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.
16 Aug 2007
Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo”, Glimmerglass 2007 — Slattery rises to Alden’s challenging concept
The first masterpiece in the history of opera. That’s a tall order to live up to for any company and for any band of singers, especially those at the beginning of their careers.
But that’s what Glimmerglass Opera is all
about — pushing young singers on the cusp of international careers into the
limelight with challenges of this sort of calibre. Luckily for them, this is
an opera that has enjoyed a wealth of thought-provoking productions all
around the world in the past two decades, and an audience now much more at
ease with early 17th century musical forms than at any time since
L’Orfeo’s first performance 400 years ago.
To quote Gustav Leonhardt, Monteverdi “turned a page of musical history
and started to write a new chapter full of daring harmonies and (previously)
unheard human passions.” Unfortunately there is a dearth of instructions from the composer and so
nothing is writ in stone — yet, down through the years and certainly in the
many 20th and 21st century recordings of L’Orfeo, all
sorts of ideas as to how this juxtaposition of instrument and voice might be
realised have been attempted. However, one thing is certain: he demanded the
supremacy of the individual human voice in its eternal quest for
psychological and dramatic truth. So that too has to be a priority of any
staging: the voices and the story they tell must shine clear and unobstructed
by any misguided directorial conceits.
On that subject, this production directed by one of opera’s current
enfant terribles, Chris Alden, certainly tried the patience of many in the
audience. Having attended its premier at Opera North in England last year, I
was intrigued to see how Alden’s conceits had travelled to this very
different house, and different singers. I wrote then: “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.” Indeed he does, and on second
acquaintance, I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured than I was first
time around. It’s patchy; and although the idea of Orfeo as a troubled
artist/singer in some sort of faux ducal palace works very well, the eliding
of certain essential parts of the story — such as Eurydice’s rescue and
second death — just jar the sensibilities too much, as do many of the bits
of rather tired post-modernistic little “business” that the singers have
to carry. Endless yards of sticky tape (to confine Eurydice to Hades and also
to represent the Styx and now played more for laughs) and dozens of un-lit
cigarettes get boring so quickly. Having said that, as this is the
Glimmerglass Orpheus festival, in celebration of the great story’s many
transmogrifications, perhaps the challenging Alden approach is what’s
needed to keep the adrenaline running?
The pivotal and dominating role is of course that of Orfeo himself, where
muse and myth fuse into the legendary singer who descended into the
underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice, yet failed in the final
moments. The essential difference between first run in Leeds, and here was
the Orfeo. Paul Nilon in England concentrated on projecting a quite limpid,
gentle, musical soul whose journey and eventual failure seemed oh-so-human
and sympathetic. Here, Michael Slattery, a young American tenor and Juilliard
graduate, was a very different kettle of fish. Resembling more a wild, wilful
and wasted rock star of the 80's or 90's, his lithe body often seeming to
project emotion and nervous energy as clearly as his admirably coloured
tenor. His second act vocal climax, the virtuosic "Possente spirto", where
the singer has to “audition” his way past Caronte at the gates of Hell,
is 10 minutes of some of the most difficult vocal writing that Monteverdi (or
his contemporaries) ever committed to paper. Slattery’s performance was a
lesson in dramatic singing - the young poet/singer grew more desperate, more
anxious, as his words seemed to fail him in his quest. If some tonal beauty
was lost in the service of the drama, then it was a risk worth taking.
He was well supported by some spirited and effective singing from the rest
of the cast, who doubled as the Chorus, although some were more committed to
(and comfortable with) early music performance practice than others. Of note
were Megan Monaghan as Eurydice/Speranza and bass Christopher Temporelli as
Matching them and Slattery in musical commitment was the orchestra under
Antony Walker whose strong musical sense and understanding of idiom enabled
the period instrument-augmented Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra to sound
remarkably “authentic”. At this sort of festival with five widely varying
works in repertory through the summer, one cannot expect scholarly exactitude
from the players or the instruments they use — but with some clever
adjustments (such as substituting the original cornetti with muted piccolo
trumpets) and additions (three theorbos to augment the continuo
accompaniment) Walker and his players gave a most satisfactory approximation
to the real thing.
© Sue Loder 2007
Performances continue August 14th, 17th, 20th, 23rd, and 25th.
For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office
(607) 547-2255 and more information from the website: http://www.glimmerglass.org