Recently in Performances
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.)
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
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.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
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.
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.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
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).
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’.
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.
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.
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