29 Jun 2009
Un ballo in maschera at Royal Opera House
On the whole, I’d prefer the conspirators to be sitting on toilets
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.
The Paris Opéra has not staged a full Ring Cycle since 1957, but its current season will conclude with a correction of this grand operatic gap.
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.