11 Nov 2009
Lohengrin in Houston: A long-awaited return
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
That production brought down the curtain on a decade that was a Golden Age for German opera at the HGO. During the previous dozen years Wagner was on stage at the Wortham in nine seasons and Richard Strauss in two.
There was a reason for this richness — and for the dearth that followed. Those were the banner years when Christoph Eschenbach was music director of the Houston Symphony. Not only did he conduct Wagner and Strauss at the HGO; he brought his orchestra into the pit at the Wortham for these performances. Years of transition followed that marked a period of maturation for both the HGO and the HSO. As they grew in quality and significance, the Opera was challenged to build its own ensemble.
Thus the production of Lohengrin that opened at the Wortham on November 30 was not only a “long-awaited return,” as HGO music director Patrick Summers described it in an erudite note in the Lohengrin program. It was further a milestone in the history of the company and in the career of Summers, HGO music director since 1989.
It was to Summers that the building of an opera orchestra was assigned, and — as was gloriously apparent in the new Lohengrin — he has done this with impressive success. Indeed, the hushed celestial silver of the violins that opens the Overture shimmered in warmth as they ascended to the unashamedly erotic heights that launch the first act of the work.
The profound feeling that Summers brought to the Overture and all that followed made it difficult to believe that this was the first complete Wagner opera that he has conducted. All this distinguished this new Lohengrin as a turning point in the history of the 54-year-old HGO. Evaluation of the production itself is a more difficult matter.
This was also the first Wagner for director Daniel Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins and one can only wish that their work had been on the same level as Summer’s achievement with the orchestra. Such — alas — was not the case. The two badly overshot their mark in an arsenal of effects the sum of which was far less than their collected value.
In this co-production with Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève, where the staging debuted in 2007, the British collaborators were perhaps a bit too eager to try their hand at what is known on the continent as Regieoper, the approach that allows the production team free rein in the liberties it takes with what the composer once regarded as a finished work. (The result is often summed up as “Eurotrash.”) Gone — along with the traditional swan — was the knightly medievalism that is traditionally the historic background of Lohengrin.
Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa)
Act One opened in a cavernous library, obviously long neglected. Uniforms — for those old enough to remember them — recalled Eastern Europe in its totalitarian bad days. Things get worse as troops viciously tore books from shelves, recalling — again for those with knowledge of early 20th-century history — the Nazi book burning in Berlin when Hitler came to power. (That conflagration was staged, incidentally, on the square adjacent to the Staatsoper on historic Unter den Linden.)
Simon O’Neill, whose grubby dress, hair and demeanor bore little resemblance to the man in shining armor that Lohengrin, this Knight of the Grail, is supposed to be. O’Neill was vocally disappointing as well, for — although his voice is of some power — it lacks warmth and shading. Indeed, his performance was largely monochromatic.
The Elsa was Canada’s Adrianne Pieczonka, praised throughout Europe today for her interpretation of the women created by Wagner and Richard Strauss. In Act One Pieczonka’s voice seemed a trifle two mature for innocent Elsa, but in Act Two she was a perfect match for Christine Goerke, whose Ortrud was the glory of this staging.
Although Goerke, long an established Wagnerian, might have sued designer Hopkins for the dreadful green cocktail dress in which she first appeared, she soon proved herself the strongest member of this cast, stressing that behind every evil man there is an even more evil woman.
Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich of Telramund) and Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
Richard Paul Fink, long the world’s most sinister Alberich in Wagner’s Ring and the creator of Mephistophelean Edward Teller in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, was a natural as Ortrud’s partner in malice. However, one expected a more significant voice than bass Günther Groissbock brought to King Heinrich. Supporting roles were impressively sung by HGO studio artists.
Lohengrin contains Wagner’s greatest choruses, and HGO chorus master Richard Bado brought home that no American company has a better choral ensemble than Houston. Although the ludicrous aspects of the staging did not necessary detract from the musical excellence of the production, a concert performance by Summers and his forces would have been more satisfactory. The good news associated with this production is that the HGO henceforth promises a German opera — Wagner, Strauss or Beethoven — in each future season.
“Now,” Summers concludes, “HGO rejoins a perpetual journey into one of history’s true, if disquieting visionaries.”