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.
13 Jul 2008
CANDIDE – English National Opera, London Coliseum
Originating at the Châtelet, where the narration was given in French, Robert Carsen's staging of Bernstein's unique satire worked rather well in its television broadcast from the Parisian house late in 2006.
It is set inside a giant television in America at some unspecified point in the 1950s or 1960s (though there are references to events spanning the past sixty years), one conceit of the production is that Candide's childhood home is the White House, and his adoptive parents the President and First Lady. Voltaire's imaginary land of Westphalia becomes 'West Failure', an overt joke at the expense of the US, and Pangloss's unfailingly 'optimistic' philosophical teachings become an all-too-recognisable depiction of a country whose administration prefers to brainwash its younger generation into acceptance and support of its professed moral and religious values while employing questionable (and often downright hypocritical) ethical practices both at home and in its foreign policy.
The overture is accompanied by a film depicting various aspects of American life, principally the ‘American Dream’. It was an inventive compilation with each new musical theme coinciding with a new theme in the film: the fast tune from ‘Glitter and be Gay’, for example, took us to the glamour of Monroe-era Hollywood, and the splash of the final cadence became an exploding Coca-Cola sponsorship logo. We are then introduced to Act 1 by a cartoon Voltaire giving a wink and a one-fingered salute in the manner of a Monty Python animation vignette.
The deeply cynical operetta juxtaposes sunny innocence and the worst excesses of human darkness right from the start, with Pangloss and 'Voltaire' (both roles played by the singing actor Alex Jennings) blithely recounting the young protagonists' encounters with military brutality, massacre and rape as though it were a natural progression from the privileged idyll of the opening scene. The characters hop from country to country, meeting appalling fate after appalling fate and somehow always coming out the other side. Almost all the characters have a surreal habit of surviving their own deaths on multiple occasions; all in all nothing much ever changes in the world, no matter how great the growth in wisdom and self-knowledge of its individual citizens.
Rumon Gamba's conducting was often rather pedestrian, but the cast was reasonably strong. In the title role, Toby Spence was soulful and likeable, his boyish blond looks and clear tenor ideal for the gullible hero. In appearance and character he was well-matched by Anna Christy's Cunégonde, though the amplification system was unkind to her very focussed glassy soprano and she was often shrill (though at least her American accent is natural; the rest of the cast had varying degrees of success with theirs.) Mairéad Buicke's Paquette was lively, and Mark Stone's Maximilian was the most attractive voice on offer. Beverly Klein supplied the best all-round value as the Old Lady; her tango number 'I am easily assimilated' was the most successful set-piece of the evening, more so even than the more obviously showy 'Glitter and be Gay'.
Toby Spence as Candide & Anna Christy as Cunegonde
The main problem with the staging is that the concept – while supplying good value in terms of funny situations and surreal humour – rides roughshod over the wit and satire in the piece itself. A stab at 21st-century topical comedy – with a parade of five contemporary politicians lazing on inflatable mattresses atop an oil slick – fell absolutely flat, and should be consigned to the cutting-room floor before the production travels any further. Furthermore, the characters remained cartoonish and two-dimensional, and I never felt much sympathy for any of them – the plot relies upon each person being a blend of the positives and negatives of humanity. There were certainly a few real belly-laughs over the course of the evening, but ultimately it was a superficial affair.
Ruth Elleson © 2008