21 Apr 2008
OONY Performs Puccini's Edgar
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
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.
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
You know the bad ones, the reputedly great unknown score that, like a defective Frankenstein’s monster, refuses to come to life under her listless thunderbolt, the overparted “name” star, the clueless newbies – but there have also been great Queler nights, where a forgotten masterpiece made everybody’s eyes shine (while we wonder why on earth this is obscure), familiar singers do things you never dreamed they could do, and the unknown names are names everyone will know someday, are, well, great opera nights. Edgar was a blend of familiar (Puccini melody) and unfamiliar (but those tunes were better in other scores), with a star giving a star performance, a couple of promising youngsters, and an oldster out of depth and style but camping it up to thrill us.
Edgar is like some disreputable relation you always enjoy running into for their exuberance and oddity, and are grateful not to meet at every family party. Puccini’s second opera and first full-length effort deserves its obscurity (which is legend); one hears it nowadays mostly from a lack of anything else to scrape from the exhausted barrel of the later Italian line. (Though another association, Teatro Gratticielo, has done an impressive job resuscitating verismo works of unexpected worthiness and charm.)
The problem for Puccini – as no one knew at the time but we easily detect in hindsight – is that he didn’t quite know how to tug our heartstrings with a male protagonist. The women here are a study in contrast (goody-goody soprano, wicked, sexy mezzo), but neither has enough room, musically or dramatically, to become a living, memorable figure. Why is Tigrana such a shallow sensualist? Because she’s a Gypsy foundling? But Carmen, to take another such, has a range, an inner life, a distinctive outlook in any single act of Bizet’s opera that makes Tigrana seem an irritable child. Why is Fidelia so loving, no matter the provocation? Is it because of her name? The story takes us no deeper than that. (Again: compare Bizet’s Micaela, a fully-rounded person with a comprehensible inner life.) Puccini could make a drama out of sympathetic or unsympathetic women – but he could not (at this early stage) make one from a pair of cardboard shadows.
Therefore the outpourings of self-disgusted melody from Puccini’s protagonist (though they produce a terrific night for the right tenor, and Marcello Giordani, our best Puccini tenor nowadays, was in clover) may arouse applause but they never create interest in the outcome of this bitter little story of a man caught between a saint and a whore. The only question: will Tigrana stab herself? Or will she stab the neurotic Edgar? Or the innocent Fidelia? is not very interesting. (Which would you choose, if your objective was to shock your audience? And that was always Puccini’s aspiration.)
Queler has conducted this score before, an occasion I barely remember: it is difficult to imagine Renata Scotto sinking her teeth into Fidelia to any great degree (there’s so little meat), but Grace Bumbry surely had fun with Tigrana and we missed her on Sunday. Edgar is a lush score with verismo outpourings but also a grand concertato near the end of Act I left over from bel canto style (Puccini never wrote such a thing again) and several “ecclesiastical” numbers (vespers, a requiem) that were perfect for his family tradition.
Giordani sang with a bright, metallic sheen and an ease conspicuously lacking in his Met Ernani. It was a performance of little variety, agreeably loud (and OONY regulars like it loud), but with some interesting colors during the character’s scenes of teeth-gnash self-loathing, which include a sermon in disguise at his own funeral.
Latonia Moore, one of Queler’s stable of rising young sopranos, has a sumptuous, beautiful, crowd-pleasing voice, but it was not clear from separate, limpid, often wonderful phrases if she can put things together into a fully rounded presentation because sweet Fidelia offers such slight opportunity to do so. But the notes themselves were so wonderfully produced that one longed to hear her in more familiar repertory to see if she’s the real thing – too many ladies have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the Verdi/Puccini soprano we all long to die for.
Jennifer Larmore, alarmingly pudgy a couple of years ago, is now alarmingly rail-thin. Her acting was suitably over the top for Tigrana the heartless vamp (Theda Bara couldn’t have outplayed her), but the voice (never a Puccini-verismo voice) was not up to the role: the luscious dark colors that floored us when she first came on the scene are completely gone, and she sounded thin, overstretched, unsensuous. This role was written for a blockbuster mezzo – where was Dolora Zajick when we needed her? (Stephanie Blythe or Olga Borodina would have had fun with it, too. And all three have sung with Queler.) Larmore was all pose and gown, and she appeared to have stolen the gown from Karita Mattila’s recital wardrobe.
Stephen Gaertner, a frequent figure in concert operas and a recent Met debutante (Enrico, Melot), was impressive as Fidelia’s manic brother, Frank. “Parli il pugnale,” he and Giordani cried at one point – “Our swords will speak for us!” – when they are about to do dubious battle over Tigrana’s much contested (living) body. That tells us right there that the story is too archaic for the era Puccini lived in.
Fortunately, the swords did not do the singing.