29 Jun 2009
Un ballo in maschera at Royal Opera House
On the whole, I’d prefer the conspirators to be sitting on toilets
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
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?
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.