21 Mar 2010
The Cunning Little Vixen, London
An enchanting evening at Covent Garden:
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..
An enchanting evening at Covent Garden:
what with this and The
Gambler, things seem to be looking up, following a dispiriting spell
in the Christof Loy doldrums. Indeed, the theatrical and musical magic woven
here could not stand further removed from the pretentious dreariness inflicted
upon new productions of Lulu
und Isolde. Bill Bryden’s production of The Cunning Little
Vixen was first staged in 1990 but, twenty years on, it is yet to look
tired. For this, William Dudley’s designs deserve a great deal of credit.
There is to action and staging a crucial sense of life, in all its complexity,
never more ambiguous than when it is apparently straightforward. The
life-cycle, human or animal — should the distinction even be made?
— is the guiding force, in every sense, of Janáček’s drama,
and so, appropriately enough, one sees a huge circle on stage, which provides a
treadmill for walking as well as a frame in which the first act’s
acrobatic ‘Spirit of the Vixen’ may swing. Here, form is wondrously
imparted to the Vixen’s dream, both for the eye and the ear. Humour,
arguably more immediate, if less idiomatic, when sung in English, was present
too, for instance in the portrayal of the clannish farmyard hens, large and
contented, unable to heed the Vixen’s siren-voice of feminist revolt. It
is, however, the interplay between wondrous machinery and Nature that
penetrates to the very heart of the opera. This both highlighted such
relationships in the score and put me in mind of another Royal Opera
production: David McVicar’s Magic Flute — never more
magical than when heard under Sir Colin Davis (available on DVD). Lighting
(Paule Johnson), colours, and scenery ensure that Nature is present,
overflowing in her abundance, without being domesticated or prettified; for
there is wildness aplenty in Janáček’s score, and this must be
reflected in the action.
(Left to Right) Christopher Maltman as Forester, Jeremy White as Priest and Robin Leggate as Schoolmaster
It must, of course, above all be expressed by the orchestra, and so it was here. The name of Sir Charles Mackerras is so indelibly associated with Janáček’s music that one might take for granted his excellence. However, I doubt that even the most jaded listener — note that one must listen, rather than passively consume — could have done so in this case. The angularities of Janáček’s score, so often ironed out by conductors not so intimately attuned to the idiom, were immediate and telling, but they were always integrated into a longer line, never aggressive, let alone exhibitionistic, for their own sake: the opposing temptation to smoothing out. Equally apparent, and again never merely for their own sake, were the ravishing beauties of the score’s extraordinary sound-world — extraordinary even by Janáček’s standards. One example would be that utterly characteristic high string sound, split into several parts, which one might be tempted to call Straussian, but which is in reality quite different, if anything more akin to the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder. (Janáček was greatly interested in the music of the Second Viennese School.) Building of climaxes was masterly, above all in the great, pantheistic conclusion, so redolent, or rather prophetic, of the Glagolitic Mass. Life goes on, yet is transformed, transfigured. Tension had sagged slightly, I thought, both on stage and in the musical performance, during the first half of the third act, but this conclusion certainly compensated. As Sir Charles’s aforementioned knighted colleague sounds so effortlessly right in Mozart, so does Mackerras in Janáček. How odd, then, that this was the first time he had conducted the work at Covent Garden, though not quite so odd as the fact that Bryden’s production has no predecessors in the house. (Having said that, The Cunning Little Vixen received its Paris premiere as recently as 2008, and then in a production borrowed from Lyons.)
A scene from The Cunning Little Vixen
If Mackerras and the orchestra, which throughout played superlatively, a match for any other ensemble, were the brightest stars in the firmament, then they were ably supported by much of the cast. Most impressive of all was Christopher Maltman, whose Forester grew in stature, as he should, as the work progressed. The final transfiguration was as much his as the natural world’s. Elisabeth Meister, a Jette Paker Young Artist, had originally been slated to sing the roles of the Rooster and the Jay, but had to replace Emma Bell at very short notice, the latter having been rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Meister proved a winning replacement, moving in her love for the Vixen: an anthropomorphic fantasy, maybe, but an irresistible one. Sadly, Emma Matthews brought no especial individuality to the title role, though she did nothing especially wrong either. Many of the smaller roles, however, were sharply etched, most memorably Matthew Rose’s poacher, Harašta, Robin Leggate’s lovelorn Schoolmaster, and Jeremy White, both as priest and badger. The children, drawn from various London schools, did not disappoint either.
Performance in English did not disconcert me as much as I had feared. There is loss, of course, in terms of the music’s relationship to the language’s speech-rhythms, but this registered less than it had during ENO’s Katya Kabanova earlier in the week. Perhaps it was a better translation; there was certainly more opportunity, often very well taken, for wit. Banking jokes may be easy, but sometimes we should be grateful for any weapon we have. One gripe though: why start at 8 p.m.? It made no especial difference to me, but a 7.30 start would have been of help to those who had to travel out of London, or who simply wished to dine a little earlier. Such practical reservations should not detract, however, from a triumphant return to form for the Royal Opera.
The Cunning Little Vixen will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15 May at 6 p.m.