02 Oct 2007
Carmen at ENO
There is a certain onerous responsibility in developing a new production of Carmen at a major house.
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?
There is a certain onerous responsibility in developing a new production of Carmen at a major house.
The theatre will always be full; the audience will contain both opera aficionados who need something they haven’t seen a million times before, and the newcomers who are the holy grail of the opera house’s marketing strategy and who need to be given a reason to return to see other operas in future. There are really two ways one can go — either a fairly traditional staging or an innovative reinterpretation — but above all, it’s important to achieve the near-impossible aim of being all things to all people. The drama needs to be compelling, and preferably interesting too.
It was common knowledge that film director Sally Potter, whose new production opened English National Opera’s 2007/08 season, was to go down the ‘innovative reinterpretation’ route. As such, it was inevitable that this most familiar of operas would be removed from its familiar setting in order to rid it of its well-worn stereotypes.
So where was it set? Good question. The first act, with its music full of sunshine and midday heat, was set in some dimly-lit wasteland populated by security guards (in place of soldiers) and cheap whores (in place of cigarette girls). Who were they to us? It was impossible to recognise these people or to empathise with them — and it was impossible to follow the thread of the drama, as the decision to cut all dialogue reduced the opera-comique structure to a song-and-dance show.
It became clear later on that we were probably supposed to be in Britain: in the final act we headed for the customary Spanish bullring, with the chorus as a horde of boorish British tourists (enabled by Christopher Cowell’s very liberal translation). So why, for the first three acts, were none of the characters recognisable to a British audience — and what on earth was a star Spanish toreador (David Kempster) doing in a bar in an English back street? Surely the coincidental appearance of a key character in an entirely unlikely situation is one of the most enduring of operatic clichés, and therefore anathema to Potter’s concept (it didn’t appear to be intentionally ironic). The third act of course took place at an airport, the home of the present-day smuggler; you can imagine why three girls might have a go at fortune-telling to pass the time, but not why one of their number might take it quite so seriously.
Fullstage with Alice Coote (Carmen) in foreground
There were some striking moments - tellingly, they were those where the singers were left to sing, as if in concert, against an almost plain backdrop. Micaela and José’s duet benefitted from this; so did Micaela’s aria, lustrously sung by the young American soprano Katie van Kooten in her company debut. The final scene was quite riveting, with José maniacally terrifying and Carmen an emotional wreck.
Fortunately there was also plenty of energy in the music. ENO’s new Music Director, Edward Gardner, conducted with poised tension and enjoyed the climaxes, and there was a lot of fine singing, not least in the title role. According to the press release and some of the advance publicity, Alice Coote was recovering from a viral infection — there was no announcement before the performance, and she sounded on fair if not top form. The problem was that she was seriously miscast. Although the veiled smokiness of her mezzo brings something very alluring to the role, it’s not a voice equal to the weight of the music and, more troublingly, her body language simply didn’t match it. She moved awkwardly, and was not helped by her costumes — for most of the opera she was incongruously dressed like a traditional Carmen. Opposite her, Julian Gavin was a blazingly passionate and believable Don José once he got going, but David Kempster failed to bring the necessary vocal suavity to Escamillo.
Ironically, the operatically-inexperienced Potter’s intention to escape cliché resulted in a production in the manner of many of ENO’s productions of the past few years (bearing a particularly strong resemblance to David Freeman’s controversial Otello in 1998) punctuated by some Spanish flavour supplied by unremarkably-choreographed tango dancing. Whatever the intention, a disservice was done to the piece, and to opera buffs and newcomers alike. Although the third and fourth acts worked reasonably well on their own terms, it was Sally Potter’s Carmen, not Bizet’s.
Ruth Elleson © 2007