02 Oct 2007
Carmen at ENO
There is a certain onerous responsibility in developing a new production of Carmen at a major house.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
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Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.
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Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.
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Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
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Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.
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.
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.
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