Recently in Reviews
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
13 May 2009
Peter Grimes — English National Opera, London Coliseum
In David Alden’s extraordinary new staging of Britten’s
masterpiece, with sets by Paul Steinberg, the Borough is populated by stylised
grotesques, a clever twist on the opera’s existing ‘Little
England’ character stereotypes.
In one of the production’s
creepiest moments, the big man-hunt chorus in the middle of Act 3 is
accompanied by waving of miniature Union Jacks.
Everyone you focus on has a darker secret than the last. At the more normal
end of the range are Felicity Palmer’s Miss Marple-esque Mrs Sedley and
Leigh Melrose’s apparently speed-addicted Ned Keene. The most disturbing
include Darren Jeffery’s Hobson, who appears to have a whole boy-killing
factory of his own going on unnoticed right under everybody else’s noses.
Weirdest of all are Auntie and the Nieces — Rebecca de Pont Davies as a
club-footed cross-dresser with a pinstripe suit and walking cane, and Mairéad
Buicke and Gillian Ramm as a pair of possessed zombie twins in identical school
uniform and pigtails. The Nieces are the production’s only faintly
jarring note, with their vacant and jerky choreography which makes them barely
even recognisable as human beings, but if they have one dramatic function
it’s giving a new layer of depravity to Bob Boles, Swallow and everybody
else who shows a sexual interest in them. Perhaps they are the ultimate product
of this diseased community.
Yes, it’s the norm here to be disturbed, deformed or damaged (even
Balstrode, sung by the excellent Gerald Finley, is missing an arm —
besides the costumes, this is the most obvious visual clue to the
production’s 1940s setting, though Auntie seems a throwback to the 30s)
and Peter and Ellen are seemingly the only complete and sane individuals among
them. Although her even-temperedness and common sense make her stand out from
her neighbours, Ellen is integrated into the community — a community
where people do everything together, moving in swarms — but Grimes is a
loner, and it is this and this alone which leads to his becoming the local
scapegoat. By the end, they have poisoned him into madness, but at least he is
able to escape through death. Ellen is the one who has to live with it all, and
I dare say she fits right in with the rest of them after all she has been
through. With Amanda Roocroft in the role, there are echoes of her recent,
brilliant Jenufa here — a bright-natured, attractive young woman worn
down through her experiences. At times her singing is shrill on top and her
diction indifferent, but her character portrait is spot on, the relationship
with Grimes filled with real tenderness.
The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is as fine a Grimes as you could wish to
hear, wielding both his large voice and burly physique with intelligence and
subtlety. Emerging from the man-hunt and the subsequent pained calm of the
final interlude, Alden’s staging of the mad scene is devastating in its
simplicity: the surtitle screen and orchestra pit go dark, and Grimes is alone
in the abyss beneath a grey and foggy sky. Skelton maximises the effect the
solitude of the setting with a performance of heartbreaking vulnerability and
Peter Grimes (Stuart Skelton); Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) (front rt); Bob Boles (Michael Colvin) (front rt in upturned chair); First Niece (Gillian Ramm) (lying down front nearest); Second Niece (Mairéad Buicke) (behind first neice)
As Grimes hears the drum-led procession approaching his hut — in a
clear and chilling musical echo of his vision, moments earlier, of the first
dead boy — he is distracted into letting go of the rope with which he is
making safe John’s descent down the cliff. Thus the villagers become
directly responsible both for the death of the apprentice and for Peter’s
self-destruction as a result of it. It is a heart-stopping coup-de-theatre.
In the two years that Ed Gardner has been ENO’s Musical Director I
don’t think he has ever drawn a better performance from the house
orchestra than in this detailed but never fussy account of the score. The
playing of the interludes was virtually faultless, with a particularly
memorable brass timbre, the jazzy shape of the phrases in the Storm Interlude
crafted so as to introduce the incongruous 1930s vintage of the inhabitants of
the Boar. A number of remarkable and inventive Grimes stagings have been seen
in London this decade, but musically, this is head and shoulders above the
others. It is perhaps ENO’s finest musical achievement this decade.
Ruth Elleson © 2009