10 Feb 2009
Chicago’s Lyric brings life to Tristan
Superlatives were in short supply when the curtain fell on Tristan und Isolde at Chicago Lyric Opera on January 27.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Superlatives were in short supply when the curtain fell on Tristan und Isolde at Chicago Lyric Opera on January 27.
New vocabulary was needed to describe the awesome excellence of this first of nine performances of Wagner’s most sensual and seductive work.
This lay — briefly — in the brilliance of David Hockney’s sets and costumes, undiminished even after 20 years on various stages. The cast was of an even artistry hardly expected in today’s overworked Wagnerian world. Andrew Davies did not merely conduct the incredible orchestra that he has built at the Lyric; he truly recreated this mammoth score, leading the listener through the tormented course that Wagner had pursued in writing the work.
This was, indeed, an evening beyond expectations. Yet its beginning was less than auspicious. Deborah Voigt — more Barbie Doll than medieval mail-order bride in brightest red — was strangely dwarfed by Hockney’s bigger than life designs. And the fact must be faced that she no longer has that lush richness of voice that disappeared with her hard-gained leanness.
Argentinian director José María Condemi, the only consistently weak link in the production crew, was clearly in over his head in what appears to have been his first Wagnerian assignment. Act One was segmented — a series of scenes that failed to flow into an engaging dramatic whole.
Although Voigt handled the narrative well, her curse did not curdle the blood as it should have. Indeed, had one not known — and respected — the work that makes her the “Isolde of choice” in the eyes of many, there would have been a discomforting feeling that she was miscast. Thus the amazement at the transformation that flowed from the Lyric’s stage in Act Two. Here things jelled; individual contributions melded into a dramatic impact that listeners carried with them into the cold and windy Chicago night.
This was above all a youthful Tristan. The Weltschmerz-stricken lovers were convincing as humans feeling these conflicting passions for the first time. American Heldentenor Clifton Forbis, well established around the world as a major Wagnerian, was a handsome and well-matched partner for Voigt. A man of marked intelligence, he even made sense of Wagner’s metaphysical ramblings on the conjunction “and” and matters of individuation in Act Two, integrating this text meaningfully into the context of the intimate exchange that follows the exuberant greeting that opens the act.
In his comments on the opera Condemi suggested that “the plot of Tristan could be summarized like this: two women walking around the stage (Act One), two people sitting on a bench (Act Two), and a man keeps getting up and lying down again (Act Three).” Alas, Condemi was largely content to leave it at that.
Happily, it was Forbis who moved the opera beyond such simplification, especially in his review of his life in Act Three, where so much that has happened before Act One is explained. It is here that the real Tristan is encountered, and Forbis made him comprehensible — and extremely sympathetic. He did this without a hint of strain or exhaustion. He is a singer who knows how to use his voice wisely.A scene from Act II of Tristan und Isolde
Particularly amazing was Jason Stearns’ sensitive portrayal of Kurvenal as a servant of near-adolescent emotional devotion to his master. A late substitute for Finland’s major new Wagnerian Juha Uusitalo, Stearns came late to opera, having served 21 years in the Army before turning to singing. Coached by Thomas Steward in the final year of the American’s life, Stearns sang the Dutchman at Savonlinna last summer, and other Wagnerian assignments await him. Whether he — a rather small man — can handle Wotan in large American houses waits to be seen; here, however, he was a perfect Kurwenal who fit with ease into the concept of the staging. Greer Grimsley replaces him later in the run.
Chicago makes it a practice to seek comment from its singers for its program book, and about his role in Tristan Stearns wrote tellingly: “When Tristan dies, Kurwenal really doesn’t want to live anymore. He forces death on himself — he wants to die with his leader.” This approach came out in Stearns’s every move. He was a servant not of dog-like devotion, but a young man tenderly in love — yes, the word fits here in its highest meaning — with his master. It was a deeply touching portrayal.
If anyone “owns” the role of Brangäne today, it is Petra Lang, who has been Isolde’s soul mate on every major stage and shared honors with Voigt when she sang her first Isolde in Vienna in 2003. Although Lang stressed that she sees Brangäne “as a younger confidante, a friend to Isolde,” here she failed to cast aside the traditional German mold of a reserved member of the court. And although she sang her second-act warning beautifully, Michelle DeYoung would have been a more appropriate servant in this staging.
The flowing white hair that Stephen Milling wore made King Marke unusually aged — especially in contrast to the youthfulness of the production. Yet the Danish bass wore his suffering with credible dignity.
Wagner instructs that Isolde expire “as if tansfigured,” sinking in Brangäne’s arms onto Tristan’s body, Condemi chose to have Voigt die on her feet at some remove from her beloved. On the heels of a “Liebestod” so triumphantly sung as it was here such stage directions are of little concern. Voigt gave it her all, leaving the audience so mesmerized that they were hesitant to applaud until the stage grew dark.
In 1966 when David Hockney made his theatrical debut with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi he did not stray far from the proscenium like compositions in many of his paintings. He took a bigger step in his designs for the 1978 Glyndbourne Magic Flute, where he opened the first act with a rocky, palm filled landscape that is replaced by increasingly symmetrical, monumental flats that refer to the opera’s earliest sets of 1791.
Nearly ten years later, in his design for Tristan he equipped the first-act ship with sails that billow before an empty vista. In Act Two a heavy cloud, first drawn by Hockney in Iowa, (1964), looms over a diagonal stand of trees across from Isolde’s palace that again direct the action of the opera to its inevitable denouement. In the final act a mammoth tree arcs over the scene in which a desolate cliff carries the opera to its ultimate tragedy.
Color was a fundamental key to the entire production: Isolde in the red of royalty, Brangäne in earthly green, Marke, suitably in purple, and the men of action in functional “drab” or colors related to the King. Hockney wisely borrowed the effect of his wardrobe from 15th century paintings by Piero da Francesco and other early Renaissance artists.
The Chicago staging was sensitively lighted by Duane Shuller.
Holding this all together was the magisterial conducting of Lyric music director Andrew Davis, whose delicate balance of singers and orchestras and shadings of tempo made this an evening even superior to what the world admires in the Wagner of James Levine and the ensemble at the Met. A truly and thoroughly remarkable Tristan und Isolde.
With Gustav Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony the Chicago Civic Orchestra offered an ideal prelude to the Lyric’s Tristan on January 26 in Symphony Hall.
The training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony, the 100-plus members of the CCO, graduates all of the world’s top conservatories, were conducted on this occasion by Esa-Pekka Salonen, retiring music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although just 50, on the podiatry Salonen could still pass for a teenager. He was in perfect “sync” with his musicians.
In his Norton lectures Leonard Bernstein analyzed the concluding Adagio of the work — to be played “very slow and reserved — as a triple act of leave-taking: it reflected first the irregular heart-beat that was to fell Mahler before the premiere of the work, plus which — said Bernstein — the movement is both the end of the symphony as it had existed up to that time and further “the end of our Faustian culture.” The performance in a packed - provided food for thought on “Lennie’s” ideas, along with the opportunity to contemplate the consequences of Wagner.