02 Mar 2008
Short on the sides and Full On Top
Perhaps the most beloved comic opera, Rossini’s Il barbière di Siviglia has never left the repertoire.
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.
Perhaps the most beloved comic opera, Rossini’s Il barbière di Siviglia has never left the repertoire.
With its struggle between love and greed, youth and age, its general joie de vivre, along with gem after gem of “hummable” musical numbers, it is an audience favorite. Myriad opportunities for sheer technical dazzle give connoisseurs an opportunity to savor the more refined vocal moments of the evening. Lyric Opera’s current run of Barbiere, seemingly like Opera itself at the turn of the Millennium strives to please all of the people all of the time, succeeding both as high art and as showpiece. The opera’s elements seem traditional enough, and yet, even a perfunctory glance beneath the surface yields deeper levels of meaning. John Conklin’s sets, which were inspired by the work of Magritte are representational, with surrealist elements. Likewise, Michael Stennets’ costumes were both traditional and whimsical.
A Barbiere resounds or thuds because of style, comic insight, and vocal ingenuity. Lyric’s Barbiere managed to sparkle mostly because of the immense talent of Joyce DiDonato, who, in her house debut as Rosina, was both vocally and dramatically a perfect fit for the role. It must be said that DiDonato is a revelation. Her cavatina, “Una voce poco fa” was a lesson in bel canto tradition. DiDonato’s ornaments were rapid-fire and athletic, inspired, appropriate. The voice was exciting in the top with warmth to spare in the lower and middle registers. It must also be said that DiDonato is an engaging actress; her Rosina was sympathetic and charming. During “Una voce poco fa”, when the text returns, “Io son docile”, in an inspired moment, DiDonato threw a mini-tantrum, juxtaposing Rosina’s outward subservience with her inward rebellion. “Contra un cor”, Rosina’s second act aria, was staged as a “voice lesson” and DiDonato was uproariously funny in her impersonation of an amateur singer, placing her hands on various parts of the body to simulate physicalized learning. When DiDonato’s Rosina looks to Bartolo for approval, Bartolo furthers the joke by making hand gestures that suggested voice placement and grace. DiDonato’s triumph was complete when, immediately before the cadenza, she mimed exaggeratedly deep breathing.
Opposite DiDonato is John Osborn, who replaced Juan Diego Florez, the scheduled Almaviva, at the 11th hour. Florez’s return had been much anticipated by Chicago operagoers, and so Osborn’s bravery in assuming the star mantle should be commended. Osborn does not suffer greatly by comparison to the singer he replaces. His leggero voice coasts easily through the score, which is notoriously difficult for singers who are less equipped for this specialty role. In fact, the finale “Cessa di più resitere” is often cut because of its fiendish difficulty. The tenor wins the audience with his agility and stratosphereic finale. If criticism must be given, it is that Osborn’s voice takes a moment to warm up; his “Ecco ridente in cielo” is perhaps a little heavier than the rest of his singing in the evening, but he sails through the cabaletta with only a little effort and by the second scene, sighs through the recit with a lyricism not often heard from singers in major houses.
Sung by American pin-up baritone Nathan Gunn, the production’s Figaro is a treat, not only for the sporty physique, which the actor proudly displays during his “Largo al factotum” (staged as a dressing scene), but also for his generous singing. Contrary to some critical opinion, this listener finds Gunn’s voice to be adequate of weight for such a large venue as the Civic Opera House. Gunn had no trouble projecting over full orchestra for his arias and duets, but, surprisingly, he drops several syllables of his recitatives, with only a harpsichord to balance. A little more careful detail to vocal energy may be in order, but the singer’s execution is enjoyable, and Gunn’s relaxed air on stage is very welcome.
Joyce DiDonato as Rosina and John Osborn as Count Almaviva
Baritone Philip Krauss gives a serviceable Doctor Bartolo. His reading paled in comparison to the lovers; however, his diction is crisp, and his aria “La calunnia è un venticello” was richer for it. Also of note is his lovely falsetto that we enjoyed in the opening bars of “Quando mi sei vicina”. In spite of his best efforts, Maestro Donato Renzetti fails in his attempt to encourage the orchestra to play so loud as to cover the singers during the quintet, and the overture, surprisingly slow, was out of tune.
Still, this Barbière is a must see for anyone who loves this comic work, and anyone who treasures the bel canto tradition is foolish to ignore the opportunity to hear Ms. DiDonato teach us how Rossini must be sung.
Gregory Peebles © 2008