25 Nov 2008
Debussy’s Pelléas - a fine swansong for Independent Opera in London
Pelléas et Mélisande in a 200 seat theatre, with just 35 musicians and no pit?
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?
‘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.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Pelléas et Mélisande in a 200 seat theatre, with just 35 musicians and no pit?
For many devotees of Debussy’s great work this might have seemed heresy and doomed to failure, but they would have been wrong. For three nights at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Bayliss Theatre in London last week capacity audiences were treated to not only a magnificently innovative production but also to a highly successful and totally sympathetic orchestral reduction of the score that never once sounded thin or lacking in texture and Debussian detail.
Add to this some very promising young voices, nurtured in the tradition of Independent Opera, and this was a fine way to end, sadly, a programme of opera stagings by Independent and to set the bar high for any similar undertakings in the future.
The atmosphere of fatalism, of humans moving within the eternal constraints of their kind, enclosed in the “forest” of the castle’s stifling social norms was brilliantly realised with a dark set consisting of 3 zig-zag wooden walkways supported by pillars which created both a “pit” for the musicians underneath and an exit and entry space, on occasion, for the singers. The castle’s permanent residents, Arkel and Geneviève, move mainly on wires controlled by “servants” (or masters?)visible at the sides of the walkways, presumably indicating their incapacity to break out of the prison of their own making, whilst the other characters are “free” to move at will. All are dressed in the constricting costumes of the opera’s own time, circa 1902, and everything seems to have a patina of dust and dereliction about it, with both castle and grotto, forest and seashore, merely hinted at with single props and occasional flats. Mélisande, the focus and intuit of this psychological drama, seems to emerge from these shadows, is illuminated briefly and fatally as she embarks on her relationships with Golaud and Pelléas, and returns to whatever realm she came from, leaving her child as legacy, or, possibly, her curse.
If the design, set and direction (Madeleine Boyd/Alessandro Talevi) worked memorably well, then it was entirely complemented by Stephen McNeff’s scholarly but entirely sympathetic new orchestration for 35 instruments. Never once did one feel anything was missing — the smaller space absorbed the smaller string sound, and other important Debussy sound-world effects were retained by clever reallocation of parts. Significant obbligatos — flute, harp, oboe etc — were all there, and if this put more strain on the soloists, it didn’t show. Stylish and dramatic by turn, effortlessly idiomatic, conductor Dominic Wheeler gave this refined version the attention it deserved.
The singing was uniformly good, sometimes excellent, with the many French speakers in the cast keeping the all-important rhythm and style of the libretto intact. If Ingrid Perruche was a trifle too robust, both vocally and physically, for an ideal Mélisande, there was no doubting her abilities to interpret the text intelligently. Her most believable Pelléas was the young Norwegian baritone Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy who, after a slightly strained start, sang with fluency and the requisite ardour, making light of the high tessitura. In perfect contrast to him was the dark, resonant bass-baritone of Andrew Foster-Williams as the tortured Golaud, a singer whose voice has blossomed into something very special these past few years. The tone was fully supported and consistent through the range, he has power to spare and obviously relishes this kind of dramatic challenge relatively early in his career; it cannot be long before his Golaud is taken up by a major house. The Arkel of bass Frédéric Bourreau was assured and poignant — he managed to convey a sense of what the old king might once have been — whilst Marie Elliot as Geneviéve used her warm mezzo to good effect, despite the quite literal confines of her role. Young soprano Caryl Hughes as the child Yniold cleverly whitened her voice to almost boy-soprano tone and was convincing as the innocent vaguely troubled by what he observes around him. Young Czech bass Vojtech Safarik sang his few Doctor’s lines with assurance.
Ingrid Perruche (Mélisande) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud)
This was opera as it should be but seldom is — innovative yet respectful, ambitious yet pragmatic, and above all committed to the development of talent in all departments. We shall miss Independent Opera’s productions in the UK and can only hope that their ideals are carried on elsewhere.
Sue Loder © 2008