20 Sep 2009
Haydn’s Le pescatrici at Bampton Classical Opera
Bampton Classical Opera have two areas of specialism: little-known gems of the late eighteenth-century and ‘opera in adversity’.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Bampton Classical Opera have two areas of specialism: little-known gems of the late eighteenth-century and ‘opera in adversity’.
Whether it’s downpours and blackouts in the Oxfordshire countryside which force a retreat to a candlelit church, or indisposed singers who compel director Jeremy Gray himself to tread the boards (Benda’s Romeo and Juliet, 2007) or require a student drama student to read the text for a miming singer (Schubert’s The Conspirators, 2009), Bampton Classical Opera must sometimes feel that the Fates are against them. Critics have rightly noted that the company “deserves a prize for quirky, courageous planning” but one might also add that they excel in spontaneous and creative ‘damage limitation’! For this performance of Haydn’s seldom-performed dramma giocoso, Le Pescatrici, the late indisposition of the leading tenor, Andrew Friedhoff (Burlotto), necessitated some rapid re-imagining: in the event, Friedhoff was able to sing the recitative, his arias were excised, and Burlotto’s contributions to the ensembles were delivered by Philip Salmon from the front of the orchestral area. An unfussy solution, and one which scarcely disrupted the musical and dramatic rhythm and logic — indeed, if it had not been for the appearance of Salmon on the platform at the curtain, to receive his well-deserved applause, I suspect many in the audience would not have noticed anything unusual or amiss …
Haydn’s reputation may rest largely on his body of instrumental works, including the 104 symphonies and over 80 string quartets, but vocal music and vocal aesthetics were at the heart of his musical and personal identity throughout his career. His early vocal training was crucial to the formation of his style, as he became familiar with the vocally-based, sensual strands in German musical thought in the early 1750s, singing simple tunes to his father’s harp, training with the choir at St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, studying the ‘instrumental arias’ of C.P.E. Bach and the vocal compositions of the great Italian masters. It is therefore not surprising that everything Haydn wrote, even the most complex ideas, ‘sings’ so effortlessly and beautifully.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Haydn’s own concern that the relative isolation of the Esterháza palace would be detrimental to his compositional development, he was familiar with the most up-to-date trends and fashions in vocal music, well aware of the niceties of the Italian operatic tradition within which he worked. Moreover, in keeping with the contemporary aesthetic theory espoused by Rousseau and others, Le Pescatrici has relatively simple plot, with few incidents but many opportunities to explore the characters’ psychological depths and motivations. The context of the first performance — a celebration of the noble wedding of Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s niece, the Countess von Lamberg, and his Highness the Count of Poggi, staged in a new 400-seat opera house built by the extravagant Prince — led to small alternations being made to Goldoni’s play. Haydn’s opera, in which true nobility and aristocratic grace win through, and the fickle peasant classes are exposed as greedy and presumptuous, was a perfect parable for the occasion.
Two feckless fisher girls, Nerina and Lesbina, are each engaged to the other’s brother, Burlotto and Frisellino respectively. But, desirous of more wealthy and illustrious husbands, they are excited by the arrival of Prince Lindoro; he is seeking the rightful heir to the throne of Benevento, whose identity was concealed at birth during a violent coup. Each of the fortune-hunting girls immediately sets about convincing Lindoro that they are the true claimant, to the annoyance of their suitors. Mastricco, a worldly old fisherman, knows better, however; for it is the demure, gentle Eurilda, his supposed daughter, who is the rightful inheritor. Despite the enterprising efforts of the flighty fisher girls, true nobility shines through and justice is restored. But not before the spurned young men seize the opportunity to humiliate their capricious fiancées with a ‘Così-like’ trick: disguising themselves as the well-bred cousins of Lindoro, they woo their ladies (in this case, their own, to avoid any incestuous advances!) by promising them untold riches and luxury. When the ruse is exposed, it is Mastricco who must step in to restore order and harmony.
The imposing Baroque interior of St John’s Smith Square may lack some of the lavish opulence of the original venue, but this mattered not as the sets designed by Mike Wareham and Anthony Hall swept us far from twilight London to the idyllic Italian south, depositing us in the small fishing village of Taranto. An aquamarine gleam imbued all, illuminating a picture-perfect coastal backdrop; and what with the brightly painted fish-stalls and sun-bleached beach huts — with obligatory sea-gull perched aloft — one could almost forget the evening’s decidedly autumnal chill. This was a fresh, uncluttered set, but one which offered many an opportunity for Jeremy Gray’s typically deft visual witticisms — not least the changing theatre bills which reminded us of Le Pescatrici’s operatic ‘relations’, La Cenerentola and Così fan tutte.
