07 Jul 2009
Saariaho’s sumptuous L’amour de loin at the ENO, London
Absence of plot is by no means an impediment in opera.
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..
Absence of plot is by no means an impediment in opera.
This new production at The English National Opera, created by noted circus director Daniele Finzi Pasca proves that superlative staging can make up for weak narrative. Through visual images, the spirit of L’Amour de loin is invoked to express the drama beneath the music, better than the text itself.
Kaija Saariaho’s music wavers in a langorous swoon. Cadences rise and fall away, legato rippling upwards and down without regard to syntax. This is lavishly sensual, complete with faint echoes of the French medieval world of the troubadour, Jaufré Rudel (Roderick Williams), and the “Moorish” exoticism of Tripoli where the heroine Clémence (Joan Rodgers), resides. It’s the musical equivalent of intoxicating fumes, perfume or perhaps some strange potion inhaled through a hookah. Dramatic structure isn’t relevant to mood music as dream-like as this.
Love, after all, is an “altered state” where logic doesn’t apply, particularly in the case of idealized troubadour love, where artistic indulgence is as much an impetus as the love object. No wonder Jaufré panics and becomes fatally ill when he crosses the sea to meet Clémence for the first time. Unlike Tristan und Isolde where strong characters are transformed by a potion, to the horror of those around them, everyone in L’amour de loin, even the Pilgrim, is complicit in the dream state, so intensity dissolves in romantic washes of chromatic color.
Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s translation is lucid but retains the unworldly illogic of the original.
Roderick Williams, Joan Rodgers and Faith Sherman sing well, but this isn’t an opera where character development matters much. Its energies lie in the non-vocal writing, giving Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra a chance to luxuriate in lush orchestral texture.
The last scenes, where Clémence curses God, then quite quickly gives in to His will, might afford great opportunities for drama had the libretto engaged seriously with ideas. This is where the staging proved itself completely. As Clémence rages at God, Roderick Williams as the dead Jaufré descends from the roof on a wire, his white shroud trailing to the ground. At his side are the two “spirit Jaufrés” who had been doubling him as he lay “dying”. Is it a reference to Christ flanked by the two thieves at the crucifixion ? Perhaps not, but the idea is just as sacrilegious as Clémence’s curse and vaguely logical in the same sense. But as pure theatre it’s undeniably dramatic. The stage is lit up in colors as gorgeous as the music, while the chorus shine searchlights upwards towards the ceiling. Gradually the number of searchlight beams increase until the whole auditorium is bathed in unearthly white light. Whatever the image may mean, it’s a magnificent statement.
Joan Rodgers as Clémence and the spirits of Jaufré [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
In an opera where ideas are so loosely defined, moments like this make all the difference. Finzi Pasca uses the specialist circus skills to extend the range of effects possible on stage. Acrobats dressed in strange headless garb “swim” in the air against a background of silk and colored lights. Huge planes of blue silk zoom onto the platform released on flywires from the upper balconies. Cutout transparencies and panels create illusions of space. Even the costumes act. Sleeves are made with huge silken extensions manipulated by actors, so it seems the singers are surrounded by huge, winged beings. It turns the opera into something truly magical.