11 Apr 2010
One of the City Opera’s happiest ventures over the years has been their Handel series.
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.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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?
One of the City Opera’s happiest ventures over the years has been their Handel series.
Admirers of the company and the composer may look back with happy nostalgia upon Sills, Forrester and Treigle in Giulio Cesare, Carol Vaness and D’Anna Fortunato in Alcina (the mylar one), Lorraine Hunt and David Daniels in Xerxes, Daniels and Christine Goerke in Rinaldo (with exploding harpsichord), Goerke in the second Alcina (the one with the sexy trees), David Walker in Flavio, Bejun Mehta — his New York debut — in Partenope and, later, in Ariodante and Orlando, Sarah Connolly in Ariodante, Nelly Miricioiu in Agrippina, and Elizabeth Futral and Vivica Genaux (playing Marilyn and Jackie) in a madcap Semele. It is wise of the company to revive one of these works in its shortened season this year, to remind us of a specialty we’d come to appreciate on this side of the plaza.
The work chosen for revival was Partenope, an opera seria that combines the usual musings, tune by tune, on this or that aspect of love with a not-too-serious story of the founding Queen of Naples (a retired siren), her heart and hand sought by three altos and a tenor. Confusing matters only moderately (for a Handel libretto) is the fact that only two of the altos are male (castrati in Handel’s day, countertenors now); the other is a woman in disguise, pursuing the man who done her wrong — one of those very countertenors. At the evening’s climax, after multiple gyrations, each nuance of passion depicted in a da capo aria, Eurimene/Rosmira obliges Arsace — who has loved not wisely but too often — to fight him/her in a duel. This means Arsace has the choice of manner of combat, and he chooses — bare to the waist. I suspect that in Handel’s day Arsace did not tear off his shirt at this point, but what countertenor worth his salt would resist the hint? No matter: Rosmira, her bluff called, admits she’s not a man. Partenope takes the other countertenor, shy Armindo. They have a duet, lifted from another Handel opera (by Handel, actually).
Partenope is a silly piece despite its Handelian glories. If you have the singers to put it over it can be a delight, but it has its longueurs, and for those less than addicted to Handelian vocalism — for those who crave, for instance, two or three voices singing at once now and then in the course of an opera — three acts can exhaust the appetite well before that splendid duet. The duet is worth waiting for, but I know I’m not the only person who wishes one or two of the earlier numbers might have been omitted and perhaps the last two acts compressed into one. But these are forbidden thoughts, notions of our medieval Victorian forebears — the kind who trammeled that notorious Giulio Cesare back in the sixties — and they will find little favor among opera producers today.
Clockwise: Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), and Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio)
Francesco Negrin’s production, played in modern dress (color coded: blue for Arsace, changeable as water; red for Armindo’s repressed passions; green for the huntress Rosmira) against John Conklin backdrops that sometimes comment symbolically on the emotional content of the aria being sung, is chic and contemporary without forfeiting elegance or the courtly mood of the work being staged. Andrew Chown restaged it a bit since I saw it last (at Lyric Opera of Chicago), and has suited the actions of his cast to the physiques of the performers at hand — which is admirable.
All the singers sang with style, acted with brio, ornamented with taste in what is currently recognized as the proper baroque style — though none of them were flawless and, which may or may not have weight with opera-goers, the men were perhaps less tasty than other casts one has seen in this production. Welsh countertenor Iestyn Davies possessed the most beautiful voice of the night, an opulent, sensuous alto that easily filled the house, calling to mind both David Daniels and Bejun Mehta in its quality, ardor, intensity of emotional focus and mastery of fioritura — though for ornament, the great “Furibondo” aria that closes Act II still belongs to Mr. Daniels. A local boy making his debut, Anthony Roth Costanzo cut rather a skinny figure in the red costume in which Mr. Mehta made his celebrated debut. Though Costanzo’s instrument thins out on top and in recitative, he acquitted himself very well, especially in the rapturous duet with Cyndia Sieden that concluded the evening, to which both contributed the proper vocal delirium: Those of us who had waited all night wanted a rich dessert, and that’s what they gave us. Sieden, after a shaky start in the title role, got the measure of the hall and ascended her proper throne. Stephanie Houtzeel, the tallest member of the cast and one with a sizable, bigger-than-baroque mezzo, had little trouble pretending to be a man — once she had donned a false mustache that made her far more credible than other singers one has heard in this role. Nicholas Coppolo has a pleasant, agile tenor, if lacking the tragic sense that can give this defeated warrior some much needed dimension. Daniel Mobbs was effective as Ormonte — who often “walks on” without singing in this staging, in order to give this small character some presence in the wider drama.
Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio), and Daniel Mobbs (Ormonte)
Christian Curnyn, making his debut with a cut-down baroque-sized orchestra in the pit, proved a splendid Handelian, dancing at one moment, tugging heartstrings at the next, and supporting the vocal flights of fancy of his singers at all times. He joins the ever-growing list of baroque specialists who are also great men of the theater.
I had hoped that the City Opera, under its new management team, would not forget its Handelian triumphs and would resume this beloved series. Clearly they still know how to cast them, and the only reasonable response is: More, please.