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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..
20 Sep 2009
Humour and horror — Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the ENO, London
A massive female figure fills the whole stage at the ENO for Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, in this amazing production from La Fura del Bas. (Alex Ollé). This production is so inherently dramatic that it brings Ligeti's "anti-opera" onto a new level as theatre.art. .
The giant woman is a miracle of motors and pulleys, engineering transfigured as art. She’s obviously not alive, but she moves, following the action. She takes on whatever is projected onto her, changing with light from woman to man, aging, decaying, turning into a skull. She’s solid enough to support actors crawling over her yet seems to disappear into starlight or clouds when the lighting’s right. Her body opens to reveal secret caverns. She’s so wonderful, you’re mesmerized.
“A dress rehearsal for the end of the world” wrote Michel de Ghelderode whose original play inspired Ligeti’s “anti-opera”. Le Grand Macabre is an apocalyptic vision after Heironymous Bosch, Theatre of the Absurd at its most picaresque. Nothing is supposed to make sense, all logic overturned. So lovers Amando and Amanda (Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone, both women) wear their muscles outside their skin. Nekrotzar, note the nameplay, (Pavlo Hunka) is the all powerful figure of Death, who rides a plastic bubble horse while wielding a scythe.
Rebecca Bottone (Amanda) and Frances Bourne (Amando)
There’s lots of action, for this is Breughelland, teeming with busy figures. Venus (Susanna Andersson) slides down from the ceiling, and later appears as singing stormtrooper. Lots of deliberately unerotic sexual shennanigans - Astramodars (Frode Olsen) and his wife Mescalina (Susan Bickley), she of the conical size ZZ bra cups. The Black Minister (Simon Butteries) and The White Minister (Daniel Norman) exchange playground obscenities in alphabetical order. Piet the Pot ((Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is a down to earth drunk. Prince Go-Go (Andrew Watts, the countertenor) portrays a sad Elvis impersonator, his naivety no match for the evil plotters around him. There’s even a recreation of Michael Jackson’s *Thriller *dance routine to keep the chorus and actors on their toes.
It’s wildly madcap, lots of fun if taken on its own terms. Judging by the laughter most of this audience got the right mood. But the difficulty with Le Grand Macabre, is that it’s not easy to marry humour with horror. Some of Ligeti’s jokes are pretty asinine anyway, without the saving grace of shock, but there’s a lot more darkness and despair in his music than this production dwells on. On the other hand, human nature being what it is chooses levity over grim surreality .
In the Second Act, where Ligeti writes longer musical passages without narrative, Baldur Brönimann got reasonably idiomatic playing from the orchestra. Nonetheless this isn’t Ligeti at his most subtle, and most of the audience were there for the show not the music. Since this production had so much going for it that its sheer inventive energy was compensation for the relative lack of musical bite. Nothing to scare away Those Who Fear New Music. This production was so impressive that it will stick in the memory . For once, it will be good to listen to a recording (ideally Salonen) allowing La Fura del Bas’s incredible images come to life again in your imagination. You can hear the music again, but you’ll never see another production quite like this !
Andrew Watts (Prince Go-Go), Wolfgang Ablinger - Sperrhacke (Piet the Pot), Pavlo Hunka (Nekrotzar) and Frode Olsen (Astradamors)
Yet ultimately, Le Grand Macabre isn’t all that macabre. Death is overturned. Prince Go-Go is arrested because he isn’t dead. Piet, Astromodars and Mescalina, return to life and carry on as before. Nekrotzar is defeated and doesn’t come back. Instead he’s replaced by a shrunken puppet, inside the giant woman’s stomach. Then the giant’s features bloom again, colour returning to her cheeks, and she smiles. She’s remarkably realistic now, so it’s quite frightening seeing her eyeball to eyeball if you’re sitting upstairs. The giant woman’s face came from a film at the very beginning, where a sad, lonely woman seemed to be dying of a heart attack. She doesn’t die, but such a shambles of an existence is hardly life. It was uncomfortable seeing her “dead” body subject to indignities, but seeing the real actress who plays her in the film taking applause later wasn’t reassuring. Which is perhaps the point - we can’t assume everything’s back to normal, whatever normal “is”.
Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre runs at the ENO until October 9th.