17 Jan 2010
Carmen at the MET
Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.
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.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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.