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?
18 Feb 2007
Opera North: Breathing new life into “Orfeo”
Friday night in Leeds, in the North of England, at the city’s marvellously restored Grand Theatre, with the pavements outside shining wet and a tidal wave of umbrellas surging past, was an
exciting place to be.
I was lured by England’s only national company outside of London, a new
production by Christopher Alden of Monteverdi’s seminal masterpiece, and a debut in the role
for one of England’s most talented yet under-rated tenors: Paul Nilon. Not one of the three
Opera North is on a roll at the moment; it has a beautiful old theatre as its home, decorated in a
palette of deep red, green and gold, not to mention some fabulous original Victorian tiling now
exposed again in all their glory, and is planning even more work in a Phase Two to bring back to
life the adjoining Assembly Rooms as another rehearsal and performance space. Aligned to
these physical plans is their continuing commitment to challenge preconceptions of opera,
advocating lesser-known works (later this season they are presenting Kaiser’s “Croesus”) and to
breathe new life into the classics. You don’t get very much more classic than the opera that
virtually invented the art-form, and Christopher Alden has most decidedly set out to challenge a
few well-worn notions of this favola in musica.
First of all, the evening’s staging is seamless and without interruption by interval which makes
for a long sit — some one and three quarter hours. Secondly, Alden gives us just one
physical location with no traditional “descent” into Hades, no Styx, no dark and flaming scenes
or flying deities. As the curtain rises we are taken to a large room — possibly a palace or
ducal space — floored, walled and canopied in a kind of giant parquet wood effect in
shades of brown. The costumes are non-specific modern: jeans or dresses with Tudor touches in
the form of the occasional ruff or slashed velvet doublet. A few high niches in the side walls are
the only entrances and exits for a necessarily agile cast of singers — each niche must have
been at least four feet from the boards. Apart from that, just an array of sofas and easy chairs
provided visual detail and a base for the assembly of singers who in turn played the wedding
guests, the chorus, the Furies and, the audience. Audience? Yes, in a way they were just that,
for in this production Alden and Nilon combine their talents to persuade us that this is not Orfeo
as hero, great lover or mystical muse; rather, he is Orfeo the Artist, the Performer, and subject to
all the angst therein. His great aria Possente spirto is delivered in the form of a nervous singer
giving an audition, complete with hastily-erected music stand, shaking hands and despairing
glances at an unmoved Caronte. Equally challenging to the paying audience was the way Alden
played with our expectations of the ill-fated Eurydice: she seems anything but delighted to be
marrying Orfeo, more than happy when dead, and — a typical Alden touch — when
masking-taped to a wall to denote her passage into the Underworld she is transmogrified into the
character of Speranza who encourages Orfeo to convince the infernal gatekeeper Caronte to let
him follow his love. Caronte spends his time sitting in one of the ubiquitous armchairs,
apparently reading the Obituaries column of the Times. A nice touch.
For some in the first night audience (a gratifyingly full house) these ideas pushed them out of
their comfort zone; but even if Alden’s love-affair with masking tape (used not only to fix poor
Eurydice upright to a wall, but also to delineate Pluto’s kingdom and occasionally confine Orfeo)
irritated some, then there could be no argument with the quality of the music making. Quite
simply it was fine, idiomatic, and intensely stylistic throughout without ever making the mistake
of sounding overly “old” or pedantic. Chris Moulds directed a twenty-strong period band, each
element of which accompanied different characters, different “affects”, in different parts of the
story — recorders, cornets, sackbuts and harp adding a rich sonority to the strings and
Of the singers, Paul Nilon of course has to carry much of the opera. This was his first attempt at
the character, which is surprising when one considers his great experience in baroque and
classical roles, but he rose to the challenge and indeed threw down another to singers currently
regarded as masters of the role. Nilon is superb when portraying disturbed or emotionally
tangled psyches — his Grimoaldo in Handel’s “Rodelinda” springs to mind. His Possente
Spirto e formidabil Nume, the great central pivot of the opera, was superbly sung, superbly acted.
If it lacked the icy elegance of an Ainsley or Bostridge, in the context of this production’s most
human of heroes, it convinced entirely. The desperation, the hope, the desire of every performer
to please an audience, in this case the implacable gatekeeper, was in every note and gesture of
this intensely written tour de force for the human voice.
The supporting roles were all consistently well sung and acted — Anna Stephany as
Eurydice/Speranza is fulfilling her promise as a young English singer to watch, her voice full and
coloured, nicely differentiated between the roles. Among the other female voices, Ann Taylor in
the dual roles of La Messagiera and Prosperina had a glorious bloom to her voice, and an
amusing stage presence when required. The minor male roles were equally consistent in quality
of singing — standouts last night being basses Graeme Broadbent (a cavernously voiced
Caronte), and Andrew Foster-Williams (a rather amusingly disinterested and randy Plutone).
There were no obvious vocal weak links and this alone is a testament to the strength in depth that
Opera North can command at present.
This quality was not lost on the local audience or guests: at the end of the performance there were
warm ovations for all concerned, well-deserved cheers for our Yorkshire-born Orfeo — and a
few cheerfully-received boos for the director. Certainly one can pick holes in some of the
director’s conceits in this production: the eliding of Eurydice’s rescue and second death for
instance, but safe to say both Alden and Opera North have upheld their avowed traditions in fine
© Sue Loder 2007