Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
28 Jan 2007
ROSSINI: Il Viaggio a Reims
Rossini’s last Italian opera, staged in 1825 as a part of Charles X’s coronation festivities, is a bizarre creation — a sassy little farce capped with a coronation cantata in the best traditions of staged court entertainment, from 16th-century Italian intermedi through their Baroque and Classic operatic progeny.
This production, a combined effort of the Kirov Opera and Théâtre du
Châtelet, was premiered in 2005, and has made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC
as a part of the Kirov’s residency here, now in its fifth year.
Minimal staging (sets by Pierre-Alain Bertola) strips the “Golden Lily Hotel” to its scaffolding,
revealing the opera for what it truly is — a collection of sparkling vignettes with hardly a
semblance of a plot; a glorious divertimento; a concert in costumes — but what fabulous
costumes! Among costume designer Mireille Dessigy’s creations, not to be missed are the
Contessa de Folleville’s outrageous hats and Corinna’s ancient regime version of fuzzy slippers.
The Russian general’s garb complete with a sailor’s tunic and a white horse (yes, an actual —
and impressively well-behaved — animal) is hilarious. As for Corinna’s entrance costume,
capped with a fantastic feather turban and illuminated from within by flashing electric lights, it is
beyond description, and would surely land some Hollywood star enterprising enough to steal it a
place on the “worst dressed, yet most memorable” red carpet list. The “English golf dandy” outfit
of Chevalier Belfiore, on the other hand, was funny but not particularly convincing.
The Kirov’s performance started well before the opera began, with the orchestra players (with
their instruments) and singers (with their luggage) making their way to the “hotel” from the
auditorium, greeting the audience in two languages (none of them Italian), and then negotiating
stage space with the “cleaning crew,” mops and vacuums in hand. The conductor — maestro
Gergiev himself — did not carry a suitcase, was relieved of his coat by one of the choristers, but
would keep his hat on throughout the evening. Both the conductor and the orchestra (dressed in
white and reduced almost to a chamber group for the occasion) were positioned on stage, with a
harpsichordist placed on the proscenium and dressed up in full ancient regime regalia, complete
with high heels and a powdered wig. Similarly dressed was a harpist wheeled onto the stage on a
special platform whenever her services were required to accompany Corinna the poetess (the
lovely Irma Gigolashvili); and a fabulous flutist (unfortunately not identified in the program) who
performed her second act solo flawlessly, all the while engaged in a clever pantomimed “duet”
with Lord Sydney (Eduard Tsanga).
Throughout, the production (directed by Alain Maratrat) was filled with stage business — always
energetic, often clever, and occasionally detrimental to sound production: for instance, practically
nothing performed on the back section of the scaffolding (behind the orchestra) made it into the
hall. On the other hand, plenty of singing (and some very funny acting) occurred in the orchestra
— among the orchestra seats, that is. This clearly delighted the audience but presented a
significant challenge to ensemble performance — a challenge that the young troupe, to their
credit, met and triumphed over, even in the lightning-fast stretti. Overall, the vocal performance
of the young cast, including some tremendously difficult passagework, was almost uniformly
superior: Anastasia Kalagina as Madame Cortese impressed with the precision of her coloratura;
Larisa Yudina as the Contessa proved herself a comic talent, yet was ever ready with those
breathtaking E-flats. Dmitry Voropaev as Belfiore, Daniil Shtoda as Count di Libenskoff,
Vladislav Uspensky as Baron di Trombonoc, and particularly Nikolay Kamensky as basso buffo
Don Profondo were all excellent. Anna Kiknadze as Melibea was less impressive, but she did
occasionally enjoy her moments of glory (unfortunately, the final polonaise was not one of those
moments). Only Alexey Safiulin as Don Alvaro was truly disappointing: he did well in the
ensembles, but the solos — including the gorgeous “fake flamenco” song Rossini had smuggled
into the grand finale — were almost entirely lost. The chorus — members of the Mariinsky
Academy of Young Singers — acted lustily and sang well; the orchestra sound was clean, crisp,
and tastefully “classic” — in fact, barely recognizable as coming from an orchestra better known
for the sweeping romantic sound of its Tchaikovsky and Wagner productions.
Grand drama devotees might find Il Viaggio a Reims annoyingly fluffy. Opera purists could
object to the coloratura occasionally getting lost in the stage business or covered with the
audience’s laughter. Yet, to those who think of opera as primarily a theatrical spectacle, the
Kirov production proves deliciously watchable. It is just what King Charles X of France had
ordered from his favorite composer — a splendid and frivolous piece of entertainment for a very