02 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes by Opera North
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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.
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
It doesn’t get quite the international attention it deserves, however, because it’s based “up North”, as Londoners would say, in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland. This award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes shows why the company earns its excellent reputation.
Opera North has a real affinity for Britten, so with Phyllida Lloyd as director, this production is something of a milestone in Peter Grimes performance. Lloyd’s style grows from the inner dynamic of the opera. Everything focuses on the music, nothing distracts. The curtain lifts to reveal the corpse of the apprentice who died of thirst while lost at sea. It’s a metaphor for the whole opera. In the trial scene, Grimes is fenced in, claustrophobically, by a wall of pallets, held up by the townsfolk. Later these pallets are the bastions of the church, and the walls of the pub. It’s a simple device but effective, underlining the fundamental conflict between Grimes and the populace who inoculate themselves from the outside world with prayer and drink. Britten embeds this dichotomy firmly within his music. The “church” chorus and Ellen Orford’s monologue with the boy exist in parallel, without interaction. There’s drama enough in the orchestra, so Lloyd keeps things simple. Similarly, she doesn’t need to depict the sea, as such. Britten’s cadences sweep upwards and down like waves. “A ceaseless motion”, goes the text, “comes and goes like the tide,…rolls and ebbs, terrible and deep”.
This uncompromising focus on the drama in the music intensifies the disturbing psychological aspects of the opera. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Grimes was perceptive : he’s not meant to be sympathetic, but neither is he an object of hate. He may be cruelly insensitive, but both boys died of natural causes. This role requires a wide range, which Lloyd-Roberts delivers. He created Grimes when this production was premièred in October 2006, and much of the depth of the characterisation is due to him. If on this particular evening, his voice was a little tired at first, he vindicated himself totally in the “What is home” scene, when Grimes confronts the horror of his situation. This time, “the tide will not turn”, he will not “begin again”. The intensity of Lloyd-Roberts performance makes his decision to die at sea completely logical. That last scene, where the townsfolk sing of the tide pulling back out to sea “with string magnetic speed” was magical. Grimes is absorbed into the sea, and for a few moments, something quite magical happens in the orchestra, as the strings surge and the flute rises luminously above. This ending was brilliant, for Lloyd understands that, throughout the opera, Britten has stressed the relentless hard grind of the fishermen’s lives. “This unrelenting work”, as Ellen sings, that lets up for no man. So as the music fades, but on stage, the rhythm of life continues…..it’s a small detail, but expressing the spirit of the opera very perceptively.
Unlike some more matronly Ellen Orfords, Giselle Allen‘s vibrant characterisation gave a strong sexual charge to her relationship with Grimes. This is important to the interpretation of the opera, because it shows why Grimes drives himself so hard, because he wants to make a new life with Ellen, whom he sees as his redemption. He pushes his apprentices harshly because life at sea is harsh, as no doubt he learned himself a boy. Sexuality is a theme in this opera, from which this production bravely does not shirk away. The townsfolk hint that there’s something unhealthy about Grimes and his boys, so they mount a witch hunt. The chorus “Bring the branding iron and fire” was sung with frenzied energy, hinting that perhaps Grimes wasn’t the only person with desires to suppress. Indeed, Britten makes this clear in the text. Auntie and her “nieces” most certainly provide an outlet for some. As Auntie says, she and her girls say, “we comfort men”. One of the more disturbing, but entirely trenchant, aspects of this production was that the nieces were portrayed as children, one wearing pink and blue with white knee
socks. She’s underage, just like the boys Grimes is hunted down for harming. When she’s propositioned by the town lawyer, that pillar of society, the text is painfully explicit, but some productions shy away. Currently in the UK news, there’s a huge story about child abuse in Jersey, apparently covered up by official whitewash, so watching this production was decidedly uncomfortable. But it serves to show that Britten knew far more about hypocrisy and sexual bullying than he was able to articulate. In 1945, productions couldn’t really confront these issues openly. Now, we are unfortunately more able to appreciate just how deeply Britten understood the pain.
Yet Britten doesn’t judge. In contrast, Mrs Smedley delights in judging. “Crime is my hobby” she says. Although she’s right to be concerned about the boys, her motivation isn’t their welfare, but her own enjoyment of misery. Ethna Robinson’s Mrs Smedley bristles with barely contained hysteria, in contrast to Jonathan Summer’s Captain Balstrode, who stands for common sense. Good vignette parts all round, especially Yvonne Howard’s Auntie and Roderick Williams’s Ned Keene.
Claire Booth as Niece 2, Yvonne Howard as Auntie and Amy Freston as Niece 1.
Britten valued the orchestral elements in this opera so much that the Sea Interludes are often performed on their own as concert pieces. Farnes’s conducting was precise and muscular : there’s ambiguity aplenty in the music, so there shouldn’t be in performance. The solos, flute, violin and oboe were particularly moving, like extra voices, commenting on the action. What made this production, however, was the way it was built around the music. A lot of fuss is made of directing style, but in this case, the direction served totally to reveal deeper levels of meaning. The secret, I suspect, is “know your composer” and “know your opera”, through and through. Anyone wanting further evidence of Lloyd’s work with Opera North on Britten might be interested in their DVD of Gloriana.
Anne Ozorio © 2008