17 May 2009
Turandot — Washington National Opera
Bringing Andrei Şerban’s Turandot to the Washington National Opera as a season finale really means finishing the year with a bang.
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.
Bringing Andrei Şerban’s Turandot to the Washington National Opera as a season finale really means finishing the year with a bang.
Created by the Royal Opera House in 1984, with the current WNO director Placido Domingo as Calaf and Gwyneth Jones in the title role, the production has since been revived there fifteen times, staged over fifty times by opera houses around the world, and celebrates its 25th season this year. With all due respect to the original cast, this unprecedented success has nothing to do with them, but rather with the interpretive genius of the director Andrei Şerban, and the fantastic inventiveness of the set and costume designer Sally Jacobs, whose original ideas were presented last night at the WNO stage.
Şerban’s Turandot is staged: literally staged, as the opera is played out in a traditional Chinese theater, with the chorus occupying the galleries as it comments and participates in the action. The theater is decorated by gigantic masks, representing the heads of Turandot’s slain suitors. The characters are also masked (most also wear a white-face make-up, creating a mask-over-mask effect), their gestures deliberate and stylized. The colors are vibrant, with the crimson reds dominating. The emperor’s golden throne, lowered from the ceiling to hover above the crowd in Acts 2 and 3, is a striking effect, and the sword-wielding female dancers in white masks are so chilling, they are downright creepy.
Sabina Cvilak (fore) as Liu, Maria Guleghina (back) as Turandot
The opening night was the usual spectacle of tuxes and gowns. My husband really liked the live Terracotta Warrior in the lobby; I thought it was, perhaps, a tad over the top. There were inevitable first-night kinks; and no, I am not talking about an unidentified heavy object crashing backstage half-way through Turandot’s opening aria, which all those present have been determined to forget. The kinks concerned the issues of balance and timing, as the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson tried to keep various sections of the large orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a perfect synchronicity required by Puccini’s famously complex score. The first act in particular occasionally felt like a gigantic house of cards, shaking slightly, just on the verge of collapse. Thankfully, it never quite did, and as the performance progressed, the tremors mostly subsided, save for only an occasional aftershock.
Argentine tenor Dario Volonté as Calaf hit every note; he demonstrated the fiery metallic timbre, and the alternatively aggressive and brooding personality essential for his character. Yet, his voice had no lyricism, no warmth, and most importantly, no sustaining power — at least not last night — that would have allowed the listener time to appreciate all those head-spinning highs before they sputtered and died like wet Chinese fireworks. His Act 3 pièce de resistance, “Nessun dorma”, was so rushed that the orchestra had trouble keeping up. There was no cantilena, no luxurious lingering on the final “Vincero!”, and consequently, Turandot’s most glorious moment and one of Puccini’s best-known tunes, probably for the first time in its history, evaporated without even a smattering of applause.Scene from Act I
The first applause of the night belonged to Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak as Liù, and deservedly so. Her tiny, brittle figure, dwarfed by the scenery and the other characters, was an embodiment of Puccini’s fragile, tragic heroine, the most human character in Turandot (in a stroke of directorial inventiveness, Liù is never masked). And the vocal interpretation was spot-on: pure, crystalline highs; easy, unforced delivery; power to soar above the orchestra at will, but exercised sparingly, in preference to the heart-breaking pianissimo that somehow, miraculously, was perfectly audible (kudos here also to Ms Wilson for her sensitive conducting).
There could have been no greater contrast between Ms Cvilak’s Liù and Princess Turandot as presented by celebrated Russian dramatic soprano Maria Guleghina. Here, everything was the opposite: tall, imposing figure; stylized kabuki gestures; earth-shattering power of the voice that waited until the opera’s finale to drop below fortissimo and was meanwhile so intimidating, one barely noticed that it was almost impossible to discern the words that came out of Ms Guleghina’s mouth. Like the “citizens of Peking,” we simply submitted to the iron will of the Daughter of Heaven, and waited for precise instructions from her Mandarin.Norman Shankle, Nathan Herfindal, Yingxi Zhang as Ping, Pang and Pong
The Mandarin, Ukrainian Okeskandr Pushniak, was acceptable if not at all intimidating in his tiny part, and was much more interesting to look at than to hear, clad as he was in one of Sally Jacobs’ fabulously colorful creations. Much better — a highlight of the evening, in fact — were Ping, Pang, and Pong (Nathan Herfindahl, Norman Shankle, and Yingxi Zhang, respectively), who garnered accolades for their nice comic timing, and delivering strong vocal performances while endlessly moving, dancing, and literally doing cartwheels around the stage. Indeed, the choreography created by Kate Flatt for their parts and throughout Turandot proved to be one of the strongest elements of the production. Particularly interesting was the fluid continuity of stylized gestures and movements that all performers shared. Blurring the boundaries between the soloists, the chorus, and the dancers, the technique delivered a stunningly unified visual effect.
This unity was clearly the stage director’s goal, realized with the support of Jacobs’ designs, Flatt’s choreography, and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting. For this alone, it is worth seeing Andrei Şerban’s magnificent interpretation of the Puccini classic — now, at 25, a classic in its own right.