14 Jan 2010
Britten: Peter Grimes
Are you sitting comfortably?
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Are you sitting comfortably?
That polite inquiry seems to have been on the mind of David Pountney as he came to the Zurich Opera House to direct Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Chairs dominate the set design of Robert Israel. White-washed, stiff-backed chairs — tilted, upside-down, atop pillars, empty and occupied, placed here, there, everywhere.
The concept veers between the intriguing and the irritating. Perhaps Pountney sees the confined nature of village life as being as punishing and restrictive as being forced to sit like a schoolchild. Or does the director see the villagers’ prejudices as “deep-seated”? Any number of interpretations may present themselves, but without any coalescing around a theme pertinent to the opera, in the end the chairs just seem like a staging gambit — one not especially visually appealing, either.
Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are the expected — a wooly, dark-hued sweater for Grimes, prim dress for Ellen Orford, and grays and blacks for the villagers, except for the “nieces” of Auntie. Mixing an abstract setting with traditional costumes has become ubiquitous, most probably because it may forestall the complaints of the traditionalists, while giving a production some claim to freshness. In this case, the compromise wears away at any sense of insight or incisiveness.
A more interesting contribution comes from conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who leads a reading of sharpness, even astringency, making Britten’s basically tonal score sound like a stepchild of Berg’s Wozzeck. The famous interludes have a fierce power; even “Dawn” has intensity and trepidation. A decent cast sings well, though without the individual profile Welser-Möst brings to his conducting. Christopher Ventris has the voice but not the presence to make Grimes tragic or complex. He doesn’t seem worth either Ellen Orford’s conflicted devotion or the villagers’ unmodulated animosity. Emily Magee’s strong vocals and sturdy presence as Ellen make the character seem less fragile than self-deluded — a viable option, but one that mutes the opera’s terror. The rest of the cast is able.
EMI Classics provides no bonus features and a bare-bones booklet. The 150-minute performance also spreads out over two discs. It’s a too cool presentation of what should be a shiver-inducing opera.