Recently in Reviews
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
27 Feb 2009
A restrained Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House, London
This Der fliegende Holländer was eagerly awaited as it hasn’t been heard at the Royal Opera House, London, since 2000. With Bryn Terfel’s return to Covent Garden as the Dutchman guaranteed a full house.
Terfel’s admirers would not have been disappointed. His voice boomed
with authority, impressive for its strength, even when he had to sing
dragging a heavy rope across the stage and wade through the real water at the
front of the platform. Terfel’s vocal power always impresses, and he has
done interesting Dutchmen elsewhere. However, in this production, by
Tim Albery, he was not called upon to develop the character. Not long ago,
Albery presented Boris Gudonov as stolid, mild-mannered bourgeois.
This Dutchman was no more ravaged than Daland. When the women and
Daland’s sailors call out to the doomed souls on the haunted ship, they
face the audience and shine lights into the auditorium. When the Dutchman’s
crew do appear, they’re neatly dressed in uniform, as if they’d never
been to sea. Maybe there’s some deep meaning in this, but it could have
been thought through with more focus.
Anja Kampe as Senta
The performance was more interesting, though, for what it brought out in
the music. That glorious overture is a marvel of dramatic scene-painting,
setting the mood for the entire opera. How it’s staged reflects on the
whole production. Here it unfolded against a backdrop of green light and
projected images of rain, with shadowy figures flitting from left to right.
This was interesting, but hardly enough to sustain interest for that period
of time. Nor did it vary, although the score itself is characterized by
distinct developmental phases. This was disappointing because Marc
Albrecht’s conducting shaped these changing themes very clearly, for they
define the duality that is fundamental to the whole opera.
Albrecht’s approach revealed the underlying structure. Wagner wields
leitmotivs like weapons. By juxtaposing the sailor’s cheery love songs with
the savagery of the music associated with the storm and the Dutchman, he
draws contrasts, between stability and chaos. Particularly brilliant are the
crosscurrents in Act Three, throwing the music of the village against the
music of the haunted sailors. This act depicts a “storm on land”, just as
the first depicts a storm at sea. Keeping the different ensembles distinct is
important here, and takes some sophistication. But the Royal Opera House
Chorus excels in intricate ensemble. At last the production sprang to life,
animated by the sheer vitality of the singing.
A scene from Der fliegende Holländer with Anja Kampe (Senta) in the foreground
Indeed, the role of the chorus in this opera is sometimes underplayed
since attention usually centres on the Dutchman and on Senta. The influence
of Weber still hung heavily on Wagner. Some of these choruses are reminiscent
of Der Freischütz, another tale of demonic forces. Thus
Albrecht’s vignette-like focus reflects episodic “aria” opera tradition
rather than the overwhelming sweep of late Wagner in full sail. Der
fliegende Holländer is only the first stage of the saga.
Bryn Terfel may have been the big draw, but perhaps this production will
be remembered as the moment Anja Kampe made her name. Anyone who can steal a
scene from Terfel is worth listening to. From Kampe’s small frame emanated
a voice of great power, enhanced by an understanding of Senta’s role. Even
before she meets the Dutchman, she fantasizes about him. The other women work
in a factory, but Senta is by nature a non-conformist, drawn to the wildness
that the Dutchman symbolises. No wonder she knows right away she wants him,
not Erik. Senta is the prototype of Wagner’s later heroines who equate love
with death, and who find fulfilment in redeeming others. This does reflect in
many ways Wagner’s own predicaments, but the archetype becomes wilder and
more cataclysmic. Kampe probably has the ability to make much more of such
heroines in the future, given the productions that make more of the extreme
intensity - madness, even - in these roles. She’s singing Isolde at
Glyndebourne this summer, which will be something to look forward to.