Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
13 Oct 2009

Turandot at ENO

A writer goes to dine in an urban Chinese restaurant, where his eye is caught by a distressed young woman among the crowd of diners.

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

Princess Turandot: Kirsten Blanck; Calaf: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Liù: Amanda Echalaz; Timur: James Creswell; Emperor Altoum: Stuart Kale; Mandarin: Iain Paterson; Ping: Benedict Nelson; Pang: Richard Roberts; Pong: Christopher Turner. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Rupert Goold; Associate Director/Choreographer: Aletta Collins; Set Designer: Miriam Buether; Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay; Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher; Video Art and Design: Lorna Heavey; Translator: William Radice

Above: Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

 

He builds a bloody, Tarantino-esque fantasy plot around her and her surroundings, stepping in and manipulating the world he has created until the characters in his nightmarish scenario eventually become so real that they destroy not just the girl but the writer too.

The girl is Liù, the story Turandot, and the writer very likely Puccini himself (though no great effort is made to give actor Scott Handy the composer’s likeness). Puccini loved Liù as a character, and died after creating her death scene. Rupert Goold’s production ends with the dying writer (here, slashed through the stomach by Turandot’s sword just as Calaf overpowers her with a kiss) taking centre stage, while the triùmphantly united Calaf and Turandot are relegated to either side.

It wasn’t until an hour after the final curtain, when I sat down to draft this review after reading the programme notes in detail on my bus ride home, that the directorial conceit began to form a joined-up entity in my mind and I finally worked out — I think — what was supposed to be going on. While I was sitting in the Coliseum with it happening in front of me, it made no sense whatsoever, and that’s poor theatre by anybody’s standards. Turandot should be a garish nightmare, and this was — unfortunately, not always in the way the director intended. From the chorus, which looked as if it had been plucked from a generic modern-dress performance of Act 2 of La bohème (nuns, transsexuals, Elvis impersonators, dominatrices…), to the murderous dancers with chefs’ trousers and pigs’ heads, to the Emperor Altoum (eloquently sung by Stuart Kale) who was played as an eccentric old drunk that the ‘writer’ decides to use as a pawn in his story, to Turandot’s creepy little servant-girl (or familiar spirit?) in her First Communion outfit — none of it bore any relation either to the plot or to Puccini’s music.

Kirsten Blanck’s soft-grained voice and dry European consonants take away any real cutting edge from her soprano, but she has a voice that is more than adequate for such a big role in such a big theatre, and rides the Act 2 ensemble very effectively. It’s just a shame that her character is given no dramatic context whatever. In the first act, Calaf falls in love not with the real Turandot but with a giant ice-sculpture facsimile of her; from her first appearance ‘in the flesh’ in Act 2, she looks like a demented bride.

The vocal highlights of this production come from Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf and Amanda Echalaz as Liù. Hughes Jones sings gloriously, even if he sounds underpowered once the heavy orchestration of the Alfano ending is underway. Not a natural stage creature, he fails to create much of a character — like Blanck, he has next to no help from the director in doing so. Just why, exactly, does he fall instantly in love? And what is it about him that eventually melts the ice princess? He has vocal ardour in spades, but his physical presence is oddly dispassionate. As for Echalaz — after a few years of spectacular performances for smaller UK companies like ETO and Opera Holland Park, the South African soprano’s star is at last truly in the ascendant. It is a large voice and there is some work she could still do on some of the more delicate parts of the role, but she has a magnetic stage presence and (despite a truly horrible costume) gave a performance of real heart. The American bass James Cresswell was a sincerely sung, sympathetic Timur.

Turandot_002.gifAmanda Echalaz as Liù and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf

In the pit, Ed Gardner is on top form, making the lyrical passages bloom and the brutal ones blaze, while the ENO Chorus produce a massive and impressive sound. Most of William Radice’s translation is pretty respectable, but there are a few obvious problems which really need to be ironed out: in one of the opera’s subtlest and most legato passages, the moon chorus in Act 1, the words are perversely set against the beat, while in Act 3 the principals are subjected to rather a lot of unkind ‘i’ and ‘ee’ vowels on climactic high notes. And Pang’s nostalgia for his ‘gardens near Kiù’ was always destined to raise an unintentional titter from a London audience.

Turandot_003.gifFull Stage

The trio of ministers was plagued by illness; Peter van Hulle replaced Christopher Turner as Pong, while Richard Roberts (announced as suffering from a throat infection but willing to sing anyway) croaked his way through the first act before yielding to understudy Gareth Huw John (singing from the side of the stage) for the rest of the opera. Fortunately Benedict Nelson, the Ping, was not only completely healthy but in particularly fine voice.

Turandot was really the last of the great repertoire standards to get an up-to-date production in London. It is not the nightmare-Chinese-restaurant setting (with sets imaginatively conceived by Miriam Buether) that ruins Goold’s vision of the opera but his willingness to allow many of the opera’s big climaxes to take second place to the point he wants to make about the composer’s relationship with the piece. As such, it is a frustrating experience.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):