about these last great flowerings of young Henry Purcell’s genius, so soon to be snuffed out, is that they were almost an anachronism when they first reached the stage of the Queens Theatre, Dorset Garden, London in 1691. Italian opera was approaching as if on a flood tide. Today it is difficult for an audience raised on either that later opera seria or mainstream romantic opera to grasp either the idiom of English music theatre in the 1690s or accept its artistic context - such as might be gleaned from a quote in the Gentleman’s Journal of 1692 “…experience hath taught us that our English genius will not relish that perpetual Singing,” Those said Gentlemen preferred what we might call today “mixed media” with plots that were not only true to life but sported humour, slapstick and sensational effects. And this Salzburg production, in the final analysis, whilst trying to achieve relevance and an understandable context by updating this template from the 1690’s, is let down by artistic incoherence and muddle. The fun, the spirit and the comedy of what Harnoncourt has described as the “first musical in history” doesn’t quite make up for some pretty dire interpretative decisions.

So if not an “opera” at all, then or now, what is it? It’s a play, with words by Dryden, which has musical tableaux which intersperse the main blocks of story-telling dialogue. The drama, acted and spoken by professional actors, tells the story of enemy kings Arthur and Oswald, fighting for English power and the heart of a princess, Emmeline, who happens to be blind. Each is supported by their own “magical helpers” - Merlin (a slightly ineffectual English dandy) and Grimbald (a most unpleasant piece of work) - and accompanying spirits. There is no doubt who are the “goodies” and “baddies” and which side this jingoistic libretto takes. It also just so happens that the music that was written to accompany the piece at the theatre was some of the best truly indigenous English song writing ever to bloom on a London stage, even to this day. And as in Purcell’s time, both the actors and singers are on stage together and often “duplicate” each other with matching costumes - an idea that one soon assimilates without too much trouble, although the camera close ups of the DVD obviously make this deliberate deceit entirely transparent.

The story is a gift for any creative director with the full panoply of 21st century stage effects at his disposal, and Flimm makes admirable use of the unique setting: the Summer Riding School in Salzburg, with its baroque form and intriguing balustraded arcades, built in 1693. The excellent orchestra is housed in a sunken area around which the stage continues, allowing the actors and singers to occasionally encompass the musicians and, from time to time, even draw them and their conductor into proceedings. This allows nice little comic business: the rather august head of Nikolaus Harnoncourt being carefully wrapped in a woolly bobble cap against the cold of the Frost Scene; a terrified fairy seeks shelter amongst the bassoons… and so on. Video screens in the “sky”, flying lines for the fairy spirits, trap-doors for the almost Wagnerian evil-doers on the Saxon side - it’s all there, and you’d have to be a very miserable person not to respond with a smile, at least once per scene.

However, as was reported at the time of the stage premier, the successes must be weighed against some unfortunate decisions. Dryden’s story may not be exactly great drama - it’s been described as “tub-thumpingly patriotic” and you’d be hard pushed to deny that. But, and it’s a big but, the language he used to do the tub-thumping was elegant, witty and often beautiful. Here, presumably for the sake of Salzburg success, all the English drama is translated into German, with almost entirely German or Austrian actors. What was wit with a lighter touch becomes heavily obvious; what was English seaside-style slapstick becomes Bavarian bier-keller. Vowel-curdling diction in mock-mittel-european-horror-flick style does Dryden no favours, and it is with huge relief that one hears the first melodic lines of English when the singers (excellent in name, if uneven in performance on this showing) take the stage.

One is reminded of a kind of “beauty and the beast” scenario. On the DVD, of course, one has the convenience of subtitles - so at least the viewer at home can have the story explained in English, or whichever language is preferred. Not that this helps particularly with all the local in-jokes and modern Austro/German political references which attempt to make relevant some of the original humour - always high risk for an internationally-released production.

Yet, happily, it is the music of Purcell that saves the day every time - tune after tune delights the ear and kindles memories from a hundred earlier hearings in different, incomplete contexts: “First Act Tune”, “How blest are shepherds”, the “Chaconne”, “’Tis Love” and “Trumpet Tune”, the list goes on and on. To at last hear them in the way that London audiences did in 1691 is a treat indeed.

The voices are certainly starry: Barbara Bonney, Michael Shade, Isabel Rey, Oliver Widmer and Birgit Remmert and you have to applaud the way they throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the story even if some are hard pressed to produce their best sounds in some difficult situations and eccentric costumes. The sight of a well-built Michael Shade throwing himself around the stage, stand- mic clasped to mouth, legs akimbo, in a hilarious spoof on an ageing rocker howling out “Your hay, it’s mowed” in the form of a torch song to his adoring fans, won’t be easily forgotten.

Less successful was Bonney’s rendition of the lovely, seraphic “Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling” towards the end of the performance - not approaching the silvery perfection of her CD recording and somewhat rushed and uncomfortable in execution. The famous “Frost Scene” was played for humour with a chorus of neatly-choreographed penguins (what else?) in support, even if Oliver Widmer’s rather clunky baritone made heavy arctic weather of the famously-extreme stuttering notes.

Yet, despite this and an overall problem with maintaining all the disparate threads of action, chorus, music, song, video and stage machinery, “King Arthur” is still a brave attempt to re-vivify the largely lost art form of English Restoration music-drama in something like its original concept - and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the music of Purcell, as long as they have a capacity to forgive as well as to applaud.

© Sue Loder 2005

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):