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.
21 Oct 2008
Partenope — English National Opera, London Coliseum
In this new staging of Handel's comic rarity for English National Opera, director Christopher Alden has chosen to tell the classical tale of amorous and political intrigue through the world of the artistic elite of the 1920s/30s.
The costumes and settings are directly inspired by specific
examples of art photography from the period, with the programme illustrating
a number of iconic photographic works which are clearly recognisable in the
John Mark Ainsley as Emilio
The opera is set in a devastatingly chic salon (realised by Andrew
Lieberman, with costumes by Jon Morrell), all cream walls and curved lines,
the home of Rosemary Joshua's glacially glamorous socialite Partenope (done
up, as illustrated by a Man Ray photograph in the programme, as Nancy
Cunard). It is a place where the idle and moneyed artistic intelligentsia
gather for a spot of highbrow theorising over a cocktail or two, and where
the great realities of love and war are relegated to the rank of
insignificant little playthings. It is not an obvious breeding-ground for
Neither, to be fair, is the libretto, cribbed by an anonymous writer for
Handel from an original book by Silvio Stampiglia, and here delivered in a
coarsely colloquial translation by Amanda Holden. Though the opera is named
for Partenope, she is a character to whom one does not easily warm; though
her enemy/rejected lover Emilio (John Mark Ainsley) is clearly supposed to be
the primo uomo, he is drawn so sketchily, and takes such small part in the
opera's core emotional intrigue, that he fades into the background. Alden's
production seizes upon this, resolving the issue of what to do with him by
giving him more of an observer role. In the context of the production's arty
milieu, Emilio is characterised as Man Ray, with the often bizarre situations
between the characters being set up and captured by him on film. At the start
of the opera, the production exacerbates the problems caused by this detached
characterisation; at the first interval I was dreading the prospect of a
further two hours of empty posturing and artistic pretension, with any
inconsistencies in the dramatic development being explained away with the
blanket excuse that it's all in the cause of surrealism.
Fortunately, there are also characters we really care about, and it is
they who sustain the story long enough for the development of dramatic
interest and a bit more emotional realism in the second and third acts. First
there's Arsace (Christine Rice), the spoilt cad who has won Partenope's
heart, having conveniently forgotten to mention the lover whom he abandoned
and still hankers after. Then there's Rosmira (Patricia Bardon), the
abandoned lover in question, who (despite having been instantly recognised by
Arsace) has disguised herself as a warrior by the name of Eurimene and
followed him to a foreign land in search of both reconciliation and
retribution. She is, by some margin, the most complex and sympathetic of the
protagonists, and her central obsession with the feckless and unworthy Arsace
is the source of some of the opera's most rewarding music. Finally there's
Armindo, the diffident bumbling youth who is Partenope's best prospect for
genuine happiness but who doesn't have the guts to say so.
As John Mark Ainsley's role contained some thanklessly unmemorable music,
and Rosemary Joshua's coloratura and intonation were wayward at times, the
three subsidiary characters also supplied the best value in terms of musical
satisfaction. Rice's all-guns-blazing revenge aria at the close of Act 2 was
delivered with pinpoint accuracy and a gutsy warmth of tone, and her puppyish
arrogance was thoroughly convincing. What the score lacks in grand Handelian
tragic arias, it attempts to compensate with some shorter episodes of
heartfelt and honest music for Rosmira and occasionally as well as for
Arsace; their third-act duet is one of the musical high points. Bardon
suffered a glitch of some sort at the start of her Act 1 aria, but otherwise
gave a well-rounded and musically sensitive performance. And it was fitting
that Iestyn Davies gave the best and most memorable (if not the flashiest)
vocal performance of the evening; it is his clarity, assurance and
straightforwardness which at last succeed in winning Partenope.
It was a decent ensemble cast, in a score which contains more
multiple-voice numbers than are normally found in Handel, and all was held
tautly together in the pit by ENO débutant Christian Curnyn, more usually
found at the artistic helm of the Early Opera Company.
As hit-and-miss as the production concept is, it underlines the
inexplicable and bizarre ways in which seemingly poised and sophisticated
people are driven to act in the pursuit of love.
Ruth Elleson © 2008