25 Jan 2010
London’s Rambunctious Rake
Covent Garden has revived director Robert Lepage’s popular and well-traveled version of The Rake’s Progress with often thrilling results.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Covent Garden has revived director Robert Lepage’s popular and well-traveled version of The Rake’s Progress with often thrilling results.
First and foremost, the Royal Opera House’s Rake boasts an A-list cast that is as fine as can currently be assembled. Of especial interest to me was young bass Kyle Ketelsen’s role debut as Nick Shadow. He definitely did not disappoint. Mr. Ketelsen always offers a consistent, rich, and suave tonal delivery and he is possessed of one of the most secure techniques of any voice heard before the public today.
His is a sizable instrument which can easily ring out in the house one minute, and scale back to a hushed, intense sotto voce the next. He bought his usual intelligence and superb musicianship to bear in what has to be considered a major role assumption in his growing repertoire (and reputation). As wonderful as is his vocalizing, Kyle also scores big — make that waaaaaay big — as an actor. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of any male singer active that is his equal for stage presence, character delineation, vocal color, uninhibited movement, and dramatic understanding. The card scene could have served as Masters Class in theatrical nuance.
Repeated performances and even more experience will only deepen his already commendable interpretation. You heard it from me: Kyle Ketelsen will be the Nick Shadow of choice for future productions. I am not alone, the entire audience roared its approval with a vociferous ovation.
Happily, he was in great company. Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell served up splendid, secure singing all evening, and he managed to touch me deeply in his final scene as no one has before. My previous outing with the staged opera was limited to two disparate but troublesome productions in Aix and Salzburg respectively, but both starring the late Jerry Hadley in one of his best roles.
Although Jerry had more squillo in his voice, the concepts sadly kept him on the surface of the role. Mr. Spence was able to delve deeply into the character’s psyche, and while he appears and acts suitably boyish, his real-time maturity has been deployed effectively in defining Tom’s life journey and descent into madness.
He is a highly accomplished lyric tenor to be sure, but like many such well-schooled light voices, the artist can be counted upon to deliver more in the area of consistency of pleasing tone, than can be easily offered in terms of varied dramatic utterance. It is to his credit that he used his considerable acting skill to create a plausible illusion of varied tonal color.
Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell and Rosemary Joshua as Anne Trulove
Another brilliant lyric voice and vibrant stage presence was on hand in the person of Rosemary Joshua’s Anne. This wonderful artist goes from strength to strength and she, too, has an awesome arsenal of technical skills at her command. Just listen to her soaring fearlessly through the most angular phrases and meandering melismas, and then turn around to melt our hearts with utterly focused limpid singing of the first order. Kate Royal had been advertised for the part, but while Ms. Joshua offers a slightly more mature take on the role, she is slim, lovely, and still has the Wow Factor for me, as when I first heard her Cleopatra in Miami and said “Wow, who is this fabulous soprano?”
Patricia Bardon, a veteran of the 2008 mounting of this production, returned as Baba the Turk and successfully managed her rich bottom range and ringing top to deliver a fully committed traversal of one of opera’s most unique characters. She looked smashing, too, pulling off the difficult task of being bearded but yet seeming alluringly sexy. Stalwart comprimario Graham Clark treated us to a vocally secure and theatrically vibrant turn as the auctioneer Sellem, and company principal Jeremy White was solid of voice and stature as Trulove. Frances McCafferty seemed game to do anything (and did) as a randy Mother Goose, although there were a few frayed notes at the extremes of the range.
The orchestra had a remarkably fine night, not only playing the rhythmically challenging score cleanly, but also investing Stravinsky’s masterpiece with all the vibrant panache and passion it needs to make its mark. This can be attributed to the controlled baton of Ingo Metzmacher. I have encountered the maestro’s work on several occasions now. He is never less than inspired, and his musical stewardship is never less than remarkable. It is pleasure to watch his star on the rise.
Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow
Stage director Rober Lepage is always preceded by his large reputation, and for once it is a reputation founded on thoughtful experimentation informed by a respect for the original work. Mr. Lepage’s interpretation of this challenging piece is never less than hugely entertaining and ultimately it is enormously affecting. He has managed to find the honesty in Auden’s dark humor, and delivered some well-calculated laughs all the while retaining the underlying serious narrative. He was ably abetted in this fanciful pursuit by the witty set design of Carl Fillion; the colorful, characterful costumes by François Barbeau; and the evocative lighting devised by Boris Firquet. (It should be noted that Sybille Wilson has directed the revival, presumably with fidelity to the original staging.)
The production team has loosely devised their vision around a concept of Hollywood in its (now-) glorified heyday, with nods to such iconic films as Sunset Boulevard, The Snake Pit, Destry Rides Again, A Star is Born, among others. Nick Shadow is presented as an old school film director, a veritable Cecil B. De-vil, often riding herd and riding high over the proceedings from a camera crane and therefrom controlling the fates of his players.
This decidedly allowed for many images of great resonance, and some wholly engaging set changes which we came to anticipate with relish. I will never forget the slow inflation of Tom’s blow-up Hollywood star dressing trailer, or the disappearance of the lasciviously poised Goose and Tom as they sunk through the center of the red draped bed to the depths of the trap door, nor Anne’s goofy convertible car ride with scarf billowing in the breeze.
However, it has to also be said…it didn’t quite work as a totally integrated piece of theatre. At the end of the day, had I not read the program notes I might not have grasped this overall conceit until we were well into the piece. Unlike the recent Fanciulla in Amsterdam that established its intent early on to tap into Old Hollywood images, this Rake apparently began on a flat plain with an oil derrick in …where? Texas? Oklahoma? I was willing to go with that, but it soon seemed a red herring of sorts. When we finally start to get it, we wasted some time and attention playing catch-up in retrospect.
Patricia Bardon as Baba the Turk and Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that The Rake’s Progress was a highly diverting, conscientiously considered, and wholly professional evening at the opera. By assembling a world class cast and pairing them with its usual awesome musical and theatrical assets, the Royal Opera House has once again reminded me that it is Europe’s premiere company.