22 Jun 2010
Idomeneo at ENO
Mozart was reputedly more attached to this musical drama of hubris and honour set during the Trojan War than to any other of his stage works.
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Mozart was reputedly more attached to this musical drama of hubris and honour set during the Trojan War than to any other of his stage works.
Idomeneo is a natural product of the courtly world of the Enlightenment — its hierarchies, values and symbols. It should be perfectly possible to translate this tale of vengeful Gods, proud Kings, of the passage from youth to age, and of human sacrifice, to a contemporary setting. Indeed, myth is essentially a presentation of a social worldview which, by delineating the customs and ideals of that society, can reveal how the modern world attained its current form. However, Katie Mitchell’s modern-day production so disregarded the mythic meaning of the work, and discounted the characterisation and motivation of the protagonists, focusing instead on mannered, often manic, stage business, that there was no hope that the audience might empathise with those on stage or relate to the unfolding drama.
The photographic seascape front-drop looked promising. It rose to reveal a clinical latter-day conference centre, the cool beiges and slate greys suggesting the best of contemporary Scandinavian design rather than of sultry climes of Mediterranean Crete. A panoramic window offered a glimpse of a cool, aquamarine ocean, but that’s as close as we got to Poseidon’s stormy seas in this production.
Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, Mitchell’s frequent collaborators, may have created a crisp, serene set, but it was immediately transformed into a hot-bed of activity, as waiters, bureaucrats and assorted flunkies charged back and forth, to and fro, in an unexplained and unfathomable flurry of activity. Pity poor Sarah Tynan, who as Ilia is charged with responsibility for clarifying the dramatic situation and mythic context in her opening aria, ‘Padre, germani, addio!’; it was almost impossible to concentrate on her music, words or predicament, so distracting was the surrounding maelstrom — despite Tynan’s serene composure, tender lyricism and excellent diction.
This infuriating fussiness, and the intrusion of countless pen-pushers and attendants, continued throughout the first two Acts, undermining the mythic stature of the work. Thus, while Idamante, seated at the distant end of a twenty-foot dining table, proclaimed his love for Ilia and begged her not to condemn him for the actions of his father (‘Non ho colpa’), Ilia gobbled down her dinner as sommeliers bustled about her, topping up her wine. No wonder she didn’t take him seriously. Iadamante fared little better in his endeavours to woo her in Act 2, as smooching couples intruded on their private moment, swaying distractingly to his words of love.
Mozart’s music sharply delineates the four main characters. Ironically, while over-directing her army of extras, Mitchell left the principals pretty much to their own devices, with mixed results. The composer’s verdict on the original Idomeneo and Idamante (the aging Anton Raaff and the soprano-castrato, Vincenzo dal Prato) was that they were, “the most wretched actors ever to walk the stage”; Mitchell did little to help her actors rise above these lowly standards. While Paul Nilon as Idomeneo was imposing and credible, Robert Murray‘s Idamante was a pretty feeble hero, threatening to slip ineffectually into self-pitying alcoholism. In Act 1 Scene 2, seeking solitude at the base of a cliff, to mourn the supposed loss of his father, Idamante sat unmoving on a craggy boulder, solipsistically bewailing his grief and pain, and failed to recognise the returning king even when he was staring him in the face; the general lack of dramatic credulity made the usual suspension of disbelief even more difficult.
Only Emma Bell, as Electra, injected any real dramatic frisson; unfortunately she was played, admittedly with great panache, as an obsessive neurotic, compulsively stalking the hapless Idamante, cocktail glass clutched firmly in hand — think ‘Sex and the City’ meets the Ugly Sisters. Her Act 2 aria, ‘Idol mil’, where she professes her sincere belief that she might win Idamante’s heart once she has removed him from Ilia’s gaze, was beautifully rhapsodic, a lyric moment of illusory happiness evoking real human emotion and pathos. Mozart’s music provides a moment of genuine compassion, fleetingly humanising Electra. But, Mitchell sees things rather differently: Bell’s hopeful, rapturous arcs became orgasmic swoons, as a civil servant indulged her foot fetishism. Electra’s jealousy should inspire fear, dismay and pity; but here Bell simply became a figure of fun, slumping drunkenly on the sofa, fawning across the indifferent men, her avowals of happiness presented as the deluded idiocies of a drunken clown.
