14 May 2009
Weber’s Der Freischütz at Zurich Opera House
On any list of great but seldom-performed operas, Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz must rank high.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
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.’
On any list of great but seldom-performed operas, Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz must rank high.
Its combination of lush early Romanticism and German folk tale, both grim and gay, doesn’t seem to register outside of its native country. The score mostly lives on in frequent playings by classical radio stations of the magnificent overture. But there is much, much more great music in this score, and any production that manages to draw an audience into the eerie world of the opera deserves respect.
This 1999 staging by Ruth Berghaus has appeared on DVD before, and Arthaus Musik is to be thanked for this re-release. A traditional staging might work, but it would have to be done with remarkable taste. The vaguely Faust-like story centers on a failure of a hunter, Max, who wants to win the hand of Agathe. Kaspar owes his soul to a devil figure, Samiel, but Kaspar hopes to manage his escape by tricking Max into taking his place. To ensnare Max, Kaspar produces magic bullets that can help Max earn Agathe’s respect as a hunter. At the climax, Kaspar thinks he has manipulated Max into shooting Agathe, but instead, he ends up taking the last magic bullet himself.
Berghaus employs some of the familiar tropes of regie-theater, including men in overcoats and fedoras and a stark set of golden-hued floor and walls. The set shifts into various conformations, with a pit appearing at one point, as well as shifting ramps and an opening high up on one wall for Agathe to appear in before the final shot. The audience takes awhile to settle into Barghaus’s vision, and when Max’s first shot with a magic bullet produces a veritable avalanche of black feathers, chuckles are heard. Soon the off-kilter set and stylized movement cohere into a vision of a foreign yet familiar world, one that suits both the folk nature of the tale and the supernatural elements.
An excellent cast gives itself over to Berghaus’s vision. Matti Salminen dominates as Kaspar, his weighty yet never ponderous bass managing to be both avuncular and ominous as necessary. The leads in a tale such as this tend to be anonymous creatures, but both both Peter Seiffert as Max and Inga Nielsen as Agathe find interesting angles, under the direction of Berghaus. Seiffert’s anxious Max appears as an outsider to the mainstream of village life from the start, an early version of the “misunderstood bad boy” James Dean supposedly invented. Although the libretto doesn’t provide much interaction between the two romantic leads — they don’t even appear together until the middle of act two — Nielsen and Seiffert both suggest the torment of their thwarted romance. Although she is done no favors by the close-ups, Nielsen sings youthfully, except for a tendency for extended high notes to lose tone. Malin Hartelius, as Agathe’s friend Ännchen, however, steals her scenes with the heroine, employing a rich, warm mezzo.
The appearance of the Mephistopheles character, Samiel, produces a suitable chill, and the entire Wolf’s Crag scene manages to be, if not exactly scary, disturbingly weird. Berghuas still respects the intimate moments of the opera, such as Agathe’s second act aria, by letting the focus remain on the singer and not introducing distracting stage business.
The excellent sound captures some audience noise, but nothing too detrimental. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has a reputation for idiosyncratic tempos, but his reading here is well-paced and colorful.
To all but those utterly resistant to non-traditional stagings, this Der Freischütz can be considered a DVD classic. Pick it up if you missed it on its first go-round.