17 Jan 2010
Carmen at the MET
Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.
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?
Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.
Nearly everything else is on display, from the legs she bathes shamelessly while singing the “Habañera” to the shoulders she bares — in daylight hours? in Spain? — in her ruffled Act IV gown. As the Latvian mezzo soprano is a beautiful woman, a fine actress and dancer with a voice of great warmth and sheen — and fill-the-house power when she chooses to unleash it — no one could object to her performance as Bizet’s eternal Gypsy. True, she is on the sexually aggressive side among Carmens and I find more convincing the casual approach of Olga Borodina, unimpressed by the ogling men around her. Borodina’s Carmen seemed her own woman, making her own choices, one of which might be love. This seems a less cliché way of playing the character. Most Carmens work too hard, as if men’s opinions mattered to them, and Garanča, though with her looks she hardly has to work — anyone would stare — edges towards that sort of show-off Carmen. I presume she does things like snap her cleavage from stage center because she has been directed to do so and because the performance was the camera-dress, the last before the live high-definition telecast.
>Mariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo
Nor did Garanča’s self-conscious sex appeal get in the way of her singing: The “Habañera” was a parade, the “Seguidilla” intimate, the dance for Don José very hot, the fortune-telling very earthy — crouched over her cards, lacking any sort of glamour, she held every eye and ear in the house. She was not only the centerpiece but the only vocally irreproachable star of the performance. Roberto Alagna, who used to be a first-rate Don José, sounded strained, flat on exposed notes (such as the last of “Dragon d’Alcala”), and ill-adjusted to register breaks, though of course he had the best French of the evening. His acting was passionate, and he pulled himself together for a murderous final confrontation. Barbara Frittoli had trouble placing her notes in the Act I duet with Alagna, sounding uncertain and lacking force, though she brought down the house in Act III. Mariusz Kwiecien looked elegant as Escamillo, but sang with that rough bark he often uses these days, instead of the wonderful — often wonderfully sinister — leggiero sound he makes when singing Mozart. Small roles were filled ably and, in the case of Keith Miller, a commanding Zuniga, rather better than that.
I’ve been bitching for some time about new Met productions that are not only weird but whimsically so, so that future performers will be straitjacketed into their weirdness; so when a new production like this comes along of one of the repertory staples, a production that could easily be inhabited by the varying interpretations of many singers, I’d be rank ungrateful to complain that it lacks a point of view. Richard Eyre has chosen to tell Bizet’s story — not his own irrelevant story — in handsome stage pictures with no interpolated funny business, and I applaud. Even posing for a photographer in Act IV comes at a moment when it does not interrupt the music and the character — Escamillo — might believably pose for a photographer.
Barbara Frittoli as Micaela and Roberto Alagna as Don José
What did irritate me a bit — but this is part of the standard approach to the classics in our era — is that the direction has tightened the screws of sexual and other kinds of brutality. Soldiers cannot casually flirt with naïve Micaela — they threaten to rape her the moment she appears, and she narrowly escapes. The smugglers do not gallantly tie Zuniga up in their den — they torture him a bit just for the hell of it, while singing the gallant phrases of the superb Meilhac and Halévy libretto. The period of the piece has been advanced, it seems, to the era of Spain’s Second Republic, just before the Civil War, and perhaps we are to understand the tension between soldiers and civilians, smugglers and the law, as a foretaste of the horrors to come — I don’t know.
Elina Garanča as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don José
Two dancers, perhaps representing archetypal Male and Female or Yang and Yin or the infertile stage director and his Muse or a desperate attempt to give Christopher Wheeldon something to do, make a nuisance of themselves during the preludes to Acts I and III.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with terrific verve and snap, and I would have preferred to concentrate on his music-making when those dancers were making such a spectacle of themselves. The Act III prelude, in particular, is such a lovely, graceful mountain pastorale and leads so perfectly into the scene of shattering bliss that follows that staging it seems wildly intrusive.