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.
06 May 2008
Punch & Judy at ENO
English National Opera’s production of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Punch and Judy’ is the company’s second collaboration with the Young Vic Theatre — following the premiere of Neuwirth’s ‘Lost Highway’ a few weeks earlier — and remarkably, also the second London production of this early Birtwistle work within a month, the previous one having been at the Linbury Studio Theatre, a collaboration between Music Theatre Wales and the Royal Opera.
ENO has one particular coup up its sleeve. There can be few singers as
well-suited to the grotesque, tragic-comic figure of Mr Punch as the baritone
Andrew Shore, one of ENO’s most distinguished regular guests and a
first-rate singing actor. In full puppet costume, he is the cross between a
naughty child, a vicious murderous thug and a sinister nightmare figure
— a nightmare which eventually implodes on him with the full force of
half-a-dozen Punch clones and the ghosts of his victims.
Giles Cadle’s set and costume designs go all-out to replicate the iconic
‘Punch and Judy show’ look, in primary colours that look slightly shabby and
sun-bleached. The stage is a circus-ring with a canopy of brightly-coloured
fairy lights. But at the back, a freshly-dug grave is a reminder of the
macabre inevitability with which Punch’s serial murders will be carried
Ashley Holland strikes an imposing figure as the Choregos, a Greek
chorus-like figure who acts as a master of ceremonies, a narrator and moral
judge, but who falls victim to Punch just like all the others. It is the
Choregos and his murder that first blur the distinction between make-believe
and reality, an idea which Daniel Kramer’s staging takes further by stripping
away the puppet-costumes from the protagonists as events progress and the
moral themes of the piece are developed. Most — including the Doctor
and Lawyer, played by Graeme Broadbent and Graham Clark respectively —
reach this state of human nakedness at the point at which Punch kills them.
As for Punch himself, by the time he comes to feel remorse for the murder of
his baby — the first of his crimes — he is no more than a bald,
half-dressed, vulnerable human being. Only Gillian Keith’s ringletted,
hyperactive doll of a Pretty Polly remains in ‘character', a fantasy figure
to the last.
Birtwistle’s brutally uncompromising score — which supposedly upset
Benjamin Britten so much at the work’s premiere that he walked out of the
performance — is usually subtle and understated, atonal but far from
tuneless. It juxtaposes banal nursery-ditties with ‘Passion chorales’ and
tragic monologue. The insouciance of the little motif with which Punch shrugs
off each murder strikes a vivid contrast with the murdered Judy’s plea for
Punch’s reform, sung by the versatile American mezzo Lucy Schaufer.
Credit is due to the cast for managing to get the majority of Steven
Pruslin’s wordplay-filled libretto across, and to conductor Leo Hussain
(sharing the opera’s five-night run with ENO’s Music Director, Edward
Gardner) for maintaining such dramatic coherence in the music.
A scene from Punch and Judy
Ruth Elleson © 2008