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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.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
05 Mar 2009
La bohème — English National Opera
Jonathan Miller's new production of Puccini's wintry opera was denied its planned opening night on Monday 2nd February by a bout of unusually heavy snow which brought most of London's transport services to a halt and turned it into a virtual ghost town (thus, up the road at Covent Garden, the cancellation of a performance of Korngold's 'Die tote Stadt' was equally ironic).
As a staging, it has all the hallmarks of a future classic of the ENO repertoire. Isabella Bywater’s naturalistic set is as easy on the eye as Amanda Holden’s fluid new translation is on the ear, while Jean Kalman’s lighting handsomely sets off the wide attic windows and silhouetted rooftops. Fast-forward a couple of seasons to an above-average revival; the rough edges of the staging will have been smoothed over, the perfect cast will be engaged, and everything will ‘click’. The previous production - which was less distinctive than this - was memorable thanks to a succession of lively and well-matched ensembles of soloists.
That, alas, was what this new production lacked. As Mimì, the sweet but pallid soprano of the American soprano Melody Moore lacked warmth and passion; Alfie Boe was a fine Rodolfo a few years ago at Glyndebourne, but that’s a much smaller house, and his is not a large voice - he was frequently swallowed up by the orchestral texture. But a much greater problem was their credibility as a couple, with almost no chemistry between them. Admittedly the costumes were unhelpful: Moore has youth on her side, but a dowdy wig and unflattering dresses made her matronly and plain, not to mention improbably strong and healthy for a fragile heroine whose very identity is defined by a diminutive pet-name. In comparison to the small-framed Boe’s amiable and boyish Rodolfo, Moore’s Mimì seemed like a sensible elder sister.
Hanan Alattar (Musetta)
Alfie Boe (Rodolfo)
Musetta, Hanan Alattar, somehow failed to dominate Act 2, and her sharply focused soprano remained pert and hard-edged right up to the end, though her characterisation gained in warmth and was quite touching. Best among the soloists was the congenial, warm-voiced Roland Wood as Marcello, and Pauls Putninš’ distinctive bass brought considerable pathos to Colline.
The set - with buildings that revolve into various configurations to create the various locations - evokes a down-at-heel 1930s Paris. Appropriately, the garret scenes take place on an upper level, which caused a few acoustic issues from where I was sitting in the Stalls. The cast were sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra, particularly in the fast-moving banter of Act 1. It wasn’t until Act 3, when the soloists are at ground level and not lost in the ensemble, that the vocal projection was really satisfactory. The split level creates a dramatic issue too, with the staircase up to the Bohemians’ doorway forming the focal point of the set: none of the entrances are a surprise, from Benoit’s in Act 1 to Musetta’s in Act 4. The sole purpose of its central placement seems to be to throw focus on Schaunard (David Stout) towards the end as he leaves Rodolfo and Mimì alone.
Alfie Boe (Rodolfo), Melody Moore (Mimì), David Stout (Schaunard), Pauls Putnins (Colline), Roland Wood (Marcello)
In his house debut, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya gave a musically competent, lucid reading, but it was short on warmth and there was little sense of connection between pit and stage.
I mustn’t ignore the positives: Simon Butteriss’s sleazy Benoit was a highly entertaining cameo, and Act 3 was really well-staged, with well-directed cameos from members of the chorus and (finally) some believable emotional interplay between the two couples. But at the end of the evening, though I found myself sorry for Mimì’s death, I was quite indifferent to Rodolfo’s loss. If only I could have believed they were ever in love.
Ruth Elleson © 2009