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.
30 Jul 2008
The Pilgrim's Progress at Sader's Wells
The Philharmonia Orchestra has made a far more comprehensive effort than any other British ensemble to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with concerts taking place over the course of seven months in London, Leicester and Bedford including a complete symphony cycle.
The centrepiece of this season, entitled 'Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering
Pilgrim' were two semi-staged performances of the composer's Bunyan opera
'The Pilgrim's Progress' at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, dedicated to the
memory of the composer's wife Ursula who died last year. Conductor Richard
Hickox has a real passion for English music, particularly opera, and it was
heartening to see him championing such a rarely-performed stage work.
Devised as a depiction of a generic spiritual journey towards
enlightenment rather than a specifically Christian one (the composer was an
agnostic), the opera (or rather, as it's labelled, the 'morality') is
nonetheless rooted in Biblical texts and Christian hymn-tunes. In fact it is
reminiscent of Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' in its tableaux of the
progression of a soul through trials and tests to its ultimate goal, and thus
seems closer to oratorio or cantata than opera, with elements of the pageant
and the mystery-play thrown in. In David Edwards' simple semi-staging,
movement was kept to a minimum, with most of the more abstract characters
moving in a slow, flowing manner as if the motion could be stopped at any
moment to create a freeze-frame of an 'event' in the Pilgrim's travels. On
the one hand, it is a shame that a full staging was not on offer; on the
other, it is a naturally static piece and thus well-suited to this kind of
The ostensible narrator is John Bunyan, sung here by baritone Neal Davies:
though he only in fact appears to frame the piece with a Prologue and
Epilogue, it gives the impression that we are seeing everything through his
own eyes and imagination. The staging had him discovered onstage as if
asleep, ready for his opening line, 'So I awoke, and behold it was a
The cast was made up of a distinguished inventory of mainly British vocal
talent, including most of Hickox's regular collaborators, led by Roderick
Williams as the eponymous Pilgrim, and even extending to Hickox's son Adam as
the (poorly amplified) Woodcutter's Boy. There were some welcome additions
from guest artists in multiple roles, especially the menacing Gidon Saks as
Lord Hate-Good (a disembodied voice over a speaker system from offstage). The
single scene of sardonic comic relief was delivered with aplomb by Richard
Coxon and Andrea Baker as Mr and Madam By-Ends.
Williams's central performance was remarkable; something about his stage
persona is both innocent and timeless, and his singing was always assured
– despite all the obstacles in his path, the Pilgrim never outwardly
falters. His unfailingly beautiful singing was especially impressive in the
role's emotional heart – the monologue based around a passage from
Psalm 22, when the Pilgrim is in prison expecting death. Part-soliloquy,
part-prayer, it is the only time we ever see the turmoil within the Pilgrim's
soul before he realises that his means of escape has been within reach all
Hickox's conducting had a majesty and beauty which made as persuasive a
case for the score as it is ever likely to get, while Philharmonia Voices
– the orchestra's ad-hoc professional choral outfit – managed to
go from being properly lively and vociferous (in the Vanity Fair scene) to
radiantly angelic (in the heavenly passages).
Ruth Elleson © 2008