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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..
22 May 2009
Don Carlos — Opera North, Leeds
Tim Albery’s production was first seen at Opera North in 1993 and has not been revived since 1998, when it was the first production of this opera I ever saw — an English-sung version of the four-act Italian version.
In the interests of context I would always favour five acts, not only for the background to Carlos’s meeting with Elisabeth, but for a fuller introduction to the character of Elisabeth who can be reduced almost to a cipher in the shorter version. But the four-act version is the tauter piece, and in the right hands has the potential to create the greater dramatic impact.
Janice Watson as Elisabeth
Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are austere and claustrophobic, the stage dominated by vast stone walls; even the sun-filled garden outside the cloister is hemmed in and inescapable. When the stage is dark, it is really dark: in the opening and closing scenes at San Giuste, there are times when unmoving figures are barely discernible. A pale grey curtain with a square aperture allows every scene to begin with a framed ‘thumbnail’, a trick which proves effective in clarifying and distilling each dramatic situation. Although the frequent and prolonged scene changes (the vast walls take some time to reconfigure) break up the pace somewhat, the intensity of each scene was such that I welcomed the opportunity to recover. Nothing here is empty spectacle - it is all cleanly focused, and there is no fat on the bones.
There was one particular bone upon which a little more fat would have been welcome. While the theatre’s superb acoustic enhances the volume of the orchestra and soloists, the start of the auto-da-fé scene should be a grand ensemble, and Opera North’s chorus simply sounded as if they would have benefited from a few more extras.
Julian Gavin sang the title role in the 1998 revival, and 11 years on he is no less credible as the young prince. His voice still has that urgent quality which captures Carlos’s angst, but now it’s combined with an open-throated evenness of tone which is really exciting to listen to.
From the start, Brindley Sherratt’s Philip II always seems rather cowed by the burden of responsibility, pale-faced and worn in the plain black costume which makes him look rather small and all too human. His dryish bass, too, captures well a disillusioned monarch who is comparatively easily overcome by the Grand Inquisitor - Clive Bayley, another returner from the 1998 revival, doesn’t really have the deep bass weight one might ideally wish for, but he projects real menace in his bearing.
Janice Watson as Elisabeth [left] and Jane Dutton as Eboli [right]
In her company debut, Janice Watson was a graceful and dignified Elisabeth. Not a natural Verdian, she sang very beautifully up until the last act, but was running out of steam during her aria and struggled to maintain the line in her subsequent duet with Carlos. William Dazeley was hugely impressive as Posa - he is unquestionably slightly on the light side, but he has an intelligent command of the music and is entirely convincing in this role which is so central to the opera. Jane Dutton’s Eboli was alluring and magnetic, with visceral power in ‘O don fatale’.
William Dazeley as Rodrigo [left] and Julian Gavin as Don Carlos [right]
Particularly impressive among the smaller roles was the monk of Robert Winslade Anderson, a dark-toned and focussed young bass who is surely a Philip-in-waiting. Julia Sporsén was a pert and courtly Thibault, and chorus member Kathryn McGuckin was a lyrical and secure Voice from Heaven, standing in for Rebecca Ryan (who, thanks to a visa problem, was stuck on the other side of the world).
Brindley Sherratt at King Philip II [left] and Clive Bayley as The Grand Inquisitor [right]
Conductor Richard Farnes really has the measure of the piece, throwing the score’s many bursts of passion or urgency into relief against the measured pace of the more intimate moments of intrigue. The word-setting in Andrew Porter’s superior translation is intelligent and natural-sounding, and it is delivered with clarity by every member of the cast. A recording is imminent in the Chandos Opera in English series, with most of the same performers; a welcome opportunity to keep for posterity a performance which presents as strong an argument for Verdi in English as we are ever likely to hear.
Ruth Elleson © 2009