Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

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.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

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 Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

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.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘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.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

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. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

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.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

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.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

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.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

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.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

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.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

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

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.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

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.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

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.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

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).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

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’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

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.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Rosalind Plowright as Marfa
22 Feb 2007

MUSSORGSKY: Khovanshchina

At the curtain call for the first night of WNO’s new production of the infrequently performed Khovanshchina director David Pountney wore a simple Russian shirt.

Above: Rosalind Plowright as Marfa

 

This was one of the few references in this sprawling production that was immediately recognizable. Maybe he wore the shirt for a bet. To see what he could get away with on stage. Maybe he staged the entire production with the same thought.

Of course he did not. But had he, the audience would have had one reason for their polite (and I stress polite) applause at the end what I can only say was one of the most incomprehensible productions I can remember. It even gave Pountney’s space station Dutchman a run for its money. WNO audiences are very polite and at times you rather wish they would make their views clearer in curtain calls than the mutterings and mumblings you hear on the way out.

Khovanshchina was never going to be a laugh a minute night out. And those who bought their tickets to hear the wonderful music of Musorsgsky, as orchestrated after his death by Shostakovich, will have been amongst those not disappointed.

Under the baton of Lothar Koenigs the music to those of us not very familiar with the work was a revelation, always beautiful and evocative, at times lyrical and tuneful, at others Wagnerian and haunting.

The same must be said of the chorus of Welsh National Opera who, stalwarts as they are, put up with whatever was thrown at them in this potpourri of historical, architectural and cultural references crammed into one production with stoic aplomb. 

Someone, somewhere, decided this opera would be sung in English. This would have been fine had it been possible to make out more than about one in a hundred words. There were whole arias — and by no means little ditties — where I could not fathom a single word. It sounded quite nice, in a moody Russian sort of way, and was no doubt deeply significant.

I have never been a fan of surtitles. But after a few minutes of struggling to make out a word of what was being sung I was all at sea, struggling to hear singers, follow the dastardly plot and file yet another Pountney visual reference in my cerebral inbox for future analysis.

Even with the show sung in English, we should have had Welsh surtitles. My Welsh is pretty basic but I would have more of a chance of understanding the Welsh than what I could hear from the stage.

At the interval it quickly became clear I was not alone. “Can anyone tell me what is going on, can you make out what they are singing and what is the point of the production?” was the main thrust of interval discussions I overheard. The responses were along the lines: “Haven’t a clue, can’t make much of the words and I stopped trying to understand it ages ago”.

This, of course, is a great pity. This is indeed a powerful and musically gorgeous work that deserves to be enjoyed. Possibly in a year or so the opera can be revived with surtitles or as a straight concert performance.

Admittedly the plot is so complex and the piece so gloomy it is better to regard it as an evocation of Russia and themes religious, political and emotional, rather than a literal tale.

It is about power struggles in the time of Peter the Great between rivals and a spiritual leader with individual views on the future of Mother Russia. By the end they have all been ground down in one dreadful way or another and we are left with yet another image of troubled Russia, its struggles between East and West, modernism and tradition, a people invaded, plundered and constantly in search of a solution.

There really is little point going through the legions of symbolism Pountney and designer Johan Engels wade through with as much subtlety and progress as a German Panzer, low on fuel and stuck in the mud in the Russian winter of 1941. There are undoubtedly scenes of intensity and sheer horror that are visually gripping and chilling. Yet, as a package, the whole is too abstract production led.

Yes, the cast worked extremely hard and Peter Sidhom, singing Shaklovity, made an impact. Robert Hayward and Tom Randle as Prince Ivan Khovansky and Prince Andrei Khovansky had presence and Rosalind Plowright generally coped admirably with the demands of singing Marfa.

The audience managed miraculously to stop coughing during Beate Vollack’s erotic, at times seemingly naked, dance as the Persian Slave. A bit of light relief if nothing else.

There is a further performance at WMC on Saturday, February 14 and the Grand Theatre, Swansea on April 7.

Mike Smith

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):