02 Aug 2009
Paris: King Roger Goes Hollywood
Paris Opera seems to posit the question: Does anyone completely understand what Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is about?
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?
Paris Opera seems to posit the question: Does anyone completely understand what Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is about?
And really, given the splendid musical effects, does anyone care?
This knotty dramatic piece with a loosely wandering libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, has largely languished on the sidelines of world stages until very recent years. I recall a very credible mounting in Amsterdam only a few years ago, in which the producers honored the rather mythical, metaphorical and medieval tone of the text, with settings and costumes that seemed grounded in the milieu of 12th-century Christian King Roger II of Sicily, who is enlightened by a mysterious young shepherd as the embodiment of pagan ideals.
Not surprisingly, the innovative (some would say ‘willfully provocative’) Paris Opera was having none of that, and the famous (some would say ‘infamous’) stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski, abetted by set and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak set the diffuse action in the world of Hollywood (or any-other-’wood) glitterati.
At rise we see what seems to be a large, empty swimming pool, with a dead woman’s body floating in the down right corner (we are able to view the corpse thanks to a Plexiglas wall on the deep end). Shades of Sunset Boulevard!
But it is not Norma Desmond who appears poolside but rather a scantily clad King Roger II and Roxana, as bored rich people killing time in their respective chaises. The garrulous archbishop here is a kvetching man-servant. The chorus, in spangled and twinkling evening wear, become complacent revelers at a de rigueur entertainment industry social event. And the pagan Shepherd (in quite a brilliant invention) is a gender challenged street person.
The dueling forces on display do not seem so much “Christian versus Profane,” but the “Have’s” contrasted with the “Have Not’s”. For our hero does not seem to start out worshiping Christ so much as Mammon. The duo of Warlikowski and Szcsesniak have succeeded quite spectacularly here by injecting vivid theatrical life into what could have been a thudding, pretentious oratorio. The fine character work served to create flesh and blood creatures out of the writers’ fuzzy symbolic figures.
Felice Ross’s wonderfully detailed gobos and lighting effects contributed mightily in isolating images, and suggesting a supernatural effect that informs the proceedings throughout the night. Denis Guéguin devised stage-filling video effects that somehow managed to illuminate the dramatic moments without overpowering the actors. As the chorus members (excellently tutored by Winfried Maczewski) posed snootily behind a scrim, the use of a hand held video-cam that traced the torsos and projected the choristers on a huge screen, ‘up close and personal’ from toe to crown was a clever invention.
Warlikowski carries the arching metaphor of the initially near-naked Roger who dons the trappings — and consequences — of fame to a natural conclusion, as he has the protagonist once again shucking his tuxedo and material encumbrances in time for the closing introspective musings. The King’s final paean to the rising sun is heartbreaking as a denuded Roger hallucinates even as the body of Roxana floats in the pool behind him, an eerie directorial invention that evokes the drug- and booze- prompted tragedy of many such a Hollywood gathering.
Only the final entrance of the Shepherd is grossly miscalculated, dressed as he is in a Minnie Mouse head and accessories, and joined by a small band of similarly got-up children whom he proceeds to lead in morning calisthenics. (No, I am not making this up.) Whether meant to be a goof on Euro Disney or popular culture, it misfires badly and takes us totally out of the otherwise stunning conclusion.
If you are going to spend almost one third of an opera looking at an unclothed baritone, you really can’t do better than the buff and handsome Mariusz Kwiecien. And he sings, too! Mr. Kwiecien is a known commodity at all the major houses (opera-, that is, not bath-), and he deserves the solid reputation he has built. The voice is warm, secure, and rings out in the large Bastille hall. Sometimes, perhaps a bit too much.
Since my first encounter with this world-class baritone was at a beautiful recital of Polish songs in an intimate hall in Warsaw, I was wowed not only by his command of the dramatic content of the text, but also by the fine gradations of interpretative effects. In the opera house, Mariusz is no less engaging, but his vocalizing at times seems more geared to producing quantities of booming sound. His artistry is always in evidence, to be sure, and his more hushed phrases were always intense, present, and affecting; but I thought that his winning performance might have benefited even more by occasionally moderating his volume at full throttle.
He was well-partnered by the supremely musical Roxana from Olga Pasichnyk. This is a fairly soft-grained voice for the role (think Cotrubas at her finest), and there were full orchestral phrases when I longed for more heft or point in the sound (maybe our baritone could loan her some!). But the public loves this artist and for good reason. She commands the stage, gives 100%, and, especially at the upper end of her instrument, pours out melting, limpid, silvery phrase after silvery phrase.
Even in this splendid top-tier company, the star turn of the night was indisputably that of Eric Cutler’s superbly sung Shepherd. Not only is this a substantial lyric tenor that ‘speaks’ throughout the range thanks to a secure technique and somewhat bright focus, but the voice is also capable of carrying out dramatic intentions with meaningful deployment of a good variety of colors.
Add to that his imposing presence and his willingness to collaborate with the (okay, slightly wacko) director, Cutler forges a believable yet fey characterization that is part Dr. Frankenfurter and part Liza-on-a-bender (dig the nail polish). One of the season’s truly memorable performances. Rounding out the exceptional cast, Stefan Margita was the solid-voiced Edrisi, and Wojtek Smilek’s Archbishop made a substantial and favorable impression.
Overseeing the proceedings from the podium, conductor Kazushi Ono paced his cast and orchestra with fine results. This haunting, melodic score with its oriental influences, has hints of Scriabin and Strauss, but asserts its own identity and stakes a claim as a masterpiece. What the libretto may lack in cogency and interest is more than compensated by the heartfelt, brilliantly scored music. Maestro Ono seemed to revel in each and every orchestral detail and effect, and he drew as fine a performance from his instrumentalists as I have heard from the Paris pit.
Musical excellence, coupled with a challenging mise en scène and a cast that was certainly up to that challenge, King Roger proved a fitting, high quality, love-it-or-hate-it-you-can’t-look-away-from-it finale to the Mortier regime. The King is dead. Long live the King.