24 Mar 2009
Katya Kabanova/The Magic Flute — English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire Theatre
English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
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.’
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.
English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
Later this year the company will be dispensing with the usual two- or three-opera tour format, as well as their now-regular opening venue of the Hackney Empire, in favour of a five-opera Handel festival at the Britten Theatre in this 250th anniversary year of the composer’s death.
For the spring tour, though, the format is largely the familiar one: an opera from the borderline of the standard repertoire paired with a popular hit that will guarantee consistent ticket revenues. As this is a major birthday for the company, there are a few concert performances of Norma thrown in for good measure — about which more in late April.
James Conway’s production of Katya Kabanova, with a set design by Adam Wiltshire, looks a little like a miniature version of Trevor Nunn’s 1994 production for Covent Garden, all grey colours and sloping wooden walkways. My only real complaint here would be that neither ETO’s production nor the orchestra made much of an attempt to evoke the Volga, whose presence is so central to the opera that it is virtually a character in its own right. As a minimum, Katya’s death plunge (a cramped and unconvincing affair) really needs sorting out before the tour goes much further.
In a fairly small space and with a reduced orchestra, the full lyrical power of Janacek’s scoring was never really going to be a possibility, though one could hardly have asked for better playing from the forces available. Conductor Michael Rosewell ensured that the the musical line was tautly controlled and powerfully driven, and paid detailed attention to the expressiveness of the more transparent and intimate moments.
But here the vocal performances made the greatest impression. The title role was compellingly and radiantly sung by soprano Linda Richardson, who managed to convey the essence of the lively spirit and physical beauty trapped behind the dowdy façade Katya has been forced to adopt. Mezzo Fiona Kimm was a truly despicable Kabanicha — and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Like her Jezibaba in last autumn’s Rusalka, there was a grandeur to her stage presence which defied her petite stature; the physical contrast between her and Dikoy — the immensely tall and broad Welsh bass Sion Goronwy — made the nature of their relationship all the more telling. Colin Judson’s Tichon was a perfect portrait of a man who wouldn’t know how to stand up to his mother even if he wanted to.
Jane Harrington was an ideal Varvara, her voice and manner warm, lively and straightforward; together with Michael Bracegirdle’s Kudryash and Richard Roberts’s Boris, they made a vivacious trio of youngsters who served to highlight only too plainly how Katya’s own life might have been.
Onto the next night, and there was predictably a full house for The Magic Flute. When the curtain went up, it at first seemed that the production might be quite unconventional: Tamino’s serpent is a writhing chain of contemporary(ish) whores and playboys, his wilderness a human one. A clean-cut youth dressed smartly in a pale jacket, the prince (Mark Wilde) is an obvious outsider to the black and silver lace of the figures which dominate his nightmare world. There’s even some suggestion that Papageno (complete with fluttering birds borne by scurrying members of the chorus) might be a drug-induced hallucination, and Tamino is rightly unsure where vision ends and reality begins. The Queen of the Night makes her first appearance from the rear centre stage with an immense royal-blue train which fills the entire set; as she sings, it has rolling waves like a nocturnal sea. But as she turns to make her exit, the train disappears through a trapdoor leaving her clad in black; from then on, reality stabilises somewhat, and Tamino’s quest of self-discovery continues along more conventional lines.
Scene from The Magic Flute [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera]
The production remains slightly surreal throughout, being set in an enclosed room with panelled walls painted a deep blue, several doors and trap-doors, and an aperture at the rear which is used for grand entrances and whenever a visual focal point is required. The guiding role of the three boys (here sung by women, as is practical for a touring production) is underlined by their surprising costumes, with skirts made of lit lamp-shades. There are a lot of lights and lamps in this dark-coloured staging, but these are often confusing to the adventurers rather than illuminating; at one point a forest of standard-lamps springs up around Papageno as he searches for his Papagena. The young American soprano Paula Sides was a passionate Pamina, her soprano richer and more complex than is often heard in this role. Other than a slight hardness under pressure at the top of her voice, she sounded truly glorious, with some beautifully controlled pianissimo singing towards the end of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’. Also vocally impressive was Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night, again with a fuller and more refulgent tone than many; however, although she cut an imposing and elegant figure, her body language conveyed little in the way of rage and fury. Andrew Slater’s Sarastro had physical presence aplenty, but vocally he lacked weight and authority. Daniel Grice’s Papageno had energy and good humour although his bright and forward baritone was rather monochrome and unvarying in volume.
A little more variety would have been welcome in other areas too. In the pit, Paul McGrath started the overture with such pointed deliberation that I feared it could be a long evening, but if anything he tended towards the other extreme; ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ had a folk-tune feel to it, and if ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ had been any faster it would have been one-in-a-bar. Generally his approach succeeded in maintaining momentum, but it sidelined the moments of grandeur, reflection and calm.
Singing in Jeremy Sams’s gently humorous English translation (well-known to London audiences from ENO’s popular production), the cast generally did an excellent job with the English text.
Ruth Elleson © 2009