14 Jan 2010
Britten: Peter Grimes
Are you sitting comfortably?
Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.
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German tenor Werner Güra, who has made a speciality of the German lieder repertoire, opened this recital at the Wigmore Hall with Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, the composer’s only song cycle and the first significant example of the form.
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‘If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?’
San Francisco Opera wraps up its fall season of five operas with what it insists is a new production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece.
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The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.
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Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, based on Gogol’s short story of the same name, was a smash hit for the Metropolitan Opera company in 2010 and once again, this season.
There might not be much ‘Serenissima’ about Yoshi Oida’s 2007 production of Death in Venice — it’s more Japanese minimalism than Venetian splendour — but there is still plenty to admire, as this excellent revival by Opera North as part of its centennial celebration, Festival of Britten, underlines.
With an absorbing production of Peter Grimes and a freshly spontaneous La bohème, Canadian Opera Company has set the bar very high indeed for its current season.
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The lustreless white tiles of the laboratory which forms the set of Keith Warner’s pitiless staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck offer little respite — cold, hard, rigid and severe, they are a material embodiment of the bleakness and barrenness of the tragic events which will be played out within the workshop walls (sets by Stefanos Lazaridis).
At this year’s Wexford Festival — the 62nd operatic gathering in this small south-eastern Irish town - the trio of operas on show present many a wretched battle between duty and desire.
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.