21 Mar 2010
The Cunning Little Vixen, London
An enchanting evening at Covent Garden:
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.
The Paris Opéra has not staged a full Ring Cycle since 1957, but its current season will conclude with a correction of this grand operatic gap.
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.