18 Dec 2009
Frankfurt’s ‘Medium’ Rarities
Encountering Frankfurt Opera’s staging of Leoni’s L’Oracolo and Puccini’s Le Villi, I was reminded of that old saw about the German weather.
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?
Encountering Frankfurt Opera’s staging of Leoni’s L’Oracolo and Puccini’s Le Villi, I was reminded of that old saw about the German weather.
Don’t like it? Wait five minutes and it will change.
There is a good deal to admire in this double bill, not least of which is the rare opportunity to enjoy two seldom-performed pieces mounted by such a reputable company. However, too often during the evening, I found myself becoming engaged by a tender moment, or beginning to relish a powerful musical development…only to be interrupted by a crass directorial “improvement.”
There are really two separate productions going on here (See: “wait five minutes,” above). One is the relatively straight-forward and conventional telling of the musical drama in rather traditional and genuinely pleasing theatrical staging. Then there is a concurrent, wholly invented television studio experience that is part reality show. Part game show, part National Enquirer, and all colossally ineffective.
Not that I disapprove of the concept outright. Frankfurt Opera itself used this device to brilliant effect with its televangelical Rape of Lucretia two seasons past. What I object to is that director Sandra Leupold took a cheap, easy way out of having to deal with the (admittedly naïve) pleasures to be mined from the two operas at hand.
Hmmmm, how to make these curiosities palatable to today’s audiences? Hmmmm…I know, let’s tart them up with game show “Moderators”! The glitzily-attired actors Ingrid El Sigai and Marcus Hosch do what they can with these irrelevant creatures, but seemed quite self-conscious (maybe pre-occupied with the pay check they would at least be getting…)
The three blue-sequin-gowned Vanna White’s seemed to have wandered in from another show, waiting in vain for a vowel to be bought or a letter to be turned. But worst of all was the inconsiderate and considerable obstruction by the “cameramen” and “stage managers” who would interpose themselves between the soloists and the audience. No fooling I spent one touching soprano aria relegated to looking at a burly extra’s butt as he “televised” her performance to a giant on-stage screen…that…again, no kidding…had a sound delay! Looked like a badly dubbed movie on German TV.
Where the hell to look then? The viola section? The surtitles? The exit????
Heike Scheele’s set and costume design was at its worst in the utilitarian television studio which comprised the encompassing space for the shows. However, within the confines of the raised circle on which the actual operas were performed, there was much that was pleasantly colorful, representational, and traditional.
I especially found Mr. Scheele’s Chinese costumes for the Leoni to be character-specific and beautifully rendered; the rustic Puccini clothing was also quite delightful, although perhaps the tutu’d chorus nod to Giselle was just too over the top. I also appreciated the clever and appropriate scenic insets that he devised for both pieces,and the competent lighting from Joachim Klein. The show-within-the show, that is to say the actual operas, was often very agreeable.
The credit for that has to begin with the fine idiomatic playing elicited from the pit by conductor Stefan Solyom. He never once flagged in presenting these two (let’s be honest) weaker compositions with commitment and authority. He seemed to wring every bit of musical excellence he could from his orchestra, and kept the evening buoyant and forward-moving. He also ably partnered his hard-working singers. Matthias Koehler’s chorus, and Michael Clark’s children’s chorus were likewise also very well-prepared, but suffered the fate of being clumsily and busily deployed in this mess of a concept.
Marcus Hosch (Moderator), Peter Sidhom (Cim-Fen), Ingrid El Sigai (Moderatorin), Katharina Magiera (Hua-Quî), Tobias Jantsch (Hu-Cî) and Chor, Kinderchor and Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt in background
While L’oracolo may have its confusing pseudo-Asian dramaturgy, any minor musical longeurs were glossed over with committed performances. As Cim-Fen (opium den owner) Peter Sidhorn may not have offered the most suave singing, but compensated with great presence, the same that could be said of his interpretation of Guglielmo (Le Villi). Ashley Holland’s mellifluous voice was arguably the finest performance in Chinatown, as the learned doctor Uin-Sci. Franz Mayer put his soft-grained, affecting instrument to good use as the rich tradesman Hu-Tsin and Katharina Magiera made the most of her brief moment as Hua-Qui revealing a gorgeous, creamy mezzo.
One of the reasons for this mounting had to be to showcase local favorites, Annalisa Raspagliosi and Carlo Ventre, both of whom were cast in both operas.
Ms. Raspagliosi has already had a big career with big credentials, not least of which was a happy association with the legendary Pavarotti. Here she is undertaking Ah-Joe and more notably Anna in Le Villi. The latter suits her gifts more than the former. At this point in her development, she reminds me of the great Renata Scotto for Anna also commands an unerring sense of projecting the text, effortlessly embodies the character at hand, and seems incapable of a musical false move.
Annalisa Raspagliosi (Anna) and Carlo Ventre (Roberto)
That said, like Renata of yore, she also is beginning to sound a bit like a supremely gifted lyric soprano who has ventured a bit too far into heavier territory (Tosca, anyone?). Her high notes still float, but not without some discernible effort. Her sense of line still commands, but not without a bit of gear-shifting here and there. And the vibrato has gotten a bit more, shall we say, generous? Still, she offers an assured assumption of these two heroines, is lovely as lovely can be, and her Frankfurt public adore her. And why shouldn’t they? In an era of pretenders to the throne, her singing is still a connection with Old World Glories.
Before the Puccini, tenor Carlo Ventre was announced as indisposed, something I had suspected during the Leoni where his vocalizing as San-Lui seemed a bit cautious with meslimas a bit labored. Once our indulgence was requested so he could continue as the second opera’s Roberto (and who the hell else knows the role?), Mr. Ventre actually sang with more assurance, and even with real abandon. He is a fine singer with a burnished tone, and if a few phrases were husbanded carefully and a few notes grew rough-edged, he not only gave a pleasurable account of his two assignments, but also saved the night!
Like with the German weather then, while I had a great time discovering these two operas in staged versions for the first time, and while I enjoyed so many of the components, I found myself waiting, nay wishing for a change for sunnier horizons. Were the staging to be re-imagined losing the television concept entirely, I can predict the remaining elements would make a far superior evening at the opera.