17 Nov 2008
La Damnation de Faust at the MET
The Met has not staged La Damnation de Faust in a hundred years, since 1906, when it clocked a mere five performances.
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?
The Met has not staged La Damnation de Faust in a hundred years, since 1906, when it clocked a mere five performances.
There are excellent reasons for this reluctance. Berlioz’s magical setting of scenes from Part I of Goethe’s Faust (in de Nerval’s translation, also the basis for Gounod’s opera) focuses hardly at all on the scenes of action that might be cobbled into a stage drama, but almost entirely on the poetic “background” of peasants dancing, students drinking, soldiers marching, fairies flying, devils cavorting, lords a-leaping, maids a-milking. This scene-setting and the fascinating and novel effects Berlioz drew from orchestra and chorus to depict it make up most of the evening, and traditional opera houses, even those equipped with elaborate stage machinery and full corps de ballet, seldom find it worth the effort. If you know Damnation at all, from live performance, it is probably from the concert hall, where the march and the sylphs are favorite show-off numbers, and two of its arias are greatly loved, Marguerite’s “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” and Méphistophélès’s serenade. Damnation fares a poor fourth in dramatic success as an operatic Faust, to works of Gounod, Boito and Busoni – but as a concert piece, it is rather better known than Schumann’s even less stageable Scenes from Faust. (Louis Spohr also composed a Faust, even before Goethe published his poem; one wonders what it can be like.)
As a masterpiece unwieldy by traditional means, Damnation is just the sort of opera the Met, with its spectacular stage and newly upgraded technical pizzazz ought to be putting on, rather than twisted interpretations of operas that worked just fine the old way, such as Peter Grimes, Lucia or (for that matter) Gounod’s Faust. And now the Met has done it, and done it to a turn, in a staging by Robert Lepage (of Cirque de Soleil fame, not irrelevantly), aided by “software artist” Holger Förterer.
The enormous stage is subdivided into fifteen boxes that become alleys in a library, rooms in a tavern, a moonlit bridge over a river (and the depths of that river, and Faust swimming under water), the windows of Marguerite’s house (no rural cottage for this kid, but the street-long palace of the Hohenzollerns), the stained glass windows of a church (with five naked crucifixions) and, at last, the fiery pits of Hell, filled with naked choristers. Nor are three dimensions enough for this production – red-coated demonic lizards crawl about on the surface of it, defying gravity, and soldiers march from stage bottom to top, perpendicular to the wall, before falling, wounded, three stories, into the arms of lamenting sweethearts. Marcello Giordani has to climb a ladder down from the top of the stage (four stories or so) at the evening’s beginning, when Faust is an old man, not yet satanically rejuvenated, and Susan Graham must climb up it at the end, to reach salvation. (No one ever said that route was easy.) The long musical or choral interludes between Damnation’s few action scenes are danced or acted or mimed by enormous non-singing forces (and also the Met chorus, which has seldom had so much to accomplish, while singing to boot), to so busy an extent that I found it, while thrilling, a sometimes unfortunate distraction from the luxurious musical performance Donald Palumbo’s chorus and James Levine’s orchestra were giving to Berlioz’s constantly fascinating concoctions.
While a very young crowd, accustomed to MTV style in which every note has its accompanying video image (and to never shutting their eyes and letting the music make its own image in your head), may be entranced by this production, especially when it comes to movie theaters, there may be too much of a muchness for old-fashioned movie lovers who would like to revel in sheer Berlioz. That curdled opinion only came to me two or three times, but I found little difficulty concentrating on the evening’s musical delights when they were set before me.
John Relyea (left) as Mephistopheles and Marcello Giordani as Faust
These musical honors, once the dancers, acrobats, and circus and lighting technicians had all been squared away, were neatly shared. Susan Graham may not be the most sensuous of mezzos – what would “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” have been like with Troyanos’s throb in her voice? – but it was splendid to have her back in her element rather than, as her Donna Elvira demonstrated, out of it: she sings Marguerite with total assurance, and fills the hall with the aria’s yearning message. John Relyea, who is obliged to do many athletic tricks in this production (but then, he flew at his debut, in Cenerentola, and mounted and rode a horse in Rodelinda), has a sizable if gruff instrument in which Méphistophélès’s wit and slimy charm if not his malice were always evident. He can win hearts by tossing a feathery leather cap, which he does at every opportunity. The only less than excellent work came from Marcello Giordani, who has made a specialty of heroic French roles (Raoul, Cellini, Enée), but here took half the evening to steady his voice, and was obliged to slide into falsetto once or twice for Faust’s punishing tessitura.
A scene from Part IV of Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" with Marcello Giordani in the title role (top) and John Relyea as Mephistopheles (bottom, in red)
The stars, however, were James Levine and the orchestra that he has honed to diamond fineness, tricking out every brilliant detail and glow of Berlioz’s matchless ingenuity, giving us sensual pleasure to survive any distraction. The acrobats and the special effects were a treat, but I don’t think I’m the only one who found the evening’s real delight in the score itself, given such a performance.
This, surely, is as it should be.