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.
10 Feb 2008
Madam Butterfly at ENO
Anthony Minghella's visually-arresting staging, a co-production with New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera, returned this month to its original home at the London Coliseum after a gap of two years.
Michael Levine's set designs and Peter Mumford's lighting are utterly beautiful, from the floating lanterns and curtain of flowers which descend upon Butterfly and Pinkerton on their wedding night to the dramatic brush-stroke effect of the unravelling of Butterfly's crimson obi at her suicide. Despite Minghella's film credentials, it is not a cinematic approach as such, though the steep rake and the giant mirror above the stage create a 'widescreen' effect which suits the shape of the Coliseum's stage and concentrates the eye.
Although the staging keeps Pinkerton as very much a one-dimensional character, the production's Bunraku puppetry – expertly supplied by Blind Summit Theatre – gives the audience a little glimpse into the beliefs and perceptions which cause him to act the way he does. The exquisitely lifelike puppets, most notably used to portray Butterfly's son, blur the boundaries between artifice and reality, and it becomes almost easy to accept Pinkerton's perception of the Japanese as pretty playthings, not quite real. Sometimes the puppets seem more natural than the human performers.
Indeed, there is a risk with such a staging that it could sacrifice substance for style, and as such it needs a very strong cast to balance it out and reach the heart of Puccini's opera . I confess I was apprehensive about Judith Howarth's debut in the title role, as her (very successful) career has been almost entirely in the lyric coloratura repertoire. I need not have worried; the soft-grained, pearly quality of her soprano, though not the sound we are used to hearing in the role, proved equal to Puccini's characteristically heavy scoring and an appropriate timbre for this most youthful of operatic heroines. Her stage presence and mannerisms were just as credible, and she was shattering in her vulnerability. It was perhaps a misjudgement to pair her with as vocally powerful a Suzuki as the excellent Karen Cargill, but this is really a minor criticism.
As Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones, returning from the original run of the production, was in fine voice. He was allowed 'Addio, fiorito asil' despite the modern fashion to do without it, but it seems superficial. Sharpless – the one character who can see the situation from every angle and is left with the responsibility for damage limitation – was given a warm and dignified portrayal by Ashley Holland.
Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton / Ashley Holland as Sharpless
Musically this revival was in every way superior to the original run in 2005. David Parry was once again in the pit, giving a sensitive and never self-indulgent reading of the score. Words came across well, except in parts of Act 1; members of ENO's chorus made clearly-defined characters of their cameo roles as wedding guests. But above all it was a remarkable personal triumph for Judith Howarth.
Ruth Elleson © 2008
Karen Cargill as Suzuki / Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly