19 Apr 2009
Iphigénie en Aulide at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma
Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital.
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..
Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital.
A sleepy papal city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims) in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the “leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a “futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an improbably grandiose ceiling mural — what opera features a charioteer mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas — who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic from this very stage.
The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said, “You’re lucky you came tonight — it was probably your last chance — they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I got to a second performance.
In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged (conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece.
Iphigénie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience — the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias, and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by applause on two occasions — an outburst for Iphigénie’s great Act III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,” near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled. As for the younger ones — at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.
Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again (Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape, tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than Gluck’s stately verses permitted — since I’d spent the day observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in 1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.
Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in the portico of the house — and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the 26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the house — this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to, and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.
However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira Stoyanova — little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller and La Juive.
Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of Iphigénie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that Iphigénie has proved heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the dignity of the Comédie Française. There was a lovely moment when, having been presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, Iphigénie, in private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up à la Grecque. (She looked far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)
Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of the stage whenever they have a lot to sing — a courtesy singers delight in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one, to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or angry choruses was very well managed.
Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists (in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of Iphigénie’s transference to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the occasion — from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the conclusion of Tannhäuser — but left those of us familiar with Iphigénie en Tauride more comfortable.