Recently in Performances
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
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.
07 Sep 2008
Prom 68 — Russian Fairy Tales from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky
Kashchey is a gnarled old ogre who imprisons a beautiful young princess in his gloomy underworld. It’s classic psychodrama. Kashchey has supernatural powers, so how can the Princess be saved ?
This Prom paired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey The Immortal with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, contrasting two resolutions to the fairy tale that’s captured Russian imaginations for centuries.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s short opera focuses on relationships. Kashchey is
immortal, but he has a daughter, Kashcheyevna, who holds the secret to his
death. She’s just as cold and conniving as he is but she falls in love
with the Prince. The Storm Knight brings all four of them together, and the
Princess’s love triumphs. Kashcheyevna weeps, and her tears break the
spell that makes Kashchey invincible. Love conquers all, yet again.
It’s simple but affords opportunities for lushly Romantic musical
effects. Music as pictorial as this illustrates so well that meaning can be
visualised even if you don’t speak Russian. Kashchey’s music is
shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way
he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually
die. The Storm Knight is defined by wild ostinatos, even though he’s
more of a plot device than a character. Some of the most interesting music,
though, surrounds Kashcheyevna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry,
or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her
iciness melts, we sympathise. While the other roles verge on stereotype,
Kashcheyevna is more complex, and Manistina impressed.
Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written a mere four years after Kashchey
The Immortal, inhabits an altogether different plane. While
Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s
floats free. It “is” the drama. The ballet evolves from the music
rather than the other way round. Music for dance has to respect certain
restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky
integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on,
immortal, as an orchestral masterpiece. Vladimir Jurowski is still only in
his mid 30’s but has established a reputation for intelligence and
sensitivity. Watching him conduct this piece was instructive : he moves with
the grace off someone who understands how this music connects to dance. His
gestures were understated, yet elegant, his left hand fluttering to restrain
the sweep of the strings and keep the tone transparent. This pinpointed how
Stravinky wrote cues for physical movement into the music itself. Circular
woodwind figures translate into shapes of curved arms, flurries of pizzicato
into rapid en pointe. Dancers must hear levels in this music closed to the
rest of us, but Jurowski’s intuitive approach helps us appreciate its
The Firebird is a magical figure which materialises out of the air,
leading te Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the
Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic
feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by
altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s
music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Jurowski gets
great refinement from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he’s
forged a very close relationship in only a year of being their Chief
Conductor. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music
like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were
here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. The rest of the
orchestra plays barely above the point of audibility, until the flute enters
carrying the horn’s melody. Later there’s more magic, when the
double basses and cellos are plucked quietly, building up towards the
crescendos which sound for all the world like the joyous tolling of great
bells. In the finale, trombones and trumpets hail the moment of liberation.
The trumpeters stand upright, so their music soars above the orchestra,
projected into the auditorium with superb, dramatic effect.
Kashchey the Immortal by Viktor Vasnetsov