12 Jan 2007
WAGNER: The Ring Cycle
It is a mystery as complex as the Kirov’s Ring Cycle staging and equally inexplicable.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
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.