Recently in Reviews
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?
13 Feb 2010
Otello in Montpellier (version concert)
Concert opera has a long and glorious tradition in Montpellier. Each year the Orchestra National de Montpellier regales us with one or two during the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier (July).
In recent years Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba (2007) is an example, or Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Fedra (2008), both conducted by Enrique Mazzola. Lalo’s Fiesque (2006) conducted by Alain Altinoglu boasted tenor Roberto Alagna in the title role (Léonore was to have been la Gheorghiu …). Montpellier’s long list of concert operas includes rare Baroque titles as well as familiar titles like Fidelio — but in the 1812 version. The usual criteria seems to be musically brilliant operas that likely will not be staged ever again (and some of them were not even staged in their own time).
The announcement of a version concert of Verdi’s Otello, hardly the usual contender for such an honor, engendered some mid-winter operatic excitement, and anticipation of possible new revelations into the mysteries of one of the pinnacles of all opera.
Montpellier is sometimes denigrated as “that provincial town that thinks it is Paris,” and in fact the same architect who redeveloped les Halles of Paris took on the urban renewal of Montpellier centre, creating a giant, always lively promenade with the 1888 Comedie opera house at its head and the 1990 Opéra Berlioz at its foot. The Opéra Berlioz is used for the larger nineteenth century repertory, the Comedie for eighteenth century and smaller repertory. Consequently the massive Otello was in the splendid new opera house. The acoustic of the Opéra Berlioz has proven itself better adapted to opera, i.e. pit and stage, than for concert. Otello is loud, sometimes very loud. The orchestra shell amplifies these forte’s even more resulting in a shattered treble, and very limited transparency, faults rarely apparent in its staged operas.
The distinguished American conductor Lawrence Foster is the new music director of the Orchestra National de Montpellier. He too boasts an impressive resume of concert opera.
Without the stage opera loses its essential persona, and becomes an abstract form that is very transparent and unforgiving. Just now in Montpellier, after the initial excitement of the Verdi’s opening storm, and the titillation that something magnificent was going to happen it became very much opera business as usual. Revelations were in short supply, and in fact there were even periods of tedium. This Otello never ignited after its initial sparks.
Possibly Otello is a poor choice for a concert piece. Its reputation as one of the few masterpieces of the repertory that truly melds music with drama demands that it be musically driven to be dramatically alive. With Verdi’s actors behind the conductor (i.e. not on stage facing the conductor in the pit) a vital communication link was missing. Two major scenes underscored this lack — the hugely complex Act I fight and the daunting Act III septet when Mo. Foster focused on keeping his orchestral and choral forces in order, and out right abdicated his dramatic responsibilities. Had his actors been under his baton perhaps they would have inspired some theater into his beat. As it was Mo. Foster delivered these scenes as squarely paced measures of music you had to get through somehow. We were deprived of the build-up to the exposition of Otello’s triumphal strength and the horror of his public denigration. Both were decidedly pale moments in this concert performance.
The Otello was Georgian tenor Badri Maisuradze, a bear of a man who did not need black face to distinguish himself as an exotic creature. But Mr. Maisuradze could not get his words out. Though he sang with almost enough super-human force to qualify as a real Otello his text projection was non-existent, eviscerating his character. Mr. Maisuradze is a fine artist to be sure, his Act III monologue and his death were beautifully sung.
The one interpreter who succeeded in inhabiting her character was Dutch soprano Barbara Havemen, and this despite some troubling pitch approximations. Mme. Haveman possesses a large voice of sterling clarity, and perhaps the pitch issue is a by-product of this voice. She delivers brilliantly clear high notes, and she descends expressively into a guttural chest voice. The high point of this concert Otello was her Willow song, and particularly her Ave Maria when all the pathos of this first heroine of Italian melodramma was keenly present. The actual presense of the English horn rendered this great Verdi number musically vivid, and vindicated opera as concert for these few minutes.
Iago was Russian baritone Sergey Murzaev, a facile artist who served up a vocally exuberant villain but did not succeed in imbuing any sense of malice into his character, even with the help of Verdi’s exuberant Act II woodwinds. Neither Mo. Foster nor Mr. Murzaey touched the nuances of this subtle character who does in fact sing very loud, and that Mr. Murzaey did.
Otello and Iago’s nemesis Cassio was sung by Italian tenor Maurizio Pace. At least this singer was not snatched from an opera company’s young artist program to attempt this pivotal role. Mr. Pace seemed to be a mature artist, almost of the size needed to thwart Iago’s ambitions and ignite Otello’s jealosy. The fine vocal accomplishment of French bass baritone Christian Helmer as Lodovico was compromised by his youth, unable to embody the majesty and power of Venice.
Concert opera is staged. Not only do we obviously associate the interpreter with the character (and we do not have the costume to help us) but we place every movement on the stage in a musico dramatic context. The striking motions of the double basses performing their solo at the opening of Act IV creates musical and dramatic excitement, as does Verdi’s wrenching solo cello, not to mention watching the bassoons double the cellos, and the oboe morph into the serpent. And the list goes on. This is the domain of concert opera.
This concert performance was a mess with performers walking on and off the stage throughout the performance, often during musical passages of primary importance. A large children’s chorus trooped on and off the stage during Act II. Apparently there was no one in charge of the staging of this concert opera. Otello deserved better.