Recently in Performances
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
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