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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?
11 Oct 2009
Wozzeck in designer khaki : Salonen and Keenlyside in London
In the opera house, stagings can impress by gorgeous sets and costumes. But in semi-staged performances, there's no where to hide behind. Semi-staging tests whether a director understands the music and what its dramatic soul might be. In dramaturgy, less is more.
Alban Berg’s music is so visual that Wozzeck could lend itself extremely well to semi-staging, so this performance, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank might have been a chance to see something truly innovative. Most of the action in this opera happens in the minds of the protagonists. So much is said in musical imagery that a concert performance can be inherently dramatic even without props. Berg builds patterns and mazes into his music, and the solo parts in the orchestra act as roles within a symphony of sound.
Unfortunately this performance turned out to be a lost opportunity. It was the final concert in an ambitious series titled “Vienna: City of Dreams 1900-1930”. Ostensibly, the concerts were part of a wider panorama presenting the music in the context of Vienna at a time of unprecedented developments, in music, literature, philosophy,art and psychology. Perhaps the message had to be blunted because the music of the Second Viennese School doesn’t promise box office success. So perhaps it was too much to expect a production that referenced the innovations in theater design that were part of Vienna’s significance. Musically, though, performances have been extremely strong. Esa-Pekka Salonen has proved his worth as head of the Philharmonia. He and this orchestra, arguably London’s finest, are an excellent match. Their performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in February was exceptionally good and fortunately was recorded. The CD is now available.
Wozzeck demands great orchestral forces, so visual impact is already built into a semi-staged performance. A sensitive production could even have made capital of the situation, focusing on what happens in the orchestra,. Even the fact that there’s barely a yard between music and and singers is no disadvantage: Wozzeck is about tight corners and entrapment.
In this performance, there was a huge screen behind the orchestra on which were projected many visual images - oil on water transparencies, montages, close-ups of the singers. This could have worked very well in theory, because Berg was interested in cinema, and his music lends itself to expression in film. In practice however, what happened on screen was busy rather than focused, distracting from rather than reinforcing the inherent drama in the music.
In opera, singers are singing “about” something. Context matters. Just as orchestral musicians need a conductor, singers need direction. Katarina Dalayman has sung Marie so often that we know what she’s capable of when truly inspired. Here she sang well, but wasn’t challenged to show her acting skills, which are usually considerable.
This was Simon Keenlyside’s debut as Wozzeck, eagerly awaited by his many admirers. Although he’s a light rather than dark baritone, at the higher registers he can catch the tension in the part, which subtly connects to the shrill tenor parts around him, and contrasts well with the bass Doctor, sung by Hans-Peter Scheidegger. Keenlyside’s forte, though, is his naturally elegant bearing. He looks aristocratic, whatever he does, even his stubble looked expensively manicured. This was a Wozzeck in designer khaki. This could well have worked, because the opera isn’t about outward appearances. With suitable direction, Keenlyside could have created character wearing a tuxedo. Wozzeck’s world is surreal, after all. Perhaps Keenlyside’s talents will be put to better use in future, more complete productions.
With semi-staging, detail counts even more than in full production. So why did Marie’s child appear in the final scene dressed in beautifully pressed, emerald green silk pajamas? We don’t know what the child’s future might be, but the indications aren’t hopeful. “Ringel, ringel Rosenkranz” sing the taunting children, and the words “Hopp, Hopp” indicate a repetitive child’s game . Berg’s fascination with circular forms and patterns would also imply the child might well end up like Wozzeck. If emerald green silk means anything, it should have been supported by other images and from the music. I also didn’t understand why the children walk on dressed in funereal black, like a cortege, Marie’s son following behind. It isn’t necessarily wrong but without substantiation it doesn’t add to the drama or to the meaning of the opera.
This is the dilemma of all stage direction faces. Visual images are open to all kinds of interpretation. They operate on many levels at the same time, and can be seen in different ways. That’s why stage direction is controversial, there’s never only one way of seeing things. Visual literacy is a skill, too, but perhaps we’ve been conditioned to TV and movies for so long, it’s a lost art. That’s why semi-staged performances are important because they concentrate the mind on the essentials of dramatic meaning. This production, directed by Jean-Baptiste Barrière seemed like grand opera manqué rather than focused concentration on the fundamentals in the drama. But getting the basics right is the key to all good direction.