17 May 2010
Mefistofele in Montpellier
Back in 1989 Ken Russell opened his Genovese Mefistofele with heavenly choirs contemplating the divinity of a praying mantis.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
Back in 1989 Ken Russell opened his Genovese Mefistofele with heavenly choirs contemplating the divinity of a praying mantis.
Earlier this spring Jean-Louis Grimpa had a flock of chickens perform his Falstaff in Monaco, though just now messieur Grimpa resurrected his 2007 Liège (Belgium) Mefistofele in Montpellier (May 4) with actual homo sapiens to embody Goethe’s Faustian characters.
Not that these humans brought any deep humanity to Boito’s highly concocted version of the Goethe Faust as Jean-Louis Grimpa rendered this austere battle of the here and the hereafter as pure farce. Mr. Grimpa does have valid claim to knowing earthly pleasures as he was born in Monaco and is now the intendant of the Monte Carlo opera, his treatment of this Faust opera however quells speculation as to any possible spiritual credentials.
The Opéra National de Montpellier was a willing partner in the project, assembling a fine cast that brought added dimension to operatic farce, notably tenor Argentine Gustavo Porta as Faust who exploits the complete catalogue of tenor mannerisms in unrelenting spinto projection, and young American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart as Margherita who shows herself a committed student of diva mannerisms that she is instinctively placing in the service of her fine Italianate instrument.
Boito’s opera gave these two singers ample opportunity to show their stuff and that they did, strutting as singers might but coming close to giving us the splendid, over-ripe vocalism that will flower in post Verdian opera. Mlle. Meshé Kizart delivered the vivid prison scene that heralds her salvation moving effectively between chest and head voice, and ultimately arriving at a qualified artistic salvation of her incipient diva mannerisms. Mr. Porta knew that he was artistically saved all along because we are all suckers for Italian tenors.
In its program booklet Montpellier pronounced the Mefistofole premiere to be in 1868 at La Scala, though what we heard was the much modified (and significantly shortened) 1881 version that pleased audiences who preferred real Italian opera and cared little about Teutonic philosophy. Like its reviled predecessor (Gounod’s 1859 version) its operatic heart winds up in the tempestuous Faust/Margarite encounter. Boito was however undaunted by the Goethe Book II which he incorporates in the last two of his opera’s seven scenes — Helen of Troy’s seduction of Faust and finally the salvation of Faust.
The oblique progression of Faust’s salvation and Mefistofele’s defeat in this final version lends itself to farce because its story became so simply told in such brief terms. Where Ken Russell’s brilliant metaphors deepened an audience’s intellectual involvement and thereby retained Goethe’s seriousness Jean-Louis Grimpa realizes Mefistofele as an arch-villain who materializes dressed in a red velvet suit and bathed in red light. He parades himself in front of the heavenly choirs seated on bleachers amidst floating clouds.
And from this moment on Mr. Grimpa with Boito demand that their Mefisto tower over every scene. The name of the opera after all is Mefistofele. That he did. Russian bass Konstantin Gorny made the Mefisto of your dreams, charming and seductive he exuded a irresistible commitment to pleasure that never flagged. His grandest moment occurred when, banned from the ancient world (because he did not yet exist) he exulted in Grecian beauty from the audience, perched on a balcony railing, legs dangling into the void.
Mr. Grimpa and his accomplices, set designer Rudi Sabounghi and costume designer Buki Shiff, are theatrically savvy indeed. The set was minimalism at its most eloquent, a downstage false proscenium made of worldly wood against heavens rendered by projected clouds and mists, and mirrors to make it infinite. Though Mefisto simply changed into a black leather suit to become Faust’s mentor chorus costuming was quite elaborate They were first white robed angels, then a huge variety of circus players, then black and white spirits later becoming toga draped Greeks, and once again white robed angels, a hundred or so of them. No expense spared to create this spectacle.
This witty costuming more than anything else created the farce, and the movements of the players effected by director Grimpa complemented these costuming abstractions. Mr. Grimpa consistently utilized extended diagonal movement that accelerated Boito’s already sketchy story telling. Faust’s seduction of Margarite as example was a masterpiece of stage direction interweaving Mefisto resisting Martha’s advances with Faust pursuing Margarite in movement that was linearly musical (in perfect step with Boito’s complex quartet) rather than theatrically dramatic.
The pit was entrusted to French conductor Patrick Davin who kept the massive choral and orchestral forces required by Boito in absolute control without neglecting the construction of the opera’s huge climactic moments. That these climaxes were rarely satisfying can possibly be blamed on Boito’s compositional naivete, as perhaps the thwarted musical resolutions of some of the arias can be as well. Or maybe Mo. Davin is just not Italian.
The stars of this show were the choruses, one hundred or so (the chorus from Wallonie journeyed down to join the Montpellier chorus) plus thirty or so singing cherubs. While Boito’s grand choruses did sometimes expose naivete, at other times he pulled out the stops to create complex choral structures, notably the giant fugue in witches‘ Sabbat scene, impeccably executed with appropriate glee. To the aplomb of this choral accomplishment you can add that of the children’s chorus, delivering difficult part writing never out of sync with Mo. Davin.
And finally, Faust saved, Mefistofele was driven from the scene, pelted with rose petals hurled [!] by three innocent cherubim, as clouds of rose pedals floated down from the Opéra Berlioz ceiling coating the audience with one last bit of heavenly fun.