Recently in Performances
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
21 Jun 2007
Lully’s Psyché at Boston Early Music Festival
There’s not much point in presenting Lully’s Psyché (in its North American premiere no less) unless you’re going to give it something vaguely like the grandeur Louis XIV could command in 1678.
In a down-home way, Boston’s biennial Early Music Festival achieved this to a remarkable
extent: instrumentalists and singers from the front ranks of antique performing practice led by
BEMF’s longtime opera conductors, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the staging glamorous
but basic, with elaborate dance interludes that were always a significant part of (often the
principal excuse for) opera in France, costumes worthy of a costume ball at Versailles, and
elaborate stage machinery — there’s a whole lot of flying going on, and entrances are made from
above as often as from the wings.
Opera is not a word Lully or his collaborators used for such pieces, and indeed at that point no
one in France was quite sure what “opera” meant. Tragédie lyrique, a sung and acted drama, was
the thing. Lully’s dignified and magical creations soon circulated about Western Europe. Much
of the singing is declamation of stately rather than lyrical melody, a grand manner passed on via
Rameau to Gluck, Berlioz and Poulenc. (Wagner made effective use of it too.) This can be
unsettling to the average operagoer, accustomed to the song-like manner of Italian opera; but the
appreciative audience at the jewel-box Cutler Majestic Theater, accustomed to the stylistic
vagaries of older music, ate it up. What gave more pause is another enduring eccentricity of
French style: the equal rights accorded to ballet. There are dances throughout Psyché, and the
piece concludes with a good half hour of it. This was very prettily achieved in the court manner,
but the Boston audience wearied about halfway through the long finale. This is not to fault Lucy
Graham, the choreographer, who found exceptional variety in the fixed gestures and poses of
court dance, and introduced several whimsical interludes, including a ten-minute “commedia
dell’ arte” mimed by the traditional Italian figures. (The enormous and obviously devoted
production team included a “Vocal and Gesture Coach.”)
The story is the late classical myth of Psyche (“Soul”), the mortal so beautiful that a jealous
Venus vows to destroy her. Venus’s son (L’Amour in the French version), charged with the girl’s
destruction, falls for her himself and carries her off to a magical palace where, however, she is
forbidden to see what he looks like. Of course, she cheats (cf. Lohengrin and Bluebeard) — in
Psyché, it’s because Venus tricks her into doing so — and he leaves her. To get him back, Psyche
must descend to the Underworld to fetch Venus a box of beauty from its queen, Proserpine. Of
course, she peeks into the box and is lost — but this time the gods relent, Jupiter promotes her to
goddess, and all ends happily with the Soul mated to Divine Love. (The subtext, as program
essays made plan, concerned the love affair of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.)
Among the singers, as was only proper, the finest had the largest parts: Carolyn Sampson, the
pretty Psyché, who sang and acted her long role with conviction and sweet, untiring tone, and
Karina Gauvin, as Venus, the opera’s heavy, a role she acquitted with great verve. The episodic
narrative included many charming episodes, wittily staged — for instance a marital spat between
Gauvin and Colin Balzer, whose lyrical tenor seemed far too attractive for Vulcan, the
hardworking smith-god: “You always side with lovers and against husbands,” he sang to her, and
the joke was as good in 2007 as in 1678. Lully wrote the Furies — usually visualized as
shrieking women — for three low male voices, and the production accordingly presented three
men in black, seventeenth-century drag to berate the heroine for intruding upon the dead.
L’Amour was acted and, for a line or two, sung, by a winged child actor in order to conform to
Cupid’s traditional iconography, but for the wedding night the god magically adopted the form of
a full-grown tenor the better to sing duets with. Of the mostly able singers in the many smaller
roles, countertenor José Lemos as Silenus had a ravishing sound one would be eager to encounter