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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.
12 May 2009
Subtle Previn world premiere in Houston
As far as world premieres go, Houston Grand Opera is in elite company in the United States, having performed thirty-eight new works prior to opening night of André Previn’s new opera Brief Encounter.
Where the German-American composer’s oeuvre will rank among the other thirty eight remains to be seen, but its subtly gives it a shot at longevity its predecessors didn’t enjoy.
Based jointly on the Noël Coward play Still Life and the 1945 film from which the opera took its title, Brief Encounter is a simple story. Two married parents, Laura (soprano Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (baritone Nathan Gunn) run into each other in a train station. Since Laura makes a trip to the city where Alec works once a week, the pair fortuitously find each other several times and develop an infatuation that turns into an affair. Both struggle with the moral implications of their relationship, and Fred, Laura’s loving yet aloof husband (sung by bass-baritone Kim Josephson) remains ignorant to her deception. Ultimately, the couple ends the fling for their families’ sake, not for a lack of mutual desire.
As theater, Brief Encounter didn’t qualify as compelling drama. The story began in an anachronistic fashion, amid the final goodbyes after the couple ended the affair—Laura then told the story of what preceded the farewell. Yet after the two hour opera finished and the story was recounted, nothing really had happened. Part of the problem is that no one cared about their affair—the only “risk” the couple faced was their own internal strife. Once Fred sensed something different in Laura, the opera was almost over and Laura had long since decided not to continue the affair. Over the course of the performance, the lovers talked about themselves, talked about their affair, talked about their families, kissed once, and then talked some more. Despite all this talking, the characters weren’t developed—they seemed only to have relevant existences within the context of the affair. John Caird’s odd libretto didn’t help much, seeming at times more like a movie script than an operatic text: on more than one occasion Previn’s music leaned towards a deliberate, romantic sound while the lovers sang verbose, chatty lines. Caird also ended several scenes with trite, pithy emotional outbursts that watered down any real sentiments the characters expressed.
Previn’s occasionally dense instrumental orchestration firmly fits in the through-composed film score tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. The German-American composer utilized a litany of styles in this mostly tonal opera, none of which overpowered the others. The vocal line, however, was more difficult to categorize. Futral had several ariosi where she showed soaring fortissimi and dramatic pathos, yet in other sections (notably her scenes with Gunn), the vocal construction resembled very light musical theater composition. Previn’s score included much swelling in the strings with very little release, mirroring the events on stage. In the end, the orchestra served a bel canto function of supporting the singers without drowning them out or drawing attention away from their lines. It would be difficult to pinpoint any outstanding suites or excerptable arias, but in the end that may very well be how Previn sees the story. Not a lot happens in Brief Encounter, musically or dramatically. Alec and Laura are restrained, always bordering on allowing themselves to give in to their desires. A score that somehow indicated a world that contradicted their own would be confusing. Theirs is a subtle environment—a world of coming home to children and spouses with little to no excitement, just steady presences. The steady presence of Previn’s orchestration mirrors this reality throughout the opera.
Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Fred (Kim Josephson) [Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
Futral as Laura gave a splendid performance, although she pushed during some of her heavier sections. Nathan Gunn’s Alec was not seductive vocally or theatrically—he was a regular man in love with a regular woman. At times out of place in large scale works, Gunn disproved any critics by giving a smooth, clear performance that never resorted to blustering. Despite the strange vocal lines, credit should go to Previn for knowing the strengths of these two main characters. Bass-baritone Kim Josephson was a steady presence as Laura’s husband, Fred, providing a more mature voice that contrasted well with Gunn’s lighter baritone. Meredith Arwady as Myrtle Bagot showed a shockingly deep and dark contralto, almost so dark at times as to lose clarity. All cast members could have worked a little more on their English diction, though. The confusing half-American-half-English accents resulted in more than several indistinguishable phrases. Music director Patrick Summers led an appropriately restrained performance and showed much deference to Previn during the curtain calls.
The most innovation was shown by the direction and design team of John Caird (who directed in addition to writing the libretto), Bunny Christie (set/costumes), and Paul Pyant (lighting). The train station where Alec and Laura first meet served as the backdrop for the rest of the production, with elegant, seamless sets dropping in from above to create Laura’s home, a public plaza, a boathouse, and a riverbank. Extensive use of fog kept the train station theme present, and (very loud) dry ice machines created a believable river setting. Christie’s assignment was not easy—over eight scenes in the eighty minute first act alone—but his scene changes were fast, credible, and not distracting. Pre-war furniture and costumes were utilized well, inculcating the subtle lives led by the characters. Nothing stood out, but that was the point—these stories could happen to anyone, anywhere.
Brief Encounter isn’t the next great American opera. It is, above all, a subtle work that serves as a snapshot of the lives of two everyday people. The fact that it doesn’t resort to heavy drama makes it somehow more relevant, though, and Previn’s orchestration underscores this fact. Opera can be subtle, and so can the stories the art form relates. Brief Encounter gets that point across, to an overall positive effect.