Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
05 Feb 2006
Body and Soul - A New “Poppea” in London
Monteverdi’s great work, “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” in a “semi-staged” format, has been chosen to showcase the talents of some exciting young singers and musicians in London recently as the first part of an ambitious project aimed at a more holistic approach to singing opera.
Known as “Il Corpo Cantante” or, less felicitous in English, “the Singing Body”, this project is the brainchild of Ashley Stafford who combines his experience as singer, teacher and osteopath to explore and give singers “a clearer insight into the specific ways in which the physical nature of singing relates to the whole body …. and to explore the links between our imaginative feel for music and the body’s way of transforming that desire …..into creative expressive reality.”
Today’s professional opera houses demand an ever-higher synthesis of both vocal and dramatic artistry - and young singers ignore this at their peril. So the project also aims to give young singers with ambitions as soloists a chance to experience and become better aware of the links between the physical, mental and emotional demands of singing at a professional level. This latter goal was much in evidence at the group’s “Poppea” where the demands of the small but elegant space at the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London were obvious. The singers had to adapt to low stage just feet from the audience, with only a wooden pulpit structure behind them to be climbed to give occasional height when required by the drama. They also had to enter and exit down the sides in full view of the hall’s packed seats. Some of the singers coped better than others with this rather exposed situation. The excellent small ensemble of 8 musicians, led incisively and elegantly from the harpsichord by the experienced Marco Ozbic, musical director and fellow-creator of the project, were centred at the front of the main aisle - close enough to enable study of both their music and bowing technique by some patrons. Noticeable for his eloquent playing was cellist Simon Wallfisch, and first violin Emma Parker also impressed with a sympathetic ear for the idiosyncrasies of this music.
Marco Ozbic also approached the well-known problem of paucity of orchestration left to us by an ageing Monteverdi (or his assistants) in a positive way. The enigma of the sparse instrumental music in “Poppea” is one of the major difficulties that modern interpreters face as, apart from some unspecified ritornelli, nearly all solo vocal parts are accompanied only by continuo. Ozbic thinks this seems at odds with the colourful instrumentation found in Monteverdi’s earlier operas, and so has compromised very successfully by adding instrumental lines in suitable places that helped produce a most lively and dynamic support for the singers and dramatic action.
However, it became obvious very quickly that there was a significant variation in levels of opera performance experience among the singers; some like Helen Court (sop. Poppea) and Andrew Tortise (tenor, Lucano, soldier and Seneca’s friend) showed that experience by an easy confidence on stage coupled with expressive and technically assured singing. Court in particular was impressive in her characterisation of the conniving Poppea - just the right degree of knowing manipulation without undue over-emphasis.
Others, less experienced but seemingly with plenty of stage confidence already coupled with real vocal talent, such as Charlotte Tetley (mezzo-sop, Ottavia), Revital Raviv (sop.Virtu/Drusilla), James Armitage (ct, Arnalta) and Daniel Keating-Roberts (ct, Amor) seemed to relish the dramatic opportunities that Monteverdi offers. Tetley in particular has both a dramatic soprano voice and stage presence to match. Keating-Roberts has an unusually strong and characterful countertenor which, coupled with an eye for comedy, gave indications of a natural talent in the manner of a Visse or Robson.
Of the less experienced performers, Calvin Wells’ performance as Nerone caught the eye. It is rare for a countertenor, even a high one, to sing this role at pitch, as the composer wrote it; there is much above the staff and it imposes some quite tricky technical demands. It is in fact more of a “male soprano” role, but Wells certainly had the vocal resources to match it, and as he grew out of his understandable nerves and into the character of the emperor in the second and third Acts, one began to hear more clearly what a promising talent he is, given that he will absorb more stagecraft with experience.
More polished, if lacking a little in volume and “bite”, was countertenor Andrew Pickett’s noble and affecting Ottone, well drawn and sympathetic. Timothy Dickinson’s warm and rounded bass-baritone dealt with Seneca’s sonorous low passages with ease although like Wells, he was lacking somewhat in actorly technique at this stage of his career. Lucy Page, Thomas Herford, Gregory Hallam and Elizabeth Graham all acquitted themselves well in the smaller roles with Page switching roles very effectively between Fortuna and a page boy.
A full house gave warm applause to an ambitious production that achieved its goals on all levels.
© S.C. Loder 2006.