09 Mar 2010
The Elixir of Love at ENO
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
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.’
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
On the evidence of this production, first aired by New York City Opera, he’s not too concerned about the ‘dark side’ of medical charlatanry; for here Miller invites us to enjoy a light-hearted evening of music and food, mischief and fun, at ‘Adina’s Diner’ — a popular stopping place way out in the America Midwest, beloved by homespun yokels and travelling tricksters alike. We lap up the aural and visual candyfloss and, after a charming evening, skip home, refreshed by the reassuring spirit of innocence and optimism which prevails.
Isabella Bywater’s set is a superbly naturalistic recreation of the era. The rolling yellow plains and flawless blue sky evoke the landscapes of Edmund Hopper, and Bywater’s bubblegum pink and lime green diner recreates Hopper’s ‘Nighthawk’, albeit with a more golden, ambient glow. The revolving set is ingenious, but the dusty exterior is more successful than the interior, the latter seeming cramped and overcrowded. Despite Miller’s detailed direction of the chorus, there was simply too little room, forcing many to remain seated — including, in the opening scene, Nemorino, who, set back and enclosed by the set, was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.John Tessier as Nemorino
Into this rural eatery waltzed the confident proprietor, Adina. Sarah Tynan, sporting a peroxide bob, was perky and coquettish rather than a vamp. Her voice was as agile as her wiggling hips, and bright and warm; and she offered a lively, engaging performance, perfectly conveying the mannerisms of a 1950s blond bombshell. However, there was no sense of ’depth’ beneath the flighty surface and Tynan offered little to mitigate her cruel treatment of Nemorino.
Indeed, there was a disappointing lack of chemistry between the Adina and Nemorino, the latter presented here as a gauche garage hand. Canadian tenor John Tessier was a naïve and trusting yokel, but while his clear, true rendering was well-received, his voice is fairly light-weight and lacks an Italianate warmth and colour that hints at passionate depths beneath. Tessier’s ‘miraculous’ transformation from garage dunce to matinee idol was not entirely credible and too often he sang to the audience, rather than to the other characters on stage. However, the production did create a dramatic context for ‘Una furtive lagrima’, which for once did not seem like a convenient ‘add-on’.Andrew Shore as Dulcamara and company
The real star of the show was the experienced Andrew Shore, as the oleaginous quack doctor, Dulcamara. He slid in, seated in an ostentatious open-top Cadillac cabriolet (its shine a little sullied after a journey across the dusty plains), looking sharp but shifty in white suit, shades and brogues, panama hat perched rakishly on ill-fitting wig. Shore’s swindler was confident, assured, and crafty. [The automatic dispenser for Coca-Cola — that ‘pure refreshment’ that ‘revives and sustains’ — was cleverly positioned ...] Indeed, for Shore’s sparkling salesman’s pitch the surtitles disappeared — one assumes this was an intentional acknowledgement of Shore’s prowess rather than a technical hitch — but every word of Kelley Rourke’s clever libretto was crystal clear. Shore presented Rourke’s wittily rhymed medicinal claims — “You reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses” — with consummate mastery, although (if one was being harsh) one might accuse him of trying a little too hard at the risk of straining the voice. The subsequent wedding celebrations were pure MGM gold. Impersonating Elvis, Shore’s line ‘I’ve got a little ditty’, drew the largest laugh of the night; and when Adina joined him ‘on-stage’ in the diner, there was considerably more knowing interaction between them than was apparent in her exchanges with the younger heart-throb Nemorino. Adina’s Marilyn drawl might have been a bit too self-knowing, but Tynan, and Miller, pulled it off, just staying short of overkill.
As a gum-chewing GI, David Kempster’s Belcore swaggered and boasted his way, temporarily to Adina’s heart. Julia Sporsén’s Gianetta was sparkling and full of life.David Kempster as Belcore and company
Miller and Bywater had clearly, and effectively, thought hard about the realism of this production. But there was one incongruity: the inconsistency between the text and its delivery, with regard to accent. It was decided (so the programme told us) to use Americanisms (‘a knuckle sandwich’, ‘hello cupcake’), to pay homage to Porter and Sondheim (‘an elixir with a kick, sir’), and to attempt American accents throughout. The problem was that no one seemed to have told the chorus, and the principals frequently only remembered at the ends of phrases, which made Tessier’s native Canadian burr seem rather out of place.
Another problem was the over-enthusiasm of the conductor. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, who enjoyed himself just a bit too much, encouraging the orchestra too excitedly and destroying the balance between stage and pit. Moreover, the tempi were often too slow: fine for the patter songs but fatal in the acts’ final choruses which should whip up a froth.Sarah Tynan as Adina and Julia Sporsén as Gianetta
So, this was a charming, folksy show. Miller’s humour was of the gentle kind — Nemorino turning momentarily into a bass-baritone when swigging the elixir, the outside loo flushing incongruously as Gianetti announced Nemorino’s financial good fortune. Dulcamara’s slugging of his own elixir when he observed the ladies chasing after Nemorino drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience. However, despite its ‘silliness’, there are some shades of darkness in this work — innocence is threatened by deception, guileless by guilt, and love seems indissolubly linked to money; but such shadows were kept well under wraps in this affectionate, enjoyable show.