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?
29 Mar 2006
Hit and miss in Amsterdam’s Cavalleria and Pagliacci
Guy Joosten, who recently directed the Met’s new Roméo et Juliette, reworked an attempt of Cav and Pag presented at the Essen Opera for the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. I cannot say he succeeded or to put it more plainly: Cav was bad and Pagliacci suffered too.
As productions of these operas go nowadays, it is almost impossible to find an eternal twin that is not intermingled. It has become almost a law unto itself that the players of Pagliacci have to be present during the performance of Cavalleria looking at a tragedy in the same place at the same time where they too, unknowingly, will suffer. That was the way the operas were directed some years ago at De Munt in Brussels and that’s the cliché Joosten cannot do without. Well, it would be more or less acceptable if there would be any consistency in his production; but that’s the one feature that’s conspicuously lacking.
Cavalleria is, of course I almost say, not played in a village but in a Sicilian city market place with dozens of apartments in the background. It clearly plays at the end of the sixties or during the seventies as there are playbills for a movie by Fellini. Moreover all men and women are clothed in black, a phenomenon now almost completely gone from Sicily. But at the same time those men and women make a series of lewd gestures telling Alfio he is a cuckold during his aria, which no Sicilian woman in those days would ever have dared to think of. Alfio is clearly too dumb to understand these clear implications and has to wait another half hour before Santuzza tells him what fifty others have graphically showed him earlier.
Pagliacci is performed in the same venues, still with the Fellini playbill. Nevertheless, during the foolery in the second act, Nedda lies stretched on a table with Beppe climbing on her and mothers speeding their children away. Until a few years ago, any wandering troupe performing these acts in Sicily would have been in jail in the shortest time. I howled with delight when Joosten had someone cycling on the scene. There are people with bicycles in Sicily preparing for competition; but I have yet to see the first Sicilian riding a bike as if he is in Amsterdam. Then anybody vaguely familiar with Italy knows all too well the balcony scenes that always take place. Still, while murder and adultery is taking place in front of all those balconies, nobody is ever watching. Joosten, who is as Flemish as this reviewer, may be an unbeliever (as is this reviewer). But, as all Flemings, he has a catholic background and, therefore, he shouldn’t ask the whole chorus to kneel down when the statue of Our Lady is carried along in procession. Catholics indeed kneel, but only at the moment the priest appears with the Sacrament.
Allow me some leeway as recently there was a long discussion on a well-known operatic forum on Santuzza’s twice-repeated phrase, “I’m ex-communicated”. The reason for ex-communication may be twofold but a first one is highly improbable. I cannot imagine the Church officially repudiating Santuzza so that she may not receive sacraments unless she repents and is once again accepted. A young peasant girl is too unimportant for such treatment. A more reasonable explanation is the fact that in Mascagni’s time catholic theology made a clear distinction between daily and deathly sins (if you died unexpectedly you went straight to hell). Such a heavy sinner was not allowed to receive the Holy Communion unless he or she had confessed and received absolution. Sex before marriage was such a deathly sin—though in Sicily men easily got away with it while women were really damned. Even if nobody knew about it, the sinner herself knew it and, therefore, couldn’t receive communion as that would only have made her position worse in the eyes of God. Santuzza cannot hide from her problems as it is Easter and that is the only time in the year a Catholic has to receive communion or otherwise he/she adds another deathly sin to his tab. “Povera Santa” thus really feels utterly desolate and betrayed. Of course, she may confess; but there is a fat chance that the priest will refuse absolution as in his Mediterranean view women are always at fault. She doesn’t want to cheat and receive communion and thinks herself ex-communicated. And that’s another problem with updating Cavalleria. During Mascagni’s time people really suffered when they thought they had sinned and refusal of redemption was a modern theme. My grandmother and her whole generation had those horrible fears of hell and damnation but by the seventies, even in Italy, youngsters of Santuzza’s age (around 20) already thought hell was risible.
Back to Joosten’s ideas. Judging by her dress, Santuzza is four or five months pregnant, without all those sharp ladies and gents noting it. But the absolute innovation of this production is the “grande finale.” While Turiddu acknowledges his mistakes, he clearly announces he will kill Alfio “come un cane (like a dog)” as he has to look after “povera Santa.” And how does Turiddu punish Alfio? He voluntary hands over his knife to the cuckolded husband and then falls upon it with Alfio’s looking sheepishly at Turiddu’s suicide. At least in Pagliacci we were spared such innovative directing and the opera ran its normal traditional course.
The musical aspect clearly showed some parallels with the production. Carol Vaness (sorry to say, but looking her age) still has a fine medium but wobbles and shrieks the moment she has to sing above the staff. The real fly in the ointment was Zoran Todorovich. He consistently sang flat with big beefy tones utterly devoid of beauty. The show had to be saved by baritone Zeljko Lucic, who had a good stage presence and the dark brown voice, though slightly underpowered, that belong to the role. Dutch Tania Kross was a splendid, sensuous (voice and figure)Lola and veteran Livia Budai a convincing mamma Lucia. Carlo Rizzi conducted the fine Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Rizzi is very popular in Amsterdam while he is very adept at choosing correct tempi and he never tries to drown his singers. Still there were a few moments when pit and stage were not coordinated.
Baritone Zelkjo Lucic was even better as Tonio and Joosten allowed him to sing the Prologue before the curtain, a now almost defunct tradition that nevertheless proved its worth. The voice was by far fuller and had splendid high notes. Canio was sung very professionally by Dennis O’Neill. The Welsh tenor has now been singing for 34 years and the voice slowly changed from an almost tenore di grazia into a big lyric. On record the least one can say is that the voice is not much kissed by the mike and his Dick Johnson must be one of the worst recordings around. In the flesh, however, I was surprised by the fresh sound he produces. He is now 58 and his breath has become somewhat short. Therefore his “Vesti la giubba” was more impressive than “No, Pagliacci o non son” where he often had to break the line. He is very small and very fat and though this may be somewhat cruel he completely looks the part. Riccardo Botta made the most of the role of Beppe.
And then there were the redeeming features of this performance. Several years ago I first heard Ana María Martínez on German TV when she and another artist gave a big open air concert, Placido Domingo conducting. I was dumb-struck by the beauty of the voice in several zarzuela pieces. Not since young Pilar Lorengar had anybody sung so beautiful in that wonderful music. For a few years, it seemed as if this Puerto Rican lady wouldn’t make it to the big leagues but this, too, has changed. For her Met début, Naxos has brought out her first CD, already recorded 6 years ago. But the voice is now far richer and colourful. In the medium, it is probably the most beautiful sound around. Though she has good high notes as well, I hope she will succeed in enlarging somewhat the volume above the staff without damaging the rest of the voice. And yes she can act, too. Her duet with Silvio was one of the best experiences I had in opera for many years. And Rizzi and Martínez opened the cut in “Nedda ! Silvio!” and one wonders why those few beautiful bars for soprano are always left out. My luck went even further because young American Kyle Pfortmiller proved himself to be a find, too. A young slender man with a big booming, but very lyric and smooth, baritone should go far. Maybe some will find his vibrato a little bit exaggerated but not this reviewer. In a few years time this is a voice that could give us a father Germont and other lyric roles in the great American baritone tradition of Robert Merrill.