28 Oct 2007
The Coronation of Poppea — English National Opera
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
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?
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
Having collaborated in the past with choreographers including Mark Morris, the company is now two thirds of the way through a Monteverdi opera cycle in collaboration with Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng, the Orange Blossom Dance Company from Indonesia, and the early-music specialist conductor Laurence Cummings. A precedent was set by the opening opera of the cycle in spring 2005 — an Orfeo of spectacularly hypnotic, fluid beauty.
The company début of rising British singer Kate Royal as Poppea was an additional selling point for this second opera in the cycle. She's a glamorous singer, with a polished sultriness in her low-lying soprano, but the stage directions prevented her from painting a convincing character portrait; she spent much of the first act perched high on the deck of Nerone’s luxury yacht (yes, there was a surreal marine theme to the production, with much of the action apparently taking place underwater) which made her untouchable and aloof. Projected images on the backdrop reinforced this idea; she was an icon, virtually a graven image to be worshipped. Despite Royal’s natural poise and elegance, there was little sense of Poppea’s earthy sexiness nor of her calculating ambition.
Lucy Crowe (Drusilla) and Robert Lloyd (Seneca) had an easier time of it, and managed to make something believable of their roles; Christopher Gillett’s Arnalta looked (intentionally) ridiculous but sang very beautifully at times.
Otherwise, the cast was a bit weak and underpowered. It is, perhaps, unfair to blame the singers for this; Monteverdi operas were not designed for a space the size of the Coliseum. Tim Mead's Ottone started off with that slightly yelpy sound which countertenors get when they over-project (though he sorted this out by the second half). Anna Grevelius, as Nerone, sang very sweetly but didn't project any masculinity either vocally or physically - certainly not enough to convince as an egomaniacal ruler. Doreen Curran’s Ottavia had considerable vocal presence, but her characterisation wasn’t aided by the fact that the director had her languishing on top of what looked like a large white pumpkin at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, the costumes and props seemed incidental to the opera, and at times even a hindrance. Sometimes it was more like a fashion show, with wacky structured haute-couture costumes which made me wonder whether we'd accidentally strayed into the Zandra Rhodes-designed Aida a few weeks early.
Katherine Manley (Fortune) / Sophie Bevan (Love) / Jane Harrington (Virtue) and Orange Blossom Dance Co
The Indonesian dance troupe were usually incidental to — indeed, often distracting from — the action rather than providing the unifying, mesmerising presence they supplied to last year’s wonderful Orfeo. The production did have moments of real beauty - like the dancers in the dragonfly costumes rising slowly into the air during "Pur ti miro". And there was great beauty in the music — is it even possible not to make this score beautiful? Laurence Cummings really understands Monteverdian line and seemed to have taken considerable trouble to share this with the cast.
But compared with Orfeo, with its sense of "flow" and constantly visually-arresting use of colour and movement, this Poppea staging was scrappy and disappointing. In truth, the biggest problems were the failure to communicate the humanity of the characters, and the fundamental sense of division between the musical performance and the visual spectacle. Chen Shi-Zheng has shown himself to be yet another director who allows his personal vision for a production to take priority over the work being performed. ENO still has him lined up to direct Il ritorno d’Ulisse and I really hope he engages more with that than he seems to have done with Poppea.
Ruth Elleson © 2007