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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..
21 Jun 2009
Madam Butterfly - English National Opera, London Coliseum
Following the death of the American film director Anthony Minghella, ENO were left with a gap in the season vacated by the new production which he had been engaged to direct, and what better way to do so than by bringing back his immensely popular 2005 staging of Madam Butterfly? Minghella’s widow, Carolyn Choa (who has worked on the production from its original conception) was charged with resurrecting the production in tribute.
And a worthy tribute it is. This season’s cast is easily the strongest that Minghella’s staging has yet enjoyed here at the Coliseum (it’s a co-production with the Met, and the Lithuanian National Opera). Judith Howarth returned to the title role from the last revival, with a portrayal that has grown in stature since the last time. Her fullish lyric soprano remains a touch on the light side, but gives a real sense of being at one with the orchestra, and picks out the delicacy of the dialogues with Pinkerton and Suzuki; she draws the character with just the right balance of strength and vulnerability.
The two men, both appropriately imported from the USA, are new to both the production and the company; Brian Mulligan’s Sharpless is particularly worthy of praise, acting with skilled subtlety such that every inner thought came across. Bryan Hymel sings Pinkerton in a strong, clear tenor; if his phrasing is rather linear and matter-of-fact it only serves to add to the superficiality of the character.
In fact, the whole staging serves to highlight Pinkerton’s superficiality, or rather the superficiality which he ascribes to Nagasaki and its inhabitants. The drama unfolds in a world of heightened, fantastical colours, the vibrant hues of Han Feng’s costume designs contrasting with the shiny black letter-box of a set, evoking the curiously chaste exoticism which so fascinates Pinkerton. Two of Blind Summit Theatre’s brilliant bunraku puppets act as Suzuki’s co-servants, introduced by Goro in Act 1 while Pinkerton is cooing over the novelty value of his new marital home; it is quite clear before he even states it overtly that Cio-Cio-San stands no chance of being treated as a ‘real’ wife. The most fully characterised of the puppets is that used for Butterfly’s young son, the intricacy of its movements almost bringing the child to life - but retaining that layer of artificiality which underlines that even Sharpless to some extent doesn’t have a full understanding of the Japanese as human equals. The orchestral prelude to the final scene features a dream sequence in which a puppet Cio-Cio-San is reunited in a pas de deux with a human Pinkerton; a realisation of a deeply held wish on Butterfly’s part, but at the same time almost an acceptance on her part of his perception that the two belong to separate worlds.
Ultimately, this approach results in a degree of emotional frustration for the audience; somehow I want Pinkerton to be jolted too late into recognising Butterfly for the person she is. I yearn for a sudden gear-change into ugly realism at the end; for Butterfly’s suicide to be graphic and literal. Instead, the blood flowing from her body is unfurled in red silk by balletic extras. It all makes a consistent point; Pinkerton is going back to his convenient, socially-sanitised American existence, and perhaps he never will truly grasp the magnitude of what he has done to his first wife back in Nagasaki.
Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly, Christine Rice as Suzuki and Bryan Hymel as F. B. Pinkerton
If there is a shortage of raw emotion on stage, there is an abundance of it in the pit. Edward Gardner, fresh from his revelatory Peter Grimes, gives a blazingly passionate account of the score, unequalled in my memory - and the chorus have rarely sounded better, either; the humming chorus was firm in intonation and ethereal of timbre. The supporting cast is exceptional, particularly Christine Rice’s Suzuki and Michael Colvin’s Goro.
Ruth Elleson © 2009