Recently in Performances
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.
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