25 Nov 2008
Boris Godunov at ENO
There are two things which, in recent history, English National Opera has consistently done extremely well.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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?
There are two things which, in recent history, English National Opera has consistently done extremely well.
One is Handel; the other, the large-scale Russian repertoire. It has been almost six years since the company last tackled the latter, but that revival of Khovanshchina left such an indelible impression that a new foray into this sector of the repertoire could not have been more eagerly awaited.
It is, to my mind, a shame that ENO chose to give Boris Godunov in its original seven-scene version of 1869. Running slightly over two hours, without an interval, it certainly has its merits in terms of dramatic tautness and momentum, but it is undeniably a weaker and poorer piece than the later versions. Most crucially, it lacks almost all the political and religious context of the later, longer version. The missing Polish act holds vital pieces of the jigsaw when it comes to Russia's history with Lithuania – it actually supplies the bedrock for the whole story. Without those scenes, all the focus is thrown onto Boris's private demons and the hardships of the Russian people. It is almost an entirely different opera.
Simpleton (Robert Murray)
Tim Albery's new production follows through the idea of stripping the piece bare. Tobias Hoheisel's set is simple and unusually austere; the entire opera seems to take place in a giant wooden crate, perhaps a barn. Various different rooms are created by platforms which slide in and out or come out hinges. It's a drab brownish-grey, the colour of the peasants' costumes. When colour is used, it is generally for effect; against this muted background, the rich patterns of Boris's coronation robe are as garish as the clanging bells up in the Balcony. Grigory's red hair instantly marks him out as a figure of interest. The Innkeeper (Yvonne Howard) is vividly attired too, and her mobile bar is a colourful affair – a welcome break for travellers from the surrounding dreariness. Together with costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Albery has done his best to make the action timeless by combining costume designs from different periods. The peasants' attire is generically 20th-century, while Boris's coronation seems to take place centuries earlier; other costumes fall somewhere in between.
Peter Rose played Boris as a man whose occupation of the throne is as uneasy as he feared it would be. There was a warmth to his portrayal which made Boris likeable; the mad scene was never really gripping or hair-raising, but was full of pathos. Vocally, he held his own, with a sharper focus than I have heard in the past, though his expressive range is limited.
Scene from Boris Godunov
The staging makes much of the Simpleton; curled up in one corner of the stage during the final scene, he witnesses Boris's breakdown and eventually leads the dying Tsar off into the beyond. Robert Murray's clear, lovely tenor was ideal, imbued with innocence and pathos.
The American tenor, Gregory Turay, was a handsome and secure-voiced Grigory, while John Graham-Hall was a wraith-like Shuisky, the pointed precision of his diction making him all the more sinister. Brindley Sherratt's Pimen was outstanding.
Although this version of the piece barely gives either of Boris's children an opportunity to make their mark, Sophie Bevan was an attractive and lyrical Xenia, and Anna Grevelius a confident Fyodor. (Xenia's second costume – the most striking of the whole production wardrobe – was worn for a ten-second dash across the stage, and again for the curtain call. What a waste!) Jonathan Veira was a characterful Varlaam.
Xenia (Sophie Bevan) and Nurse (Deborah Davison)
The opening scene did not show the (greatly augmented) chorus in their best light, with the ladies especially sounding shrill and vibrato-laden – but they rose to the challenge as the evening went on. The orchestra was magnificent under the baton of ENO's Music Director Edward Gardner, with muscular sound, sensitive phrasing, and particularly fine playing from the woodwind section. Now can we have the rest of the opera, please?
Ruth Elleson © 2008