20 Mar 2007
Teseo — Handel by the Sea
Nice Opera, on the French Cote d’Azur, seemed a most suitable place for this early work by Handel.
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?
Nice Opera, on the French Cote d’Azur, seemed a most suitable place for this early work by Handel.
The opera house itself is a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean and, with the pale blue shallows merging into the proverbial “wine dark sea” of legend beyond, it didn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to envisage these waters carrying the ships of Theseus, Aegeus and Medea to their immortality. Helping this conceit along was the fact that this particular production designed by Gilbert Blin and conducted from the violin by Gilbert Bezzina pulled absolutely no punches in terms of the oft-maligned term “authentic”. If the great man himself had time-travelled from 1714 to 2007 and walked into the theatre as the curtain rose, he surely would have nodded approvingly at everything he saw beyond the footlights and, mostly, heard from the pit.
Make no mistake; this was very serious opera seria. From the painted clouds to the bewigged and silken-gowned protagonists, from the hand-shaken thunder machine to the monsters rolled on from the sides, this was as near to an authentic experience of baroque opera as might be achieved today. Its quaint charm - not to mention the gorgeous stuffs of the costumes - beguiled the eye at every turn. So much so in fact, that it was all too easy to almost ignore occasional vocal lapses that elsewhere in a starker, more real-politik, setting might have been more prominent.
These lapses were highlighted by the fact that in terms of even Handel’s soundscapes, Teseo is unusual. There is no bass or tenor role, and the characters are sung by sopranos (both male and female), mezzo-sopranos and, today, counter-tenors. When the mixed chorus including lower voices occasionally makes a vocal entrance it thus has a surprisingly sonorous effect. The mainly French speaking cast of principles are not widely known beyond western Europe: soprano Brigitte Hool as the heroine Agilea, who loves Teseo, the returning warrior to the court of King Egeo, was by far the most accomplished and appealing of voices on display with a nice line in delicate ornamentation, good diction and a charming stage personality. In contrast, the wicked-witch character of Medea, that epitome of woman-wronged and vengeful, sung by mezzo soprano Aurelia Legay, was anything but delicate – except in volume which was sadly lacking in the early Acts. By the fourth and fifth she seemed to have found her full voice, but a little late. Egeo, not a large role, was sung by the very experienced French counter-tenor Pascal Bertin who showed a real baroque feel for this music, if not exactly setting the stage alight with his vocalism. The “sub-plot” pair of lovers, so often used by Handel to fill out the stories and the score, were sung by soprano Valerie Gabail (Clitia) and young French counter-tenor Damien Guillon (Arcane). The latter was certainly the most exciting discovery of the performance with a firm vocal production, consistent through the range, and with true alto warmth with no hootiness or recourse to root voice. A young man to watch in this field. Of the principles, that leaves the title role, and here there was disappointment. Having heard male soprano Jacek Laszczowski sing this role in England last year, it was perturbing to hear his obvious vocal problems throughout this production. They seemed to centre on his inability to produce his male soprano effectively in the lower reaches of the recitatives and ariosi. The sounds produced then were not pleasant – in contrast to some of his arias where when he sang at the top of the staff and beyond and his voice produced both beautiful pianissimos and clarion fortes. Let us hope that this is a temporary situation.
Apart from the singers and costumes, much of the authentic feel of this production came from the musical support of the “Ensemble baroque de Nice” – one of the major baroque groups in southern France – ably if somewhat pedantically led from the violin by their Director, Gilbert Bezzina. One could not argue with his reading of the score, but his tempi sometimes dragged down an already-top-heavy (if only by the huge wigs) staging even more than was perhaps inevitable.
Sue Loder © 2007