Emma Bell as Electra, Paul Nilon as Idomeno, Robert Murray as Idamante and Sarah Tynan as Ilia
The chorus fared little better. For most of the opera they stood stock still, seemingly bemused as to their role in the drama. They were also musically sluggish and leaden in the opening chorus, ‘Godiam la pace’, although they sharpened up considerably as the opera progressed, and there was some admirable singing from those given small solo roles — Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Michelle Daly, David Newman and Michael Selby. And, there was one neat visual touch, in Act 2, as the vicious storm breaks before the departure of Idamante and Elektra: rushing from the smart cruise boat departure lounge into the VIP area, to escape from the ensuing tempest (‘Corriamo, fuggiamo’), the huddled crowd presented a fitting visual metaphor for the dread which overcomes them.
Despite the nonsense on stage, there was some excellent singing, not least from Paul Nilon. He rose impressively to the challenges of the Act 2 ‘Fuor del mar’, when it dawns on Idomeneo that all of them will be victims of the gods. His coloratura was notable for its stamina and flexibility, both agile and imposing. Sarah Tynan both looked and sang beautifully — costumed in an array of gorgeous gowns by Vicki Mortimer. Particularly striking was her clarity and superb intonation in ‘Se il padre perdei’, as Ilia confesses to Idamante that she now considers Crete a kind of homeland. Emma Bell was fittingly psychological unhinged in ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace’, while retaining absolute vocal control and displaying great power and projection. In the original version of 1781, Idamante was a castrato role, but Mozart gave a tenor alternative five years later in Vienna when it was being performed by amateurs. Today the role is often taken by a mezzo soprano, and Robert Murray failed to convince that the tenor version is to be preferred, seeming strained and tight at the top of the register.
The minor roles performed consistently. In particular, Adam Green’s Arbace, reporting that the people are demanding that the king deliver them from the monster, presented a touching lament for a Crete that is overwhelmed with sadness in his Act 3 aria ‘Sventurata Sidon!’
Edward Gardner, despite a rather weighty start in the overture, elsewhere sensitively drew out the instrumental nuances of the detailed, at times very virtuosic, orchestral score. There was some exquisite woodwind playing in Act 2, reaching its height in the quartet for flute, oboe, bassoon and which accompanies Ilia’s ‘Se il padre perdei’. Generally, despite the stasis on stage, Gardner paced the drama with increasing assurance; this is an opera with few of the long pauses between arias so characteristic of opera seria, and it was thanks to the conductor’s sure sense of the relationships between scenes and effective handling of the transitions and overlaps between numbers, that some sort of forward dramatic momentum was suggested.
The final act, as the individual protagonists express their private sorrows, did however lose musical momentum. And it made little dramatic sense. Mitchell has dispensed with the Gods and with the sea monster. Thus, there is nothing to cause the death and destruction of which the High Priest of Poseidon reports — making his recitative meaningless. And there is nothing for Idamante to slay, no heroic deed to prompt Ilia to declare her love — only vague waffling about brave deeds. It was hard to believe that this was a man to lead the Cretan nation … better perhaps to have stuck with the original myth’s ending and sacrificed Idamante after all. In the closing moments there was one last flounce from Elektra: horrified by the general rejoicing and the prospect of Idamante seeking pleasure and solace in her rival’s arms, she shrieked, ran from the stage and shot herself in the wings. Few wept, or cared.
The disappointing lack of concordance between dramatic contrivance and musical meaning makes this an unrewarding production, one which cannot fully be redeemed by some fine singing and playing.
Performances continue until July 9th