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?
28 Apr 2010
The Power of Powder: Thomas Adès at the Royal Opera House, London
Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face is back at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. It's a classic. Once again, Joan Rodgers sings the Duchess, supported by Alan Ewing, Iain Paton and the incomparable Rebecca Bottone, all in multiple roles.
In 15 years, Powder Her Face has gone from new music cult hit to an opera of international significance. The Tempest notwithstanding, it’s Adès’s finest work. He’s gone on to fame, fortune and Los Angeles, but hasn’t quite recaptured the vitality of his early work. More recently, he’s revisited Powder Her Face, writing a suite based on it, so maybe that will reinvigorate his creative juices.
So cherish this wonderful production directed by Carlos Wagner. The production is every bit as much of a star as the Duchess of Argyll, who inspired the opera in the first place. In 1963, she appeared naked, but for a string of pearls, in photos which caused a scandal, because she was performing on naked men (one of whom was later revealed as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
“In your face” is probably an indelicate term to use in the circumstances, but it describes the magnificent staging well. There’s no way round the fact that the Duchess was destroyed by hypocrisy. In the small space of the Linbury Studio, Conor Murphy’s giant staircase overwhelms, but that’s the point: there’s no escape! It’s a brilliant piece of theatre in itself, because it changes character in each scene. In the end, Paul Keogan’s lighting turns it into a lurid neon sunset, the perfect coda to the Duchess’s life.
Rebecca Bottone as Mistress
The stairs also mean the cast can go up and down using the whole performance space, overcoming the cramped limitations of the small stage. Perhaps that’s a reverse metaphor for the Duchess, too. With her wealth and beauty she could have lived a charmed life, if she’d conformed. Instead she grabbed life greedily, imbibing to the full. The headless men in the notorious photos got away scot-free, as did the philandering, brutish Duke, but the Duchess’s reputation was destroyed. Defiant to the end, she cocoons herself away from a world that’s changing in ways she can’t understand (“Buggery, legal?” she exclaims.) Her end is sordid, but she keeps her dignity, at least in delusion. Larger than life personalities just don’t fit in grubby society.
The music’s remarkably inventive. Saxophones and jazzy clarinets evoke the glamour of 1930’s London. “They don’t know how to do parties now,” she wistfully tells a young reporter. Adès’ does luscious elegance, but undercuts it with sharp, dissonant edges. The luxury is illusion. Debutante balls were a meat market for the upper classes, nothing romantic. The Duchess buys sex from a waiter. “You can get anything with money,” she cries. But others have more money, and more power. The Courts condemn her, to the prurient delight of the “lower” class, represented by Bottone and Paton in dirty macs. And when the money runs out, the Duchess is evicted.
Iain Paton as Waiter and Joan Rodgers as Duchess
Adès weaves elusive sounds into his orchestra. At the beginning of the second Act, he starts with solo accordion, played in a mysterious, bluesy fashion.. It makes an excellent bridge between past and present. Later, accordion, harp and piano (Adès’s instrument and “voice”) combine, wheezing, wailing and tensely staccato percussive blasts. It’s surreal, like hearing the ghosts of the past dancing in Hell. At the end, sinister cracks and whirrs are heard. They’re the sound of fishing rods being reeled in. Like a fish, the Duchess has been caught and dies.
The opera is both diamond hard and brittle, but then, that’s the subject. The Duchess wasn’t a nice person even though she was a product of the circles she moved in, and the men around her are worse. Her sexuality is compulsive, and fundamentally unerotic. (It’s the role, not Rodger’s portrayal, which is superb.) Perhaps the maid gets more fun. Bottone’s high-pitched shrieks at the top of her register (an Adès’ trademark) are well deployed. She’s the voice of anarchy. Her voice rips apart the silky surface of propriety.