26 Jan 2009
Orfeo ed Euridice at the MET
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
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?
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
The voice emerges easily, and is of exceptional beauty from top to bottom, at any size you like, Wagnerian power in the very grandest houses, light and quick in coloratura filigree or lieder delicacy as called for. She is also a highly intelligent woman and an effective actress. Stout in a svelte age, she moves with assurance and dignity on stage, and she can cut up deliciously in comedies like Italiana in Algeri and Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse. She is always conscious of differences of style between Handel and Donizetti or Broadway and the avant-garde, and she suits her sound to the music on her plate, light or heavy, intellectual or humorous, baroque or grand operatic or modern. Sincerity and majesty — or, in comedy, irony — are her long suits: she creates a sublime Fricka or Handel’s morbid Cornelia or Poulenc’s Mère Marie or Puccini’s Zia Principessa and wicked Zita . One longs to hear her Amneris and Dalila and Isabella — roles she has won kudos for in other cities, but has never sung in New York — not to mention daydreams of what an Alceste or Fidès or Ortrud she would be.
All of this being so, and the glory of the many times she has thrilled me in the past, I am puzzled by her beautiful but superficial, unmoving performance as Gluck’s Orfeo at the Met. Every note was beautiful but none of it touched the heart, hers or mine — as David Daniels so unerringly did two years ago. Somehow Daniels found the trembling, uncertain, bewildered soul at the heart of this desperate lover, humanizing him, but Blythe makes Orpheus too formal, too rigid — an actor portraying grief because grief is expected of a widowed hero. Coupled with James Levine’s rather quick, unvarying tempi — a bit of a surprise considering his tendency to slow down in Wagner — this was an unemotional, unfeeling Orfeo.
In startling contrast, Danielle de Niese, whose pretty, tireless soprano sometimes leaves me cold, projected all the desperation and confusion of Euridice’s plight without distorting any of its usual beauty. (Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor, was a cipher with bad technique.)
I should mention that, like many no doubt, I had been worried about Blythe’s appearance and movement in some version of the man-in-black (-with-pointless-guitar) costume worn by Daniels, but here she has been well-served (and has served herself well): she looked massive in a dignified and masculine way, like one of our turn-of-the-century presidents, she moves with the proper gravity. For an opera to be telecast, this sort of thing is important — but not all-important.
Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Heidi
Grant Murphy as Amor with chorus in background
The myth of Orpheus is not a theatrical story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy has a chance to get her back but blows it. There is very little for the girl to do, and hardly anything for anyone else: it is practically a monodrama, though it has never (to my knowledge) been set to music that way. To the ancients, it was a tale of death and mystical rebirth, and if you joined the cult of the Orphic Mysteries, you could enter the Members Only section after death — but that won’t do today: we need a more universal message, like “Love conquers all,” even though it clearly doesn’t. (Has anyone you loved come back from the dead? Was that because you didn’t love them enough? Does anyone dead come back? Mythologically, Eurydice never did.)
But as Orpheus was the mythic type of the musician, whenever opera remembers its classical roots (not that they have much to do with what opera turned into), Orpheus gets updated and some theatrical sense must be made of his quest. In Offenbach’s operetta (a send-up of Gluck), the two lovers have irreconcilable differences over his old-fashioned taste in music. In Sarah Ruhl’s recent play, Eurydice, the girl tricks Orpheus into looking back because she doesn’t want to rejoin him: she prefers cozy death to chancy life.
Danielle de Niese as Euridice
When Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, approached the subject, in a self-consciously “reforming” mood, they started out by omitting “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” — these events have already occurred at curtain rise. They then expanded Orfeo’s quest to the Underworld into several great solo, chorus and dance opportunities. Then came their big alteration of the legend: instead of going so quietly that Orfeo isn’t sure she’s there, begins to doubt the word of his gods, and betrays his oath, this Euridice is a nag who never shuts up, and Orfeo (who is barred, in this version, from telling her why he cannot turn to look at her), is finally driven to violate his word. Euridice is lost and Orfeo gets his most famous aria, “Che faro.” This is followed by alteration two: The gods change their minds and give her back anyway. If you have read the synopsis before you go in, this will undercut the tragic level of what has gone before, but it does allow for extended dances of rejoicing and a happy hymn to triumphant Love for us to hum going home.
I’ll admit I’ve never been entirely happy with any staging I’ve seen of Gluck’s opera (six and counting) — though from what I read, the current Viennese one sounds promising, austere and grand. The opera is so tightly focused on Orfeo’s feelings that there should be as little opportunity for wandering attention as possible, and I’ve been most pleased when, for example, the chorus were out of sight, in the orchestra pit, and dancers mimed their feelings. The Mark Morris staging at the Met seems mostly to be about Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes (creating far too much individuation precisely where it was not wanted), so that the rhythmic gestures of the corps de ballet miming grief and sympathy (and, in the finale, rejoicing), are distractingly individual, while the hundred historic “witnesses” of the chorus who look on at this (and who become without change of costume furies or whatever the libretto needs) seem a pointless extravagance.
We always knew Blythe could sing the music; she can sing anything. But the role does not play to her strengths, and I eagerly await her appearance in something that does.