12 Jan 2007
WAGNER: The Ring Cycle
It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.
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?
It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.
How can so much be put into possibly the greatest of artistic undertakings, Wagner’s masterpiece of a prologue and three operas stretching over 19 hours, and yet seem incomplete?
Conductor and artistic director Valery Gergiev and his designer George Tsypin are credited with having created this epic production with no mention of a director. And there lies one of this extravaganza’s key weaknesses.
If more time and effort had been put into giving the cast stronger direction rather than worrying about the impenetrable concept this would have been a more rounded experience.
The orchestra under the baton of one of music’s current demi-gods certainly lived up to the huge expectation, albeit after a lackluster start with the first of the four parts of the Ring, Das Rheingold. Ultimately, there were indeed moments (well long periods as this is Wagner) of exquisite beauty, including an awe-inspiring ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’.
Vocally we had some world class performances but equally some frankly disappointing voices that sounded either tired or just badly cast.
Being performed over four consecutive days requires different singers to take on the same roles, so, for example, we had three Wotans. I liked Yevgeny Akimov but none bowled me over.
Similarly we had two Siegfrieds and these could not have been more different, down to Leonid Zakhozhaev having a flowing brown mane and the second Viktor Lutsyuk sporting a shock of white hair.
Zakhozhaev coped with the demands of Siegfried and at least looked the part. Poor old Lutsyuk looked like one of those gonks children stick on the end of a pencil. I could have forgiven the dopey grin if the voice had been as memorable.
There was no such problem with Olga Sergeyeva’s striking Brünnhilde who was a dominating presence, emotionally intense and vocally heroic. Her show stopping scenes were indeed show stopping and she seemed totally unfazed by some of the comings and goings around her.
Just as enjoyable were some of the relatively smaller roles such as Vassily Gorshkov’s Loge, Svetlana Volkova’s Fricka and a splendid Hagen from Mikhail Petrenko. Larissa Diadkova sang Waltraute’s great aria in Götterdämmerung as if she had been waiting all her life for the opportunity.
It is one of the wonders of the Ring Cycle that virtually whatever a producer or designer throws at it Wagner’s music manages to rises above it. This was such a case. While Tsypin’s sets are monumental, with vast figures, rising and descending rocks and multi-coloured internal lighting that is presumably deeply significant but quite what they had to do with what the singers were doing was unclear.
This is very much a Russian ring but with references to gods from a myriad of ancient world religions. Some are more recognizable to us in the West than others, especially Egyptian deities including Wotan as Anubis, the god of death and embalming, which made perfect sense.
I thought I would start to understand other elements of the staging as the Ring proceeded. Instead, by the end of the second evening, Die Walküre, I had decided not to hurt my brain any more and enjoy the music.
Yes, we had some powerful dramatic performances but we also had times when singers seemed to be wandering around the stage. The Valkyries, for example, sounded superb could have been in a concert performance, being reduced to a dreadful little choreography that involved changing places and rotating several times. Likewise, the giants Fafner and Fasolt had to overcome being wheeled on, their pin heads protruding from cumbersome pretend “rocky” bodies.
But the physical side of the show did have its plus points. The figures dressed in black with long fluorescent hair worked very well as the Rhine and, combined with Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting, such theatrical cleverness created much atmosphere.
Production aside, the flashes of musical genius from stage and pit, however, made the whole experience an exhilarating experience, justifying this massive undertaking.
This was a remarkable event to be staged in Cardiff, establishing Wales Millennium Centre as one of the top houses for large scale opera, and feeding a hunger for the best the world can bring.