02 May 2010
No Elephants — Aida at the Royal Opera House, London
It’s time Verdi got attention in Aida, not elephants.
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?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
It’s time Verdi got attention in Aida, not elephants.
The blue elephant in Graham Vick’sTamerlano almost stole the show, but elephants were pointedly banned from this new production of Aida at the Royal Opera House, London. Instead, Verdi’s music takes pride of place, revealed in full glory.
Pre-performance publicity indicated that this would not be a stereotype production, but minimalist it certainly was not. Abstraction in many ways suits Aida, an opera of secrets and mysteries.
Marcelo Álvarez as Radames and Marianne Cornetti as Amneris
Large structures loom over the cast, for this is a drama where individuals are pitted against overwhelming forces. The simple, strong lines also permit a new kind of staging, created from light and colour.
No elephants, no circus. Instead the focus shifts onto Verdi’s music itself, revealing its magnificence without distraction. How glorious it is, heard as music! Indeed, it’s because Aida is so vivid orchestrally that we’ve become accustomed to associating it with grand panoramas. But music is in itself abstract. This time, the orchestral colours can be seen as well as heard. Shades of rose and ochre, scarab and peacock, amethyst and sand, glow iridescently, transforming as the music develops. Synaesthetes may overload, but this abstraction is surprisingly expressive, given the connection between visual image and music.
Nicola Luisotti conducted with flair..Tempi were on the fast side, but better that than too slow. Freed from the restraints of cumbersome staging, the orchestra’s pace matched the nervous energy in the drama. Violent moods, violent music. In the scene at the Temple of Vulcan, the Egyptians are working themselves up to a frenzy. Heightened emotion in the orchestra but less so in the dancing. The Rite of Spring style choreography would not have been out of place, but perhaps too much to expect. Strange, distorted shapes hang from the sky, like the corpses of the dead. When the prisoners shuffle in, they look like they’ve been in battle. As Aida (Micaela Carosi) reminds us, the Triumphal March may be triumph for some, but defeat for others.
In the third act, when Aida sings “Qui Radamès verrà,|” Carosi stands before a black and white panel, as stark as the dilemma before her. But when Micaela Carosi sings, the lusciousness of her music translates into washes of blue and green, evoking the dark, swift Nile and “cieli azzurri” above, her Egyptian present and memories of her native land. Carosi is a very experienced Aida. Her middle voice is secure, so the extremes in the part feel natural, rather than over-coloured. Aida is constrained, all around, by secrecy and the need for stealth, so she is a strong personality, and alert.
Marcelo Álvarez as Radames is a more conventional portrayal. He hectors, but then, Radames is a headstrong hero, eager for battle, but ennobled by the grace of love. His finest moment comes as he and Aida face death, when his voice softens and takes on a gentler tone. Marianne Cornetti was a forceful, forthright Amneris, and Marco Vratogna’s Amonasro suitably subdued.
Jennifer Tipton deserves much credit for designing the magnificent light show. David McVicar proves that abstraction does not mean minimal, and is just as valid musically as circus gimmicks.