23 Aug 2009
Wagner's Tannhaüser at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Good directors don't always create good productions.
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?
Good directors don't always create good productions.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff proved with his staging of Parsifal, preserved on DVD, that he can stay true to the core vision of a Wagner masterwork and yet bring new insights and a stark yet imaginative vision to the work. This Tannhaüser, filmed in 2008 in Baden-Baden, comes across as an over-designed, under-realized concept. Although the bonus feature of an hour-long documentary has a lot of talk - oh boy, does it ever - none of it really serves to make the production’s intents any clearer. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, are all spectacular. The viewer can admire all that effort and still feel unsatisfied, because the tone never becomes coherent. Does Lehnhoff see the opera as essentially silly? That nagging thought is the chief one his staging produced in your reviewer.
A huge spiral staircase/walkway dominates the set, the curve of which has a seductive, feminine shape. Waltraud Meier as Venus appears in the shadow of the curve, at first immobile in a huge hoop-skirt ballgown, and then stepping away from it in a more shapely black dress. The ballet almost never really works to suggest the erotic appeal of Venusberg, but Lehnhoff gets off to a very bad start here. In the choreography of Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn, dancers in clunky, head-to-toe white leotards mime the wriggling movements of worms or maggots. It’s silly when not repellent. And the worms turn up again at the end, of course, to spoil one of the more successful scenes of the production.
With a full head of shaggy hair and looking a little like a 1980s’ Bono of the rock band U2, Robert Gambill enters. In a role known as a tenor-killer, Gambill offers a lot. He doesn’t seem to tire, and his enunciation of the text struck this non-German speaker as sharp. The core of Gambill’s voice is a husky, masculine sound, with an effective if strained top. He doesn’t really have either the vocal or personal charisma for a memorable assumption of the horny hero, but Gambill is about as good as we’ve got at this time.
Only a few months before this summer 2008 production, Gambill had been in the same opera with Camila Nylund as Elisabeth in San Diego, where your reviewer caught their performances. Nylund is a gorgeous woman, visually perfect as Elisabeth (but even more stunning when seen in street clothes in the aforementioned documentary). She can sing her role, as Gambill can sing his. It’s just the lack of any special color or imagination to her phrasing that keeps her assumption from affecting the audience as it should. At least she doesn’t have to endure the wig catastrophe that Meier does as Venus, with a weird fan-shaped hedge of hair across the top of her skull. Lehnhoff relies on Meier’s considerable dramatic reserves to put her characterization across, but he gives her very little to do. Even when outside the prison of that satin gown, Meier seems locked away.
In Wartburg things get very goofy. Most of the men wear gold lamé suits, while the chorus enters in black suits and helmets with short antlers, or are they insect antennae? When the song contest begins, the contestants stride onto a platform with a standing microphone, strutting and posturing like rock stars. Tom Fox as Biterolf really gets into it. But when Gambill’s Tannhaüser rushes up, shoves Fox off the stage and sings in praise of Venusberg, Lehnhoff’s interpretation makes him look like a spoiled, bratty jock. There’s no interest in his redemption from that point. If we still care about Nylund’s Elisabeth, that is due to the commendable efforts of Roman Trekel as Wolfram and Stephen Milling as Hermann, two first-class singers who manage to preserve their dignity amidst the silliness.
One of several hundred young conductors making their names known today, Philippe Jordan leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a technically precise but soulless reading. He has more interesting things to say about the music in the documentary than can be heard in the actual performance.
The booklet does feature a very fine essay by Reiner E. Moritz, who covers the opera’s creation cogently and also finds ways of describing this production that make it sound better than it turns out to be. But where in the booklet essay is the credit for the wig stylist? The documentary interviews reveal that both Gambill and Trekel got the benefit of that artist’s best work. Meier, unfortunately, did not.
Finally, if a production goes for the non-traditional approach as this one does, then the subtitles shouldn’t be as fussy and outdated as those employed here. A lot of creative energy went into this production. In the end, it comes across as all design, no depth.