Recently in Reviews
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..
04 Oct 2009
Il trovatore in San Francisco
SFO general director David Gockley has a mania for developing new audiences — last year The Bonesetter’s Daughter was aimed at enticing the Asian American community into the opera house, and Porgy and Bess encouraged the African American community to cross the threshold.
This fall season, besides programming only composers and operas that everyone has heard of, he seems to have targeted two other rather large groups — those who would not be caught dead in an opera house and those who are hard of hearing.
Verdi’s blockbuster Il trovatore opened the SFO fall season on September 11. The War Memorial’s familiar gold curtain flew out to reveal the production’s show curtain, a detail of one of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, dampening the festive mood of the inauguration of the company’s eighty-seventh season. The Met and Chicago Lyric had conspired with San Francisco Opera to create this new production of Verdi’s first mega-opera. We can hope that it will not end up in SFO’s warehouse to be revived every five or six years, or ever again.
Verdi blockbusters are not fodder for little league opera. The great big San Francisco Opera had the goods. A big style, knock-em dead, real Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, the company’s incoming music director; a real Italian tenor, Marco Berti (a recipient of the Giuseppe Verdi Gold Metal), Sondra Radvanovsky, an American soprano who brings real push to “spinto;” the mezzo Stephanie Blythe, Musical America’s (the major trade publication) current Singer of the Year; and Dimitri Hvorostovsky (who needs no introduction) as the Count di Luna. It was a lively contest as to who could sing louder, clearly at the urging of the maestro. It was loud, very loud.
The most beautiful singing of the evening came from Hvorostovsky in the second act reverie of his love for Leonora, though the effect was betrayed by the maestro who too aggressively drove Verdi’s delicate orchestration. Stephanie Blythe heaved the rantings of Azucena from her chest throughout the evening, leaving her vocally exhausted at the end, and arousing our concern for her on-going vocal health. Mme. Radvanovsky was busy with strange operatic acting accompanying her impressively goosed up, later in the evening bleating vocal production, evoking concerns for her eventual vocal health as well. Marco Berti squarely hit the high C (though not for very long) in Di quella pira, actually a high B as the whole aria had been transposed down to accommodate this show-off high note infamously interpolated by tenors.
At the September 25 performance many of the audience rose to their feet when Azucena appeared for her bow, then the balance stood when Hvorostovsky took the next bow (Azucena had just sung her guts out in the final trio while the Count di Luna merely looked on, one might have thought she would have taken the later bows in turn with Leonora and Manrico). Then la Radvanovsky got huge, the hugest applause, probably because she had the softer, prettier arias, followed by the title role, Manrico, who was well appreciated as the most genuine performance of the evening (no one expects sincerity from a tenor, so its lack was not a problem).
Scottish stage director David McVicar got the whole thing wrong. Il trovatore is not about infanticide or bloody revenge (or Napoleonic wars), it is about singing. Famously victimized as a bad libretto Il trovatore is a succession of set pieces that tell what has happened over a thirty year period. There is very little in Il trovatore of what is actually happening at the moment. Each of its eight scenes needs a specific mood to be set within which the story-telling takes place, and it was any attempt to create these moods that this production lacked. Unfortunately this led to a painful absence of poetry in this musically and theatrically over-blown production.
McVicar, as a good director thinks he should, attempted to make a dramatic whole, over-laying a larger mood or concept — the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Il trovatore is far less than a national or social tragedy, and these larger horrors were quite pale, indeed unnoticeable beside the vicious personal dramas of Verdi’s characters. To the hopeless task of imposing a dramatic unity McVicars and his designer Charles Edwards developed a revolving set that could instantly move from one locale to another, one story to another, with no time for the Verdi’s moods to dissipate and then radically transform themselves. Put this together with the pushed-to-the-hilt conducting of Luisotti and it became opera that hit below the belt.
The performance on September 19 was beamed simultaneously to the digital scoreboard of AT&T ball park where a reported twenty-five thousand people converged to participate in this contest of who could sing loudest. More than opera, Opera at the Ball Park is a San Francisco happening that entices just about everyone to join in the sport of opera, if not the art of opera.