A fire at the Esterháza opera house in 1779 resulted in the loss of almost one third of the score. Several significant scenes in Acts 1 and 2 are missing and when the opera was staged at Garsington in 1997, a prize of £2000 was offered for the “best restoration of missing parts”! Bampton adopted the more conventional approach of using the reconstruction made in 1965 by the esteemed Haydn scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon.
The replacement numbers for Act 1 and Act 2 are certainly in keeping with the lyrical, serenade-like idiom of Haydn’s original sections. However, the necessary excision of Burlotto’s mock-heroic first aria and the rather uniform mood, mode and timbre of the sequence of opening arias, resulted in a lack of variety at the start of Act 1; thus, while an atmosphere of delight and relaxation was created, characterisation was not firmly established in musical terms, although subsequent arias, particularly those for Lesbina and Nerina in Act 2, were more strikingly individual. What was apparent, from the opening bars of the overture, was that the London Mozart Players were on fine form, under the baton of Alice Farnham. In particular, the sweet, warm woodwind colours, à la divertimento, as in the tender introduction to the second scene, evoked the gentle, lazy heat of the Italian sunshine.
Throughout, the ensemble between the orchestra and singers was superb; two large television screens proved an effective means of overcoming one of the inherent problems of the venue, where the necessity of placing orchestral players behind the singers can hinder effective communication between conductor and cast. One might have wished for a little more energy and sprightlier tempi from Farnham in the ensembles, particularly in the Act 1 finale, with its gradual accumulation of musical and dramatic urgency, but overall the structure was well-judged. The continuo playing of Kelvin Lim was particularly noteworthy, skilfully creating dramatic momentum and continuity in the recitatives.
Supported by such an assured orchestral platform, it was the leading ladies who sparkled most brightly. Bampton regulars, Emily Rowley Jones (Lesbina) and Serena Kay (Nerina), pouted and pranced, flounced and flirted convincingly, both sopranos relishing the humour and sustaining the verve and energy. After some initial intonation problems, Rowley Jones settled into the role, negotiating both the pompous coloratura and deflating patter (thereby exposing the falsity of her claims and revealing her humdrum roots) in her Act 2 aria with confidence and assurance. Kay used her upper range particularly effectively.
In the role of Eurilda, Margaret Rapacioli certainly presented an effective contrast to the flightiness of the other fisher girls; the simplicity of Eurilda’s melodies reminds one of the classical grace and dignity of Gluck, but although she conveyed an appropriate dramatic serenity and sincerity, Rapacioli did not quite possess the sustained lyricism of line and depth of tone necessary to express the integrity and graciousness of Eurilde.
Mark Chaundy, as Frisellino, demonstrated a nimbleness of movement and lightness of voice, just right for this simple, undemanding young lover; while bass Robert Winslade Anderson was an appealing Mastricco. The expansive range required in his Act 1 aria posed some challenges, particularly at the top, but his consistently excellent diction more than compensated, to which he needed only a few economic visual and physical gestures to deftly convey both the wisdom and mischief of the wily old fisherman. Given the consistency of the soloists, it was a pity, therefore, that baritone Vojtech Safarik (Lindoro) seemed less assured. Under-powered vocally, rather stiff physically, and with little variety of tone, Safarik tended to shout when a forte was required; he was somewhat overshadowed in the ensembles, which had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the opera’s emphasis on the power and dignity of the ‘nobility’.
But, overall this was a well-matched cast. Caroline Kennedy and Rosa French, as decorative bellezze al bagno, enhanced the comic spirit. And, in the ensembles, particularly the Act 1 finale and the tranquil farewell to Lindoro and Eurilda, the voices blended into a radiant whole.
In his public statements about his oeuvre, Haydn consistently placed his vocal works ahead of his instrumental compositions. This performance, which conveyed the company ’s genuine belief in the opera’s merits and which perfectly straddled the line between irony and sincerity, certainly suggested that a reassessment of Haydn’s operatic achievement is long overdue.