06 Dec 2009
A Faust of Distinction at Lyric Opera of Chicago
For its second production of the 2009-10 season Lyric Opera of Chicago staged a revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust, last seen here in 2003-04.
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.’
For its second production of the 2009-10 season Lyric Opera of Chicago staged a revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust, last seen here in 2003-04.
The assembled cast of principals and the chorus interacted so convincingly — on both vocal and dramatic grounds — that these performances will serve as a benchmark of performing Gounod’s opera for some time to come. Making his Lyric Opera debut in these performances was Piotr Beczala, who has recently sung the role of Faust to much acclaim at a number of European venues. Marguerite was sung by Ana María Martínez, who portrayed a dramatically and lyrically incisive heroine in this her first assumption of the role. René Pape brought his considerable skills to the role of Mephistopheles, and Lucas Meachem made a great impression as a lyrical and committed Valentin.
Even before the action began on stage the orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis set the tone with a taut, controlled performance of the overture. A carefully conceived balance was achieved between strings, woodwinds, and brass with the harp then leading smoothly into a statement of Valentin’s theme. A reprise of the strings signaled then the ultimate move toward a subdued resolution.
At the start of Act I in this traditional production Faust truly looks both fatigued and aged. In his dusty laboratory corpses lay under sheets, and the newly dead are being carried in to join the others. Faust is surrounded then by death and the futility of knowledge, prompting him hence to consider suicide. His scene beginning on the word “Rien” (“Nothing”) sets the tone of resignation in the doctor’s famous soliloquy. Only the voices of peasants and youths heard from outdoors prevent Faust from drinking a goblet filled with poison to end his life in desperation. Still these glimmers of happiness and reminders of God’s bounty cause Faust only to curse human endeavor and to cry out for the support of Satan (“Satan à moi!” [“Satan appear to me!”]). From this point till near the end of the opera Mephistopheles and Faust are inexorably linked. In his movements through the set Beczala gives the impression of aging futility, while his committed singing underlines the yearning of so much not experienced in this mortal life. His delivery of the toast to this final day on earth unleashes an emotional conviction to die, highlighted by ringing and extended top notes on “Salût” (“To you”). When Mephistopheles arises, here as a vivified corpse from a laboratory table, Pape’s opening lines are sung in the stylish and effective guise of the “gentilhomme” (“cavalier”), as he describes himself with great melismatic fervor. His ensuing dialogue with Faust, in which he coaxes the doctor to reveal his desire, is performed with a lyrical ease, so that Pape assumes a likeable pose both to the hero and to the audience. When Faust confesses his desire for “la jeunesse” (“youth”), Mephistopheles produces the contract, by which Faust will sign away his soul, along with an apparition of Marguerite to secure the doctor’s commitment. At this point the vocal interaction between Beczala and Pape, in varying each other’s lines and singing in duet, was flawless and dramatically executed. Beczala’s transformation into a young man induced a lyrical enthusiasm for worldly pleasure (“À moi la plaisir” [“For me the pleasure”]) and the quest for adventure. As both figures declare “En route” (“Let us be on our way”), they abandon the confines of the musty laboratory.
René Pape as Méphistophélès
Act II in Gounod’s opera moves from the collective and crowded to the individual At the start a village fair has begun with participants including students, soldiers, young women, and townspeople. Here the Lyric Opera Chorus gave an exceptional performance in its rendition of the paean to wine. Immediately following the choral delights the young soldier Valentin becomes the center of attention. Before he leaves for battle Valentin sings of his concern for his sister Marguerite and begs God to protect her. In this role Lucas Meachem has proven his exceptional agility in the lyric baritone repertoire. From the start of his cavatina “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (“Before departing from this homeland”) Meachem imbued his words with emotional tension, showing exquisite ascending notes on “a toi” (“to You, Lord”) and “ma soeur” (“my sister”). He introduced military imagery in the middle section without bluster and concluded the cavatina on a securely extended pitch at “Roi” (“King of heaven”). The pendant aria to Valentin in this act is “Le Veau d’Or” (“The Golden Calf”) sung by Mephistopheles. Pape’s acting was equally important as he transformed the piece into a dramatic as well as lyrical turning point. Although the villagers marvel at the stranger’s tricks, Valentin becomes suspicious. Faust himself enters and, at last, has an opportunity to address Marguerite. Although she does not accept his overtures, Faust realizes that he loves her. At the close of the act Mephistopheles assures him of continued assistance in gaining Marguerite’s devotion.
The preliminaries of Acts I and II set the ground for the following two acts. In Act III the role of Siébel, sung in this production by Katherine Lerner, shows a further development of her rapt devotion for Marguerite. Ms. Lerner gave an appropriately infatuated rendition of Siébel’s entrance aria while she intoned the verses with care and lush expression. As Mephistopheles and Faust re-enter they make plans for Faust’s further pursuit of Marguerite. Faust’s cavatina “Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre?” (“What unknown care oppresses me?”) was yet another highpoint of the performance. Beczala’s voice remains strong and convincingly produced in all registers, his characterization of the love-stricken hero showing polished, graceful tones and well-placed breath control. At Marguerite’s entrance into the garden she sings the ballad of the “Roi de Thulé” (“King of Thule”), followed almost immediately by the famous jewel song in response to finding the tempting jewel case left by Mephistopheles. Ms. Martínez’s voice is here well suited to the role, her piano notes being securely projected and a burnished quality infusing the voice when she sings forte. Her performance of the trills and roulades in the second aria show also a strong technique for coloratura. After this scene the couples are paired in counterpoint: Marguerite and Faust, Marthe and Mephistopheles. The arrangement will return again later and is especially well staged in the current production. In the final duet of Act III Beczala and Martínez gave a touching rendition of the blossoming love which must, at first, wait and then can be halted no longer. (“O nuit d’amour!” [“Oh, night of love!”]). Mephistopheles laughs loudly as the two are finally united.
In Acts IV and V the earthly downfall of Marguerite becomes increasingly apparent. In the first scene of Act IV she stands at a loom lamenting in her aria this abandoned position and the scorn she senses from her former associates. Despite the faithful devotion expressed by Siébel in his following aria, Marguerite simply questions Faust’s wandering. Throughout this scene and the following, in which she prays in church for forgiveness, Martínez displays a keen sense of dramatic commitment while maintaining a lyrical command of line. In the next scene Valentin returns from the war and learns of his sister’s transgression. The dueling scene that is staged between him and the drunken Faust is a marvel of choreographic daring culminating in the soldier’s being mortally wounded. Meachem sang a convincing scene of Valentin’s death ending with a chilling curse of Marguerite as being responsible for her own dishonor as well as his death (“Marguerite! Sois maudite!” [“Marguerite, be accursed!”]).
In the final act Faust comes, with the help of Mephistopheles, to visit Marguerite in prison where she awaits execution for having murdered the child she bore to Faust. The madness communicated by Martínez is heart-wrenching as she clutches a blanket rolled up as though it were an infant. A last idyllic illusion of happiness between the lovers is sung with great fervor, as Beczala and Martínez participate in an emotional duet, enhanced by both with well executed decoration and melismas. This idyll is, however, interrupted as Mephistopheles steps forward. Marguerite’s soul is saved, as announced by voices from heaven. In this production the contract signed by Faust to serve Mephistopheles after death bursts into flames. The curtain then falls with, at least in this instance, the end of the devil’s power.