29 Jun 2009
Un ballo in maschera at Royal Opera House
On the whole, I’d prefer the conspirators to be sitting on toilets
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..
On the whole, I’d prefer the conspirators to be sitting on toilets
No, really, ENO’s ‘controversial’ production of 2002 may have jarred with traditionalists but in many ways it made better sense than this revival of Mario Martone’s 2005 production. Martone is also a film director (cue groans from those who hated Kiarostami’s ‘Così’) and the opera is conceived as a series of tableaux, from the staid to the spectacular, but without much in the way of personenregie. The original production could boast of Mattila, Hampson and Álvarez in the leading roles, but for this revival the ROH have cast a house debutant soprano, the Chilean Angela Marambio, the Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, and Ramón Vargas, and of the three it is only the tenor who produces a genuinely Verdian sound.
Anna Christy as Oscar and Ramón Vargas as Riccardo
I have to declare a preference for the Danish setting, with the venial King Gustavus biting the dust at the ball — it simply makes more sense to me, all the ‘American’ references in the Boston version sounding daft to my ears, and exactly which Massachusetts ‘castello’ did Riccardo appropriate from his enemy? Of course I’m aware of all the censorship shenanigans, but the story is quite ludicrous enough without adding on any extras. He loves her, but he has preserved her honour? Oh please. Renato entirely fails to recognize his own wife just because she dons a veil? Give me a break. These absurdities can of course be negated in a production which focuses on gripping the emotions and making sense of the politics, but this wasn’t it.
Dalibor Jenis as Renato
Ramón Vargas is yet another of those tenors once tipped to be one of the ‘new Three Tenors’ (groan) but he has survived this nonsense and is actually a fine musician, with a fairly light, flexible voice which he uses with taste and discretion — he lacks the big bow-wow effect beloved of many admirers of this repertoire, but there is no shortage of italianità in the singing, even though ‘Di tu se fedele’ was a little breathy and ‘O qual soave’ was rather thin on passion — that however was not exactly his fault. He did his level best to make something of the role, not exactly helped by either the direction or the Amelia.
Not only do revivals always encourage comparison — and it’s unfortunate in this context that Mattila was such a sympathetic heroine last time around — but they can also suffer from lack of work on the interactions between the principals, something which especially affected Angela Marambio, whose Amelia could blossom if she were able to actually do something on stage other than emote. Her best singing came in ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ where stand and deliver is allowable, but in the Act II duet and at the death scene, she was sorely in need of some direction.
Angela Marambio as Amelia and Elena Manistina as Ulrica
Dalibor Jenis has an imposing voice and stage presence, and he was often convincing as Renato, although I’m sure he would not be regarded as a genuine Verdi baritone by most aficionados of the breed. ‘Eri tu’ was however grippingly sung, in one of the few believable scenes of the evening. Elena Manistina was a sinister Ulrica, her cries about communing with Satan not once eliciting a chuckle from me — and that’s praise, by the way. Oscar is one of opera’s most irritating parts, but Anna Christy succeeded in not making me wince more than a couple of times — again, a compliment.
Orchestrally things were slow — very slow — although there was plenty of light and shade in Maurizio Benini’s conducting. In terms of the production, who would not love Sergio Tramonti’s wonderful design for the ball scene, with its framed image and brilliant use of mirrors? The only problem was that some of the characters did not quite seem to know what to do with themselves, even as their beloved ‘Governor’ was breathing his last. I liked Ulrica’s bear pit and the Act II gallows, although I imagine the latter was a trial for those who had to walk around in it. The other scenes were deeply conventional, as of course was the feel of the whole evening.
Angela Marambio as Amelia and Ramón Vargas as Riccardo
This ‘Ballo’ comes after a starry ‘Traviata’ and before an equally name-laden ‘Barbiere’ so in a way it’s a kind of breathing space, and if you like your Verdi without too many directorial surprises and your singing and acting styles traditional, you’ll be pleased with this production — first night wobbles must have taken the edge off some of the phrasing, and I’m sure that later performances will find all three principals much more settled in.